Jim Piddock (The Prestige, Best in Show) is executive producer, writer and actor (he plays Mr. Pfister) on HBO’s new comedy series Family Tree. Created with Christopher Guest (A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap), Family Tree is a half hour, mostly improvised, situation comedy starring Chris O’Dowd as Tom Chadwick.
Tom is at the end of his rope. A young man with no job, a broken relationship and very few family ties, he is bequeathed a wooden box by his recently deceased Great Aunt Victoria. As Tom explores the contents of the box, he learns more about his family history and himself.
The series also stars Nina Conti, Michael McKean, and a whole host of actors familiar to fans of Christopher Guest’s films, as well as some new faces. I had the chance to speak by phone to Jim to talk about about his new series.
How did you come to be involved in this way with Family Tree?
[Christopher Guest] and I had lunch a couple of years ago [at a time] when he had been looking a little bit into his own family tree. There was some stuff that his father had left him and he was interested in the whole [topic]. So we talked about it, and I was also interested in it, and thought it was a very universal and accessible idea. But I didn’t think it was a film. I thought it was more of a TV show.
I think the nature of it is, there’s no beginning, middle, and end. Even when you think about the physical nature of a tree – it has got all these branches and different avenues you can go on. So we very quickly decided that if we would do anything with this it would be television show. Then about a month or two later or a couple of lunches later, we decided to try and just put our heads together and try writing and see what we came up with. And we actually spent a long time just hanging out in each other’s dining rooms making each other laugh. And slowly evolved. We really probably didn’t even know for a couple of months whether we had anything for sure. And then it was very apparent that we did.
A lot of the things that I know that Christopher has done have been very, very improvisational. But how much of this show is scripted vs. improvised?
Well, we write character outlines for each character that are very, very detailed – in-depth character stuff. So it’s literally: where they went to school, the name of the school, the name of their pets. I mean, it’s incredibly detailed. So roughly each episode is an eight-page, solid outline scene by scene, beat by beat, what happens, some of the jokes, some suggestions of lines, some suggestions of exchanges, what the scene’s about. And then the actors come in and they improvise each of these scenes so there’s no scripted dialog per se apart from the television shows – the characters watch on their televisions. Those were totally scripted. So the actors bring a lot to the table, but hopefully they’re not sort of totally walking without a tightrope because they’ve got all this basis, and they’ve got sort of a very, very strong and detailed road map to go on.
How did you come to cast your lead actor Chris O’Dowd, who was so great in Bridesmaids?
We were sort of not sure whether the show was going to begin in America or in England, and we sort of played around with both early on. And then it sort of became apparent that we were going to start it in England. I had seen Chris in Bridesmaids, and so he was sort of on our radar very early. I think Christopher Guest’s daughter also had seen him in Bridesmaids and she loved him in it. So we went to England to meet with the BBC and various people trying to set the show up. Christopher met with Chris O’Dowd and and just knew right away that he was the guy.
Is he experienced in improvisation or is this sort a new milieu for him?
I think it’s new for him. I mean, if you watch him on talk shows he’s wonderfully funny and…
…uh, natural and instinctive. And again I’d seen him I think on Letterman very early on after Bridesmaids and thought, “Wow, this guy is just naturally unbelievably charming and funny and likeable.” I think we both were so excited about was that Chris O’Dowd can play the straight man in a scene and the funny guy in a scene just as easily.
And he’s also a good-looking guy so he can be your romantic lead and, you know, there’s not that many people around that can do that.
And he does a great sort of bewildered expression. He’s got really kind of tragic eyes and he can do the pathos and…
He’s as good as a reactive or a proactive person in a scene, which is fantastic.
Tom Chadwick’s sister Bea (Nina Conti), who has this great monkey, she’s such an inventive character. Where did she come from?
Yeah, that really did come from the inspiration of using Nina because Christopher had used Nina in his last film, For Your Consideration.
Right, right, right.
