After seeing the first episode of the Wilfred, not the original Australian comedy, but the American version starring Elijah Wood and Jason Gann, I was perplexed and hooked. Four seasons later, I’m mourning the loss of one of the strangest and most original television shows to ever grace the small screen. It’s been a few months since the series finale of Wilfred, and there’s definitely a void to fill. Although there’s a lot of good TV out there to binge on, nothing has been or currently is like this peculiar story about a man and his anthropomorphic dog.
Since the second season, I’ve wanted to chat with the creator of the American adaptation, David Zuckerman, about his influences and what inspired him to bring Wilfred to us. It wasn’t until very recently that I got the chance. Twitter is mysterious sorcery, and after dealing with the initial madness of tweeting, I was able to start a conversation with Zuckerman. Turns out, he’s also one of the original storytellers responsible for the Family Guy we enjoy today, as well as a writer for other shows we’ve loved in the past. I just had to interview the man.
It took a few tweets, but I got the opportunity to Skype with Zuckerman and enjoy many interesting backstage stories from the world of television, as well as get a glimpse into what this particular TV storyteller thinks about taboos in the industry, and what makes a great small screen story, and what may inevitably bomb.
The following is an edited version of our conversation for your reading pleasure. Instead of reading more from me, let’s jump to how Zuckerman first got his start in the business of storytelling. Enjoy TV enthusiasts!
Warning: Various TV spoilers ahead!
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I think I was eight or nine years old. I wrote my first spec script when I was nine years old. My parents were very encouraging of my artistic ambitions. I trained with the American Conservatory Theater as a kid, so that nurtured my creative spark. And then I went to UCLA film school and after film school I didn’t really know anybody so I started working as an executive. First I was an agent trainee then I worked for NBC and Lorimar for a while, but I always knew I wanted to write. That was my love. So I got my first break on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That was my first staff job, which I got in 1993, and since then I’ve been fortunate to continue working in television on some really interesting shows. Even right from the beginning with Fresh Prince, at the time that was a real groundbreaking show. It was edgy; it’d break the fourth wall. And from there I developed a show.
My first pilot got picked up by Fox. We shot eight episodes and it died a miserable death. It sort of died in infancy, but because of my experience with Fox, they recommended me for King of the Hill. I wasn’t really an animation fan, but it was a good job and a really interesting show. I love the show and I learned so much from Greg Daniels, who had created that show with Mike Judge. After a couple of years on King of the Hill, Family Guy came along and they were looking for someone to work with Seth [MacFarlane] because he was fairly inexperienced at that point. Seth and I met and we hit it off and I was fortunate enough to develop that show with him, until it got cancelled the first time. I worked on American Dad! and then Wilfred came my way. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Australian version, but it’s a very different show. I loved Jason Gann and the basic premise of the show, but I felt it could be a little bit more grounded and complex for American audiences. Fortunately, they let me develop it the way I liked it and FX took a big leap of faith putting a show with a guy in a dog suit on their network. That’s where we are today.
Family Guy has grown a lot since the beginning. I remember it broke a lot of rules and was more honestly brutal than most shows. It was an animated sitcom where you could do things you couldn’t in live action. What was the original mission with this kind of show, or, what did you want to do with that show when you first encountered it?
When I came onboard, Seth had already produced about eight or twelve minutes of animation where it was a lot of jokes that were strung together. There wasn’t really much of a story but you definitely got the voice of the show, that comedic voice, not to mention Seth’s vocal performances, which are incredible. What they were looking for was to make the show more of a show, rather than just sketches. Seth’s approach early on was to cram as many jokes in as possible, and my approach, because I came from a more traditional background, was to start with the story and figure out why we’re going to care about these characters and why we’re going to root for Peter. And then figure out a way to pepper it with humor that makes Family Guy so distinctive. I think what we ended up getting was a great combination of both of our sensibilities. Seth’s comedic voice and his animation style, which is similar in some ways to The Simpsons, but I think very distinct, and then more a traditional storytelling element. You know, there wasn’t quite as much sincerity in those episodes as I would have liked, but that’s what makes Family Guy Family Guy. It’s not as sentimental as The Simpsons sometimes gets, and that makes it its own show. My job on the show was to help shape it into a show and help Seth realize his vision and support him in the areas where he didn’t have as much experience at that point.
