Welcome once again to "On the Futon With...," a new (hopefully) weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.
THIS WEEK'S GUEST: "My Name Is Earl" creator Greg Garcia.
"It's basically everything my wife won't let me keep at home," Greg Garcia says about his City Studios office in Van Nuys, which is covered with everything from posters to "Family Guy" action figures to Chinese bootleg "Earl" DVD sets to framed hate mail from his days on "Yes, Dear." (To quote one of his favorites: "No wonder a tragedy like Columbine happened with the kind of stuff you're doing on 'Yes, Dear.'") The items, as you'll see shortly, are just a few of the symptoms of Greg's love of television. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Greg, where we talked about everything from "Earl" to his addiction to "Big Brother" to his subscription to Showtime:
Brian Ford Sullivan: So did you ever think "Earl" would become what it has?
Greg Garcia: It was a rough road with this thing because I pitched it to [20th Century Fox Television] in [the summer of 2003], I think it was and they passed on it, they didn't want to do it. Then I just went and wrote the script because I thought, well, what the hell, I think it's a funny show and I should have a single-camera comedy script anyway. So I wrote it and I like the way it turned out, I gave it to Fox, they turned it down again. Then it went to all the networks, everybody turned it down. And then it just sat there for like a year and a half. There was nothing. So then finally I had a meeting with NBC and they liked it and they said they wanted to do a show with me because they liked that script. So I was like, "well let's just do that one because it's written already." So they agreed to consider shooting it, let us cast it and then obviously we made it. But at that point, it had been such a long road to just get it picked up that I was kind of over all that kind of anxiety and then once... it was kind of a really cool experience because I had the script for so long, the script never really changed that much, and then when we were shooting there wasn't that much for me to do. I mean, I'm looking at performances and giving notes and stuff but the first day we were shooting there wasn't even any dialogue so there really was almost nothing for me to do. I was just kind of there and I didn't know Jason yet, you know, and I didn't know Marc Buckland that well yet, the director. I knew him a little bit, we had done some of casting and stuff together.
So it was my first day on set and I was watching the monitors and seeing how Marc was shooting this stuff and I was like, "Holy shit, this looks amazing! [Laughs.] This guy's really really good." In my head, I knew, okay, it's going to be single-camera because that's the way I wrote it, but I was kind of always, you picture things [from a multi-camera bias]... but to see the way he was making it look and what Jason was doing with it, it was like right at that point that I was like "I think with all these things coming together, this could really work." So it was a pretty exciting week to see everything come together. Because anything can go wrong. Sure you write and script and you think that it's good and you like it but then so many things have to fall into line, so many talented people have to jump on board and help you create this thing essentially. You know, Marc Buckland created this thing as much as I did by coming in and creating a template of how it looks and obviously Jason had a huge hand in creating who Earl is. So luckily a lot of people came to the party that were very helpful.
BFS: So when you wrote it was the intention to have a certain style of comedy to it or was it just a story you wanted to tell?
GG: For me, coming up with it, it was kind of the combination of three things - I like stories where people start things new in their lives, have kind of an awakening to start things new later in life; I've always believed in karma; and I also love the trailer park world, I've always dug that. In high school, I would go to a trailer park to meet up with a friend who lived in one briefly. And I loved it there, I loved the characters, I just dug it. So those kind of three things together, I kind of came up with the idea. I don't think I was trying to do any specific kind of comedy other than the fact that I thought it was funny and I think the style in which I wrote... you know, you're influenced by everything. You're influenced by the movies you've seen, TV you've seen, shows you've worked on. So I'm a huge "Raising Arizona" fan and there's some element to that when I was writing the main character. When I was writing Earl, I was thinking about Nic Cage because he was a bad guy but he was likable and Earl needed to be like him. I had worked on "Family Guy" and so I'm sure I'm influenced by the cutaways, that kind of stuff, that style. So I think the script just comes from all the things you're influenced by.
BFS: So when you look at the show now, does it feel any different than when you started?
