“The best show you aren’t watching” is a tag that gets thrown around for a hundred shows per year. The one that it most applies to right now in 2018 is Kidding on Showtime. Jeff Pickles, a Mr. Rogers-ian childrens entertainer, sees his life collapse around him as he enters the fourth decade of his career, with a brutal divorce and the death of a child. What sets this tale of a man surrounded by failure apart is that the man himself doesn’t succumb to that collapse. In current prestige TV, you’ve expect some twist where this guy goes off the deep end and, by season three, Mr. Pickles is executing drug lords in Mexico. An opposite set of cards is in play here. Mr. Pickles is a genuinely good, genuinely kind, genuinely pure person… who seemingly will not break in the face of a bleak, awful world. There are some cracks forming at the edge of the mirror, but they’re less interesting than the persistence of the character. After all, in the face of the current President, perhaps the most involving version of retribution is a man who actually believes in his convictions.
Oh. Also. The main character? He’s played by Jim Carrey, who has returned to television after almost 30 years.
So what kind of person creates the project that coaxes Carrey back to the idiot box, and how do you bridge the dramatic and comedic sides of one of America’s secret weapons? For that we go to Dave Holstein, the producer, writer, and creator of the series. After years of work on Weeds and The Brink, Holstein has brought his dream project to audiences via his dream headliner. Alongside a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Frank Langella, and Judy Greer, this show has everything it needs to be the next great television franchise.
Paste caught up with Dave Holstein to talk about the show, its incredible cast, and and why it was important to avoid the kind of antihero typically found in “Prestige TV” shows.
Paste: Is this a supervillain origin story?
Dave Holstein: Finally. A question I’m excited to answer! It’s the opposite. The show I didn’t want to write is Mr. Rogers Breaks Bad. Not a kind guy who then just crumbles in the face of the universe. In this day and age, I think you’re rooting for the kind of guy who doesn’t curse and who tells the truth and who doesn’t have any cruelty. It’s not about someone trying to break bad; it’s about someone trying to stay good.
Paste: But he’s also committing these inadvertent acts of violence and cruelty. Is the show going to move towards bridging these events or is that part of your vision of goodness?
Holstein: The duality of the character is an essential part of the show. It’s less about the evil and good side of him. It’s not that his dark side is malicious, it’s that he has an anger and he doesn’t know what to do with it. There are moments in the episodes where you see something break, but you don’t see him do it. Or you do see him pull the faucet off the sink. You see the Mr. Hyde that he’s fighting. And maybe that Hyde will win… oh no! Maybe you’re right? Maybe what I’ve done is create a supervillain origin story? But to me, it’s about watching Mr. Rogers for 30 years, and how he never gets angry about anything. Which I find frightening. So the question is: after 30 years, what happens when that guy gets angry about something? What happens when he stubs his toe and it all comes out at once?
Paste: In the first episode, your main character explains stewardship to his son, and how you help everyone, even when you have no responsibility to do so. In line with that 30 year timeline, I know that being good takes a lot out of you, and there’s something untenable about always giving such a large portion of yourself without replenishing. Is that part of what leads to the darkness here? Or does Mr. Pickles have an unending well of effort to give?
Holstein: There’s an unending well of kindness inside of him. Which makes him interesting to write, because it is always good to write with parameters. And for him: he’s not playing a part. He’s the most good person and always sees the good in people and mostly is right in that instinct. The world chips away at that kindness, thought, and you hope that he wins out.
Paste: There’s a line in the pilot: “Sometimes when we think we’re opening up, we’re actually falling apart.” I had to pause the show and do a quick walk after that happened. It’s such a great thesis but also just a beautiful line. Where did it come from?
Holstein: It came out of a very quick rewrite. It just felt right when I wrote it. There’s something about a character that just wants to open up and be honest about how they’re feeling, and what they put out just looks like cracking up. I’m so glad that line is resonating with people.
Paste: What is it like to write the script that finally brings Jim Carrey back to television?
Holstein: I wrote this in 2013 with Jim in mind. I wrote his name in the script. And my agents laughed at me. So we spent five years going after everybody else. And at the end of the day, we got Jim Carrey. It’s incredible to find a spot for your own project among the dramatic Carrey roles of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Man in the Moon.
Paste: Who was your second choice?
Holstein: I don’t know. It would have been a different show. We looked at everybody. We looked at Nic Cage and Owen Wilson. I always thought Kevin Kline could have done a different version of this.
Paste: You have this killer cast. Who among them is the hardest to work with? And I don’t mean, you know, like a dick on set. I mean who is intimidating to be around or collaborate with. For example, I don’t think I could work a set with Frank Langella because I’d just be terrified.
Holstein: They’re all intimidating. Working a scene with Catherine Keener in her backyard for rehearsal… it’s a lot. Usually a show has one actor that takes up all the oxygen in the room. We have four that deserve that level of attention. Judy Greer is just fantastic as a human being and an actor, which is probably why she works as much as she does.
Paste: You have some real awful kids on this show, that are cast in a way that doesn’t drive me up a wall. How did you find such good casting here?
Holstein: Some girls at that age are way ahead of boy actors. At that age, boys are taught to be sitcom actors or musical theater actors, but there aren’t a lot of kids who can maintain the emotional weight of a scene like Cole Allen does. I want to say it took 400 auditions across every major city. And he really stood out in this way that I knew he was going to be something special. And Juliet Morris, who plays Keener’s daughter, was the third person to audition. So we were like, “She’s crazy; let’s put her on TV!”
Paste: What’s it like to work with Michel Gondry on a very straightforward narrative thing instead of something more experimental?
Holstein: It’s just something to watch him come up with visual acrobatics. We tried to write magic moments into the script each episode that would play to his strengths. There’s more narrative in our TV show than I think his movies have, but you have this braintrust on the show and we all hope that, at the end of the day, we’ve all covered our blind spots.
Paste: What is it like working with Jim Carrey on set and hashing things out? Is it just the dream version of this?
Holstein: He has incredible instincts and he’s a livewire. He’s very well prepared. You’ll sit and talk out ideas and then he’ll come in, word for word, memorized. And then give you every version of that thing. He’s incredibly prepared for an actor that could just come in and make everyone suffer. It’s quite generous. My favorite scenes with him are scenes with no dialogue that just say something like “Jeff drops a pie,” and he will give you 18 versions of Jim Carrey dropping a pie. He’ll kick it. He’ll try to put it back in the box. He’s Buster Keaton.
Kidding is airing now on Showtime and Showtime Anytime.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.