Spivey’s at Home in Live TV Comedy

Emily Spivey M.F.A. ’96 has been riding the trend lately, writing and producing a lot of single-cam television.

Those are the film-like, half-hour comedies shot without a live audience. But she really wants to get back to what she thinks television comedy does best — use multiple cameras to capture real conflict and jokes in front of a live, studio audience.

She wants TV comedy to live in the moment again.

“Somehow the idea of having a live audience has become cheesy, like people look down on it,” she explains from her home in the San Fernando Valley. “I’m not really sure why. Having done single-cam shows [without an audience], I see that television is best set up for the three-camera format in front of an audience.

“You get in a vacuum when you’re doing a single-cam show, even though there are some single-cam shows that I really love. From all my time at ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I miss the audience, fixing things on the spot, and the spontaneity of it all. That’s what television is all about. When you watched ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ or ‘Cheers,’ which were shot in front of live audiences, you were a part of it.

“Everyone tells me the multi-cam format is coming back, and then it doesn’t,” she says.

So Spivey, one of the top writer/producers in television comedy, is pitching new shows against the trend … at least on her own time. Her latest pitch was a Southern take on “Cheers”; it would have been a traditional multi-cam, live-audience show set in a bar in her hometown in North Carolina. CBS respectfully declined.

She’s been successful in just about every type of TV comedy. She spent a decade (and won an Emmy) writing and then running the writer’s table at “Saturday Night Live.” Her first foray in running her own show, NBC’s “Up All Night,” was a single-cam venture. Then she was executive producer and co-writer of the pilot for the highly anticipated sequel “How I Met Your Dad,” a single-cam/multi-cam hybrid that was declined at the last moment (she was standing on the curb for a car service to take her to the season announcement event when she was texted the show’s fate). She has produced and written for “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation,” both single-cam shows. She’s written for animation (“King of the Hill”). She’s acted on camera in SNL, “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and SNL pal Andy Samberg’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” And she voices the character Concierge in Seth Meyers’ animated series, “The Awesomes.”

She also misses what she says is a lack of actual conflict. There’s too much pushed to the middle.

“When you’re developing a script now, everybody has to be nice to each other, everybody has to be friends, and no one can have flaws; there can’t be any real conflict,” she continues. “When you think about the pilot of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ ” — referring back to her favorite television comedy of all time — “Lou Grant was a complete bastard. He was horrible to Mary, even though she was trying her damnedest. There has to be real-life conflict and real-life resolution; otherwise, it’s just inert.

“I miss the Ted Baxter of it all. I miss the buffoonery.”

Her current project is shepherding the new Will Forte single-cam comedy, “The Last Man on Earth,” toward its debut on Fox in the new year. She wrote the original draft of the film “Loomis Fargo” for her friend, actress Amy Poehler. It opens with another friend, Kristen Wiig, next year.

But still she yearns to get back to her roots. Over the weekend around this interview, she was writing an episode for the Forte show while writing another spec script for her employer, 20th Century Fox Television. The thing that got her into the business — making people laugh — continues to drive her.

“A lot of times in television, you go weeks and weeks without writing anything, because you’re in the room, brainstorming,” she continues. “There’s nothing better than writing a joke and then hearing people connect to it and laugh. That’s the only thing that makes any sense to me.”

This article was published in the winter 2014 (Vol. 5, No. 1) issue of LMU Magazine.