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: "Help Me Help You" co-executive producer Rodney Rothman.
When a guy counts finishing all of "The Wire's" DVD sets to date as one of his happiest moments, he's going to be my new best friend. Such is the case for Rodney Rothman, who also cites creating the faux boy band "Fresh Step" during his tenure as head writer on "Letterman" as being among his fondest memories. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Rodney at his Paramount office, where we talked about "Help Me Help You," his years on Letterman and of course, our mutual love of HBO's "The Wire."
Brian Ford Sullivan: So what attracted you to ["Help Me Help You"]?
Rodney Rothman: It was a few different things. I watched the show and I just saw potential in it. I found ideas for the characters springing into my mind pretty easily, which is a good sign. It also helped that I'm old friends with Jenni and Ali. I've worked with them before [on "Undeclared"]. I knew they'd be open to input from me, and I had a personal interest in helping them. It's so hard to get a show on the air and it's so hard to get a show to stick around. I was psyched for a couple of friends of mine for making it through the gauntlet and saw that I could add something. It was a tough call, there were a lot of funny shows, you know, comedies this year.
BFS: Do you think it's easier to write for single-camera versus a traditional sitcom?
RR: I don't. I think trying to write something good is hard no matter what the medium. [Laughs.] They're different but it's definitely not easier. Single-camera can be better if you're a bit of a control freak. It allows you more control over the pacing of things, performance... you can screw around more with every aspect of the show. I like that. And I just tend to like weirder jokes and I like it when people put topspin on their jokes, you know, the jokes are just a little bit off. It's sometimes easier to get away with that in single-camera because the movable frame of reference lets you be more subtle. On the other hand, one of the pleasures of working in multi-camera, or working on a variety show like "Letterman," is that you do have real people present who are actually laughing at your stuff. You have a pretty clear indication of whether something you wrote is funny. Or not funny.
BFS: So are there any characters in the show that speak to you more than others?
RR: That's like asking me to pick which of my unborn children are my favorites. I will eventually love them all equally. Except for my third son, Byron, he's a dick. I really like writing for all of the characters... some characters do jump out at you faster, like on this show, Jonathan or Inger are characters like that might jump out at you a little bit faster [since] they're more defined. But I also like characters that have more of a slow burn... it's fun to sort of be mystified by a character for a couple of weeks as a writer and then suddenly figure out a story that brings up a whole new area of a character's life. Like this one story I'm working on now, for this character Michael. [He's] this very angry, fairly high status guy and we figured out this story where he has a dog that is just continually impregnating... the dog basically screws another dog to death in the dog park. [Laughs.] And so Michael is being forced to get his dog fixed. He reluctantly agrees to this but only under the terms that, before he cuts off the dogs testicles, he can give the dog the best week of its life before it's fixed. Like did you ever see "The Last Detail?"
BFS: Yeah with Jack Nicholson.
RR: It's basically "The Last Detail" with a dog. And in the process, we see this sweet side of a character who beforehand was more of an asshole. There's a concept in writing called �petting the dog,� where you show that your protagonist is sympathetic by showing him petting the dog. I suppose I took that far too literally.
BFS: So have you arched out the show? Like have you said you want to get character X to point Y by the end of the season?
RR: Yeah. I mean we're not a serial but we definitely have plot points that we're planning on hitting. One thing we're probably going to do is reveal what the Hanso Foundation is all about by episode 15. I'm sick of waiting for "Lost" to do it.
BFS: So you're shooting your 13th episode this week right? And you've got orders for additional scripts?
RR: Yeah, we've got four more scripts ordered that we're working on. We're in a semi-optimistic holding pattern. Obviously we're hoping it goes further. It's become a pretty common situation for comedies to be in. I just want to make more than 17. [Laughs.] I want to know what it feels like to do more than 17 episodes of a show.
BFS: "Undeclared" did 17 right?
RR: Yeah. [Laughs.]
BFS: So do you have time to watch any other shows? Any favorites out there?
RR: Definitely. Comedy wise I'm definitely liking "30 Rock" a lot, I think it's really funny. I hope it sticks around. I like "The Office" like everybody else. I've become obsessed with "The Wire." Do you watch "The Wire?"
BFS: It's one of my all-time favorite shows. [Laughs.]
RR: It's just so good. It's bananas good.
BFS: I've never seen anything like that show before.
RR: I just hope I can figure out a way to rip it off so that no one realizes I'm doing it. [Laughs.] A comedy version of "The Wire." Does that sound funny? "The Wire's" pretty funny already, though, that's the thing.
BFS: I think I read something where David Simon said they purposely add funny moments just because it's so hard to take, you need something to take the edge off, otherwise you'd walk away wanting to kill yourself each week.
