Good Men Project contributor Jordan Pedersen talks with Men of a Certain Age co-creator Mike Royce about what strikes a chord with men, where it fits into the TV landscape, and how Mike’s life experiences come to bear on the writing process.
One of the things that I pointed out in my first write-up of the season was that I really liked that it wasn’t just weird wish-fulfillment for middle-aged men. I think the Scott Bakula character is sort of a stand-in for that.
As the season goes on, he certainly is that guy that we all know who hasn’t gotten married either yet or ever. But we’re trying to do as realistic a version of it and also show some growth so that he becomes a real person, so it’s not just wish-fulfillment because that gets not only old fast but it’s, uh, creepy.
I had always thought there were some relationship to Mad Men and some relationship to Everybody Loves Raymond. How do you see those three shows relating?
Mad Men is certainly about a guy also in his own weird identity crisis and midlife crisis because he’s that age. I think it’s even more magnified because in that time, the different ways you could be a human being were expanding exponentially in a social way. I’ve never really thought about it that way, but on Everybody Loves Raymond, the whole show was written around the writers coming in and talking about basically what was going on in our lives mostly from a family and marriage standpoint.
Our writing approach very much stems from Everybody Loves Raymond, as far as process goes. It’s not the same subject matter, but we feel like a lot of people can relate to a situation in which you are at a point in your life where you’re sort of like, “Shit or get off the pot” on every level because you’re about to be an old man. It’s really about that time in your life where you’re not an old man yet, but you see old man. You see him coming. You’re not at the end of the tunnel, but you see what’s at the end of the tunnel. And therefore, you need to start deciding if your life is the way you want it to be. It accelerates your decision-making; it sometimes panics you into some terrible decisions. In my head, it’s like an adult teenagerhood.
I know you mentioned that you were sorta between projects, but did Ray come to you with the idea for something very close to what Men of a Certain Age ended up being, or was it something different?
We came up with the idea together because he hadn’t really found what he wanted to do next. He had done a couple of independent movies and stuff like that. I didn’t know what was gonna happen at all, so we got together kinda because he was a little dissatisfied with where he was in the movie world and thought that we could write a movie together, and I was game. We didn’t have any idea of any kind. It was literally like, “Let’s get together and just talk about anything.” So when we got together, we just started talking, and all we were talking about were these midlife feelings. I was up half the night, so was he. We both just had, especially him, this enormous success, and I guess that’s it? Is that it? Is it over? Is that the end of everything that was?
And at the same time, did we do everything we wanted to do? Family-wise, he started to feel the coming of the empty-nest syndrome. I’m further away from that. He was having all kinds of things going on with his kids that were not in any way relatable to what was happening on Everybody Loves Raymond. And so it just became a thing like, well, let’s write a movie about this, so we started to write the movie and we just started talking about the characters, and the characters all felt like they lent [themselves] to a series, like there were stories here.
One thing I really like about the show—if Terry is sort of a stand-in for the lothario but he’s a little more complex than that—I think that Owen is not an archetype at all. He doesn’t seem to fit any stock character. So did you contact Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula first, and then build the characters around them, or how did they come about?
The casting came way after we had the script. We had the script all written, we actually had it over at HBO, and we wrote the whole script over there. They ended up passing on it. There was sort of a changing of the guard, leadership-wise, and we sort of lost some of the people who were into what we were doing. And then there was a writers’ strike. It was quite an odyssey. We went to TNT with the script. They really liked what we had, and then we began the whole making of the pilot and casting.
As far as Owen goes, that’s really an amalgam of one of my best friends growing up: his dad owns a car dealership, his grandfather started it, his father then took it over, and then my friend was in line to take it over, essentially, and decided that he didn’t wanna do that. My friend has helped me flesh out the car dealership aspect, him and a couple other guys, one guy who works on the show who knows that world really well. I guess the point is, the dynamic is really created by Ray and me, but the situation came out of my friend’s situation. We just sorta took it and ran with it.
Is there more of you in a particular character, or is Joe sort of an amalgam of you and Ray?
Certainly there are parts of Joe that are Ray, there are certain aspects of Ray’s personality that we’ve taken and, again, totally ran with them. Ray makes mind bets with himself. And Ray actually had a little gambling situation, not a huge one, this is like 20 years ago. Again, we sort of took those parts of him that are real and made them, I don’t wanna say exaggerated, but we made them into a different person. Sort of fantasizing about what would happen if a guy were more like this or more like that, but he’s coming from a place that he can somewhat relate to.