When you found Wilfred, what was it about the show that really caught your attention?
I guess what I really was drawn to, besides Jason Gann’s performance, which I thought was so interesting and so compelling… I was really fascinated by the out of character, not his particular character, because I think that slacker was sort of uniquely Australian, and not as relatable to American audiences, but the idea that you’re in a room with a guy in a dog suit and everyone else is just acting like there’s nothing weird going on. It’s just a dog. What I loved about the Australian version was they never cut to another angle to show you what other people were seeing. They only showed you what Adam was seeing. I started to think how terrifying that would be, because you couldn’t tell anybody. I mean, there are only two possible explanations. It’s some kind of magical creature, which is crazy, or you’re insane. And you sort of have to live with that uncertainty and keep it to yourself. To me, the Australian version centered a lot more on the Wilfred character, and what I found interesting was that guy, what’s his problem, why’s he seeing this dog, what kind of guy would need a Wilfred in his life, what role did Wilfred play? Wilfred and Adam had a much more adversarial relationship.
In the American version, I wanted to make it more of a buddy comedy where it was somebody who was helping him learn things that he needed to learn. And then it became sort of, besides the mythology, on the deeper level, a story about recovery from depression. Which I’d never really seen on TV before, or possibly mental illness or both, and that’s what I loved about it, the fact that we could do incredibly silly things, things like have Wilfred hump a waitress’s leg, but then also really get into it, you know. I mean we open the show with Ryan trying to commit suicide, which is pretty heavy, so I loved the fact we could do the full spectrum on that show.
There’s a screwball aspect to the sitting in a basement, smoking weed while having extremely heartbreaking scenarios play out with Ryan. You really root for him, cause he’s really going through something.
A lot of that played because Elijah is so incredible. Elijah had brought so much more ability to that character, you really wanted to see him get better, you know, and I just think that Jason was hilarious. Jason’s skill level as an actor is, like, I’ve never seen anything like it. But Elijah had the more difficult role of playing real in this extraordinarily surreal situation.
Are there certain tropes or certain themes that appear in storytelling you wanted to make your own especially for this show? There are things like the romance next door, and other characters we see a lot in TV, but a lot was done differently on Wilfred. Is there something you set out to do at the beginning thematically in the show?
One of the things I learned on King of the Hill from Greg Daniels and the other writers I worked with there was to really shun anything that felt familiar or predictable. Fresh Prince was edgy for its day, but lets face it, it didn’t break any new grounds in terms of storytelling. So, on Wilfred, the goal was always to try and surprise the audience. To do the unexpected, and to fair, to be consistent but also very surprising if possible. We had the girl next door, we had the will they or won’t they. Right away, it was very important to me to give her a boyfriend, so that we could take that off the table. We revealed that in the second episode so she could be the object of his affection, but I didn’t want to do the will they or won’t they. I think that when characters get together on TV it’s generally pretty boring. Not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but they don’t end up together. On a more traditional show, they would, and I think a lot of fans were really expecting that they would end up together, but that’s just the way real life works, usually, unfortunately.
Thematically, I guess, for me I wanted to explore different aspects of recovery from depression, anxiety, addiction, whatever it is. For every episode, we’d come up with the germ of a story or an idea, and a recovery theme we could apply to it, and then we’d craft the story so that Ryan would learn a lesson about that particular subject, which was the title of the episode.
About depression in the show, and dealing with mental illness, the show ends in this really interesting way where he keeps Wilfred. He knows he has to accept the condition he has. Was that the goal from the beginning, that ending?
From the beginning, I was pretty sure that I wanted it to not be a magical creature. We had some conversations about it from the beginning, but to me the only explanation that made sense was that Ryan was suffering from some form of mental illness. In terms of the way we resolved it, I was really inspired by the film Fight Club, but also A Beautiful Mind, which ended with Russell Crowe’s character realizing the only way he could function was to learn to ignore his insanity. That, to me, felt very real, but because we love Wilfred, the idea of Ryan not having Wilfred in his life seemed really sad to me. So he could have Wilfred in his life as long as he understood what Wilfred was, and he and Wilfred reached some kind of agreement where Wilfred would back off when necessary, but he could be there.
