In this morning's column, I spoke with "Men of a Certain Age" co-creator Mike Royce about the genesis of the show, its future prospects, and why people underestimated Ray Romano's acting talents before they saw him on this gem of the show.
In lieu of a review of the first season finale - which I felt went for a bit more closure than the show usually likes to deal with, but which Royce argues below may not be as neat and tidy as it seems - after the jump I have a full transcript of our interview. Feel free to talk about it, or the finale (the guys on their walk was the season highlight for Scott Bakula), or the season in general.
The transcript coming up just as soon as I Google the word "happy"...
(We began our conversation with Royce mentioning that he had listened to the "MoaCA" segment of last week's Firewall & Iceberg podcast.)
Your compatriot was remarking that it should be a 30-minute HBO show, and that's exactly how it started. It was a long development. We started writing it ourselves, and then HBO made a deal, and then it got caught up in all the (executive) transition there. They passed on it but were nice enough to let us shop it around. Once we were going to do that and we realized we'd be going to basic cable, there would be commercials, we realized we had a 40-minute pilot, so we asked ourselves, "Are we going to go back to 22-minutes? Really?" I think what actaully gets in people's way is not that it's too thin, but that the commercials are a pain in everybody's ass. For this show in particular, we don't have a lot of cliffhanger act breaks.
This is not exactly "The Shield" in that respect.
So while we're on the subject of the show's development, how did it start? Were you and Ray looking to do a project together, or was this like the "Raymond" writers room where you were talking about your lives and then the story idea came.
The last one, basically. We started getting together becaue I was waiting for "Lucky Louie" to get picked up, and he was in between stuff. We got together to write a movie or something, and as we got together, we were both at this point in our lives, all we started talking about was this. All this stuff in our heads about where we were at this phase we seem to be going through. It came out in a bunch of personal stories, stories of other people's lives. Raymond was really taking stories from our lives, and working from there. This just felt natural to say, "Let's do something with this. If you see this in movies or on television, it's usually in a cartoony way."
Well, then can you talk about how you've worked to try to deal with this subject in a non-cartoony way while working in some humor?
When we wrote the pilot, we were allergic to trying to do anything that felt in any way like we were pushing the comedy, and we were trying very hard to make sure every moment felt real - I hate that, it's sort of a weird word - but we didn't want these to be goofy characters. We erred on the side of not-funny in writing the pilot, and what we found out in the shooting of it was that we could be funny. We got more comfortable with our style of what could be funny. When the guys banter, we never want it to feel like they're bantering, we wanted to get their voices better and also real. Even the possum thing in the pilot went from being a huge part, which may somehow make its way to the DVD. We had, like, 15 minutes. In the original pilot that we wrote - to TNT's credit, they asked us to shoot an alternate to this - the possum crawls off and goes into the woods and they walk into the woods to look for it because Joe can't let it go. They find it's wounded and not dead and they have this whole thing where they can't decide what to do, and they get their courage up to put it out of its misery, but then they leave it there. We found we were caught between two basic horrible situations: killing something on screen like that didn't feel right, but neither did walking away from a dying thing. It never struck the tone we were going for. It's funny, it's blackly humorous. The reason we cut so much out is that it didn't come across the way we thought in the writing.
So was there a point in the writing of the early episodes where you felt like you really captured the tone you were going for?
One thing we were very pleased in was the diner scene in the pilot where they're talking about Sisyphus. We told them to loosen up, don't depart too much from the script, but they could go off on tangents and make it feel conversational. We did two takes that way, and if you look at the word-for-word thing, it's pretty much what's in the script, but now it's, "I believe they're freinds." It's not, "I'm delivering the single guy point of view" and "I deliver the married guy's point of view," even though that's what they're doing. That style we've maintained, we're not like "Friday Night Lights" where they throw out the script sometimes, and that's brilliant. We don't go quite that far, but we're not, "It says 'the' here, and you said 'a.'" These three characters are really archetypes, and wanted to use that and not make them feel like stereotypes. That approach has made all the humor feel like we're not pushing it. People are expecting a different kind of show, it's not going to be a laugh riot, though the date show had more humorous moments than most. That was a good indication of how far we can take things.
Years ago, I visited with you and the other "Raymond" writers for a feature story, and Lew (Schneider, who's also a writer here) talked about how Ray Romano is much more neurotic than Ray Barone. Is that where Joe's anxiety came from?
In way that's true. But that's also us overstating things to be funny to you. (Ray) is definitely a dog with a bone when it comes to certain obsessions and neuroses. He'll say he's very neurotic and I guess technically he is, but he's not "Bored to Death" or Woody Allen. He's not a walking mass of tics, but he can get a thought in his head and have a very hard time getting it out. We've had a very good time with that on the show and will continue to do so.
Well, I knew from watching a lot of "Raymond" that Ray could be a very good actor when called on to do so, but one of the most frequent reactions I get when I write about this show is, "I can't believe that he's this good."
