HBO’s Family Tree is a long time coming on a pair of counts: First, it seems like co-creator Christopher Guest should’ve translated the droll, loosely scripted style of his faux-documentary films to television ages ago. (He made one previous attempt for HBO in 1999, but it didn’t go to series.) Second, the story of a 30-something Brit who inherits a trunk of family curios and uses them as gateways to his own ancestry marks Chris O’Dowd’s first starring role in a major American production. Best known in the U.K. for the four seasons he spent as the most misanthropic presence among The IT Crowd’s techies, O’Dowd made scene-stealing turns in Bridesmaids (as the bashful police officer who woos Kristen Wiig) and Girls (as the yuppie poseur who briefly marries Jemima Kirke) that boded well for more prominent roles to come. There’s a welcoming tinge of melancholy to even the most volatile of O’Dowd’s performances, including his Family Tree character, Tom Chadwick, when he’s not reacting to the latest absurdity from wannabe-inventor father (Michael McKean) and puppet-toting sister (Nina Conti) with the sort of well-deployed exasperation he honed on The IT Crowd. (Alongside Richard Ayoade, O’Dowd made a catchphrase of “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”) In the lead-up to Family Tree’s première, the Irish actor spoke to The A.V. Club about tracing his own lineage, working with his comedic idols, and the similarities between a pessimistic monkey puppet and a “very annoying child.”
The A.V. Club: Have you done any research into your own genealogy?
Chris O’Dowd: I’ve done a little bit over the years. Irish families are old, and I managed to find O’Dowds going back to the 14th century and the 17th-century castle the O’Dowds had. But what I discovered, which was most interesting, is that the very first O’Dowds, which were 700 years old, are from, like, 20 minutes from where I am right now. So, not big travelers. A lot of other Irish families were building the railroads and setting up New York; we were kinda chilling at home.
AVC: Do you find that you are kind of a homebody, then?
CO: I love being at home, I do. I guess I’m going further and further afield, but in a perfect world I’d just be at home eating Indian curries and watching talent shows.
AVC: Have you visited the castle?
CO: I have, actually. It’s beautiful. Irish castles aren’t the kind of things that you think of when you think of castles. It’s more of a fortress, more of a big pile of bricks. It’s not ornate in any way.
AVC: Well, the Irish had to defend themselves quite a bit, so that was probably a utilitarian decision.
CO: Exactly. They’re very utilitarian, these kinds of things. And the one that’s there now, it’s very much derelict, but I’ve tried to buy it.
AVC: How far have you gotten in that process?
CO: Well, there was a sealed bid, it was actually for sale, and it was really going for nothing. It just seemed like too big of an opportunity to miss out on. But I still haven’t heard back from them, so I’m thinking it’s not great.
AVC: But there’s still hope that the next time you’re doing promotional rounds, you can tell people that you own a castle!
CO: I know! Knowing my luck, Chris Guest probably bought it.
AVC: How familiar with Chris’ work were you going into Family Tree?
CO: Oh, I was pretty much a Chris Guest nerd. I was one of those college kids who had [This Is] Spinal Tap on in his dorm room on a loop. On a VHS. I was a big fan of [Waiting For] Guffman. Yeah, just all of his stuff. I just loved the tone of his comedy. And I had never met him before, so that was exciting.
AVC: You’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of comic luminaries of the last couple of decades: Christopher Guest, Judd Apatow, Graham Linehan, Lena Dunham. Who’s left? Who’s on your checklist after those folks?
CO: [Laughs.] I was really afraid you were going to say, “Who’s best?”
AVC: Well, who’s left and who’s best?
CO: [Laughs.] God, I don’t know who’s left. There’s loads of so many funny people. Will Ferrell is a big hero of mine; I’d like to work with him at some stage. Bill Murray, who I think I’m going to work with this summer and… who is left? I mean, we’re getting through them. It’s fantastic.
AVC: Were any of the Guest regulars heroes of yours?
CO: It’s very hard to not love everything that Fred Willard does. And because I was such a Tap fan, when I found out that Michael McKean was playing my dad in the show, it was definitely a yelp of excitement. But all those guys are so great. And what’s interesting, then, is it’s a slightly different experience working with them. Like, I always liked Ed Begley Jr.’s stuff, but it wasn’t until I worked with him that I realized how really great he is.
AVC: Like Guest’s movies, Family Tree follows a rough outline, but it’s largely unscripted. How much of an adjustment was that for you?
