Welcome once again to "On the Futon With...," a new (hopefully) weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.
THIS WEEK'S GUEST: "The War at Home" creator Rob Lotterstein.
Rob Lotterstein thought his first job - as a staff writer on "Dream On" - would be his last. A dozen jobs later, he still thinks his latest one - as creator and executive producer of "The War at Home" - will be his last. Nevertheless, as you'll see, he's genuinely enthusiastic about his time on "War" and what lies ahead on the show. I recently had the chance to sit down with Rob at his Warner Bros. Television office, where we talked about the twists and turns of his career, our mutual love of Sprague Grayden and family comedies in general.
Brian Ford Sullivan: So how did "The War at Home" come about?
Rob Lotterstein: I had a deal to do a pilot at FOX. And that deal was made by Jeremy Gold who was the former head of comedy development and has since moved on. But he's a terrific guy and he... I had worked for many, many years, almost 10 years, with Ellen Idelson [as] my writing partner. She and I started together and we started on "Dream On" and we went all the way through shooting our first pilot which was called "Sixteen to Life" for the WB and 20th was the studio and that show did not make it on the air. I was kind of shocked at the time. You never should be shocked because it's like anytime anything goes right in this business, that's the shocking thing. So I should have been emotionally prepared and known but it was all going so well! We went in and pitched it and they liked it and the outline came out good and the script came out really good and we found a really good star for it and we shot it and I didn't hate watching it and I actually laughed.
BFS: It was with the girl from "Jericho" right?
RL: It is the girl from "Jericho." And she was also in "Over There," she was also on "Joan of Arcadia." This was the first big thing that she did. Her name is Sprague Grayden and she's a huge talent and she came in the door and I was like, even I an experienced executive producer, knows that she's really great. And it just shows that she is because she continues to work and she can do comedy and she can do drama and I love her. We felt she was going to be the next big WB star. The WB did not agree. It did not get on the air and like I said it went along as well as it possibly could have gone for a first development project and it did not get on. For the life of me, I could not figure out why it didn't happen and then I think within six months Ellen had passed away. And I thought, "oh my God, maybe that was the reason it didn't get on because how could I have gone on?" I couldn't have gone to work every day knowing, you know?
The project actually came back around the following year. CBS redeveloped it. They had thought that they were going to do a project with Hilary Duff. [She] was going to do a TV show and this was a perfect role for her and I was like, "now it all makes sense!" [Laughs.] It was destined to go 10 years, Hilary Duff is going to be in it! Oh my God! [Laughs.] I should probably start looking at big houses! But everyone agreed it was perfect except for Hilary Duff who didn't want to do it and didn't really want to be on a TV show and that all went away but I got paid a little more money and that was good. Because in my mind I was never going to work again. You know, as a writer I was so thrilled and pleased to get my first job which was on "Dream On." You met Stephen Engel in our writers' room. He gave me my first job. And I was like, "well I did it!," which is one of the big problems with achieving your goals is that you need new goals and I had struggled for so many years like four or five, maybe even seven, I don't even remember how many because I used to be a huge pothead.
But I eventually got a job on a TV show and I hooked up with Ellen Idelson and we got our first job and I was like, "I'm done, I've made it! This is it!" And you know, and we continued and continued and I in my mind always thought "this will be the last job we ever get. We got fired from 'Caroline in the City,' now we're dead! We had a nice little run." So when Ellen passed away, I was like well, "I had a much longer ride than I thought I was, now I know it's over." And I wound up getting another job on a show and I was like, "well this will be the last one." [Laughs.] And then I got another one, and again it's like, "well I know this will the one, this is it! I know this is it. The show's on UPN, this has got to be the end of the line!" [Laughs.] It feels like it should be. That was actually a really fun project. I worked with my friend Robin Schiff on the Jenny McCarthy "Bad Girls" thing which was a really, really fun job. And Robin is a fantastic, wonderful writer and collaborator. She worked on this show last year, she consulted with me. I know you asked a question at one point. [Laughs.]
But I know the point. The point was when "Sixteen to Life" went away... Jeremy Gold had made the deal for Ellen and I to do "Sixteen to Life" in the first place. And when it got going again at CBS I e-mailed him saying, "you'll never guess, maybe it is still meant to be!" And he was now at FOX and he e-mailed back, "hey, that's great to hear." And probably a week later he called my agent and said I want to do a project here at FOX with Rob. And I was like, "oh, that's so sweet, this will be the last thing I ever do! Isn't that wonderful?" [Laughs.] And I was really determined not to embarrass him. [It] was really my [motivation]. [Laughs.] I mean he had gone out of his way to give me six more months in this business, I don't want to make him look terrible. I'm going to try really hard. But in reality and I had worked with Michael [Hanel] and Mindy [Schultheis] from Acme on developing "Sixteen to Life" and had a really good rapport with them and a good shorthand with them. They had actually made at the same time a deal with them to do a project at Warner Bros. where their deal was so I married them all together. And that was your question, how did this get started?
