Comedy Showrunners Week: Dana Fox on translating her life into Ben And Kate
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Comedy is a more important part of the television landscape than ever before, thanks in part to a generation of highly visible creators, writers, and executive producers who balance the work of maintaining a show’s artistic vision while also overseeing its day-to-day operations. In anticipation of the new fall TV season, The A.V. Club spoke to a handful of the people who’ve made the industry term “showrunner” a household word. Today, we talk to Dana Fox, creator of the new sitcom Ben And Kate.
Though Dana Fox first made her name writing romantic comedies like Couples Retreat and What Happens In Vegas, she’s flourished in television. She contributed a script to Adult Swim’s absurdist wonderland Childrens Hospital, then worked as a producer on the critically acclaimed first season of New Girl. Now, she has her first show of her own on the air, Fox’s new sitcom Ben And Kate, a deliberately low-concept comedy about a brother and sister trying to make it in the world with only each other to lean on. The series, which debuts Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern is one of the fall’s most promising new comedies, featuring an already solid ensemble cast and some great jokes. The character of Ben is also based on Fox’s own brother Ben, giving the series a personal spin. Fox sat down with The A.V. Club at the Television Critics Association summer press tour to discuss basing a character on a family member, writing from real life, and how to cast siblings who don’t seem like they want to kiss.
The A.V. Club: This show has something of a working-class sensibility, while a lot of sitcoms these days are about the upper class. How did that come to be?
Dana Fox: I think as for all things with this show, for me it starts with the super-personal. I grew up in sort of an interesting environment, which was my dad grew up really, really poor, but he became a doctor and did very well, but his mentality was always that we were very poor. So we lived in a nice suburb, but we were acting like we were white trash, like half the time. [Laughs.] We would have to go to garage sales, he would take us to flea markets and he would give us five bucks and say, “See how long you can go with this money. See how far this money takes you.” And so we were the weirdoes in the neighborhood who had the boat up on a trailer in the front yard. It was a little weird, so I kind of had both sides of it. My mom was like, “You’re going to go to a nice college. You’re going to get to do the whole thing,” so I saw both sides of it.
I think there’s something in my heart where I’m a real scrappy person. I still, to this day, if I am sent somewhere on business, I cannot eat out of the minibar. I’m not kidding. I absolutely cannot do it. My dad used to make us bring candy to the movie theaters. You were not allowed to get anything at the movie theaters, because of the mark-up. [Laughs.] It was just crazy. So that’s who I am in my heart and soul, no matter what I do and whoever I’m around and the kind of cool life I’ve been lucky enough to have, I still feel like the girl who can’t eat out of the minibar.
I just wanted to reflect a little bit more on—I think a lot of people are struggling today, and I didn’t want to dwell on it, but I really wanted a show that just said to people, “Hey guys, it’s going to be okay.” Because that’s really what I want right now. I’ve had some hard times in the last year and a half, and when I’m sitting on my couch, I do like to watch Game Of Thrones and crazy stuff, but I also have been looking for a show that just makes me feel like I’m eating macaroni and cheese and everything’s going to be okay. [Laughs.] So I wanted that, but I wanted a little edgier, a little smarter, a little quicker. So that’s kind of where it came about.
AVC: Do you think there’s an aversion to setting shows among the lower class?
DF: I don’t really know. I’ve always been a tiny bit myopic, because it’s sort of what helps me feel like I can come up with ideas that haven’t necessarily been come up with before, because if I look around me and see everything that everybody is doing, I would just get overwhelmed and say, “Somebody’s already done that before. I can’t do that,” or whatever, so I don’t really know what the situation is in Hollywood.
But I do think there’s a degree to which, when creative people get older and get more comfortable, they also want to write what they know, and so people are writing from that standpoint of a richer class of people. That’s been kind of a bummer for me to see the people I’ve loved, creators I’ve loved, get a little bit insulated and not know what it’s like on the other side of the 405, so to speak. It’s like, I don’t think a lot of people live like people live in Brentwood. I think that’s a very, very small slice of America.
