Television is at its most vital when it goes live. At least that’s what “Hot in Cleveland” is hoping.
Jane Leeves freely admits that while taping her hit sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland,” she’s prone to coming down with a severe case of the giggles.
Unless you’re in the studio audience or watching a blooper reel, you wouldn’t have known about that bad habit. That all changes Wednesday when “Cleveland” opens the second half of its fourth season with a live episode.
To prepare for the event, the cast is getting six days to prepare — one more than usual.
“I don’t know why they didn’t make it eight or nine days,” Leeves said in a phone interview this week. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this and wring their necks.”
One cast member unlikely to come unraveled is Betty White, and not just because she killed three years ago as host of “Saturday Night Live.”
When White started doing television full time in the early ’50s, she ad-libbed for nearly six hours a day. So it’s no surprise that when producers asked White if she’d like a teleprompter for Wednesday’s event, she declined.
“She said it would be too distracting,” Leeves said. “Of course, we’re all so old now that we probably wouldn’t be able to see it anyway.”
The inability to do a second take means Wednesday’s episode could be a disaster — and that’s exactly why television should do it more often.
The idea that at any moment, Wendie Malick might have a hair issue or Valerie Bertinelli might forget her lines is a big reason we’ll be tuning in. After all, high-flying circus acts are always more exciting without a safety net.
“I loved it on ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ when they used to crack each other up, or on ‘Saturday Night Live’ when the cast cannot hold it together,” Leeves said. “Audiences love it when you screw up.”
Messing up your lines was not a casual option in the early days of television.
TV networks didn’t begin using prerecorded videotapes until 1957. Much of the prime-time landscape consisted of ambitious live programming, most notably “Playhouse 90,” which staged a very serious, very daunting 90-minute theater production every week. That included the original versions of “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Miracle Worker.” The show ranks as one of the great miracles in the history of the small screen.
Despite the fact that it’s no longer necessary to go live, several contemporary series have given it a go. Two of the best installments of “30 Rock” were live episodes with zany camera shots and unpredictable guest appearances. Other shows that have taken the plunge include “Gimme a Break,” “ER,” “Will & Grace,” “The West Wing” and “The Drew Carey Show.” In the early 1990s, “Roc,” starring theater veteran Charles Dutton, even pulled off an entire season live.
If only more series would commit to at least one live episode a season. The approach doesn’t always work, but it can be thrilling when shows are forced to keep their characters in a contained environment. Remember when an hour of “Homicide: Life on the Street” consisted almost entirely of the grilling of a suspect in a missing-child case? The “Seinfeld” episode in which the gang is waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant? The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” when the news staff was trapped by a snowstorm? These were all strong episodes that might have been even stronger if they had been presented live.
With all the theater folks in its cast, why did “Frasier” never join the “live” club?
Leeves, who played Daphne Moon on that series, said the subject never came up.
“It would have been great fun, because that show was all about timing and it moved fast,” she said. “I think live works better when you’re moving quickly.”
Of course, more speed means less margin for error.