What: Dana Nolan, guidance counselor, lives in a houseful of women and the shadow of his larger-than-life father.
Who: Dana has his hands full managing his two young daughters, coordinating his schedule with wife Julie, an anesthesiologist at the local hospital, and working at the local high school as a guidance counselor in the shadow of his father, “Big Phil” Nolan, the school’s legendary and much lauded coach.
Swallingford: Hey, Nolan, your dad’s here again. I thought he retired.
Dana: So did I.
Swallingford: (re: a plaque outside Dana’ office that reads: “Thanks to Coach Nolan – Thirty-Five Winning Years!”) Doesn’t it bother you having that there?
Dana: That? No. This gets annoying.
We see the school trophy case, a glass-encased shrine stuffed with trophies, awards and photos. It occupies the entire wall opposite Dana’s office.
Dana: You in any of those pictures?
Swallingford: No. I tried out every year, but your dad never played me.
Dana: Try growing up with the guy. I’m five-eight. You know why I’m not six-three? According to my dad, I didn’t “want it enough”.
Man’s Voice: (O.S.) Swallingford!
Enter “Big Phil” Nolan, 66, a force of nature, a six-foot fist in a windbreaker. He points to the trophy case.
Phil: What are you looking at? You ain’t in there.
Swallingford fumes. Phil throws an arm around his shoulder.
Phil: I know it bugs you, but, well, that’s it. I know it bugs you. Okay, hit the showers!
Phil slaps him on the back. Swallingford wastes no time leaving. Phil points out a photo.
Phil: Look at that, 1984. The whole team was white ‘cept for two black guys. Now it’s all black ‘cept for two white guys.
Phil: Line ‘em up and trade ‘em off you’d have a hell of a chess match.
Dana: Dad! You can’t say that.
Phil: I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or wrong, I’m just sayin’ it is. What’s that sitting in your parking space?
Dana: Julie’s new Prius.
Phil: Is that a car? Don’t look like a car, looks like a camera. Your brother drives a car.
Dana: Stan drives a truck.
Phil: A truck. Now that’s a car. Got snow tires for that thing?
Phil: Can you put them on yourself?
Phil: You lying to me?
Dana: No. Yes.
Phil: Geez! Where’s your older brother?
Dana: I dunno. What’s he doing for a living this week?
Phil: Easy. He could have gone pro, your brother. If it wasn’t for his shoulder, that kid would have touched greatness.
Dana: Yeah, seventeen years ago.Later that evening the aforementioned brother, Stan, stops by for a visit. Usually Stan’s visits consist of a rundown of Stan’s latest financial disasters and his pleas to Dana to help him avoid bankruptcy, court, and/or a confrontation with their father. This evening is no different as Stan confesses that his latest get-rich-quick scheme, something involving jewelry and cattle, has left him $60,0000 in debt and unable to pay his 3 home equity loans. Stan is about to lose his house and needs Dana to explain the situation to their father.
Later at dinner, Dana tries to explain the dynamic to Julie.
Dana: It was a freak show.
Julie: I’m sorry. Why is Stan always having money problems?
Dana: He was supposed to make three million a year for throwing a ball. When he finds another seven figure gig he can do in the yard, he’ll settle down.
Julie: What are you gonna do?
Dana: I have no idea. He just dumps it in my lap, now it’s my problem.
Julie: You’re the responsible one.
And this time the problem may be insurmountable as Stan and his wife and 5 kids will soon have no place to live. In a magnanimous gesture that speaks to the favoritism always shown to Stan, Phil gives them his own house and, at the urging of Julie (not so much Dana), comes to live in the apartment above Dana and Julie’s garage.
No Meaner Place: Like “Funny in Farsi,” this was one of the two or three best half hours written for this season, and, like “Funny in Farsi,” landed at the network that hit the bulls eye last year with “Modern Family” and “The Middle;” both family-friendly comedies. What became apparent from their pickup choices, ABC decided to go in a different direction rather than lead with strength. As discussed in an earlier article, ABC missed an incredible opportunity to bolster their brand of family entertainment. And how has that been going for them? Not too well, it would seem. Although I would never purport to know what rationale is, or was, in play, I suspect that the desire for that ever elusive 18-34 rating drives network execs to view comedies about singles (losers or otherwise) to have greater potential to generate those ratings more than comedies about families. Interestingly, it would be my guess that people with families are the ones watching television and the singles in that 18-34 range are out doing other things. What really has me confused, though, is that quality doesn’t ever seem to be part of this equation.
