The TV Squad Interview: Fred Goss and Nick Holly of Sons & Daughters
by Joel Keller, posted Mar 14th 2006 11:02AM
For two guys who have never written for TV before, Fred Goss and Nick Holly are off to a fast start. Their new ABC comedy, Sons & Daughters, which airs Tuesdays at 9 ET, has been universally praised by critics (including me), and the first two episodes gave the network better ratings than it's had in that timeslot.
Goss, who also stars on the show as Cameron Walker, mostly had acting and editing credits before this project, most notably on the Bravo comedy Significant Others. Holly, believe it or not, was a literary agent who partnered with Goss to create this and other pilots. As they pitched their ideas around, demand for their services increased; an ABC executive actually pitched them the idea for this show, for instance.
There's a good reason for that, though: the show's improvisational style and realistic extended family dynamic have hit a nerve with everyone... including Arrested Development fans, of which Goss seems to be very aware. The AD issue and others came up last Friday as the two spoke to me by phone from their office in Los Angeles.
Joel Keller: So, the first two shows are on the air, and the ratings look pretty decent...
Fred Goss: They weren't bad!
Nick Holly: Yeah, they're pretty happy over at the network.
FG: We'll be off in a week (both laugh).
JK: Well, that's why I wanted to catch up with you now; strike while the iron is hot...
FG: Critics are happy, the network's blowing sunshine up our ass... we're gone in a week (all of us laugh).
JK: You know how it is... if it's a good show, forget it, right? (Fred laughs) So, you two are the main creative forces behind the show, correct?
NH: Lorne Michaels has nothing to do with it! (Fred laughs)
JK: Well, that was a question I was going to ask... I had a feeling they were using his name to promote it...
NH: You know, he's very involved in godfathering us, but he's not a creative force, he's a business force behind it. And his company, led by Joann Alfano, works more creatively with us.
JK: But it didn't hurt to have his name behind it, though?
NH: Yeah, we were thrilled. He's been great.
JK: Especially with that initial promotional push I guess...
FG: Yeah, he was surprised by it... Woah! (laughs)
JK: So where did you guys come up with the idea for this pilot and where did you come up with the idea to do this format, where it's mostly improvisational?
NH: The wheels for Sons & Daughters were put in motion by Steve McPherson (president of ABC Primetime Entertainment), where he saw a presentation we made called The Weekend. He liked that format and said, "Can you guys do a show on an extended family?" And then we created the world and all the characters.
And the idea for the format came from... Fred was one of the stars of Significant Others, but he was also this production genius who could shoot...
FG (humbly): Oh, please... (both laugh)
NH: ...who could run a camera and edit. And he edited the pilot of Significant Others and many other parts of it. I was a literary agent at the time, and we got together, and we each had our thoughts -- I also repped most of the actors on Significant Others back then -- we each had our thoughts on what we could do somewhat in this format, but to make it even better, and that's the presentation we made that Steve ended up seeing and then saying "Hey, could you guys do something for me in the world of an extended family?"
FG: It was based off of that... Nick and I ponied up about five grand to make a 12 minute presentation. That's the best five grand we ever spent (laughs).
JK: How is this show different from Significant Others, which also used improv?
FG: Our show has a very strong spine. I mean, we wrote a very detailed outline, and it details scene by scene the bullet points the actors need to hit in order to propel the story forward. We just don't literally put the dialogue in the script; we want to see how they put it into words.
NH: Ideally, our scripts would read like a good short story.
JK: That's something that I think our readers are always curious about. Like on improvised shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and this show... I think a lot of readers think everything is completely improvised like they're watching an improv troupe on stage somewhere.
FG: Calling it improv is terribly misleading, because honestly, the only way you can qualify it as improvisation is if we told the actors, "All right, this scene is going to be 45 seconds long, we're not doing any editing, and this has to happen and this has to happen... go," and we just did 20 different 45 second takes... that would be improv. But we will take two lines from take two and have them be responded with three lines from take seven. The real writing process comes in post (production), because we shoot 10 -14 hours of tape to get a 22 minute show. There's no one right way to edit the show together once you get down to that, because we don't do the circle takes -- if someone says something we like, we don't have them say it again and again, we have them say something different so we have options.
And whereas there's no one right way to edit that stuff together, there's a multitude of wrong ways, so where we become the most careful and protective is in that post process.
