Inside the Long Road ‘Shrink’ Took Making it to TV
Making a show on your own has never been easier. Thousands of people are writing, producing, starring in, and filming their own web series every day, with the hope that the right executive or agent will see it and give them a fantastic budget and the opportunity to reach a wider audience. But because making your own show is easier than ever, the competition has never been more abundant and the road from a single idea to having your own TV show on a notable platform has never been more difficult.
For Tim Baltz and Ted Tremper, that road they started on five years ago finally takes a new path, when their original comedy Shrink premieres on March 16, on Seeso.
Tremper, who serves as co-creator as well as wearing the hat of writer, producer, director, and editor at different times, had been looking for the best possible ways to have a comedy that felt grounded, real, and featured a ton of improvisation. That’s why he knew that Baltz would be the perfect person to star in it. Baltz, who most may recognize from his appearances on Comedy Bang Bang or Bajillion Dollar Properties, plays a medical school graduate who is left without a residency or a way to start paying off his loans totaling over half a million dollars, so he starts doing free therapy sessions in his garage as a way to get his license to become a psychologist.
Debt, therapy, breakups, family, suicidal thoughts, unrequited love, and above all else, comedy.
When you heard about the matching process, where medical students have to find residencies after they graduate and if they don’t, they’re completely screwed, why did you think your brain went to, “Yeah, that’s a comedy?”
Ted Tremper: I moved to Chicago to go to grad school and my roommate came home one day and said “I might be shit-faced drunk all week because it’s match day.” I didn’t know what that was. Doctors have to get into medical school a second time basically, but about three percent of them fail to match with a residency. That stuck in my brain a little bit. Tim and I had worked together on the first series that I did called Break-ups and one of the things about him is that there are many funny people but in watching him perform, there’s this other part of his ability in that he’s such a good actor, I immediately knew he was the guy.
Tim Baltz: I came from an acting background. My dad had been a professional actor in the sixties and seventies and had a masters in theatrical history so I grew up with a tradition of appreciating great actors and watching great comedies that had strong casts, which was a hallmark of what I felt made next-level comedy. I found improv when I was high school, it clicked and I took to it very naturally. So when Ted approached me about Break-ups, it was great to commit to the emotions and let the laughs just kinda come naturally from that. When he approached me with Shrink I thought “This is fantastic.” It’s a higher degree of difficulty, which I always love, unfortunately a little too much at times. I liked the fact that you had to be incredibly present, such small movements could get laughs once we started doing it, and Ted was editing them and showing them to me and you got to really chew the emotion and be real with it.
Ted: This idea to do the improvised therapy sessions came and trying to be a therapist jumped into my head; I found out that if you could do 1,920 hours of supervised therapy, that’s basically how you became a doctor. The idea was designing it as a web series that we could secretly connect together to make a pilot. The goal was always to make a pilot and put it at the New York TV Festival. It just became this thing where Tim and I had a very natural connection on what we thought was funny but also what was good and needed to be expressed and what could live in a comedy.
Tim: These laughs were coming from angles that I felt were very rare. The ratio of those laughs to regular laughs were higher than they are on stage. On stage, your scene is maybe a bit too low or playing grounded, but when you put it on the screen in the context of a character that people are investing more and more in, those laughs are cherished. We had the best time making the web series. We got all of the people that we knew and they brought some wonderful, unique things to the table. By the time we did the other pieces that put together the pilot we had a real good sense of it. So by doing the webisodes first and then doing the session with the supervising therapist, played by Sue Gillan in both the original and Seeso series, I went into that with this super clear point of view with this character. Emotionally and comedically.
At any point, when you’re making your first TV show and maybe it feels like there’s a lot on the line, did you think “Well, maybe instead of improvising it we should just write it all ahead of time?”
Tim: It’s not really a great fear, but once we got a budget from Seeso and they were nice enough to say, “You can leave blank pages in the script that just say ‘a page and a half of improv’ and not give us any specifics about it” it was both a big luxury and naturally made us a little nervous. We had to get gold when we were shooting with a certain person. We had to make sure our hit ratio was high enough when we were improvising from nothing. With the patient sessions in the garage, a lot of those came from stone cold zero. That meant we were just going fishing all day to catch something and we felt good about that ratio but at the same time when you get a budget that is — how much bigger was the budget?
