Most actresses would kill to be on a top-rated sitcom. Not Ella and Jaden Hiller, the three-year-old identical twins who until recently played the part of Lily on ABC’s Modern Family. So agitated and unhappy did the Hiller girls become when a camera was aimed in their direction that they were replaced in September by four-year-old Aubrey Anderson-Emmons.
What a difference a year makes, as Eric Stonestreet, who stars as the young gay father Cameron Tucker on the show, tweeted the other day about Anderson-Emmons: “She’s 9mo older than ‘old Lily’ and happy 2 b there. We love the Hiller twins, but they were NOT happy 2 b on set.”
This is hardly an isolated example. Show runners often blame the lack of baby-related story lines on how difficult it is to shoot with infants and toddlers, whose working hours are limited and whose moods can be fickle. Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence, while speaking on a panel recently, addressed why he didn’t include more infant-focused plot points with a question of his own: Are children under five fun to be around? “Get five really bright lights and take the shades off them, and point them at [a] baby, and then try to make them say or do what you want.” He added, “And then ask me again why the baby isn’t in the show more often.”
Typically in Hollywood, babies are considered a pain. Which is why the cast and crew of NBC’s new comedy Up All Night are doubly brave. Not only are they making a TV show about how having a baby changes your life (which necessitates working with infant twins), but the principals—Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, and Maya Rudolph, not to mention the series creator, Emily Spivey—have small children at home, as do several of the writers. “We’re all living it, going from being career people and partying all the time to having kids. It’s fresh material,” says Spivey, 40. A former Saturday Night Live writer, she admits drawing much of the inspiration for the show from her and her editor husband’s own struggle as older working parents. Real life, she adds, “is the gift that keeps on giving.” Except, that is, when it leaves you completely and utterly exhausted, which is what Up All Night is about.
“It’s a darker story,” adds Applegate, 39, who gave birth to her daughter, Sadie, nine months ago. Applegate plays Reagan, a talk-show producer and new mom. Reagan and her stay-at-home husband, Chris (played by Arnett), are “at the pinnacle of their lives, about to turn 40, when everything changes,” Applegate says. “You can be madly in love with your child and still have moments where you go, ‘Ugh!’ We’re saying things people are afraid to say.”
What type of things? Things like this: When you work and have a family, and you care about your family, your work inevitably suffers. Or this: Working and parenting, when taken together, leave little time for (or interest in) sex. Which is a corollary to this: A new parent will more likely use the energy they once might have summoned for sex to instead have an argument with their partner about which one of them got less sleep. This scene was brought to life in the first episode. Arnett and Applegate are shown bleary eyed in bed at dawn, bickering. “You were asleep when I got up at one ’cause I saw you, ’cause I was awake!” Reagan alleges, to which Chris replies, “No, I’m sure you were groggy from being in such a deep sleep that you did not see that my eyes were wide open.” The scene ends with Chris suggesting some hanky-panky and Reagan rolling her eyes in disgust.
Arnett, 41, says the weirdest thing about the scene struck him afterward, when he found himself arguing with his real-life wife, Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler. For the record, the couple has two kids under the age of four, so they are constantly sleep deprived. “It was kind of trippy,” Arnett recalls of the real-life spat, “because I’d shot a scene having this discussion, and now I’m actually having this discussion.”
Since Lucille Ball got pregnant and introduced the world to Little Ricky on I Love Lucy in 1953, it’s been the rare TV show that honestly confronted early parenting. The late ’80s series Full House centered on a young widower who enlists the help of his best friend and brother-in-law in raising his three daughters (the youngest played by the twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who were less than two when the series debuted). But over the years, most programs that have depicted parenting—from The Cosby Show to The Brady Bunch, from Married…with Children to Who’s the Boss?—portrayed kids for whom diapers were a distant memory.
Up All Night is trying to do something different: chronicle the joys and terrors that accompany the moment when one’s life is forever altered by the arrival of offspring—especially for older parents. The fact that so many on the show are older parents makes that task a bit easier. As Applegate says of her character, “Reagan’s going through the same thing I’m going through.”
