"You'll laugh! You'll cry!" is a proclamation usually reserved for sweeping epic feature films or heartwarming movies about dogs named Marley. The promise of that spectrum of feelings is almost never associated with sitcoms, but chuckles are often followed by tears when watching Go On, which stars Matthew Perry as a man coping with the sudden death of his wife through the help of a support group also dealing with loss.
The most fun part of my job is talking to the creative minds behind the programs we watch, and each year I enjoy speaking with showrunners of new programs as they work out the kinks and continue to grow along with their series. I recently chatted with Scott Silveri, the creator of NBC's intriguing new comedy and a former executive producer of Friends, about how Go On got made, what makes it work, and where it will go.
I imagine this was a hard show to sell. How did the pitch to NBC go?
I had a very informal pitch with two executives at the network with whom I'm very comfortable. I had a number of ideas, and I said, "There's this one thing..." Well, let me back it up a minute. Every pilot season you work on a bunch of ideas, and you also figure out what the network wants. I talked to my people I knew at the network, there were some new people at the top, and I asked them, "What are they looking for?" And what I heard over and over again was, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "Forget what I want to do, what are they looking for?" They said that enough times that they finally broke me down, and I said, "Okay, this is what I want to do. It's a show about a guy whose wife died, and he goes on this journey with this disparate group around him." I was very prepared for the, "Okay, what else you got?" But I was really pleased that they were intrigued by the idea and they said, "Why don't you flesh it out?" At every stage I was expecting somebody to say, "We're not really doing this are we?" Because it's not the normal half-hour fare. But at every stage they were more supportive and enthusiastic. The first concern was, "We better get someone for this guy. We better get someone you want to follow on this journey." Once the pilot got greenlit, we contacted Matthew [Perry] and he expressed interest. It's no small thing finding someone who could play the comedy and the drama we're asking for and find what fun there is to be found in this situation. It may be a list of one! Once he signed on, what started as support became a lot of excitement. NBC has been very supportive going for the odd or darker jokes we wanted to go for, or even going for NO jokes on a page, which is an anathema to me.
Do you feel like if you’ve made someone laugh and cry you've done your job?
My partner Jon Pollock says we're going for two laughs and three cries on each page. In all seriousness, we don't set out to go for the cry to be manipulative, but it's fun to play with a wider spectrum of emotions in the writing, and over and over again I'm impressed with what the actors are able to deliver for us. SO yeah, when someone tells me they felt something while watching the show, that's gratifying. For someone who has worked in comedy as long as I have, the best thing you hear is "This made me laugh, I liked this joke," but now people say, "This made me cry and this made me cry." [laughs] I'll take that, too, as long as they're feeling something and watching.
A friend and I have a theory that because the show makes you feel something, it heightens the rest of your emotions and makes it more of an enjoyable ride.
That's great! That's great to hear because that's exactly what we're going for. We certainly have a quirkier strain as well, and we explore that more as we go forward, and some of the sillier moments allow you to go for the more heartfelt moments. If it were all the heavy drama stuff, it would be a tough slog. And if it were all silly it would become untethered. Both poles allow you to go to the other, and hopefully the combination of the two works. I feel in our best episodes it does.
Go On is an odd comedy, and NBC has made no secret about trying to move toward a "broad" audience. Yet the network always refers to your show when they're talking about that initiative. That confuses me. What are they talking about and do you see Go On fitting into that model?
The way they've expressed it to me, and I can't speak to their opinions of the other shows, they appreciate that there's a relatable emotional component you can latch onto. Hopefully there's some universal strain in there. It's not The Dead Wife Show, each character is going through something different. Whether or not you've experienced the specific losses these people are dealing with, every person has their share of struggles. What they've appreciated from the show is that there's that universal theme of we all go through stuff, and we lean on the lucky ones of us and find the people around us to help us get through. If we were just The Widow Show, we would be very narrow in our focus. There's something we can all relate to, I hope, in trying to make the best of a lousy situation.
I see Go On most often compared to Community, do you think that's a fair comparison?
I think Community is a great show. I could see how the posters look the same: The skeptical cool guy being brought into the mismatched group. I think tonally they're SO different. I love what they do, but we're trying to do something very different. Yeah, the comparison is most apt with the sound turned off, and I think their show is fantastic, but I think it's a pretty surface comparison.
What do you think happened to NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup and what can be done to return it to its glory?
