#TBT: Long Before Peter Pan, Live Shows Were Promising ‘Anything Can Happen’

From Jon Lovitz to ER, real-time specials are a classic attention-grab

Creating a suitable promo for a live TV show can be tricky. Given that the program hasn't been shot yet, there's no actual footage to show. But that hasn't stopped the networks from crafting promos—some of them quite spectacular—that draw upon a familiar, irresistible refrain to bring in audiences: "Anything can happen!"

For this week's Throwback Thursday, we're revisiting promos for several memorable (some infamously so) live broadcasts. But before we do that, let's take a look at the promo for tonight's Peter Pan Live! on NBC, which promises to be either the best or worst thing you’ll see this year.

The “One Night Only” line (and the reminder that 44 million watched at least part of last year’s The Sound of Music Live!) urge audiences to tune in live, especially because the promo is also flirting with the very strong possibility that this whole thing could turn out to be as big of a disaster as the fishnet and spandex that makes up Allison Williams’ Peter Pan costume. (Is Christopher Walken literally going through the motions in his performance? And at what, exactly, does Williams keep staring?)

Peter Pan Live! is working from the same playbook as last year’s The Sound of Music Live! (or, according to its promo: The Sound of Music, Live), playing up the possibly that anything can happen, or go wrong. What if—gasp!—Laura Benanti and Christian Borle break character like they do in this promo?

In hindsight, Carrie Underwood’s declaration that “We’re doing it live in front of the entire universe!” doesn’t seem hyperbolic given the special’s massive ratings, which were a surprise even to NBC executives.

The network has had lots of practice crafting promos for live specials, including real-time episodes of shows like Will & Grace and The West Wing. But its finest live promo by far was for ER, which went live for its Season 4 premiere on Sept. 25, 1997. The show was at its creative peak, and this fantastic promo captured all its glory. Old episode footage was filmed as it played on a monitor, setting a dramatic, nail-biting tone punctuated by ace voiceover work from maestro Don LaFontaine.

See, "anything can happen. Anything!” (Quick question: Is the “Oh My God!” you hear in this clip the same one used in every single ER promo, or did they actually record a new one each time?) Alas, the episode itself was a dramatic dud, but the promo had more than done its job.

NBC also scored with this promo for 30 Rock’s second live episode, which aired on April 26, 2012 (the first one was broadcast on Oct. 14, 2010). This smartly pairs Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan in an obvious take on the standard Saturday Night Live promos, which both actors, and the audience, are well familiar with.

Look, there’s that “Anything can happen!” promise again. Like the ER promo, this one works because it distils everything that audiences love about the show, and gives you the sense that you’ll get all of that—and much more!—live. (And unlike ER, the 30 Rock live shows made good on that promise).

It’s much tougher to promote a show that airs live every single week, as the Fox sitcom Roc did during its entire Season 2 in 1992 and 1993. (Fox hoped the stunt would goose ratings, but that didn’t happen.) As a result, the promos gave up on playing up the “anything can happen” angle, and focused instead on the musicians who had recurring roles that year: Heavy D, Tone Loc and En Vogue.

That promo also helped establish the pecking order of Fox’s Sunday night lineup at the time. James Brown goes to the night’s crown jewel, In Living Color, while Herman’s Head was left with Lita Ford. Fox also resorted to having musical acts like Boyz II Men talk up Roc Live (as it was called that year) when the group hosted Fox’s Sunday-night lineup. Though instead of discussing Roc Live, I wish they would have explained why they all had to dress exactly alike. 

A few months before airing Roc Live, Fox lured Jon Lovitz back to TV for a live special. On May 20, 1992, two years after leaving SNL, he starred in The Please Watch the Jon Lovitz Special (not enough people did, because nothing ever came of the show). For the promo, Lovitz gamely dusted off his famous SNL pathological liar character, Tommy Flanagan.

While Lovitz’s special was quickly forgotten, it will be impossible to erase the memory of the debacle that was Rosie Live, which NBC allowed to air on Nov. 26. 2008. Rosie O'Donnell’s production numbers, which had been such a delight on her syndicated daytime talk show, had worn thin by the time she resurrected them for this promo. It disses her first, short-lived stint on The View, while promising—you’ll never guess—that “you never know just what she’ll do” during a live performance.

The problem was that by then, we all knew exactly what she’d do: more numbers like this one. Her shtick felt tired; by the time the show aired, it had flatlined. NBC had initially planned on making her variety show a regular event, until that debut was soundly rejected by critics and audiences.

Will Peter Pan Live! be the next Rosie Live? Remember: Anything can happen!