No wonder sitcom creators liken getting a series on the air to creating a child; months or years of development need to combine with patience, love and the willingness to modify and tweak a concept until it hurts. Here, we talk with some of TV's top sitcom (and one dramedy) heads about those first-show birthing pains and learn just what they were up to the night baby took its first steps on the airwaves.
Robert Carlock ('30 Rock')
In the beginning: "The whole first year we were dumb enough not to realize how hard it was to do what we were trying to do. We just walked blissfully like babies into it."
Needs fixing: Adjusting the Jack (Alec Baldwin) and Liz (Tina Fey) relationship was key. "You could see a version where he was just a stuffed shirt and she just a knee-jerk do-gooder. That's what was on the table for the first few episodes."
About that night: On the "dance floor in some back room" of a bar or restaurant, the cast and crew watched the first episode "en masse." "The sound quality was terrible, and there was a terrible storm outside — they had a satellite hookup and the video kept dropping out. We were trying not to convince ourselves that it was a sign of things to come."
Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan ('Modern Family')
In the beginning: An "enormous amount of character work up front," says Levitan, meant the actors and writers were very comfortable early on. "By the time we started, we really felt we knew these characters."
Needs fixing: Quickly the "camera confessionals" the characters did directly to the cameras fell away, because they interfered with pacing, says Lloyd. "We found moving fast suits everyone," he adds.
About that night: There was a "low-key opening night launch party" in West Hollywood, recalls Lloyd, while Levitan monitored Twitter for East Coast feed comments. "I could read about the show playing in real time," he says. "I still do it sometimes. I love to hear how the jokes are playing."
Chuck Lorre ('The Big Bang Theory')
In the beginning: "Theory" caught a lucky break early on, getting a second shot at a pilot from CBS after the first one didn't go over so well. "This is the only time I ever got a do-over."
Needs fixing: Everything, basically, but tone especially. "There's a sweetness to these characters being unable to handle the day-to-day stuff, and we embraced that vulnerability the second time."
About that night: For many years, Lorre had a party at his home with the casts of "Two and a Half Men," "Theory" and "Mike & Molly," since their season premieres dovetailed. "We'd watch it on the air, then pray for the next few hours until the ratings came out," he said. But after some CBS schedule reshuffling, "it became fractured," and "we took a break this year." Does he miss the gathering? "No. It's nerve-wracking."
Dave Finkel and Brett Baer ('New Girl')
In the beginning: Shifting to 24 episodes with "New Girl," up from 12 on "United States of Tara," was eye-opening, and the pair had to get a grip on the four-act structure that broadcast wants. "With 12 episodes, they give you much more walk-up time," says Baer, "and the nature of broadcast shows is you don't have that latitude."
Needs fixing: Less "adorkable," more depth for their title character, Jess (Zooey Deschanel). "Season 1 was all about finding our feet," says Finkel.
About that night: Despite a big planned party in the writers' room, the pair were stuck editing reshoots for the second episode. "We fell asleep at 5 in the morning, wrapped in Snuggies and sleeping bags, and two hours later the phone started buzzing and the numbers came in and they were positive," says Finkel.