Justin Halpern on "$#!t My Dad Says" And the Frustrations of Working on a Show You Know Is Sh*tty
Justin Halpern is the guy that everyone loved when he had a Twitter account called "Sh*t My Dad Says," and who everyone turned on when that Twitter account was turned into a television show. In between, he also wrote a well-received book about his relationship with his father: A comedically dark take on a man who is practical to the point of hilariousness, but whose relationship with humanity could be best described as hostile.
That was the perspective that Justin Halpern had wanted to bring to the CBS sitcom starring William Shatner, but as these things are wont to do, it all went pear-shaped when studio executives got involved. In an interview with Splitsider, Halpern notes that the first sign of trouble was the multi-camera format:
I think there are plenty of great multi-camera sitcoms in television history and I think it's the sign of a lazy, thoughtless person to just hate a multi-cam because it has a laugh track since some of the best shows ever were this format. It's got kind of a stink on it because none of the current cool kids are doing it, but if you tell me you don't think "Cheers" and "Seinfeld" are brilliant than you're sort of a dumb asshole that shouldn't get to voice an opinion. Hold on while I dismount my high horse. Anyway, I like multi-cam but in this case, my dad is a guy who is not trying to be funny, which is why I think the twitter feed and my book were so successful. He's not a guy who's "jokey." In multi-cam, you tend to play to the joke, it's more setup/punchline, just by nature of shooting in front of a live audience, and that kind of cuts the nuts off my dad as a character. So even when we shot the pilot I thought, "fuuuuuuuuuck. This is not my book. This is not working for this character."
The problem was cofounded by the fact that the network twisted Halpern's father into something he wasn't.
So, I think one of the reasons why the show wasn't good was because it just felt, like you said, generic. I wasn't that voice, so it just became "grumpy dad." My dad is not "grumpy dad." If you read any of my book or articles I've written featuring him, you get the picture of a guy who is pretty unique, sometimes tough to handle, but mostly pragmatic to the point that it makes him funny.
So, at this point, Halpern is stuck with a show about his father based on his Twitter feed, and to compound that, he was getting heap tons of crap from the Internet about the show.
It's funny because we're all on this show and we know it's not good, but we're working our asses off, and then you read a blog post where people are like "HAHA LOOK AT THESE FUCKING TALENTLESS HACKS" and you're like "man, can't you just write about shows you like? We know this show sucks." It's sort of like being in an a relationship with someone you hate, but you're not sure how to end it, and then you go over to your friends house and they're like "Oh my god, why are you dating that piece of shit? You're a fucking idiot." It's like "I KNOW YOU FUCKING DICKHEAD BUT I'M NOT SURE WHAT TO DO."
So, who can you even blame? Is it the writer's fault?
I think the common misconception by everyone who's never worked on a show is that "Oh, this is a shitty show. They're just mailing it in because they can't do better, because they're lazy, hacky, writers." I've been lucky enough to have continued to work on staff of other shows every year since, and the thing that has become clearest to me is that on every one of your favorite shows, there are writers on that show who have worked on terrible shows. There are great writers on terrible shows and not-so-great writers on great shows. I have friends that were on "Whitney" one year and "Happy Endings" the next and they didn't suddenly go from being bad writers to being good ones. What happens is a show isn't clear and you can't figure out how to make it work, and then you get behind and you're writing a script in a day and unless you're Larry David, you're not writing a good show in a day. And the other thing that happens when a show isn't clear, is the network gets scared because they invested a shit ton of money into the show. And when they freak out, the notes get larger and suddenly you have twelve people saying "Why is that plumber walking through the front door?" and you're like "Fuck I don't know, he's the plumber. I guess this needs a page one rewrite?"
And so, the moral of the story is this: Network executives either ruin everything good, or cancel it if it's too good. Also, that Justin Halpern -- who ended up being one of the guys that did a solid job of taking over for Bill Lawrence on "Cougar Town" last year -- is a pretty cool, self-aware, funny guy, who has a good command of when to use ALL CAPS. He has a show called Surviving Jack with Christopher Meloni out in the fall, which Bill Lawrence also produces.