Co-creator David Mirkin walks us through cult classic Get A Life (4 of 5)
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In connection with the long-awaited release of Get A Life: The Complete Series on DVD, The A.V. Club spoke with the series’ showrunner, writer, co-creator, director, and executive producer, David Mirkin, about 16 of our favorite episodes. Following part three’s discussion, this section includes season-one episodes “Neptune 2000,” and “Psychic 2000” as well as season-two episodes “Chris Moves Out” and “Larry On The Loose.”
“Neptune 2000” (April 28, 1991)
A submarine Chris orders as a boy finally arrives decades later, and Chris and his father get stuck in it when they try it out in the bathtub.
David Mirkin: “Neptune 2000.” The great Steve Pepoon [wrote that episode]. We had Margie [Marjorie Gross]. Margie stayed for about the first half of the first season and did all of that fantastic work, and then she moved on. It was difficult finding writers for Get A Life because of what I’ve been describing. You need somebody that understands the traditional sitcom form, because you can only make proper fun of it and/or a Capra movie if you understand its structure to begin with. So you need somebody that understands all that, which is an enormous amount of knowledge and skill. Then you need somebody who can make fun of it and is comfortable making fun of it. And that generally becomes a sketch writer; sketch writers can do that. They can make good fun of it, but they often can’t write long form. They can write a parody of that exact form, but they can’t really tell a story within that story and twist it. They just write short form a lot of times. So there’s that small group that can write sketches that can also write normal sitcoms, and they can put those two skills together and give you what Get A Life is, also what The Simpsons is, quite frankly: the intensity of a sketch with the structure and integrity of a long-form piece. It’s a small group of people.
There’s more now, naturally, because people have been able to study it all this time. Back in those days, there were no shows like this. You hear Judd Apatow talk on our DVD; he wrote two specs of his favorite shows to try and get a job. He wrote a spec Get A Life and a spec Simpsons. He said Simpsons had only been on for six episodes at that point. This is very early in this style of writing, so there weren’t a lot of people out there. Margie could do it. Adam [Resnick] and Chris [Elliott] were great. Obviously, I’m some sort of savant genius. I don’t have to tell you that. It was hard to find people … If television is making a product, our product was making fun of the other product. It was pointing out to people—especially when those other products were bad and inferior—it was trying to get people a skill set to point out and pick out when these products were inferior. When they were being lied to. When there was happy horse shit coming their way. We wanted to expose that, so that would threaten certain network executives. It would threaten certain agents. So even if there were writers that were interested in coming on Get A Life, the agents we found were discouraging them because they would say, “You know, this show is too crazy. Chris is too weird-looking. It’s going to be off really fast. So if you want a career, this is not going to be your best choice.” So even if someone was excited about us, their enthusiasm was being tamped down. It was hard to find people who had the skill and wanted to do it.
Once Margie left, luckily, Steve Pepoon came along just in time. Actually, he wrote a Simpsons that won an Emmy [“Homer Vs. Lisa And The 8th Commandment”], so he had the skill set. He came in and his first episode was the camping episode, and this was his second one. He did a terrific job. He had the idea of Chris having sent away for something.
I talked to [Pepoon] about this; he’s on the DVDs. You should know we only had the budget to do one day of commentaries and shooting. There’s just not a lot of money out there for DVDs, and everybody does it for free. Sometimes people think we get paid for that, but we just do it out of love for the audience and enormous gratitude for our audiences. We really appreciate that anyone is interested in this. So I’ve got [writer] Jace Richdale and Steve Pepoon, and we shot and we did the commentaries. That’s all the money we had, but I was able to do commentaries on every episode because I did the rest of them. Luckily, I have a little recording studio in my house and over a couple of months, I was able to say something about every episode. When I speak at places, people ask me questions, so I have 20 years’ worth of questions to be answered. That’s actually how that happened.