GG: I think it does. I mean there's certain things, any show is going to take on a life of its own as soon as you start going and seeing what works and not. I think the basic formula has stayed pretty much the same, the idea that you have this guy who's going to be a kind of fish out of water because he's getting into kinds of situations he wouldn't have before this list. The fundamentals to the show for me is that's one, two - we're going to watch him grow as a person a little bit. As he's crossing these things off he's not only going to make things better for other people, but he's slowly going to become a better person. In the pilot, he gave this guy Kenny the confidence he didn't have before by coming into his life but he also learned to be less homophobic than he was. So I think we're still doing that where he learns little lessons and helps people out. And the pilot had this nice combination of pushing the envelope, kind of crazier humor and a sweet feeling at the end. We don't always have that sweet feeling at the end of every show, I mean we could try to but sometimes it just feels forced. Sometimes it's just, this is the story you have, let's not force it. Luckily, more often than not we have stories that do give us that feeling. So we try to get there when we've earned it. So that seems to be the same as the pilot.
BFS: So do you already have the full 150 things he's got to cross off his list?
GG: I wish we did. [Laughs.] Nah, we just make it up. The one thing we did differently this season that we didn't do last season was we sat down at the beginning of the season and said alright, "where do we want these characters to be at the end of this season?" And we kind of mapped that out. We kind of know some bigger things that are going to happen in their lives and how we're going to watch that develop for the whole second season, whereas the first season individual episodes were just there own little movies. There was character development, definitely between Joy and Earl - in the first episode she wanted to kill him - and at the end, where you're having kind of sweeter moments. But as far as what's going on in their lives, pretty much the same thing was going on in their lives in the first episode as there was in the last episode. So this year we did kind of arc it out. But no, I don't even know some of the things on his list for the rest of this season. [Laughs.] So far it hasn't been too much trouble to come up with stuff and one of the fears I had in season one was that it would get a little too formulaic with this list and crossing stuff off.
The writers to their credit have always been able to so far come up with - even if we are just telling a list story - come up with very interesting, different ways to tell it. Whether it's we do any episode entirely in flashback - like "Y2K" from last year - or [like in an upcoming episode] have different people do the voiceover in each act. I invited that, it's something called Rashomon. [Laughs.] It's a little thing I came up with. I think "Scrubs" stole it from me. [Laughs.] Also, another thing we did - we just like to do fun weird things too. Like we just shot an episode that's an entire episode of "Cops" that was filmed in Camden county in 2003. And we shot it in hand-held video, and it looks like "Cops." And we got permission from the "Cops" people to use their music, their graphics and stuff. So it's just "Cops." But it's all our characters. It really comes across, more than an episode of "Cops," it actually comes across like an episode of "Reno 911" with our characters. [Laughs.] Except, you know it's more about the crooks. It was fun, it was a lot of fun to do. It was a lot easier to shoot than our normal episodes since we didn't have to get as much coverage and stuff. And unless people absolutely hate it, I think we'll be doing one of those every season. [Laughs.] Because I know like on Fridays we usually get out of here at two in the morning and that Friday we got done at noon so everybody, including the crew, would like to do another one of those soon.
BFS: When does that one air?
GG: That's going to air after sweeps... at the end of November, like 11/30... yeah. We're also going to a super-size one [that airs 11/16], we have a claymation element in that... where like Randy gets a hold of some hallucinogenic and every time we go to his POV it's claymation. It was fun, a lot of fun. So we're always looking for weird things to do.
BFS: So do you have time to watch other shows?
GG: I love TV. I watch as much of it as I can. Usually my routine is I go home, I eat dinner, I put my kids to sleep - if I can get home in time - I take an Ambient and I turn on the TV and after about an hour I'm passed out on the couch. [Laughs.] So I can get in about an hour. But I usually get up pretty early, around 4:30 in the morning. But I watch a lot of dramas, I think that's because if you work in a donut factory you don't want to eat donuts that much. I watch a ton of dramas. But there's a lot of comedies I watch. I love "The Office," I watch that every week. And I love "Reno 911," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Family Guy," that's pretty much it for the comedies I watch.
BFS: And what dramas?
