Talking to Justin Halpern About the Rough Time He Had Turning ‘Shit My Dad Says’ From a Twitter Account to a TV Show
Two weeks ago, Brilliantly Canceled took us all the way back to that time two years ago when a twitter-based sitcom, $h*! My Dad Says, hit television. A few days later, the show’s creator, Justin Halpern (whose new show Surviving Jack premieres next season on Fox), reached out to me, and after assuring me that he didn’t want to kill me, provided some insight on the history of the show, multi-camera sitcoms, how to tell if your project is going south, and why it was canceled.
How did Shit My Dad Says go from twitter to TV?
When the twitter feed got popular I got a lot of incoming calls, but nobody was all that interested in turning it in to a TV show. I wasn’t really thinking about it either. I was more interested in turning it into a book of short essays about growing up with my dad, and so I wrote a book proposal and when I finished the proposal my agent sent it around to publishing houses, and it was bought by Harper Collins. When that happened, the proposal got circulated around Hollywood as well, and then I started getting calls. I had been working for the last few years as a magazine writer and had sold a couple feature screenplays, but I had zero TV experience. My feature writing partner and I came up with a pitch, characters, and sold it to Warner Brothers, who sold it to CBS. There’s a bunch of really boring shit that happened in between, but that’s the gist.
Did you also submit a script? If so, how similar was the script to the show? One of the questions that always stuck in my mind was, how could they turn 140-characters into season of television? Was adapting the show difficult?
My writing partner and I wrote a very early draft of the script that was not similar to the pilot that was shot. It was more similar to one of the stories in the book, so it was much easier to adapt. The media really took to the narrative of “OMFG twitter to TV show fuckthatshowihateit.” And I totally get it. I would have thought the same. And actually, that’s what it ended up being. But the original script was an adaptation of a story in the book. But the book is a slower burn and pretty dark, and that doesn’t mix well with a multi-cam primetime TV show. And probably, that script wasn’t that great either. It was the first TV script I’d written, so I bet it sucked too, but just in a different way. Who knows, I will never re-read that fucker for reasons of self-preservation.
What was your immediate reaction to it being picked up? Did you think it would work?
The first sign of trouble for me was the format; multi-camera sitcom. I think there are plenty of great multi-camera sitcoms in television history and I think it’s the sign of a lazy, thoughtless person to just hate a multi-cam because it has a laugh track since some of the best shows ever were this format. It’s got kind of a stink on it because none of the current cool kids are doing it, but if you tell me you don’t think Cheers and Seinfeld are brilliant than you’re sort of a dumb asshole that shouldn’t get to voice an opinion. Hold on while I dismount my high horse. Anyway, I like multi-cam but in this case, my dad is a guy who is not trying to be funny, which is why I think the twitter feed and my book were so successful. He’s not a guy who’s “jokey.” In multi-cam, you tend to play to the joke, it’s more setup/punchline, just by nature of shooting in front of a live audience, and that kind of cuts the nuts off my dad as a character. So even when we shot the pilot I thought, “fuuuuuuuuuck. This is not my book. This is not working for this character.”
Did you have a format and set of influences in mind? How did you envision it? The tweets tend to play more straight, because, like you said, they’re not really jokes. Were there conversations between you and CBS about the tone of the show?
Originally we had wanted to do something like the Wonder Years and adapt a portion of the book where my father was younger and I was a teenager. Which, actually, is what my new show on Fox, Surviving Jack, basically is. So, we wanted to do a single cam, coming of age show. Then everyone told us, “It’s tough to sell a show that has a kid as the star.” So we changed the pitch because what did we know? I always think it’s funny when people are like “YOU SOLD OUT DUDE,” as if the source material was a poem I wrote while I was a starving artist in Prague. It’s a fucking twitter feed based on funny sayings of my elderly father, which I adapted in to a book I was really proud of, so I felt like any TV version was going to be different anyway. And I wanted to break in to television and at the time, it seemed like I could still make a good show where the father character was an older man and the kid was my age.
What was your initial role on the show? Did that role change as things moved forward?
My initial role on the show was co-executive producer and co-creator. My writing partner and I were teamed with two writers who created Will and Grace and I needed to be a strong voice on the show because that’s what needs to happen for the show to sound specific. But it was my first TV job and I just didn’t know how to be that. So, I think one of the reasons why the show wasn’t good was because it just felt, like you said, generic. I wasn’t that voice, so it just became “grumpy dad.” My dad is not “grumpy dad.” If you read any of my book or articles I’ve written featuring him, you get the picture of a guy who is pretty unique, sometimes tough to handle, but mostly pragmatic to the point that it makes him funny.