I was lucky enough to work with Vince Vaughn on my last piece, and he lives in Chicago, and he was really, really hard on me. He just kept saying, “Dana, you’ve got to think about America, not like, your four friends. [Laughs.] You really need to think about everybody else on the planet that is not like you.” So that really got into my head. I’ve always loved telling really universal stories, and I think this is a more universal story, because it’s a little bit closer. I mean, it’s obviously a TV version. It’s going to look nicer; everybody’s going to have a relatively okay car; everyone’s wearing pretty nice clothes. [Laughs.] It’s the TV version. But I did want to try to represent something a little bit more normal and a little less super-fancy.
AVC: The character of Ben is based on your actual brother, Ben. Sometimes it’s tough to get people to sign off on that sort of thing. Was it tough with him?
DF: [Laughs.] He is the best. No. He’s so proud of me. He couldn’t be more excited. He was originally like, “As long as the title isn’t my actual name,” and then as a joke I told everyone that was going to be the actual title. [Laughs.] So, that was never gonna be my intention, to have that actually be the title of the show.
No, he’s really happy about it. He’s always been super-supportive, and I’ve been super-supportive of him. We give each other a lot of shit, but we really love each other. He just couldn’t be any more excited for me, like, “You do whatever you want. I’m so proud of you. Go for it!” He’s been really helpful, actually, throughout the process, because sometimes I ask him things. “Hey, in this situation, what would you do? How would you think about this?” And again, my brother is a really good person to go to to keep it kind of real. Like, don’t ask people who are so insular. I always ask him about my projects and I have him read stuff and within the first few pages he’s like, [adopts silly voice] “Boring. Hate it. Don’t care. Girl stuff.” And then it’s, like, “Oh, okay, so the girl voiceover was a bit rough for you in the beginning, so maybe…” and that’s part of what led up to us coming up with this in the pilot, we had this really, like, rock-y song that was playing over the voiceover. It almost sounded like Green Day, and part of what we were doing with that was signaling to the audience, “Don’t worry this isn’t going to turn into Bridget Jones’ Diary any time soon. You’re going to be okay. Get through this chick voiceover.” [Laughs.] And that was partly because we showed it to my brother and he was like, [silly voice] “Girls. Too girly. Hate it.”
AVC: You capture that interplay between siblings really well. How did you land on that banter?
DF: First of all, because I’ve been doing it my whole life. My brother’s been punching me in my arm for my entire life, and I’ve been punching him in his arm for his entire life, so it just comes really naturally to me. But second of all, Nat [Faxon as Ben] and Dakota [Johnson as Kate]. It was so hard to cast a brother and a sister, because you never want it to be romantic, but you want them to have chemistry. And it’s a very fine line between romance and chemistry, and platonic and lovely. It was a really hard thing to do, and when they met it was just like, “Boom.” They were punching each other within five seconds of meeting each other and giving each other shit the way that brothers and sisters really do, and it felt like they really knew each other forever, so that’s part of it. And the other part is, I just grew up with it my whole life. [Laughs.] They bring a lot of that to the table, which is great.
AVC: In casting, are there certain ways to look for people who have chemistry, but not that kind of chemistry?
DF: Yeah, basically, we just got people together. Put Nat in a room with as many girls as we were interested in, and you saw them, and some women who did such an amazing job, you would see them with Nat and just say, “Not in a million years do I believe that they’re brother and sister,” and it was rough because some of these poor girls, who were great, just didn’t look like him. Or they didn’t seem like brother and sister. It seemed like I’d rather watch them kiss, and you can not want to see these two characters kiss. [Laughs.] Like, that is the last thing you gotta wanna see. Then we got the two of them together, and we were so sure about Dakota and we were so sure about Nat and we just crossed our fingers like, “Please let them feel right together,” because we were so sure about them, and then they got in the room and it was like fireworks and the songs and the thing and the sky opened. It was amazing.
AVC: This show obviously has heavily autobiographical elements, but how do you give yourself permission to both borrow and diverge from your life?
DF: I borrow from my life for everything I ever do, because I always think when it’s true, it feels true to people watching it, so I really like to bring as much of myself as I possibly can to the moment. I put myself into it, but then I also want my writers to put themselves into it, and the way that I handle the autobiographical side of it is that I just say to myself, “Well, is it good storytelling?” If it’s not good storytelling, it’s not going to stay in.