A lot of people have different interpretations of the ending, which I think is fine. I know what I think it is, but Elijah had some theory of Ryan actually being dead. We intentionally left it ambiguous, but in my mind, the ending is really clear. The couch on the beach is more about a state of mind than an actual couch on the beach. It’s him getting out in the world. The only question that didn’t get answered, and I don’t really have an answer, is if the basement is real or not. I know how I feel, but I’m not going to say whether it’s real or not. That is up to the viewer.
It’s the spinning top at the end of Inception, but with a basement and an apple bong, which I think is much more fun, personally. Just about the will they or won’t they, I love the fact that the show treated them realistically. There were antics, but also relatable realism, the characters’ interactions were real. Did you have that in mind from the beginning, or was their not ending up together a response to something in mainstream media?
I personally didn’t have a strong feeling over whether they’d get together during the run of the show. You never know how long a show is going to run. We’re very fortunate in that when FX picked up the fourth season they said wrap it up. If the show had run longer, I think we might have done a season where Ryan and Jenna were together and then Jason had pitched a joke where he says, “you’re going to fuck my mom, I’ll go fuck your mom.” I really didn’t know if they’d end up together or not, so we started talking about the last season. The more we did it, the more it just seemed like there’s no reason for these two people to be together. They’re so different. Jenna was so sunny and light, even though she had her own darkness. Once we cast Fiona [Gubelmann], who was just… she walked in the room and we all just smiled. She has this overwhelmingly happy and beautiful personality, and Jenna was originally conceived to be more quirky, kinda a young Annie Hall type, but once we decided to go with the all American girl next door, it seemed like she’d ultimately never be right for Ryan. And also, the way she treated him over the years, she was apologetic and sometimes not aware of what she was doing, he deserved better than her. We developed some flaws for her, and I’m really happy she’s with Drew. I think they actually make it work. In my mind, they go back to Wisconsin, and they figure it out. And Ryan’s happy too.
I don’t know if I’ve ever revealed this publicly, but we initially considered Dorian Brown, who ended up playing Kristen, for the role of Jenna, and it really came down to the wire between her and Fiona. And we ended up going with Fiona and we shot the pilot with a different actress playing the sister. The other actress is wonderful and she works all the time, but it wasn’t quite right so we had to recast her, and we all loved Dorian and brought her in. She read for Kristen and it was a much better fit. I’m really glad we found a way for Dorian to be involved in the show.
I think every year, every season of shows, more is allowed, for better or worse, sometimes, speaking about shock value in media. You brought something more mental and more emotional to TV, pushing mental boundaries. When you were working on the show, did you run up against things people said you shouldn’t be doing it, taboos?
The difference with Wilfred is that you’re probably more used to seeing those kinds of themes and stories done in a drama, rather than in a half hour. I think there was some concern on the parts of some individuals about the show being too dark and too dramatic for a half hour, for a comedy. I think perhaps they were right, because our audience never reached the size that the network had hoped. We have a super loyal core of fans, but it’s not as big as some other shows, because I think our show requires that you have to think about it.
In terms of the actual subject matter, there was only one episode they asked us not to do, in the first season. It was the one where Wilfred ejaculates all over Ryan, but that wasn’t why. The way we were telling the story at that time, they thought it was bad for Wilfred’s character, and they were absolutely right, then we brought it back in the second season and we adjusted it and they were fine. We didn’t really have any content issues. Every now and then there’d be a language issue thing, but overall FX was incredibly supportive and allowed us to do the stories we wanted to do and the themes we wanted to touch on, but I think if we were not promoted as a comedy, we might have done better. I think the goal was to be a companion to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which is a completely different kind of show. Wilfred was very funny, but it can also be very heavy.
