The Cold Never Bothered Him Anyway

2014 NL Central Preview

Surviving ‘Surviving Jack’

The cocreator of Fox’s new sitcom — debuting tonight! — gives an inside look at how your TV sausage gets made

Tonight, at 9:30 on Fox, Surviving Jack, the show I cocreated, will premiere. And, most likely, it will fail. I don’t say that because I think it’s a bad show. I actually think it’s a very good one. I say that because the television business is defined by failure. Networks spend hundreds of millions of dollars on creating shows, almost all of which get canceled because no one watches. Some are great. Some are bad. It doesn’t matter. They fail.

I have no idea what the fate of my television show will be, but I’d like to share how it came to arrive on your TV screen tonight, because, as my dad would say, “Everybody should know how the pig gets to the slaughterhouse.”

♦♦♦

In the television business, you’re given numerous opportunities to fail in smaller ways before you even sniff a chance at failing in front of the entire country. My writing partner, Patrick Schumacker, and I had been working in TV for three years before we decided to try to adapt my book I Suck at Girls. And if we had any hope of getting on the air, we needed the help of someone who had beaten the odds in the past: Bill Lawrence. Bill created Spin City, Scrubs, and Cougar Town, and, even though he has enough money to fill one of his (many) pools with gold coins à la Scrooge McDuck, he continues working. Bill is tall, blond, and looks like he was built in a Nazi lab dedicated to engineering the perfect Aryan — basically the opposite of what a normal comedy writer looks like.

As Patrick and I sat across from Bill for breakfast at a restaurant in Brentwood one morning, we were oozing desperation. Our hope was to get him to be our executive producer.

“I read your book. It’s really funny,” he said to me, as he took a bite of oatmeal.

“Oh, thank you. We think tonally the show would—”

“Oh man, I’m about to look really fucking cool right now,” Bill interjected, as he turned to his left to reveal Jennifer Garner walking through the door.

“Bill! What are you doing here?!” Jennifer shouted from across the restaurant.

After they exchanged pleasantries for about a minute, she walked back over to the hostess stand and Bill turned his attention back to us.

“I’m not gonna lie to you guys; I’m a little bummed something that made me look that badass was wasted on you two,” he said, bursting into laughter.

We left the breakfast pretty enamored of Bill, but pretty unsure whether he was into the project. For two months, we had heard nothing at all. I just assumed Bill had remembered, Oh yeah, I’m super fucking rich. I’m not doing that. And then my phone rang and Bill said “I’m in,” as if our breakfast had happened hours before.

♦♦♦

Surviving-Jack-2-HP

Six months later. The beginning of the next development season. Patrick and I sat with Bill and the team of comedy executives at Warner Bros. and prepared a more formal pitch that we were going to take to the big four networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. Each network has a brand, so for each pitch you try to emphasize the things in your show that make it more like the type of shows on that network. For example, if you were pitching a pilot about a piano teacher and you knew that ABC’s brand was “guys with huge dicks,” you might emphasize in your pitch that the piano teacher also had quite the large penis. The problem is that you have to be able to deliver on that promise. So if you’re writing the pilot and decide the piano teacher’s member size is an unnecessary detail, you can rest assured that the executives have most certainly not forgotten and will say something like, “We thought you said this piano teacher had a huge dick. We miss that.”

Our show seemed to fit best with Fox, and it seemed to be most excited about making the show. That was in early September 2012. Before we began work on the script, Bill pulled us into his office.

“Listen, write the script that you want to write. I believe in the noble failure. If you do your best, and it doesn’t work out, then you can still be proud of what you’ve done,” he said.

“We plan on doing that,” Patrick replied.

“Yeah, I know. I just wanted to give my ‘noble failure’ speech. Makes me seem wise and all-knowing,” he chuckled. “Anyway, if you get bad notes, I’ll make them go away. Just do your thing,” he added.

Three months later, after what seemed like 100 drafts and was actually probably about 50, we turned in our script to Fox. Then we waited. Executives like to give important news in groups. The first four words are always: “Hey guys! We’re so …” Those words don’t matter. It’s the fifth word that’s the clincher. If it’s “Hey guys, we’re so sorry …” you’re fucked. Rest of the conversation unneccesary. Pilot dead. We were hoping for the other option.

They called us later that afternoon: “Hey guys, we’re so … excited!”

I blacked out from joy. We were getting picked up to pilot. I don’t even remember the rest of what they said.

♦♦♦

Casting is everything. You can have the greatest script ever, but if you cast the wrong person, your show isn’t going to work. (If you don’t believe me, imagine Mario Lopez intoning, “I am the one who knocks!”) The problem with casting a network pilot is that there are 40 or 50 other pilots casting at the same time — the process is similar to dumping a big bag of Legos in the middle of a first-grade classroom and letting the kids fight it out for all the best pieces. That’s not to say there aren’t a ton of great actors; there are. But not every part is right for every actor. Kristen Wiig is absolutely brilliant, but she probably wouldn’t be right to play Khaleesi on Game of Thrones. (Although I’d definitely want to see her try.) The other part of the equation is that you want to cast an actor the network is excited about. The tricky thing is that almost everyone you and the network like is someone who’s not interested in doing a network TV show. You’d be shocked at how many times an actor’s agent, when his client is offered obscene amounts of money to star in a show, will say, “He’s not interested in doing TV right now.”