GG: Oh the dramas, I watch "Lost," I watch "24," I watch "Prison Break," I watch "The Wire," which is my favorite show on TV. It's unbelievable, I love it. Anything on HBO I watch. The only thing I didn't watch on HBO was "Rome." That's the only thing I've never watched on HBO. I never even started it just because the name of it sounded like it was too smart for me. I just couldn't get past "Rome." I don't now, I don't think so. It just doesn't sound like something I could get into. It feels like I would have had to do some homework. I just didn't want to do it. [Laughs.] And the thing is I don't get Showtime, but I like "Weeds" and "Dexter" when I get my free preview for the weekend. But for some reason I haven't pulled the trigger and bought Showtime. I'm not sure why it is. But I dug it. But they also made a huge mistake - they sent out the entire season one of "Weeds" as their Emmy thing, so I'm just kind of thinking maybe [I'll get season two too]. [Laughs.] So because of that Showtime isn't getting my $6.99 a month or whatever it costs. But what else... I love "Kidnapped," but it's not doing really good on NBC, it moved to Saturday. But I love that. I love "Heroes"... but I always watch - and I hate reality because it's sucking up all the time slots - but at the same time I watch "Survivor" and I've never missed an episode of "Big Brother." [Laughs.] From season one to now, I've never missed it.
BFS: Do you go as far as to subscribe to the 24/7 feed?
GG: No, not that far. [Laughs.] I don't have that much time on my hands... My wife makes fun of me when I watch it. Literally, I've never missed an episode. I love it. I watch that new one, that "1 vs. 100" but I just TiVoed it so you watch the show in about two minutes. [Laughs.]
BFS: I know! [Laughs.] It's literally one long string of "go with the mob or take the money" choices. It's like, just get to the question! [Laughs.]
GG: Literally, you can watch it two minutes. [Laughs.] But that's it. That's a lot. But the bottom line is I love TV. I love it. That's all I did growing up is watch TV. I did watch, pretty much exclusively, sitcoms constantly. And I would have seen [some of the episodes] like six times and I'd sit down and watch it again. I love it, that's what I love doing. Thank God it worked out for me. [Laughs.] But I loved it so much, I like - we didn't have a VCR - when I got called up to dinner, I would record the show on my recorder, my audio recorder. And record like "The Jeffersons" or whatever and then run back down and listen to it... And I loved staying home from school and watch "Leave It to Beaver" and "One Day at a Time" and "Alice" and that whole chunk of mid-day stuff. I loved it, I couldn't get enough of it.
BFS: So how'd you break in?
GG: Well in college, I was signing up for classes and this guy I was roommates with, I saw him in line... and I told him I needed another three credits, and he told me about this writing for TV class. And I was like, what's that? And he said the cool thing was - and this was at Frostberg State University, it's in western Maryland, it's just a little school - you write a script and if they like it, they'll send it to Warner Bros. and a bunch of universities were doing it across the country. And if Warner Bros. likes it, they fly you out for like a week, and you get to hang out with writers on a sitcom for like a week. I was like, "well shit that sounds like a contest, might as well do that, I need three credits anyway." So I signed up for the class and sure enough I was one of two people picked in the country. I wrote a "Cheers" script, I wrote it in one night, I sat down for I was supposed to write it and I was like, "alright, 'Cheers,' 'Cheers'..." [Laughs.]
So I took some caffeine pills and I was up all night and I wrote it and it felt really cool and everybody in the class laughed at it which was a fun feeling. And then I got flown out to the show "Room for Two" with Linda Lavin and Patricia Heaton. And I hung out with the writers, and I hung out for a week. And I couldn't believe these people got paid for sitting around telling jokes, it was amazing. And so I hung out with them, and then at the end of the week I was like "hey, can I stick around a little longer?" to this guy Rick Kellard, who was running the show. He was like, "I don't care, you're pitching jokes that are getting into the script, stay as long as you like." [Laughs.] So I stuck around for like another week but then like Warner Bros. heard I was still there and staying at the motel that they put me in so they kicked me out.
So I went back, and then I was working at a radio station, I had just graduated college, and I decided I'm going to save my money and move to L.A. and give it a shot. Why not? And my parents were real supportive. They were like, "just go, do it, the worst that could happen is you fail and you have to come back." I was working on the radio, I was the board op for Tony Kornheiser, who does "Monday Night Football" now, at this local station in Washington, D.C. And he was a great guy and was like, "you've got to go, you've got to go." And I've stayed in touch with him since then. But I worked with him for like six or seven months before I moved out here. And then I moved out here and I figured I'd just get a job as a P.A. on a show and try to get close to the writers and be a part of that world. At first it was hiatus so I didn't find anybody hiring yet so I did, just to get money, I did extra work.