How soon into the show did you realize that this wasn’t your father? Did you accept it and try to work with it? Was there an attempt to redirect the show after the pilot or was it pretty much set in its ways?
I realized this wasn’t my father after I got the standards and practices notes when we turned in the first script and we couldn’t say ANY of the words my father uses, nor discuss any of the things my dad discusses. My dad is a REAL dark dude; athiest, thinks humans are inherently evil, and all that stuff was in the original script, I believe, along with some language we couldn’t use. That is not stuff you’re really allowed to talk about on CBS. And let me be clear, a character always changes and evolves when it goes through the actor playing it, other writers, network notes, etc…, and a lot of times it actually makes it much better. This just happened to be a case where I couldn’t really articulate to people why it wasn’t working like it should without sounding like a whiny dickbag. So I just decided to work hard and try to help make this version of the character as good as it could be.
What was your reaction to Shatner being cast? What was your dad’s reaction?
For the multi-cam format, I thought Shatner was the right call. Again, I think the format was totally wrong, so it’s not his fault he was serving up one-liners. That’s what he was supposed to be doing. My dad didn’t give a fuck about casting or, really, anything about the show. He came to the pilot taping, didn’t like it, and just said “I loved your book but this show is shitty.” He was very excited about the craft service, though.
At what point did think the show was headed off the rails?
As soon as we shot the pilot, I thought the format was wrong, but thought “eh, maybe we can do the best version of this show possible.” I think the common misconception by everyone who’s never worked on a show is that “Oh, this is a shitty show. They’re just mailing it in because they can’t do better, because they’re lazy, hacky, writers.” I’ve been lucky enough to have continued to work on staff of other shows every year since, and the thing that has become clearest to me is that on every one of your favorite shows, there are writers on that show who have worked on terrible shows. There are great writers on terrible shows and not-so-great writers on great shows. I have friends that were on Whitney one year and Happy Endings the next and they didn’t suddenly go from being bad writers to being good ones. What happens is a show isn’t clear and you can’t figure out how to make it work, and then you get behind and you’re writing a script in a day and unless you’re Larry David, you’re not writing a good show in a day. And the other thing that happens when a show isn’t clear, is the network gets scared because they invested a shit ton of money into the show. And when they freak out, the notes get larger and suddenly you have twelve people saying “Why is that plumber walking through the front door?” and you’re like “Fuck I don’t know, he’s the plumber. I guess this needs a page one rewrite?”
One of the things that drew me to the show was how this father/son dynamic, which is tried and true on TV, made such a gigantic splash on twitter, but when it moved back over to TV, it felt tired. Do you think the show had potential to show a fresh take on the dynamic?
My dad felt both relatable and unique on twitter, and when I was allowed to expand upon him in the book, you got to know him a bit and realized that he’s a pretty brilliant guy. Father son stories are tried and true and can feel stale, but when you get the full picture of my father, you realize he’s this combination of a brilliant scientist (which he is and was) and a blue-collar depression baby who worked a farm in Kentucky the first 17 years of his life. He always has an interesting different take on things. Then on TV he became grumpy dad and that was that. Again, my fault. If I had been a stronger, more experienced voice, I would have known how to articulate that. I wasn’t and it ended up shitty.
Finally, did you get a reason as to why it was canceled? Watching it, it didn’t seem that different from other multi-camera sitcoms on CBS. What made them think that this one wouldn’t work?
The show was cancelled because the ratings were just okay for CBS (amazing for any other network, actually) and the fact that a) I don’t think CBS loved the show, and B) it was the favorite show that year to shit on. The show was bad and critics were frothing at the mouth to take a big dump on it. I remember actually every week Splitsider would talk about how shitty it was in comparison to 30 Rock, and it was stuff like that that executives get embarrassed about. It’s funny because we’re all on this show and we know it’s not good, but we’re working our asses off, and then you read a blog post where people are like “HAHA LOOK AT THESE FUCKING TALENTLESS HACKS” and you’re like “man, can’t you just write about shows you like? We know this show sucks.” It’s sort of like being in an a relationship with someone you hate, but you’re not sure how to end it, and then you go over to your friends house and they’re like “Oh my god, why are you dating that piece of shit? You’re a fucking idiot.” It’s like “I KNOW YOU FUCKING DICKHEAD BUT I’M NOT SURE WHAT TO DO.”