[Pepoon] pitched the idea of something coming late. I didn’t remember whether he said “submarine,” but he claims that he did, so it’s possible that it was. That submarine was an obsession of mine growing up, which is why I couldn’t remember whether it came from him. I just remember that Chris sent away for something as a kid, and it didn't arrive until now. Which is what it used to feel like to me. When you would order something from the back of a comic book, it would say, “Allow four to six weeks for delivery.” To me, that was 20 years. I often could not order anything because I could not fathom waiting on pins and needles for that amount of time. It was too long. I also vaguely knew the things that came from the back of comic books were going to be rip-offs. But the submarine—and I include on the DVD the ad that we used, some version of the original ad that was in the back of the comic book—sounded so great. It was a two-man sub, it fired torpedoes, it fired rockets, it had a lit instrument panel, it had a periscope. And it was $6.98. How could they do that? But you would read it again and again and say, “How are they ripping me off here? It fits two people!”
My cousin, who got killed in Afghanistan last year, we grew up together. He had the guts, and he ordered the submarine and told me about it. It was pretty disintegrated, but I saw it. The way they did it is, it was made out of cardboard, so it was the size of two people, but it basically had no bottom to it, so you could sit on the floor, and it would sit on top of you. The ways the torpedoes were, you would push them out with your feet. [Laughs.] So for a second you’d see a foot stick out of the torpedo hole, and the periscope was two mirrors glued onto a piece of cardboard. Technically it was a periscope, but you know what I mean. It was essentially just a tube of cardboard. The rocket launcher was just a rubber band that shot a rocket straight up. The lit instrument panel was a single light bulb like you’d see in a cheap flashlight with a single AA battery, but “Oh, it’s lit!” The instrument panel was just drawn onto a piece of the cardboard. That’s why it was $6.98. Because it was made of cardboard and just kind of disintegrated. My cousin got it. I didn’t see him often because he was about 90 miles away. When I finally saw him, it was about three months later, and it was already down to an unrecognizable bulk. [Laughs.]
I made sure to use the original ad in the show, and I thought what was funny was that it would come and it would actually be this $20,000 piece of equipment. [Laughs.] You would put it together and it was water-tight. We spent a long time in the room, I remember, coming up with the way they would get trapped in the bathtub. And what was brilliant about it—and I was incredibly proud of it, but it’s incredibly stupid—is that the water fills up and then Chris figures a way with the periscope to block the flow of water, because if it kept overflowing, Elinor [Donahue] would have seen that there was a leak. And we didn’t want that. We wanted it to be that they were just stuck there, and no one knew that they were there.
I was very proud of that very stupid ending, the thing that was so much fun to direct. That was an odd, time-consuming one to direct. You’d think it wasn’t, but the lighting for inside the submarine, for some reason, took our lighting person an enormous amount of time to do, and I remember getting quite annoyed about having to wait for the submarine to get lit properly. It was really just sort of a red tint.
But the most fun about it was directing Chris and his father together. They were so funny together. It’s one of Bob [Elliott’s] best performances. It’s one of Chris’ best performances. Chris doing the speech from Jaws was something he’d do for us in the room all the time; he’d do the Robert Shaw speech. “You go in the cage? Shark…” He’d do that all the time. It was the same thing, like, “We’ve got to put that in the show. I’ve got to have you do that in the show.” He’s brilliant. We made sure to even have the same Jaws music behind it, which is like a high, whining string pitch happening there.
It was somewhat time-consuming to get. There’s some behind-the-scenes photographs in the DVD that I’ve included where you can see the submarine. Up in the ceiling, there’s a piece of phony ceiling on the bottom of it, and there’s big water tanks above it, and we dropped it down into the living-room set and all that water. There are dummies inside it, and then I locked down all the cameras after that shot. Then the real Chris and Bob get in, and I can make it look like it’s all one shot when they fell into the kitchen. But an enormous amount of fun. An enormous amount of nostalgia for me, because that submarine haunted my dreams for a long time, and I never really got to see it because it had disintegrated by the time I got to see it. It was the perfect thing when Steve pitched it, and he did another terrific job on that script. It was great.
The A.V. Club: You were able to live out your childhood dream in a very strange, surreal sort of way. You got to create the submarine you wanted as a kid but could never buy because it did not exist.
