HBO and the BBC have come together to present Family Tree, a mockumentary television series about a man in his early thirties (Chris O’Dowd) discovering his family’s genealogy. Created and written by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock, the eight episode series follows the hilarious branches of one man’s quirky Family Tree, beginning in England and then moving on to the United States, after he receives an inheritance from an aunt he never met. After viewing the premiere episode, I was lucky enough to land an interview with Family Tree’s creator/writer/actor Jim Piddock where we discussed the show, writing, and what else he has in the works. Read on for the interview…
The Daily Quirk: I know you’ve previously worked many times with Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration) – how did Family Tree come about?
Jim Piddock: Well, I’ve only ever worked with him as an actor, sort of an actor/director relationship, but he knew that I wrote. He had this idea of doing something in the world of genealogy and he had sort of been thinking about it for a while. So we had a lunch and he said, “tell me what you think, is there something here?” and I said, “Well, I think the area’s great” and we talked a bit about it and I think by the end of that lunch (or shortly thereafter) we both realized it wasn’t a movie because of its nature. There is no beginning, middle, and end to a family tree there are branches and spreads in all different directions and it’s a great opportunity to go in one direction one week and another the next. So we thought this was perfect for a series and then a couple months later we had another lunch and talked a bit more then decided to work together writing because we’ve never done that before. We kind of played around and made each other laugh and we just kept doing it more and more.
TDQ: What direction are you hoping to take this series? I have only seen one episode so far…
JP: You haven’t seen the first four?
TDQ: No, I’ve only seen one.
JP: Oh, you’re in for a treat. Where are you based?
TDQ: I live up near Seattle.
JP: Ok, episode two, tomorrow night is really a cracking episode. I think episode one has set the table very very nicely and introduces everything. But the real comedy feast starts tomorrow in episode. It kicks into another gear and it really – you know, now we’re finishing up episode seven and it just goes from strength to strength. Everybody starts to find their way. It really is a delight to watch but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you liked the first one.
TDQ: Well, my grandfather is English so I have that bit of British humor in me and I love British comedies – so far so good from my perspective.
JP: Well, in episode five he comes to visit his American cousins: Ed Begley, Carrie Aizley, their next door neighbor Fred Willard, Kevin Pollack, Don Lake all sorts of familiar faces from Chris’s films. It is wonderful really, we get to go wherever we want.
TDQ: And you play Mister Pfister, correct?
JP: I am Mr. Pfister, when people call me Glen Pfister I say, “I’d rather be known as Mr. Pfister.” It is more alliterate and sounds ruder.
TDQ: Did you specifically write Tom Chadwick’s character for Chris O’Dowd?
JP: No, we started off writing him with someone in their early thirties in mind but Chris was on top of our list early on but we didn’t know whether we were starting in America or in England. For a while, we were thinking we were going to start here with an American family. As we progressed and everything fell into place we decided to start it in England. When we went over there to actually talk to the BBC and various English broadcasters; Chris Guest met Christopher O’Dowd. I was blown away by his performance in Bridesmaids and I saw him on a talk show and I thought he is so innately charming and funny he could be the straight guy as well as the funny guy. And Chris met him and he said right away, “that’s the guy.”
TDQ: So you guys just had to change the backstory of the character to fit his accent?
JP: Yeah, we just had to add the explanation of why he has an Irish accent. When he was 9 his parent’s got divorced and he went back to live with his mum in Ireland and then came back when he was in his late teens and by then he got this Irish accent. So, that was the only thing we really had to explain.
TDQ: Where did the idea for the monkey puppet come from?
JP: Well, that really did generate from Nina Conti because we wanted to use Nina in the show as the sister. That’s her act; she’s a ventriloquist as an actress. It is an extraordinary and unusual act but she had been in consideration for Chris’s last film as a weather woman on TV with the monkey puppet. It was great because it gave us something unusual right off the bat when we were working. When we had this character that had this ventriloquist thing on the end of her hand. I think it gave us a unique starting point for the family because no one comments on it. Even people she doesn’t know may refer to the monkey puppet but everyone – it is better and funnier with the family if it is totally accepted and nobody thinks its weird.