Mindy said, or Michael and Mindy said, one of those two guys said, "if you do a thing for FOX, they always like a family show." And I said, "a family show? I don't know anything about that. You know, I'm a gay man in a relationship. We have an orchid we can't take care of. I don't know about raising children and stuff like that. And besides, I hate those family shows." And Mindy said, "why do you hate those shows?" And I go, "because they're such bullshit!" "What do you mean?" she said. "Have you ever watched - and I don't want to name names but we all know the ones that have been on - except for the great ones like 'Malcolm' and there a few [out there] but every CBS, NBC, ABC family sitcom I ever saw growing up was so far removed from the life that I had led as a teenager and growing up. When I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was drink and smoke pot and try to have sex. That was all I remembered about being a teenager. The rest of it seems so bullshit to me." I said, "ever worse now, all my friends that I went to college with that have kids and have teenagers, you know, they're out smoking pot on one side of the house while the kids are on the other side of the house smoking pot." And Mindy and Michael said, "well, why don't you write about that?" And I said, "well, who's going to put that on TV?" And they said, "FOX." [Laughs.]
And it really started out to be the anti-family show. And what I tried to do, so much of the stories I heard - we got so many bad reviews. Family shows are never well reviewed because critics just don't like them. They're automatically soft and automatically been there and done that, except for "Roseanne" maybe, every family show in the history to television has gotten a bad review. But not the amount of bad reviews that this show got. [Laughs.] Yours, The Futon Critic, I'm telling you was incredibly kind [by comparison]. [Laughs.] The [L.A.] Times liked us and The Futon Critic wasn't that mean to us. [Laughs.] Don't write about that, I'll sound like I'm bitter. [Laughs.] I laughed at all of them because I go, and Michael was like "what is so funny?", I go, you know, this is great - if I didn't have a show I never could be reviewed. Think of all the people whose pilots didn't make it that never get a chance to get shit on. [Laughs.] This is great as far as I'm concerned.
Anyway, so many of the stories we did last year and continue to do this year, were things that happened to me as a teenager and the things that I did. And I should mention I stopped smoking pot about 10 years ago but from the time I was 14 to the time I was maybe 31 - I don't even remember when I quit for obvious reasons, my memory is not what it should be - so many of the things that I remember and I put into the show. And the pilot, we got all these horrible reviews going, "the most ridiculous thing - the kid dressed up like his mother to steal the car - but one of my best friends was Marc Silverberg and we did that. He put on his mother's tennis hat and her big lady oversize glasses and we drove around and if anyone saw us they thought it was his mother. And that's how we stole the car. And I literally put it in the pilot and people were like, "this is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen! It's pathetic!"
Well, it happened to me as many of the things [in the show] did. Like we did the episode about stealing pot from the father's drawer. So many of these things happened to me and happened to friends and whatever. We did an early story where it was literally word for word from my college roommate, who this character is kind of based on, the main character Dave. He's kind of in my mind, my dad, if he was a dad today, which is kind of like my college roommate who is a father of teenagers now. So it's all mixed together plus it's now feels like Michael Rapaport too, thrown in there together. But my college roommate called me and we weren't talking about the show, which I was just starting to put together, but he goes, "ugh, my son came up to me and the funniest thing, he goes, 'Dad, can I show you my penis?' And I was like, 'ah, I'd rather you not. Why do I need to see your penis?' He goes, 'there's something wrong with it.' And he takes it out and it's like 'oh my God' the kid's 14, how did he get herpes? Wait a minute... have you been jerking off a lot?' He goes, 'Yeah.' What are you using for lubrication? 'Ah, nothing.'" And the kid have given himself a blister by jerking off too much.
So I said, "can I have that story?" He's like, "what are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to put it on TV." So it became the story - verbatim - and Matt did exactly what Dave did - he went out and he bought him a bottle of lube. What do you do? To me that was indicative of what the show was, that we've seen a million father-son conversations between teenage boys and their fathers but this was a modern problem because in the past you never ever in a million years would have talked to your father about jerking off but we parents nowadays, everything is "talk to me about everything! We need to communicate, there are no secrets! There's no shame!" And then the kid comes to you and goes "I want to show you my [penis], I got a blister on it from jerking off." What do you do? You go out and get him a bottle of lube. But it felt like to me the first time in history that this would possibly happen. I wouldn't have done it, I know my dad never would have done it, this was of the moment. I'm sure we got a lot of flack for that too, but it was verbatim literally, I didn't write that I transposed it.
