The wacky world of office life is already a strong part of such hits as "The Office" and "30 Rock." ABC hopes to create ratings magic with its own take on the humor found in corporate culture with "Better Off Ted," which debuts Wednesday night. Our Jim Halterman talked with creator Victor Fresco about the new series and how much of what viewers will see is not as far removed from reality as one might think.
Jim Halterman: Looking at your past credits ["My Name Is Earl," "Andy Richter Controls The Universe" and "Alf"] there are definitely quite a few off-center comedies. What's appealing about that kind of show?
Victor Fresco: I see myself as many writers do as slightly on the outside looking in at things. Although I don't consider myself deeply paranoid, I can relate to people who feel slightly outside of the culture looking in amazement at what is perceived as normal. "Andy Richter" was also very much about the corporate culture, which I think is not a culture that's conducive to loving, supporting, nurturing relationships which are what we're all striving for in our personal lives. And then we go into the corporate environment and that's turned on its ear where greed, rules and human relationships run amok. I've always been interested in that difference between our personal lives and public lives. We want to relate to each other and to our families as good, moral, just people who do the right thing and then we go out to the corporate culture and it's this horrible dog-eat-dog, greed, anything-goes culture.
JH: Each episode of "Better Off Ted" begins with a commercial for the fictional Veridian Dynamic. The ads truly seem like real corporate company advertisements and if you don't pay close attention, you'll miss the punch line. What was the inspiration for Veridian?
VF: The show was developed before this big corporate explosion that we've gone through but there was not one particular company because I haven't worked for a lot of giant companies. The only large companies I've worked for are in the studio system but I see a certain similarity in the corporate culture. I think in large companies there is this culture but I think it has gotten hyperactive in the last several years, which is just that notion that profit is king and anything goes as long as it makes money. [The show] wasn't designed after any company but I think it could be any giant company that functions like this where they demand 100% loyalty but give you none.
JH: A lot of the office antics are very familiar to anyone who has worked in an office such as when, in the pilot, human resources keeps track of each employee's personal calls. Where did those details come from?
VF: That was taken from a real situation where a company I worked for sent everyone copies of their long distance calls. It was the same thing verbatim. They didn't charge anyone; they just wanted you to know that they knew you were making calls. It was basically 'We know you're doing this so stop.' The idea being that the next step is that you were going to be charged for it. I feel like a lot of this is real and then the part that is not real is only 15% skewed. The idea that a company would decide to freeze one of its employees [another plot point in the pilot], to me is not that different from what happens in the daily life of most companies. The chair thing in the pilot was also taken from real life. I was on another show and one year we came in and all our chairs had been replaced by something that was probably $15 cheaper and were very uncomfortable. When I thought about it and all the writers were complaining, I realized that nobody would ever quit their job because of a chair. Like so much in that environment, you just kind of bear it out and live with it because each one of those events by itself is not something that would cause you to quit the job but it piles on and becomes a little more dehumanizing as it goes. In the pilot, in that model, they find that uncomfortable chairs make people work harder so there's an asset to that.
JH: Can you talk about the casting of the show? Jay Harrington and Portia de Rossi are really great in their roles.
VF: It came together quickly as most of these pilots do. You don't have a lot of time to cast, unfortunately, and it's the most important thing in the show, I think. Good casting can transcend mediocre material but the best material in the world cannot transcend the mediocre casting. It's all about casting and I think we got really lucky in all five of these regulars. Jonathan Slavin I've worked with before on "Andy Richter" and always liked his work and thought he'd make a great Phil. Malcolm [Barrett] came in and read and was fantastic. I'd never seen him before but he just nailed that part. I saw Jay first for Ted because our casting person thought he would be perfect and I liked him a lot but it's so weird to hire the first person you see so we looked at a lot of other people over the five weeks that we had and kept Jay in the mix. He was the best that we had seen over that time and then he really won the part with the network and everyone realized hands down that's the guy.
Andrea [Anders] came in and I liked her work on "The Class" and I always thought she was great. Most of the process when writers watch their material read in casting they go away feeling that they suck � not the actors but the writers. If the actors don't have a take on the material that the writer does it makes the writer look bad so you sit back in endless casting sessions thinking that you suck and then someone comes in like Andrea and you think, "Oh my god! This is funny! I can actually write television." So Andrea really made the material come alive. And Portia came in [for the role of Ted's boss, Veronica] and I knew her work from "Arrested Development." We had a great meeting where she was 100% convinced that this was the right role for her and she was born to play this. She read it for me and she was fantastic. She really won this part. She was just so good at this role; she really nailed it. And, by the way, a completely different person from Veronica. She's a sweetheart.
JH: What about the decision to have Ted talk to the camera? Was there much back-and-forth on that?
VF: I thought of that very early into this idea. It might have even been one of the first thoughts. Usually when I think of a pilot it's like a lot of different elements I'm thinking about and then they start to come together. I liked the idea of a narrator. I did it in "Richter" and it was a voiceover. I just like the way you can get exposition out easier, more seamlessly and I thought there's more of an urgency to it that I liked with Ted talking to the camera. If he goes through the hustle and bustle of his day, then he can take us into a story or he can turn to us and comment on what's going on. It was just a device that I was drawn to and then as the story became fleshed out, I thought this device would work well in this context.
JH: The actress that plays Ted's daughter, Rose, (Isabella Acres) is wonderful and seems to be the moral center of the show. She's often telling Ted "this is what you should do."
VF: The idea is... well, there are two things. I have kids and I'm interested in this idea that you're pressed to be amoral in your corporate environment and then when you go home you really want your kids to know right from wrong and I think there's a real disconnect there. Why are we like that? Personally, I always thought that if you were designing a culture on another planet and you said everybody in business is incredibly ruthless so you'd design that so when everybody went home they taught their kids to be incredibly ruthless but we don't. We teach our kids right and wrong and to share and we go to work and we do wrong things and we try actively not to share so I thought it would be good to show that it's the daughter who is teaching Ted right and wrong. Ted, I think, is a moral guy. He's as moral as you can be and still have a job in this environment and he's caught in both worlds. Rose is there by design [and], like all kids, they humanize us and it helps us see the world through their eyes sometimes and think "This doesn't make any sense!"
JH: How do you feel about the time slot following "Scrubs?" You dodged the "American Idol" bullet.
VF: I'm happy with our time slot. On the ABC roster, we have about the best time slot we can get to launch a new comedy and ABC has been great with promotion. I cannot complain about anything that they've done in terms of the content of promotion or the amount that they're running. I think our time slot is great. Also, you just look at the landscape at what the network has in comedy and ABC right now doesn't have a lot of comedy so I feel good about being there. They're anxious to have something that's going to work and that's a great position for a show to be in. I think it is very compatible with Scrubs, which is also a single camera.
"Better Off Ted" premieres this Wednesday at 8:30/7:30c on ABC.