Recovery in Review
An unexpected partnership creates an unexpected comedy.
Comedy can be mined from the most unexpected places.
In Loudermilk, Ron Livingston (Band of Brothers, Office Space) plays Sam Loudermilk, a filterless former music critic and recovering alcoholic who leads substance abuse group meetings. Livingston is joined by Will Sasso (Mad TV, The Three Stooges), playing Loudermilk’s roommate and sponsor, Ben. Sam also is charged with aiding the misanthropic Claire (Anja Savcic) in her newfound recovery.
Centering a series on an alcoholic in a substance abuse program might not appear to be the most likely of places to find thoughtful and biting comedy, but series creators Peter Farrelly (Unhitched, There’s Something About Mary) and Emmy award winner Bobby Mort (The Colbert Report) know otherwise.
The pair have found a way to explore the lighter side of a serious topic, injecting their series with layers of tragedy, humanity, and insightful humor that carries its characters through its first season.
How did you end up working together?
Farrelly: My sister, Cindy, read Bobby’s pilot script and sent it to me. She said, “I think it’s something you’d really like.” I read it and flipped. I remember being on page three and thinking, “I really like this [Loudermilk] character.” I called Bobby up and asked, “What are you doing with it? Let’s get together.” So, we worked it out and put the series together. We hadn’t met before. It was just kind of a random connection.
Mort: I’m a big fan of the anti-hero. I don’t think there’s enough of them in comedy. This was a chance to have someone who’s kind of an awful person be very good at helping people. You can kind of forgive him for how crappy he is to human beings. That was a lot of fun to play with. [In] working with Pete to develop this series, we’ve had a great time really building a nice world for it.
Peter is better known for his theatrical work in comedies, but is credited as the sole director for the season. Can you tell me about the challenges going from the pacing of shooting a feature to shooting over a 10-week television schedule?
Farrelly: It’s a whole different thing. We storyboarded it out. Instead of shooting one episode at a time, we shot them as we would a movie. We shot all the scenes taking place in the Sober Buddies meeting room in the same week. For me, it was like shooting a five-hour movie.
Writing it was way more complicated. For a movie, there’s a character arc we kind of have to follow. In writing for TV, I felt like we could go further. It’s a whole other genre, by the way. When I moved to Los Angeles in the 80s, the last thing I wanted to do was television, because it wasn’t good. But now it is. It’s great. Especially cable, because it lets you go places you were never able to go to before. I found it liberating.
It was by design that Peter would direct all 10 episodes?
Farrelly: Yes. I really liked the project and wanted to get it right. I don’t know how I could have not directed them, especially after the way we storyboarded it. If we had done episodes one through four, maybe someone could have come in for five, but that’s not how it was going. Somebody had to see the big picture.
Bobby went from writing features, to a staff writer on The Colbert Report, to co-showrunning. What was that jump like?
Mort: It was very much jump in and start swimming, especially when it came to the Loudermilk experience. I feel like everything before that led to me being up for it – I hope. In terms of writing features, it was just me writing a script and sending it off to get made, never getting involved in filming it.
With The Colbert Report, it was being tied to a news cycle and writing jokes every day, pounding things out to get tons and tons of material.
With Loudermilk, it was a nice mix of both things. I could do a lot of writing, but when I was on the set working with Pete and the actors, we could try out different lines, and do some improvisation to pump up a script’s jokes. It was a lot of fun in learning all the different departments and being able to help with things from wardrobe to set design to everything in between.
Sam Loudermilk’s former job is that of music critic, something today that isn’t held in as high regard as it was in the past. Was this a choice you made to make him considered outdated and obsolete?
Farrelly: I don’t think that it was a conscious choice for that reason. I’m not entirely sure that [calling critics obsolete] is entirely true. There are still music critics, but not like there were that’s for sure. Mainly, Bobby and I are huge fans of music – we love music. And I’m a big fan of a guy who goes off the rails in a very big and dramatic way.
Loudermilk’s a guy who was running around with rock bands. And you can’t live like that; something’s got to give. I like the idea that his expertise that brought him down.
Mort: I think it’s a little bit of happy accident that he’s super-critical of all the people in his life, but that’s also his super-power, being critical. He can find things wrong with music and people. But, he’s got a blind spot for himself and doesn’t see his problems, which is his biggest fault.
Farrelly: And he is a know-it-all when it comes to a lot of things, which stems from believing he’s right as a critic.
Lester Bangs was a famous music critic known for his fearless and blunt nature. Was he an influence for Loudermilk’s character?
Farrelly: Absolutely. That’s exactly the kind of guy we saw as Loudermilk. Lester obviously went a little further into the depravity department. I would say Loudermilk is more sophisticated than Lester. From what I know about Lester, he was one-hundred percent a rock critic. That was his entire life. I don’t think he had anything else going on, except for criticism and drugs. Loudermilk has a little more going on than that.