I think he unfairly gets put in the category of stand-ups who did sitcoms. Seinfeld never gave a s--t if he was a good actor. I don't want to say he didn't try, but he owned the fact that he was a little stiff and wasn't going to try to do things. I think Ray somehow gets lumped in with him. A large part of what made "Raymond" work was the way he would take lines and be a little off-kilter with them. In a four-camera sitcom, that's a little hard to tell, it feels like verybody's shouting. But within the context of other four-camera sitcoms, especially back in 1996, why "Raymond" premiered, there was a subtlety there that he brought to it.
I had an unfair advantage. We all knew, anybody who worked on "Raymond" knew he had that capability, but I had an even earlier experience. When we were both stand-ups in New York, I went to see him in an acting class, and he did a hybrid scene where he started out doing stand-up and talked about this thing that went into the pilot of "Raymond" about his father cracking the code to his answering machine and listening to the messages. And then he started talking about it in a more personal way. It was frustrating him, and his wife was upset, and he wanted to tell his father off. He wished his father was there right now, and he turned the chair around like he was talking to his father. He did this whole thing like he was talking to his father, and it was like, 'Whoa.' It was so heartfelt. I always had that in the back of my head. He is a really good actor. So it was less of a surprise to me.
But given everyone's expectations of who Ray is as a performer, was there ever any pressure, either when you were at HBO or here with TNT, to go in a broader comic direction because that's what people wanted from him?
We never really got that, and that's to TNT's credit. We came to them with the thing written, and other than the possum thing, they never got on us to change it. Once it was shot and they were deicding whether to pick it up, they came to us saying, "People are telling us this is a little bleak." They wanted to know the direction of the show. We always felt the pilot was bleak - albeit not as bleak as other people thought it was - but we wanted the pilot to put people in (the characters') mode. In any case, I think they just wanted to mae sure they weren't going to start dying off. I think we wanted to reassure them that this whole series is two steps forward, one step back. There will be all these moments of hope, and plenty of moments of bleakness, too
Well, it feels like in the finale the guys all take several steps forward. Like I said on the podcast, it felt a little like you and Ray had written a series finale just to hedge your bets in case you weren't renewed.
There was that aspect of, "If this is the last episode, we want it to have at least something to it, some sort of closure." But at the same time, we were setting things up for the second season. That's the way we viewed it as well.
The other thing is, we felt like these last two episodes were paying off a lot of stuff we'd been settign up. They're more plotty than we usually do - at a certain point things need to happen. So we just felt like those were the things that needed to happen after the stories we'd told so far. The situation between Owen and his father, there will never be a circumstance where they don't see each other. Doesn't mean he won't leave the dealership again; he's going to be working for his father now in a much worse capacity than ever. Terry's whole situation is going to be very fluid. Terry is somebody who's obviously searching. We've got a lot of interesting ideas about where he goes from here and whether acting is a part of that or not. And then Joe, with his gambling situation, we felt like that needed to come to a close right now. Next season is a whole different - anything you saw there, there's plenty of room there for many things to happen.
In terms of Joe and the gambling, Manfro reaches out that he wants to be friends even though Joe's allegedly quit. And while I don't want to lose Manfro, that seems like a situation that'd be very fraught for Joe.
We're thinking that's a good thing. We have a lot of ideas around that, too. But when I say, "a lot," they're pretty disparate. Part of what's interesting, Manfro we really enjoyed that character. We certainly, if possible, want to see him again, but we want it to be believable.
I like how you played things down the middle with Manfro, in that he likes Joe, but only to a point, and not to a point where he'd ever let Joe off the hook on a debt.
Manfro is his own lonely hearts. In Joe, he has a friend that he doesn't have in any of his other clients. He has a guy to whom he feels a weird kinship, and Joe feels the same way about Manfro. Even in a way he doesn't connect with his friends, he connects with Manfro, he tells Manfro certain things that he doesn't tell Owen and Terry. It's an odd relationship
In the finale, we see Owen kicking ass and taking names at the rival dealership, and his father suggests it's just Owen succeeding through spite. It's been unclear throughout the season whether Owen is a bad salesman just because he's lazy, or because being under his father's thumb all these years has made him that way. How do you see it?
I would say all of those things. There's a moment with Owen we had to cut from the pilot, and I miss it. When he's selling the two old people who are complaining and Marcus comes over and takes over the sale - where that scene started in the original cut, it's just him daydreaming and the old people are talking and he doesn't quite tune in for a few seconds. For the same reason that we had him falling asleep at his desk. It's that he's been at this job for a long time and it isn't his dream job. He doesn't hate it so much, but it's not where he thought he'd be. The only thing keeping him there is that, "Some day, I'm going to be the boss." He doesn't have a fire for that particular job. Hopefully, what we covered in the finale, all those things are true. He has the ability, but he was being lazy. So his father's totally right, a lot of people said after the pilot, 'He's a lazy f--k.' His father's right, but also Owen's right.