DM: So much of the writing that we like to do, that I like to do, is take your anger and do something funny about it. If you remember, the instruction manual is about 2,000 pages and in another language, and also it makes no sense. It’s fun to see the stuff he pours out of the box could never be the submarine, actually. The thing that he makes is so completely surreal and bizarre, and that’s why his father agrees to help him build it properly.
AVC: In spite of the ridiculousness of it all, the episode actually conveys a certain air of claustrophobia and danger.
DM: I’m glad that you had that feeling. It was exciting, because we had this great guy, Tommy Goetz; he was our set designer. He did Taxi and stuff, and he had to create behind those portholes, he had to create a tank with water in it. It was actually a very thin tank, probably about four inches wide behind those things, so you could see the water level rise up very quickly past those portals. To make that tank and to make that all waterproof, yet keep the front of the sub open so they could get into it and I could shoot it, it was really kind of cool to do that. Obviously you never get that claustrophobic feeling, because you have that whole side is actually open. But the other side was complex to get the sealed water that we could raise and lower the levels of, so that you would get that exact feeling that you’re talking about. And then we would come around on the other side and actually shoot it so you could see the whole thing in the bathtub with them inside. It was actually one of the more complicated sets that we ever made, because it had to really operate.
“Psychic 2000” (May 19, 1991)
Chris seemingly develops telekinetic powers that tell him his arch-enemy Sharon is about to be murdered. But by whom?
DM: “Psychic 2000” was the last episode of the first season, and the way we shot that was very emotional. It was probably, in a way, maybe the most emotional episode that we shot because we were shooting it not knowing if we were getting our pick-up, so it might have been our last episode.
AVC: It could have been a series finale.
DM: It could have been a series finale, and we really didn’t know. We were the No. 1 rated new show on Fox, but there were still executives who hated it and were dead set against the show because of the content. So even though we were successful, we were in this odd position. I think I told you we beat The Simpsons that year because The Simpsons were moved to Thursday, and we were on Sunday. We’re shooting the thing and Chris is… He’s as funny off-camera as he is on-camera, but this series meant a tremendous amount to him, so it was a difficult thing. It was difficult for me, and it was the most difficult for him. As the writer-producer-showrunner and Adam Resnick as co-creator and writer, it’s difficult for us. It’s difficult for all the writers. But it’s Chris’ face. It’s The Chris Elliott Show, even though we’re calling it Get A Life. So the rejection or the difficulty is hitting them the hardest because we can anonymously move on to something else. [Laughs.] Writers can do that. We jump around, and actors…
AVC: Writers can hide behind the star.
DM: They can’t hide! They’re really being brave. Part of what makes them talented is they’re wearing their hearts on their sleeves. So the whole time we shot that episode, sort of meaningfully, I had him die in the beginning and the end. [Laughs.] It was a new record of death, I think. It was very purposeful to have him go into heaven at the end with the harp. To have a very traditional death and full-on heaven travel, if it was going to be our last shot. And oddly enough, him on the wire with the harp, that really was the last shot, and we didn’t know what was going to happen after that. There was definitely a lot of emotion, a surprising amount of emotion going around about how sad it was going to be to say goodbye to the show, if that was the case. I was optimistic. But there was still a feeling of the possibility of it not happening. It pervaded that episode. Everybody was terrific on it. We had an enormous amount of fun shooting it, but yeah, there was a pall over it for that reason.
What I did about the same time our pick-up was imminent, I took an ad out in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Our company, New World, and Mirkinvision and Elliottland, we all put into it. An effort to point out to Fox and the world that if they didn’t pick up the show, it was an odd choice. I include this ad in the DVD, too. It said, “New World congratulates Get A Life on a really successful first season, No. 1 new series on Fox,” and then all the great reviews we got. We got fantastic reviews. So it had all that information, that we were high-rated and well-reviewed. And the unspoken thing in that ad was, “Who wouldn’t pick this up?” [Laughs.] It was a pressure move. Sure enough, we didn’t get picked up for the second season. We got picked up for midseason. It actually created a situation, which particularly happened with journalists back then; they didn’t understand how television worked. It’s become much more transparent than it used to be. They mistakenly reported that we were canceled. We were never canceled; we just never got on the fall schedule. Very quickly after the fall schedule was announced, we got picked up as a back-up and went into production just like any series would at the same time any series would, but we didn’t have a time slot yet.
The ad was one thing. The other thing that happened—and this is the big misconception. People think it’s because of network pressure that he moved out of the house, and that’s not the case at all. There was never any network pressure to move out of the house. The network pressure was for him to be lucid. [Laughs.] For him to not be a loser. And for him to be smarter and not be psychotic and not be surreal. That was always the pressure. They really didn’t have a problem with him living at home. They didn’t think that was the main problem, because they knew there was a positive way to do that. Sort of the way we did it in the pilot and in other certain episodes as well. What happened is—about the time we were taking out this ad and we had finished filming the last show—I’m driving and I get a call from Chris and he sounds kind of down. He says, “You know, my dad doesn’t really want to come back for the next season.” The reason for this is, Bob Elliott did the show for us as a favor. Chris had mentioned him as a possibility, and I jumped on him. “Yes! We’re getting him! That’s a fantastic idea! I love this guy!” He was so great, but he was in his 70s, and he didn’t really realize that he was signing up for a show that was shooting until 4 in the morning, you know? And he’d have to wait around for me to get to him. “The Big City” is a perfect example, with the shot where they’re saying, “Chris! We have your wallet!” when they’re in their bathrobes. I’m shooting that at 3 a.m., and it’s not fair to keep somebody in their 70s waiting around all day and then shooting some scenes with them at 3. Sleep is an important thing when you’re that age. Plus, Bob had been so successful, he didn’t need to go through this bullshit.
I was like, “Oh, wow,” then instantly was like, “Well, how about if we have you move out of the house, and we’ll still have the parents, but I shoot all the parents scenes together in one week?” So all Bob has to do is come back for one week, and I’ll shoot everything with him. They won’t be in as many episodes, but in as many as we can get them in, as many as we can write ahead for, and we’ll shoot them a week at a time, all good hours. He’s gonna come in and get out. In at 8 o’clock, he’ll be out by 6 o’clock, that’ll be the end of it. Bob got so happy about that, by the way. When we were shooting those scenes all together he said, “We can do that as much as you want, Dave. This is fantastic!” [Laughs.] He was so thrilled.
“Chris Moves Out” (November 9, 1991)
Chris finally moves out of the room above his parents’ garage and somehow finds an even dumpier, more depressing home in a garage owned by an alcoholic former cop named Gus, played by Brian Doyle-Murray.
DM: So we thought, “Where’s he going to move to? Well, we want to work with Brian Doyle-Murray, we’ve been saying. How about he moves in with Brian Doyle-Murray? Great. Great, great, great, great, great. So we actually got excited, and that stimulated me more. I said, “You know, it’s great that a series changes every year. Particularly one this weird.” I like things to be different all the time. I like the stories to be different. That even has a premise change, and quite frankly, if we had gone a third year, I would have had him move out of the garage and become a homeless drifter. He would have traveled the country, and every single person whose life he touched would become a little bit worse. That was the premise. So have it morph each time into something else. We went in and told Fox, and we put a nice spin on it. “He’s growing! He’s leaving the house!” It never occurred to them, but they kind of liked the idea. But they very quickly soured on it when they saw the first script that I wrote with Adam Resnick. I think we broke it up into first and second acts. I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. They were very upset that he was in a garage. [Laughs.] They were super-upset that he didn’t realize he was in a garage. The original version was he never, ever realizes that he’s living in Brian’s garage. He says, “It seems like it’s a garage motif.” “Yeah, I had my decorator go for that."