Even the fact that he’s a divorced guy, obviously [Ray] is not divorced, he’s happily married for almost 25 years now, but it’s sort of like, “Well, what would happen if he was?” He would be this way, he would be a guy who didn’t really know what he was doing in the dating world but would have to get used to it. So in that way he can relate to it even though it’s not his actual situation. At the same time, Joe and Sonia [Joe’s ex-wife on the show] in a certain way [comes from my experience]. I mean, my parents were together for as long as they were before they split up, 20-some years—it kinda happened very suddenly to me. Because I had been off at college, and so that part of Joe’s character kind of comes from my situation anyway. This guy’s sort of thrown out into the world. It’s not my situation but my father’s situation, my mother’s situation. So yeah, it’s a big combination.
This is a question that I’ve wondered about for a while. You sort of went for it in terms of wanting to be a TV writer/comedian, and then ended up having tremendous success at it. And so how do you sort of relate to guys like Joe or Terry, who either decided not to go for it or went for it and it didn’t turn out they way they wanted it to? Did you channel some of the insecurity following up a show like Everybody Loves Raymond into that or what?
Luckily, both Ray and I weren’t successful until we were almost 40 [laughs]. So it didn’t take much imagination to think, “What’s gonna happen if this doesn’t work out?” I started working on Everybody Loves Raymond when I was in my late 30s. He started the show when he was in his late 30s.
I was a struggling stand-up comedian for a very long time. I would say I was more successful than Terry. By the time I’d gotten done, I had been on Conan, I was working very regularly. But after I even started working pretty regularly after seven or eight years, you get into your 30s and you start to think ahead. And you go, “Well, what, am I gonna be on a cruise ship when I’m 60? How does this all play out?”
Either you gotta make it, or you don’t. What’s in between is what’s interesting. And we were sort of interested in that with Terry. He clearly did some work, he wasn’t a guy who was fooling himself. He has talent, he’s not an idiot who thinks he’s an actor but he’s not. He just got beaten down because, in this business, there’s one jillion actors and not one jillion roles. There’s just a very small window of being able to make your living at it. As time goes by, especially in Hollywood, youth is at a premium and your chances for continuing success get smaller and smaller. You’re at this point when you’re 40, 50, you really don’t have any other skills. And now you’re kinda trapped. Now what happens? It doesn’t mean that you wasted your life. It just means, “Well, OK, I need to make a decision.”
The point is that Ray and I were both pretty close to both of those situations for a plenty good amount of time. We didn’t graduate from college and go to work somewhere at a great show-business job of any kind. [Ray] was living in his mom’s basement until he was married. And he got married at 29. So he was living in his mom’s basement until he was 29, then he got married and moved in with his wife, and then was still a successful but not rich stand-up comedian for a very long time before he got to be the incredible jillionaire Ray Romano.
I can’t even tell you how good it makes me feel that you didn’t have, like, a Fulbright for drama out of school. I don’t know if you did. Did you?
No, no [laughs]. I went to Ithaca College, and my senior year, I was incredibly depressed, much of it because I felt like, I’ve now gone through my whole college career, and I’m not coming out with, like, the Spielberg project that some studio’s gonna [snatch up]. Even the wunderkinds are gonna have a hard time; I’m not even a wunderkind. I’m just some douchebag with nothing. I don’t have a script; I don’t have a film. I had a couple of short films, but they’re nothing you can go, “So hey, hire me.” I felt like I wasted my whole thing. And then I went to New York, and I basically threw it all away just to be a standup comedian because that was kinda what I always wanted to do anyway. And I figured, “Well, I might as well try it now while I’m wasting everybody’s money.”
So do you think these characters will feel like they’ve failed if they don’t fundamentally change themselves, or do you think they can settle into a groove? Like Joe’s bid for the senior tour. Is he gonna feel like he’s failed? Or can he settle into the nook that he’s carved out for himself?
The pilot was them sort of waking up to this question, this situation, “What am I gonna do? I’m aware now that maybe I’m dissatisfied on maybe more than one level with my life.” And then the series is what they do about it, which usually means two steps forward, one step back, one step forward, two steps back. And so the end of the series is them getting through this major chunk of this sort of stuff. At the same time, every episode is about some kind of victory or sometimes it’s not a victory of them trying to achieve this stuff. It can’t come down to one specific thing—”Did I fail or did I succeed?” Even with big things like the senior tour. It’s really about, “How did I handle the whole of it? Am I in a place that I’m happy? Am I happy, basically?”
[At this point in the interview, Mike steps away to talk to someone, presumably co-creator Ray Romano, and mentions that Ray is in the process of editing an episode of the show. I ask Mike what role Ray plays in the editing process.]
