Wilfred’s executive producer on doggy dancing and the sanity of season two (Part 2 of 2)

Wilfred’s executive producer on doggy dancing and the sanity of season two (Part 2 of 2)

Wilfred executive producer David Zuckerman recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the show’s second season. Following part one, this installment covers episodes seven through 13, beginning with “Avoidance” and ending with “Secrets.”

Avoidance” (August 2, 2012)
Ryan and Wilfred take a doggy dancing class together, though Ryan puts up a fight.

The A.V. Club: You’ve said Wilfred always has an altruistic motive and a selfish dog motive. Is that true in this episode?

David Zuckerman: Yeah, absolutely. He wants to make Ryan so uncomfortable that he goes and talks to his friend. And he also wants a churro. 

AVC: You worked a lot on Family Guy, and the last scene you shot in Wilfred was very reminiscent of a Family Guy-style montage. How has your work on Family Guy influenced on this show?

DZ: Oh, I don’t know that it has much of an influence at all. I guess the one thing I learned on Family Guy was that sometimes you just have to surrender to the absurd and the surreal for comedy’s sake. Before Family Guy, I had been on King Of The Hill, but King Of The Hill was a pretty grounded, realistic show, and on Family Guy I learned to loosen up a little bit and have a little bit more fun with the surreal aspects of storytelling. We had wanted to do an episode about doggy dancing. This was actually a story that we broke for season one, though it was a little different: It wasn’t about avoidance; it was actually about isolation. We ended up throwing out the episode and coming up with the block party/Trashface story. FX had asked us not to do this story last year—not for the reasons you would think. They just didn’t like a couple aspects of Wilfred’s character, and in retrospect, they were absolutely right. 

But this season, we loved the idea of doggy dancing. We loved the idea of Ryan massaging Wilfred and Wilfred accidentally spooging on him, and what that did to them. Because there was so much tension between them, we thought it would be fun to end the episode with a fantasy dance number where they were having fun together, dancing together, imagining them in the basement together as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. It was tremendously fun to shoot that. It took an entire day. It took weeks of planning for the set and the special lighting, and we had to get the arrangement done and we had real live musicians record that. It was a big undertaking, but it was really worth it. And those guys had to learn those dance steps on the weekend and after hours and between set-ups on other episodes. We had to clear out the whole office set. It was a big production for us. Our production team really came through and pulled it off. Jason wrote a great first draft, and it was a great episode. 

AVC: Is doggy dancing a real thing that people do with their dogs?

DZ: It absolutely is. There’s this amazing golden retriever in Chile; he and his owner do this cha-cha that goes on for two-and-a-half minutes. It’s amazing. We wanted to actually get that, but then we thought it was funnier if the actual doggy dancing was lame. But yeah, Google “doggy dancing.” There are competitions of people who dance with their dogs. There’s one of a woman who dances to “You’re The One That I Want” with her dog that’s really fun to watch.

AVC: Is Wilfred’s horniness some sort of manifestation of Ryan’s horniness or repression?

DZ: What do you think? 

AVC: I think that it is. I started to wonder if Ryan puts things on Wilfred because he doesn’t want to deal with them.

DZ: Okay. That’s one of those things that I think is really open to interpretation, and different people are going to perceive it in different ways, and I’m comfortable in letting the audience draw their own conclusions about stuff like that.

AVC: When you were working on Family Guy, you were the original showrunner, yet [series creator] Seth MacFarlane was also involved with the show. With Wilfred, you were the showrunner, yet Jason Gann is obviously involved with the show. What is that dynamic like, working as the showrunner on shows where the creators are involved and on camera?

DZ: Well, they’re not really analogous. On Family Guy, Seth created that show and I came in to help. He created the characters, definitely the comedic voice, and literally the voices for three of the characters. I came in and helped shape it into a show, but Seth and I were very much partners on that. He didn’t have enough experience in terms of running a show to run it himself, so I was there to help with that and lend a little story know-how to it. 