CO: It’s a tricky discipline, because, let’s say on another project—I do a bit of improv on a bit of everything, really, but it’s different, where it’s like an add-on, putting an extra joke in at the end of a scene. Or if I’m doing Girls I can kind of rant a bit about what’s happening—but because there’s nothing [in the script], the improv carries the weight of having to deliver the exposition at the same time. It’s not just about trying to come up with something funny and off the cuff. It’s much more organic than that. It’s much more, “We’re going to have to deliver this whole scene.” I know that sounds obvious, but to have to get story out while improvising is the part I found most difficult.
AVC: Was there a temptation in those moments to rely too much on exposition?
CO: It’s quite the opposite, really. I’ve been doing this long enough to realize that exposition can be boring as fuck, so you’re trying to rely on jokes and trying to hide the exposition. Sometimes, because I come from a sitcom background, the ground rule of that is, “What’s the quickest way to the punchline?” And with Chris’ stuff, it just doesn’t work like that. It’s more natural, and it has to come from a much more characters-based form.
AVC: Did you find eventually that it was easier to be in the moment of the character because of that process?
CO: Yeah, I think so. I’d say it got easier as it went on, but it was never easy. There was that initial moment there where you’re so excited to be there that you’re kind of working while on adrenaline. And then after, you realize, “It’s actually really hard,” and then it kind of gets slightly easier. But then someone else will come in that you haven’t worked with before and make you feel like you’re doing it badly because they’re so good naturally.
What I’ve found is, I approached it differently as time went on. At the start, I’d have quite a lot prepared. I’d have little jokes or ideas within scenes and then I started thinking, “I’m kind of cheating. Also, it doesn’t feel good. It feels like I’m forcing it.” So then I decided, “Okay, I’m not going to prepare anything at all.” And then I felt like I wasn’t prepared. [Laughs.] So then I’d have one or two little ideas that maybe I’d get in if they fit it. I guess I took the [Goldilocks And The] Three Bears approach.
AVC: So how does that apply to something like a scene where you’re in a pantomime horse costume? Was that particular scene a little bit more sketched out? At least you had to know you weren’t going to win.
CO: Yeah. It’s improvised, but the structure is very tight. The story structure is so tight that what we do is very little of the show, really. It almost feels like we’re not being quite fair by saying that Chris and Jim [Piddock] don’t write the show, because the funniest thing about comedy is the setups and the situations, rather than the words. In the pantomime thing, first of all, there’s no dialogue that’s in the race, so we’ve got to do fuck-all. We have to be naturally bad in a pantomime horse, which, ironically, came pretty naturally.
AVC: Did you find yourself playing different versions of Tom between the scenic work and the talking-head interviews?
CO: I guess, just like life, when you’re on your own, which is what a talking-head can be like, you can be a little more honest. And then when you’re with characters in some way you’re putting forth the version of yourself that you want them to see.
AVC: So you can be a little bit more direct in those segments?
CO: I think so. What’s kind of fun about the character a lot of the time is that he’s lying to himself. Because he’s so lost and he’s saying, “I could be related to this person.” The slight catchphrase I set up going into it was, when he found out he’s an Indian or whatever, he’ll be like, “Well you know, that really makes sense, actually.” He says that after he finds out any piece of information. That is because he’s so lost and so easily lead because of that.
AVC: Just looking for any port in the storm?
CO: Yeah, it’s exactly that. I don’t know if it made the show in the end, but I remember doing a line when I was talking about my upbringing and I was like, “Well, I spent half of my childhood in Britain and half in Ireland and I don’t know where I’m from and really all I’m looking for is someone to stick a flag in me.” And that’s kind of how the character approaches life, I think.
AVC: Had you crossed paths with Nina Conti before Family Tree?
CO: It’s so weird: I’d known her from being a ventriloquist, in Britain she’s a pretty big comedienne. And then I’d watched this documentary that she made, Her Master’s Voice, just after I got cast in the show. And we were emailing back and forth with Chris and he goes, “Have you thought about the sister character?” and I mentioned this actress to him and he said, “Actually, we’re going to use Nina Conti for that.” And I said, “I just saw her documentary. You should watch it. It’s amazing!” [Laughs.] He said, “Yeah, I produced it.” Which made me feel like a bit of an idiot.
AVC: You’ve played an imaginary friend on Moone Boy, the semi-biographical show you produce and star in for the U.K.’s Sky1—did that inform at all how you interacted with Nina’s puppet Monk on set?
CO: [Laughs.] I brought my imaginary experience. I’m going to say no. I’m not even going to try to contrive any parallel there. The way we treat Monk, I’m not sure we were ever told, “This is how to behave around the monkey,” but I think that we all naturally felt it’s almost like it’s just a very annoying child. Like we’re not going to get much mileage out of constantly going, “Why do you have a monkey?” That runs out very quickly. So I just imagined it was a really annoying little kid—in the same way that you wouldn’t be able to tell off somebody’s child.
