There aren't many times when network execs are so open to out-of-the-box ideas, and so Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has spent the past four years raising her kids and living on fat Seinfeld royalties, is jumping in with hers. "It's not like I was dying to leap back into this," she says. "I was just excited by this idea." Her new sitcom, Watching Ellie, which debuts on NBC at the end of next month, is innovation packed. In addition to nixing the laugh track, using a single camera that follows the characters around, inserting songs and ditching the three-jokes-a-page rule, the show takes place in real time, so each week a clock in the corner of the screen counts down 22 minutes in the life of lounge singer and Los Angeles single gal Ellie Riggs, uninterrupted except for a freeze frame that precedes the commercial breaks.
"We watch it and we go, 'God, it feels like a cable show,'" says Louis-Dreyfus' husband and Ellie creator Brad Hall. He means that in a good way. Not, as he says, like "God, it feels like a local public-access show." Says Louis-Dreyfus: "It's a reinvention of storytelling, which a lot of the HBO shows are. [NBC entertainment president] Jeff Zucker realizes that he needs to do something different or else he's out of a job." Zucker was so enthusiastic about breaking the rules that he originally suggested not having commercials interrupt the show. Then he realized that was a much more direct path to being out of a job.
Zucker may be trying to overcome having given Emeril Lagasse a sitcom, but Louis-Dreyfus has to deal with the expectations that come from having been in the most successful show of the past decade. The expectations have led to articles about the Seinfeld Curse which has been blamed for the quick demise of both The Michael Richards Show in the fall 2000 season and this season's Jason Alexander bomb, Bob Patterson. But 0 for 2 in the world of sitcoms is actually about right. The vast majority of shows don't make it past one season. Louis-Dreyfus attributes that to the difficulty of writing for the medium. "The thing about comedy is that you can't fake it. With a drama you can fake it," she says. "You can't fake the funny."
And then there's the challenge of creating a second successful character while the public is still holding on to the last one, not to mention seeing her or him nightly on syndicated reruns. Louis-Dreyfus and Alexander made fun of exactly that situation on recent episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the HBO sitcom made by and starring Seinfeld co-creator Larry David. In one scene, Louis-Dreyfus and David, playing themselves, pitch a show called I'm Not Evelyn, about an actress who can't get work because she's pigeonholed as the character she used to play. Louis-Dreyfus, however, has never pursued that sitcom idea in real life. "It's more funny in the context of Curb Your Enthusiasm than it is for a show," she says. "I haven't given it a thought."
Hall, whose TV writing credits include Brooklyn Bridge and his own series, The Single Guy, came up with the idea for their real-time show because he and Louis-Dreyfus often wondered what it would be like to invisibly follow waiters and salesclerks around for half an hour to get an intimate view of what their lives were like. "I wrote it as an exercise just for fun," he says. Writing in real time, he adds, is easier than he thought it would be: "It's like a haiku or a sonnet. The rules are fun. And you don't have to deal with exposition. You don't have to lie with exits and entrances and wrapping things up."
Originally the show was called 22 Minutes with Eleanor Riggs the running time of a sitcom without commercials but that turned out to be inaccurate, since the networks now run more than eight minutes of commercials in their expensive prime-time slots. "The network didn't want to point that out," Hall says. Unlike Fox's real-time thriller 24, whose pace is quickened by several intersecting stories (and which neither Hall nor Louis-Dreyfus has seen yet), Ellie feels a little slow, and the dearth of standard sitcom jokes makes it seem less funny than you might expect. Much of its humor is physical comedy, since watching someone in real time means devoting a lot of time to watching Ellie walk, get dressed and generally run around. The format also encourages the writers to develop more subtle characters. "It's an intimate way of getting to know a person. There's an opportunity to see the moments between the moments," Louis-Dreyfus says.