HitFix Interview: ‘The Life and Times of Tim’ creator Steve Dildarian

02.17.10 8 years ago


It’s tempting to think of Steve Dildarian as being a live action version of Tim, the hard-luck hero of the HBO comedy “The Life and Times of Tim.”

Dildarian certainly sounds a lot like his protagonist, who has a tendency to get into awkward situations with hookers, priests and homeless people alike.

But while Tim is stuck in an unrewarding, frequently jeopardized job, Dildarian transitioned from a wildly successful career in advertising — his commercials for clients ranging from Budweiser to Staples to Little Caesars earned 35 Clios — to the successful short “Angry Unpaid Hooker,” which became the basis for “The Life and Times of Tim.”

“The Life and Times of Tim” returns to HBO on Friday (Feb. 19) night with a few flashier voices — early episodes include Will Forte and Philip Baker Hall, along with the returning stars — and a tiny bit of extra animation polish. But mostly, the formula remains intact: Through no fault of his own, ridiculous things happen around Tim and hilarious consequences ensue.

HitFix caught up with Dildarian to talk about the new season of “The Life and Times of Tim,” whether Tim can ever get too humiliated and whether the show can ever look too professional.

The interview is after the break and it helps if you imagine Dildarian doing all of his responses with his Tim voice.

HitFix: The show had a long gestation from its start as a short film before it finally made it onto HBO for its first season. When you knew you were going to be able to do a second season, how did you approach things differently?

Steve Dildarian: The learning curve was so sharp in Season One. Not only did this start as a short film, but I was self-taught as an animator, so I really started with no knowledge. Making Season One, we learned a lot the hard way. Coming into Season Two, just by having the benefit of a year under our belt, I think the drawing just got a little bit tighter, the animation has just a little bit more energy, everything about it. We wanted to stay true to the naive style, but at the same time bump it up a notch, just that little extra polish. I don’t even know if people see it as much as I do, but it’s a better and more fully realized version of the show this year.

HitFix: It’s not like it’s suddenly become Classic Disney or Pixar or anything, but you definitely can see more polish to the animation. How would you define how things have changed?

SD: In some cases it’s the artwork and in some cases it’s the animation. With the artwork, it just tries to have a little more nuance. The show is so reality-based that it’s almost a shame that the artwork doesn’t pay that off just a little, like infuses a little more sense of being in Manhattan in the modern day, so it’s a small step in that direction where there’s just occasionally a little more depth, a little more grit. If it stays too simplistic, you never really creative a mood. On the animation side of it, our goal was really just to energize it. The show will always be an understated, slow-paced thing, but we wanted to step up the energy just a little and some of that’s in the writing and some is in the animation. It can be just going for more poses. Obviously we’re limited. Nobody ever walks in the show, there isn’t a lot of motion, but a little goes a long way with us, so the more time that’s spent on the way someone dances, if that ever happens, pushes someone. A little goes a long way when only one thing on the screen is moving at one time.

HitFix: I like how you’re emphasizing “a little,” given how much of the show’s charm comes from its roughness. Is there any way that “Tim” could become *too* polished and lose some charm?

SD: Well yeah and hopefully we’re not at that point yet. I was very conscious of not doing that, because I didn’t feel like there was anything to fix, as much as to do the best version of this show. I’m pretty strict with anyone on our crew when people start to draw too well or draw some in-betweens in the animation. I think it will be clear when or if we ever to that point. Hopefully we’re not there.

HitFix: Oh no. Don’t worry! You’re still safe. But how much bigger is the production? How many more are you?

SD: We’re not that much bigger, actually. Our production is, I think, about 25 people. It’s kind like three or four people in each department: Three or four illustrators, three animators, two editors, three writers. It’s all pretty tight-knit. Production doesn’t get much bigger. Adding three people is a pretty big addition for us.

HitFix: Are you also more confident in the storytelling process for this format?

SD: We feel a lot better about that, if only because we brought in some extra writers this year. Season One, I wrote every single segment myself. On one hand that’s good, because it lets you get the voice of the show, but it was daunting process, especially when we do two per half-hour. Bringing in some of our writers who were around for Season One to actually write some scripts has helped a lot, because suddenly the storytelling comes out of a fresher angle and it’s not always falling into the rut that we wanted to avoid of Tim always getting into trouble. There can be a formula that develops. I’m really happy with what we’ve done this year where we’ve come at it from some new angles and we’ve let some other characters take stories every once in a while. This year Stu has an episode or two that are about him. Ronnie has an episode about him. Debbie has one about her. We’re really happy with the way that we’re adding depth to the characters and depth to the world and it’s not always being, “Well how’s Tim getting into trouble this week?”

