Comedy Showrunners Week: How Up All Night retooled its second season

Comedy Showrunners Week: How Up All Night retooled its second season

(As part of Comedy Showrunners Week we’ll be talking to the showrunners and creators of some of the best comedies on TV all week long. Today: Emily Spivey and Tucker Cawley of NBC’s Up All Night.)

When Up All Night creator Emily Spivey and executive producer Tucker Cawley began work on the show’s second season, they looked at what had been a small, quiet series and decided to go in a direction that would make it even smaller and quieter. “Retooling” is often a bad word for TV producers—and it happens much less now than in previous decades—but Spivey and Cawley felt that dividing the show’s attention between the home life of new parents Will Arnett and Christina Applegate and Applegate’s work at a talk show hosted by Maya Rudolph was distracting from Spivey’s original goal: to tell small, relatable stories about people adjusting to life with a new kid. Spivey (formerly a writer for Saturday Night Live and Parks & Recreation) and Cawley (Everybody Loves Raymond, Men Of A Certain Age) sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss how they decided to make the changes they did, how the show got to air with such a small scale, and how they will keep the show from becoming Full House.

The A.V. Club: When you were looking at season one, what did you see that made you say, “We can make this even better?”

Emily Spivey: It was just to better integrate Ava [Maya Rudolph] in the world of friends and family and not feel like we’re writing two different television shows. One was sort of a workplace comedy, and then you had the domestic side of it with Chris [Will Arnett] and Reagan [Christina Applegate], and we just wanted all of the characters to be able to come together and tell some more grounded, down-to-earth stories. Saying goodbye to the Ava show, although we had a lot of fun there, we all agreed that would be a way to better integrate everything.

Tucker Cawley: I came on halfway through the first season, and I think we always kind of felt like our heart was more into telling the Chris/Reagan family stories, and that going to work to check in on Ava seemed just a little harder to do. It always seemed like we were telling two different types of stories. The home stories, that seemed a little more realistic and grounded, and at work it was just sort of a heightened tone. I don’t think we ever found a perfect balance there. Hopefully this season, in focusing more on the home, it’ll seem more like one consistent show. 

ES: We also really liked Ava when she was vulnerable, like the moments she had with Jason Lee. She’s at home on a date and struggling with normal, everyday situations that couldn’t ever be achieved within the realm of that office. We thought this was a way to make Ava a little more aspirational and a little more relatable. 

TC: Maya is always funniest when she’s playing with a little bit of desperation and trying to get something and sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding. When she had a show and was on top of the world, it was hard to give her stuff where we thought she could totally shine, and like Emily says, those moments where we did give her something that she wanted and then was having trouble with, I think we found those were the best episodes for her last year. Hopefully, there will be a whole lot more of that this year, as she picks up and starts all over again.

ES: And has to redefine herself outside the bubble of that show. 

AVC: Was there ever a thought of retooling it to be about the workplace instead?

ES: No. 

TC: Emily, it was always your hope in doing this to kind of paint a picture of your life, and so it was always kind of based in the house, and then it was kind of a secondary idea to open up the world and see where she goes to work. I think we’ve always felt that the primary husband-and-wife relationship was our bread and butter. 

ES: Yeah, just like the baby informs Reagan and Chris, the workplace was always meant to just inform Reagan and Chris’ relationship and not be a workplace comedy per se. But with Maya, you want to serve her, so it just became bigger than originally intended, just because we wanted to make sure she had stuff going on and that we were utilizing her the best we could. 

TC: Going into this year, I think we’ve been doing a lot better job of helping Maya and her character, because last year we definitely had an emotional throughline for Chris and Reagan: They’ve got a new baby, and how that affects their lives and all that entails. Ava didn’t really have something like that, so more than anybody else in this second season, having the show get abruptly canceled is really going to give her something to latch onto and something that she has to struggle with and hopefully overcome. It’s given her an emotional arc that last season she really didn’t have. So we’re having fun coming up with lots of stories for her acclimating back into a world in which she’s not the center of attention.

AVC: Were there episodes you particularly looked at in season one and said, “We want to make more like this”?

TC: I think the ones that I wrote were pretty good.

ES: [Laughs.] All the ones that Tucker wrote. But it’s true. I really liked Tucker’s Christmas episode, and I really liked “Day After Valentine’s Day,” where it was just about human beings dealing with actual life issues that were super relatable. 

TC: Yeah, the Valentine’s Day episode was a good one because it was a Chris and Reagan story, and then the Ava story was about her trying to figure out her relationship with Jason Lee, so it grounded her in a relatable way. 

ES: It gave us a glimpse of what we wanted to do with her character. I just felt like those episodes were very warm and humane and funny. That was just the kind of friends-and-family show I always wanted to do from the pilot on. 