On this show, Jason very generously handed me his baby and let me change it, because he was down in Australia doing the second season of the Australian show as I was writing the pilot. I’m trying to think if I’d even ever spoken to him before I sent him the pilot. I think I had pitched my take on the show to his manager and to our producers, and they had pitched it to Jason, and Jason signed off. When he read the pilot script, I was really nervous. I didn’t know what he would think because I had changed it quite a bit. He said, “I feel like I just got a makeover and now I’m a hot chick with big tits.” That was his note. So this version is sort of my vision of his vision, but he’s in the writers’ room every step of the way. He’s a big part of the creative direction of this show and I value his input. He knows Wilfred better than anybody. The character has mutated a little bit from the Australian version, too. I think this Wilfred is a little more playful, a little less sinister. I think Jason is having a little bit more fun shooting the American version than the Australian version. They’re both collaborations, but they’re different kinds of collaborations. Jason’s just insanely talented and incredibly funny. He really is a fantastic writer and writes at least two scripts a year. They’re always really good first drafts, and he clearly understands the show. It’s a blessing to have the guy who plays the character in the room so we can actually try things out, hear how lines sound—and nobody pitches better Wilfred stuff than him. 

AVC: Do you remember what your original pitch was for the show?

DZ: It was a little bit darker, believe it or not—darker than what we ended up with. The idea was to do Son Of Sam, but the sitcom version. Fight Club meets Harvey. Donnie Darko meets Harvey. I wanted to do pretty much what the show is, and FX got on board immediately. They got it. They didn’t try to change it. They really embraced it and let me write the pilot that I wanted to write. I think they were nervous; I think we were all nervous. You show a guy in a dog suit, and you make certain assumptions about it. I think they were pleased to see that there was more to it. That it wasn’t ALF

AVC: Before the show premièred, the log line everybody used was that it was the “Elijah Wood stoner dog comedy” on FX. There was a lot of curiosity, even from a viewer perspective, about the show.

DZ: It is definitely an original kind of show. People have compared it to Calvin & Hobbes, which absolutely makes sense, but wasn’t something I was thinking about. I was thinking about Fight Club. I was thinking about some of the surreal films like Barton Fink, and of course the original had such a unique tone to it as well. 

Truth” (August 9, 2012)
Stuck in his basement, Ryan must confront his greatest fear: that Amanda will move in and discover his secret.

DZ: Bruce is such an enigmatic character. We needed to do a bottle show that was almost exclusively set in the basement for production reasons. Writing an entire episode of just Ryan and Wilfred in the basement seems like it would have been a challenge, but we can’t really have anybody else down in the basement. It occurred to us the one guy that could be down there is Bruce. We had such a great time with Dwight Yoakam last year, we knew we wanted him to come back, so that seemed like the best opportunity. 

That’s probably one of my favorite episodes this season, maybe of the whole series. I would love to do that kind of episode every week. It just gets really hard to maintain that level of weirdness. Two or three times a season, which is what we’re averaging, is about right. This season we had “Progress,” we had “Truth,” and then we had the ayahuasca episode [“Questions”], which I think was a little bit of a departure for us as well. We needed Ryan and Amanda to break up. I thought that it was a really compelling way to do it, to have Wilfred be the cause. We needed something that was going to be traumatic enough for Amanda that it might send her over the edge and have her embezzle the money so that they could be together. Ryan breaks up with her by saying he’s just too busy at work, so she steals the money so that he won’t have to work anymore. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it, and there’s a lot of little clues along the way, lines of dialogue. Like Kevin—Rob Riggle’s character in that episode of “Now”—says, “Man, I love jalapeños. I swear they’re going to be my downfall,” and in the finale Amanda says she framed Kevin because he took all the jalapeños off her bagel. There are a lot of little things that will make more sense on repeated viewing. 

AVC: In this episode, Wilfred’s seemingly sinister motives reveal the fact that he actually has Ryan’s best interest at heart. Or at least, the audience is led to believe that’s the case.

