29 November 2012
Neely: We’ve known each other for a long time and I’ve tried keeping up with your activities, many of which we’ll discuss a bit later on. What I’m most excited about is your web series called “Lords of the Playground.” I understand that you just closed a deal with Parenting magazine to run the series.
Jason: Yes. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s a “production, distribution, marketing deal;” whatever that means. Basically, they’re going to set up a page on their site for our videos, and then promote them. If all goes well, they’ll order more. And I think the idea is for us to become the face of dads for Parenting.
Neely: You have a writing/acting partner in this. Who is it and how did you guys hook up?
Jason: That would be Matt Servitto, a very talented actor who works all the time. He’s probably best known as the main FBI agent who was chasing down Tony Soprano. He gets a lot of recognition from that but he’s also done so much other work; he’s constantly busy. We met playing poker with a group of guys, probably a decade ago. It was a regular game for a while and then it became more irregular once we all started having kids. Whenever we got together, he and I would talk about kids, and I would just crack up. He’s a very funny guy.
At the time, my son was 4 or 5 and I was spending a lot of time on playgrounds. I started chronicling all these funny moments. At first I was thinking about using them as the basis of a series and then I thought they’d work better as short films, sketches about fatherhood. Matt seemed to be somebody I was really connecting with because we were having very similar experiences with fatherhood, being actors and being out of work a lot of the time. Even the busiest actors have lots of down time. So we met and started talking about my idea and we made each other laugh so much that I started writing ideas down.
Originally I scripted them, but when I went to rehearse with Matt, it didn’t work out the way I thought. He was always going off script. I was very disappointed. It was like, “I wrote these funny lines, but now he’s not doing my script; he’s not doing what I wrote.” We had a director at the time who said, “You know, he’s never going to do what you wrote. Because that’s not the type of comedy he does. What you wrote, you do. You do this kind of back and forth tightly timed thing really well, but he does something very different. So you’ll never be able to get him to say the punch line the way you wrote it.”
The next rehearsal we had, I decided to let go and just use the script as a guideline. Doing that, we found so much more comedy. I give him a lot of credit for opening the whole thing up and making it funnier than it probably was when I originally scripted it. On the day of filming, we both just played with it. We did a lot of different takes and when we edited each one down, we found the best moments and put it all together. In the end, we really wrote it together.
Neely: So in other words, this ended up being an improv project more than a scripted one.
Jason: Yeah, sort of. When I looked at the footage we got (and was panicking about it), our director, Matt Fabiano, told me this old saying: any project is created three times: when you write it, when you shoot it, and when you edit it. I feel like this was very much the way this project worked out. I wrote a very specific, almost vaudevillian style of comedy and when we shot it, we were very loose with the script. it came out much differently. We used that as a skeleton for more improvisational stuff and then editing became the real challenge, taking the best bits and making it look scripted again.
Neely: Is that the process you used on all of the vignettes?
Jason: Yeah. We shot all twelve in one day. We didn’t ever change our tactic once we started; we wouldn’t have had any time even if we wanted to. We did twelve in ten hours. Fabiano was really integral in making this work. He reined us in during the improv, made sure we got everything we needed to cover, and talked me off the ledge on more than one occasion. We make a good team, me and the two Italian Matts.
Neely: I’ve got to say, the vignettes tie in beautifully to all those insecurities I ever had as a parent, as well as a person. (Outsider status is not something that is actively cultivated; it’s like a mantle of rat fur that’s thrust over your shoulders.)
Jason: That was what we wanted. Our take on fatherhood was not precious. “Modern” fatherhood almost demands that dads not only spend more time with their kids, but that they enjoy it… all of the time. That was not our experience. That type of fatherhood, while rewarding, can also be boring. And exhausting. And soul crushing. It seemed to both of us that there was a certain amount of masculinity that was lost in hanging around nannies all day. We found the only way to hold on to a shred of it was to hang out with other guys; have those moments talking about sports and “man’s man” topics. These guys aren’t bad fathers, they’re good fathers; they take care of their kids. You don’t want to feel in any way that these guys don’t have their kids’ best interests at heart. But, you know, sometimes you forget stuff when you get to talking – you think they might be on the swings and they’ve already moved to the monkey bars.
Jason: I’ll try to keep it as tight as possible but it’s a long story. It wasn’t really a train wreck, more of a rollercoaster. But when you get off, you’re dizzy and once again, outside the gates of the amusement park. When we made these shorts, we called in every favor; we took 6 months to edit these things. There was an editor friend of the director, a terrific editor named Scott Gorman who works at his own place, the Fortress of Evil in New York. He was very busy but he liked the idea and he gave us his time for free, which is really rare. Unfortunately his free time was limited to about 3 hours a week. So we worked for about 3 hours a week for about 6 months to edit all these clips down to around 30 seconds. We really didn’t know going in that they were going to be 30 seconds; we just knew they were going to be quick. I’ve always been an advocate of faster, faster, faster, get in and get out. So we just kept paring it down. In a way, it was good that we had 6 months because we’d go away for a week and then look at what we’d done again and we’d go “Yeah, that could be tighter. Yeah, that could be tighter, too. Yeah let’s narrow that down.” So over the period of 6 months, these things went from probably a minute long each down to their present length.