“But I looked at his upcoming stuff and he’s not really doing movies either,” you say.

“Yeah, he’s not doing movies right now really either.”

THEN WHAT THE FUCK IS HE DOING? is what you end up thinking, and “OK, well, if anything changes let me know” is what you actually say.1

We’d been striking out with finding the lead of the show. The character was based on my father, who was somehow able to scare the ever-loving shit out of me but at the same time make me feel loved. (His casting suggestion, for the record: “I don’t give a fuck, just make this show better than that other one, otherwise I’m not watching.”) The one guy who popped for us was Chris Meloni, but he had just gotten off Law & Order: SVU, which he’d been doing for roughly 87 years. We had poked around at the beginning of the process but had heard he wasn’t doing TV. Bill knew him from working on Scrubs, so he got him the script. Chris read it, liked it, and jumped on a call with Bill. (No one ever “makes” a call in Hollywood. Everyone’s always “jumping on” a call.) And all of a sudden, after months and months of auditioning people for the role, we had Chris Meloni.2

While we were searching for Chris, we were also working on the other roles, one of which was someone to play his 16-year-old son. We needed an actor who was a bit gangly, growing into his own body. Not a nerd, not cool, just somebody who felt real. You’d be surprised at how hard it is to find someone who can play a real 16-year-old. Chances are any kid who is auditioning for a TV role has been through the Disney Channel machine and behaves as if you gave him a 12-pack of Mountain Dew and convinced him his dick was 10 inches. When asked even the most mundane questions, he reacts as if he’s doing a 30-second interview for E!:

“How have I been doing? Well, it’s been QUITE a ride, guys, I must say! I just try to find material that INSPIRES me as a PERFORMER and breathe life in to it!”

You can almost see the upcoming heroin addiction. We must have talked to 75 kids for the role, and the casting director probably saw another 300 to 400 who never even made it to us. Then one session, a kid walked in with paint splattered all over his shirt and a quiet expression.

“Where you from?” Bill asked.

“New Jersey,” the kid said.

“You been acting for a while?”

“No.”

“Why are you covered in paint?” I asked.

“I do, like, paint writing,” the kid replied.

“You mean, like, graffiti?” Patrick asked.

“I guess so.”

“How’d you end up out here?” Bill continued, trying to get the kid to open up and relax.

“I was in a play where I played a kid that sat on the corner of the stage and masturbated. A manager saw me and said I should audition for stuff out here.”

“So, the guy was just like ‘I dig the way you fake masturbate?’ and then signed you?” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

“I also said the word ‘coo’ over and over again,” he said.

“What does ‘coo’ mean?” Patrick asked.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s just something my character said when he masturbated.”

There was a beat of silence and I could tell even Bill was at a loss for words, which never happens.

“OK then,” Bill said. “Why don’t you give it a go,” he added, then shot me and Patrick a befuddled look.

The kid began performing the pages. His delivery was a little awkward, but in a charming way. He felt like a real kid. He felt like the kind of kid whom the Disney Channel would have escorted out of the building. He was our pick.

Surviving-Jack-4

♦♦♦

Executives typically like to see audition tapes. It’s far cleaner than interacting with actual human beings. We were pretty certain that the only way to get the full effect of Connor — the kid we’d chosen — was to have him read live for Kevin Reilly and the Fox executives. Protocol also suggests that you show the network three or four actors for each role, because networks, like patrons at a Vegas buffet, have spent quite a bit of money and want options in case they hate the first thing they try. But we didn’t have any options. There was no one we liked but Connor. So we decided to take a big risk and bring in only the kid who’d been discovered whilst masturbating. A few weeks after that first audition, Connor walked into a small theater in the Fox Television Center. He wore the same shirt with the same paint on it. I couldn’t tell if I loved him or hated him for how little he seemed to give a fuck. He did three audition scenes for everyone. Afterward, it was dead silent and everyone turned slightly toward Kevin. Normally, no one says anything until the actor has left the room, but I think Kevin realized this could be a life-changing moment for a young actor and decided to do a nice thing and make it memorable.

“Hey, Connor. You got the job,” he said.

Everyone was so surprised they burst into applause, which seemed to freak out Connor, because he waited for the clapping to die down, then said, “Thank you. Is it OK if I go now?”