DZ: Well, sometimes Ryan needs to be made miserable before the lesson sinks in. In some ways it’s very formulaic. Wilfred tells him at the beginning of the episode what he needs to do, and at the beginning of this episode he says, “You’re not healthy enough to be in a relationship,” and Ryan says, “Yes, I am.” He doesn’t listen. So then Wilfred has to come up with a way to show him that he’s not. So that’s what he does with Bruce.

AVC: Do you think Ryan is healthy enough to be in a relationship?

DZ: I think that in this case, if he was going to be in a relationship with Amanda, if he was going to take it to the next step, then he was going to have to deal with the issue at hand, which is that he’s got a secret. This season was about living honestly. Last season was about living without fear.

AVC: You mentioned earlier in the interview that we as the audience are going along on this journey with Ryan. If Ryan doesn’t really know what Wilfred is and what purpose he serves, we are always questioning and wondering. Do you think that Ryan is also questioning, but pushing those questions away?

DZ: That’s what the ayahuasca episode is. He finally asks flat-out, “What is Wilfred?” That’s definitely on his mind.

Service” (August 16, 2012)

Ryan and his mom go on the road, delivering Kristen’s baby in the process.

AVC: Was this a more expensive shoot, since you were no longer in the basement and had to go out on the road and do all sorts of stuff?

DZ: Yeah, we were afraid we were going to be a little too claustrophobic. We shot a good number of episodes out at King Gillette Ranch in Malibu. That’s where we shot the sanitarium where the mom [Mary Steenburgen] lives. That’s where we did the opening episode with Robin Williams. While we were out there we were thinking, “What else can we do out there?” We thought maybe having Ryan go on a road trip with his mom would be fun. We knew we needed to have an episode where Kristen gave birth so we thought that would be an interesting. It made sense to have the birth happen in an episode with the mom, because we didn’t really have Kristen and the mom interact at all last season. Everybody just loves Mary Steenburgen. When she left the set last year, after we had finished her episode, we all felt like Mom had left us. She’s such a lovely actress and so wonderful to work with, so we wanted to give her something special to come back to. That’s what we came up with. That episode of visiting her at the sanitarium, getting John Michael Higgins back for a smaller role than we would have liked, but that was all we could get him for because he’s got a series. He was really funny and happy to be back. It was a fun episode to shoot. 

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Honesty” (August 23, 2012)

Jenna [Fiona Gubelmann] finally admits to using Ryan, knowing he will do anything for her because he’s in love with her.

AVC: It’s shocking how directly Jenna identifies her relationship with Ryan. It feels like the kind of thing a show would never bring up except in subtext, but you addressed the elephant in the room. Why?

DZ: Part of the thinking on that was that we wanted to put the Ryan/Jenna romance to bed for a while. Not that it won’t ever be back, but the will-they/won’t-they thing was getting old, and we knew that Jenna and Drew would be married at the end of the season. I think it was just a decision to put that whole element away. Also, a lot of people felt that Jenna was using him, and he was an idiot for being used so easily, so we thought, why don’t we just tackle that and say, “Yeah, that’s exactly what’s been going on,” and deal with it? We wanted to have her lose all credibility due to the squishy-tits thing. Ryan helps her get credibility back, and then when he does that, he had to come clean and be honest about what happened.  We thought, “Why not have her make her confession at the same time and put them back on equal footing?” I read on the chat boards that a lot of people didn’t buy her admission, but I don’t know, it felt very consistent with her character. 

AVC: When you say people were wondering why he was being so easily manipulated, do you mean the people who work on the show, or people that you’re reading that are leaving comments online?

DZ: Various people. I talk to people who watch the show. I read the chat boards; I read what the fans are thinking. I don’t always agree, and I don’t always care. You can’t please everybody. I just try to do the very best show that I think it can be and that the writers think it can be. Some people are going to love it and some people aren’t, but we’re not writing it to—I don’t know what’s a way to put this without sounding arrogant—we can’t chase the audience because you don’t know what to chase. Everybody’s going to like something different. You just have to do what you think is best and hope that people dig it. 

