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 Knights of Prosperity" co-creators Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman.
Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman know all about the weird, crazy road shows sometimes can take on their way to the air. "Ed" began as a single-camera half-hour for CBS before finally airing as an hour dramedy on NBC. ABC's "The Knights of Prosperity" began as "Let's Rob Mick Jagger" and before that Jeff Goldblum. It's a road they nevertheless embrace as the end result in both cases have been shows they're extremely proud of. I recently had the chance to chat with Rob and Jon, where we talked about said weird, crazy roads, the struggles most new comedies go through and of course, "Ed's" DVD chances.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview took place last month, before ABC announced it was benching the series for the time being. In a follow up e-mail Jon told me: "As you may have seen, the last episode that aired introduced a new storyline about the Knights robbing Ray Romano. The four remaining unaired episodes start, but do not finish, that storyline. The reason ABC pulled the last four episodes was so that the show could potentially be relaunched in the fall at the beginning of the Ray story, rather than somewhere in the middle of things."]
Brian Ford Sullivan: Before we start - I have to ask, who do I have to kidnap, blackmail and/or threaten to get "Ed" on DVD?
Rob Burnett: We're working on that. [Laughs.]
Jon Beckerman: Yeah, it's been sort of confusing especially since everything else that's ever been made for television seems to be on DVD now. But our understanding is that things got kind of tied up in between the different entities that were involved in producing the show. Because it was a joint production of Viacom Productions, which no longer exists, and NBC Productions and I guess Viacom kind of got absorbed back into Paramount and I don't know, it's just a whole maze of executives and confusion. But we've had a lot of requests for it come our way and so we just want copies for ourselves mostly. [Laughs.] We'd like that to happen.
RB: I think that the real reason is that the show is so good they fear that if they put it on DVD people would die of laughter. So it's really a precautionary measure.
BFS: [To channel Rob Thomas, who's going through similar troubles with "Cupid"] does it drive you crazy to see something like "She Spies" make it to DVD before "Ed?"
RB: Don't sell "She Spies" short. [Laughs.]
JB: Was that the show with Natasha Henstridge? I always thought it was very interesting that she was in a movie called "Species," which some people pronounce "Spe-Shes," and then she was in a show called "She Spies." Is that a coincidence or is that why they called it "She Spies?"
BFS: I think you're on to something.
JB: I throw that out to your readership. [Laughs.]
BFS: Alright, onto "Knights." To start, why Mick Jagger?
JB: Well, as you may know the show started out with a pitch that Rob and I brought to all four networks - not including the CW - with Donal Logue and the pitch was for a show called "Let's Rob Jeff Goldblum." And we pitched that without mentioning it to Jeff. [Laughs.] We just thought it was sort of a funny name. [It] had kind of an odd, random quality to it. Also that Jeff would actually be funny doing it. And we sold that version to all of the networks we pitched it to, which was pretty crazy. And basically what happened was we ended up talking to Jeff about it but he was already almost committed to the show "Raines," and I think it's coming on pretty soon on NBC. And so then it became a matter of making all kinds of lists and looking for other people. And [ABC Entertainment president] Steve McPherson floated the idea of Mick and we kind of just laughed it off as [it] seemed like an impossibility. But we went ahead and rewrote a version of the script to incorporate Mick and wrote his little E! channel stuff. That was pretty much how the idea came up. Lists were made of the biggest stars in the world and many of them we knew were absolutely impossible to ever appear in even the tiniest cameo and Mick we thought was equally impossible. He ended up reading our script on a flight to Japan or something and really thinking it was funny. And the rest kind of fell into place from there. But we shot several days on the pilot before we had any kind of commitment from Mick. And his material was not shot until several weeks later in New Zealand. So all of that kind of happened at the very last minute.
BFS: And then the idea itself, where did that come from?
RB: You know, we've always been attracted to kind of the idea of doing a show about an everyman and we also liked the idea of doing a show that had a funny idea behind it. As opposed to, you know a lot of comedies today though they might be funny don't necessarily have a comic premise to them. We thought it would be interesting to try and do a show that just when you said it, it sounded funny. You know, unlike a bunch of people sitting around in an office or a bar or this or that. So we had originally talked about maybe doing a show about people, a bunch of average guys, who are not at all equipped with any kind of expertise trying to rob a bank. And we developed that for a little bit and we were getting close to going out to California in order to pitch that and at the time we found out unbeknownst to us - we tend to work in a vacuum a little bit in New York - that there was this show "Heist" that had just been purchased by NBC. Then we felt kind of silly going out to pitch a show about guys trying to rob a bank after now "Heist" was the thing that was happening. And even though the shows were pretty different, I think it was a drama and ours was a comedy, we went back to the drawing board and started thinking more about it. And we thought, you know what, there might be a better idea here. What if the thing that they were robbing was funny and instead of it being a bank what if it was Jeff Goldblum for example and it just made us laugh so we figured let's give that a shot.