Christopher knew family and knew her father, and has known Nina since she was a child. And she’s also a terrific actress. And then she does this very unusual ventriloquist act, which is sort of almost like the Penn and Teller of ventriloquism. It takes you into very surreal areas. It just felt kind of fresh and fun to us and it gave us a lot of different avenues to go on, and of course as it turns out the monkey is the – is the kind of the badge of honesty and always speaks truth in the scene, when everyone else is dancing around it.
So the series begins in England as you said for the first half of the season and then it goes to the U.S. …
Yes. It’s in episode four Tom discovers two cousins, one in Derbyshire, England and one in America. He contacts both of them, and the cousin in America (played by Ed Begley) gets back to him, and says, “Come over any time. We’d love to meet you.” And because the character Tom Chadwick is really at the end of his tether with his unemployment, and the relationship, and the real life, he jumps on this chance to get away. It’s fabulous because it sort of opens up a whole new area, and he sort of brightens. It just opens him up personally, and [lets us get into] a whole different area of the show, too.
I think that the series in addition to being very funny, also speaks to an angst that a lot of young people have of, you know, sort of feeling a little untethered and its hard to get jobs; relationships suck, and all that other stuff…
Yeah, hopefully it speaks to that, you know, certain generation, and just on a wider level it speaks to people of any generation. There are fundamental questions that you ask at any age: who am I really, where do I fit into the world, and where do I fit in in a wider context in terms the sort of history of the world. Where am I, and what chain am I in, and what link am I in this chain?
And I think those are wonderfully big and meaty kind of things to explore. You know, it has the immediate stuff – yes, you’re right. The immediate stuff of trying to find a relationship, trying to find out – you know, a job and it also has a wider context.
It’s interesting to explore those in comedy…
Yes, absolutely. I think that’s, you know, obviously what Christopher and I do. We consciously wanted to find something where we could actually engage people emotionally. I think there are moments we were sort of very, very happy about early on where it was quite touching: quite dark and quite kind of funny in a very dark way, and very touching.
How many takes do you do of every scene?
Not a lot. We generally do probably three. We start close now because that’s freshest and you want to be close on your actors for the fresh first improv, and then we shape the scene in terms of what works and what doesn’t, and what we may want in the story and may not want – different avenues to explore. So we probably do two or three, and then opposite coverage for each actor. And then the last shot is the wide usually.
So you mentioned before Ed Begley Jr., and of course, Michael McKean plays Tom’s very British father. Several other familiar faces among Christopher Guest movies are also associated with Family Tree. Who else is going to be popping in in the series?
We have Bob Balaban. We have Don Lake. We have Carrie Aizley. We have Fred Willard. We have Kevin Pollak. We have Will Sasso. Uh, I’m trying to think and not forget anybody. Um, we have Graham Greene, who isn’t of Chris’ troupe but his peers. We have wonderful, wonderful people coming in. There are a lot of people we still would love to use. And we discovered a lot of new people, which was exciting, a whole new generation of actors. People like Tom Bennett and Maria Blasucci, Matt Greeson.
How much fun was it getting back together with some of those guys? I mean, it’s been several years since For Your Consideration back in 2006.
It’s always like a bit of a party without drinking when we’re working. Very few people sit in their trailer between scenes. People hang out and chat. We catch up and – I mean, some of us know each other socially as well. But it’s so much fun. When we finished in England we had a wrap party, and all of the actors who had been in the first four episodes got together, and almost every one of them said how they were surprised how much fun and how relaxed it was on the set. They’d said that they were sort of terrified because of the improv thing, but then once they sort of got into it, it was exhilarating. And hopefully that atmosphere is engendered on each of the shows, as it was on all the films.
It was exciting to see something new from Christopher Guest and Company…
Well good. Yeah. I think it was too long, you know. Chris sort of went into semiretirement.
It absolutely is. So what is next for Jim Piddock?
Well hopefully with our fingers crossed we’ll get to do another season. We did eight this time and we’d like to do another batch. And we will know fairly soon. But if not, I’m just doing that in June and then we’ll see. We’ll take it from there. I try not to look too far ahead.
Family Tree airs Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.