Since his time as the youngest writer among the murderers row of TV scribes responsible for My So-Called Life, Jason Katims has made TV dramas that draw their power from the everyday and the mundane. (Give or take a Roswell.) As the showrunner for NBC’s adaptations of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, Katims brought a new sense of realism to network drama, encouraging a loose, semi-improvisational acting style and handheld camerawork that mimics the feel of a documentary. His latest series, however, is his first comedy: About A Boy, a single-camera take on the Nick Hornby novel about a rakish bachelor (David Walton), who becomes the reluctant father figure to the kid next door (Benjamin Stockham). Prior to the show’s post-Olympics preview, The A.V. Club spoke to Katims about learning the sitcom ropes, telling Ron Howard how he wanted to alter Parenthood, and the potential for crossover between About A Boy, Parenthood, and Friday Night Lights. (Like the reunion of FNL’s Crucifictorious that was announced after this interview was conducted.)
The A.V. Club: What convinced you that About A Boy was the right concept for a TV series?
Jason Katims: Sometimes you see a movie or read a book and you’re like, “Oh, I liked that.” Other times, something just grabs you. Even though I hadn’t seen the movie or read the book for quite some time when this came up, I felt that connection to it.
I had never done a half-hour before, but I felt that a good way to transition into that format would be to do a comedy that has a great situation at the center of the story and characters that we would hopefully come to really care about—as opposed to being “joke, joke, joke, joke.” From what my experience has been on Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, what I was hoping to bring to the half-hour was a kind of a storytelling where you felt connected the characters. So that’s what I’m hopeful about for the show, and excited about from the first four or five episodes. Now that I’m shooting, I’m seeing that happen. You’re seeing this really charming relationship between Marcus and Will—and Will with the Minnie Driver character, Fiona. There’s a sort of tension between the two of them, but, underneath all the humor and the fun, you’re seeing a connection forming between this group of people. You sense that they don’t belong together, but they should be together and they’re sort of a family, but will never in the history of life admit that they’re a family. I saw that as a charming idea and a great way to launch a series. I get something that I can really sink my teeth into.
AVC: What was it like to condense the whole thrust of the novel and film into a 22-minute pilot?
JK: Well, I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as its own thing and I used, liberally, a lot of elements of what was in the movie, but made adjustments according to what was going to work for the series—and an American version of the story. Getting to that moment of Marcus and Will on stage was intentional, because I felt like if you can care about those two guys in the pilot and root for them to be together and feel like you’re hooked into that relationship, then that was the most important job of the pilot episode. I also liked the idea that it allows us to move forward in the next episode and say, “What happens now in this incarnation of the story?” It frees us up to take these characters on a hopefully, very long and continuing journey.
AVC: Both Parenthood and Friday Night Lights were stories that were told in other mediums before. How do the early stages of About A Boy compare to the early stages of those shows?
JK: I think they’re all similar. Luckily, in all three cases, I was put in a position of using as much or as little of the source material as made sense. With Parenthood, when viewing the movie again, while writing the pilot, I thought, “The way the family units are building up, this is the perfect structure for a series—maybe even more than a movie.” I said, “That was 20 years ago, what should we be talking about now?” And that’s how the office storyline came into it, and that’s how we had a stay-at-home dad and a working mom—as part of a story that was more relevant to today. You always want to honor the source material, but you also want to make it your own. It has to turn into its own thing for it to fly, so that’s what we’re trying to do.
When I first pitched Parenthood to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer—who made the movie—I was going through the pitch of what my version was going to be. I noticed anytime I said something different than what was in the movie version, their eyes lit up. They got excited not by what they’d already done, but by what was going to be different. I took that as my marching orders—it had to be its own thing. So I’m approaching About A Boy in the same way.
AVC: In that process, what are you learning about making a television comedy?
JK: One of the things I’m dealing with is that it’s filmed in five days—when you start a drama, you work between seven and eight days. So there’s that challenge of keeping up with the production and getting the scripts ready—it goes by a lot faster. It’s like when I started to direct episodes. I’m sort of a showrunner and writer and I didn’t really come at this as a director, but when I started directing episodes of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, what was exciting about it was exercising different muscles. I was going to do something different than I do every other day—and that’s something that’s exciting about doing a half-hour. It’s essentially the same job I do on the other shows, but the concerns are different. Maybe the scenes are a different animal; maybe you have 22 minutes to tell a story instead of 44, so you have to tell these stories in a very condensed way. I’m understanding that, because of the format, you adjust to the rhythm of what people are expecting. If you have to break those rhythms, it’s fine, you just have to be conscious of, “Okay, let’s score this scene down in a way that you’re not used to seeing in a half-hour.” That has to be a conscious choice as opposed to thinking you’re just going to completely change the medium. [Laughs.]
AVC: How fluid are the universes between Parenthood and About A Boy? It’s already been announced that Dax Shepard will appear on About A Boy as his Parenthood character, Crosby.
JK: On a recent episode of Parenthood, there’s a poker game and David Walton was actually at that poker game as Will and it was so subtle that no one even knew it—because the show wasn’t on the air yet. But I think as time goes on and people re-watch the episode, they’ll see that. So I think the idea is that, in the [About A Boy] episode, Will has a poker game and Crosby is one of the attendees. It’s a cameo and it’s not like he’s going to play a huge role, but I really look forward to it, because I think it’s a really organic idea and a really fun idea and anytime I get a chance to work even more with Dax Shepard, I’m going to take that opportunity.
AVC: Is that a nod to the way Nick Hornby’s novels bleed into one another—like how in About A Boy, Will visits the record store from High Fidelity?
JK: I hadn’t thought about that, but that’s a good point. To me, we were shooting the pilot of About A Boy, and I thought it was interesting that both of these shows are set in San Francisco—or the Bay Area—and the first thing that occurred to me was it would be funny to see a scene with one show and see characters from the other show just walk in and be in the background as extras. So that’s what first occurred to me. We’re going to do that in an episode, I think, about halfway through the season of About A Boy. I’m excited to make that happen, and if it feels like something that the cast and the audience likes, we’ll see about doing it more in the future.