BFS: Having done both "Letterman" and now scripted shows like "Ed" and "Knights," what the was catalyst behind making that transition?
JB: I think it was not a matter of preferring one to the other so much as just wanting to try new things. Both of us obviously spent many years doing variety and I think probably felt like we had thought of the best stuff we were likely to think of in that format. I had also worked for and with the guy who's best at doing that, namely Dave. So it wasn't as though, you know, when we thought about doing another project that we were just going to just leap into another talk show for another guy. Because at that point, why not just, you know, continue with "Letterman" stuff which would be fine too. It was mostly just a matter of okay, let's see what else is out there to try. "Ed" was originally pitched as a half-hour, single-camera show so that's something that we had kind of being trying to do for a long time. And when CBS didn't want a single-camera half-hour, we turned it into a single-camera hour which ended up on NBC. That was sort of the weird path to the "Ed" that landed on television. But in the meantime, obviously single-camera half-hours got a lot more popular, or at least a little more popular, so we finally had the chance to develop this one.
BFS: Speaking of single-camera shows, are there any that you watch regularly?
RB: The original "Office." When I saw that, the British version of "The Office," I pretty much felt like it was time to leave television and open up a deli. [Laughs.] Because I just thought that was about as good as you can do. And then surprisingly, much to my shock, I thought that the American "Office" managed to and continues to manage to be very, very strong. When I heard that Greg Daniels was taking on that, I just thought that felt like somebody putting on Babe Ruth's uniform to take batting practice. [Laughs.] This poor man is going to get his head handed to him. But they managed to pull that off. I tend to watch that. I also watch "Extras," I pretty much will watch anything that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant will do. I'm also a fan of "Entourage" definitely. What other HBO ones... "Curb Your Enthusiasm" for sure. So yeah, I feel like there's a lot more good half-hours than there used to be. I was a huge "Larry Sanders" fan but at that time it seemed like that was pretty much the only thing of its type. And now there's several.
BFS: Whereas traditional sitcoms seem to be disappearing...
RB: Yeah, it's crazy how that's happened and yet, when you look at what's actually getting the best ratings in the world of comedy it continues to be the traditional half-hour. It's weird. As great as "The Office" is and as successful as it's been, you know getting Emmys and stuff, and as big as "Earl" is, if you really look at their ratings compared to like "Two and a Half Men" and ["Rules of Engagement"], it's like a whole cut above. And so this whole single-camera/multi-camera thing is kind of confusing. [Laughs.] I don't know, I don't know. Also I like "How I Met Your Mother" by the way. That's like the only kind of multi-camera looking half-hour that's come along lately that I've been [addicted to].
BFS: So moving forward on "Knights," where do you see the show going? Will the Mick Jagger thing always be the carrot on the stick?
JB: Well, where we left off at the end of [episode] seven was basically the guys losing all of the progress I've made in the season so far. And the next two episodes, the one that airs this Wednesday, which I would recommend to people who haven't watched the show, if you're going to watch one, this might be the one to watch for better or for worse. It's one of my favorites that we've done. But this and the next one kind of start a new storyline that - without giving too much away - introduces more than one major celebrity [to rob]. We're kind of doing a little transition and getting a new story arc going over the next couple of weeks.
BFS: Is that a direct result of not being able to use Mick on a regular basis?
JB: Well, you know, as it turns out as exciting as it was to get one of the world's biggest all-time rock stars in our pilot, as you may have noticed he didn't pop up a lot in succeeding episodes. [Laughs.] And we felt like rather than kind of biding our time until that day would come when Mick would be available, that there were other directions we could move things. So that's what you'll start to be seeing over the next couple of weeks.
BFS: So as far as the characters go, it feels like the actors quickly "became" their roles. Like I don't think I could picture anyone besides Kevin Michael Richardson playing Rockefeller Butts at this point. Did that surprise you?
