'The Conners': Behind the Scenes of Two Live New Hampshire Primary-Focused Episodes

The Connors - Live Episode Feb. 11.  - H - 2020

On Tuesday night, The Conners followed in the footsteps of ABC’s hit live shows, but with a twist — incorporating footage and results from the New Hampshire primaries in real time.

Filmed two separate times — once at 5 p.m. PT for the East Coast feed, and again at 8 p.m. for West Coast — from Warner Bros. studios in Los Angeles, The Hollywood Reporter was on hand to watch the live taping, made possible with the help of a teleprompter and active producers incorporating up-to-the-minute political news into the story. The episodes were filmed using three set pieces — the living room, kitchen and Mexican restaurant — with 14 cameras and 12 camera operators. Primary coverage was streamed live onto a TV in the Conners’ living room, with Mark (Ames McNamara) watching and reporting on the results for his schoolwork.

Ahead of the first live show, nerves were high, as castmembers jumped and danced around set to get their energy while the crew yelled encouragement: “Let’s go Conners!” “You got this!” and the nervous “No turning back now.” The warm-up comedian provided updates to the audience about Bernie Sanders being in the lead, as McNamara was briefed between commercial breaks on what political commentary to add to his script, including comments about Andrew Yang dropping out and Sanders’ lead, as stars Sara Gilbert, Lecy Goranson and Emma Kenney chimed in with other political observations. The lines were provided via teleprompter next to the TV as part of the family comedy's central set and also from writers and producers during commercial breaks. 

Following the first taping, Gilbert and her onscreen brother Michael Fishman shared a high five as McNamara ran around pumping his fists and hugging crewmembers. As the audience was released, Fishman gave credit where it was due. "[To] the writers and producers who made this possible — the best in the business.” During the two-hour break between tapings, the cast and crew — some of whom donned pro-Bernie attire — celebrated with an on-set taco truck before returning for the second performance.

The West Coast version of the Roseanne spinoff was delayed for two minutes for an ABC News update in the race — which happened less than 10 seconds before the cast was ready to go live. As crewmembers spread word of the delay around set, one producer yelled, "Sorry, that's a buzzkill," but resumed the countdown just a moment later. 

Given that the second taping aired after Sanders had already been named as the projected winner, the West Coast version included a number of new jokes. "Bernie won, but it could be Russian hacking because Putin is in second"; and additional punchlines about Amy Klobuchar coming in second place and Elizabeth Warren's poor results in the primary. 

At the end of the second episode of the night, crewmembers  — all wearing purple "Straight Outta Compton"-inspired shirts that read "Live Outta Lanford," in reference to the Conners' hometown — took video and photos of the final moments as Gilbert (who also executive produces) made a "whew" gesture to multiple producers and the cast danced around the set hugging each other. "It's over! Yay!" Goranson exclaimed as the group gathered for a cast picture to celebrate the rare feat.

Live programming is a cornerstone of ABC's current strategy to break through the cluttered landscape. ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke told reporters at TCA in January that she was hoping to have at least one live tentpole event per month. The Conners live episode came mere days after the network's hostless Oscars dropped to an all-time low but still had an impressive 26 million-plus viewers. Next up, the network is working with Mel Brooks on a live musical edition of Young Frankenstein, which will be similar to last year's The Little Mermaid live.