Barry Rothbart on Standup, Acting, and ‘Downward Dog’
This year ABC’s Downward Dog became the first network sitcom ever to be accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. Not bad for a show about a talking dog.
While the talking-animal concept is one critics generally deride, it’s the opposite for Downward Dog, which has received critical acclaim for the way it smartly portrays the point of view of a dog named Martin (voiced by series co-creator Samm Hodges) and his relationship with his owner Nan (Allison Tolman of Fargo).
The show also stars standup comic Barry Rothbart as Kevin, Nan’s dim-witted bro boss at her creative agency day job. In his first major network role, Rothbart, who has Comedy Central’s The Half Hour among his standup credits, is one of the show’s highlights, stealing several scenes as the in-over-his-head douche you eventually grow to love.
I recently had a chance to chat with Rothbart about the show, taking a break from standup, and what it’s like to co-star with a dog.
Did you know anyone involved with the project when you auditioned? Did you go in blind?
It was through my agent so it was kind of a blind thing. It was right after I got a dog, actually. I had read it and thought it was so weird and different and great. It’s a weird thing everyone probably goes through when they hear or read about it and think, “oh, this is a dog show.” But it’s not that at all. Sometimes when you pitch it, it sounds like ALF. But when you watch it it’s way better. I wound up going through several tests to get the part.
You guys shot the whole thing in Pittsburgh. How long were you there? Did you enjoy your time?
Including the pilot we were there for about five months. I didn’t know much about Pittsburgh when I got there. But it turned out to be great for the show. It felt like we were at summer camp. We were away from Hollywood, and felt like we were able to get away with more because we were shooting on location. You can tell when something’s shot on set. I think shooting on location sets it apart from most shows.
You didn’t shoot on any sets at all?
No, not at all. They actually built the office we filmed in not far from downtown Pittsburgh.
I’ve heard Pittsburgh is up and coming.
If a city was a kid that graduated from college recently and was ambitious and trying to figure out who he is, that’s Pittsburgh. There’s a whole tech sector there now. It’s also got a pretty cool comedy scene.
Did you do any standup while you were living there?
During the pilot I did. I didn’t really have time during the season. There’s an Improv there but I didn’t want to perform there. I don’t really love that place.
When you took time off standup, did you miss it at all? Was it a welcomed break?
I’ve been able to balance the two way better over the last few years. I think there was a lot of anxiety when I wasn’t getting up because I realized for many years how addicted I was to it. Now as I’ve gotten more into writing and developing and acting, you realize that you can live life a little bit and not be anxious that you’re not getting up on stage. Now when I go back to standup it makes it feel even better, if that makes sense. When you take a few months off, you’re okay with it. I remember why jokes are funny. I’ve tried to make it very intentional that I want to balance standup with other stuff. I think I can have an acting career and do standup. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. That balance is just the new reality of the business.
How was it working on a network show?
The showrunners are Kat Likkel and John Hoberg. They were writers on My Name Is Earl for years and then they ran a show on ABC called Galavant. They were brought in and they were amazing. A lot of us didn’t have much network show experience. They were amazing at being handlers for all of us. That was one of the best parts of the show. It felt like an indie film on network TV.
There’s a great dream sequence in the show featuring you on a dinner date with the dog. It’s one of the funniest scenes of the whole show. How do you prepare as an actor when it’s just you and a dog?
It’s just a matter of convincing yourself that you’re looking at a person and not a dog. That was the biggest part of it. It was easy because this dog has just amazingly sincere human eyes. It was like if you had Leonardo DiCaprio in a dog suit. The dog has insanely human eyes. The other thing is the dog is really the star of the show. When the dog wants to do a scene, we do it. When he’s tired, we take a break. The dog was treated very well. Everything was on his schedule.
Is it distracting when there are dog trainers on set while you’re filming?
The dog responds to treats mostly, but sometimes they have to have a command and it was kind of weird when I was trying to do a scene and there was a dog trainer off-screen saying “back up, back up, back up.” But yeah, it all goes back to the dog being the star. Like, we would finish a take and people would say, “Amazing! Unbelievable.” And I’d be like “Oh thanks!” And they’d say, “No, no, no. the dog.”
“No, you were there, but I loved everything the dog did.”
Downward Dog premieres tonight at 9:30pm on ABC.