It's hard to stay happy.
It's near impossible to keep on smiling for a host of a hit kids' show. The truth behind a fixed grin intrigued showrunner Dave Holstein (Weeds) enough to create Kidding, the new Showtime series starring Jim Carrey.
Carrey plays Jeff Pickles, perennially happy host of a kids' television program whose life is thrown into disarray after a family tragedy. Jeff's problems extend into the show itself as he butts heads with his father (Emmy nominee Frank Langella) over business and programming issues and helps his sister (Catherine Keener) cope with her own family problems.
Visionary director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) joins Holstein and Carrey in an exploration in the tragically comedic trappings of family and bottled emotions.
What was the genesis of Kidding?
My first document associated with the script goes back to 2010. This was when the antihero was front and center of premium cable and Breaking Bad was really big. I hoped anti-hero fatigue would set in to where we didn't want to see characters who were just trying to sell drugs, screw hookers, and kill people.
[I hoped] that maybe at some point the tables would shift a little bit and thought maybe there's something interesting in a character who is a little more in the Mister Rogers vein, the opposite of Breaking Bad's Walter White, who's actually trying to stay good in a world that is incredibly cruel.
That journey excited me about taking a completely optimistic and idealistic character and putting them in a premium cable universe that could be dark and cynical and bleak, but without making the character necessarily susceptible to those traits. The fun for me was not taking a Mister Rogers and making him into Bad Santa.
The fun for me was taking him and trying to throw everything at him to make him lose faith. The struggle of watching him stay afloat I hoped would give us not just some fun dramedy but also a lot of dark humor and a lot of pathos, and a visual opportunity to try some things that are a little Gondry-esque and different.
The series employs a darkly whimsical tone visually and musically. How did they arrive at the look and sound for the series?
We talked a lot about needing to see the[actors'] performances first and then using music and visuals to show tone. It's a balancing act because the show begins in melancholy. In my opinion, if your music and visuals are supporting that tone with more melancholy, the show becomes far too melancholy.
What we talked a lot about, especially with [music composer] David Wingo, was finding the show's counterpoint so that when our character goes melancholy, we could go optimistic, whimsical, and more wondrous. This way you're never tipping too far into sadness or darkness, but you're always watching something with bit of a halo around it - especially in terms of the visual style.
We have an incredible director of photography, Shawn Kim, who works with Michel. A lot of times, we'll see a light facing the camera, like a lamp, just facing right into the camera. There's always a play with keeping things from getting too [tonally similar] to The Sopranos or Dexter, from getting too dark all around.
Was focusing a show on children's show host a difficult sell given shows like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood aren't prevalent in children's programming today?
Absolutely. It's also the reason I couldn't pitch the show and wrote it as a spec. The second you sit down in the room and try to pitch someone a show about a children's show host who goes dark, they have written the whole show for you in their heads, and it's not at all the show you're trying to tell.
I think someone's mind goes immediately to the first thing that reminds them of the thing that you're pitching. Maybe it's something like Death to Smoochy, which is not what our show is. But, I understand why someone's head goes there because the movie is a satire about children's TV show host, an adult story about a kid's character.
I think that what would have made it a really hard pitch is someone probably goes quickly to satire or parody, or you go to the Bad Santa version of the show, because those are the easiest versions of this show in my opinion.
What was really helpful in writing the pilot was to show what we had in mind. We tried really hard to not be a parody or a satire of a kids' TV show host. We don't make fun of that world and try to treat it very genuinely. The comedy is not going to come from watching Mister Rogers going on a bender.
Frankly, it's coming from the tragedy of life and trying to smile through it. With the sort of songs on the show that were in the script, and with a lot of the choices that we made in the pilot to keep it probably the darkest and saddest episode,
I think it would have been very hard to pitch exactly the tonal palette we wanted to do. The great part about going straight to series is saying the pilot's going to be a really dark and sad episode, but we need that to exist so that we can shine a little more light, levity, and comedy into the world as we build out of it, which we got to do.
Did you look at other television shows within shows as examples of how to strike a balance between Jeff's two worlds? For example, shows like The Larry Sanders Show or 30 Rock?
Kind of. If we had done a workplace show, which is what those two shows are, I think your show's math - the formula of how you write your show - is a little bit different.
We were never going to be a workplace anchored comedy where you had to revolve around "The Girlie Show" or "The Larry Sanders show." [The workplace setting] gave us this other place that represented our Jeff Pickles' actual family. What you'll see in later episodes is the set on the show within the show is actually modeled after Jeff's childhood living room and kitchen.