AVC: One of the nice things about the first season was the idea that the dad was staying at home and the mom was going away to work. That’s an arrangement we’re seeing a lot more of nowadays. Are there regrets about leaving that behind?

TC: I would say that we don’t have regrets about it, but one of the things that we’re dealing with in writing these episodes, and I think it’s in a good way, is that it is awkward for them to make this transition into these new roles, and it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. We’re actually getting a lot of story tension from them figuring this out. I would also say, just in general, the “Who’s working? How much are they working? What are they doing?” through this second season will be somewhat fluid in that nothing is completely, 100-percent settled. This season is a season where they’re all facing changes. They don’t all just happen in the first episode. 

ES: And I don’t think Reagan’s never going back to work. I don’t think she’s settled down. I think she’s just taking some time off to be with her kid. I don’t think she’s saying, “Well, I’m a stay-at-home mom now,” you know what I mean? It’s still open for lots of different scenarios and changes.

AVC: Why did you decide to add the Luka Jones character as Reagan’s brother?

ES: I think we and the network both wanted to expand the world a little bit, and we wanted to bring in another character that would inform other facets of Reagan’s life and Chris’ life. We thought it would be fun and funny if she had a brother who was lackadaisical and was a lives-life-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. 

TC: Our three main actors—Christina, Will, and Maya—all have kind of a sharpness to them comedically and to their acting style, which is fantastic, so it’s really been great, first in coming up with this new character then in casting Luka Jones. It brings a different pace to the show. A little bit slower and a little bit softer, and it serves the show well, and I think it serves the main characters really well, too.

AVC: In season one, there was almost a neighbor- or playdate-of-the-week aspect, where you’d have a new guest star come in and they would deal with that character, and they would still be in the show’s world, but the audience wouldn’t always see them. How did that aspect of the storytelling develop?

ES: I want to say that that was part of our master plan…

TC: Say it! Say it! Say that it was part of our master plan! Next question.

ES: [Laughs.] That was part of our master plan! Because when you put it that way it sounds so fun, and honestly, I never really looked at it that way. I think just in terms of trying to expand the world and give the characters something to play against. I think it just lends itself to bringing in really fun guest stars. Thanks to Lorne [Michaels, executive producer], and just the friends we know, we were able to snag a lot of people that ended up being a lot of fun.

TC: And we have a lot of fun guest roles and characters this year. Also some returning favorites from last year from the neighborhood. Gene and Terry, who are their bubbly next-door neighbors, they’re back. That’s Matt Braunger and Jean Villepique.

ES: Also, Justin and Lawrence. It’s Ben Falcone and Nat Faxon, the gay couple that lives down the street. Ben Falcone is in one so far.

TC: Yeah, Nat is, unfortunately, on a Fox show now [Ben & Kate], so we couldn’t get him, but we do have Ben coming back to reprise his role. We kind of like the idea of the neighborhood. In focusing more on the house, you can’t help but just focus more on the neighborhood, and hopefully we can have a recurring troupe of funny characters bounce back in and out of their lives. Then also, Ava, in figuring out her new place in the world, she has, as Emily said, been kind of living in a bubble, and now that the bubble has been popped, she’s having to deal with old friends and old co-workers, maybe some that she hasn’t treated as well as she should have. Also dealing with her neighbors, who she never really has cared to know. So she’s going to have a lot of opportunity to deal with different types of characters, and I think we had some real fun casting in that regard. We have Rachel Dratch and Sean Hayes, which is exciting. We just shot his first episode, and he and Maya were delightful. 

AVC: Premise-wise, how are you keeping Ava involved in their lives? She’s not moving in next door or something like that, right?

ES: No, I think she’s just around because she’s close with Reagan and Chris, but no, they don’t live next door to each other or anything. You know, Ava always barges in, she has from the beginning, so it’s kind of convenient for us, whenever she comes over, we can have her just barge in. Sometimes she even comes in through the back sliding-glass door.

AVC: A lot of shows in this genre have had trouble when they start out with a baby and the baby keeps growing up. How are you going to deal with the cute-kid aspect, keeping it from being a show about a cute kid who comes in and sasses her mom and dad?

ES: I never wanted it to be that. Like I said, I always envisioned it as a couple with a baby that informs their lives, not a Full House kind of situation where there’s a close-up of the kid going, “You got it, dude,” or whatever…

TC: [Deadpan.] And I’ve always wanted it to be that, so we’ll see who wins.

ES: [Laughs.] Yeah, Tucker wanted it to be a Look Who’s Talking situation…

TC: And we’ll see! It’s a… no. 

ES: [Laughs.] Tucker wants the baby to narrate the show, like The Wonder Years.