For example, my parents, who I love to death—I mean, we have a very dysfunctional family, but we all really love each other—so for me, it was more important that these characters feel like they were alone on an island. So I oversimplified it. Everybody has darkness and difficult stuff in their past, but I just oversimplified it as, “Their parents were really bad,” because I really wanted it to feel like Ben and Kate are an island and they’re all that the other has. Because if you feel like a grandma or a grandpa could come in and help at any moment, then it’s not the same feeling.
So I diverge from it wherever I feel like I need to. Kate is not me, but she has elements of me. Each character has elements of me. Which sounds super narcissistic now that I’m saying it out loud. But it’s about when you look to your own past and your own truths and your own emotional stuff, it usually feels better to other people because they go, “Oh, that feels authentic.” Because it is.
AVC: A lot of comedy writers say that when they’re pitching to networks it’s really hard to do stuff that doesn’t have a high concept. This show is just a brother and sister hanging out. Was that difficult in the pitch process?
DF: [Laughs.] It’s just a couple people hanging out. You know, I have to say, I’ve been really lucky, because I really enjoyed my experience with both Fox Studio and also Fox Network. I’ve had a really good time with both of them, and I think part of it, again, is I’m really good friends with Liz Meriwether, who created New Girl. She’s part of the reason I got into TV, because she said, “I think you’d really love it. You’d be really good at it. You should try this because I think you’re going to love it.” And the big advice she gave me was, “Just make sure whatever you do is super-personal, because you have to write 100 episodes, if you’re lucky, and if you don’t know it like the back of your hand, and if it doesn’t really feel like you, you aren’t going to be able to do it.”
That was really, really good advice, and I started looking into, “What are my personal stories that are really funny?” It was like, my dad’s a really funny character. My brother’s a really funny character. My mom’s like, the world’s nicest person, so I always tell her she’s never going to be a character, because it’s totally boring. So I went to that and I said, “Okay, I really want to do this thing with my brother.” I pitched it to the studio, and they really loved it, and they said, “This really feels like a Fox show,” so we pitched it just to Kevin [Reilly, Fox president] and to his credit, he wanted it to be nuanced. He didn’t want it to be the high-concept version of this, which is, “The crazy, wacky brother who’s out of his mind and the really uptight sister who’s [gibberish]…” That’s an easier show to market, actually. And it’s an easier show to explain to people, because it is more high-concept, but he was like, “I don’t really want to see that show. I don’t find that show as interesting as the one where both of them are kind of hot messes, and they’re taking care of each other because they’re both kind of a mess.” So I credit him in many ways for keeping us really honest with both of those characters. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but he wanted it that way, which was a miracle.
AVC: There are some slight “will they/won’t they” moments in the pilot between Tommy and Kate. Are you interested in pursuing that element?
DF: Yeah, I really am. It’s interesting because what I want to try to do with it is, I want to watch how it evolves the way the audience is going to be watching it evolve. I try to always think of myself as, “I’m just the audience of this TV show.” And I love TV. I love movies. I love to watch this kind of stuff. I love to be taken on an emotional journey. So I want to watch the first few episodes and see.
We’re giving a nod to it, but we’re not overplaying it in the next few episodes, because I want to see what their dynamic is like together and see if, when you see it, it’s something you really want to go deeper into, or you see it, and you kind of go, “Oh, they seem kind of like brother and sister too and we’re not as interested in it.” So we’re going to watch it happen in front of us, which is exciting because you don’t really know where it’s going to go. But I do know that it’s very common that girls who have guys like that in their lives take them for granted because they’re like, “He’s sort of a best friend, and he’s been around my whole life.” And I do think it’s interesting to watch him get a girlfriend, and then he’s the best boyfriend in the entire world, and then she’s like, “Well, wait a minute…” and he doesn’t have as much time for her and she starts to get kind of jealous and all of a sudden it’s like, “Wait a minute, that’s not what I thought it was gonna be.” So, we’ll see. There’s going to be some fun stuff like that.
AVC: How did you find the supporting cast members?