So they shut us down. Our very first script back, and we got shut down. I was quite miffed about that, and I said, “It can’t be the way it was.” Toward the end of the first season, they really weren’t giving us too much trouble. We were doing a lot of weird things. We certainly had a discussion about “The Big City.” They wanted it to be a dream. But it wasn’t a long, protracted discussion. They didn’t shut us down or anything. They had given up doing that. They understood that we were going to follow our instincts. They also understood that we were being successful, too. But they still… There’s just some people that hate this style of writing. It’s very, very threatening to certain ways of thinking, no doubt about it. Because it makes you feel like anything could happen in your own life, that there’s no reason that your living room won’t suddenly open up and swallow you. It puts people in that kind of mindset, and that can really screw with them.
AVC: People like TV that’s soothing and reassuring and says, “You’ve seen this before, you’ll see it again, you know exactly how this is going to turn out.” Whereas with a show like this or Louie or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, literally anything can happen and it’s disconcerting. It forces you to think, “Why is this happening?” as opposed to conventional sitcoms where everything happens for a very apparent reason.
DM: Louie is genius. I love that show so much. It’s so brilliantly done budget-wise, too. Everything about it is great. And [FX] is a network that has commercials, too. It’s great that we’ve evolved to this point, but generally, especially the main networks, they’re trying to sell those products, and they’re trying to keep you soothed in between ads for the various things that they’re trying to sell you. And if you’re disturbed or upset, you’re much less likely to buy those things. Even if you’re thinking, you’re less likely to buy those things. [Laughs.] It’s better to lull you off into something. Again, something that’s making fun of the products that sell those products, meaning those other sitcoms that sell them, is also very threatening in that way.
This is always the important thing, and I did it on The Simpsons: It’s great to have those shows that are like a baby bottle, like a warm hug. It’s fine that they’re around. I hate it when they’re executed poorly, but there’s even a place for that. Even when they’re executed well, there’s too much of that same thing. I actually believe that it’s a bad thing to do to people, for the humans that have difficult family lives, and that’s most people. We’re always pretending that’s [not] the majority, but I think psychologists will say 20 percent that have the more normal thing, and the rest of us are struggling. We have mixed family lives and mixed relationships. If you’re seeing sitcoms that have nothing but everything getting solved in 22 minutes and a hug coming at the end, you start to feel very inadequate that you’re not solving your own problems in 22 minutes. That you’re not having those un-complex hugs and completely resolved emotions at the end of things. It’s actually a very negative message, saying, “There’s something wrong with you. There’s something horribly wrong with you.” Instead, the message that I’m always trying to get out there is, “Life is very messy. Crazy things happen. Things go wrong all the time. But that’s normal and you will still get by. You will still make it.” In a way, Get A Life has the most insane message: “You may be killed, but you’ll make it. You’ll still make it next week. Even if you’re killed today, you’ll get up soon.” That’s why we get such passion for the show: There’s people that have that experience and they go, “Yes. This is finally something that’s speaking to me that feels a little closer to the way I perceive the world, to the way I perceive reality, which is nobody knows anything, everybody’s an idiot. We’re all morons, yet that’s okay. It’s all going to work out one way or another. We’re all going to get by one way or the other.”
So I had the conversation with them that it can’t be like it was last year, and [Fox executive] Peter Chernin being the big hero came into that first episode, and he said, “Yeah, you’re right. We’re not going to bother you. But can you please, please have him know it’s a garage?” [Laughs.] So we rewrote the scene in the sense that Chris goes for about two minutes not realizing it’s a garage, and then he sees the garage opener and he finally realizes it. And then the great Get A Life twist is that he loves the fact that it’s a garage. He actually thinks that that’s quite superior to sleeping in a normal room. He says, “All my life I’ve lived above a garage. I could only dream of living in one.” So he’s happy about that. That’s how we fixed that particular episode.
I had such a great time shooting the “Georgy Girl” montage in that. Some of my favorite jokes in that, the bear trap, the head in the baby carriage, him eating the chess pieces. Chris eating those chess pieces… That performance is as good as you can get. The commitment is so comfortable and sweet. I’ll watch these things, I’ll see them 50 times, and they’ll make me laugh every time.