HitFix: There are also little hints at progressing plotlines this year, at serialization, with the Tim-Amy relationship. Was arcing the stories a little bit more something you were hoping to advance with?

SD: Everything is like a step in that direction. The first year, I don’t think there was any hint at serialization. Now there’s a little of it. At the beginning of the season, there’s a little thread about them being broken up and by Week Three back together and it’s business as usual. And toward the end, we build to him getting fired. We don’t do a ton of that. I don’t think that if you ever miss a week of “Tim” you’re gonna feel lost and not know what’s going on. But for the same reason I like to add nuance to the drawings and the illustrations, adding a little story arc does the same thing. It makes these people feel real and the world feel real and not feel like we’re just servicing a joke.

HitFix: Are you still comfortable with the 15 minute story structure? Or is this evolution a prelude to telling half-hour stories?

SD: That keeps coming up, only be we sort of can do it. Whether we need to or want to is a different conversation. In the beginning, I don’t think that was an option. The nature of the writing and the nature of the animation meant that it had to be short. It was a short film, don’t mess it up — that was kinda the mentality. Now, I think we’re at a point where we could pull off a normal half-hour structure and just add a B-story, but I think we’re comfortable with the way we’re doing it. It feels unique to this show. Well, not “unique,” but it feels appropriate, so I don’t think we’re going mess with it any time soon.

HitFix: And in the past year or year-and-a-half since the show premiere, have people been coming up to you and giving you their own Tim-style workplace stories?

SD: I get a lot of that. The reality of it is that my whole year in production is so busy, I’m in that office all the time and I don’t get out enough to have other people approach me and tell me. But anybody who ever has anything weird happen to them, they have a Tim story to tell. That’s good, but unfortunately it’s not always easy to turn an awkward moment into a script.

HitFix: Do you guys have rules for exactly how much humiliation Tim can stand?

SD: Yeah, I think that stuff edits itself as we decide what stories we want to tell and what outlines we choose to pursue. The way I approach it is that you can’t get too outlandish and you can’t get too big, because it’s always put through Tim’s perspective, Tim’s filter on the world. If this very strange thing happened, if this very strange person enters your life, who would the normal, average person react? So that’s my attitude with the writing. No matter what happens, the world can be pretty ridiculous and people be pretty ridiculous, but how would you react? That’s an easy filter to put any story through. You can have the craziest thing happen and Tim’s reaction is unflinching. It’ll never change. It’ll just be, “What is the logical way to process this information?” I think that’s what grounds a lot of these stories. They feel crazy on paper, but when you look at the character’s face and hear the voice that’s coming out of his mouth, it excuse a lot of pretty insane stuff.

HitFix: Can Tim evolve as a character? Is Tim evolving as a person?

SD:  I think so. He’s 25 years old on the show, so that works both ways. It does allow him to change and learn and grow, if you choose to go there, and it forgives a lot of the messed up stuff that he does. If he were a middle-aged guy, I don’t think he’d be quite as charming and you’d assume he’s not going to change. Tim’s at the point in life where people are figuring out who they are and where they fit into the world and I think his age plays a big part in why people like him.

HitFix: It’s always hard to describe Tim, because he doesn’t quite fit into the archetypes that Hollywood loves. He’s not a “slacker” or a “hipster” or any of those easy pigeon-holes. How do you think of Tim?

SD: I definitely wouldn’t use any of those descriptions, no. In my head, maybe it’s not the way everyone sees the character, I see him as the most sane, most normal guy in the room. No matter what happens, it’s always someone else influencing his decision-making. It’s always someone else introducing temptations, prompting him to do the wrong thing or the strange thing. He never drives the story. He’s always reacting to it. Like I said before, he’s the most normal guy in the room, so how would an average person react to some really messed up stuff happening? I know it’s not the most sexy character description, but I just see him as painfully normal.

HitFix: Tim’s voice is obviously a bit you, but not exactly. Are you getting more comfortable as a voice actor?

SD: Like the rest of it, I taught myself that. I was never an actor. I had done one or two random projects in my advertising career, but I’ve learned so much from these actors and I’ve gotten to work with so many great people, especially this season. I’ve learned a lot about improv, when it works and when it doesn’t, how to control it, who as an actor listens and who doesn’t. A lot of people, they get in that booth and they think that all hell’s gonna break loose and I don’t think they realize how controlled it needs to be. I’ve learned that. I was never able to analyze my own performance that way I can now. I’ve realized why certain actors work. I think I’m very in control of what I do in there now. I know how to listen, how to make it real and how not to go to jokes, but to go for a sense of reality. It’s been ridiculous this year. We’ve had Elliott Gould come in, Alfred Molina, comic guys like Will Forte and Aziz Ansari. It’s been a real learning experience for me.