Mort: Chuck Klosterman came up some, too. More about the commentary and giving it some context on Loudermilk’s critiques on life. More in that vein, as more modern reference.
Farrelly: There’s also a guy where I grew up, named Rudy Cheeks, that worked for the underground newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island. He was kind of an expert on all things, specifically music. I always liked that type of character. He was very influential in my life as a kid. We paid attention to everything he liked and didn’t like.
Music plays its own role in the series seen in Sam Loudermilk’s love for and references to it, as well the tracks featured in each show. How did you end selecting the artists and songs?
Farrelly: We have an amazing music supervisor, Tom Wolfe (Emmy-nominated for Girls). He’s the best and is constantly sending me music to check out. I love music and I’m listening to tunes all the time. I called Tom and said, “Try to get the rights to these now before they blow up.”
We have these great bands, like Foxygen and Drugdealer. We got one of Foxygen’s songs for next to nothing because we got it early. I’m always looking for the next thing because our music budget isn’t that high.
One of the things we did was get Andy Shaw, who’s a Canadian singer. His album’s blowing up now. We bought all the songs on the album with the understanding we would play a song in each episode if he gave us a great deal – which he did. So, he’s wall-to-wall in Loudermilk.
You’ve managed to get a strong cast for the series. What made you seek out Ron Livingston to play Loudermilk?
Farrelly: He’s the perfect hangdog kind of guy. He’s charming as hell, and yet, he looks like a guy who’s always got some inner turmoil. He’s extremely likeable. Women love the guy, and guys do, too. They’re not threatened by him. He’s just kind of the perfect vibe for this thing.
Mort: He’s such a good, funny actor. Lots of people that were cast in the group were people that Pete worked with for a long time. But there are a lot of new faces, like Brian Regan or Ricky Blith, that Pete has known for years and brought them in, that did a fantastic job. That was a great part of the job and a fun series of discoveries.
There’s a real ease to the scenes between Ron Livingston and Will Sasso. Were most of their scenes improvised?
Farrelly: That’s rock solid writing. [Laughs] There was little improvisation, but most of it was written. We had a definite script, but we did let them go off the page a lot. Especially with a guy like Will Sasso, who just kills, you let him go running with something because he’s such a good improviser.
Was there any resistance to having a comedy in a rehab setting? Did that ever become a point of concern when you were shopping the series around?
Mort: One of the things we talked about early on about rehab was that the series had it as a setting, but that it would just be one of the flavors of the show. We’re not spending tons of time in the group [therapy sessions] because that would have felt like too much of a downer. I think the setting was just a layer in the show.
I don’t remember anyone balking at the idea, because we weren’t exploiting or making fun of it. We were treating it with respect for people trying to get better, while also using that for comedic purposes without crapping on anybody.
Farrelly: I don’t believe so. Our fear was that we didn’t want it to become like Dear John, where it’s the same group sitting around for 20 minutes. That would get really old. But we liked the five-minute thing, where you could bond with these people, find their innermost secrets and problems, and follow them into their lives to see where it takes you.
We also wanted to make it comedic, even though it’s a serious topic. There are a lot of serious moments, particularly in the last two episodes. We didn’t want to make light of it and wanted to show you how it really is.
Whenever you see these group meetings in movies or TV, it’s just horrific. Everybody’s crying their eyes out. That’s not the case. It’s people dealing with their issues, talking about them. They make friends. They bond. They wouldn’t go back all the time if it was just painful. It actually feels good in a lot of ways.
This isn’t why we did it, but when I look back at the show, if there are people on the fence about going to a meeting, they might see the show and say, “Aw, f_ck it. I might as well go. It’s not as bad as it’s sometimes presented in the media.”
Was there a temptation to have Loudermilk experience all 12 recovery steps in a season’s arc?
Mort: I think we tried to avoid any specific references to any actual organization. We created “Sober Friends” to pick and choose from different groups to what we think would work. Some of it uses self-help jargon, some of it’s from Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous.
I think we have so many characters at so many different stages of recovery, that without doing it consciously, we certainly hit people with all the things they’d work through. Particularly, in the episode where Loudermilk confronts his dad, there’s forgiveness and taking responsibility for his life. It came out of the stories after the fact. I don’t think we tried to hit any points of recovery.
Did the way audiences are consuming shows influence your writing?
Farrelly: Yes and no. We’re not releasing all ten shows at once. Although, I love the idea of seeing them all in a row. I think it’s a better way of doing it, to be honest. Like I said, it’s a whole new genre that didn’t exist before. Nobody’s going to a five-hour movie, but they will sit in their living room and watch five hours of TV if it’s really good.
And you can accomplish more when you have a five-hour show like this. As opposed to the traditional sitcom, which picks up every episode with a whole new story, there is a theme and an overall storyline that follows the characters through the season.
Loudermilk airs Tuesdays on the AT&T Audience Network.
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