RB: I feel like we got very lucky with the casting. And most people that do this for a living will tell you that shows pretty much live or die by casting. I mean without a doubt, it's the most important element of any show. Jon and I would go out to California for these trips and more often than not, we'd come back and we just were gitty we were so happy with the people that we were getting. And I think one of the strengths of the cast for us is that unlike the structure of other shows, we were not necessarily locked in to the characters that we had. We had ideas for characters and if we couldn't cast them or couldn't figure them out in the writing we would just, we would cut them. So it was really, the idea was let's go out and get really funny people and then write for those funny people. And luckily we've got really, really funny people in the cast. Obviously it stars with Donal so right there the bar is very high and then when we started adding everybody else we just felt incredibly lucky. It's great to be writing a show where you kind of feel like you can just toss the ball to anybody and they're going to nail it. It's been a thrill for us. It's the second show we've done that we've been very lucky with casting.
BFS: So I generally try to ask everyone - if you had 30-seconds to tell people why they should watch your show, what would you say?
JB: There would be a lot of begging involved. We'd put "please" a lot in there. [Laughs.] For starters I'd say that I don't think there's another comedy on the air quite like it. Um... God... I'm wasting my 30 seconds here. [Laughs.] It's like a buzzer is going to go off and I've completely failed this task. I don't know, it's hard to say anything without it sounding like begging.
RB: What's frustrating - I'll jump in for a second - I think that one thing that's been a strange experience with this particular endeavor for us is that the response of the people that watch the show has been very, very positive. And I think the network itself has done focus groups on people that are watching the show and people really, really like it. I think the show is a little bit of a departure for what ABC is used to putting on the air in the past. They're used to having pretty much very traditional multi-camera sitcoms. I think now we find ourselves in a place where you know we're just struggling for people to sample the show. Because when they sample it, they seem to really like it. But the comedy is, like Jon said, different than a lot of other things on television. We like to think that it's smart and sophisticated without being self-aggrandizing. I mean Jon and I have spent most of our adult lives kind of analyzing and honing comedy. And not that we're necessarily amazing at it but we have a very strong opinion and sensibility about what we think it should be but at the same time we feel like the show is very accessible in its comedy. You know I can tell you I get ridiculous amounts of compliments from the 11 and 12-year-old boys that are watching the show. [Laughs.] So it's nothing that's necessarily hard or difficult to figure out and yet at the same time there's a couple levels to it that I think different people enjoy. I think I've gone over 30 seconds. [Laughs.] You didn't stop me so I kept on going.
BFS: So I've always wanted to ask this - what's your routine on Thursday when the ratings come out? Are you up bright and early next to the fax machine?
RB: I'm up early on Thursday mornings to check the ratings on "Friday Night Lights," which is my favorite show in television. I want to make sure that they stay on the air. That is almost more important to me at this point because of my viewing patterns. [Laughs.]
JB: And I'm up at 5 a.m. in the morning because that's when my 19-month-old daughter gets up.
RB: Yes, his 19-month-old daughter is checking the ratings. [Laughs.]
JB: She wants to know if she'll be going to college. [Laughs.] The truth is - and I know this is the pat answer - we do this because this is what we love to do but our ability to do this depends upon people watching it. And everyone would love to have a hit show. You know, at this point we'd be perfectly happy with a niche audience that shows up and can keep the show on the air. [Laughs.] As Rob was saying, for whatever reason - whether it be we premiered on January 3 right after the holidays, whether it be that our show has a bizarre title that doesn't apply to any type of television show that the average person would like to watch, whether it be that we were quickly overwhelmed by the tsunami that is "American Idol," whether it be we're currently on between "George Lopez" and "According to Jim," neither of which are particularly similar in tone or sensibility to our show, who knows - the fact is that we haven't had a huge sampling yet from the audience at all. It wasn't one of those things where you premiere big because of the hype and then the next week you're down 40% or something. It was simply that people had not seen the show. And we don't know why honestly. It could be any or the reasons I listed or it could be completely other kind of reasons. But you know the network has really tried to get behind it. They think that they have something that it could grow if more people saw it. It could become something. All we can do is keep at it, try to do good shows and happily I can say, creatively, as happy as we have been with the ones that have aired, I think the ones to come are actually better. We'd like more people to see this show. I'm proud of it.
NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: "October Road" co-creators Scott Rosenberg, Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec.