Inside, you’ll find a compelling and lively interview with Jim Piddock as he talks about HBO’s new series Family Tree.
Small Screen Scoop (SSS): When it comes to that old trunk from Great Aunt Victoria (may she rest in peace) have you filled it with all the items you plan to ever be in there for the show? And do you have ideas for all of the items sort of mapped out, or is it all much more open to change?
Jim Piddock (JP): Yes and no, to be incredibly specific. There are some items that were in there for this season’s story lines or jokes, but those were the ones the audience sees at the top of the pile. The rest was just prop junk that you couldn’t really see. We do have ideas for some other items that will be of importance, but I’m sure they will be strategically located by the property department and added if/when needed.
SSS: Who had the idea to spoof TV shows within the show? (It’s a brilliant bit, by the by. ) Will you spoof Doctor Who? Any chance of America shows getting spoofed?
JP: Thanks. Glad you enjoyed them. As with most ideas that arise in a writing partnership, neither Christopher or I could tell you who came up with what 95% of the time. The concept of making tv shows within the show was one we both liked early on and were the easiest and most fun to write. In fact, I was disturbed by how shockingly easy I found it to write bad comedy and drama. We won’t directly parody a specific show like “Dr Who”, or anything else, but if we do more of them in the future, we’ll definitely choose something that represents the type of show that people currently watch, or used to watch, in the UK or the US.
SSS: Something that struck me is how patient Tom Chadwick has to be, as he goes along with his searches. But it’s hard for me to imagine too many American 30-year-old dudes being patient enough to do something like this. Do you think it has to do with Tom’s specific personality, or could it be an influence of his British culture that lends him this diligence?
JP: I don’t think it’s as much about patience as curiosity and a desire to apply himself to finding out who he is and what his place is in the world, immediately and in a larger context. He has nothing else shaping his life — no job, no girlfriend, no strong sense of family, etc — and my experience is that people, of any age, in that position either sink into a deep depression or channel their energies into something else. And a comedy about a guy sitting in a dark room being very depressed might not have been quite so easy to sell. Or write. Or watch.
SSS: So much is improvised (or rather, almost all) and you’ve got a new face to the Christopher Guest crowd with your lead, Chris O’Dowd. (Sorry for the rhyme!) How did you guys decide that he was the right guy for the job? Can you talk a little about the casting decision and how working with him has been so far?
JP: Chris O’Dowd was on our radar very early on. So once we decided the series would start in Britain and then migrate to America, he was one of the first people Christopher met with when we went over to London. It was a bit of no-brainer in terms of what we needed. Chris O’Dowd is a rarity. He’s one of those very few actors, other than myself, that is as good playing the straight man in a scene as he is being the funny guy in a scene. He’s also good-looking, so can be a romantic lead. And he can be as goofy and as undignified as necessary to be the comic lead. Add to that the fact that’s he’s smart, charming, very natural, and a great improviser, and you have the perfect actor for your central character. Other than the fact that he’s a total monster on the set and strangles small kittens for amusement in his spare time, I really like the guy.
SSS: This is a big question, but I am curious as to your interpretation. Why do you think we care so much about our ancestors, especially if we’ve never met them? What is motivating Tom to pursue the items in the box with such determination?
JP: I think when people investigate their family tree, the “whats” of their discovery are often less interesting than the “whys” and the “hows”. And while the historical part is fascinating, it’s even more interesting how the past informs the present and may influence the future. And the reasons why people want to know their genealogy is as important as what they find. I think most people of any age can relate to the notion of learning more about themselves through finding out who their predecessors were. I don’t think all those ancestry websites have millions and millions of subscribers just because people are interested in history.
SSS: There are plenty of delightful “oddballs” that appear. How do you walk the line between featuring them in all their weird glory, and mocking them too badly? (I’m thinking of sister Bea.) Or is the mocking the point sometimes?
JP: If you look at the body of Christopher Guest’s work, you can see that he never mocks the characters in his movies. They may be flawed, they may be deluded, they may even be stupid, but there’s a deep humanity in them and a nobility in what they are trying to do, however badly they may fail. I think one of the things that sets Family Tree apart from a lot of comedy on tv today is that there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. The show certainly has some edge to it, and some strange characters, and can delve into some darks areas, but I don’t think there’s ever a sense that anyone is mocking these people. Especially as the actors are so committed to being the characters, rather than just playing them.
SSS: When will you know if HBO has picked up Family Tree for a second season?
JP: No idea. Hopefully soon, because I really have to get back to Steven Spielberg about my availability to star in “Schindler’s List 2”.
The Family Tree episode “Civil War” airs tomorrow, Sunday, on HBO.