And then I said, “Okay, I don’t know what to do with these.” We made them for fun, maybe some self-promotion. So I took them to Los Angeles and showed them to a few friends in the business. Todd Yasui, a dear friend of mine who, at the time, was a producer for Fox late night, recommended I look into the world of branded content. He connected me to someone who was doing just that on a major scale for network TV. I sent him the content and got a call back almost immediately. “I want to talk to you.”
I went over to see him and he said, “I love these. I think they’re right on. I think they appeal to both women and men. They’ve got a lot of promise!” I said, “Great.” And then he said, “But here’s the problem… I’m leaving the branded content business.” (Both laugh loudly). So I said, “Okay…” He continued, “I’m going get back into half hour scripted again. I’d like to take this as part of it. I’d like you to be part of my new venture. I’m going to be working with a Canadian company that wants to do family-based television for Canada and the United States.”
Neely: I know this is just because of who I am and my half empty glass, but this doesn’t sound like it’s going to end well.
Jason: So then we began the this long process of figuring out Canadian content rules and how the Matts and I were going to be involved if this thing became a Canadian entity. And the answer was… not much. But we didn’t have anybody else that was interested. Well, actually we hadn’t really pursued anyone else at the time because we didn’t know what we had. We just thought they were some fun little shorts.
As we started learning about Canadian content laws, we discovered that one of the Canadian rules is that a Canadian company has to work with a Canadian writer. So we couldn’t write it, even if that was on offer (which it wasn’t). They brought in a couple of Canadian writers and we ended up working with a guy who was Canadian but had spent the bulk of his adult life in Los Angeles, Andrew Orenstein. He’s a terrific guy and had kids of his own, so he understood the idea pretty well. Andrew and the rest of us worked on a pitch for quite a while. Our timing was always off for pitch season in both countries, so we took our time and worked up what we thought was a really decent pitch. We took it around to networks, again in both countries. We’d walk in, show three or four of the shorts and then we would pitch. People seemed to be really into it. It was really fun for me, cause I’d been in front of those people as an actor and I found that much more stressful.
Eventually, we got word. CBS said they’d like to see a script and we started the process of creating a script with CBS Productions for CBS network.
Neely: Well presumably that’s how you get vertical integration to work for you.
Jason: We didn’t really know about the process. We’ve written before but this was our first foray into writing for network television. What we learned was – we weren’t writing for network television. Andrew was going to be writing for network television. However we were still involved. But the farther the process went along, the more and more it was taken out of our hands.
This is a typical TV tale. Everyone thought they knew more about the story than we did. They did know more about what CBS might want to see. These people had a lot of experience with Les Moonves. And that’s where I think it went off the rails for us: They were focused on what would “sell” and we were still, naively perhaps, focused on maintaining the tone we started with. So our voices became less and less important. They would use words to describe our characters like, “Caretakers” and “stay-at-home-dads.” And we’re like, “Never use the word ‘caretaker’! Never use ‘stay-at-home-dad’! These guys don’t see themselves as stay-at-home-dads; they see themselves as LORDS! It’s the only way they can maintain their sanity!”
We kept trying to participate. We would take notes on drafts that were sent to us. We’d do re-writes. I’d send them off, and then call Andrew and he’d say, “Sure, that makes sense. But the producers want me to do X.” So I’d call the producers and they’d say, “Sure, but Andrew thinks it should be Y.” Who knows what anyone really wanted?
Once, when we had a major deadline coming up, I literally got off a subway train on a bridge over the Gowanus Canal because I finally got my call returned. There’s no cell service underground, so this was my one shot of talking to this person. On a freezing cold bridge in January. Where they were doing construction. We had sent our own revision of a cold open for the show and I wanted to hear what they thought of it. Shouting over the noise, I said, “Did you read what we wrote?” “Oh, yeah, of course.” I continued, “Did you see what I meant about setting the tone early?” “Oh, totally. I see what you’re saying.” So I said, “What did you think of the change in location?” There was a pause and then the answer, “Remind me of what that is again.” I just held the phone away from me and laughed out loud. Of course! They didn’t read it! They had no intention of reading it! It didn’t make a difference what we wrote because they already knew what they wanted it to be. They’ve already talked to Andrew about what they wanted to see based on notes they got from CBS studios, notes to which we were not privy.
They’re nice, nice people but that’s the way Hollywood works. The lie is the grease in the wheels. Nothing would get done in Hollywood without it. So we sat on the sidelines and watched it go bye-bye.
