Wilfred’s executive producer on the sanity of season two (Part 1 of 2)

Wilfred’s executive producer on the sanity of season two (Part 1 of 2)

David Zuckerman has long been immersed in the world of cartoons. He worked as a writer and producer on King Of The Hill, and later joined the Seth MacFarlane orbit with American Dad and Family Guy. Now he’s working on a live-action show with a cartoonish premise. Wilfred, currently in its third season, is about twentysomething Ryan (Elijah Wood) who sees his neighbors’ dog, Wilfred (Jason Gann), as an adult in a furry suit. Ryan treats him just like any other friend, smoking pot and taking dating advice. The show’s second season veered into darker territory, introducing characters as borderline crazy as Ryan, ensuring he wasn’t the only questionable one of the bunch. The A.V. Club spoke to Zuckerman about last year’s developments; this initial installment on Wilfred’s second season covers the first six episodes, “Progress” through “Control.”

Progress” (June 21, 2012)
Ryan visits a mental institution, which includes a bearded Robin Williams.

The A.V. Club: Season one ends on the question that had been plaguing the entire series so far: “How sane is Ryan?” Then season two picks up immediately with that. When you were writing this episode, how much did you want to explore his sanity, while still leaving some of that up to viewers and open for the rest of the season?

David Zuckerman: It’s kind of a fine line, because you don’t want to frustrate the audience by not giving them any answers, but if you give them too many answers then the show’s over. I think that there are probably fans that enjoy the mystery of it all, and then there are fans that just want all the answers. Any show that has a mythology like Lost or The X-Files or Battlestar Galactica—half the audience is going to end up pissed off when they know all the answers. That’s inevitable with this show: Half the audience is going to dig it and half the audience isn’t, so I’m encouraging people to enjoy the ride. The journey is the destination.

In the case of “Progress,” I knew that we wanted to start the season in sort of an unexpected way, and I wanted to jump ahead a few months so that we didn’t have to deal with the immediate aftermath of the car accident. Then I got the idea of having two realities and not being sure which is reality and which is the dream. And the story evolved from there. The idea being that Wilfred is there to move Ryan forward, and when Wilfred was in Wisconsin convalescing, Ryan fell back into old patterns and stopped moving forward. But there was a part of Ryan—whether Wilfred is a manifestation of his imagination or not—that Wilfred represents in his dream, the part that is urging him to explore the meaning of his life. It made sense that Wilfred would appear to him in a dream and wake him up to knock him out of the rut that he was in and get him to break through the wall to the basement. Whether that’s literally a basement or the part of Ryan’s mind where he goes to contemplate his existence—I think that’s still an open question.

AVC: Where did the dual-reality idea come from?

DZ: It was an idea that I had, and then my agent told me about Awake, which hadn’t premièred yet. So at that point I was like, “Well, we can’t do the “which is which,” since that’s what they’re doing,” but I loved the idea so much. That’s when I came up with the idea, “Let’s make people think reality is a dream, and dream is a reality,” and that would be the final twist at the end. The thing that we always try to do on Wilfred is keep the audience guessing. [We] constantly try to surprise the audience, because Ryan is constantly being surprised. The audience definitely has Ryan’s point of view. They don’t know anything Ryan doesn’t know; they learn everything that he does. That stems from when I was watching the original Australian series: They never cut to another angle to show the dog, a real dog, and I loved that because it made me nervous. It made me feel like, “What would I do if I were in that situation?” They never really explored that much in the Australian show. Have you seen the Australian show at all?

AVC: Only the pilot, which has a very different tone than the American pilot. In the Australian version, Wilfred’s entry is just, like, “Hey, this is kind of weird. There’s this dog here; let’s just go along with it,” vs. the intensity of the American pilot.

DZ: Yeah, I think you get the idea. That’s really all they explored. I mean, the Australian series is wonderful, but it’s more about the absurd, the surreality, rather than the psychological or existential. I think the American version is a more existential kind of show.

AVC: Why do you think it shook out that way? What led you to make these decisions?

DZ: I guess I kind of always wanted to do a show that was about something, that was funny but also thought provoking. When I watched the Australian show, I just couldn’t get it out of my head. What kind of person would this happen to? What kind of person would need a Wilfred? I’m probably more like Ryan than I would care to admit, and he evolved out of my own psychological musings about “What’s it all about? Why are we here?” and how to live life more courageously or honestly. The big thing is, what is insanity? There’s a lot of people that seem very normal; I think we actually had the doctor say that in the mother episode, in episode nine of the first season [“Compassion”] where he said, “Everybody’s a little bit crazy. It’s the people that hide it well, those are the ones that I worry about.” I was thinking Ryan is the kind of guy where, if you met him, you’d think he was odd, but you wouldn’t know all this stuff was going on with him, the secrets that people keep.