JK: So how do you meld it all together so it sounds like one conversation? I mean, one of the things I like about the show is when people talk over each other, just like they do in normal conversation.
NH: We love that.
FG: Sometimes that means you're just married to a specific response that someone made because they started saying it before the other person was finished. I don't know, it's just a really interesting and fun process.
I think it's interesting that people continue to draw comparisons to us and Arrested Development or The Office, 'cause we're so not trying to do that. We're so not about trying to recreate or ride on the coattails of the success of those shows. We think they're good, but just because this show is improvised, it means that there's no way that we can knock out jokes at the lightning speed that Arrested did because of just how massively written that show is.
NH: When we sat down and thought, let's do shows like this, I don't think we ever even once thought of Arrested Development. And the original Office, we loved the awkwardness of those moments, and we thought, "Man, shows like that are going to help us get an opening at bigger networks as they pay attention." But we never based our shows on those shows exactly.
JK: I kind of said this in my review, that Arrested was the show you're inevitably going to be compared to, because they're both about families.
FG: And you're right, it has been, and it's really interesting. We were hoping that when people finally actually saw the show, they'd stop drawing comparisons. But I do notice on the discussion boards, now they're saying, (haughty) "HA! Ha ha, this isn't NEARLY as funny as Arrested!" (laughs)
They haven't stopped drawing the comparisons, they just feel like we really missed the mark of making a show as bombastically funny (as AD), and we weren't trying to, that's the thing... Nick and I are fans of Arrested you know?
NH: I love the show!
FG: To create a business model that emulated that show on a major network wouldn't have been too smart either, because we wouldn't have stayed on the air. And the best Nick and I can figure out is why it didn't catch on with the masses is kind of this Royal Tannenbaum thing that's going on... Where it's like really hard to...
FG: ...It's a cartoon... These people are like from Mars! So there isn't a huge relatability factor. The best you can do is be amused and entertained at just how good the dialogue is because it's so layered and subtle and inside-jokeish, you know what I mean?
And we were trying to go for a show that could appeal to the red states as well as the blue states, because anybody who's got an extended family is going to understand that passive-aggressive mother or that annoying brother-in-law.
JK: What experiences did you bring in to writing the show? Are there elements of both your families in the show?
FG: Absolutely. Nick and I are both products of divorce, and teen pregnancy, the whole Jewish wife scenario is certainly taken from my life -- I'm going through the same thing with my wife in raising our kids Jewish and I'm not Jewish -- so a lot of the ideas definitely sprang out of our own personal experience with our modern extended families.
NH: Then we change it so we're not sued. But the inspiration is the worlds we grew up in.
JK: That's a funny scene, where Cameron's little daughter says, "Aunt Rae says we're going to hell because we're Jewish!"
FG: That's kind of a reverse improvisational exercise, because we started the scene by giving the four-year-old that line and then improvised everything after it, like how would you feel if you walked into the room and your daughter said that. So that was the genesis of that scene.
JK: By the way, how easy or hard is it to have the really young kids work in that environment?
FG: We have a tendency to throw them more lines, than to just have them go off. But we also will set the cameras up and kind of tell them that we're gonna be with them in a couple of minutes, but just think about what it's like to talk to your brother about what love is. They don't know we're rolling, and we'll roll a little bit and actually use moments where they're just giving their point of view, and in that way I think we get something far more realistic from a four-year-old than actually having them say a line back from memorization, because they don't even understand what they're saying.
NH: I think it's much easier working with the kids than some of the adults (laughs).
FG: Kids are natural improvisers, they just commit, and if you're asking them to express their opinions instead of saying a line that they can't even read... We've gotten some really nice stuff out of them in some of the episode.
JK: How many of the actors had improv backgrounds before they did the show?
FG: Fifty-fifty. You know we didn't want... you know... when we found an actor that was good with improv and comedy we also wanted to make sure they also were a good actor. Because people that are just improv comedy actors have a tendency to... They don't listen really, they're just looking to find a gap to where they can plug in another joke. And they're very proficient at that, but that's not really the style of the show. So people like Dee Wallace and Max Gail, who don't have a strong improv background -- or Lois Hall, who plays Aunt Rae -- we figured it would be better to get good actors and try to acclimate them to the format. That's way easier than trying to teach somebody how to be a good actor once they're on the set just because they know how to say funny things.
