Looking Back at Bruce McCulloch’s ‘Carpoolers’

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Bruce McCulloch has always done things differently, whether it was with The Kids in the Hall, or his comedy albums, or his book or his TV series, they always have a distinctly McCullochy vibe, once you know what you’re looking for. This applies to the work, even when he’s trying to go a little more mainstream, as he did with the 2007 ABC TV show Carpoolers.

Carpoolers had a lot going for it. It was beautifully shot by Joe and Anthony Russo of Arrested Development, Community, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier fame. It features funny people including Jerry Minor, Jerry O’Connell, and T.J. Miller’s first ever TV role. It features a very unique setting for a TV show, specifically, the front and backseat of a car. Think about it! In 2016, people love shows that take place in cars!

Our four protagonists are Gracen (Fred Gross), an uptight guy with an older, very lazy son (T.J.) and a very successful wife, Aubrey; Jerry Minor’s character, a nerdy, sensitive guy with a large family that doesn’t seem to respect him; the new guy, Dougie (Tim Peper) who is a newlywed and is trying to fit in with the guys; and Laird (Jerry O’Connell), the cool guy who’s going through a divorce.

Before the premiere of the show, Bruce McCulloch published a “diary” breaking down the inspiration and process of bringing Carpoolers into the world. He described a frustration with the industry, constantly being hired to create scripts for things that never end up being made. While driving with his group of male friends through the carpool lane he reflected on the way male communication is portrayed on television and how it’s not always great, it’s also not as bad as TV makes it seem. Carpoolers feels like it is trying to break the mold of how the traditions of male relationships of friendship and romance are handled on television, but on the other hand, it does have a tendency to slide into the traditional tropes as well.

The pilot begins with a simple cold open in which the four men drive to work as Aubrey drives and slowly but surely begins singing along to Air Supply’s “All Out of Love.” Initially Dougie, riding shotgun, isn’t sure how to react, and based on his facial expressions, is clearly considering laughing, but gradually the backseat, and finally Dougie himself start singing along as well. Then Aubrey starts cry-singing.

The actual episode begins, I guess, before the events of the cold open as Dougie and his wife are awaiting Aubrey’s car for his first day in the carpool. (Quick sidenote: having the four main characters be named Dougie, Laird, Gracen, and Audrey feels like such a Kids in the Hall move that I’m surprised the network didn’t strip it out of the show.) Dougie’s wife made cookies, but unfortunately Audrey informs him that food is not allowed in the car. Nor is coffee after a scalding incident. Dougie climbs in and his wife says goodbye with a shouted “I love you!” which Audrey (not her husband) returns cheerfully.

In his home, Gracen is having a different goodbye as his wife Leila introduces him to the new $200 toaster she purchased. His son Marmaduke needs to borrow a shirt and tie for an interview (no pants though; it’s online). Gracen complains about the cost of the toaster but his wife insists that she bought it with her money so it’s okay.

Dougie is warned not to mention Laird’s divorce but we can hear the echoes of it from his conversation as the day goes on. His house is apparently quite bare now that the lawyers have finished up with him. When he hears about the toaster, he warns Gracen that this could be a sign that all is not well in the marriage and offers to find out for him how much Leila is making from her house flipping business. Gracen refuses, but when they’re at their office building (where everyone goes but seems to have very different jobs) Laird presents a piece of paper with her bank balance on it. Gracen again refuses.

On the carpool back home though, things take a turn. His son got the job and his starting salary is more than he currently makes. Jokes are made at his expense about his wife’s dominance. All of this wares on Gracen and it comes to a head when she initiates sex and he refuses, covertly calls Laird, and learns that she makes an obscene amount of money.

The next day, Marmaduke comes out to the carpool to inform them that his father will not be going into work that day. Laird is concerned and feels responsible; Dougie is concerned about being late. An argument ensues and Laird snarkily informs Dougie that this will be his last day in the carpool. The drive to work and home from work with only the radio making noise.

That evening, Dougie goes to Laird to stick up for himself. The two hatch a plan to help Gracen, stop over at Audrey’s house who accompanies them for their mission: steal the fancy toaster. They break into Gracen’s house but manage to alert everyone in the house to their presence. Gracen admits why they’re stealing the toaster to his wife, they talk it out, and they work it out. I do find it a little unfortunate that rather than Gracen being comfortable with his wife’s income, it turns out to be a misunderstanding and the number he saw was after the mortgage company deposited money but before it was given to the seller. Regardless, the next day Gracen’s marriage and the carpool is patched up, and the foursome drive to work again.

Ultimately Carpoolers seems fine. It wasn’t the greatest show I’ve ever seen but it wasn’t the worst, either (it premiered on the same night as the sitcom version of the Cavemen Geico ad). Before reading about what he saw as the show’s thesis statement about male communication, I didn’t see Bruce McCulloch’s voice that clearly in the writing (with a few exceptions such as the rival “fancy” carpool car who are eating sushi at eight in the morning). Ultimately, this wasn’t the same McCulloch who gave us Cancer Boy or Cabbage Head: this is a more adult, middle-aged Bruce who had been through the system over and over again, and become a father. Looking at it from this lens, I appreciated it much more and saw it for what it said about his evolution both as a writer and a human being.

The fate of Carpoolers was ultimately decided by poor timing. The first season was 13 episodes but its run was interrupted by the writer’s strike of that year which delayed any decision on the show for some time. Bruce described the network’s tone as apologetic, “They say, ‘We know you’re a product of the strike and we kind of fumbled you’ but I still think they kind of burned the dinner and they know it.” From Carpoolers, Bruce moved on to a Kids in the Hall reunion show, a memoir, and another TV show, based on that memoir. In each of these we can see facets of both the insane comedy and smaller, introspective humor one finds when they dig into the dichotomy that is Bruce McCulloch’s writing.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

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