AVC: Robin Williams is in the episode, and there’s a line in which Ryan specifically calls out the fact that it’s Robin Williams. Was Williams always the person you had in mind?

DZ: I’d already written a script and that particular joke wasn’t in it, and then we heard that Robin had—I guess he had worked with Elijah [Wood] on Happy Feet—expressed interest in the show and said he’d love to do it. Jason [Gann] is a huge fan from way back when, and so am I. I grew up on Mork & Mindy, and I was like, “Oh my God, we need to get Robin Williams in the show,” but at this point we had already written pretty much the whole season, and there was no way to change a character for him or to write a new character. So then I started thinking about using him in the première somehow, and [this] made sense since it was a dream. We’ve established that Wilfred is a huge Matt Damon fan, and we’ve actually talked about Good Will Hunting before, so then I thought, “Oh, well, Robin Williams was in Good Will Hunting, he played a doctor in that, how can we use that?” Then it just worked out so beautifully that as the dream started to fall apart, that was when Ryan could actually identify Robin Williams as being Robin Williams. And Robin was just a superb guy. He threw himself so wholeheartedly into it. A lot of actors don’t; they wouldn’t want to play that joke. They wouldn’t want to play themselves in a way, but it was such a twisted way to do it, I guess. Robin actually ad-libbed that line when he got electrocuted—the “shazbot” line—which was amazing. He was such a joy to work with. It was one of the highlights of my career, I would say.

Letting Go” (June 28, 2012)
Wilfred and Drew explore a new friendship, just as Ryan is courted by a new co-worker, Amanda.

DZ: The way that we did the première episode, we actually never see the real Wilfred in “Progress.” So Jason had the idea that, after having a summer with Drew, he would have imprinted on Drew. He’s sort of like the stepson trying to get the stepdad’s love, but the stepdad doesn’t really take him seriously. So the element of a dog agility contest—that was something we had been kicking around for awhile—it seemed like a perfect marriage between the two.

AVC: Why was this the moment to introduce Amanda (Allison Mack) as Ryan’s new love interest?

DZ: I think the fastest way to kill a show is to get your two leads together [romantically], and it just seemed like we couldn’t really play the will-they/won’t-they forever [between Ryan and Jenna]—it just didn’t seem like there were any fresh stories left in that area. We had Chris Klein, who’s so funny as Drew, and we made a decision pretty early on that Drew and Jenna would get married at the end of the season, and that would take Jenna off the table. For now. Then one of the things I really wanted to do this season was to give Ryan a girlfriend and have her be crazy. The original idea wasn’t to hide the craziness; it was to have her be so needy and crazy that she became an antagonist for Wilfred and they would begin competing over [Ryan]. But as we talked about it, we thought it would be a great reveal at the end of the season if we didn’t find out that she was as crazy as Ryan was until the end.

AVC: It felt a little bit like a deus ex machina thing.

DZ: It goes back to what I was saying: People who know Ryan would never suspect that he was crazy. We were trying to make the point that Ryan would never have expected that Amanda was crazy, because everybody’s got secrets, and everybody hides it well. I think we definitely had that in mind from the beginning; we had all the scripts written before we started production, and as you go through the episodes there are definitely clues—the first time Amanda sees Wilfred she has a very disturbed look on her face, it’s very fast, but it’s there. That’s in episode three. In episode six, when she reacts to him jumping on her, she’s sort of reacting the same way Ryan did, which is, he didn’t say to people, “Oh my God, that dog is talking to me; doesn’t anyone else see it?” She’s covering the same way Ryan did. She sort of handles things the same way Ryan does, and it all comes out when he finally confesses to her in the end.

Dignity” (July 5, 2012)
Wilfred comes to the office. Hilarity doth ensue.

AVC: How do you think other people view Wilfred? You have decided that they see him just as a normal dog, but do they see him as a dog that acts weird in any way?

