Comedian Bill Burr has a new animated show coming to Netflix called F is for Family. It’s loosely based on his childhood and is a great homage to growing up in the 1970’s. I had the opportunity to talk with Michael Price, one of the show’s executive producers and writers. Price’s resume is filled with other animated hits including The Simpsons. We talked about how he got involved with the project, being able to write some adult material and how Netflix, Amazon and the like are changing the way television programs get made.
I asked him how he first got involved with F is for Family. Michael Price, “I got a call a few years back from my agent asking if I was interested in meeting with Bill Burr. We talked about an animated project about growing up in the 1970’s. I was like ‘Wow that just sounds like everything I’ve ever wanted to do.’ I actually had tried to develop a show about that very similar, family dynamic many, many years ago without success. When the chance came to revisit that, especially with Bill Burr, who is an incredible talent, I jumped at the chance. I had a meeting with Bill and Peter Billingsley at Wild West Picture Show Productions, Vince Vaughn’s production company. We just instantly hit it off telling stories about my childhood, his childhood, my dad, his dad, my neighborhood, his neighborhood. We found we had a really common ground there and we both had similar feelings about what it was like to be a kid back then and what it meant and how different it is now. Especially that feeling of a time, when you were a little kid back then and could literally go outside and run around and come back after being gone all day. Also, at the same time, I think we’ve very lucky that we’re all alive. Maybe our parents should have been a little more protective of us. There were many times I could have fallen out of a tree or whatever. There were no seatbelts.
“One thing that made it very briefly in the first episode, is that growing up in New Jersey during the summertime, we had a big mosquito problem. They would send around this big truck from the mosquito commission blowing out this toxic cloud of pesticides. All us kids would run out and act like it was the Good Humor truck and follow behind it. We’d ride our bikes and our parents were ok with it. They didn’t say ‘No don’t do that, that’s pesticide.’ In many ways it was a simpler time and better time, but in many ways it was a terrible time. We’re lucky to have survived it.”
If you aren’t familiar with Bill Burr, he’s one of the few people left who isn’t afraid to say what he means. That’s rare in this politically correct climate yet he seems to resonate with a lot of people. Mike talked about that. “I think it’s because he says what he feels. When you watch Bill, you know he’s not just telling jokes. He has a real point of view. I think there’s so much, I don’t want to use the term political correctness, there’s a lot of bullshit. I think Bill is someone who’s refreshing and sort of cuts through the bologna that’s out there a lot of the time. I think that’s what he brings to this show, that forthrightness and honesty and that ‘We’re gonna tell it like it is.’ Sure it’s animated and the characters look interesting and there’s funny action, but I don’t think our show is particularly joke-y. That’s something that Bill was really intent on preserving, that the characters behave and talk to each other the way people really talk and behave to each other. It’s presenting a chronicle of what it was like back then. It’s the way it was. People were racist. It was a racist time. People were sexist. People still are both of those things and not every dad is a sitcom dad and comes home and says ‘Hi honey I’m home.’ It was refreshing and fun to say this was our family and we’re gonna show you the way they really are. I think the response we are getting from the show so far shows me that a lot of people are embracing that and are interesting in seeing that.”
Mike is known for The Simpsons, Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales and more family oriented projects. I asked him how it felt to write some adult characters like this. “It was very liberating, very fun and very challenging to have that freedom that Netflix affords, to have the characters talk the way people do. My dad never cursed the way Frank (the father in the show) does, well maybe when he was out working or bowling, but it’s the way people behave. It was very refreshing and liberating to not have to find a euphemism for when Kevin (the oldest son) tells his father I fucking hate you. I remember Bill decided to do this in one of our earlier writing sessions. It was just like a bomb went off in the room because we realized ‘Wow, we can do this here.’ Because it’s animated, it’s an extra level of weirdness to see an animated character act that way. At the same time we didn’t want it to be X-rated, we wanted it to be about something. I think there’s a lot of other animated shows on other cable channels where their ability to be outrageous or crude is their badge of honor. We certainly used it to serve our purpose and we are certainly happy to have it, but we tried to not just make the show the cartoon show where the kid says fuck,” Mike explained.
