'The Michael J. Fox Show': An Inside Look at Writing For TV's Boldest New Comedy
There are real-life parallels happening Thursday nights on The Michael J. Fox Show. As Michael J. Fox (beloved actor, household name) returns to NBC primetime with his new sitcom, his character Mike Henry (beloved news anchor, household name) is returning to his desk on NBC's nightly news. Henry, like Fox, is coming back after a post-Parkinson's diagnosis hiatus, and the show pokes fun at the baggage that brings, both professionally and personally. "NBC's going to milk it by showing me in slow motion with lame uplifting music in the background," Henry says in the pilot episode.
It's no easy task getting a gig writing for a program like The Michael J. Fox Show, one of the most exciting new comedies on television this season. After last week's premiere, PolicyMic chatted with Annie Mebane, one of the show's 11 writers (she also worked on Community and Happy Endings) about breaking into the TV writing business, the delicacy of Parkinson's jokes, and why Michael J. Fox is still one of the funniest guys on television.
Elena Sheppard (ES): I’d love to hear a little about how The Michael J. Fox Show came together and at what stage in the process you became involved.
Annie Mebane (AM): I’m not sure exactly who approached who first in terms of Will [Gluck] or Michael J. Fox, but Will Gluck and Sam Laybourne created the show based on a lot of Michael J. Fox’s real-life situations. They brought it to networks, and it sparked a bidding war, and then NBC bought it with a 22-episode commitment.
The pilot was shot over last December and January, and that’s when my writing partner, Steve Basilone, and I heard that it was staffing up to start in March. We are both huge Michael J. Fox fans — his work from the 80s and the 90s — and both of us really appreciate how he’s reinvented himself as a philanthropist and an activist, his books, the way he handles himself. We just really admire him on a lot of levels. So we were very interested in the project and … we just aggressively told everyone we knew, "please can someone help us get a meeting with this show." We read the script, and it was very smart and heartwarming, but also funny and had a lot of fresh jokes in it, while still feeling like a family sitcom in a sort of cozy way. We interviewed, and were just crossing our fingers like crazy. Then we got the job, and started in mid-March. We all worked in Los Angeles for three months before we moved to New York. Almost the whole staff had to relocate, but we were all willing to do it because we really believe in the show and really love Michael J. Fox, and all of our upper-level producers. It’s such a great environment that the cross-country move made perfect sense. I don’t think I’d do that for just any show.
ES: I can’t believe you guys all moved. That’s kind of amazing.
AM: I know! It was sort of overwhelming, navigating the renter’s market with the whole series. We were trying to break stories while also pounding the pavement looking for a place.
ES: The show obviously has a lot to do with Parkinson’s disease. In the writer’s room, behind the scenes, how do you guys know if you’re crossing a line with a joke, or what’s going too far? That seems like it could be a very gray area.
AM: A lot of times, we approach the stories as, "this is a relatable story that could happen in any family," and then Parkinson's is the twist or the detail that makes it specific to our characters. I know for me, personally — and I can’t really speak for everyone, because I don’t know how they think about it — but I think if the joke is like, "ha ha, this person has a disease and is shaking," I don’t find that structure funny. But I enjoy jokes about people’s reactions – I find the character Kay in the pilot really funny. I like her because she highlights the real absurdity of how people react to Michael J. Fox. She’s trying so hard to be deferential that she’s mildly insulting. I think that's a funny attitude to highlight in a show that has a character with Parkinson's. A lot of the jokes that are about Parkinson's come from Mike [Fox] himself. He has a great sense of humor, and a lot of times he’ll say, "I could make this joke here."
ES: I’d love to backtrack a little, and ask about how you got started in TV writing.
AM: My writing partner Steve and I sold a movie that never got made.
ES: What was it called?
AM: It was called Dirty Step Stomp. It was sort of an Airplane-style spoof of dance movies. It never got made, but it helped us get an agent, and we were getting some momentum going, and then there was the writer’s strike of 2008, so we had to start again from square one. But we were doing rewrites of movies, and pitching for open writing assignments. And then we ended up getting hired on the first season of Happy Endings.
ES: I'm really interested in the practical aspects of writers' lives. What was it like when you were first starting out? How were you making ends meet? Were you freelancing? Doing side jobs?
AM: Oh yeah. I worked for a website that tracked coupon codes, and it was a very dangerous job for me, because I ended up shopping online without meaning to. A lot. I also worked as an assistant, I took weird odd jobs, I acted in some commercials, and the whole time, I was doing improv and writing shows on the side. Just the smallest, weirdest gigs, waiting for an opportunity that would actually pay me. My writing partner for a while was a character at kid’s parties. He’d dress up like Spiderman and go to some kid’s party in Thousand Oaks and deal with screaming kids all day.
ES: I feel like that’s such good writing fodder.
AM: Definitely! It comes in handy. I had my moments with each day job where I thought, "this job’s okay." But I was always frustrated, like, "when’s my ship going to come in?" But now, when I look back, that was a really free, easy time of my life.
ES: Am I right in saying that you're an Upright Citizens Brigade alumna?
ES: How do you find performing comedy to be different from writing comedy?
AM: For me, improv is basically writing on your feet, so it’s a great way to either find your voice or gain confidence. When you’re in front of an audience and they’re laughing, you think, "Oh, my instincts are good!" And the inverse of that is sometimes you think, "Oh my instincts are quite bad today." I like performing improv. I think acting is harder, because it’s trying to make someone else’s words come to life. I really admire actors because I feel like they have one of the hardest jobs, really creating a character from the ground up, and sometimes, they might not understand why a character has been rendered in a certain way, or why they have a certain attitude, and [actors] have to figure out a justification for that.
ES: What shows do you watch these days? Who do you think is doing comedy right on television?
AM: I really love the show Workaholics, and I love Louie. I mostly watch dramas, to be honest. I don’t know if it feels like work watching comedies, or if I’m watching a comedy and I see a storyline similar to something we’ve already shot, and I think, "Oh no!"
ES: Did you have shows growing up that were your go-to amazing comedies, your this is why I want to be a TV writer type of shows?
AM: I think I watched every sitcom. It wasn’t particularly critically acclaimed, but I loved Who’s the Boss when I was a kid, and obviously, I watched Family Ties. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Will and Grace, The Singly Guy. You name it, I watched it.
ES: I loved Will and Grace.
AM: It’s great. I have the box set. I think the show really holds up.
ES: Do you have any advice for the aspiring writers out there?
AM: You really can’t take anything good or bad personally. If you believe every bit of good criticism, then that means you have to believe every bit of bad criticism. You should just do what you think is good, listen to the feedback of the people you respect, and have a good work ethic. Don’t worry too much about strangers' opinions of your work, because it’ll drive you crazy.
ES: Lastly, what should we be looking forward to this season? Have you shot the whole season? Is it over?
AM: We’ve shot about half of the season.
Obviously, you’re going to love Michael J. Fox. He’s great. His comic timing hits every time. The more I watch the show, the more evident it is that he’s such a pro. I think people will fall in love with the other characters on the show, too. The whole ensemble is really fantastic, and the show has a ton of heart. I love Wendell Pierce playing Harris. It’s really great to watch him do comedy again after seeing him on dramas, since he’s such a naturally funny guy.
ES: I can’t wait! Final note from me, I was completely obsessed with Spin City when it was on television, and I have a VHS of Back to the Future that I’ve rewound so many times it barely even functions anymore.
AM: As a staff, we went to Nitehawk Cinema this past weekend to see Back to the Future. It was great. One of my favorite movies, ever.
The Michael J. Fox Show airs Thursdays on NBC at 9:30 p.m.