Life Lessons for Writers: In the immortal words of Big Phil: “A family is a team. Like a team, it has a clutch player, the go-to guy you count on every time. As a coach, I’ll tell you, that’s the guy you ride the hardest, but it’s because that’s the guy you need the most.” In television and in life.
Neely: Dana, I’ve read this several times and each time it makes me laugh out loud. Was this one of those “based on the standup comedy of Dana Gould” ideas?
Dana: Kind of. I had been on staff at “The Simpsons” for a long time and then when I left because I was kind of done at the time, I went out and did standup again, more out of habit. And I ended up doing a special for Showtime. I wasn’t pursuing a pilot, but Erin Wehrenberg at Warner Brothers called me up and basically said, “I saw your special and that’s a show. Your dad and you and Sue (she knows my wife). And that’s a show.” So I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a great idea. No thanks.” But my agent Larry Salz talked me into doing it. I ended up writing it and it just kept not getting killed… until the one yard line. In a way it was sort of like “based on the life of Dana Gould; standup comedy also based on the life of Dana Gould.”
Neely: So this is a variation on your own family?
Dana: My family lives in Massachusetts. My father is an Archie Bunker without the elegance and sophistication. And my wife is a lot smarter and has a better job than I do.
Neely: (laughs) That fits, because the wife in the show had a better job that you did.
Neely: What’s your dad do?
Dana: My dad’s retired. He just turned 80. He worked at the phone company. Oddly enough, the least emotionally available person I’ve ever known worked in the communications business. I always found that rather ironic.
Neely: Did you have any siblings?
Dana: I have four older brothers and a sister. I didn’t want to deal with all of that so I telescoped them down into one.
Neely: Are you the runt of the family?
Neely: So your brothers were very athletic? What about your sister?
Dana: All my brothers are at least a foot taller than I am. My oldest brother is a State prison official. One brother is a prison guard, another is a home inspector, and I have a brother who worked at the phone company with my father… Everyone is in very traditional jobs and live within 5 miles of where we grew up.
Neely: So you really are genetically related to these people.
Dana: (laughs) I know. I call it the Marilyn Munster Syndrome. My one brother, Kevin, came out for the pilot taping. Todd Stashwick played my brother on the pilot… the character of my brother is the only character in the show who isn’t based on anyone real. The issues I have with my real brothers are far too nuanced and shaded to be dealt with in a sitcom (laughs). But there is one thing that resonates in there. My father really idolizes athletes; he was a baseball player. My oldest brother was an All-State baseball player. When we were kids, my father’s favoritism of my oldest brother wasn’t even an issue. It was just one of those “deal with it” things. Our nickname for our oldest brother was “My Son Dick,” because that’s how my dad always referred to him. Every conversation always started with “My Son Dick…” That’s where some of that came from. The guy that did the physical stuff that the father liked – the athlete - was just clearly valued more than this more brainy kid. When Todd Stashwick came in, I didn’t know him. I only knew his work from “The Riches” but it was Deb Barylski and G. Charles Wright who said, “No, no, no. This guy is amazing.” I talked to him for maybe 30 seconds in the waiting room and I thought, “Okay, you get it.” And then when he came in, I said just one word, “Jethro,” and he just put a hole right in the center of it.
Neely: In the produced pilot, you moved some lines from one scene to another. I understand dramatically why you used the line about not being tall because you “didn’t try hard enough” with your brother because it gave the two of you a much needed moment of bonding…
Dana: Those characters don’t hate each other at all.
Neely: I got that. But I have to say, I preferred it in the scene where you were talking to your best friend Swallingford. Swallingford is looking at all the trophies and pictures and remembering how your dad wouldn’t play him. It was so revealing about your father and about your friendship with Swallingford.
Dana: It was a change that came about organically both from the standpoint of moving it away from Swallingford and from the standpoint of moving it to the brother-to-brother dynamic.