The show feels really authentic and has a lot of details that adds to that authenticity. If you grew up in the 70’s or 80’s, you’ll see a lot of things you remember as a kid. There’s a rotary phone with phone numbers posted above it. There’s dad’s chair which is just for dad. There’s characters breaking up weed on a double album. Mike talked about that authenticity. “A lot of it was like a therapy session in a way. Myself, Bill and the writers were kids back in those days. A lot of it was remembering those things and being like ‘Oh my god, that’s right.’ Like you said, the breaking up of the pot on the double album, that was something my college roommate did. I actually called him when we were writing an episode because I wasn’t a big pothead and asked him what that was about. He talked us through it. The seeds go down the middle of the double album and that’s how you separate them out. It was fun to get it right. We didn’t want to be, it was a very successful show, but That 70’s Show, we didn’t want to be that. For better or for worse, it was a generalized view of the 70’s, everyone is wearing disco pants and everyone has a lava lamp and everyone is driving an AMC Pacer. We wanted it to be a world that everyone lived back then. It’s based in 1973 so everyone has cars that are 7 or 9 years old. Frank’s car is like a 1966 Ford Galaxie. The only character that lives that 70’s lifestyle is the guy next door Vic played by Sam Rockwell. The one episode where they visit his radio station, that’s where we decided to put all our 70’s stuff, in that one episode. For the rest of it, we wanted to have the detail, that attention to what we thought was a natural or realistic version of the way things were back then without being a cliché or embracing those 70’s style clichés.”
You can see that attention to realism in the first episode when the kids are told to go to their rooms when the adults come over. Kids today wouldn’t understand not being allowed to participate in adult things/conversations. I asked Mike where did we go wrong that kids aren’t allowed to be kids and think their opinions matter! “I don’t know. My son is 18 years old. Somewhere things just changed. My brother still lives in the hometown I grew up in and he has young kids and he doesn’t let them go out and play all day long until the sun goes down. They are supervised. They have play dates. They have after school structured activities. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but it slowly happened where the experience of being a kid is super managed and every single second of your day your being watched by somebody. I make a joke about it saying ‘Well I survived the 70’s,’ but there are probably plenty of kids who didn’t (laughing) by not wearing a seatbelt or riding in the back of a station wagon as it goes bumping down the road. We can say that toughened us up, but I think our view of the 70’s is that it was a time where some things were better than they are now, but a whole lot of things were worse than what they are now. We had fun pointing out both aspects.”
As a veteran TV writer/producer, I asked Mike how he feels about Netflix, Amazon and other sites changing the shape of television. “I can’t thank God or whoever enough for this landscape we’re in now. I tried to make a show like this 15 or 17 years ago. I pitched it and it didn’t go anywhere. To have a place where there’s room for everyone who wants to do a show that normally wouldn’t be seen, I’m thrilled. It is a different world right now. As a writer, as a creator of TV, to have 50 places to bring your idea as opposed to 8 places to bring your idea, is incredible. I’m very happy about that and I will say as far as Netflix is concerned, it was a little bit of a learning curve to embrace Netflix’s philosophy of serialized storytelling. Especially coming from The Simpsons where every episode is a standalone and everything doesn’t have to come back to square one. It was a little daunting at first to do it that way, but then it ended up being the greatest thing that ever happened because it allowed us to give the characters dimension and have them grow. Literally grow because if we do a second season, everyone will be four months or five months older than what they were when the first season began. If we are on for many years, God willing, we’d see them get older. We’d see Bill get older, we’d see Kevin get older, we’d see Maureen get older. They’d grow and change and things that happened to them in earlier episodes would carry on. So that thing that happened to Bill in that 5th episode you tweeted about (a sex scene), that’s going to be with him forever. That will absolutely color everything moving forward, his relationship with his parents, his feelings about what sex is, that’s there. That’s now part of his make up. I’m so glad we ended up doing it that way.”
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