Jordan Pedersen talks to Mark Stegemann, a writer and producer for Ray Romano’s Men of a Certain Age, about comedy, drama and writing real-life.
Can you explain your role on Men of a Certain Age?
First and foremost, I’m just another one of the writing staff. I’m there to generate ideas [with them] and to help improve upon other ideas that come up from the rest of the staff and basically turn what’s maybe a good one line idea into a full story that would work for our show. That’s probably 98 percent of my job description. The other 2 [percent] is basically because [creators] Mike [Royce] and Ray [Romano] are so busy, it’s covering stuff that they can’t be at all the time. And working as their eyes and ears on set when they’re too busy in editing. Or if they need some stuff to get taken care of in editing, I can try to accomplish that. Just keep the ship moving because production on a TV show moves so fast, and Mike and Ray can only be in so many places at once. Since I’ve been there from the beginning, I try to be basically Mike and Ray’s mouthpiece when they can’t be around. That’s the majority of it, yeah.
So that’s what it means when it says on IMDb that you’re the “co-executive producer” on the show.
It’s really just a title. More than anything, it is a mark of experience. You get these little bumps every year that [you work] on a show. So it lets people know that I’ve been around for a while, that I’m not new to this job. I’ve been working in TV for ten years now, and [I] understand production and what it takes to get a show done.
As far as the scripts that you’ve written, you had the “Same as the Old Boss” episode of the season.
Which you didn’t like all that much (laughs).
No I did! God I felt so bad about that!
No it’s fine! (laughs) It was a very fair review; I really enjoyed it.
Overall, the show’s concerned with these guys that are sort of staring into the abyss of late middle-agedom: “Is it over? Am I done? Have I done all the things I’m gonna do in my life?” But, episode to episode, they have different specific concerns. So where did the focus for “Same as the Old Boss” come out of?
For Owen (Andre Braugher), it’s basically a “be careful what you wish for” story. And that just came out of, “what’s the next step for Owen?” The whole first season is just him saying, “I want this job, I want this job, my father won’t give it to me.” And so, at the end, his father (Richard Gant) says, “Here, fine, take it.” And so then, our biggest conversations were, “Well now what happens?” What does that entail that he didn’t even realize? Because until you’re the boss, you don’t realize … everybody thinks they could do their boss’s job, and then when you get to be the boss, it’s like, “Holy shit this is actually hard. Why don’t any of these idiots help me?” (laughs) Joe (Ray Romano) was basically just, “OK you’ve decided to be this golfer. How hard is this gonna be?” We also had plans to set up some stuff for Albert (Braeden Lemasters), his son. Episode 2 was supposed to be the laying of some seeds [for a future storyline for him]. We had plans to do more with Albert towards the end of the season but it wound up not really fitting. Hopefully, we’ll get to them in Season 3.
“Same as the Old Boss” was the one where he went to the party, and his dad got pissed at him, right?
Right, and it was also [Joe] getting too involved with golf and realizing, “I’ve got other responsibilities here that are gonna make this really hard to just be selfish and follow the dream.” And it was supposed to be, here’s this perfect little kid who’s sort of scared of the world. And now he’s getting into this kind of trouble and hooking up with maybe not the best kinds of friends at school. And how responsible is Joe as a dad for this new behavior? Either from his divorce, or his decision to put golf before everything else?
Complicating things is that Joe seems weirdly proud of Albert for striking out on his own. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. And it’s a tricky thing because he’s definitely not proud that the kid went and drank. And he’s not proud that the kid was lying to him. So it’s not so much that he’s proud, but he gets some hope that, “Hey this is a kid who couldn’t get on a bus.” And now he’s overcoming this anxiety thing that Joe thought was gonna be a big problem for him. When Albert says, “I went there by myself. My friends didn’t drag me there; I did it on my own.” That’s a revelation for Joe. Because that’s a new behavior for the kid. You know it’s that challenge of parenting, which I’m not a parent, but I have parents (laughs). And you know, you want your kids to go out and take on the world, but you’re always worried that that could go badly. But for Joe … in that moment, he sees the growth. And it’s just a sly smile, because, well, on a man to man level, he’s proud of him but on a man to son level, he still has to send him to his room.
You said, “I’m not a parent, but I have parents.” How do you reconcile that when Ray and Mike have kids, and they bring that to the table? But your storyline with Albert seemed very genuine and from the heart. Is that something [anxiety] you dealt with as a kid, or was that something that came out of the writing process with the whole staff?
