When director Jody Margolin Hahn first heard the idea for “The Conners’s” special live episode, in which characters would be watching and reacting to the results of the New Hampshire primary arrive in real-time on TV, her first thought immediately went to that pivotal prop.
“The TV is downstage. It normally lives on the fourth wall,” she tells Variety. So, she told the writers that she could “put a TV on a wall somewhere else and have a camera on there and cut to it, but you’re never going to see the TV in the same shot as the actors.”
That would mean confining what was supposed to be an interactive part of the story. Having the characters watch the results on a computer, tablet or phone was not going to work, either — mostly because of how much smaller those screen sizes are, which would force Hahn to cut to them in closeup, still isolating those images. So instead, with the understanding that the TV would have to physically be somewhere else in the room, the writers came up with a story about water damage on the wall. The Conner family moves their television, and now the audience can gather around their television with them to watch the results as they unfold.
The episode, entitled “Live from Lanford” and airing Feb. 11 on ABC, starts with Mark (Ames McNamara) posted up on the iconic “Conners” couch to write a report for school about the primary. The rest of the family comes in and out of the living room, commenting on what is happening in the news as they do, but they are mostly focused on throwing a surprise going away party for Louise (guest star Katey Sagal).
“We’re obviously going to get a lot of new viewers, so we wanted to show them a good episode of ‘The Conners’ as it is,” says showrunner Bruce Helford. “There’s a lot going on in the show emotionally between Harris and Mark, and Dan and Darlene, and Dan and his girlfriend Louise. At the same time, we said if we were going to do this, we didn’t want it to sound preachy in any way, shape or form. This family is political enough in their way because the working class is hit every day by what’s going on at the top. We wanted to be sure that was represented but naturally and organically represented — and just kind of scattered throughout.”
Helford, who used to work on “The Drew Carey Show” and therefore has experience with live episodes that include dance numbers, as well as delivering new versions for four different time zones, believes “just doing a show live is not enough.” In order to make it worth the audience’s — and the production’s — time, he considered: “How can we do something that’s live — that takes advantage of live — that can’t be done in the other situation?” That guiding principle led him and his team to the idea of commenting on the primary — once they realized it happened to fall on a Tuesday night, which is when “The Conners” usually airs.
Part of what will determine exactly how much political commentary there will be in the episode is simply what is happening on the news at the moment. “If this had been Iowa, we would have been going, ‘There’s nothing!'” Helford says. But the goal is that “starting in the second act there are quite a few designated spots where people will come in” and comment.
During the taping, some of “The Conners” writers will be “intensely huddled” around the newsfeed to determine on what is worth commenting, Helford shares. In that commentary, he continues, will be “shots” at every candidate so that the show is not unbalanced in favor of one over another. “All of it is filtered through the Conners, so Becky has a speech that there are some terrible candidates, and there are some really terrible candidates,” he explains.
But, built in is an important message about the importance of voting, too.
“We all talked about how there’s a little bit of anxiety amongst younger people about what’s going on in the world, but they don’t feel like there’s anything tangible they can do about it. So it’s to remind them they will have an opportunity to do something about this,” Helford says.
While the idea for “Live from Lanford” came from “The Conners” team, ABC has been upping the ante on its live event programming recently, from the “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” back-to-back block of classic Norman Lear sitcoms, to ordering a live musical version of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein!”
“We’re always looking for opportunities to create compelling live events and programs that showcase the wide array of talent on our network,” says Andy Kubitz, executive VP of programming strategy at ABC Entertainment. “‘The Conners’ is a great example of a topical show that lends itself to reacting to a real-time event — in this case, the New Hampshire primary — in an entertaining and comedic way. If the stars align on other projects like this in the future, we’re completely open to embracing them. This is the very definition of appointment television.”
Shooting inside Stage 26 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, “Live from Lanford” is entirely set in three integral locations: the Conners’ living room, the Conners’ kitchen, and Casita Bonita, where Becky (Lecy Goranson) works — and where the family is throwing the party. Originally, Hahn shares, the script only called for scenes inside the Conners’ home, for which she requested eight cameras (four for each set). But once the locations expanded, so too did the equipment. Now, the episode will be shot with 14 cameras, one of which will be on a jib.
ABC’s executive director of current programming Nathan Varni came to a run-through and said it would be really great to somehow show there’s a live audience. And that’s when we asked for a jib, and the last shot is now going to be up and out and revealing the audience and the stage,” Hahn previews.
It is the studio audience that actor John Goodman thinks is the biggest wildcard in this production. “What worries me is they get people in here who want to have a good time and they get them all amped up sometimes and it’s tough to time jokes because they laugh in odd places,” he says. “In theater, you kind of know where things are going to happen. But live TV, that’s our permanent record. So you have to really keep your ears open so they don’t smother a line — or if they do, what I do in the theater is just repeat it.”
