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Single Parents creators on bringing some Fox edge to an ABC family comedy

<i>Single Parents</i>’<i> </i>creators on bringing some Fox edge to an ABC family comedy
Photo: Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival, Image Group LA via Getty Images, Graphic: Libby McGuire
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For seven seasons of New Girl, creator Liz Meriwether and writer JJ Philbin told stories of “weird, broken roommates” who gradually progressed through the milestones of adulthood: jobs that became careers, evolving friendships, settling down, pulling elaborately crummy pranks, having kids. The last item on that list is especially relevant to the new ABC sitcom they created together: Single Parents, which centers on a group of friends—played by Brad Garrett, Leighton Meester, Kimrie Lewis, and Jake Choi—supporting one another through the trials of raising kids on their own. In the pilot, they meet Will Cooper (Taran Killam), who’s coped with the end of his marriage by diving headlong into a doting-fatherhood vortex of living-room trampolines, Moana sing-alongs, and general negligence of his own wants and needs. At this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, The A.V. Club spoke with Meriwether and Philbin about their new show, bringing some Fox edge to an ABC family comedy, and Philbin’s kids’ olfactory influence on Single Parents.

The A.V. Club: What was it that attracted you to this angle on parenting?

JJ Philbin: We were telling a lot of parenting stories in the last season of New Girl—Schmidt and Cece had a baby, so my boring parenting stories that had no relevance for all of the years before that, suddenly I was sharing. We were also talking about that kind of stuff a lot just because Liz was newly pregnant. She was having that feeling of “What if I’m just a fuckup? How can I do this?”

Liz Meriwether: “I’m not ready!”

JJP: And so a lot of my stories about parenting were about being bad at it and feeling flawed and trying to keep up with my work, just all of the things that I think go into [what] any parent deals with. And Liz was like, “I feel like this is a world that we could get into—this feels juicy. I feel like we could tell these stories.”

LM: On New Girl, we’d been with the characters for six years, and then they had a kid. Those were deeply fucked-up characters [Both laugh.], and then they had a kid. There’s plenty of shows about parenting, but it felt like something that hadn’t fully been explored, or parents really trying to be adults and parents at the same time. The idea of them being single—we both have single parents in our lives even though we aren’t single parents. That was in our minds, but also we just love love stories on TV shows. We were always the people in the New Girl room that were trying to get Dave Finkel and Brett Baer [Meriwether’s fellow showrunners] to do more relationship stories. I think we both just got really excited about the idea of “Oh, if all the characters are single, we can tell dating stories and we can tell our crazy family stories!” And married parents are kind of smug and boring!

JJP: We felt like that made them underdogs in a fun way: people who are still looking for love. Those were the types of stories that we enjoyed writing. New Girl was ending, and it had been my home for seven years, and I was having a moment of like “Don’t leave me, Liz!” I wanted to keep working with her in any way.

LM: Likewise.

JJP: The idea that we could take the stories that we were doing on New Girl, which were about growing up and figuring out who you are and finding your soul mate, and almost go a step farther—which was a natural thing that was happening during our time on the show. Over those seven years, Liz went from being single to meeting her husband to having a baby. It was a natural evolution, and it felt fun and interesting to grow up into the next phase of a show together. It was a no-brainer: Once Liz pitched that concept, all the ideas came so fast and furious. I had so much fun for the last seven years sitting in a room and pitching jokes with her. I can’t believe we get to do this again, because for so long I thought that when New Girl ended, that part of my life ended. It’s the most unexpected gift where we get to do this part.

AVC: So you’ll both be able to carry on day to day with the show?

LM: I’m in a little bit of a limbo because I have another pilot, Bless This Mess at Fox, that I’m trying to wait to see what is going to happen with it. JJ’s running the show, and I’m the “fun uncle” that has a lot of magic tricks, who’s pulling pennies out from behind ears.

JJP: She comes in for lunch and juggles a little bit and then leaves.

LM: But JJ’s doing an incredible job.

JJP: It’s been very symbiotic because we’ve had so much history. Whenever Liz comes into the room, we’re picking up mid-conversation. Even if she’s not there, the conversation is happening with her in my head.

LM: [Joking.] I also have cameras on the walls.

JJP: It’s a very intense surveillance system that she put into the writers room.

LM: I can talk to them through cameras.

JJP: “I’m watching you!”

LM: Nobody’s reported it yet.