AVC: With the montages, it helps that you have the actual songs, and not sound-alikes.
DM: One of the big tricks of Get A Life, if you’re looking at the hat trick of Get A Life, is to find a song about a girl and play that over Chris. That’s “Pretty Woman.” It’s “Georgy Girl.” Any song that has a definite feminine take on it is always the best one to put of him cavorting. That’s “Afternoon Delight.” Whatever has a very feminine sound to it, it’s the great trick. That well we went to many times, and it worked brilliantly every time. [Laughs.]
AVC: So it sounds like they wanted Chris to be less insane and less of a loser, but then in the second season he became more insane and more of a loser.
DM: It was a natural evolution. It’s more obvious in the second season because we were really… The first season, toward the end, was similar to what the second season was. It just became more and more surreal due to the natural evolution of it. It was always where we were going, and it just all bunches up at that point. It’s just where it always felt right. That was the most comfortable place. It just naturally happened that way. We weren’t doing it for any reason except for a natural, organic evolution. “This is what works. This is the way I think. This is the way I like to write. This is the way we all like to write. Let’s do this.”
“Larry On The Loose” (November 16, 1991)
Chris’ best friend Larry goes AWOL from his life. Chris comes looking for him and when he can’t be found, seeks out a new best friend. (This is the first Get A Life episode written by Mr. Show co-creator Bob Odenkirk.)
DM: We hired Steve Pepoon in the middle of the first season, and then for the second season… The first season was like a beacon to writers who wanted to work on the show come hell or high water, no matter what their agents were saying. I brought on Jace Richdale at that point, a terrific writer. I loved him so much I brought him over to The Simpsons with me, and he did great work on The Simpsons. He’s on Dexter now. And Bob [Odenkirk] had sent me his Saturday Night Live stuff, so I was looking at somebody whose sketches I quite liked—
AVC: That was a very good era of Saturday Night Live.
DM: It was a good era. It was an excellent era of Saturday Night Live. I really liked his stuff. I don’t know if I ever saw any long-form from him. I think this was his very first foray into a long-form situation. I certainly loved him when I met him. I found him very funny, very entertaining. Good fun. [Bob] and Conan O’Brien… I knew Conan a little bit because I had interest in him for The Edge, and worked with him on The Simpsons. The same kind of thing, like Chris, they all entertain you in the room. So this is Bob’s real first script. I’m happy you picked it in some ways, because it’s a thankless script. It’s getting a job done, which was moving on from Sam Robards. [This was Robards’ final episode on the show. —Ed.] And if you think it was a good episode, I’m always thrilled about that. I never like to write any script that I feel forced to write. I’m in the corner; I have to tell this particular story. You want it to be entertaining for entertainment’s sake. You want to feel like you would be telling this story even if you didn’t have to write it, that you’re dying to tell the story. But this is one that we knew we had to write so you’re always suspicious of it in that sense. By the way, now that we had Brian Doyle-Murray, we realized we weren’t going to come back to Sam enough, and we wanted to give Sam a send-off. This is a perfect example of what a great guy Sam Robards was; he didn’t have to come back and shoot this episode, but he did and he was so lovely the entire time we worked for him, and he was lovely for this final one, just a pure classy guy all the way to the very end. That was incredibly nice of him. I had a great time directing the episode. My favorite scene in it is Chris seeing himself in the morgue and not quite realizing it. Where he pulls open a drawer and he’s in it.
I can’t remember why, but I put myself in that episode as the businessman that Gus roughs up, and that was a great experience. I’ve had this experience a couple times, where I’ve worked opposite fantastic actors. When I was doing rehearsals for Heartbreakers, I was working with Gene Hackman, and I didn’t have Nora Dunn there, and so I would play Nora Dunn. And there’s a scene where Gene is really angry at Nora Dunn. It’s just so funny to look into the eyes of a great actor, because you can’t tell they’re acting. It’s one of the ways they make you act better, because you really believe you’re in the moment. There’s nothing telling you that what’s happening isn’t happening, so you start to react, whether you like it or not, as if it’s really happening. And Gene Hackman’s a scary guy who I adore, but when he gets mad, he gets mad, when he’s acting. And I was looking at him and going, “I wonder if the reason he gets so mad at me is because he hates me.” [Laughs.] It was the same thing with Brian. Brian’s the same way. He’s a tough guy. These guys are roughhousers. They’ve been around. Brian is grabbing me by the lapels, and I’m going, “This is the way he always wants to treat me. The way you’d treat any executive producer/director/idiot.” So I did that about five times. That was also a highlight of that particular episode.