AVC: You also can’t indulge it too much.
CO: Yeah, exactly. It’ll only make it worse.
AVC: Growing up in a house with three older sisters, did any of that play into how you played Tom’s relationship with Nina’s character, Bea?
CO: To an extent. It’s a very different family compared to mine. My family is very tight, and it’s a working-class family with five kids and two busy parents and you just kind of get on with it. But the Chadwicks are very disjointed, and there’s long swaths of time they haven’t spent together, so they’re actually less comfortable in each other’s company. I think they’re still finding out what their relationships with each other are.
AVC: The shows-within-the-show, There Goes The Neighbourhood and Move Along Please, were those being filmed simultaneously or were you watching them on set? How did that work out?
CO: No, they did them before we started shooting, I think. So, on the day when we were on set, we just got to watch the video. Or [Laughs.] the DVD. Actually, no, that’s right, it was a video. Of course it was, because it was such an old sitcom.
AVC: What was your reaction when you first saw them?
CO: Obviously I had read it all beforehand. That stuff was actually scripted. But watching it on the day, they had so many funny people; it was funnier than I thought it was going to be. You know, it’s just supposed to be sort of excruciating and broad, but you still laugh. It makes you realize why people watch those terrible sitcoms.
AVC: What do you think it is about those sitcoms that appeal to people like Tom’s dad?
CO: Well, I don’t know why it appeals to Keith. I think it appeals to the broad public because you can totally switch off. But I think it appeals to him because he thinks it’s edgy. [Laughs.]
AVC: Based on your own experience of watching TV sitcoms and making them in the U.K., what did they get right about those?
CO: I thought they were very accurate. [Laughs.] I think it’s in the ’80s or ’70s, and there are shows on now that aren’t as funny as the fake bad shows we did.
AVC: [Laughs.] Did anything about them cut close to home?
CO: It’s funny, British comedies can have—there are some shows, I don’t want to slag off on any other shows, but you can watch shows and sometimes, any of those big broad shows are tricky to watch because you know that it’s so lowest common denominator that it’s just eating junk food. And sometimes junk food can be delicious.
AVC: When Tom gets to California in the back half of the season, are there American equivalents to those shows?
CO: No, I don’t think so. I think the only shows we did are the sitcoms and then [the Tudors parody] The Plantagenets. But no, there’s no American ones. I would have liked to see that, though. I wonder what Chris’ take on that would be. I imagine it would be just like—what I think of are your versions of those kind of shows are just like a big guy coming home and somebody puts a pie in his face when he yells at his wife. But then he eats the rest of the pie.
AVC: Having worked on TV shows in the U.K. as well as North America, did you find that Family Tree bridged the gap between production styles?
CO: What I’ve found almost every time that I’ve worked in America—with Judd and Lena and with Chris—is that the sensibilities are so similar, I don’t know if it’s a big difference. I think Americans are more confident in what they’re doing most of the time because there seems to be less financial restrictions on the production, but other than that, the sensibilities are very similar.
In terms of productions, once you get to America there just seems to be more money, and all that really means creatively is, for an actor anyway, you just have more time. Less hassle. It can be really hard in Britain sometimes to just deal with your schedule all the time. It can be really tricky. I know that because I produce a show now. It’s tough.
AVC: Do you find that those constraints produce a grace under pressure sometimes?
CO: I think so. I think it definitely focuses the mind. I’m sure there are times where that’s very useful, but I would never turn down more time. With the hope that my mind is going to go into overdrive because of the restrictions.
AVC: Shortly before the première of Family Tree, the news about The IT Crowd reunion broke. What took so long to get that going?
CO: I don’t really know. There were times over the past two or three years where we’d say, “Oh, we’re doing it. We’re doing it. We’re doing it.” And then somebody would say, “Aw, no, I can’t do it.” It happened at least four or five different times. I don’t think there was any huge reason. I think after we finished the last series we kind of thought, “I don’t know if we want to do another.” Graham thought that. And then everybody got busy, and Katherine had a baby. It just made things a bit tricky. But we’ve always had the idea. I remember Graham in my house pitching me the idea for the special, and that was like a year ago. It’s a shame, but it’s good that, I feel like it’s actually been a nice amount of time where people are really excited about it coming back.
AVC: Are you excited to return to the role of Roy?
CO: You know what, I genuinely am. I read the script for the first time the day before yesterday. It’s very exciting. He’s just so grumpy, my character, and I’m looking forward to doing that again. You forget that Graham is such a funny writer.
AVC: Because Roy’s so grumpy, can he actually find closure in a finale special?
CO: I don’t know. I think that will be for people to judge. I don’t want to give any of the story away.