It’s a little bit of both, but for that one and for the script I did the year before, “Powerless” … I guess all we can do is write from whichever character or part of the story we’re connecting with in that moment. So I can understand that a parent is concerned for a kid and wants him to do stuff, and then would be concerned that he drank. But what I really connected with more was … this is a kid who’s not quite sure of himself and is forced to go into the world, and gets caught up in something bigger than himself and feels OK about it and feels excited about it. And then maybe goes too far. And so, for me, the parts of that episode I connected with the most were when the kid has to walk into the dance by himself. That’s what I get.
What attracted you to Men of a Certain Age in the first place?
Um, they were offering me a job (laughs). Mostly. Well, I was a huge fan of Friday Night Lights, and so I had a meeting with Mike and Ray when they were looking to staff. And before the meeting, I had read the script and thought, “Oh this reads just like Friday Night Lights. It’s really real and not overly jokey, but still funny.” And then before the meeting, they had me sit in this room and watch the pilot. And it looked like Friday Night Lights, and so I was really excited about it and was looking to do a show that was more realistic. Because I’d been on Scrubs forever, and that was nothing but fun, but at a certain point … I was connecting more with the real stories on Scrubs than the fantasy “shit blowing up in peoples’ faces” stuff. And so this show came along, and I felt like I got it immediately.
And then, in fact, I had written something that I was planning to shoot as a short film. And Mike and Ray had read that, which is why I even had the meeting in the first place. And apparently they felt kind of the same, that I got it immediately. Because the thing I had written on my own wound up becoming the story in “Powerless” where Joe goes and talks to Lucy’s boyfriend in the car. And so they felt like, “Well here’s a guy who’s trying to write stuff that’s exploring the same areas as we are, the difficulty in everyday life.” What seems like a simple situation ends up not being that. Just basically, the challenges of day-to-day living, and trying to find as much humor in it and as much compassion for all sides in every story. So that’s what, as far as the show, I was really excited about. And aside from that, one of the very first scripts I ever wrote was an Everybody Loves Raymond because I’ve been a big fan of that show since the very beginning.
Was it a tough transition going from Scrubs, with all its absurd asides, to Men of a Certain Age?
No, not really. Because the thing that I loved about Scrubs was that it wasn’t just always “shit blowing up in peoples’ faces.” There was some heart and some character development, and those people had real lives that we tried to thread through the crazy circus of a world they lived in. But we did try to explore real stuff about relationships and parents and friends and husbands and wives and kids and girlfriends and everything else. So it wasn’t that I was just writing jokes and gags for eight years, and then someone suddenly said, “OK, now write a dramatic, heartfelt scene.” So no, it wasn’t hugely jarring. The first hour-long show I did after Scrubs was a show called Greek, and so really the bigger difference was just the hour-long format versus the half hour format. Which I thought would be a much easier transition. You know, just write 25 more pages and you’ll be done. But it was a little more to learn about how exactly that’s done. But I hope I was a quick study.
How’d you get involved in Greek?
They were looking for more comedy help. And so they knew I had left Scrubs right after the writers’ strike and had written a few things on my own. And they lost someone on their staff, and they were looking for someone to replace him. They were looking for some help with comedy stuff, and since I had Scrubs as a credit, that carried a lot of weight. They were all fans. And they were great people over there.
I will say I don’t know if I was a great fit on that show. I think they did a great job with that show, and they really tried to do as much as the network would let them get away with … that network being Disney, on a channel that’s audience is family-based. There’s only so much latitude you get to do any sort of real, I don’t wanna say depth, because they did get some depth. But any sort of grungy or dirty or ugly about life … no matter how universal some of that is, Disney doesn’t wanna show it. And they don’t think their audience wants to see it, and they’re probably right. Because they’re a huge, very successful company.
And even if they do show something grungy, then it has to be wrapped in a neat moral equation.
Exactly. And so when I say I wasn’t a great fit there, I probably wrote more outlines of drafts and scripts trying to give them what they wanted and also trying to be true to what I was trying to do. And that was a struggle. Even things as simple as, the brother and sister are the main characters on that show. The network was uncomfortable with them really being mean to each other. My argument was, I have a brother, and I have a sister, and [sometimes when we were younger, we were] mean to each other. And if one of the characters behaves inappropriately, I think it’s fair for the other one to respond as harshly as they want. And because they’re brothers and sisters, they have to work it out, and that’s interesting and that would be good. And the network was just nervous about it. Which made it hard to tell the kind of stories we tell on Men of a Certain Age, where we have the latitude to make these guys imperfect. That’s the biggest difference. And it has nothing to do with the creators of the show or anything as much as it has to do with who’s paying for it and what network it’s on and what audience those people are looking to get on their network.
