SP: What was the motivation behind writing Unorthodox? How long it take from concept to finished product?
DL: I guess I've always had some pretty major hang-ups with religion. When I was very young, my parents put me in an after school program at Chabad, where they approach the Bible as the literal word of God. This made absolutely no sense to me, but they were my teachers, and I had been taught to trust them. It created a cognitive dissonance in me that would one day lead me to write Unorthodox, so for that, I guess I should be thankful. I had originally conceived the show as "Malcom in the Middle" with Orthodox Jews, but the more I researched, the more I realized that this was going to be a much darker cable show. Before working on Unorthodox, I had never even heard of this ultra-conservative sect known as the Satmar. The more I learned, the more I realized that this was the story that needed to be told. The whole process took me about six months.
The contest judges agreed that the script was funny “without trying to be funny.” Do you think this is the best way to write comedy Or just the best approach to this type of concept?
First of all, thank you. I have always loved situational humor. I know this may be blasphemy to some, but I tend to think about funny situations, even before thinking about character. Once I have a funny situation, I think to myself, "what kind of person would have the funniest reaction to this situation?" Once you have a funny situation, and a character who will exploit that situation to its maximum comedic potential, you don't need jokes. I've written multi-camera sitcoms before, and it is really hard to make them feel real. The whole set-up/joke thing is not how real people talk. It comes across false. I think today's audiences are too mature for that. But then again, Two and a Half Men is still one of the highest rated comedies on TV, so what the hell do I know?
You also were a finalist of the 2010 Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition with a Curb Your Enthusiasm spec. Is TV comedy your preferred genre? Why TV?
It is, and here's why: I have ADD. It takes so much effort for me to sit down and watch a one hour show. Sitcoms are half-hour, self-contained stories that are pure escapism. That is not to say I don't like dramas. In fact, my fiance is a drama writer, and since we started dating, I have gotten hooked on "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Homeland," and "Game of Thrones." But I would much rather write something that is first and foremost funny. If it has some kind of message, or speaks to the human condition, bonus points, but more than anything, I think people just need to laugh.
Do you feel that more “edgy” writing (e.g. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, or even Modern Family) wins in the current television landscape? In other words, in your opinion, is this future of TV sitcoms?
Although I enjoy "edgy" shows like "It's Always Sunny," I don't think they're the future of sitcoms. I think more than anything, audiences want characters they can relate to. If you can relate to Frank, Dee, Dennis, or Mac, stop reading this and check yourself into the nearest mental health facility. With shows like "Sunny," audiences laugh at the characters, not with them. Modern Family, on the other hand, is a completely different story. If you can relate to Mitch, Phil, Alex, or Claire, congratulations, you're human! I think this is a show that will be around a long, long time.
What are some of your TV influences, past and present?
There's too many to name. From The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," to Seinfeld, to Community. I will say that I believe South Park to be the greatest example of social satire since Charlie Chaplin. South Park is the only show I can think of where they put out a movie and the show just got better! If you watch South Park from the beginning you can see an amazing progression. I can imagine Matt Stone and Trey Parker getting together around season three and saying "Whoa! People are actually watching this show about fat kids getting anal probes, and elephants f'ing pigs. Maybe we should throw in some kind of message." And for a while they did, and it was very obvious. At the end of each episode, Stan or Kyle would look to the camera and say, "I learned something today..." And that was their time to get on their political soap box. Around season seven, they did away with this technique and wove the messages seamlessly into the comedy. It has been amazing to watch that show progress. In my opinion, it's the only show in history that gets better and better every single year.
Any feature comedies in the works?
I have a couple ideas in the back of my mind, but right now I'm really focusing on my play. It's called Survivor's Guilt. It's about a struggling writer who can't get his novel published. After several rejections, he tries submitting it as a memoir and ends up getting some interest from a big time publisher. The only problem is the publisher thinks he's the 90-year-old Holocaust surviving protagonist, from whom the story is narrated. The publisher wants to meet the man who he thinks is the author, and so the novelist must find an actor to play the part of his Holocaust survivor. Look for it in a tiny black box theater near you!
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