And Andre is an actor who doesn't have a lot of vanity. He's there with his shirt off whenever and wherever you need him to be.
I have to hand it to him. He came in raring to go in the pilot. When we filmed the bedroom scene, he said, "I should be in my tightie-whities." The truth is, when he was first mentioned to us, we just said, 'No.' The notion of Andre Braugher was this commading presece, but when we met him, I'm saying it nicely, he'd filled out a lot. And if he wants to do it, you can't deny, acting-wise, that he can do it. The combination of those two things made us go okay. Who are we to say no to this guy? He proposed doing that, we wanted him doing that. We wanted to make sure, in a way, it really worked in the show. (The audience) would see a guy they knew as being thinner and younger being a little bit heavier and older. And in the "Mind's Eye" show where he's sitting there naked for a long time, we said, "We kind of need you with your shirt off here, because we have a bunch of fat guy jokes coming up." He said sure. After it aired, he was watching the show with his wife, and she said, "That's a lot of man." Since then, he has lost a lot of weight.
Well, you introduced that storyline earlier this season where Owen resolves to eat better. And I've interviewed Braugher over meals in the past, and he ate as badly as I do. So how do you deal with him either not losing weight if you had a story where Owen's getting thinner, or if Andre really does take a lot of weight off when you weren't planning for that?
I don't think we're at the point yet where we would ask him to lose weight, and I also don't think we're at the point where he's going to come in forty pounds lighter or heavier. We just picture the character the way he eats in real life. He's always going to have those urges, there's always going to be temptation, and he's not necessarily going to be disciplined about it. Owen promised his son, but there's going to be some stumbles. When we got picked up, I called him and he was doing Shakespeare in the Park, he was walking through Central Park. He said, "Great, great. I gotta go. I just want to let you know: I'm staying fat, and I'm staying funny."
With him, it's sort of the opposite of Ray, where people don't think of him as someone who's funny, but when "Homicide" asked him to deliver a joke, he could do it well.
When we had people in reading, and he was nice enough to read also, we had a lot of really funny guys, and good actors, but it just never felt like they were really friends. He didn't go for the joke at all, but it felt real and the moments that were scripted to be funny, he made funny. He's really become quite the comedy savant.
And Scott has his feet in both worlds, since he's done a lot of comedy and drama.
And I have to give him a lot of credit, too. I think he was somewhat underserved in the first few episodes, and his stories got a lot more intersting as they went along. We cut a couple of very good scenes for him from the pilot. He took a leap of faith with us, that we were going to cut these great scenes for the good of the series, and he has really delivered, when he 's supposed to be funny and supposed to be dramatic. He made it really something real, I love that scene in the second episode where he confronts the guy in the doorway about almost running him over, and he's "What am I doing here?'"
And he worked well with Carla Gallo.
She was great, and she really did a great job in the whole series. That's another person where, in the beginning, there wasn't much there for her to do, and I really liked their relationship as it went along. I think it became very sincere and not a cliche of older guy/younger woman.
After last week's episode ended with her mad at him about the surfing thing, I said it was his fault for not acknowledging that he missed the lesson, but a lot of my readers felt that since she was the one who pushed him to do the movie, she had no right to be mad.
We had some discussion, but we ultimately fell where you were. But we had done a whole show about her telling him, "If we're going to be together…" and she calls him on the carpet about being on time. This was a bigger line that he was taking on himself: he tells her, "No, I'm going to do it," and she tells him don't do it unless you're going to, and he insists on it, and then forgets about it. Who knows if we're going to see her again? This could be temporary. It's final for right now. He made such a big deal of, "I'm announcing that we are taking this relationship to the next level," he pulls her close, he plunged in. And then, suddenly, it's like nothing happened. He's distracted, has a lot going on, and she, I think, just wished there was some acknowledgment. If he had just said, 'Oh, god, the surfing!," she would have been fine with it.
So how do you maintain a show where the stories and the stakes are deliberately so small?
This is just not going to be one of these shows that goes for 10 years, whether the ratings hold up or not. I think we view the show like they're in this phase of life. It began with the pilot, and the series finale is going to be when they get to some other side with it. Midlife is like this weird second teenager-hood where your brain is operating on levels you're not familiar with, you're making some bad decisions and changing your life in ways that maybe isn't wise. Things, at a certain point, settle down from that. We think that's the arc of the series. I don't think that's going to take 200 episodes.
But given that you don't do big cliffhanger act breaks and there aren't a ton of promotable moments, was TNT ever worried about the commercial viability of it?
The reviews have been pretty good, and that reassured them. It's also the first show that they have produced as a studio. So I think they're kind of proud of it, they're certainly not shy about giving us notes. I have to give them a huge amount of credit. They never made us do anything. They will give us notes but always defer to us, and I know that is not the case on many other programs.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org