Once we went into production, when I got a pickup to actually make this pilot, I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. I couldn’t Exec produce it and run the rewrites, especially with the insanity of a pilot week where…
Neely: Oh yeah. Where everything comes together right then.
Dana; Yeah. You know, three days before you shoot, the studio thinks “Maybe this is about a small group of people who run an airport.” After 6 months of micromanaging and they don’t even blink… My only complaint about the pilot, the craziness of pilot week, really, was that people so readily abandon the courage of their convictions. It’s in every pilot, in every situation, and it boggles my mind.
But, long story longer, when it got picked up as a pilot I got very very very lucky and got Mike Scully, who actually hired me at “The Simpsons.” He was the only other person I could think of who could do this, help me with this, because we come from like 20 minutes away from each other, growing up in very close proximity. I didn’t know him, of course, because there’s an age difference, but he knows exactly who these people are. His father is my father too; he’s the same guy. There’s an unspoken encyclopedia of common references. I share credit with him for all those rewrites. So when we had to cut the Swallingford scene, I said, “Mike, I don’t want to lose that line, so let’s just make sure that it gets in there someplace because it’s really good.” Mike is much better than I am because he really is aware of the value of jokes, of just hard laughs. Whereas I’m more “Don’t worry about it; I’ll be funny.” In the original draft of the script, my father didn’t come in until the second scene. There was a set-up for this guy and then you meet him. When we did the table read, the minute that Brian showed up, the show really popped. So it was Mike who said the obvious, “Let’s put him in the first scene, as quickly as we can.” I would have never thought of that in a million years.
Neely: That’s very good, but what I liked about the Swallingford scene was that it was one of the warmest and funniest set-ups for best friends that I had read. I understand the time constraints on why it was cut, but I would have kept the whole riff on how the trophy case bothered you and how Swallingford wasn’t in any of the pictures; and then the dad comes in and says “What are you looking at? You’re not in any of these pictures.” Rather than the overt “Look at that, it’s a chess match.”
Dana: We didn’t want to meet the father and have him be mean to the only minority character. We found it played rather hmmmmmmmmmmm.
Neely: Well, that’s why you do table reads.
Thanks so much for sending me a DVD of the pilot. I really enjoyed it. What was your experience working with Brian Dennehy?
Dana: He was awesome. He was great. I had been warned that he could be cantankerous, but I wrote that role with him in my head. He seemed so much like my father; and then when I met him, he really is a lot like my dad, just a bit more intellectual. Dennehy is a bear of a man but you know the rules – don’t poke the bear in the eye and you’ll be fine. I had the greatest time with Brian Dennehy. In fact, of the three or four projects that I’m poking around right now, trying to see which ones are going to go, one of them I wrote to work with Brian again.
Neely: My feelings are mixed on Dennehy’s performance because there seemed to be a problem with eye contact, but I thought your performance was fabulous in this.
Dana: It was hard to give a bad performance with Dennehy because he was so present. If you feel there was anything missing, it must have been the cut.
Neely: I have to say that when I read this I thought immediately of Brian Dennehy.
Dana: That is the great thing about Brian; he is as real as a hurricane. I was probably too inside this to pick up on what you seem to have noticed. If anything, I would fault the edit or the camera placement because I really felt that he was dead on.
Neely: I thought that the chemistry you and Traylor Howard had was unbelievable! The timing in the way the two of you played off each other – there was never a breath in between.
Dana: She’s a pro. She’s like the Carole Lombard model that doesn’t exist anymore.
Neely: She definitely has that screwball timing.
Dana: Yes, exactly. That kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore. She comes in knowing what she’s going to do. No drama. She hits her marks. She does it first time dead on and then refines it. With her, there’s no running all over god’s creation to “find it.”
Neely: Well you were adorable in that pilot. I’m sure a grown man cringes when he hears that he was adorable but… you were adorable.
Dana: I have to say, I was very happy with the whole thing.
Neely: This is one that completely confuses me. This was definitely a case of the good, the bad and the ugly at ABC this year.
Dana: Their decision was that they didn’t pick up any multi-camera shows. They made a big push during development saying that they wanted multi-camera family shows. “The Middle” has been a hit for them, and because of the economic model, they say that multi-cam isn’t dead; that they really want to develop multi-camera. I thought this was a multi-camera show; it wouldn’t have worked as a single camera show.