He wears all the hats on the show. He is in no way just in name only a writer or an editor. He’s actually a very good editor. He and [Raymond writer] Phil Rosenthal edited every Everybody Loves Raymond, along with the editor, Pat Barnett. We kinda have a similar process here. He’ll do a pass, I’ll do a pass, exchange notes, sometimes we sit in there together. But generally speaking, we basically both do everything. When he’s on camera, I have to handle certain aspects of the show that he can’t logistically handle. But other than that, we’re both doing everything.
One thing that I think is really excellent about the show is the banter between the three guys. All the scenes at the breakfast place are wonderful. And the show seems to get male camaraderie across in a better way than most other shows on TV do.
I appreciate that. On our show, those guys make what we’re writing for them work. Because we’re trying to make it realistic-sounding. At the same time, we don’t want people to just feel like they’rewatching a formless conversation with no point. Obviously, we try to make sure that every conversation still drives the story even though we take our little tangents and doglegs and stuff like that. But those guys didn’t know each other when they first started the show, they had never met. And when they started at the diner, we did a few takes, and we asked them to really to stick to the script. I think sometimes there’s a bit of a mistaken impression that they’re improvising. They really do stick to the script. All we encourage is just that they make it feel conversational.
I like the idea that these guys’ conversations seem to get them through their trials, that the diner is sort of a safe haven. All three of them go out and try to do these new things and try to hack it in their new roles, and then they come back and sort of talk shop about it. I think that’s very true to life. Do you think that there are men who don’t speak as frankly about the things that [these men] talk about?
I do think that there’s room for all types of man talk [laughs]. We throw plenty of crudities in once in a while, depending on what the conversation is about. I’m always hesitant to say, “The way our men talk is the way men talk.” Our main thing is we’re just trying to be, with the men and the women for that matter, we’re just trying to be specific to the character and hopefully let the chips fall where they may. I think you get in trouble if you do a show where you’re like, “This is how men feel.” Then you’re just generalizing. So if everybody’s being specific in the scene, then it’s gonna feel real. That’s the way these guys talk. Again, hopefully people relate to it because they know people like that or they are like that themselves.
I know you have female writers on the show, and I know there are a few episodes where the head writer was female. How do you incorporate a female perspective?
As far as the women writers on our show, the funny thing is it’s the young writers on the show you gotta worry about [laughs]. I’m joking, really. The youth had nothing to do with it. And the woman aspect had nothing to do with it. I only say that because they get to know the characters, and then they’re either good writers or they’re not good writers or somewhere in between.
And the women on the show: I really do like the way they deal with the Melissa character—it was sort of like saying, yes, men of a certain age have these issues, but so do women of the same age. But how do you see the way that men and women deal with this period as being different? Or do they go through a similar thing at different times?
I guess I would say that in a perfect world, we would have enough time to tell a lot more stories, and they would include women. And I actually hope as the series goes along, we’re able to expand. There’s obviously a story to tell there with Melissa, who worked for a long time, then had kids, and now is trying to get back in. That’s a pretty relatable situation. And we’re taking some opportunities this year to tell her story too. And with any luck, we’ll have more opportunities. And even Penelope Ann Miller’s character, Sonia, and there’s others who are growing in size on the show. My fantasy at some point is we do a Women of a Certain Age episode where we just concentrate on three of the main women. And have some episode where the guys are the supporting characters.
Yeah, that’s a great thing to be able to do. But I feel like that’s a difficult point to get to.
That’s a fourth- or fifth-season deal.
It’s almost possible to read every show on television as being a recession show. It sounds like you were writing the show maybe in the early days of the Great Economic Clusterfuck of the Latter Aughts, but did it factor in in any way?
It really didn’t, only because we started conceiving it in 2006. The script honestly was written and then the world fell apart. Let me get my trajectory right. We wrote it in 2007, basically got the script done, then there was a writer’s strike, so we had the script, then we filmed the pilot in 2008. And we finished shooting the pilot at the end of August of 2008, and then in September/October, that’s when the financial world fell off a cliff. We don’t put a focus on that, only because sometimes the more you talk about money, it actually gets a little boring in a way. It just has to be about the emotional stakes more than it has to be about the money. The money is sometimes representative of emotional stakes.
How do you see the guys’ kids developing as they age and as they get trickier and trickier to deal with?
In some ways, there’s an interesting dynamic with a guy who’s around his kids all the time trying to catch up with what they’re doing, at the same time that they’re really flying the coop. And it’s a very relatable situation. Obviously there are lots of people in that situation. In a way, Albert and Joe are kind of tied in a certain sense: Joe going through his thing, a midlife crisis, And Albert’s about to be a teenager. There are a lot of similarities, even though they play out in different ways. And in some ways, I think each one is the key to the other’s happiness and success. There’s sort of a symbiotic thing there.