TDQ: I think it is hilarious. So far, what is your favorite part of the show? Or favorite character?
JP: Um, I love all aspects of it. There are some wonderful guest performances in tomorrow’s episode and in episode six that is a fantastic episode. I have to say I like the breadth of color in the show, I’ve said this all along. What excited me was the kind of panorama of different colors, the different characters, different types of people, the different accents. I think that’s what excites me, it’s not a narrow canvas it is a very broad canvas. I obviously think the monkey stuff is great with Nina. I think Tom Bennett and his relationship with Chris O’Dowd as best friends is fantastic and really fun to write. It is almost a classic Laurel and Hardy; there is a stupid one and a smart one so that’s kind of fun. I mean there are so many…as the series progresses you’ll see…there are so many wonderful and extraordinary performances. Just in tomorrow’s episode there are two or three performances that are just fantastic.
TDQ: Have you been writing for the entire length of your career or is this more recent?
JP: Absolutely, the last TV show I think I did was in the early 90’s with the BBC but I’ve written films and stuff. I wrote a film called The Man which was I think the mid-2000’s. Then I wrote the story of the Tooth Fairy with The Rock, Dwayne “don’t call me ‘The Rock’” Johnson. So, I’ve done all sorts of different genres – I wrote a thriller with Rupert Everett and Sharon Stone, a Cold War thriller [A Different Loyalty]. I’ve been writing pretty concurrently with acting.
TDQ: What is your writing process?
JP: Well, with Christopher Guest it was completely different. I have worked with other people before, but I tend to write more on my own. I am very disciplined, I start first thing in the morning and I write all day. I stop for very few breaks; I like to immerse myself in it. I don’t do as long hours as I used to when I was younger I could literally write for ten hours straight. I knock off now mid to late afternoon because I think I’ve peaked by then but I’ll still write probably eight hours a day when I’m really into a script. I write, I write, I write even its rubbish I just keep writing, I just keep writing and then I’ll re-write. I don’t worry about censoring myself. With Chris it was a whole different process; we just literally sat across his or my dining table and talked and discussed and debated and scribbled on notepads – we did this for probably three or four months before any actual typing up on the computer. We just kind of made each other laugh and played around. He said, “You won’t be used to my glacially slow pace that I work at.” I tend to be set fast. It was a nice combination because we sort of found a middle ground where we created and had a lot of fun. In the end, we just made each other laugh and that’s all you can ask – it’s a fun process and that’s why we continued doing it. Hopefully we’ll be doing it some more.
TDQ: While writing these characters were inspired at all by your own family?
JP: Well, its interesting because we didn’t – we just created a fictitious situation but tomorrow’s episode has quite a bit of my family’s stuff thrown in there. It is about a regional theater actor, which was my grandfather his name was Harry, and that’s the name of great grandfather of Tom. Yeah, there is definitely that whole world and he was also a performer on the south coast of Brighton so some of that is my family stuff. I don’t think we inserted an awful lot of stuff about either of our families…consciously.
TDQ: Are you working on anything else since Family Tree has wrapped?
JP: I have actually produced a play in Canada and have played the lead in a web pilot a couple of weeks ago. In June, I’m shooting a movie – I don’t know if you saw a movie called Think Like a Man it was a huge hit, I think it was made for 10 million and grossed 95 million – so this is the sequel.
Both I and The Daily Quirk would like to thank Jim Piddock for taking the time to speak with me (you were a delight to interview)! Now that Jim has told us a bit more about HBO/BBC’s new comedy Family Tree starring Chris O’Dowd, Nina Conti, Michael McKean, and Jim Piddock – be sure to watch Sunday nights at 10:30pm.