Ask Jim Piddock when he first realized he was funny and he laughs.
He wasn’t, he promises, the extroverted clown always cracking jokes in the classroom. He was more the quiet child who would come in with the zinger that would surprise everyone and make them laugh.
Today his knack for comedy is on full display in Family Tree. The British native holds a series of co’s in the new HBO comedy: He co-created, co-wrote, co-executive produces and co-stars in the new series, which has its first season finale July 7. Family Tree follows Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd), an out-of-work and out-of-love man who receives a trunk full of family heirlooms from his long-forgotten about great-aunt. The trunk launches Tom on a journey to discover the family who came before him. The first half of the season takes place in Britain, while the remaining four episodes take Tom to the United States as he visits his newly discovered cousins in California.
“Very few people are related to Napoleon or Cleopatra,” Piddock says. “So ultimately most people’s family tree is not going to read like a page-turning thriller. What was more interesting to us is why people are [researching their genealogy], and we wanted to find an everyman who represented not someone going back and looking at things rather nostalgically. It was more that drive that people have to find out who they are via their genealogy and what their place is in the world and where they fit in to the grander picture of history.”
The series reunites Piddock with Christopher Guest, who he first met when he played dog expert Trevor Beckwith in Guest’s 2000 film Best in Show (you may remember Piddock as the hilarious straight-man to Fred Willard’s uproarious Buck Laughlin). “Chris and I both have the same sensibility,” Piddock says. “Things that make us laugh are usually not overstated. They’re very based in truth. They’re kind of normal people turned slightly askew. Not even normal, perhaps that’s the wrong word, just people that you recognize turned slightly at an angle.”
So the series features Tom’s ventriloquist sister Bea (Nina Conti) who travels everywhere with her foul-mouthed monkey puppet and his clueless father Keith (Michael McKean) who is obsessed with British comedies of the ‘70s. But all of the characters have heart.
“Without being overly critical of other people’s work, I find there’s a bit of a lack of that in television comedy right now,” Piddock says. “I think a lot of it right now is mean-spirited. It’s about the joke or the uncomfortableness of it or the shock value. There’s an awful lot of shock value comedy—which is great as a one-off, but it doesn’t make me want to watch it every week. My feeling is—and we worked very hard at this—if you’re coming up into people’s homes every week, we wanted to make sure to have a world that people cared about and you genuinely are emotionally involved with.”
While Tom is 30, the themes the series explores are inherently relatable no matter what your age. “If you’ve had children and they’ve left the house you start to question your identity, who you are, what your purpose was in life and is,” Piddock says. “Even when you’re in the midst of being in a busy job and raising kids and whatever, there are moments when you say, ‘Who am I?’ We all ask those existential questions at various periods throughout our lives.”
And while Family Tree is improvised, Piddock dispels the myth about improv—that the actors just show up, do their thing and hilarity ensues. In reality, he and Guest spent eight months writing the first season’s eight episodes. “You have to create the people and the world very, very carefully and in great detail and the road map has got to be very well worked out,” he says. “It has to set the table for the actors to eat at. There are suggestions of jokes and lines, and there are even some lines thrown in [but] we really do rely on the actors to understand what they are supposed to bring to the table and they invariably do.”
Piddock also plays Tom’s neighbor Mr. Pfister in the series. He jokes that he wanted a part where he would get to sit down a lot. “I get lazier as I get older.” And how exactly did Mr. Pfister come to have a South African accent? He asked Guest what was the least funny accent he could think of, and Guest replied South African. “So I started riffing on the character in South African and it made [Guest] laugh and every time I did it, it made him laugh. One of the other executive producers said, ‘Please you’re not going to do the South African accent, it’s so appalling.’ And that convinced me I had to do it.”
Just as the show split its first season between the two continents, Family Tree, which is a joint production of HBO, NBC Universal and the BBC, spilt its production location. Filming began in England and finished in LA. “You can’t fake London in LA,” Piddock says. ”I think that’s a call too far. We wanted to shoot this more like a movie, so we didn’t have any sets built. We were literally on location all the time. When we move to episode five, it really looks and feels so different from the first four episodes because you’ve entered this big wide world of California and you can’t fake that and we didn’t want to fake that.”
If HBO renews the series, Piddock knows where he wants Tom’s travels to take him in season two. “The consensus was we’d go where there’s really good food. Italy, Provence, these are all places we should be seriously looking at in finding relatives,” he jokes.
But there is immense potential to go in any direction they want to in the second season. “Once you’ve established the characters and the premise of the show, your storylines are less driven by that than the characters,” he says. “So you can start doing more character-driven stories each week. It does have to be about finding a new ancestor or finding a new relative. I’ve had so many people say that the show is very surprising. You don’t know where it’s going and that to me is very rare on television.”