So that kind of was the genesis of the show. And just trying to show what a real family is like nowadays and the things that they have to [deal with] - the drugs, the sex, things like that. These are the real things that are happening. And teenagers, 65% or more of teenagers engage in oral sex before the time they are 18. That's most of them, you know? And we did an oral sex story. This network - you didn't ask but - has been amazingly good. The studio and the network, they both rarely question stories that we're doing. They never think that it's too much if I say, "this happened to a friend, or this is what I want to do because kids are experiencing this." And so far, knock on wood, in 36 episodes they've never said, "you've gone too far." I don't know what I could possibly do at this point to say you've gone too far but they haven't said it yet. I know all you asked was how the show started, but I'm excited to talk about it. [Laughs.]
BFS: Do you think, as a writer then, you respond better to the sitcom format? Or was it just the genre you kept on falling into with each job?
RL: When I started... I always thought of myself as funny. And we were laughing about it because I was telling the room the other day that I found my sixth grade autograph book and someone wrote to me in sixth grade, "to the wittiest boy in sixth grade." And I was like, was I witty? [Laughs.] I was a witty boy, maybe, I don't know maybe that was an indication. But as a kid, growing up, I was always intrigued by humor. I remember listening to the Bill Cosby album and I watched every sitcom there was and I was a huge television fan. I was not good at sports. And for a while, before I became a teenager, I was kind of a little bit on the lonerish side. My friends were "Gomer Pyle" and "My Favorite Martian," whatever shows they had on in the afternoon. I loved sitcoms. I just grew up loving them, they were my friends. I remember my mother used to say, "when you grow up, no one is going to pay you to watch TV!" And as I sit there at night watching cuts I think, "boy was she wrong!" [Laughs.] I'm making a decent living doing just that. So I guess I was drawn to the half-hour format and I felt like I could succeed in it.
To this day, drama is still scary to me. Because if you do a comedy, you're telling a story but because it's a comedy I always feel like nobody is going to point a finger and go "that guy can't write!" They'll point and go "that wasn't funny, I didn't find that funny" but they're not going to say you can't write... I always try to go to the emotional place and the real place where sometimes I succeed more often than not, but if you do a drama you're really putting yourself out there. So that was scary to me, half-hour was less scary. But I've written on several single-camera shows and I like - even though I was always on staff as the go to guy for jokes or for punch up - I prefer writing scripts where it's really funny but there are no jokes. You know what I mean by that? But that was one of the things I personally liked about the script for this pilot was that I didn't feel that it was really jokey, [the humor] was coming from the attitude and from character and stuff. And then to go back to the reviews, they were like "there's not one joke in the script!" I was like, "I know, I had worked very hard to make it funny and not having any jokes in the script! That was the whole idea! The people in the audience thought it was hysterical, there was no laugh track! I swear! I turned it down in places! It was too loud!" [Laughs.] But I really don't care. I'm happy to be on the air. Ask me about our move to Thursday nights?
BFS: How do you feel about your move to Thursday nights? [Laughs.]
RL: Well I always dreamed of having a Thursday night television show, I just thought it was going to be in the mid-90s on NBC. [Laughs.]
BFS: I thought it was just a two week test?
RL: Well we don't know. It is a December test and I know that the network believes in the Brad Garrett show "'Til Death." They've renewed it for the full year. I've actually been watching along and I really, I thought it was a good pilot. I enjoyed the pilot because I enjoy Brad Garrett so much and like this is my thing, I used to look at pilots and go "ugh, what a piece of crap!" [Laughs.] Now I'm like, "hey, hey, hey! It takes a lot of work and I lot of effort, a lot of things have to come together to get on the air! Let's be a little kinder to these people!" Now having been through the process, because it's easy to mock and make fun. I know from experience the first few episodes and finding your footing is tougher than I thought. So I've been watching ["'Til Death"] and the first couple after the pilot were okay but I've seen a couple more that I thought have been really funny. I understand why the network believes in Brad and believes in that show. It will really catch on and continue to grow. We're going to be behind it for the time being but they absolutely 100% needed something to pair it with. And on the FOX network this is it. We're the only [other] live action comedy. I was actually surprised that we weren't paired together in the fall because it made sense to me that it was marriage followed by family, although I don't look forward to the news articles that say, "this January it's 'Death' followed by 'War!'" [Laughs.] They could have a field day. They believe in Brad and I think they're on the right track with that show. I hope that it does catch on because it makes sense for us. We really were hanging out there like a fart in the wind on Sunday nights. The fact that as many people remained with us and didn't switch over to "Desperate Housewives" or how that "Cold Case" got solved or how the football game ended was really... I was impressed. But we'll see what happens. We go where we need to go and we go bravely.