Who knows. Maybe they were right. Maybe CBS would have nixed anything we came up with outright. These people had more experience in this area than any of us. Not that it made a difference. But I would have liked to see what would’ve happened if they listened to us more. It’s quite the old Hollywood cliché, isn’t it?
So that ended, and within about three months we were able to get the rights back. Both CBS and the Canadian company graciously allowed us to start a whole new path.
Jason: Long story, huh.
Neely: I have always assumed that just because someone missed the point the first time, doesn’t mean that they won’t get it the next. Certainly I know you will avoid Canadian content in the future.
Jason: The old Canadian content restrictions we were given were hilarious. We even said, “Well, if we’re not going to even be the creator of the show (because we weren’t Canadian and couldn’t take that title), then we’d like to be Exec Producers on the show.” And they said, “Ummmm… we can’t guarantee that. It’s going to be what the Canadians will allow you to be.” So, I said, “Okay…” “But if we can get you producer credit, you should also know this. Legally, a non-Canadian producer can only spend 20% of their time on the set. You can only be there 20% of the shoot time. (Neely is really laughing at this point) Oh, and by the way, when you come through immigration, just say you’re visiting.” So basically we were personae non grata in the entire country because we wrote something that a Canadian company wanted to turn into a television show. It just seemed absurd, but I don’t think there was any malice intended and I think that the person who was selling us on this was sincere about it.
He presented it as, “You have two markets to sell in instead of just one and maybe there will even be some financial benefits from working with a Canadian company. They can cover a lot of expenses for a network and it will make you more attractive.” That should have been my first clue because I just kept thinking, I mean, the goal is to have a property that people want because it’s entertaining, not because it’s cheap. (Neely is still laughing) But, at the same time, you know this business and cheap goes a long way. So we thought, okay, this isn’t a bad idea; let’s just ride the horse in the direction it’s going. This was one of those very very typical stories of watching the car go over the cliff in slow motion. I think because we’re here in New York and not constantly pitching things or coming up with content that it was laughable more than it was painful.
Neely: I think you definitely have a sitcom or at least a one act play about trying to work in Canada.
Jason: Just going up to pitch was a comedy of errors. We flew there in this little prop plane where we had to abort the landing twice because of fog over Lake Ontario. We barely got to the meeting. The whole Canadian experience was brilliantly funny.
Neely: That’s got to be part of something. Clearly the networks are looking for something specific to fill a need and they tried to fit this round peg into their square hole. I suppose “Guys with Kids” was what they were looking for and that’s just not it.
Jason: We knew it was not necessarily a unique idea. There are already tons of things out there about stay-at-home dads and their struggles. Ours was just a unique way of doing it. Our comedy, the relationship of these two guys and how we talked to each other was unique. Apparently other people didn’t see it that way because if they had, they’d have done it that way by now. I’m sure a hundred million people have walked in and said “We’ve got a show about stay-at-home dads.”
Let’s face it, “Guys with Kids” is on the air now. In fact, I met Scott Baio shooting a short web series thing while I was pitching “Lords of the Playground” and he spent the time talking about having a kid. And I thought to myself, “Oh my god. There’s the show. The show is Scott Baio at home for the first time and having to deal with raising kids. There it is.” And sure enough, a month later, there’s an announcement that TVLand is in development with him about this show that is now on the air.
There are lots of stories about dads with kids. What we felt was unique about ours was our take… our lovingly cynical take, our relationship and the banter. And I think those were the first things to go out the window once we started dealing with a network.
You know, I don’t feel as if my experience on this was in any way unique. I assume this is how it goes if you don’t have a writer’s agent and you’re not being approached to be a writer. You’re approached because you had a funny idea and you both have enough TVQ that people will take it seriously for that moment. “Hey, those two guys from TV. I know that guy. I know that guy.” Walking into ABC, everyone knew who I was of course because of “The Practice” and other things. And they knew Matt as well. I’m walking right past the room where I had to test for past shows and now I’m going into the development area. It was really entertaining. I would love to pitch again. I think we felt like we were lucky to be there.
Conversation is interrupted while Jason attends to his young son Charlie.
Jason: (Talking in the background) Charlie, if you’re still hungry… Pardon me, Neely… Lord of the Playground… Would you like some pasta? Beth could you bring Charlie a small bowl of pasta please? Thank you. Thank you Charlie
Constantly at work at the Lord of the Playground.
Neely: So true.
Jason: It’s hilarious but a lot of the conversations we’ve had about this, with each other, with Andrew, with the folks at Parenting, were constantly being interrupted by our interactions with small children. Everyone was dealing with kids one way or another.
Neely: What a sadly uproarious story. We have more to talk about, especially getting up and running on Parenting magazine. Let’s continue this in Part II. To be continued.