I did three episodes of "Beverly Hills, 90210." I went to the prom, I stood on city hall and chanted "Donna Martin Graduates" with my sign. And I graduated. Yeah, it was fantastic. I went to Central Casting, and like somebody told me you can do like crowd scenes and make like $60 and get lunch. So I was like "alright, that sounds good to me!" [Laughs.] So I went down there and they were like "do you know your tux measurements?"... And I was like, "sure, why?" And they were like "you're going to the 'Beverly Hills, 90210' prom." And I was like, "are you fucking kidding me?" [Laughs.] So I got paid like $60 but I must have spent like $100 on calls to people going like "I'm going to the 'Beverly Hills, 90210' prom!" I had been in town like two days, when I got that. So that was very cool. And so I did some extra work to pay some bills but I had no interest in acting... so then I sent resumes to every sitcom there was to be a P.A. And I only got one interview, it was with "Step by Step." And I had the interview and they said, "you know what, we think you're going to be bored with this job so we're going to go with this other person." And I was like, "well no I need the job!" But luckily that person didn't work out and two weeks later they called me and hired me.
So I was a P.A. on that show for a year and you know, I did all sorts of stuff - I got lunch of people, I stocked the fridge, I made copies, I copied scripts, all the P.A. stuff. But the whole time I was writing scripts and talking to the writers and getting to know them. And they were all great, they gave my scripts to their agents and one of them signed me. And then I got into another writer's workshop that Warner Bros. had - they don't do the outreach thing through the universities anymore but they still do their 10-week writing program - I got into that. Everything was going good but then they told my agent they're not going to send me out on any meetings afterwards. And I was really bummed out and I went back to work as a P.A.... and then I saw these people interviewing across the way on the lot from the workshop with this guy... So I waited for them to leave and I just walked in to this executive producer's office, this guy David Duclon who had this new show "On Our Own."
I just kind of knocked on the door and I said, "listen, I know you're meeting writers, I work across the way at 'Step by Step'... I'm a P.A., I went through the workshop too, they're not sending me on any meetings, I'm not sure why, here's my scripts, maybe it stinks, I figured it can't hurt to show it to you, you're interviewing people from the workshop anyway." And he was like, "yeah, I'll read it tonight." He read it that night, called me the next day, had a meeting and he hired me. And that was my first job. And then when that show got canceled, he asked me to come over to "Family Matters," which he was also running. And so I went there for two years and he supervised me and Warren Hutcherson when we created the ironically named "Built to Last" that lasted three episodes. [Laughs.] And then when that went down, Fox offered me a development deal to go over there. So I went over there and worked on a show, "Getting Personal" with Jon Cryer and Vivica A. Fox, did that for a little bit until that got canceled. And then I was in development for a little bit and I went to "Family Guy" for a year. And then I created "Yes, Dear." And from "Yes, Dear" came here. So I've been on a lot of different kinds of shows.
BFS: You were just missing "Cops."
GG: And now I've done "Cops" yes. [Laughs.] But yeah, I've been on every kind of genre of comedy you can think of or imagine... animation, four-camera and single-camera.
BFS: So do you ever look back on the stuff you've done before and wonder "how did I get here?"
