Surviving Jack and the Mysteries of Casting!

When Surviving Jack (Fox, Thursday, 9:30/8:30C) premieres this week, we will see something a bit different – something closely approximating a brutally honest (but not uncaring) dad. Christopher Meloni, best known for a long stint on Law & Order: Sexual Victims Unit, plays Jack Dunlevy, ex-military, oncologist and now stay-at-home dad while his wife goes to law school. His parenting skills are more ballpeen hammer than velvet glove and a source of discomfort to his teenaged son and daughter, Frankie and Rachel.

Late last week, Surviving Jack’s executive producers – Bill Lawrence, Justin Halpern (on whose book I Suck at Girls the series is based) and Patrick Schumacker spoke to a group of journalists/bloggers about the ‘90s-set comedy and the mix of skills that won Meloni the role.

Hi, guys.

Bill Lawrence: Hi. How are you doing?

Justin Halpern: Hello.

So I guess this is for Justin; first of all, this is, yet again, another comedy inspired by your dad. Is that right?

Justin: Yes.

So is the dad in Surviving Jack the same guy as we saw in $#*! My Dad Says, and if so, how are they approached differently?

Bill: Well, this one’s much funnier than that one. Here, go ahead. This is Bill Lawrence; I’ll let Justin—

Justin: No. I think with this one—in $#*! My Dad Says the dad was like a sad old man that had been twice divorced that was living by himself and went to hookers. In this one, it’s much more like my real dad who’s like madly in love with my mother. They live together. They’re married, been married 35 years, and he’s just sort of a more bluntly honest guy and not so much a mean prick.

Okay. As a follow up, do you think that was one of the issues with $#*! My Dad Says and why it didn’t succeed and what did you learn from that experience that you brought to this one?

Justin: Yes. I mean, definitely. I think that that show was—it just sort of defaulted into grumpy old man, and we’ve seen that character a million times. I think what makes my dad more interesting is he’s this like scientist who’s lectured at Harvard, but he has this blue collar element to him, so he’s this guy who’s really smart, but isn’t afraid to, you know, drop some curse words from time to time.

Bill: This is Bill Lawrence. I was excited to get in and work with these guys because I thought that the father character in Justin’s novels hadn’t been on TV yet, and I think that he’s an iconic character and the type of very masculine dad that makes mistakes and owns them and yet still manages to have kind of an integrity and likeability that just felt very familiar to me as a guy who has a close relationship with his dad, and I just wanted to see that character on TV. I never mind them—you know, I’m always interested when they compare it to Justin’s old show. I mean you have to because of the books, but I certainly don’t find them similar at all; this show and that one.

So we are writing about the show kind of by looking at Claudia, who is a midwesterner, so I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about the casting process in choosing her and sort of why you chose her for the show?

Bill: I’ll tell you a couple things and then I’ll let these guys jump in too. Claudia crushed the auditions, and we kind of felt like we were stealing her because she was on a CW show called The Hearts of Dixie, but she wasn’t a regular so she was available for us to hire her. She’s such a talented young lady.

I’m 100 years old. You know? I’m 45. I have a 13-year-old daughter. I knew we had lucked into something because my daughter showed up and even though I knew we were kind of building this show around Chris Meloni, my daughter showed up while we were shooting it and immediately locked onto Claudia as someone she knew, not only as an actress as a personality, but as a singer as well. That is a charismatic young lady, and if were it not for The Heart of Dixie, I would be trying to figure out ways to say that I discovered her. I’m hoping that people eventually just believe it if I say it enough. Justin? Patrick?

Patrick Schumacker: I’d just like to add that the network tests had never seen someone, especially a 16-year-old girl, come in that poised and just crush the audition in front of Kevin Riley and all of the Fox brass; it was pretty impressive.

Bill: She’s also real comfortable saying she’s 16 even though she’s 34, but I think that’s a huge move for her professionally to lie about her age that way. That’s just how professional she seems. I’m just joking, obviously.

Okay. Justin, anything? Justin just nodded, so you can write Justin nodded.

Chris Meloni is not the first guy that you think of when you think of comedy, and I’m just kind of wondering if you could talk a little bit about how he got involved in this and why you thought he was the right guy for the part?

Bill: Look, a couple things, this show probably would not be on television were it not for Chris Meloni. He is a hugely-successful true TV star. You know, whether it be my parents or my younger cousins, everybody knows who he is and has seen him. There are two answers to that; one, so it’s a great thing for us to show to get just eyes on it. I think there’s a lot of Chris Meloni fans out there, but the two answers to that question are, one, this is a show that needs somebody that’s not just funny but that’s a great actor. Whether it’s the movie 42 or years of Law & Order SVU, Chris is a fantastic actor. He does drama very well.

I think it’s exciting to see somebody doing something different, but we would be lying if we didn’t tell you that we all knew Chris comedically before—he did Law & Order SVU for—I think he was on the show for 31 years. Comedy writers will all tell you that Wet Hot American Summer or the Harold & Kumar movies, Chris is hysterical. He’s funny in real life, and he is someone that we know is a dramatic actor mostly because he’s a successful dramatic actor and was on a show that he did that for a long period of time, but people out here know that he can do comedy and that he’s very easy with it.

Justin: Yes, and I think the thing about Chris is that he doesn’t have to put on anything to be really intimidating. He like scares the … out of us on a daily basis, so I think that this character was really important that it didn’t feel like they put on this false bravado that just kind of came with the guy, and Chris has that in spades.

Can you talk about some of the similarities in contrast to your own dad?

Justin: They’re both terrifying, but they’re also both the kind of guy where you know if you get into trouble, they’re going to be the one who actually will take a bullet for you kind of thing. Both Chris and my dad are guys who don’t suffer fools, but they also don’t go out of their way to be mean. Do you know what I mean? My dad never wastes his time to be mean. He just sort of tells you what he thinks and that’s that, and Chris is very similar in that way. It’s nice to work with somebody where you always know where you stand.