BFS: So how does it feel to have one of the few live action comedies on FOX, let alone TV in general?
RL: It feels like a fucking miracle to me. [Laughs.] To think that I could name every half hour show on television right now and that I am the creator of one of them blows me away. You know I joked before in the mid-90s, there were a million, there was a million sitcoms.
BFS: NBC had 14 at same time at one point I think.
RL: I think I worked on eight of them in one year. [Laughs.] But yeah now on every network, single-camera, multi-camera, there ain't that many of them and I'm one of them. It delights me to no end. Like I said, my partner gets mad at me when I say this, but no one is more surprised or delighted with my success than I am. [Laughs.] I am shocked and thrilled all at the same time. Who would have thunk?
BFS: Does it add any pressure?
RL: It was my mantra for this year because I did not know for sure that we were coming back. We had a pretty good first year last year. Ratingswise we were in that terrific spot between "you love 'The Simpsons' and just hang on 'Family Guy' will be starting" and I am not an idiot. I know if we had premiered on Friday nights at 8:30, The Futon Critic would not be sitting in my palatial Warner Bros. office. Isn't it nice? [Pause.] It's alright, it's okay. [Laughs.] I was going to have it painted this year but I thought if I did it would be bad luck and we'd get canceled immediately. I didn't want to make any changes to my office. I'm a Jew. The pressure from me comes internally because I did not expect - Jew that I am - I did not expect that the show would get on, nor did I expect it would stay on or that I would expect it would be renewed for another season. So it has been one hurdle after another.
And I said when the show was picked up for a second season, my own personal vow was to try to improve this show every single week. I looked at this season as a gift and an opportunity to prove to the people who gave me that gift correct in doing it. And I wanted to make Dave a more interesting and more likeable character. I wanted America to embrace him more. I wanted this family to feel even more like a family. I wanted to make the characters more dimensional. I wanted to continue to do stories that we haven't seen on every family sitcom and it's hard because sometimes doing a show about a family and doing a show about teenagers we've seen a million shows like this. Well on this show what we try to do is, I remember saying last year Hillary's going to take her driver's license [test]. We've all seen the kid gets his driver's license episode. Extra points to whoever can come up with a way to do it differently. How would this show do it? I believe I was the one who came up with it and I did it as an example. Like, just for example, it could be something insane like [Dave] takes her practice driving and he loses his license for drunk driving, for instance.
So they were like, how about that? And I was like, "no, no, no that was an example." And they were like, "wait a minute, why can't we do that." And then we did it last year - he's giving her a hard time like in every sitcom, you know, the dad is teaching her how to drive and they start fighting and because he's giving her a hard time she loses her concentration and she gets pulled over and she says, "if I get pulled over now I'm never going to get my license!" So by the time the cop gets to the car they've switched places but Dave has been watching the football game and has been drinking beer all Sunday afternoon and now the officer looks at him and goes, "have you been drinking?" And Dave now gets a DUI. That version I had never seen before. So what was your question? Is there pressure? Yes and the pressure is to make this a good a show as it can be, you know, from my perspective.
BFS: So are there any other comedies you watch? Or TV shows you follow?
RL: I watched "'Til Death" because I was like, "I think they're going to pair us with them eventually and I just want to see what's going on over there." When we went to the upfronts, I got the call, and the call was "you're going to be on at... 9:30 on Sunday nights" and I was like, "really? are you sure? Well what about with Brad Garrett?" And they're like, "no, you're going on Sundays." So I was like, "thank you!" I was thrilled but I expected this move would eventually come. But I like watching new shows and seeing how they grow because sometimes you see an "eh" pilot and it turns into a great show and I'm interested in seeing that trajectory. Other times you see a terrific pilot that falls apart in episodes and as you know, that's the trick. That's the thing that I'm most interested in is seeing from start to finish. I've been to plenty of table reads and helped people out on pilots over the years and you see and go, "well that was a fucking disaster. That may very well have been the worst table read I've ever been to including an entire season I spent on 'Suddenly Susan' this was by far the worst table read." And as we walked out of that table read I go, "hundred bucks says this will wind up on the air." And they were like, "what are you crazy, it was terrible." I go, "I'm just telling you - it doesn't matter how bad it was, they believe in that star, this will be on the air." And it was but it didn't stay on long.
