Betty White and the rest of her TV Land Hot in Cleveland cohorts resume their fourth season Wednesday with a special live episode. For White, it won’t be the first time…
The first time Betty White, 91, starred in a situation comedy performed and televised live was 60 years ago, when she played a newlywed in the 1953 syndicated sitcom Life with Elizabeth.
But even then, while performing live on TV was the norm, it no longer was the only game in town — and even the town had changed.
In the earliest formative days of television, in the postwar late 1940s, New York was the TV center of the United States, and where most television programs originated. Videotape was a decade away from being utilized, and there was no coast-to-coast network yet to transmit programming. Sitcoms, dramas and other forms of early TV shows were performed live, and kinescopes — primitive recordings made from filming TV monitors of the live performance — were shipped to stations in the Midwest and on the opposite coast.
In 1951, CBS’s I Love Lucy changed all that. While it wasn’t the first television show to shoot on film with multiple cameras, it was the first sitcom to do so, and its crisp images — not only watchable, but pristine, even today — changed both the delivery system and the geographic source. Suddenly, filming shows was preferable over live broadcast, and Hollywood became preferable to New York.
Eventually, the Golden Age of live TV, which had given us everything from the dramatic Patterns and Marty to the comedic Mama and Mr. Peepers, succumbed almost entirely to filmed, then videotaped, fare. For sports and news, live TV remained an essential ingredient in the mix. But for entertainment, except for late-night outposts such as Saturday Night Live, it began an exception.
That became especially true of situation comedies.
When NBC’s Gimme a Break mounted a live episode of its Nell Carter sitcom on Feb. 23, 1985, it was billed as the first live sitcom telecast in about 30 years (actually, since 1959). It was a sweeps-month stunt gimmick by NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, who selected Gimme a Break as a test balloon because its leading players had significant stage experience (Carter, for example, had starred in the Broadway musical Ain’t Misbehavin’).
Tartikoff was toying with the idea of presenting live telecasts of an entire season of some new sitcom the following season — but after Gimme a Break, he put that particular toy back in his toy box.
It would be seven years until that experiment was tried again — this time with the results Tartikoff had hoped to achieve, but by a rival network. The cast of Fox’s sitcom Roc, which had premiered in 1991, also had plenty of stage experience — stars Charles Dutton and Carl Gordon had appeared together in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson on Broadway the year before. They tried one live episode of Roc that first season, and it got so much attention, and went so well, that the sitcom performed and televised every episode live for its 1992-93 season — still the most audacious live TV achievement by any sitcom in the modern era.
From that point on, TV sitcoms have gone live only to gain attention, and for the fun of it, and usually only because they have the clout to try. The Drew Carey Show, when it held the hot hand at ABC, did three playfully loose live shows in as many seasons (Nov. 19, 1999, Nov. 8, 2000, and Nov. 14, 2001). NBC’s Will & Grace, during its final season, did two (Sept. 29, 2005 and Jan. 12, 2006), performing different editions for both the East and West Coast feeds.
And when NBC’s 30 Rock did its live shows (on Oct. 14, 2010, and April 6, 2012), Tina Fey and company intentionally played up the differences between the East and West Coast versions — swapping guest cameos, switching punch lines, and generally reveling in the enjoyable possibilities of going live for live’s sake. Guest stars such as Jon Hamm, and even Paul McCartney, dropped by to have fun.
The sense of playfulness extended even to the plot itself, which had TGS, the series’ fictitious show within a show, switching from live to pre-recorded — just as the episode in question was doing the reverse.
And now comes Hot in Cleveland. June 19 at 10 p.m. ET, the TV Land comedy joins the live TV sitcom brigade. The stars — Betty White as Elka, Valerie Bertinelli as Melanie, Wendie Malick as Victoria and Jane Leeves as Joy — have tons of comedy experience, but except for White, very little live TV. Bertinelli, like White, has hosted NBC’s Saturday Night Live, so she, at least, has tasted the tension and thrills of live television. All the women have such stellar credentials, though, from Leeves’ Frasier to Malick’s Just Shoot Me, that they should all survive nicely, and probably thrive in what clearly are home-field conditions.
For Wednesday’s outing, they’ll be joined by plenty of other veteran players: recurring player Georgia Engel (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as Mamie-Sue, and guest stars William Shatner, Shirley Jones, and others. Of them, Shatner, 82, is closest to White in live-TV experience as well as age. He goes back to the early days of live TV, including co-starring as the attorney representing Steve McQueen (another young unknown at the time) in the 1957 CBS Studio One pilot for what became the landmark legal series The Defenders.
These veteran players — Betty White and William Shatner — will be employing muscle memory to do what once came naturally, but which, for most of the other Hot in Cleveland players, will be an exciting anomaly. For viewers, that’s what it comes down to as well: an injection of instant energy, unpredictability, and sheer fun.
It’s not the sort of show you DVR to watch later. Do that, and you’re missing not only the point, but the joy.