AVC: Gus’ character is like a funhouse-mirror version of Chris’ parents. For one thing, in about 80 percent of their scenes, they’re wearing bathrobes and/or are around a coffee table. What was the thinking on that?
DM: I should say the history of the parents… We envisioned them to be in their bathrobes all the time. The other thing that happened is after the pilot—it might have been one of the notes of the run-through of the pilot—one of the ways they were saying it didn’t work was, “Dave, your directing is terrible. The parents are always sitting at the kitchen table. Why are they just sitting at the kitchen table?” I have to admit, sometimes I’ll get a note and go, “That’s fantastic. They’re always going to sit at the kitchen table. What a great observation!” [Laughs.] That’s how they always stayed at the kitchen table. Sometimes I’ll take a note and do it a little bit in reverse. I’ll give credit to where credit’s due. And the network will come around and agree and see that that’s funny, or at least what some people do. It’s that kind of situation. It naturally happened, as Gus’ character was kicked off the force and didn’t really have a job. So he was in an alcoholic, robe-wearing funk most of the time.
AVC: It makes sense that the Bob Elliott scenes were all shot in the same week, because that would make things easier if you’re always wearing the same wardrobe and always sitting around a kitchen table.
DM: One of the tricks of getting the more complicated shots and getting whatever fight scenes, outdoor scenes, chase scenes, which were all time-consuming—dropping that boulder on Chris—and this is what I mean, as you learn as a writer: I’ll write a joke now and I’ll laugh at the joke, and then I’ll curse because I’ll know that the joke I just wrote is $75,000. I’m so familiar with budgets. I talked to James Cameron about that. I said, “How did you ever write Titanic?” Because shooting in water is the most expensive, time-consuming, over-budget thing. And obviously that movie went more over-budget than any other movie pretty much in history. I talked to the Fox executives, and even though Titanic is the most successful film in history, I asked them, “Would you still green-light it?” And they said no, they wouldn’t because it was such a nightmare that even though it was the most successful movie, if they could go back in time they wouldn’t make it because that’s how horrible it was. I wrote a joke in Heartbreakers where an alligator shoots out of the water and eats a duck. It’s a calm duck in water. It just looks like a pristine scene and then an alligator swallows the duck whole and dives back under. I laughed when I wrote that joke, and I also said, “Half a day. $75,000.” And it was. It’s the same thing.
The problem with half a day in a two-day shoot is that there’s a quarter of your shoot for 30 seconds. The way we’d make up that time, and this is the way the crew and I trained ourselves, is that those scenes that [we’re] talking about, where the parents are at the table, the fact that they’re not moving and the simplicity of that, that’s where we’d make up a lot of time. We’d be able to shoot those things at lightning-fast speed, and we’d have more time for the more special-effects shots. That’s an issue, too. You book where you can, and then it leaves you the time to do the specialized stuff.
AVC: That’s one of the advantages of writing for The Simpsons, because there’s no such thing as a $75,000 joke. The animators can do whatever you can come up with.
DM: It was a fantastic thing, running that show. Finally my imagination was not shackled by a budget. When I sent Homer into space it cost the exact same amount as it did for him sitting on the sofa. Or negligibly different. What happens in animation is, if you do send them to lots of new locations with lots and lots of people and lots of animals and hundreds of people in a crowd, it can up you a little bit, but not significantly. The Simpsons is a real dream in that way. Go-anywhere, do-anything kind of budget. An infinite, budget-less universe.