NH: I would say none of the actors have worked in this format, because we were learning the format as we were going along with it.
JK: It's interesting that you said that improvisers don't normally listen, because I thought that was the main thing you were taught in improv, is to listen and agree...
FG: It's not so much of... I don't mean to say improv-ers across the board don't listen, but when we would audition people that were just crack members of The Groundlings or the Improv Olympic, all these different groups... It's not that they're not listening... They're constructing a joke in their head -- very well, by the way -- but that's not exactly what we're going for. We try to encourage everyone to have the courage to play it straight and allow the situation to drive the comedy, as opposed to feeling like they've got to formulate a joke.
NH: I think also the pressure of auditioning for something like this... It's in people's minds that they need to leave a mark, so they're really even feeling more pressure to tell that joke in that big moment to make us laugh instead of trying to work with the scene.
JK: The two people that surprise me are in this show -- because I haven't really seen them in any series for a long time -- are Dee Wallace (who plays Colleen Halbert) and Max Gail (who plays Wendal Halbert). Has Max been on a regular show since Barney Miller?
FG: He was in something... I can't remember what it was called, that didn't go long... He kinda walked away; he's an activist, he's very big on Native American rights, he works for Habitat for Humanity building houses. He's at that point in his career that if something interesting comes along, he'll consider it.
We were having a hard time casting that part, and the casting director and I were going thru the Player's Academy Guide and I saw his picture. And I lit up and I went, "Oh my gosh, Wojo!" and I said "I wonder if he'd come in, I wonder if he's in town, what he's doing." And the next day we scheduled him and he actually came in. We improvised for twenty minutes, and I knew he was Wendal.
JK: So how did you get Dee Wallace to sign on? I would imagine most people remember her as the mom on E.T. I don't think I've seen her in a series in quite a while.
FG: She owed me some money on a gambling debt. No, she was the only person I initially thought of for Colleen and I'm not sure why, but I really have always liked her, I really enjoyed her work. So she came in and read for us, and she was terrified, because she never improvised, so therefore she did exactly what we wanted. She just absolutely played it straight and committed to being the passive-aggressive mom. And she was brilliant at it.
JK: Do people tell you, "I remember her being the mom from E.T.; now she's playing the mom of middle-aged kids!" It's not like her kids are 22 years old, her kids are like 35, 40 years old.
FG: There was somebody on one of the discussion boards, I don't remember which one, but they were so cruel, they were like, "Dee should be playing this Cameron guy's wife! (laughs) How could she possibly be his mom?" But the reason we cast her is because she is only three-and-a-half years younger than my mom, and my mom was this good-looking woman who had me when she was 17, and I wanted that. You know, all through our lives, people were like, "No, this can't be your kid!", you know?
That's what we were aiming for, to perpetuate that whole teen pregnancy thing, because that is an ongoing deal where she (Colleen) got pregnant in high school and had to drop out; her daughter did the same thing; her older daughter did the same thing; her son did that with a woman and had a kid and that turned out bad. So we're trying to show how these things just go around in circles and the mistakes just kind of repeat themselves and people don't learn.
JK: So that detail will come out in subsequent episodes?
FG: It does.
JK: I recognize a bunch of the people in the cast. Like I recognize Jerry Lambert (who plays Don Fenton) as the guy from the GEICO commercials.
NH: Everyone does. We were leaving the upfronts, and no one knew the cast, even Max or Dee. So we're all getting in our cars, and there's a throng of people, and they're all silent. And one guy was like, "Hey! It's the GEICO guy!" and there were like tons of flashbulbs.
JK: Another person I recognized was Greg Pitts (who plays Whitey), who everybody calls the "The O-face guy" from Office Space.
FG: He's a good example of getting the best of both worlds, because here's a guy who's really good with improvisation and he's just very, very funny, just naturally funny. His face just comes on the screen and I chuckle. And then he's also a really good actor; you'll see as the episodes progress how his character become more and more three-dimensional.
JK: I think the breakout character is going to be Eden Sher's character Carrie. She's that kind of "wise-beyond her years" teenager. I loved the scenes she was in, like she told Wendal to "Just cut the crap" or told her mom if she was married and didn't have sex she'd want to kill herself...
FG: Right (chuckles).