RR: I know, I know, I know. I was late to it so I just got a bunch of the DVDs and it was like, during the period I was watching the DVDs was probably the happiest period of my life. [Laughs.] Just walking around thinking like "I have a whole other season of this show to watch." It literally I think was the pinnacle of my whole life. [Laughs.] So I'm loving that. There's this English show "The Thick of It," have you seen that?
BFS: I think there's a U.S. version in development.
RR: Yeah, that's really funny. And then there's shows on my TiVo that I enjoy that I won't tell you about because this is being published. [Laughs.] Those shows may or may not involve accessory walls and drapery.
BFS: So are you a reality fan at all?
RR: I like reality a lot but I tend to like the more narrative-driven shows like "The Apprentice" or "Project Greenlight." Basically if the shows are really stressful and remind me of the most unhappy, stressful times of my life. [Laughs.] I just like seeing people stress out over stuff that's not that important.
BFS: Was the goal then always to write for television?
RR: Yeah, I mean I knew I liked writing a lot. People gave me a lot of positive reinforcement for. But up until maybe I was in college I just wanted to write for "Saturday Night Live." That's what I loved watching and I lived in New York and you know Rockefeller Center was looming above the city. That's why writing for "Letterman" was so cool because just to be able to write for a variety show in New York was the realization of probably the only dream I ever had. [Laughs.]
BFS: How did that happen?
RR: Basically when I was in college, "Letterman" did this search for younger writers or writers that were coming out of college. And the plan I think was to hire four writers around that age and pay them all quarter salaries and call them "apprentice writers," this whole Guild loophole. And they did this whole search and I sent in a submission and I just forgot about it. And then out of nowhere after I graduated I got this phone call from the head writer's office at "Letterman" saying "we read your submission, we like it, come in for a meeting." And I did and I met the head writer and he asked "do you want to go meet Letterman" and I, you know, kind of imploded. [Laughs.] And I said sure and they marched me down the hall to his office and then I was like sitting there with Dave Letterman in his office, you know? And I don't know if this will translate to a good story on your web site but at the time I was working for MTV. They called me an "apprentice writer" but I was basically a glorified intern. And my boss there [Sarah Condon] had just told me, had just that day told me "Rodney, you're in development at MTV and you're working on some top secret stuff and just know you can't talk to outside people about it because it's a really competitive environment."
And so I was at the [Letterman meeting] and he asks me "so I hear you're working at MTV, what kind of stuff are you working on? What kind of shows?" And I start panicking. [Laughs.] And in my head I'm doing this whole thing where I'm thinking "okay, maybe everyone knows you're not supposed to talk about development and he's testing my loyalty." So I said, "oh, you know, we're just working on shows with comedians," I just tried to be vague. And he pressed me. "What comedians are you working with, Rodney?" And I started panicking and stammering, "Oh, you know, all different kinds of comedians." And he just doesn't blink. "What are the names of the comedians, Rodney?" So I finally said, "sir, I have to be honest, I was just asked today not to talk about this stuff and I feel weird talking about it." And he kind of nodded and then politely changed the subject. And then after five minutes, when we were wrapping up, he said, "Rod, I'm just going to ask you one more time, what shows are you working on at MTV?" I freaked out. And I just basically told him everything. [Laughs.] I told him every single show we were working on, every single comedian. I tracked plots for him. I drew diagrams practically. And a couple of weeks later I was hired so it seemed like in the end like it was less a test of my loyalty in general and more of a test of my loyalty to Dave.
BFS: So then what shows were you working on? [Laughs.]
RR: Let's see, what was there MTV circa 1995?
BFS: Wasn't Jon Stewart there then?
RR: Yeah he was in the process of getting canceled. And he was never heard from again. What else? We were really busy trying to come up with a companion show for "Singled Out," which I know they're still looking for, actively. Still a big priority over there. The State" was still on. I really liked that. We had a show with Dave Attell. We had a show with Matt Besser. There were good people there. At the time it was like Doug Hertzog and other people that went on to bring a lot of cool shows to Comedy Central. And I was an intern. So it was sort of a weird thing when I got hired for "Letterman." You know, going around telling bitter Viacom employees that the kid they send down to Times Square to buy them M and M's was going to write for David Letterman. People were really psyched for me. [Laughs.]
BFS: So are there any memories for "Letterman" that stick out? Any moments in particular you were most proud of?