DZ: Think about what the people in the office saw: They saw a dog get excited and run around, and everybody sort of pet him, which is normal dog behavior. They saw a dog running and skidding on the floor and knocking into a water cooler, and they saw a dog that was just kind of playing with a bag that he almost put his head in, which is also normal dog behavior. The idea is that they’re seeing a dog behave normally. Now maybe the dog’s a magical creature; maybe he’s a manifestation of Ryan’s imagination, and he’s just putting it on the dog. But I guess I’m not sure I understand the question. When Wilfred’s holding a coffee cup, nobody sees him holding a coffee cup except Ryan.

AVC: If Wilfred says to Ryan, “Listen, I have to go to the bathroom,” the dog has to go to the bathroom, so Ryan goes and takes the dog for a walk. But if Wilfred’s like, “I want to go get stoned,” Ryan’s like, “Okay,” and he goes and gets stoned with the dog. At what point is he hearing what the dog actually wants, and at what point is he placing whatever it is that he thinks the dog wants onto the dog?

DZ: There’s a big key to what the show is about in the pilot where Kristen [Dorian Brown] says it’s all about perception. That’s really what it’s about for Ryan, and that’s what it’s about for the audience. I think there’s a logic to it that we hold ourselves to pretty rigorously; I don’t think it’s the kind of thing I’d ever want to articulate too clearly. People can interpret the show any way they want to, and I invite that. It’s really fun reading the chat boards and reading the comments. Some people really spend a lot of time thinking about the show, and that was one of the goals when I was pitching the American version, was to do something that would inspire debate and arguments about what’s real and what’s not, give it sort of a dreamlike quality. And yet still be relatable and funny.

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AVC: You mentioned not wanting to decide and leave things open-ended. When you’re writing, are you writing with that intention, or do you have a sense of what the real answer is?

DZ: In order for me to guide the show, I have to have an opinion and an endgame in mind. How we get to that endgame is open to exploration, because I guess it depends how many seasons we get and how many elements work and how many elements don’t work. For example, this season I really thought the office was going to play a much more critical role once we started doing this episode, I felt like we’d done all those jokes and I didn’t know where else to go with that. That’s when we said, “Okay, we need to come up with a different way to end the season.” We didn’t end up going to the office more than once or twice after that.

AVC: That episode introduced so many new characters, and then most of them only showed up sporadically throughout.

DZ: Yeah, the whole office was sort of in response to FX having a concern that if Ryan didn’t have a job, he wouldn’t be relatable to the audience because they’d be wondering, “Where did he get money? How can he afford that house?” His savings as a lawyer could only go so far, and we hinted that money was getting tight at the end of last year, so it was important he get a job, but I don’t know how many workplaces were conducive to having a dog in them, so we thought we’d give him a job, we’d give him a big payday, and then he wouldn’t have to work for a while again.

In terms of the characters, we knew we wanted to set up Rob Riggle’s character [Kevin] as the guy that was going to take the fall for the embezzlement scheme, so we had that episode where he became the investment counselor—I think it was episode five—and Steven Weber was so funny in the première. Then in the office dog thing, we wanted to give him a great exit. We gave him that in episode nine; he was terrific.

Guilt” (July 12, 2012)

Kristen comes back from India pregnant, imposing on Ryan to take care of her.

AVC: What does Kristen bring this season?

DZ: She warmed up a little bit by the end of the first season, but we wanted to make her a little more vulnerable and give her a little more dimension than the sister that was always harping on her brother. So we sent her off to India last year; her marriage had broken up. We wanted to bring her back and give her some challenges to face, maybe even set up a new romance for her next year. We were thrilled to have Nestor Carbonell back as Dr. Ramos—

AVC: Speaking of Lost

DZ: Yeah, exactly. And we love that character. I imagine that character is still going to be around in some capacity, but I don’t know. That Kristen can never be back with him again, but he is the father of her baby, probably presents some opportunities for stories down the line. My big regret of the season is that we didn’t use Dorian Brown or Fiona Gubelmann enough this season. It’s just the stories we were doing didn’t really involve them and we didn’t want to force them into stories, so we tried to give them some really good episodes where we did use their characters. But for the most part it was really about Ryan and Amanda early on, and Ryan and Wilfred at the end of the season, because they’re really the core of the show.

AVC: How have you seen Elijah grow into this character?