BFS: And it was?
RL: It doesn't matter which one it was. [Laughs.] Maybe it was a friend of mine, maybe it was just I happened to be there as a favor to the studio. It doesn't matter. But you see that and it is interesting to see that sometimes it becomes really good and sometimes becomes really bad. I've been watching, in terms of comedy, I watch Larry David when they're new because that's great to me. I just love the way he tells stories and the way it's done, it just makes me laugh. I've been watching "'Til Death," "How I Met Your Mother," which I actually really like, and I've been watching "The Class" which I really like. And there was an example because I though it was a great pilot and then the first couple were... okay. And then suddenly I found myself really, really intrigued and interested in what was going on and the chemistry of what was going on in the stories. The soap of it hooked me. And I really feel like that's one that could still absolutely take off. Those guys know what they are doing and they got me. Now I'm totally hooked in and really intrigued by their stories and who they are.
I watch more dramas though. I'm totally almost 100% reality free now. I'm off of everything right now but I go back to "American Idol" when it starts, not full on for the auditions but once it starts, even the "we're going home to their hometown specials," I'm totally there, from start to finish, every single moment. I had "on the bubble" seats last year to the "American Idol" finale. We didn't know if we were coming back so I was on the bubble. Will Gluck who created "The Loop" was also on the bubble at the time and actually sat one row behind me. But he's back too for more episodes of "The Loop" so we were definitely in "on the bubble" seats. Who knows, I'm reserving my seats early this year, just in case, you never know. I love "American Idol" but I'm reality free other than that. But I love the dramas. I love "Jericho." I tune into to see Sprague Grayden and I got hooked on that show. I never miss "Lost."
I like "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: SVU." "SVU" is the best show on TV, it's so sick. When the story is about "somebody is raping the coma victims" I'm like "that is television." [Laughs.] "That I do not want to miss. Get in here, somebody's raping the coma victims!" How can you not tune in and see what happened there? Do you know what I mean? Who did that, that's a sick fucker and I want to know. That's my favorite show. I wanted to do a coma victim rape of this show and the room said it was too far. They said the network will really not like that, it doesn't go with the show. And they were right... that episode was actually about stem cell research with a twist to it. There's always a twist to it. But I am for some reason more attracted to dramas on TV because they're... I don't know.
Which does remind me, I have to say we're coming up with two great stories, well a bunch of great stories, but I'm really, really proud. One of the criticism I've read - I go online and in the chat rooms and I see what people think - is that Larry's best friend is gay and it's all played with a wink and a nod. And I said if we come back this year, that kid's coming out of the closet. And he is and I have to say it's two of the best episodes that we've done since we've started. This kid winds up coming out to Dave and it is all at once hilarious and heartfelt and scary and true to life. And the follow up one written by Claudia Lonow and Bill Kunstler is not only just as good but it's actually funnier and better. So I'm really thrilled and I got a whole arc with the kid gets kicked out of his house and now Dave has to take him in. It's terrific so I really feel like we're doing something. And I believe this may be the very first teenage character to come out on a sitcom, on a half-hour sitcom because that kid came out on "Desperate Housewives" but I don't count that! [Laughs.] That ain't no comedy. I know because it's an hour.
BFS: So to wrap up, what's it like to come do this every day?
RL: Now I know people say this show is full of clich�s because it is a dream come true. It is, it really is. I was not a person who had a lot of aspiration in my life and maybe it was because I was an all-day, everyday pot smoker for so many years but one day I woke up and said, "you know, it would be kind of fun to write for TV." And having gotten my first job it was like living the dream and I just don't want it to go away. And to actually go all this way - shooting a pilot, getting it on the air and having a chance for it to come back - to be running my own show is, I don't know any other way of saying it, for me, it's a dream come true.
BFS: Lastly, if you had 30 seconds to tell someone why they should watch the show, what would you say?
RL: Because if they don't they many cancel us and I don't need that. [Laughs.] I don't need to be kissing those "How I Met Your Mother" guys asses for a job. [Laughs.] Honestly, I think a lot of people made some assumptions about it before - that it was this, that or the other thing - watch come January and see what the show is about and check it out again. Because when it's good it's a great show. And there's literally nothing else like it on TV right now. It ain't "According to Jim." Because "According to Jim" will make hundreds of millions of dollars for everyone involved. And this one... it's not, it's different. Is that a good answer?
NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: "The Simpsons" co-executive producer Don Payne.