Neely: I agree. I don’t see how it could be single camera.
Dana: They didn’t pick up any multi-camera shows. I guess they were telling the truth when they said that they wanted to develop them; they just had no intention of picking any up.
Neely: They didn’t give you a second bite on this, did they?
Dana: No… no. You can’t second guess. I don’t know what they were doing. Have you seen “No Ordinary Family?” It’s “The Incredibles.” How do you even pitch that show with a straight face? It’s been done a dozen times. Hmmmmm… I have a show I want to pitch – it’s about a guy who lands on a planet that’s run by apes.
Neely: Really?! How Fresh! I’m sure I’ve never seen anything like that.
Again, what really perplexed me is that ABC had the opportunity to be the family comedy network because your show, “Funny in Farsi,” and “It Takes a Village” … all three were outstanding. That’s a whole evening right there. All I can say is that this was the tale end of Steve MacPherson’s bipolar blow-up.
Dana: (laughs) I think that article is being written for “The Daily Beast.”
Neely: I did write something about that, not the blow-up, but that Paul Lee should take a look at all the things Steve turned down. ABC picked up more schlock and left more good material on the table than any other network. I had intended on writing one article about all the networks and their choices, but the ABC situation was such a creative disaster that I ended up devoting a whole article just to them. (http://www.baselineintel.com/research-wrap?detail/C8/wonderful_tv_pilots_not_picked_up_this_season)
Dana: I was very proud of the show. You just have to keep going forward or you’ll go crazy.
Neely: It’s not like features, and this something that I hate about TV. A feature, either a script or a completed project, can sit on a shelf for years and then someone can say “Wait a second. Didn’t somebody write this fabulous script a few years ago about fill in the blank. Let’s make that.
Dana: I find it mind boggling…
Neely: …the waste is incredible!
Dana: I agree. But you know there is one example of this happening in TV. Do you know the “Happy Days” story?
Neely: No, I don’t.
Dana: “Happy Days” was a pilot in 1972. It was made as a pilot, rejected, then edited down and used as an installment on “Love American Style.” Ron Howard wrapped that pilot and then went and made “American Graffiti.” “American Graffiti” was a big hit and ABC said, “Didn’t we make a pilot with him like that a couple of years ago?” They went back in and found it and then just picked it up and added Fonzi and made it a show.
Neely: I didn’t know that story and I live and breathe TV, so that’s wonderful. What a shame. Nobody has the balls to do that anymore. Instead we get… “No Ordinary Family.”
Dana: I have to admit I haven’t seen it, but the audacity of its premise was insane.
Neely: I’m all for what’s on the page and if it’s on the page and it doesn’t work it means that someone else screwed up. I didn’t think that “No Ordinary Family” was on the page; I really didn’t care much for what I read but, in all fairness, I recently watched it and it turned out to be one of those (rare) shows in which the execution breathed some life into it. It’s no more original on screen than it was on paper, but the casting brought something out in it that I didn’t think would be there. Anyone who hasn’t been watching TV for, say, the last 6 months, won’t recognize that it’s not original.
Dana: Right. Exactly. But still, it’s “The Incredibles” or “Greatest American Hero,” or, on and on and… “Heroes.”
Neely: It’s like, “where have we seen this before?” Oh… everywhere. But on the other hand it’s very much in keeping with the lack of originality that the networks showed this year (and ABC did it more than anyone else). Everyone decided this was the year of the Rom/Com. So everyone picked up a (really lame) romantic comedy; and ABC picked up two! I didn’t think any of them were any good. The only one that I thought showed promise was “Love Bites” by Cindy Chupak and I’m not sure how it’s going to work now that she’s stepped back into a more ancillary role.
Dana: I don’t know. I give up.
Neely: No you don’t.
Dana: I have two or three ideas that I’m working on now and going out with them over the next two or three weeks, and they’re all for F/X, USA, even Adult Swim – and in lieu of Adult Swim, the Comedy Channel (the runner up Comedy Network – Comedy Central). I just give up… I can’t figure out what they want.