DZ: Elijah’s always been consistent from day one. I think it was interesting that he never broke up, he never laughed in the middle of a take the first season until the last day. This season he was laughing all the time. I don’t know. That’d be a good question for him. Maybe he was more relaxed this season? But his process is really fascinating to watch. He and Jason both, but particularly Elijah. He’ll do a take, and then he’ll make adjustments and he’ll fine-tune and fine-tune until he just locks into the perfect performance, and then he’s rock solid and consistent, allowing Jason to try different things every time, because Jason likes to experiment a little bit, try different performances and different levels to get the maximum amount of comedy out of it. Elijah is extraordinarily good as a straight man. He can deliver a joke too, but his primary role on the show is to be the beleaguered straight man, and he’s awesome at it.

AVC: He seems to have this ability to create scenarios in which Ryan is the bad guy, but the audience doesn’t really think of him as that bad of a guy.

DZ: I think it comes from the fact that he’s just an innately likable actor. I think he just brings a lot of goodwill to the part. And he plays Ryan with such a sweetness and a vulnerability that it’s difficult to dislike him, even when he’s doing terrible things. Also, he’s mostly a victim to Wilfred. What I like about the character, and it was important in the casting of it, was that he can stand up to Wilfred. He can go toe to toe with him and be his equal. He’s not bullied by Wilfred. He maybe trusts Wilfred a little too much. Sometimes Wilfred is a really good friend. And sometimes he’s not. It’s just hard to tell when he’s being what.

Now” (July 19, 2012)
When a gun gets pointed at his head, Wilfred loses his sense of smell.

DZ: That came out of the idea of a dog losing his sense of smell, which is apparently a real thing. A lot of our stories come from, “What’s an interesting thing that can happen to a dog, or with a dog, and how can we make that our own?” I wanted to do an episode about staying present, because that seems like a good lesson. All of the things that Ryan is learning are sort of recovering-from-depression lessons. And one of them is being mindful and staying present. Once we came up with the idea of a dog’s nose and sense of smell being the thing that keeps them in the moment, when he loses it and that mirrors what’s going on with Ryan’s story. Ryan isn’t staying in the moment, he’s thinking too much about his future and not appreciating what he has now. That story really came together well. It was fun to see Wilfred becoming an intellectual, and the goth character at the end was really funny.

AVC: Do you ever fear that you’re going to run out of big, singular words to use as titles of episodes?

DZ: I don’t know. I haven’t really worried about that. I mean, we did an episode called “Fear,” we could do an episode called “Courage,” we could do an episode called “Confidence.” We really don’t think about the word until we’ve broken the story. We try to figure out what’s Ryan’s problem, how can Wilfred do something in an interesting way that helps Ryan get the answer he needs and solve that problem, and that’s how we approach the stories.

AVC: The show also examines pop culture as therapy. Looking at the bigger picture of pop culture these days, there’s a movement, especially in the comedy world, of therapy through art, and audiences relating. The way you were just describing “Now” could have easily been describing a life philosophy learned from a therapist. Do you agree?

DZ: First and foremost, we’re an entertainment show. We want to be entertaining and funny and compelling. I don’t worry about being the funniest show on TV. I’d much rather be the weirdest show or the most original show; that’s what we strive for. And I think people want to tune in and see a show with a guy in a dog suit doing funny things and acting like a dog, they can appreciate the show on that level. If they want to tune in and be entertained but also get something to think about or just consider, they can also enjoy our show on a deeper, more complex level. We’ve gotten a few emails—someone just posted something on Jason’s Facebook page a while ago and they forwarded it to me—and I’ve seen a few of these things where people say, “Wow, I really learned something about myself this week,” or “Really made me think about this.” People who are appreciating the deeper level that we go to in the stories are really satisfying to me. One of my favorite shows that I ever worked on was King Of The Hill. Every week, it was about something. It was either making a satirical point about politics or family relationships or something, and The Simpsons, to a certain point, does that too. There’s always a little bit more to it than just the funny entertainment. I like that about Wilfred. I’m proud that we’re able to do stories that are somewhat thought provoking and weird and fresh and still, also, very funny. We’re not afraid of being dramatic. We had an episode last season [“Anger,” season one, episode eight] where we ended with Ryan hugging his dog, and his dog turned into his old dog that he thought he had killed. It’s a really touching moment, and that wasn’t the way it was scripted. It was scripted to end on a big joke, but we thought, “Why not just go for the more touching ending?” We did that a few times this season as well.

AVC: When you’re talking about shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy, King Of The Hill seems like the prime example of how to find humor in these very grounded situations that people can relate to.