You know, I can't speak to it at all. There are so many fantastic shows on that night, I think in a way it's been a version of its glory. But I'm the last guy in the world to talk to about numbers. I don't understand the ratings, I was lucky enough to come of age on a hit show, on Friends, where nobody had to look at the numbers. They didn't matter. There was never a concern about the Back 9, thank God, I was spoiled. But the downside is, I don't understand this stuff. I'll look at the numbers and wait for someone to explain to me whether or not they're happy, and if they're happy I'm happy. Those macro network questions are for the guys across the lot. We just have to make the best show we can.
Special Audio Talky Portion! I asked Scott about the difficulty of putting Ryan back on the market when the show is about a man mourning the loss of his wife, and we also discussed keeping humor positive. (4 minutes, 16 seconds)
Was the decision to include Ryan's dead wife as a figment of his imagination an easy decision to make? Because, again, it seems like something that could have gone really wrong but it didn't.
[Laughs] We enjoy walking up to the precipice of mistake over and over again. It felt like a natural place for us to go, to truly understand the guy and understand what he's missing. We wanted to dramatize his loss in some way. And I was interested to see what sort of lady he would have been with. The question was, what form that would that take? Is it truly a ghost? Is it a mystical element? That seemed far-fetched for us. So when we struck on the idea of a figment of his imagination that was consistent with who she was, that got interesting. Then we had to think, what's the tone of this thing? Normally in movies and shows when you see the return of the lover who has passed, it gets all gauzy with flowing robes, and it's wind-blown and very teary. Once we struck on the idea of her being who she had been and calling him on his stuff and having it be a comedic dynamic, that became a lot more fun to pitch on. Her making fun of him for being a slob. Her showing up in the shirt he always liked her wearing, and her thinking he's too obvious for wanting to tart her up like that. That seemed fun to us. It was something we definitely wanted to do, just weren't sure how to make it funny. We decided to just treat her like she was still around.
I really liked when she was telling him to make a meal for himself as a way to help him move on and take care of himself. That was another one of those crying moments. Thanks a lot, Scott.
[Laugh] This may be a "you" problem. Don't pin your instability on me, man. What other things do you cry about?
I'm crying right now, in fact. We ran a poll asking people to name their favorite Go On character, and everyone having a hard time choosing because they're all so likable. What's the trick to creating an ensemble cast that's immediately likable, and how do you maintain interest in these characters beyond their one-joke surface?
You flesh them out a little. That's something that we were dedicated to doing right out of the gate because if you've just got one joke it's going to get boring fast, even if it's a damn good joke. We decided to flesh these guys out early and round them out as much as we can, so we featured people right out of the gate one-on-one with Matthew's character. Lost was a template for this because you have the group on the island and then you'd get a bit of their origin story in every episode. It helped me fall more and more in love with the show. So we set out to do that from day one. It's easier said than done. Luckily we have a bunch of actors who are interesting enough to pull that off. What's really fun now is, we sort of featured them alongside Matthew in the beginning because he's our point of entry, and now we can pair them up away from him. The show can grow exponentially from there when you think of all the combos.
The best advice I can give to people putting together a show is, get really, really lucky with casting. I think we're really lucky with this group we've got. I think they're really solid actors who can pull off the drama and they're really funny, too. That's something we did toward the end of the casting process. It was like four days before the first table read and we had yet to cast four of the characters. You want the comedy to come from reality, so you want to cast the very best actors possible. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, this is a show about a guy whose wife died, it better be pretty damn funny. So we went and really shook the trees at The Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade and we found Sarah Baker (Sonia), Brett Gelman (Mr. K), and Seth Morris (Danny), these were all guys we hired close to the end of the process. We wanted big comedic firepower and those guys delivered on it. I think our biggest problem is serving [all these characters] and it's a good problem to have. So often early in the life of a show you're always looking for that one character who can give you a joke, what is that one pairing that will work? We're not having that problem.
This is the million-dollar question, speaking of Brett Gelman, WHAT IS UP WITH MR. K? I think it's funnier that we don't know why he's there, and I hope it's never revealed, but is it something you're planning on revealing? And will he be paired with Matthew?
He will be paired off with Matthew, quite soon in fact. There's a really fun story that puts the two of them together, it's going to air in early January. Bob Costas came and joined us for a couple of days and did a story with Matthew about a big job opportunity and Mr. K gets involved in that. We're going to learn more about the character. As far as his loss, I know but I ain't telling. I think that mystery is really fun. It's my little secret.
What scoop do you have for us for the rest of the season?
We have someone joining the group [around Episode 14; actress Piper Perabo has been announced as the guest star] and there might be sparks there for Ryan. Dating is going to be something that's a natural place to go, but it's uncomfortable for them. Any new element we add to the group is going to play with their dynamic and shake things up and I think both of those things are going to happen in one person.
Go On airs Tuesday nights at 9pm on NBC.