DF: We just felt like we got so lucky with them. Echo [Kellum as Tommy] came in… you know, I don’t write for race in particular, I just write everyone as a character. I just want to see the best actors. So he came in and was incredible, and the minute he opened his mouth, he was like “Duuuude…” and I was just like, “Done. I love this guy. I don’t even know what his deal is, but I love him. I love the way his voice sounds. I love the way he talks. I love the way his hair looks. I love his look. He’s so stylish naturally.” So I just saw them and I thought, “This is the guy. I don’t even care.” And someone once gave me a good piece of advice, I forget who it was, but they just said, “Never cast so hard for who you’ve written. Cast the best actor and then fit the part for that person. Because you’ll always have a better time that way.” So I just said, “Great, I’ll change the character so it fits this guy,” and I didn’t really have to change that much. It’s just that he brought a lot of his own style and cool to the table. He’s like the coolest uncool person in the world, the character is. I think that was really great.
With Lucy [Punch as BJ], she came in to read for Kate, actually, and she really blew us away early on in the process of looking for someone. We just thought, God, this woman is so brilliant and so quirky and so specific and weird that we just didn’t want to see her feel like she had to be held in by being the main character, who has to be so likable. We were like, “I kind of want to see her be really unlikable.” [Laughs.] Because she’s so great! Jake [Kasdan, who directed the pilot] and I just begged her. We just said, “Listen. This is an ensemble. This is going to be a group of friends that is going to be such a cool show. We’re cool. We’re fun. You should work with us.” We just really gave her the hard sell, and we talked to her about, “Hey, we’ll create this role with you.” Lucy is so talented and so brilliant that she brought so much about the character to the table, like most of them did.
Lucy was really instrumental, because when I wrote that part originally, I kind of knew that it would be cast-contingent, and I knew that we wanted to see the cast fill out to see what kind of an energy we needed, so when we started to get pieces of the cast and they started to come together, what we needed was sort of a really dark, really edgy kind of energy. Because not everybody can think the kid is adorable. Some people have to be like, “I dunno. She’s all right.” It’s just funny, because everyone else loves the kid! We just knew that that’s where that character had to go, and Lucy was so amazing in creating a character that she plays brilliantly.
AVC: So many shows have that kid character, sort of an adorable moppet…
DF: I know, right?
AVC: How do you not go that direction?
DF: Again, I think Maggie [Elizabeth Jones as Maddie] brought a lot to the table, because she came in and started talking with Nat on day one and she came in and was like, “You like The Little Mermaid?” and he was like, “Yeah. I love that movie,” and she was like, “Ugh. Lame. Why don’t you man up?” And I was like, “What? Who is this little kid? She’s amazing!” She just gave him shit. Well, I shouldn’t say “shit” in the same sentence as “little kid,” but she gave as good as she got on pretty much everything, and she was so much tougher than I imagined her being. And she’s still a little kid, but she has this tough side to her where she’s like, “I don’t know about this guy,” and it really informed the character.
Then I felt like Jake was really good at reminding us that there are a lot of kid characters, like you were saying, on TV that were sort of precocious beyond their years or talk like 35-year-olds, and that’s the joke that they play with that character. We were like, “We don’t really want to do that. We want her to be a kid.” So our thing that we keep saying to ourselves is, “If you’re writing her and she sounds like she’s 35, you’re not in the right area.” That’s not where the comedy comes from. The comedy comes from her really being a kid and saying the real stuff a kid would say to a guy who’s being a total idiot. To a guy who’s being nuts. She can show why he’s kind of nuts. He can treat her kind of like an adult and she can give as good as she gets, and that’s really how that whole character evolved.
AVC: What have you been most surprised by as you’ve been breaking later episodes?
DF: I’ve been most surprised by how important the supporting characters are and how much the show works as an ensemble. We always knew that the Ben/Kate/Maddy story really worked, and we always knew that them as a family really played, because that was what we felt the most sure of. It’s been super-exciting to see that this is going to be a young, cool show about this whole group of people trying to make their way in the world. Everybody’s screwing up, and everybody’s having each other’s backs, and that’s been really cool to see. That’s been my favorite part.