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‘Abby’s’ shakes up the typical sitcom setting by shooting in the great outdoors

‘Abby’s’ shakes up the typical sitcom setting by shooting in the great outdoors
Natalie Morales as Abby and Neil Flynn as Fred in the NBC sitcom "Abby's," which is set at a backyard bar and was filmed outside in front of a studio audience. (Justin Lubin / NBC)

On a chilly hilltop just footsteps away from the suburban idyll of what was once Wisteria Lane on “Desperate Housewives,” the NBC sitcom “Abby’s” is working into the night.

Or, at least it would like to work, once a lone truck on one of the streets below stops its repeated beeping every time it shifts into reverse.

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“Stop,” groans someone in the crew, watching as the truck continues executing what sounds like an 10-point turn in front of a production building on one of the streets below. “It’s like a drivers ed class,” mutters Franco Bario, a co-executive producer on the series.

But this is where the series creators opted to shoot their story of an unlicensed backyard bar, so there are no red lights on the studio backlot demanding silence. As a result, the whole cast, crew and live audience, who are cheerily huddled under blue fleece blankets provided by the show on a chilly fall night, have to wait until finally, mercifully, the truck falls silent.

Welcome to “Abby’s,” a series shaking up the tightly controlled sets of typical productions by taking the sitcom back to nature.

“This is an insane thing to say, but the model was Shakespeare in the Park,” says executive producer Michael Schur, laughing at the idea with series creator Josh Malmuth. “That is holding it to a high standard,” Malmuth replies.

“Ultimately, this show will be more important to the culture, long-term,” answers Schur, whose dry, genial delivery betrays his connection to revered sitcoms such as “Parks and Recreation,” “The Good Place” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” It’s a run of network success that led “Abby’s” star Natalie Morales to later joke that Schur has been called “the Dick Wolf of comedy.”

Schur and Malmuth are clad in black jackets near one of the set’s electrical boxes, which has been repurposed into a tool shed for the show’s backyard setting. The bar’s taps are functional, as is a nearby barbecue grill, where actual steaks will be prepared as part of that episode’s story line. In true television fashion, everything looks real, but in a gentle way “Abby’s” is also comfortable with reminding you it’s not.

“The way we’ve edited the show so far, we’ve shot these big, wide crane shots where we show the lights and the crowd and everything,” Schur continues, describing how episodes will come back from commercials. “It is breaking the reality that we’re purporting for the show, but also we kind of feel like that’s what makes this cool. At least for the first season we want to constantly remind people ‘This is real, we’re in front of an audience.’”

With its theatrical staging, “Abby’s” also offers a unique atmosphere for the actors, who include comic veterans Neil Flynn (“The Middle”) and Nelson Franklin (“Veep”). “The show isn’t live, but I think showing the crowd and showing you what we’re doing makes it have that feeling like anything could happen,” Morales says later in a phone call. “There’s an electricity that’s happening.”

Natalie Morales confers with Michael Schur, center left, and Josh Malmuth on the set of 'Abby's'
Natalie Morales confers with Michael Schur, center left, and Josh Malmuth on the set of 'Abby's' (Paul Drinkwater / NBC)

Malmuth, who also worked on the sitcoms “Superstore” and “New Girl,” was inspired to write “Abby’s” after visiting a similarly underground neighborhood music venue in New Orleans that was accessed by walking through someone’s house. “It felt really neighborhoody, like it was building a community in a cool way,” he says.

“There are natural questions that come up,” Schur says. “Like, how do her neighbors feel about this, and what’s the reality of how it would look? And then we found this house [on the lot] that’s at the end of a cul de sac, and we’re, like, that’s the way it would actually work in real life.”

Malmuth adds: “It’s funny because ever since we started doing the show friends of friends have come out of the woodwork and said, ‘Oh, there’s a bar like this in my neighborhood.’ It’s a lot more common than I realized.”

Plus, Malmuth admits, “I’ve always wanted to do a bar show. I like the simplicity of a show like that. That’s the essence of a sitcom, right? You put everybody in a room and let them interact with one another. ”

“And there’s never been a show set in a bar at NBC, ever,” Schur jokes. “This is really uncharted territory.”

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Indeed, as proven by the questions asked during the recent Television Critics Assn. presentations in Pasadena, the legacy of “Cheers” casts a long shadow over “Abby’s.” “It’s a nice comparison,” Malmuth cracked during the show’s panel, “but our show is much better.”

“We sort of realized no matter what we do, there are going to be inevitable comparisons made and parallels drawn, so we tried not to let it guide us,” Schur said on set. “The dynamics are all different, the location is different — It doesn’t matter, we could set it on the moon and people would still compare it to ‘Cheers.’”

So rather than begrudge that impulse, “Abby’s” rather welcomes it. At TCAs the cast joked about Ted Danson possibly making a cameo as Abby’s father — there’s a “Good Place” connection, after all — and as Morales looked to keep busy behind the bar, she said she orchestrated her movements over the first episode as a direct homage to Sam Malone.

“Who would grow tired of being mentioned in that same row of names?” Morales asked. “That’s ideal. I mean if I could get any kind of comparison to ‘Cheers’ or Ted Danson — why would you complain about that?”

Still, the San Diego-set “Abby’s” changes the formula on multiple fronts, including with Morales, who is the first Cuban woman to lead a network show. Plus, although it’s not mentioned until later episodes, Abby is one of the first lead characters in a network series to be bisexual.

For Morales, who came out as queer in 2017, the significance of that distinction is more important than any similarities viewers may see.

“It’s a huge thing,” she said. “When I was a kid — and still — the barometer of normalcy is network television. If I could’ve pointed to my mom and to the TV and said, ‘Well [Abby is] bi, and she’s Cuban, and she’s living a normal life and it’s fine,’ then that would’ve in my head been a normal thing.

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“I’m especially proud of the fact that [being bisexual] is not the thing about her,” she adds. “It’s not about the strife that comes with being marginalized; it’s just about her life, and I think that’s really important.”

Back on the set, there’s another delay as a helicopter passes (“There must be a chase on Lankershim,” the show’s warm-up comic jokes with the audience). Between takes, Schur’s eyes drift down to his phone to check results from the November election, and Morales dances behind the bar to “Uptown Funk” playing over the PA as the show resets, a gesture that might be as much to stay warm as keeping her energy up.

Though delays are common, they’re also brief. In the event of weather, a duplicate set was built on an indoor soundstage (although by the eighth episode it hadn’t been needed), and the show had to rearrange its schedule to avoid competing with the screams of Universal Studios’ nearby Halloween attractions. Still, from the sound of crickets to the play of the light, the whims of the outdoors had an authenticity of their own.

“In the pilot there’s one moment where my face is completely in shadow ... not because I’m hiding in the shadows, [but from] like a real shadow from a plant that moved in the wind,” Morales remembers with a laugh. “It’s just a real, normal thing that happens when you’re outdoors.

“It’s really cool to be able to lean into that and know this has never happened before.”

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