That parting moment where the at-home audience sees the live studio audience, as well as those moments in which characters respond to whatever is happening on ABC News, will be clear indicators for the at-home audience that the episode is live — both on the east coast, and then again on the west. Behind-the-scenes at “The Conners,” the cast and crew have been implementing key changes to allow for such in-the-moment work.
The cast received the script for the episode last Monday, and while they normally have two days that are focused on rehearsal, says McNamara, a couple of additional days were dedicated to rehearsing both from a performance perspective, as well as blocking. However, the entire cast couldn’t rehearse together each time. Laurie Metcalf has been working on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in New York and missed last week’s work. A stand-in took her place during the mid-week rehearsals so the rest of the cast could still get their cues and blocking down around Metcalf’s character of Jackie.
In addition to the actual episode rehearsal, the team got a taste of what it would feel like to be live in front of their at-home audience when they cut into the Oscars on Sunday with a commercial that started with commentary about the awards show and concluded with a plug for “Live from Lanford.”
“I do think there’s an emotional prep for it — like, ‘OK we’ve got the first live thing under our belt’ — just from a psychological standpoint,” says executive producer and actor Sara Gilbert. “Technically none of the actors have a problem doing anything we’re doing in the live show; it’s all really psychological: Can you keep your focus when you’re nervous, how nervous will you be, can you stay in the scene? So I think it is a good practice run for that.”
On the production side, such an episode requires more personnel and equipment than usual — from the extra camera operators, to teleprompters, to the production truck inside of which there will be a live associate director and a live engineer to live-cut the episode. Hahn, who worked as a script supervisor on “Roseanne” in the late-1980s and 1990s, recalls how in earlier days of sitcom work “we were in a booth snapping shots” in a live-to-tape editing style. That muscle memory makes her feel “very comfortable in that environment” of the live production truck now.
“When I do a regular sitcom that’s not live, we do alternate passes for coverage so we make sure we get all of the shots that we need. But for me now, it’s all about making that decision of, ‘This is how I want to play this moment,'” she says. Also, “it was all about making sure the play works and all the beats work and the comedy, and then making sure it’s all shootable.”
Keeping time is essential for an episode like this. Gilbert shares that in order to avoid running over, the episode script is actually shorter than usual. “Our scripts are usually five or six minutes over on average and then we cut that much out in editing, and this one is under because we’re accommodating for extra laughs or whatever, so we as actors have less dialogue to learn and there’s less scenes in the show, so it’s actually easier in some ways,” she says.
The script was also delivered a bit short to accommodate for additional political commentary that writers might want to throw in on the night of. The actors have been rehearsing with specific lines and a few alternative options, but there is room to expand it if the events call for it. The one thing they won’t be doing is ad-libbing.
“You have other people’s cues to worry about,” says Goodman. “If I came up with something that was a doozy, I’d clear it first at rehearsal and then they could put it in the script.”
Should the ABC News feed cut out during the live show, Hahn can just cut away from the wide shot that features the TV and focus on closeups of actors. If there is a power outage, the production is covered because “electrical and lighting are separate and we have generators,” says Helford. “The joke is we got them from a really good hospital.” But other than that, they are just going to go with the flow of whatever happens that evening; they have not pre-shot the episode just in case of technical difficulties.
“We don’t have the luxury of making a mistake and then going back and immediately fixing it, which happens a lot at my advanced age. Sometimes the lines slip away,” Goodman says. “But it goes by like that. Once it’s live, it’s just going to fly.”
The combination of where technology is today to allow for such a feat and the timeliness of the specific story “The Conners’s” writing team came up with is what makes Gilbert feel like this is the perfect time for the show to go live.
“We had talked about it before, and I always felt like it would feel like a stunt on this show. But this [idea] I really like because it’s tied to the primaries, and I felt like if we could also bring some awareness to voting, get some excitement about it, maybe a few more people vote — if you can send the message to people that they have a voice and their voice matters, that seems like a worthwhile reason to do it,” she explains.
She also adds that such a story feels extra important now because of the way the younger generation is inherently interested in politics — something she says she has observed with her own children, as well as with McNamara.
And McNamara agrees: “I know a lot of kids do follow it and do have strong opinions about what’s happening. I think it’s good to have a kid saying this. I think it would be less exciting for them if they were just watching an adult. You can watch people that maybe you’ve seen on TV and characters that you really like tell you these election results, and what’s good about this is we’re getting the election and the whole process out to maybe some people who wouldn’t listen otherwise.”