AVC: Yet, it seems like you really enjoy when people go on comment boards and like it. 

DZ: What I mostly enjoy is when they debate it, when they try to figure it out or when they find hidden meanings. When the clues that we leave in there are picked up on, that’s what I really like.

AVC: Rowan [Kaiser] wrote in his review of this episode that the show stops if Ryan fixes his life. That the end goal is that he’s cured, essentially. Do you share that view?

DZ: It’s interesting. I take that as a challenge. Did Lost end when they got off the island?

AVC: Fair.

DZ: So I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. It might be… Here’s the thing: [Our ending] might change. I don’t think you can embark on a show like this without having some general idea. Like I said, if people are only watching the show because they want to see the last episode, then I feel like they’re missing out on a lot of fun. The reason to watch the show is to watch the journey not necessarily to get to the destination. Hopefully the destination will be satisfying, but like I said at the beginning of this interview, what are the chances that everybody is going to love exactly the—name one show that everybody thinks the ending was brilliant? Except maybe Newhart

AVC: Cheers?

DZ: But Cheers didn’t really have a mythology. Neither did Newhart, for that matter. But if you look at Lost or The X-Files or Battlestar Galactica, trying to think of the shows with big mythologies, even The Sopranos, for that matter. People are very divided on the way that it ended.

AVC: The Wire

DZ: The Wire, exactly. House had sort of a divisive ending. You kind of have to do what’s right for the show. I didn’t particularly care for the ending of Battlestar Galactica. Did I regret watching the show? Not at all! I loved the show! Just because it didn’t end the way I thought it should end didn’t take away my enjoyment of the show. 

Questions” (August 30, 2012)
Ryan goes on a spiritual journey and gets to ask, point blank, “What is Wilfred?”

AVC: You’ve been talking about this episode for a while. This is the vision-quest episode, the episode in which you use that TV trope in a cool way.

DZ: We wanted to do another trippy episode. We had been talking about ayahuasca, like a drug-trip episode. We hadn’t seen ayahuasca done, though evidently Nip/Tuck did an episode with it. In fact, the guy who played the Indian, the spirit guide was the ayahuasca guide in Nip/Tuck too, which we didn’t realize. Gil Birmingham who was so funny. That was an episode that came together really nicely. It’s an episode the director, Randall Einhorn, got very excited about because it was an opportunity to do something really visual, and we’re not a big-budget show. We do our show for far, far less than the networks do their shows for. I think we got a pretty cinematic look. We shot it up in the Malibu hills. We used some special lenses. It was just a very interesting episode to do. It had a lot of heart to it. It had a lot of comedy. It was definitely one of our more challenging episodes. The stuff with Brad Dourif [P.T., Ryan’s spirit guide] we shot the second-to-last day or right near the end of the order. He stepped into that role at the last minute. That role was actually designed for somebody from last season to come back and reprise their role, but that person wasn’t available so we just created a brand new character and got really lucky that Brad was willing to do it on such short notice. He had worked with Elijah on Lord Of The Rings, although I don’t think they actually had a scene together.

AVC: Who were you going to bring back?

DZ: I don’t want to say because we’re still trying to work it out maybe for next season. It was an important piece in the mythology that we had to adjust a little bit due to casting constraints, but I think it turned out okay. And now Brad is part of our mythology.

Resentment” (September 13, 2012)

Ryan offers to help Drew and Jenna prepare for their wedding, which he throws in his backyard.

