How 'The Conners' Is Prepping to Go Live for New Hampshire Primary

Showrunner Bruce Helford says the cast is "terrified" at the prospect of the election-themed episode.
ABC; Inset: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
'The Conners' cast; Bruce Helford (inset)

The cast of The Conners boasts a two-time Tony Award winner in Laurie Metcalf, 13-time Saturday Night Live host John Goodman and longtime sitcom veterans Sara Gilbert, Lecy Goranson and Michael Fishman. Yet, according to showrunner Bruce Helford, they're all daunted by the prospect of Tuesday's live episode of the ABC comedy.

"Believe me, they are terrified," Helford told The Hollywood Reporter.

"When I said to Laurie you should have no problem since you've done a lot of theater, she said, 'Yeah, that's six months of rehearsal on that stage. You're giving me five days,'" Helford continued. "And we're talking about politics, so everyone's afraid of saying the wrong thing. So the level of difficulty here is about a 12."

Tuesday's episode will incorporate live ABC News coverage of the New Hampshire primary into its story, with the cast reacting in real time to the results (they'll perform live twice, at 8 p.m. ET for viewers in the eastern half of the country and three hours later for West Coast audiences). Mark (Ames McNamara) is watching primary coverage for a school project, and the other characters will offer their thoughts on the results as they move through the family's living room.

Helford said the cast is taking more rehearsal time than usual, since there will be no second takes, and that the show will have 12 cameras on stage rather than the usual four to allow for seamless moves between sets.

The episode will also feature plots involving Dan's (Goodman) relationship with Louise (Katey Sagal), which becomes a flashpoint of tension between Dan and daughters Becky (Goranson) and Darlene (Gilbert). The real-time reactions to the primary, however, will hinge on the 12-year-old McNamara.

"He's a really solid kid," said Helford. "He rarely drops a line, he's really focused. He's really wonderful, like a prodigy. He's also very knowledgeable about the election, he's been keeping up with it. So he's really the perfect kid to be doing this."

The show's writers have some jokes in mind depending on how the primary results go, which they'll be able to feed to the cast via two teleprompters on set. Writers will also be watching news coverage offstage and will have the ability to tee up lines in relation to the news. "We know roughly when the next time someone's going to be coming through the living room, so we can go to the teleprompter and add or change or subtract lines," Helford said. "[But] there are parts of the script where it just says, 'Mark tells them what's going on in the primary.'"

Helford oversaw several live episodes of The Drew Carey Show during that show's heyday, and he said he had long hoped to do a live broadcast of The Conners — provided that it wouldn't just be a gimmick.

"I don't like just doing live shows for the sake of live, because then it's like you're just watching to hear somebody flub a line or something," he said. "So I wanted to make sure it was something special. On Drew, we used to do the live improv, which was really without a net, and that was wonderful. When I saw the New Hampshire primary was going to be on our normal air night, I thought, OK, this could be interesting and something that hasn't been done before — actually interacting with the news as it's going on live. You don't have many news events that are predictable like a primary. You know it's going to happen, so it gave us the opportunity to take advantage of that and do something unique."

That The Conners (and its predecessor, Roseanne) has never shied away from politics also helps the primary storyline fit the show, Helford said: "The Conners are very cynical people, so a lot of it is about working-class cynicism toward politicians. There will be a little bit of a message saying get out and vote. Go out and support the people whose ideas you believe. There's a little bit of that, but it's not preachy in any way, shape or form."

More important to Helford than the actors nailing their lines and the camerawork coming off seamlessly Tuesday night is timing. One of the live Drew Carey episodes, he said, ran so long that Carey was forced to break character and explain the remainder of the plot to the audience. 

"Right now, the show is running probably about two minutes short. That allows for audience laughs and for more involved discussion of what's going on in the primary, so we're giving ourselves a little leeway," said Helford. "There's almost never a worry about being too short, but there's always a worry about being too long."

The live Conners episode airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ABC.