TC: I worked on Everybody Loves Raymond for a long time, and we really made it a point not to make it about the kids, and we kind of shot over their heads, or we’d say that they were down napping or at school. And I don’t think we want to go that far with this show, because from the first season and now into the second season, it is about this couple that waited a little longer than usual to have their first kid. We do want to deal with those things, but we don’t, ultimately want it… we want the baby to inform these situations and be a place to start stories, but ultimately, we want it to be how it affects Chris and Reagan and their relationship. Carly and Delaney [Prince, who play Amy] are a year-and-a-half old, so we’re still a ways away from wisecracking. I don’t think they’ll be saying, “Cowabunga, dude.” Although who knows! I was thinking about this, Spivey: If the show stays on for eight years, you’re going to have little 8-year-olds running around. 

ES: [Dismayed.] Oh my God…

TC: Yeah. In space suits or whatever we do eight years from now. 

ES: On hovercraft bicycles?

AVC: It seems like you don’t feel the need to have really hard jokes in every scene: You can have a laidback tone where the humor is more conversational. How did that develop? Because it’s very unusual to have that, especially on network television.

ES: I don’t know how that developed...

TC: Master plan! Master plan!

ES: [Deadpan.] It was my master plan. I want to break ground. I want to change the face of network television.

TC: You’ve done it, Spivey! You’ve done it. You’ve got nothing to apologize for! Walk away!

I will say that, the reason I came onto this show midway through last year was, I was waiting to hear if the show that I had been working on previously, Men Of A Certain Age, would get picked up for a third season. We were off schedule, so when it didn’t get picked up, I started looking around for another show. One of the main reasons I really liked Up All Night, I felt in a way it reminded me of Men Of A Certain Age, in the small, realistic tone. It’s aspiring to be a more comedic show and a little broader, in that it’s a half-hour network comedy, but there was a tone to the writing and the performances that I thought was similar. As I loved my time on Men Of A Certain Age, it seemed really appealing to come over here and give it a whirl.

ES: Yeah, I loved Men Of A Certain Age. That was a show I brought up so much in the shooting of the pilot and everything else, just the look of it and the feel of it.

AVC: The Jason Lee character was written out, but was there ever any thought about bringing him back on as a regular or semi-regular?

ES: I think it’s all up for grabs. We’re still sort of delving into the stories and the characters and seeing what we might need or want. I love Jason. We all loved him so much. It’s not a closed door.

TC: No, definitely not. We loved working with him, and like we said, we thought some of Ava’s best moments were with him or pining for him. That door is definitely open. For a bunch of reasons, we weren’t able to use him, at least initially at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. But I think in a way it does help in the grand scheme of things for Ava’s character, that she not have anything to really hold on to other than her relationship with Reagan and Chris in trying to figure out the next steps in her life. She’s kind of doing this without a net, whether it’s dating or finding a new job or dealing with her friends or dealing with her neighbors. We like the idea that she has to, for the first time in her life, figure this stuff out on her own.

AVC: When you look back over the first 24 episodes and what you’ve done already on season two, was there something you were surprised ended up working as well as it did and you ended up doing more of it, and was there something that you thought was going to work well that just fizzled out?

ES: I wasn’t surprised so much, but I love Gene and Terry. I think they were written as a one-off, but now we just adore them and think about them all the time for stories.

TC: Well, for me, the thing I will say—and this goes back to viewing the pilot, just as a fan, and then the initial episodes that I saw before I came over. I was, frankly, blown away by Will and what he did with the role. I never knew him before coming over to work on this and I still haven’t actually met him. I’m so excited to meet Will.

ES: [Laughs.]

TC: But I always kind of pictured him as his Arrested Development character, and in some other things that he’s played, kind of the aloof cad, bumbling, full of himself when he shouldn’t be. His performance from the pilot on, and I think he’s just gotten better—he’s done some really wonderful stuff this year. He has such a sweet, everyman sensibility that’s so winning and appealing. I was just blown away by it, and he continues to amaze me. Working with Christina and Maya is fantastic, and they do great work, but at least with Will, I’d never seen him do this sort of role. 

ES: And I had always known him as that. As a real sweetheart, a wonderful father, and just a warm, sweet person, so it’s nice to hear Tucker say that and other people say that, because I wanted him to play someone closer to who he really is. And also, I have to say too, Christina’s a genius, and I think she’s profoundly underrated as a comedic actress, and every day working with her is amazing and a joy to write for her. I just adore our cast, and I think Tucker and I both feel very lucky to write for these amazing actors. 

TC: It really is nice to write stuff and go, “Yeah, they can figure out a way to make it real and funny.”

ES: They just nail it. 

AVC: And was there something that you had high hopes for that didn’t work out as well as you’d hoped?

ES: I don’t know. I’m sort of happy and excited with how things have gone, considering that we’ve been through some retooling and had to rejigger things a little bit. I think overall I feel really happy, especially this season, I feel really good about what’s going on and the changes we’ve made and everything. [Laughs.] That may be the most withering, worst answer to a question ever. 

TC: I thought it was dramatic! I was hanging on every word! [Laughs.]