Ted: I think 20,000 times. I haven’t looked. The original pilot cost $211.
Tim: You realize, “Okay we have 45 minutes of shooting time with this brilliant improviser,” it takes 5-10 minutes to settle down from improv energy and take a realistic grounded energy that can get us the laughs were looking for in those moments. You realize that in 30 minutes you’re trying to get as much as you possibly can and at times we’d get 6-7 minutes of usable footage, which maybe we only needed 20 seconds of in the series, but then there are other times when you’re like “Oh boy did we even get 20 seconds?” Every session bore fruit in one way or another whether they made it into the eight episodes or not. The hit ratio was very high, and I think that you’d be crazy not to be a little nervous about that. You’d be talking in a bad way to not be nervous about that. It would be obliviousness that would not help you creatively.
This has been a really long process for you guys from soup to nuts. From winning best comedy pilot at the New York TV Festival in 2012 to spending three years in development hell with the production company Pivot to having Seeso pick up the rights to now.
Tim: I auditioned for SNL in 2012 and I remember sitting at dinner afterwards with Tim Robinson, Chris Witaske, and Aidy Bryant and everyone was talking about “Would you want it if you get it?” And they were all like “Yes!” And I was like “I’d rather make a season of Shrink.” And we haven’t even gotten to the festival yet — we had only just made the pilot. We finished in June just before the deadline.
Ted: It cost more for me to overnight the package to make the deadline than it did to make the series.
Tim: It’s daunting to leave Chicago and to move from Chicago, the golden ticket out of town is SNL, so not getting it and to see other people move and get a pilot right away or something or get famous on SNL, you’re like, ”Huh, okay.” I never thought I’d move but moving with something and having it fall apart so many times. It’s completely surreal that people are going to see it. I was telling my girlfriend today, three to five people might actually like it! And she said more than three to five people would like it.
Ted: I would take three to five. The three to five people thing is a very good point. The one thing I hope beyond people liking it is that they can tell how much we care about it. I hope this show becomes a show that people take ownership of. That this is their secret, their show.
Now that you’re approaching the culmination of this project five years in the making, how do you feel?
Tim: I’m excited. During production we had some obstacles but the producing team at Abominable were so great at helping us overcome those. Executive Producer Patrick Daly was in our ear when we were getting it back from Pivot and he reassured us, “Don’t worry, this will find a home, we will make it, we believe in it” and then he said “If you only get one season you better pour your fucking heart into it so that you can walk away with no regrets.” And I am excited because I think that we did. I can’t wait for people to see it and whether they like it or they don’t, we made what we wanted to make. We wrote what we wanted to write. We hoped that the improv would elevate it and we think that it did. I don’t even know if it’s relief because i haven’t felt relief in so long. I think on March 16th I will feel some relief but right now I’m still just as tense and I’m excited for people to see it.
Ted: I’m very excited. People have asked me if I like the show. “Do you like it? Did it turn out the way you wanted?” And I’ve seen the entire series 14 or 15 times now and there’s like two or three half-second to four second long things that I don’t like and it’s only because I fought for them and now I know Tim or Patrick were right. The amount of teamwork that went on, everything was so collaborative, from a PA level up to everybody, it all just feels like one team. It feels like something that is good for improv, good for Chicago. If this is the only thing I do for what improv did for me, then I’m proud of that. If the only thing that comes out of this on my end is that someone like me who didn’t know a show could be made in Chicago but who believes in the point of view that they could just from studying comedy, then it’s worth everything.
This show hits really dark moments and doesn’t shy away from the real life problems people may face in therapy. How did you balance the dark side with the comedy side?
Tim: I think that we’re lucky that the show is coming out at a time when the boundaries of comedies, dark comedies, and grounded comedies have been stretched. I think that our laughs per episode stack up and I think that we didn’t hit any false notes emotionally. In terms of the performance of it, we wrote it for a reason that way, in part because we as a team wanted the character David to go there. We felt that it would be insincere to not have that when he’s dealing with therapy. We never wanted to call anyone in the garage during the patient sessions “crazy.” We wanted to be respectful of that while at the same time not getting bogged down in the emotional navel gazing that some shows get into, specifically dramas. I think our hit ratio for the laughs coming out of emotion or going into emotion we were very proud of. And then you know throughout production, is this a moment where we can get a laugh out of emotion or should we just leave it alone and let the emotion carry it? We did that in every phase. Writing, performance, and post production. Sometimes an extra joke can ruin the tone. You get a little greedy and you get the laugh but you ruin the emotion. So it was a fun balance.