JK: Those are the ones that stood out for me. Some people might think she might be a bit too precocious, but it works for me. Where did that character come from and where did you find Eden?
FG: The character is the way the character is because that's Eden. And once again that's the beauty of the improv element, because she's executing these scenes in a way that falls into her comfort zone.
We didn't cast that role at all; my wife and I are friends with her mother, who's a teacher and kind of like this earth momma, hippieish progressive thinker who is definitely into her kids being outspoken and speaking her mind. And all three of her children are very intelligent. We were invited to Eden's bat mitzvah, and she was doing showtune numbers with her friends and her theatre class.
So we ended up going to see her in a musical comedy in her middle-school play, and I just thought, "This girl's intereresting," and I just kinda banked it. So she's almost a virtual newcomer too; she's done a couple of commercials, but this is a big move for her.
JK: So what's your response to people who say, "Well she's a little too precocious."?
FG: Oh, we're getting a lot of that, ranging anywhere from the religious right just to that attitude of, "If my daughter spoke to me that way, I'd smack her and she would be grounded!" There's a lot of anger on the discussion boards, but there's just as many responses that are like, "What a breath of fresh air," so...
JK: What message boards are you looking at?
FG: We get hit hard on the IMDb board that's on our own site, and the Arrested Development devotees have just torn into us saying, "This is obviously ABC's weak attempt to rip off our show!" and, "Bring back Arrested Development!" It's so stilted and strange. And I get their grief, but I didn't cancel Arrested Development and we're not trying to copy it.
NH: I've gotta say, I haven't once looked at a message board, I just don't look at any of that. And people do say to me, or I get e-mails saying "Ah, I didn't get this person," or "This person's funny." I have not gotten one negative comment on Eden. It's like how you began, how everyone thinks of her as a breakout.
FG: And as many critical comments as you get, like I said, there's as many or more that are positive, and truly love her, and say just what you're saying, that she could be our Urkel, and we could all just be catering to her scenes next season. (laughs) And I'd be perfectly fine with that.
JK: What would her catchphrase be?
FG: uh... "Cut the crap."
NH: "Cut the crap."
JK: Fred, what's your motivation for reading the message boards?
FG: My partners here give me a hard time for it, and I chime in too, which they really don't want me to do.
NH: I love when he does it. It cracks me up when I see him do it.
FG: I try to be more polite than they are, but I feel the Internet can't be ignored anymore. These are opinions coming in here. You also have to take into consideration that when this big barrage hits, almost like a smear campaign from Arrested Development fans, that a lot fo them are jut 15 and 16 years old, so you can't go nuts. You can also tell by their spelling and grammar what their age probably is...
NH: Fred just tore apart a nine-year-old the other day! It was horrible! (laughs)
JK: Just as an aside to Nick... I see you worked for Don Buchwald, Howard Stern's agent. How do you go from being an agent to being a show runner and creator?
NH: You have to be very aggressive... heh...
FG: He took yoga lessons for months so he could figure out how to kiss his own ass...
(Nick laughs heartily; Fred and I both laugh a lot)
NH: I didn't read any message boards.
JK: Score one for Fred. Since you guys were not writers before this show, how have you guys taken to the TV writing process?
NH: I think we each thought coming in like, let's not be dictatorial or just high and mighty because we each have a lot to learn. And I think the people around us appreciate that. But we insisted on our point of view and our way of doing things, but did it in such a manner where we're all trying to learn at the same time. It was difficult, but I've got to say it wasn't that bad.
JK: Is it because of the imporvised format?
NH: It could be, but you know you have the same amount of writers. You have a writers room, you break the stories the same. It's very similar.
FG: We're not just married to this either. We have a deal with Touchstone and we fully intend on trying to do a multi-camera show where we would probably lean towards doing a throwback to something like Barney Miller, you know, a multi-cam that had an audience and maybe not a laugh track, you know what I mean? Just something that harkened back to Norman Lear and comedies that were written but actually had a little more weight to them.
JK: So the goal here is to become moguls, right?
FG: Ahhh, for Nick it is because he's going to be president someday, but...
NH: That's our motto.
FG: I'm just trying to raise a family myself.
NH: That's our next production company, it's going to be called "I'm Just Trying to Raise a Family, You're Just Trying to Raise a War Chest Productions Inc."