GG: No. Actually, like "Family Matters," which was a wildly successful show, I had a blast writing on that show. It was like, where else can you have Urkel step on a teleportation pad and find himself in France? It was so much fun and the people were so nice. And the hours were amazing. I loved it. I think that... first of all when you're on a show, I don't think you can work on a show, and... at least I can't... work on a show and not like it. I'm sure I can look at another show, another sitcom, and go "man, that stinks" but I guarantee you if I was on staff for that show, I wouldn't think that at all. I'd be like working my ass off to make it the best show it could possibly be and be invested in it. And I would think this is a great show. So that's just the way I am. When I get into something, I'm not the kind of guy that would ever be on someone else's staff and be like "peeeewwww, whatever." I'd be like trying my hardest and doing what you can. The question I get a lot is "you did 'Yes, Dear' and then you did 'My Name Is Earl,' how do you do 'Yes, Dear' and then do 'My Name Is Earl?' And they're suggesting one's a bad show and one's a good show - because it's usually from a critic that I get that question. And the thing is, one - I love "Yes, Dear" and I loved the people working on it, I think it was very funny, but a lot of people that criticize it haven't seen it enough. I think they'd be pretty surprised at some of the weird and bent stuff that we did on there. We had Anthony Clark addicted to nasal spray and an animated nasal spray bottle chasing him around the house. Just weird stuff that people wouldn't expect...
BFS: ...that result in letters like [points to wall of "Yes, Dear" letters].
GG: [Laughs.] That was always the kind of thing that upset me about criticism about that show. I wouldn't care if people said "you know, they tried to be different and do some weird stuff but it falls on its face." That would be fine if I read a criticism like that. But when you see stuff like "it's just like 'According to Jim'" or "it's just like blah, blah, blah... family domestic sitcom." Well, it's not. We tried to do much more different things. There are certainly elements of that... and the thing is too like at the end of the day, it was a show for CBS to succeed on Monday nights, that was the job, you know? You're not going to do a single-camera "Malcolm in the Middle" domestic comedy and survive on CBS on Monday nights. You just weren't going to do it. So anyway, that's my "Yes, Dear" rant. [Laughs.] I think hopefully it's over now. Even like last year when it was like gone, you'd still read the most random slams on the show ever. You know like an article about the ancillary rights to "Harry Potter" would just be like... "airing 'Yes, Dear' aside, networks are normally in the business of creating viewers." [Laughs.] And it's just like, "fuck you!" [Laughs.] This is like ridiculous after a while. But it was a lot of fun, that show was a lot of fun.
BFS: So are you thinking of doing anything beyond "Earl?"
GG: I wrote a script when I didn't think "Earl" would get picked up, when it was just kind of sitting there. They called me up from Fox and said, "come up with an idea for Pam Anderson." I sat for like a day and a half and I came up with this idea for a show that I really loved. And then the next thing I know Steve Levitan is doing something with Pam Anderson. And he's doing a show with her. [Laughs.] And so I thought, "well that's out the window." But I still pitched it to Fox and they bought it, and I wrote it but they didn't do it. But since then I've been told by them that they want to do it. And also some people that helped develop it at 20th are at ABC now... so I'm thinking about taking that out in the next couple of weeks and seeing if anybody wants to do that. It's a four-camera show, I would love to do a successful four-camera show. I think that I don't believe that people are sick of four-camera shows.
The number one comedy on TV right now is "Two and a Half Men." Before that "Raymond" obviously was huge. People were writing about how people were sick of four-camera shows when "Raymond" was on the air and it was huge. So I just don't believe that people are sick of it. I do believe that with reality shows and all that stuff, it's harder and harder in a four-camera form to I guess make people think that they're watching real life. You know, so I think you kind of have to embrace the fact that you're putting on a show a little bit. And certainly this other script I did does that. And I just think businesswise studios need to start doing them again because these single-camera shows are very expensive. And if they're a success that's great but they're risky. And so I hope the four-camera comes back. Plus it's easier to do. [Laughs.] It's less hours.
So I yeah, I'm going to go out with this thing in a couple weeks and if somebody wants to shoot it that would be great. It would be a lot of fun. It's a very strange tale of a family that could very easily live in Camden County and they basically decide that with their dad's inheritance - they're all ugly and stupid - and they're going to use the money to turn one of them beautiful with cosmetic surgery and a complete makeover. And so they spin a bottle and it lands on one of them. And they move to Hollywood to make their fortune, all by owning one-third of this beautiful person they've created.
BFS: And that would have been Pam Anderson?
GG: In the original idea yes. Now it would be somebody else, some other gorgeous person. It's an idea that I like, it's a pretty cool premise. And it's a fun thing... I mean there are aspects of it that are big, cartoony fun, but that's what it is.
BFS: So is she supposed to want to be an actress?