How much of your own lives involved debt or therapy and how were they incorporated into the show?
Ted: When I started the show I was $50,000 in debt from school. Actually, the reason I became a filmmaker was because I found out that my college the School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, costs three cents for every second. So out of spite I was just checking out video cameras and then taping improv shows. I kind of owe my career to student loans, in a way, because I was so angry at the expenses.
Tim: Speaking to your question about therapy, and drawing from those experiences, I had a therapist in Chicago for a few years, she was amazing, and she helped me through a lot of things. I had a lot to think about and talk about and she was wonderful about that. But to be honest there were days when I was like “I don’t have anything to say, I just want to be your funniest patient.” I wanted to be the patient that she goes “Oh this guy’s here, he’ll make me laugh.” And I think that comes through in a lot of the sessions with me and Sue, the supervising therapist. I want her to like me. I want to be someone that she looks forward to seeing. I’m so polite and Catholic that even though I’m pushing my burden onto someone else, I still want them to be like “Hey it’s fun, we’re sharing your burden!”
Speaking of which, Sue Gillan really steals the show when she’s on screen.
Ted: The number one comment we got on the pilot was “Is Sue a real therapist?”
Tim: Sue is really a mother hen to many generations of Chicago female improvisers and comedians. She was on Second City stages in the late 90s, early 2000s. She helped raise her brothers and sisters, she’s the oldest of her siblings, she’s tough as hell but also the person you’d trust the most with a vulnerable moment in your life. For her to come and play that role, she was able to do it effortlessly because of who she is.
Ted: She’s always just been a titan. The thing that is very funny to me is how silly she is. She’s literally like Harpo Marx-level silliness when the cameras aren’t rolling.
She does come off as a real therapist in the show. I was really questioning that any of those moments could be improvised because they do seem real.
Ted: One of the things that was really important to us was keeping real, to the point of we know what David’s college transcripts look like. We wanted to make sure that everything that’s happening could literally happen in real life.
Tim: I have groups of acquaintances who are therapists and reached out to some of them. We wanted to avoid something like In Treatment where you’re swimming in the emotion. That’s one component but the secondary component that makes it different than a normal comedy is that we wanted to be true. The line we were trying to walk, Sue’s character helped us walk that and ground it. Whereas David would step over the line and get the laugh, Sue would be there to remind the audience this is the reality of consequences to this behavior. So much comedy now and always is someone who is a total slob, agro manchild, screw things up. Hopefully we’re in a place where female characters can inhabit that as well. Some of my favorite shows are whacked out wild realities — Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Strangers with Candy — but you don’t watch a show like that and think “That happens in reality.” So early on we wanted that burden. We thought it helped drive the comedy.
You’ve mentioned how important it was to be a show that highlights Chicago, and you’ve definitely got that right off the bat with Joel Murray playing David’s stepfather. How’d that come together?
Tim: I had done a couple shows with him. I don’t know if we wrote for him but we wrote that type of Chicago character. I was really proud of where his speech ended up in the pilot and in episode four. That casual relationship to hard facts. Not a super curious person. That’s very common in the midwest. So his speech is just “Therapy is not for me.” He’s always articulating his point of view which is like “I’m not really curious about this. Who do you think you are?”
Blue collar meets white collar all the time in Chicago. I was born in a blue collar town but my mom is French so immediately I did not fit in just because of my mom. We grew up speaking French at home and to my friends it was like “Why would you do that? Do you think you’re better than us?” My mom actually comes from a town in France that’s like my hometown of Joliet. It’s not Paris. If you’re raised in that and you aspire to more, people hate you. “Who do you think you are to trying to be more than us?” But if you achieve it and actually achieve it, then you’re untouchable. But during that transition period, they despise you for it. And that’s true for all of Chicago. I think we represented well the type of people who would say therapy is white collar and the people who say it’s essential. We could probably get more into the white collar if we do a second season.