One of the many things we got really wrong in my first show, $#*! My Dad Says, is making the father character a twice-divorced, bitter man. My parents have been married for 35 years and my dad frequently lets me know that he’d murder another human being for my mom “if it came down to it.” They love each other, and my mom takes none of his shit. Patrick and I were so sick of shows where the husband is a fun-loving party guy and his wife is a joyless, buzz-killing shrew, that we were adamant about finding a female actor who could go toe-to-toe with Chris, who had just spent 12 years on TV intimidating rapists. After an exhaustive search, a recasting, and another exhaustive search, we found Rachael Harris. I remember thinking we had made the right choice when she walked into the first table read with Chris, not really knowing him, and told him “most women would kill to have your ass.” She would work.

♦♦♦

We shot our pilot over seven days in Encino, which is L.A.’s version of a quaint suburb — which is to say that it looks like a million towns across America, but it’s a 10-minute drive to noble studios where they film gangbangs.

I’ve heard some people talk about how much fun they had shooting their pilot, but I don’t know what the fuck those people are talking about. I sat on set for seven days with the most tightly clenched asshole the world has ever seen and enjoyed exactly none of it. I was too worried we were going to screw it up. Because you’re taking a group of actors you haven’t really worked with — and who haven’t really worked with each other — it’s like walking into a rec center and playing a game of basketball with four random people. It’s not until you get on the court that you realize what each player does well, and quite often, by the time you figure it out you’re down by too many points to come back. I also generally do not enjoying telling people to do things — plus I once saw a friend give a note to the lead of his show and be met with the (very public) response, “Oh, so you want me to do it the not funny way? I thought we were trying to make this funny, my bad.”

Patrick is not exactly an aggressive personality either, so we were a bit hesitant on the first day of shooting when Chris’s choice on a line was different from ours. It also happened to be right at the exact moment Bill was away from the set. We were on our own.

“I think he needs to slow that line down. We miss the joke,” Patrick whispered to me as we sat behind a monitor watching the scene.

“Yeah, I agree.”

We sat silently.

“So … are we going to go tell him that?” Patrick asked.

“Fuck. I guess so. Let’s just be really calm when we do it. Like it’s no big deal,” I said.

“He’s not a fucking bear we’ve encountered in the wild. We have to be able to tell him what we think,” Patrick said.

We walked on set and approached Chris, who was chatting with one of the cameramen as they reset some of the lighting.

“Hey, Chris, on that last line you give before you exit, I think maybe you should slow it down just a little,” I said, praying my already high-pitched voice didn’t crack.

“Slow it down,” he repeated back to me.

“Yeah, I think the joke is really at the very end of the line, so it might be funnier, I don’t know, if you just slowed it down,” I said.

Then Chris stared at us and made a face that I’d seen before, but only on an episode of Oz right before his character sodomized someone. His face stayed that way for what was probably only five seconds, but felt like 45. Then, right when I thought he was going to reach out and beat me into a puddle of Jew, he said, “I think you’re right. Let’s do it again.” It took me a bit but I finally realized that face was how Chris processed notes. Later on it was always fun to see a new director who hadn’t worked with him get pants-shittingly terrified when he had to give Chris a note for the first time only to have Chris make that face and say, “Great note!”

We finished the pilot in early April and sent it off to the network. Then, once again, we waited to hear if we were going to get picked up. While waiting, we were the victims of a constant stream of gossip and rumors. To show you how fucking stupid it is, here are four actual things said to me by four people who work in the industry, all on the exact same day.

1. “I’m hearing Fox is picking up three comedies and that you guys are on the bubble and Enlisted is for sure dead and not getting picked up.”

2. “Enlisted and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are for-sure pickups. You guys are on the bubble.”

3. “Fox is only picking up Brooklyn Nine-Nine and it’s going to burn off Dads in the summer, and you guys and Enlisted are on the bubble.”

4. “I took a shit next to that guy who plays The Mentalist yesterday.”

Nobody, as William Goldman so famously said, knows anything. I started to think about how if we didn’t get picked up, I was still so unbelievably lucky to have gotten that far. The odds said I should have failed months ago. I braced myself for a network call that started “Hey guys, we’re so sorry …” And then, as I was sitting at my computer, I got an email from a TV blogger I knew. It said, “Congrats. Just saw the news about the pickup.” I immediately emailed him back “How the FUCK do you know that?” since no one on my side had heard anything from Fox. Then my phone rang. It was the network.

“Do we have everyone on the line?” a voice said. “OK, please hold for Kevin Reilly.”

He got on the line.

“Hey guys, we’re so excited …”

♦♦♦

It took roughly two years to go from idea, to script, to pilot, to on the air. Tonight at 9:30 on Fox, we will be on your television screen. You now know how the pig gets to slaughter. I can only hope you rescue us before we hit the blades.

Filed Under: TV, Fox, kevin reilly, Surviving Jack, Shit My Dad Says

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Justin Halpern is the author of the no. 1 New York Times best seller Shit My Dad Says and I Suck at Girls. He writes for TV shows you probably never watch. He also, for some reason, hosts a podcast about the NBA.

Archive @ justin_halpern

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