GG: Well they just want to make money. So ultimately, yeah the goal is to be an actress or a model or whatever. They just look around and they see the Paris Hiltons and the Tara Reids of the world who don't really seem to be models or actresses, really, but they've made a lot of money off of their fame. [Laughs.] Basically they're like, "there's no way we're going to get smart, we can't do that, but we've seen shows like [at the time I wrote this] 'The Swan,' 'Extreme Makeover,' whatever, we've seen ugly people become beautiful. We know we can do that, we can buy that."
BFS: Or as beautiful as plastic surgery allows?
GG: [Laughs.] In this case as beautiful as TV reality will allow.
BFS: I think I read an interview with one of the people behind "The Swan" and they said sometimes they had a hard time sleeping thinking about what they did to those girls.
GG: I can see that. Well in this show, she's gorgeous. It's the best plastic surgery you've seen in your life. So anyway, we'll see. I mean obviously "Earl" takes a great deal of my time so but it's one of those things where you write a script and you re-read it and you still really like it and if you can get someone to make it, that would be cool.
BFS: So one last thing, what's it like to come do this every day?
GG: It's a lot of fun, you know? And the thing is, it's fun because of all the people I work with. I'm here a lot. And it could easily not be fun with the amount of time that I'm here. But I got Marc Buckland who's executive producing with me, who is the best director there is. And so I get to lean on him a little bit. That makes my job a lot easier. I got Bobby Bowman, the other executive producer who's in there right now running the writer's room, who's amazing at what he does, and I can lean on him a little and that makes my job easier. And then the cast is so great because they're all from film backgrounds so they expect 12-13 hour days. They're not sitting here looking at their watch after an hour of rehearsal going, "okay, here we go, let's get out of here." They understand that this is a job and we're here to work. Jason really sets the tone.
Anytime the show is called "My Name Is Earl," whoever Earl is, is going to set the tone on the set. And if he was the kind of guy that would come in and be a prick, well our set would be miserable. There's no way around that. It doesn't matter who anyone else is, the star of the show is going to set the tone. And he is an absolute great guy from the minute he walks in to when he walks out the door at night. And he's fun, he never stops having fun. And it just translates to the rest of the set. So that makes it great. So wherever I go, everyone's doing a great job and working hard and it's fun. Sure there's days where banging your head against the wall and you're frustrated with yourself because you can't fix a problem or there's a story you're trying to figure out... but other than that, it's pure fun. And which it has to be. Because if you're going to be here 16 hours a day, if it's not going to be fun you'd kill yourself. [Laughs.]
And then the thing is too I've watched so many people on different shows I've worked on be miserable and bitching the whole time... and like this is as a kid what I dreamed of doing. And when it's over, it's going to be over. And so who else gets to do this? Who gets to go to work and just sit there and dream up weird shit for people to do. That you can type "he gets hit in the head with a peacock" and the next day a guy shows up at your office with four peacocks to choose from... I mean it's crazy. [Laughs.] It's just insane. I remember the first time I was watching an episode of "On Our Own" and everyone is saying and doing what I told them to do, what I wrote down for them to do. After watching TV my whole life that was just really fucking weird. [Laughs.] These are the people inside the box that I've worshiped my entire life and they're actually doing what I tell them to do. Like on "Yes, Dear," we'd have a scene with Tim Conway and I'd go in and tell Tim Conway - first of all, who am I to tell Tim Conway how to do something funnier? - but I'd give him a note and Tim would be like, "yeah, yeah, that's funny." And I'm walking away going, "What the hell is going on? Something's wrong here." [Laughs.] At some point someone is going to come in and say, "Listen, come with us, this is over. Play time is over. Get back to digging ditches somewhere." Because that's the only thing I know how to do besides this. [Laughs.]
I love it. The only bummer is at the end of the day, I've got two kids, and a wife... they're very understanding and you don't see them as much as you would at a regular job. But I just try... I don't work weekends. My attitude is the show doesn't need to be that good. [Laughs.] We've got to work weekends? Well the show just won't be that good then. There are other things that are more important. If working weekends gives us an A+, this episode is going to be an A-. Nobody in the world will know the difference. [Laughs.]
NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: "Help Me Help You" co-executive producer Rodney Rothman.