RR: All kinds of stuff. It was a really fun job. That show has a lot of clout in New York so you didn't hear the answer "no" a lot when you worked for that show. Like if your idea involved dropping Jimmy Walker from the ceiling on cables or it involved Steve Martin or it involved building a giant puzzle on 53rd Street with a picture of the trumpet player from the band, it was very... I just don't remember things I've since heard all the time like "we don't have the money to throw the camera in a bathtub full of pudding." [Laughs.] "We can't get Art Garfunkel to come shoot free throws on 53rd Street." The word "no" kind of didn't exist back then which was fun. And just the volume of that show, it's just exhilarating. Working on a variety show can be like, the rush of it is so consistent that honestly after I left it took me six months to kind of kick it. And yeah, we got to do lots of weird things. Like when I was head writer, one of the things I look back upon most fondly was this thing we did where me and these writers, Carter and Craig, who now run "How I Met Your Mother," and [some of the other writers] we'd invent these fake pieces of entertainment and present them on our show as real and never tell the audience they were fake. And it started off as musicals, we'd put them on the slot normally reserved for musical performances and we'd make a CD for them and Dave would introduce the cast of the musical "One Small Step" and then we'd present this fairly deadpan musical about the lunar landing. And it had people in astronaut suits as part of this three part song, their wives smoking cigarettes at home, the guys in mission control, and Paul Schaffer would write this amazing music. And we would just present it to the audience and never ever tell them we were joking.
And it was just really fun to put together. Like I remember after one of them that we did "The Tonight Show" bookers called the main Broadway booker in New York furious, like "what is this 'One Small Step,' we've never heard of it and you're giving it to 'Letterman?'" So we loved doing that. And I remember Dave liking it which was always your day, nothing was better than making Dave laugh. And that kind of culminating in this thing Carter, Craig and I did called "Fresh Step" which was this fake boy band... and we cast it with people that would not only really be in a boy band but I think didn't fully get the joke that the one we put them in was not real. And we brought in the choreographer named Fatima who was the "Backstreet Boys" choreographer and we wrote these ridiculous songs for them with Paul, the first one was called "You Gotta Be Fresh to Fresh With the Fresh Step." We used the word "fresh" at least 50 times in a three-minute song. And then the second song was called "Don't Talk to the Hand Girl Talk to the Heart" from a fake movie starring James van der Beek and Sarah Michelle Gellar called "Talk to the Hand" about a quarterback who was dating a deaf girl. And we would just put this band on the show in the music acts spot and it was just kind of real but slightly off. And then "Fresh Step" kind of weirdly took off. Like MTV saw it and they got it and put them on "Total Request Live" and we built a web site that got thousands of hits and people would send in this crazy fan mail. So that was my favorite thing just because it was like such a pointless idea. That's what a show like that is great for.
BFS: So how did you switch gears from that to do doing scripted comedies and so on?
RR: It takes a while. It took me a little bit of time to get my head around storytelling. The first job I did after that was "Undeclared" which was great. Most of my best friends in L.A. are from that job. It was a really great experience. Judd is really good a building shows where the line between your personal and professional life gets kind of blurry. Just hanging out with the other writers and actors, storylines would come out of it. Like Seth Rogen loves, his favorite movie is "You've Got Mail" and suddenly you're writing a story about Seth Rogen's character loving the movie "You've Got Mail." So that was a great first job. Again, it takes a while. Maybe some people make the switch effortlessly but for me, I would have liked it to have been effortless, but it definitely took a bit of time to unlearn some of the things from working on a variety show. You just start to learn, start to internalize how to do a sitcom.
BFS: So would you ever go back to the variety arena?
RR: I wouldn't be opposed to it. I think they're fun. The good thing about variety shows is you can do shorter pieces. You can hang a piece of writing on a smaller idea because it only has to last five minutes. And when you're doing a half-hour or an hourlong show or writing a movie, you really have to, your idea really has to be solid because you're going to spend eight months writing it. I also think it's good for a writer to work in a variety type of situation, because you can't afford to be precious about your work, you just have to feed the beast.
BFS: Lastly, what's it like to come do this every day?
RR: It's like any job really. If you're working with really fun people and you're proud of your work it can really be a pleasure. But if a show is miserable and poorly run and you don't like the product you are producing then it's just a bad job. [Laughs.] I know nobody likes to hear a TV writer complain because it seems like a really fun job but a bad job is a bad job. [Laughs.] I've been really lucky, most of my jobs have been good jobs. This job here has been really fun to come to. I've been really pleased with what I've done. So yeah, it's been cool. I mean I've done two pilots ["Early Bird" for NBC and "$5.15/hr" for HBO] and neither of them went forward but I at least get to look at them and feel like the mistakes there were my mistakes and the good decisions were mine as well. That's a rare thing. That's a privilege in this business to be, to feel like at least you got to make the thing you set out to make. So how big of any asshole have I sounded on a scale of 1-10? [Laughs.]
Special thanks to Jennifer Konner, Alexandra Rushfield, Ted Danson and the rest of the cast and crew for being a blast during my visit.
NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: TBA