They’ve joked in the past that he has the best butt in primetime. Will there be any jokes or references to that?

Justin: No, but we agree.

Sean Alright. Thank you, guys.

Hey, we have a social media question that came in from Twitter. They were curious; the show was set in the ‘90s and they wanted to know what the biggest memory of yours is from that decade?

Bill: I was too young to really remember it. No. I’m 45. The ‘90s for me were bad peroxide blond hair, and I don’t mean on young women I was trying to date, I had that while I was working on Spin City, and it’s embarrassing when I see pictures.

Justin: For most of the ‘90s, I was 5’11”, 110 pounds, and I walked around like a praying mantis.

Patrick: I would say for a pilot that is 99% based on things that happened to Justin, the one piece from it that happened to me was the hyper-colored pit stains. I am a sweaty person.

I’d kind of like to follow up on the ‘90s question. I know that the decade is very in vogue, and I think all those ‘90 kids are feeling nostalgic. I was wondering how does the show make use of the decade?

Bill: Well, I think the biggest thing, this isn’t That ‘90s Show. I think that ‘90s are relevant because it was a time that kids didn’t have cell phones and weren’t able to text. It’s a nostalgic time, but the way it really shows up for me, most … is such a huge part of single camera comedy is in the music. I think music is such a huge part of television in ways that it wasn’t when I first started in TV, and television is really the new radio in a lot of ways. For me, it does me good to hear the songs I grew up on, you know, kind of just peppering all the episodes we do. These guys might have some other comments about how they weaved it into the scripts.

Justin: Yes. I mean, in the first couple of episodes, we’re a little more ‘90s heavy just because we wanted to establish a time period, but then it really just becomes kind of a color in the show. Again, like this is when this took place in my life, so that’s kind of when we decided to set it there. I think that in the best versions of the way we use it, it’s just kind of something that informs the story, you know? There are no cell phones. You can’t check in with your kid. You can’t go look up porn on the internet, so you have to go find it. That kind of thing.

You briefly mentioned Claudia’s casting process; how was it for the rest of the cast?

Bill: The rest of the cast are just friends and family of ours that we gave the jobs to. No. I got a laugh. First one. Look, the other gift to this show, Rachel Harris, you know, … is someone that when we first starting casting it, we didn’t think she was available. She’s a fantastic comedian and to get her on the show with Chris—the show wouldn’t work if it didn’t have a formidable actress to stand up to him and one that seems like that she’s not only not afraid of him, but probably as in control of that relationship as he is.

Other than that, part of the fun was filling the cast out with young performers that probably have never really been on TV before. They had to go through 9,000 auditions, and I’m sure be terrified, and we made it as comfortable as we could.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the series regulars, and I was just wondering are there any guest stars or, you know, maybe just guest characters that we can look forward to that you’re … about?

Bill: My favorite one, just because I only know 20 actors, and it’s just from all my other shows and to get to work with them again because I generally end up being friendly with the people we work with; Neil Flynn, who is the janitor on Scrubs and now plays the dad on The Middle, having him come in and play the high school wrestling coach and going toe to toe with Chris Meloni really tickled me.


Bill: I think it’s super funny. Other than that, we don’t really have—we’re really kind of concentrating on developing the ensemble.

Justin: Yes. We didn’t go a lot of guest casts.

The show is set like in the ‘90s; do you guys have any of your favorite or biggest memories from the decade?

Bill: Yes. I talked about my hair earlier, but it was embarrassing, but I guess I’ll also talk about, I’m probably—I’m so old on this show that my college class was the class of ‘90, and it bothers me that I got out of college before most of the young actors on this show were even born. To me, the setting of this show is just a reminder of how old I am. Patrick? You’re a youngster.

Patrick: I made this joke before, but it was a Twitter question so it didn’t get a laugh, maybe this will; I used to sweat through my hyper-colored shirt on the daily.

Bill: Nice. Hyper-color shirts, we used that in the pilot too. One thing I will say is all the ‘90s embarrassing moments that we put in there specific to the ‘90s are truly from all of our lives.

Justin: Yes.

Patrick: Justin’s father did hate Jurassic Park. He’s a man of science and the pseudoscience in the book really disturbed him. It was sending the wrong message.

Justin: He hated Jurassic Park and DaVinci Code.

Nice. Just a quick follow-up, do you guys think the show would be any different if it wasn’t set in the ‘90s?

Justin: Yes. I think there’d be small differences. I think the biggest difference would be that I think when you were coming of age in the early ‘90s before the internet, I think that there was a lot of—you had to go on kind of an adventure to get the information that you wanted to get. You also were always getting the wrong information, so I think it would take a little bit of the mystery away to set it now.

Bill: This is Justin admitting that he actually stole nudie mags from hobos in the woods and buried them in a hole in his yard … in his book. We all admitted, yes, those were the days where you tried to intercept your neighbor’s Victoria Secret catalog. You know?

Now, my son thinks wedgies are funny, and he accidentally typed funny wedgies on a computer, and he’s 11. If I had not dove at the computer and gotten it away before he saw it, he would have been privy to the type of stuff that I only dreamed about finding when I was 15 and you know stealing peoples’ magazines. Don’t type funny wedgies. Especially, don’t type funny girl wedgies.

Justin: Or do.

Thanks a lot, guys.

Bill: Our last comment, and you can put, I think this show is going to work.

Justin: I think Bill pretty much summed it up.

Patrick: Thanks, everybody.

Photos by Beth Dubber, Joseph Cultic and Ros Eisenberg/Courtesy of Fox