I think there are shows where you don’t have to pay attention, and those are the super popular shows, like Big Bang Theory, or Family Guy, you don’t really have to pay attention, you can come in and out of that and still enjoy it. And then there are comedies where you have to pay attention, like Community was a really sharp show, and 30 Rock; you had to sort of pay attention and listen to the dialogue. Then there are shows where you have to pay attention and you have to think about it, and there’s a lot of people who watch TV and they don’t want to think. They just want to be entertained for half an hour, and I think a show like Wilfred was more challenging for those people. That was the show we wanted to do. I actually wanted it to be its own sub genre of comedy. The situation psycho-comedy. We were promoted as a funny show. The third season, there was a conscious effort to make the show funnier, and I think it felt like a different show, it didn’t feel as good to me, so we course-corrected in the fourth season and brought it back to the first and second season tone.
Are there certain taboos you’ve encountered in the industry, and in your experience as a storyteller? How do you think certain taboos are playing out now and will change in the future?
I think there are certain subjects that if you’re going to do a joke about or going to examine in a comedy, it better be really smart and clever and fresh. Rape is an incredibly delicate subject, and there was a rape joke that was actually included in Wilfred that I really didn’t care for. I just didn’t think it was smart enough. For whatever reason, it was left in. And we did get a lot of reaction to it, and it was hard to defend, because I felt the same way. There are a lot of taboo subjects, like incest is another taboo subject where if you’re going to do that in a comedy, you better find a way to do it… look, I’m not super politically correct, I’m as politically incorrect as you can get, you know, from Family Guy. Any kind of racial humor to me, as long as it’s really smart, fair game. I’m Jewish, make some really funny Jew jokes, and I will laugh. White guy jokes are hilarious. You can make fun of anyone, as long as you’re willing to make fun of anybody, and you’re smart about it. I think there are some sexual topics that people are really uptight about. One of the things FX asked us to do, they asked us to limit the time’s we said “Jesus Christ” or “god damn.” And they said it’s not because they don’t want us to say it, but because they get letters from the viewers of the show saying people love the show but are uncomfortable with those phrases. And as it was put to me, these aren’t holy rollers who want to wanted white TV, you know, clean, they just ask us to be judicious about it. I thought we could be respectful of that. I get it. If they’d said to never say it, I would have said, well that’s how people talk.
In terms of taboo subjects, I don’t know. On cable, you can do almost anything. I mean, especially in drama, look at Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad. Those shows go to some really dark places. I think there’s a little more sensitivity to it in comedy, and mostly because nobody tries it in comedy, nobody expects it in comedy. It’s hard to do. In terms of the trends, I remember on the first couple seasons of Family Guy, a huge chunk of my job was dealing with the censors and broadcast standards, and fighting for jokes. Now when I watch the show I see jokes I cannot believe. How did they get that on the air? Standards have loosened up a bit. When the show came on it was really pushing the envelope. We had to fight for a lot of those jokes; a lot of the jokes that now seem very tame were big fights back in the day.
Do you think pushing the envelope sometimes has a negative effect on storytelling? Can dark themes or shock make a story less real? Or is all this only making television better?
If your goal is to be shocking or titillating, then it’s probably going to be crap. Early on when HBO was trying to do comedies I seem to remember they had shows where you’d see naked breasts, and there was no reason for it, except it’s cable and we can show breasts. That always felt lazy and cheap. If your only goal is to shock, or be edgy, then I think you’re kinda a hacky writer. If you’re doing it because it’s natural to the character or it’s working in the situation and you want to dig in, it enriches the viewing experience. I think that maybe Family Guy is one of the main components of this, and certainly Seinfeld.
There was a certain point where comedy started being very ironic, and very detached and insincere. I think Everybody Loves Raymond is an example where there are real heartfelt, sincere emotions. How I Met Your Mother was really good at that, and Modern Family, to some extent, also does that, and those are the kinds of shows I like to watch. I like to watch shows that make me laugh but also make me feel something, maybe make me think about my life a little in a different way. The best comments to me I got about Wilfred were from people who said, wow, this really made me reexamine some area of my life. I got a letter from one guy who said it kept it from committing suicide. There’s one particular episode where it ended with Ryan realizing he was sad. This is a guy who didn’t like Elijah Wood, sort of watched the show grudgingly, and wrote this really heartfelt note about how helpful the show was to him. And I heard that from a number of fans; that it made them laugh but it also touched them on a deeper level, and that made me feel great. Without sounding too pretentious, this is my art, and what writers want to do is touch people, and that was pretty satisfying.