Being sleep- and sex-starved may be funny, but the laughs would soon wear thin without a comic foil: Ava, the ambitious but vulnerable talk-show host played by Rudolph. Ava is Reagan’s best friend and boss. And notably, while Rudolph herself has three kids (ages six, two, and three months), Ava is both childless and clueless about children. In a defining scene early in the pilot, Ava shows up unannounced at Reagan and Chris’s house with a gift basket “for” the baby—complete with venison stock, hot pepper cheese, and champagne. Seeing the new parents’ dismayed faces, Ava reacts with glee: “Are you telling me there’s nothing in there for a baby? Oh, well, I guess we’ll be left having an awesome time by ourselves!” In another scene Reagan tries to teach Ava how to appropriately cradle an infant. Not since Julia Louis-Dreyfus danced spasmodically on Seinfeld has physical awkwardness been so hilarious. Ava first sticks her hands up straight in the air, then grabs the baby by the crotch. Needless to say, wailing ensues.
Rudolph’s character is the show’s fulcrum, Arnett says—the one without whom it might devolve into goo-goo and ga-ga overload. “Not everyone’s goal is to start a family,” Arnett points out, laughing like a man who once thought he was one of those people. “Maya’s character allows us to explore that person who goes, ‘Oh, man, whatever, who cares.’ She’s essential to the audience, so we’re not just hitting them over the head with ‘You’d better like this baby—or else.’ ”
Even though she plays someone without kids, Rudolph says one of the reasons she wanted to be in Up All Night is because of the family-friendly attitude of its creators. Lorne Michaels, who is an executive producer, had kids later in life and understands what he calls “wanting to do it right and be present.” Spivey, whose own kids are cared for mostly by her husband, tries to limit the late nights and long days, and everyone’s children are always welcome on set.
“It’s comforting to hear someone say, ‘I know this time is hard for you, and I really want you here,’ ” says Rudolph, 39, who was in her third trimester when Spivey shot the pilot and returned to work six weeks after giving birth. “It’s not like the SNL days. Nobody’s looking at you, going, ‘That lady and her kids excuse again!’ when you don’t want to get drinks.” Instead she says Up All Night is populated by “old farts” who love to discuss when to introduce solid foods to a baby’s diet and how to change a diaper when Dad and the baby are both standing up.
This ease is only possible, of course, if it starts at the top. As veteran show runner Jonathan Groff explains, in the TV business it’s always best to work for someone who likes their own family. “They tend to work more efficiently and not want to waste time,” says Groff, whose credits include Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, and currently Happy Endings. “The ones with dissolving marriages and unhappy home lives like to keep people around working longer to avoid going home.”
While making a weekly show is always hectic, Spivey says, “I want to see my kids—and all the lady writers have kids—and I want to give them as much time as I can. Having kids makes you focus. We all have the same agenda, so we don’t goof off.”
There is another upside of having parents play parents: They’re great with babies—in this case, the twins who portray newborn Amy. “Christina is a really good baby wrangler,” says Spivey. “She always gets them to look in the right direction.” Applegate prefers to call herself “the baby sheriff.” “The second I see the baby’s uncomfortable, we stop shooting,” she says. “Those little munchies—we’re protective of their time, emotions, germs, everything. They’re our surrogate kids.”
Michaels agrees. “When you see Will holding the baby,” he says of Arnett, “you know that on some level, his having just done it with two of them at home makes it feel authentic.”
Perhaps only real parents are comfortable admitting that as magical as it is to bring life into the world, sometimes you want to tear your hair out. “Can you balance it all? No,” says Applegate. “Reagan has that tension there, and she mostly fouls it up. You can’t do it all,” she adds, even as she admits that’s exactly what she’s trying to do.
Applegate knows that such honesty opens the show up to criticism. Already, she says, some are “saying this is a show about parents denying that they have a kid.” But while you can imagine where those people get their ammunition—the episode, for example, in which Applegate and Arnett call the cops on a rowdy neighborhood party, then go to the party so they don’t appear to be the snitches—the actress says such negative analysis is simplistic and wrong. “This is a show about adjusting,” she says, “not about denying their child love.”
Everyone on the show, meanwhile, describes experiencing a blurring between fact and fiction. That is a departure for Arnett, who’s made his name with over-the-top characters such as Gob in Fox’s dysfunctional family comedy Arrested Development and sweaty corporate schemer Devon Banks on 30 Rock. Using the spats he has with his wife to mine for humor? He still sounds almost surprised that it’s working.
The other day a few of the writers noticed Arnett’s underwear. He won’t describe it except to say, “I have this random underwear I wear to keep things sexy.” The writers immediately decided his character should use his undergarments the same way—which made Arnett reflect on his own behavior. “Once you have a kid, there’s a real question of how you keep your sexual being alive,” he says thoughtfully. Then he adds, “The writers are definitely poking fun at me.”
Photograph courtesy Trae Patton/NBC