HitFix: How much freedom do you allow in the booth? How do you make improv a part of the game?

SD: It sounds like it’s an uncontrolled melee, but I have the storybeats pretty nailed down in my head. So the improv we do is really more like paraphrasing. We never go off on tangents or stray from the story. It’s just finding a fresh way to say those same lines every take and that’s what keeps the actors on their toes, keeps them listening. If improv gets reckless, you can feel it. A lot of shows try to do that, I find. When improv is done sloppily. It betrays the story. It can slow down the energy of the story you’re telling. This stuff is written very tight, so when I try to keep the tightness, just with different words coming out every time. I’m a slave to the beats of the story, not to the words we use to tell the story.

HitFix: Have you ever talked to any of the other primetime animation giants about how differently they might do it? The Seth MacFarlanes or the Adult Swim guys?

SD: No I haven’t and there’s really no reason for that, other than that I don’t know any of them. I’m not honestly a real student of animation. I never was into it all that much. I don’t really watch any animated shows. What I enjoy about doing this is not really relevant to animation, it’s relevant to storytelling and writing and acting. I don’t necessarily consider myself part of the animation world. So if I was ever to ask advice, it could be from any actor or showrunner or writer. I wouldn’t necessarily ask an animate. I don’t want to say that the wrong way, but animation’s not really my world.

HitFix: I guess it’s about who you see as your contemporaries. So you see yourself as aspiring more to a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” sort of aesthetic only animated, rather than the FOX Sunday shows?

SD: Oh, very much so. If I ever wanted to pick someone’s brain, like Larry David would obviously be the most relevant. When I pitched our show, I always said there was no reason why this has to be animated. It might as well be live action. We’re not going to take advantage of the animated medium in any way. So with that as a starting point, I don’t necessarily look to animators for ideas on how to pull it off. It was almost a rule
that we didn’t want anybody who had any animation experience. Including our animators. We animate a lot in Final Cut Pro, so what I really needed was editors more than animators. I found a lot of animators bring a lot of baggage to the party, just that there’s a certain way of doing things in that world that’s a little hard to unlearn.

HitFix: At this point, what is HBO’s involvement in the process?

SD: They’re probably most involved in the writing. They’re opinionated and very helpful in that. And then watching the animatics, those are the two big times that they weight in, seeing that first cut and seeing that first cut. They’re great.

HitFix: Have you ever had to deal with ratings numbers? Do you know what got you this second season or what would trigger a third season?

SD: That’s the great thing about being on HBO. The ratings were not high numbers by any stretch and when when I first heard them, I was like “Oh man. That can’t be good.” But they didn’t care. They were more concerned about the reviews and they were very happy with the critical acclaim that we were getting. They said that as long as enough people love it — They don’t want a tepid response, as long as there’s a core audience that loves it — they have the luxury of giving it time to find its audience and to develop into the best version of the show it can be… I think they just believed in it on a gut level to renew it, so I’m not sure what to gauge a possible third on. … We’re in good company this year with Ricky Gervais and Bill Maher and earlier on a Friday night. I think it’s a better shot this year of attracting a big audience.

HitFix: So you’re geared up and ready for a third season, story-wise?

SD: Absolutely. I feel like it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the stories we can tell. The world is just so rich. It’s an average young guy in New York City. That’s a never-ending well of great characters to introduce. And the relationship is just in its early stages with him and Amy. They’re just dating. They’re 25 years old. I can’t picture running out of material any time soon.

HitFix: Could you see tapping into the well of what would happen if this guy got married, if this guy became a father?

SD: It’s hard to answer that question now, because all I know is where we’re at. As far as the story aspects of it, I’m not necessarily drawn to that. There’s no shortage of shows that have done that and covered that sort of relationship humor or time-in-your-life humor. This, to me, is a little more universal. It’s more of an attitude of a person against the world. That’s why we introduce so many odd characters. Each episode tends to have somebody come and go — a doctor, a priest, a homeless guy a hooker. I think the spirit of the show is there. You would never dive head-first into the humor of being engaged, or the in-laws. I don’t get a lot out of that personally. I think if anything we could touch on it, but it would be the backdrop to where he’s at in life and not necessarily where we mine the humor from. If we ever did a wedding episode, somehow you’d get a stripper in there. That’s what the show wants to be about and it never wants to go to the other place.

“The Life and Times of Tim” returns to HBO on Friday, February 19 at 9:30 p.m.

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