Jake Choi (left), Kimrie Lewis, Leighton Meester, Brad Garrett, and Taran Killam
Jake Choi (left), Kimrie Lewis, Leighton Meester, Brad Garrett, and Taran Killam
Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

AVC: Family comedy is something that ABC does well. The hangout-comedy aspect of Single Parents is something that the network has struggled with in the last few years. Was that a hard sell?

LM: They were so open to it. I’ve only worked at Fox since when I started this whole thing, so I’ve never even pitched anywhere else. I think Fox is a little bit more edgy than the other networks—I was just terrified that they weren’t going to do something a little bit edgier. They really seem like they wanted a show that pushed the boundaries comedically. [ABC was] really open to “the good thing about the show is that it’s in our comfort zone because it is a family show, but it’s taking one little step out to talk about dating and talk about sex.” In the writers room, I’ll occasionally be like, “Can we do that on ABC?”

JJP: Our pitch was really dirty. We were definitely working on a Fox show when we came up with the pitch. But they rolled with it, and we were able to keep some of that spirit in what we were doing.

LM: I think ABC loves character—they want the characters to be really fleshed out, and they want a little bit of drama in their comedies. So there were things that were really natural fits about coming to ABC.

JJP: Those were always the conversations we were having in the New Girl writers room. Liz and I would spend hours talking about character, talk about what was going on with these people.

LM: And you come from a drama background.

JJP: On this show, we felt the network was really embracing that, and challenging us to come to the series with those questions in mind instead of “What’s the funniest gag.”

AVC: You can feel that in the pilot. Not only do the parents have their pre-established dynamics with the kids, but the parents have those types of dynamics among themselves.

LM: We want them to be hanging out, we want them to be friends. That’s my favorite stuff: finding out weird backstory about friendship. I don’t need to tell you this.

AVC: In the pilot, we see a little bit of Angie’s life from before she had a helping hand from the other parents—is that a device that’ll be used frequently?

LM: We actually cut out a lot of Pops from the pilot.

JJP: Their past and their exes so informs, in a real way, what they’re going through in the present. We’ve have a lot of conversations about what went down in their relationships that informs their specific dysfunction with dating—so that it’s not just every single one of them is like [Affects nervous voice.], “Oh, I don’t know what to do out there. It’s tough dating!” They each have specific baggage that comes from those relationships imploding, and what those look like.

LM: The New Girl characters were in their 20s, they had some history. But Brad Garrett’s character has so much history. It’s fun to work on older characters that have more baggage, more quirks. And they’re single parents, which begs the question, “What happened?” They each have this really rich backstory of how they ended up here. That’s the fun of a first season: You get to explore these people and build their world. And then you get into the sixth season and you’re like [Mumbles.] “Oh, I don’t know…”

JJP: Feels like we’ve done it!

LM: Maybe they go to the movies? I don’t know!

Devin Trey Campbell (left), Brad Garrett, Kimrie Lewis
Devin Trey Campbell (left), Brad Garrett, Kimrie Lewis
Photo: Richard Cartwright (ABC)

AVC: What were you looking for in terms of the kids? Did the roles change at all post-casting?

LM: I was really terrified about working with kids, and we went to these auditions—

JJP: They’re incredible. These kids are from outer space.

LM: They’re amazing. And when we cast Devin [Trey Campbell, who plays Rory], he comes from Broadway, and in the writers room we’re like, “How do we write to his skills?”

JJP: We came to the characters of the kids by really thinking about what their parents’ traits were. Even though they’re flawed, they each have a little bit of a superpower, too. Poppy [Kimrie Lewis’ character] is super empathetic, and wants her kid to be an individual, and so that’s how we got to Rory. Because we see the kids and the parents as having this specific bond. It made us targeted in the casting. Rory was so specific, there aren’t many kids walking around who can do what Devin does. He was in Kinky Boots for two years. The child is 9 years old, and has more stage presence and confidence than anything I’ve ever seen before.

LM: Also, kids are so good at jokes because they work on their lines. They memorize and work on it.

JJP: And they’re not overthinking it at all. They’re just assassins.

LM: I think I can say this: JJ’s kids—

JJP: Let’s get into it.

LM: —are around this age group, and so she came to the table with so much material. I have a baby. I don’t have a 7-year-old. So I was like, “Oh my god, that’s happening?”

JJP: I have weird kids and it really helped me storywise. Both of my kids were into sniffing my stuff [like one of the kids in the pilot].

LM: And I’ve gotten into it, too, and it’s really wonderful.

JJP: She gets it now!