You said that you can make fun of anyone, or you can do comedy, if you are intelligent about it, and I want to ask what is the intelligent application of sex in media? There’s a lot of debate over sex in the media, especially with the question of what we’re allowed to do and show. Some people get flack, like Belle Knox, but others get praise in Hollywood for being sex symbols, outside the adult industry. It’s a crazy issue, and I wanted to know your opinion.
You know, I’m very prudish when it comes to that stuff. I don’t like episodes that are about sex. I remember when Friends first came on the air, and the reviewers really savaged it because the first episode was all about Monica having a one-night-stand or something. The critics were not kind to that show in the beginning. Obviously, everybody loved it at some point. I don’t like doing stories about sex. First of all, comedy, it always ends up having this prurient quality like Porky’s, which is one of my least favorite movies of all time. I think that our society in general is way too obsessed with sex and I think we use sex to sell things, and, you know Belle Knox versus Scarlett Johansson, I mean there’s clearly a difference there.
There are many movies and dramas that tell stories about sex really effectively and really interestingly. If all it’s about is sex, again, if it’s just meant to titillate or shock or be edgy, to me, that’s really hacky. If you’re using it for a reason–you know, in a comedy sex can be really funny–but it shouldn’t be like, “we’re just a bunch of guys trying to get laid!” That to me is just really boring. Generally, when stories about sex are pitched, I generally try to shy away from them. I also think that it makes, from a broadcast point of view, a lot of the audience uncomfortable. People don’t want to see, especially if they’re with their kids, a show about sex. I mean there are shows I watch with my kids. I was watching Friends with my sons who are nine and eleven, and there were some pretty sexual jokes there, which were fine, because it’s Friends, and it’s PG rated. There was a show on that was trying to emulate Friends, a British import called Coupling, and they did an American version of it, and it was just all about sex and it bombed. I think the reason it bombed is because it was all about sex instead of being about real relationships and real people.
There’s a lot of debate about sex in the media, and how maybe the more it’s shown the less it’s understood or depicted and talked about on an intelligent level. I remember an episode of The Sopranos in which for no reason there was a minute or two of just breasts at a strip club, and it made it so I couldn’t watch it with my father, it wasn’t necessary.
I read somewhere that in Game of Thrones that when they have a scene with a lot of exposition, they’ll set it in a brothel and have a couple of women making out in the background to make the exposition more interesting. I don’t know if that’s true, but if you watch that show, it does seem that a lot of things are being explained with lesbians kissing in the background.
Now that I think about it, yeah, I remember a scene about a character coming to a slow realization… and there was a naked woman with him in a bathtub.
I guess if it’s working for them, then maybe they know more than I do. I haven’t missed an episode yet. Good storytelling.
Right, what can we expect from you in the future? What about the future of Wilfred?
They haven’t syndicated it as far as I know. I tried to get it the other day on FXNOW, and it’s not there. I hear it’s going to be on Hulu Plus, I’m not sure why it’s not on FX’s own website. Wilfred, the US series, is over and done with. In terms of what I’m going to do next, I don’t know. I’ve been meeting on some things, and I’ve been mulling some notions. My challenge was that for me Wilfred was the perfect expression of what I wanted to do in comedy, and everything else I think of is boring by comparison, so I’m actually considering trying my hand at drama next. I don’t have any particular thing in mind. I’m really impressed with shows like Fargo, which bind humor and drama and can explore some darker, quirkier themes, and I think because of Wilfred some of those doors will be open to me now. Mostly I’m just enjoying my kids and taking some time off, and waiting for the next thing that’s inspiring to come along.
For now, the fate of Zuckerman in television is a little mysterious, but if Wilfred is any indication, the next big show from this writer will be another strange, relatable, and bittersweet experience that will make us all wish more storytellers took cues from him. I know I’m looking forward to it.