It gave us another way to juxtapose the dark tone of his world outside of this magical world. And you could do that on the set of "Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time."
What we did was hire the head writer from Sesame Street, Joe Mazzarino, to come on staff and create a legit children's show that was more of a love letter to children's television that satirized a sketch comedy show like 30 Rock or a talk show like Larry Sanders.
Was the original idea to have Jeff surrounded by family in both his professional and personal worlds?
The original idea was to keep these two worlds about both families, so that you had Jeff's real family, his father and his sister, in charge of the world of the show, and bring that into conflict with his actual family.
There was Mr. Pickles' family, his dad and his sister, and then there was Jeff's family, his wife and his child. It created interesting conflicts between those two worlds and what they both demanded of him. When he changed in one world, when Jeff changes and Mr. Pickles can't, it felt like those conflicts would be a lot more emotional if they involved his dad versus his wife as opposed to his boss versus his wife.
The anger issues came in about a second or third draft. The ticking time bomb vibe you get about his anger bubbling to the surface came out as a way to just create some tension throughout the show.
Was it difficult convincing Jim Carrey to return to television series?
Absolutely. I think he was reticent to come back to television. And when I say return, I'm referring to his days on In Living Color. Jim and I worked together on Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here and I got to know him a little bit and what sort of thing he was looking for creatively. He's someone who doesn't like to do the same thing twice.
I was pretty confident this would be right up his alley. I think creatively it always was, but I think he had to get over the hurdle off coming back to television. He understood that the thing that we could create was not necessarily just a TV show, but a 5-hour story that Michel Gondry could direct and Catherine Keener could act in.
He could see the potential of the thing and I think we didn't let him down in the sense that we never approached this process like we were going to make a TV show.
We really tried to give him 10 episodes that were unlike anything that we've seen, or at least unlike anything Jim expected from coming back to television. He set a high bar by saying yes to the show. And think the writers had to respond in kind.
We tried to build Jim this sandbox, where he could come to work every day and do the movie he wanted to do. On any given day, that movie could be a comedy or a drama or just something poetic, but it let him come to work and do something he was proud of.
And I think that the idea of doing that for three months a year, which is the amount of time you spend on a movie anyway, got him onboard and makes them want to do this as an ongoing show.
How did casting Frank Langella and Catherine Keener come about?
We asked Jim who he'd like to play his father and sister. He said [he wanted] Frank Langella and Catherine Keener. I flew to New York to meet with Frank. I pitched in the season and told him what this character would be doing and he was in.
What's your history with children's television?
I definitely remember watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and all those kinds of shows. What got me more interested in Kidding was watching clips of Mr. Rogers outside of his show. There are so many great clips of him on talk shows.
Watching him in person leave [the set of] his show and still be genuinely the same caring, lovely human being was inspiring from a character creation point of view because I wanted to test that character. But I do have a healthy obsession with early children's shows, especially the ones in the United States and Canada. They're a lot darker than we remember.
Were there any other shows or host that you took inspiration from for the series?
There were definitely, probably because we have Joe Mazzarino on staff. We pulled a lot from Sesame Street in terms of their approach and their language with children. The language they use on these shows is very specific and we wanted to get that right. They created a world that has its own rules, parameters, and mythology, and we wanted to create that as well.
We came up with this world of Pickle Barrel Falls where all the puppets live. We have a transition that takes Jeff from his living room set to the puppet world that's a little bit inspired Mr. Rogers' trolley ride into the Land of Make Believe. When Jeff gets there, it has more of a Sesame Street vibe where it's a land of puppets.
Some puppets are walkarounds like Mr. Snuffleupagus; we have a puppet called Snagglehorse. There are also different types of hand puppets.
Was the show-within-the-show, "Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time," created in a such a way that you could produce that show as a standalone kids' show?
Absolutely. We always joke about doing an episode of a show that is entirely one episode of "Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time" without leaving the walls of the studio. Especially because of the amount of merchandising we have built out around the show, we would definitely love to see the show within the show stand alone on its own.
In the show, there's a line of Mr. Pickles' frozen dinners. The Secret Chef is one our puppet characters he hides vegetables in your dinner. You don't know which vegetable you get until you get to the bottom and it reveals itself. That was a pitch from Joe Mazzarino. We were like, "Oh, that's brilliant!"
Watch Kidding on Showtime.