DZ: Yeah, Family Guy never really looks for that. Family Guy tells good stories, but it’s purely about being funny and entertaining, and there’s a place for that. I think there are shows that you can just watch and enjoy, and then there’s shows you have to pay attention to. Community is one of those shows, and 30 Rock, where the jokes are really smart and you have to pay attention. Then there are shows that require you to pay attention and think about them, and I think Louie is like that. I think we’re like that. Probably more dramas than comedies are like that.

Control” (July 26, 2012)
Ryan throws a dinner party to smooth tension between neighbor Jenna and new girlfriend Amanda.

DZ: That episode was the last script we finished writing, and we knew we had a first draft that didn’t work very well. And unfortunately, because we had written all the other scripts, we were locked. I probably would have thrown that story out if I had the luxury of doing that, but because we knew where we were going for the rest of the season and where we had been before, we were locked into the dinner party story, and for production reasons we had to be in the house. It was, I think, the most difficult episode to write and to get the story right. I think ultimately it turned out fine. It was a bit of a struggle, that one, [Chuckles.] to be honest with you. It was tough.

AVC: You said it was the last one that you wrote. What did you hope to accomplish with that episode?

DZ: What that episode needed to accomplish in the overall story arc—we knew that we wanted Amanda and Ryan to break up in “Truth,” so in order for them to break up, we needed to see the episode where they really came together, so that was the episode designed to show that. We needed to pay off the squishy-tits freak-out on air from last season, because that was going to play a part in later episodes. It played a part in “Honesty.” It was sort of about Jenna’s decline; she wasn’t taken seriously. We wanted an episode where Jenna and Amanda met, and we wanted to give Fiona a good episode, and give Chris a good episode. There were a lot of building blocks that we needed to do with that episode. Also, for production reasons, we needed to shoot an episode almost entirely in the house.

Number eight [“Truth”], the secrets episode in the basement with Bruce [Dwight Yoakam], was supposed to be our bottle episode, but that actually ended up being an even more difficult shoot because there was an earthquake and a blackout, which created lighting challenges. That was supposed to be a very simple episode, and it turned into a very complicated one.

AVC: As far as this episode goes, it’s interesting to hear that form had to follow function instead of the other way around.

DZ: Yes. This is the one instance where that was true, and I was really worried about it, and then I read the fan boards after it, and there were plenty of people saying, “Oh, it’s the best episode ever!” Last season the episode that I was most worried about is now one of my favorites from last season. But when we were doing it, it had a number of other problems. It was the one with Trashface the bum [Peter Stormare in season one’s “Isolation”] and the block party, and that was a really problematic episode in the script phase and in production. It was nine minutes [too] long after we shot it, and we had to cut out basically a third of it. But I watch it now and I love that episode. I needed a little distance. I think that’s probably how episode six played. Everybody else seemed to like it more than I did. I think with a little distance I’ll like it, too.

AVC: Do you feel most comfortable when you’re writing and creating just for Ryan-Wilfred moments? 

DZ: To me, that is the core of the show. I think to everybody, that’s the core of the show: Ryan and Wilfred and their relationship. And my favorite scenes are just the two of them. I love the scene in the finale last season; we did a six-page scene where it was just them in the basement talking about Wilfred’s will, and we did a lot of scenes with them in the finale this season, too. It’s difficult to keep Wilfred involved in a scene when there’s other people there, because they can’t hear him and that puts him more in the role of just making comments or making little jokes. To write Wilfred where he can actually have a conversation, those are definitely my favorite scenes.

AVC: The show is at its best when Ryan paints himself into a corner. It’s easy to relate to, “Well, it’s simpler if I just say this thing,” but then somebody comes back and questions it, and you have to make up something else in order to take care of the earlier thing you messed up.

DZ: That was a lot of the dynamic in the episode “Fear” last year, with Ethan Suplee [Spencer], the neighbor who loved porn, Wilfred kept pushing Ryan closer and closer to him, until Ryan had to confess that he stole his pot plants and shit in his boots. That is definitely a way that’s fun for Wilfred to keep turning the screws and making Ryan more and more uncomfortable. In the Trashface episode, he was the one who broke into everybody’s house and stole everybody’s stuff and pinned it all on Ryan to force Ryan to get to know his neighbors. Wilfred always has an altruistic motive and a selfish dog motive. That’s one of the things that make these stories so difficult to break: Wilfred always has to have two motives, because we’re never quite sure why he’s doing it.