If you had to describe the dramatic conflict of the show to somebody, what would you say?
I’d say it’s about guys who are expected to understand how the world works … trying to figure out how the world works. At its core, it’s three guys trying to figure out how they got where they’re at and why they aren’t where they thought they would be. And trying to figure out how this happened to them. And more importantly, they’re not giving up and they’re recalibrating. And they’re saying, “OK, I’m gonna try this again and try to be more aware of the mistakes I’ve made, and not repeat them.”
One of the things I really like about the show is how everything seems like a new thing. For a parent, in a real way, everything is new. So that makes the show a little more universal, even for guys who aren’t planning on changing their lives much.
Yeah, I think anyone who finds their day-to-day life sometimes difficult should understand this show. I’m ten years younger than these guys, I don’t have kids. I am married, but I don’t have kids. And I feel like I understand all of their struggles. Even the raising kids thing, I get how that’s a difficult situation for a character to be in. So that’s why I think the people who are watching the show are surprised how much they like it (laughs). Everyone keeps telling me, “I watch your show! I really like it!” And it always sounds like, “I don’t know why I like it, but I really like it.” There’s no helicopter chases or anything. It’s just, “Oh I really get that situation that guy’s in because I’ve been on one side or the other.” Like getting caught by your parents … you’ve either done the catching, or you’ve been caught. And you remember how your parents dealt with it. I’m thirty-nine, and I feel like I should have the world figured out (laughs). And the deal is, you never really do. New stuff comes at you, and you just have to roll with it.
I’m 24, and I feel the same way.
I felt the same way when I was 24, and I felt the same way when I was 14. The subject is different, but the question is the same: how do I know this is right? How do I do this? How come I’m the only one who can’t figure this out?
Which is such an ironically universal question. Everybody thinks they’re the only one who’s in this situation.
Absolutely. You look at all your friends, and they seem like they’ve got it figured out. They’re going forward with this plan they’ve had for their lives since they were twelve. And meanwhile, everyone goes home at night and is saying, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing (laughs). I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know how I’m gonna get to what I want.”
It’s clearly a universal struggle.
Yeah, and it’s hilarious! (laughs) At least it’s hilarious when it’s other peoples’ deal. Again, I don’t have kids, but I thought [“The Bad Guy”] was one of the funniest episodes all season. When [Joe] caught [his daughter and her boyfriend having sex]. If I had a daughter, and I walked in and saw some dude’s ass in my bathroom, I wouldn’t think it was funny at all, but when it’s his kid … (laughs) It’s what I love about the show. It’s just real stuff. And it’s a credit to Ray and Mike that they insist on it. The most unrealistic part of our show, as a golfer, is that Joe is going to be a professional golfer. Ray sweats over that so much, making sure that it doesn’t just become some magic thing where suddenly he’s great. He wants his character to get beat up by golf really badly, and I love it.
Everything feels very hard-fought. Like a version of The Wire, but not so depressing.
Exactly! You hit the nail on the head. That is the show that made me wanna do more realistic, dramatic stuff. Because that show just blows your mind. If I could do a quarter of what they’re doing, I’d consider myself a success.
What about the way Men of a Certain Age fits into the rest of the shows on television? Do you think “the men” from the show are like other characters on television right now? Or is your show doing something that isn’t really being done?
I don’t know that we’re doing anything different. I think we’re allowed a certain latitude that other shows maybe are not. If you’re doing a show like The Mentalist or Burn Notice, those shows have other things going on. They don’t have time for a guy to sit in a diner with his friends and talk about what different ass creams he’s using that week (laughs). Or how that makes him feel old. Those guys [The Mentalist and Burn Notice] have to be cool and finding bad guys and stuff like that. We can spend a whole episode with a guy pondering some sort of existential life question. Where we can do 24 minutes of “How did I get here?” in one week, they can do one minute in 24 episodes. And so maybe it seems like, “Whoa, this show’s so deep, and they’re spending so much time with their guys.” I think every writer on every show is making their best effort to give their characters depth. We just happen to be lucky enough to do a show where we can spend more time on it.