DZ: We wanted to put the Jenna/Drew/Ryan relationship—we just wanted to get to a good place where everybody was going to be happy and satisfied. We wanted to get that relationship put to bed for the season so we could get on to the wedding and have it be done with. And we wanted to give Fiona and Chris [Klein, who plays Drew] a good episode near the end of the run. It made sense to hit Ryan’s resentment of their happiness because he had just broken up with his girlfriend and we knew at the end we wanted to have Amanda come back, that was supposed to be a surprise for the audience. I haven’t even mentioned, by the way, the actress playing Amanda, Allison Mack, she was so great to have. We were so lucky to get her. We read a lot of actresses and she just had that perfect chemistry with Elijah. I think that the finale, if it was effective at all, it was because people really wanted to see her and Elijah together. I was really pleased with her performance, and also she was just really nice to work with. 

So we wanted to do a familiar trope of the dog swallowing the wedding ring, which everybody’s done. And a lot of our stories are sort of familiar tropes, but we try to think, “What’s the Wilfred spin on it?” I think having it be a bowel obstruction and having Wilfred unwilling to let go of the ring and Ryan unwilling to let go of his resentment seemed like a nice parallel story, so I was pleased with the way that one came together.

AVC: You mentioned wanting to put Ryan and Jenna’s relationship to bed for a bit, to settle Ryan and Drew and Jenna. Is that always something that you’re striving for? To introduce a lot of ideas, explore those ideas as much as possible, resolve them, then find new ideas to explore? That seems to be the cycle you’re describing.

DZ: I think that rather than keep exploring the same territory over and over again, it’s better to deal with it and move on. We only have 13 episodes a season. The will-they/won’t-they wasn’t something we were building up to for a finale. We also wanted to create the expectation that Ryan was going to somehow interrupt the wedding. We set up the father all year long in hopes that people were expecting that the big twist at the end would be Ryan’s father would appear. I think some people were expecting that the father would make an appearance at the end. It’s just kind of about trying to find new ways to surprise the audience, trying to do the unexpected. Maybe you’re right. Maybe a lot of shows would try to flesh that out and milk it for more and more, but I think we’re up to the challenge of finding something else different and unusual. Maybe bringing in more characters. Like I say, it’s been very hard to find really good stories to do with Jenna. We don’t want to just use Jenna just because we have her. We want to use her really well. It seems like with her being married to Drew maybe we can find some interesting things for them to do together.

AVC: Have you cast the role of the dad yet? Only his voice was on this season.

DZ: No, he’s not been cast. I think that voice is me, actually. [Laughs.]

Secrets” (September 20, 2012)
At the wedding, Ryan learns something horrifying about Amanda.

DZ: This one was written second to the last. I knew I wanted to write it, but I was busy rewriting some others, so I had one of the staff writers do a first draft and then after I finally figured out episode six, “Control,” I was able to focus on the finale and make that what I wanted it to be. By this time we had lost a lot of our staff because we only had them for a certain number of weeks, but we sort of always knew where it was going. We just didn’t have the particulars until about a week before we shot it. That was the one episode where we shot pretty much all of it in sequence. It was really cool to watch the performances; the actors were actually able to be exactly where they were in the scene before. The continuity made a difference in that episode. 

AVC: In what way did this continuity affect the end product?

DZ: It was such an emotional story, particularly for Elijah and Jason, that it was, I think, helpful to know that, “At the scene before, I was at this particular level.” I think they were just more able to be in the story and in the moment and not be, “Okay, now we’re shooting scene six of episode 12. We’re going to do scene four from episode three.” To jump around like that is very difficult for them and difficult for the continuity for the script supervisor as well. Make sure everybody’s wearing the right clothes and entering through the right door. I don’t recommend shooting a show this way. But it turned out okay.

AVC: Do you have an idea of what you think Wilfred is? 

DZ: Yes. [Laughs.]

AVC: Is that something you feel comfortable sharing?

DZ: I just think that would take some of the fun out of it for people who want to watch. I think part of the fun of this show is trying to figure it out. At least that’s what would be fun for me if I was watching this show. I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by giving all the answers away. I think people are free to make up their own minds and have their own ideas about what’s going on and what Wilfred is.

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