I was ten minutes into Big Time in Hollywood, FL’s first episode and I thought I knew the score. The story of two man-children brothers just barely on either size of 30 making incompetent films while living with their parents bore the hallmarks of various other basic cable comedies. Mix up the destructive self-obsession of the Always Sunny gang, the frat-slacker charisma of Workaholics and the film genre parodies of any number of comedy shows, and you’d have Comedy Central’s latest original program. It was funny, but it felt too familiar. And then the pilot ended with a genuinely shocking moment that was clearly going to have an impact on the rest of the series. It earned my repeat business, and immediately: I pulled up the screener of the second episode as soon as the first one ended.
“We like the idea of consequences,” says Dan Schimpf, who created the show along with Alex Anfanger, who also plays one of the show’s leads. “You start expecting one thing from the show and the expectations start to shift as it keeps going. You realize there are actual consequences for these insane actions that [the show’s characters are] making.”
Unlike most of the shows that it’ll get compared to, Big Time is serialized. It doesn’t hit the reset button at the end of every half-hour. Episodes expect you to remember what happened last week. It’s not a groundbreaking decision by any means, but that approach immediately distinguishes the show from most of the basic cable comedy pack. It lends it a cinematic air, similar to Eastbound & Down or the longer storylines on Louie. It gives the show a power beyond the quality of its jokes or performances.
“[The serialized structure] is just something that Alex and I were both attracted to,” Schimpf continues. “The show goes into dark territory because these characters who are sort of carefree and sort of on top of the world, living at their parents’ house, have to deal with very insane, heavy doses of reality as it goes on.”
That shifting, often dark tone should be familiar to fans of Schimpf and Anfanger’s previous show, the cult YouTube hit Next Time on Lonny. The two friends, who met at NYU, made two seasons of the bite-sized online show, the second season under the banner of Ben Stiller’s production company Red Hour. After wrapping that season the duo got the chance to pitch traditional TV ideas to Red Hour. The resulting show landed at Comedy Central, with Stiller playing a pivotal role in the pilot.
“[Stiller]’s just been extremely supportive of us,” Schimpf explains. “I think we share a lot of sensibilities comedically, playing around with genre tones.”
“He really liked Lonny and wanted to produce that with us, and he gave me this small part in Walter Mitty,” Anfanger continues. “And then when he said he would play Jimmy Statts [in the Big Time pilot] it was just the greatest moment of our lives.”
Stiller’s company shepherded Schimpf and Anfanger to television, but the jump from making a short series for YouTube to doing a traditional half-hour series for a real network was a huge undertaking for the two. “For the YouTube game, at least our experience, you have to strip it down to as few people as possible,” Schimpf explains. “You’re trying to do everything, trying to be very ambitious with like four or five people trying to pull a lot together, and everybody’s working like nine different positions, and that’s a game and a challenge in itself. [With Big Time’s] bigger set, union television, big production experience, it offers some solutions that plague you with the YouTube strategy, and then presents new problems that you’re not necessarily used to. Primarily being how much everything costs to do. You’re on such an aggressive schedule and you just have to deal with those problems that on a smaller scale you have multiple solutions to. When you’re not paying as much for things you have more time to do things.
“The biggest upside to the television experience is that you get to work every single day with people that are specifically so gifted and talented at so many different positions, and that’s the best thing, to be able to collaborate with people that have so much experience and that are so good at what they do, and really up your game to another level too.”
Those collaborators include a number of veteran actors whose presence are invaluable. Stephen Tobolowsky, who’s basically been in everything, plays the disrespected father of the two leads, with Picket Fences star and film veteran Kathy Baker playing the mother. Michael Madsen shows up as a dissolute private eye. Cuba Gooding Jr. inevitably pops up. They all add a touch of class to a show that doesn’t always treat their characters with dignity.
Even as dark as the show can get, the veteran actors rarely expressed concern. “You’d be surprised at what they push back on,” Anfanger says. “It’s never the things where you think ‘there’s no way Stephen Tobolowsky or Kathy Baker would ever do that.’ Those are the things that they ended up being really excited to do.
“I remember a few times Kathy coming up to us and just being like ‘I really don’t think Diana would do this.’ The thing that she’s really passionate about is character motivation. When it seems off to her we talk it through and figure out what the solution is to make the story work better and also satisfy her. But in terms of how crazy they were willing to go, it seems like everybody was so excited and game to really go into the crazy places that the story goes.”
“It’s such a pleasure to be able to work with actors like that who are thinking more deeply about their character than you probably even did when you wrote them,” Schimpf adds. “When you’re writing a season of television in twelve weeks you’re trying to get a lot across in a short amount of time and it’s just great to have people that read it and have the confidence to know what they think their character should actually be doing at all times.”
That’s a crucial skill for a show like Big Time, where characters don’t remain static, changing and reacting to the show’s serialized story arc. And although the show would work on purely comedic terms without that serialization, it wouldn’t make nearly the same impact without those twists and turns. That continuity isn’t just key to the show’s success: it was a fundamental part of the show’s development.
“Alex and I started writing this show six years ago,” Schimpf admits. “The thing we were always trying to communicate, the thing that attracted Alex and I, was the idea of building a plot with character arcs and massive, multiple plotlines going on at once. That’s the thing we always really wanted to do, to create our own little world and keep expanding it and making a universe out of it. Breaking Bad is a world where they get to have lots of fun with plot arcs and development of character and multiple protagonists and that’s what we love about television and the way it is right now, and that’s what we wanted to bring to comedy, creating something where there are consequences and characters have to make choices.
“When you watch the pilot you’re thinking one thing the whole way and then it has a very shocking ending. Hopefully the reaction is to wonder what kind of show this is. The rest of the season has a very different sort of vibe from that point forward. The tricky thing is to balance the comedy and let people understand that it has darkness as well, that it goes to different places than you might suspect.”
Big Time in Hollywood, FL premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30 PM ET.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.