Neely: You can go broke trying to figure that out. It doesn’t even depend on who’s in charge. Bad decisions have been made almost everywhere. CBS did the best this year; I found most of what they picked up to be plausible, although they left a few good things by the wayside. I think Fox dropped the ball when they didn’t pickup “Breakout Kings.” I thought the script of “Lonestar” was pretty good but I always had my doubts as to whether it would actually work. I certainly didn’t think, as a lot of critics maintained, that it was the Second Coming.
Dana: Instead, it was the First Going.
Neely: (laugh) Even though second bite money is now a significant chunk, isn’t it a lot safer to pay real money for that second bite when so much of the series that are picked up are inevitably going to tank, no matter what they think of the chances?
Dana: I wish I could figure them out.
Neely: I’ve got a “Simpsons” question for you. I know David Mirkin started out in standup, but besides him, how many other standups were writers on “The Simpsons?”
Dana: Not many. Tom Martin, and me, and I think that’s it. Conan became a standup after.
Neely: Mirkin has talked about how “The Simpsons” hates to lose its writers so they give them long vacations that can amount to years.
Dana: (laughs) It’s true.
Neely: Do you think you’ll ever go back to “The Simpsons”?
Dana: I don’t rule anything out, but I have three little kids, so I need to be back home every day.
Neely: How old are your kids?
Dana: 8, 6, and 1.
Dana: Exactly. Now you know why I’m so hard to pin down.
Neely: And you’re also doing carpool duty.
Dana: Yep, carpool duty. My wife is out of town for half of the week, and she works long hours anyway, so I’m Mr. Mom half the time, and it’s a lot. But it’s awesome. One of the main reasons I left the show was that I wanted to be around more for the kids, because my wife does have a big job. I figured I could write features and work at home, and go away on the weekends and do standup when Sue’s around. That way someone is always kind of hanging around.
Neely: Your kids are very lucky; and actually, as a matter of fact, so are you.
Dana: I’m incredibly aware of it.
Neely: Enjoy it, because this is before the kids get nasty – you’ve got several years to go. You’ll probably rejoin “The Simpsons” when at least one of them turns 12.
Dana: They may be young, but they can still be nasty.
Neely: (laughs) You starred in this pilot and were obviously involved in the casting. Did you choose the director?
Dana: They give you a choice, going “we approve of this person and this person, not this person or that person.” I think everything Jim Burrows did got picked up (note: actually, I don’t think “Nathan vs. Nurture” and “Open Books” have gotten pickups). He wasn’t available. I also really liked Andy Ackerman. Andy directed the episode of “Seinfeld” I did, and he’s great. I didn’t really know Craig (Zisk) that well but Warner Brothers really liked him because he had been doing single camera for years and they thought he would deal well with the script because a lot of the jokes were on the page. I really liked him and we became pretty good friends. I thought he did a really good job.
Neely: We already talked about Dennehy and Howard; how about Stashwick?
Dana: Stashwick dealt with it all so effortlessly because he’s an improv guy. I had no idea that his comedy portfolio was so dense until I got to know him.
Neely: What was it like on set?
Dana: In most comedies, when we would do run-throughs, the head writer was on the floor. But this wasn’t like the traditional set up for a multi cam where you do the run through; you work out the scene; you do the run through and the actors are dismissed and the head writers go, “This doesn’t work; this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work. We’re going to go fix it. See you tomorrow.” And they go back, order dinner and work. What would happen to us is that we’d be half way through a scene and I’d go, “Ah, this doesn’t work.” And I’d just kind of fix it there. We then had to develop a new system, because Mike would be up in the offices doing the day’s work and I would be on the floor. Then towards the end we had the writers’ assistant on the floor just emailing my changes up to Mike and he would refine them. Sometimes we’d just do stuff right on the spot. “This doesn’t work; let’s do this instead because this is a funnier joke.” One of the jokes that came out of that was in the scene where I come up with the idea that my brother has to sell his house and move into an apartment. “And then why don’t I say: A magic hobo who throws up money.” And said it as a joke and he really laughed so we just did it on the spot and put it there. We had to take something out to put that in, but it didn’t go through the typical process of 24 hour turnaround. I’d just write it in and tell everyone to write it in, because it was funnier. You had to kind of think on your feet. But to me that made it exciting and more organic. So many sitcom scripts are “precious.”
