Under any circumstances, the press tour panel for FOX’s “Dads” was going to be an awkward affair. The live-action comedy from Seth MacFarlane and fellow “Family Guy” writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild stars Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi as best friends and business partners whose estranged fathers (Peter Riegert and Martin Mull) breeze into town and offend everyone with their old-school attitudes. Among other gags, it has Mull dubbing a boxing video game “Punch the Puerto Rican,” has Riegert offended by being mistaken for the Eric Stoltz character in “Mask,” and has Green and Ribisi convincing an employee played by Brenda Song to dress up like a giggling anime schoolgirl to impress a group of Asian investors.
It is, for those jokes and so many others, pretty universally the least popular fall pilot among the TCA. And then FOX president Kevin Reilly stoked the flames in his executive session by saying, “Do I think all the jokes right now are in calibration in the pilot? I don”t.” He also begged the TCA’s patience on the matter, reading excerpts of scathing reviews for “The Big Bang Theory” pilot. (That is, indeed, a show many critics hated at the start but have come to like, but it wasn’t one being dinged for racism back in 2007.)
“If this show still (has) low hanging-fruit jokes that seem in bad taste and haven”t been earned with intelligence,” Reilly said, “and the characters have not become full blown over the course of the next summer months – number 1, the show”s not going to work. And number 2, you should take it to task, and we”ll talk about that in January.”
So by the time the “Dads” cast and creative team (which included comedy veteran Mike Scully, who once ran “The Simpsons” and has worked on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Parks and Recreation” and other hits) arrived late in the day, we had a pilot that many in the room found offensive, as well as one even the head of the network only partly defended.
The panelists knew what kind of room they were walking into, though. This wasn’t like the “2 Broke Girls” fiasco from a few tours back, where creator Michael Patrick King was completely unprepared for, and defiant about, questions about ethnic stereotyping. Everyone on the stage knew what was coming, and they had answers at the ready.
Early on, for instance, Sulkin acknowledged, “In the pilot, we all noticed some things that we’d like to change or tweak moving forward. We ideally want to keep it insulting and irreverent, but the most important thing is that it’s funny. If we missed the mark a few times in the pilot, I think we’re aiming to hit it better.”
Scully noted the evolving nature of good and bad taste, and how Homer Simpson strangling Bart was once controversial and “is now considered just a lovable act of child abuse,” and noted that context is everything. When Mr. Burns says something racist, or Krusty dusts off an old routine full of outdated racial stereotypes, it makes sense because of context; “If Marge said it, it would be wrong.”
So far, so good. Then Green attempted to set the bar far higher than “Dads” – at least the version suggested by the pilot – can clear by comparing the show’s more controversial moments to “All in the Family” or “The Jeffersons,” and the way those landmark ’70s sitcoms tackled race relations, the war in Vietnam, and other hot-button topics.
“I think that we’ve become a really careful culture,” Green said. “I’ve had the weirdest conversations with people about what they feel is racist.”
Perhaps realizing their leading man had overreached, Sulkin joked, “I think having Brenda in that (schoolgirl) costume is our anti-Vietnam stance.”
“We don’t want the show to be the racial insult comedy show,” said Scully. “It’s a comedy about fathers and sons, and you want to strike that relateable thing, and they’re telling stories about their dads and the inappropriate things they do,but also how that then slips out through you… As you get older, you sometimes find things slipping out of you, and you go, ‘Oh, shit, that’s my dad coming out.'”
“It’s the racist canary in the coal mine,” added Wellesley. “‘That’s my dad. Are we becoming those guys?'”
Sulkin admitted, “That was something that we didn’t think was a socially provocative moment… We thought it would lead to a funny scene. And if that didn’t land with you guys or a lot of people, we understand that. We’re trying to learn the things that land and don’t, and learn from that and change it in upcoming shows.”
Vanessa Minnillo, who plays Ribisi’s wife, said she grew up in Charleston, SC dealing with a lot of racial prejudice and misunderstanding and enjoyed the way the pilot shines a light on that kind of boorish, insensitive behavior.
“To be fair,” added Green, “these are some pretty disparaging portraits of white men.”
Scully insisted he didn’t find the “Punch the Puerto Rican” joke offensive, and Mull said, “When I delivered the line, I felt no animus whatsoever.”
“I worked on ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ which is not considered by any means an offensive show, but we did an episode where Frank Barone used the word “Chinaman” twice in telling a story about the war,” Scully recalled. “There was no flak about it. It was real, out of his mouth. If Ray said it, it would be wrong, because Ray comes from a different generation. I always go back to context for material like this. Sometimes, when you’re trying to push a line or push the boundaries, you’re going to go across it a few times. Hopefully, we’ll spot that ourselves or the audience will indicate it to us and we’ll make a decision based on that.”
There were times when the critics and panelists seemed to be understanding each other, even if they didn’t agree, and others where the two groups seemed to be talking past one another. And though the room’s biggest objection was to Song in the fetish outfit, Song herself barely said a word until the panel’s final question, when someone innocuously asked her to tell us about her character. Song was clearly wound up by all that had been discussed, and noted that, as a Disney Channel veteran doing an adult comedy, “No matter what I do, it’s going to offend someone, somehow.” She said she found the “Dads” pilot funny, and that she and her friends sometimes pretend to be stereotypical Asian immigrants to get out of being hit on by guys (“Oh, sorry, me no speak English!” she said in a thick accent).
She justified the schoolgirl gag as her character doing whatever it took to close the deal, but also admitted that when she read that scene in the script, she had to say to herself, “‘Alright, Brenda, this is your job!’ And you go in and you do it.” It’s possible her hesitation had more to do with the skimpy outfit than any racial implications, but the session ended abruptly before anyone could ask a follow-up.
“I get to do what I’ve been dreaming about since I was 7 years old,” Song said right before a FOX publicist ended the Q&A, “and I get to do it in such great company that I can’t complain.”
What Reilly said about comedies evolving and changing over time is true. “The Big Bang Theory” pilot is pretty terrible, but that show found itself after a while. On the other hand, “2 Broke Girls” never learned from its mistakes (and its ratings are too good for King to believe he’s making any mistakes at all), and it’s not like “Family Guy” is exactly a bastion of sensitivity and understanding; it just has an easier time getting away with this stuff because we accept certain things from cartoon characters that we don’t when they’re flesh-and-blood. (As Scully, who’s worked extensively in both animation and live-action, put it, “There’s a level of separation that lets the audience accept more, and hopefully we’ll find that line as we go on.”)
Because both groups in the room were willing to engage in a dialogue, there was never the tinge of ugliness that we sometimes get with shows that the critics strongly dislike. But I also don’t know that anyone left the panel convinced that “Dads” would be turning into a 21st century Norman Lear sitcom by midseason.