Neely: No… they’re supposed to be funny. So who did this originally get pitched to and what was the reaction?
Dana: It got pitched to everyone. It got pitched to NBC, who’s not doing multi-camera; pitched to CBS who passed and then called back later to super pass. They passed and then supposedly called back and said “And we’re really passing on this.”
Neely: You’re kidding!
Dana: No, I’m not kidding! I can only guess it was because they already had the William Shatner show going and they wanted to maybe shake everybody’s confidence in pitching this anywhere else. So the word was CBS called to say they weren’t interested and then someone from CBS called Jay Sures, who runs the TV department at UTA, to restate how much they were passing.
Neely: Ah, yes. “**** My Dad Says” was just picked up for the season. It is somewhat similar in that it’s Dad-centric, but it has no heart.
Dana: I don’t blame them for doing what they did. It was such a shame because I thought my show was really well suited for CBS. Turns out it was, they just were doing it with a different actor. I took it to Fox, but it really wasn’t a Fox show.
Neely: And you just said something that intrigues me. NBC didn’t take it because it was multi-cam??? What is it with multi-cam? It’s the most lucrative format – best chance of off-net syndication and one of the cheaper formats to produce with limited sets, limited guest actors, and a schedule to die for (not for the writers, of course, but for everyone else).
Neely: Well so far this season that’s worked really well for them.
Dana: I really do think it’s snobbishness. They’re looking for more theatrical. Also, you have to have a show to pair it with and somebody in television has to have the balls to put on a multi-camera show not produced by Chuck Lorre.
Neely: I guess… there were several good ones available.
Dana: I think it was Andy Warhol who said, “In the future, all shows will be produced by Chuck Lorre.”
Neely: Yes… I remember that quote.
Dana: Now that I’m going out to these other cable networks like F/X and USA and even Showtime and HBO (which are a different animal entirely), I see that they have something distinct. USA is looking for shows that have a very strong specific character – Bang. F/X is into shows with very interesting concepts. They have these riffs that they adhere to.
Neely: Or they think they adhere to.
Dana: It’s up to you to convince them that you’re adhering to them. That’s the trick. I did find that somewhat interesting. NBC, coming into this season, they had nowhere to go but up and…
Neely: …and yet, still they haven’t.
Dana: I admire some of what they’ve tried. “Outsourced” is not a “Friends” rip off; it’s at least an attempt to do something different, so I kind of support that. I don’t watch comedies anyway so…
Neely: I watch everything (at least once). “Outsourced” isn’t horrible. I like Dietrich Bader and hope his show is a success.
Dana: I haven’t seen it, but David Cross said recently, “Americans don’t like to watch people who aren’t Americans.” “Outsourced” will put that to the test. I tend to agree with him so we’ll see what happens.
Neely: I’d have to think really hard about that, but he’s probably right, although what is the definition of “American” because we come in all the colors of the rainbow. So, anyway, what was the notes process like on “Nolan Knows Best”?
Dana: By and large it was not horrible. I’ve certainly been through worse. At the end of the day on the last pilot I did, the network/studio managed to make it about nothing. But on this, Erin, at Warner Brothers, and Sami at ABC, they both knew the show, they knew what it was. Steve’s notes were, at one point, significant, but they didn’t break the show. It bent it, but it didn’t break it. We never had the “We’re throwing it out” experience. We never had to re-break the main story. At one point, we had to sort of re-shift the perspective of my character. There was a note that Traylor’s character shouldn’t have a hard opinion; it should be left up to me. This was an awkward note that resulted in me having an argument with myself at the end of the second act as she stands there. But by and large, I never got a note that really hurt the show.
Neely: So they’re not even going to consider rolling this to next season?
Dana: No. This show is dead as Kelsey’s nuts, as they would say.
Neely: As what?!!!
Dana: It’s an old Irish expression – “cold as Kelsey’s nuts” – Kelsey being a famous dead person. My brother once said “dead as Kelsey’s nuts” and I keep saying that. It’s a malapropism; it doesn’t mean anything. (laughs)
Neely: I like that. And this is where we’ll break because we have too much more to talk about.
To be continued next week…