Interview: ‘Utopia’ narrator Dan Piraro explains his bizarro journey to FOX reality

After Sunday night's premiere of FOX's “Utopia” much of the conversation was about embarrassingly alcoholic contestants, poorly concealed pregnancies and pixelated nudity.

But garnering nearly as much conversation as Huntress Hex, Drunken Buffoon Josh and Polyamorous Dedeker was the show's on-screen narrator, the immaculately dressed, carefully mustachioed Dan Piraro.

I chatted with Piraro on Sunday afternoon after seeing only a few early minutes of footage, which was enough to know that he could hardly be more different from FOX's legacy of reality hosts ranging from Ryan Seacrest to Mario Lopez to Monica Lewinsky to Cat Deeley.

It isn't just the infinitely twirlable facial hair or the fact that “Utopia” enlisted a frontman who has passed out of FOX's coveted 18-49 demographic. 

Piraro arrives on “Utopia” with an established career in a field rarely mined for reality hosting gigs. Since 1985, Piraro's single-panel comic “Bizarro” has been syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, offering a wry, absurdist and often politicized glimpse at contemporary life. “Bizarro” has been reprinted in 16 collections, while Piraro has also written books of prose and traveled the country with a one-man comedy show. So even if aspects of “Utopia” feel like a marginally less raunchy “Paradise Hotel,” Dan Piraro is no Amanda Byram.

In this Q&A, Piraro discusses the strange journey that brought him to “Utopia” and what he hopes to convey as the show's narrator and how he's different from Ryan Seacrest.

Click through before tonight's new “Utopia.”

HitFix: I'm sorta fascinated by the process through which you came first to be doing this show as a voiceover narrator and then how you became an on-screen presence on “Utopia”…

Dan Piraro: It is weird. I know! It's very weird. My mind is still blown. I only first saw myself on TV last night on YouTube. I've seen videos of myself before, one way or another, but I only actually saw myself within the show last night and I was like, “What? I'm on TV?” It's a very strange thing.

So what happened was that I'm a cartoonist, a syndicated cartoonist, “Bizarro”…

HitFix: I'm a reader of “Bizarro”…

Dan Piraro: Thanks very much! I was speaking at Comic-Con a few years ago, or two years ago, and one of the guys that came to see me was a TV producer, a guy named Jon Kroll. He goes there every year. He's an executive producer on “Utopia.” He goes every year because he's just been a huge comic fan from way back and goes to Comic-Con and he happened to see me and we met and we hit it off and we've just become friends. We worked on a podcast together one time and a few other little things here and there, but nothing really ever came of anything. So a couple months ago he just called me and said, “FOX, on this new show I'm working on, they're looking for someone who's kinda different for a narration. They don't want the typical Morgan Freeman-type narration. They want something a little different and somebody with kinda a more interesting point of view and I've always liked your voice and I love your point of view and the way in which you satirize human life, American experience, family life, etc. And I think it would be interesting to bring a little of that to the show. Would you like to audition?” And I said, “Yeah, sure! I could use a few extra bucks a week. Why not? I'll audition.” And he says, “Of course, don't get your hopes up. There's like literally 100 other people auditioning. They're auditioning a lot of people, so you know. Whatever. I just thought it would be fun to try.” And I said, “OK.” 

So I just kept making it further into the audition process. They kept asking me to do more and more tapes and eventually I got cast. That, all by itself, just was mindblowing like, “What? They actually picked me out of all these people? I can't believe it. Wow! This is so cool.” So I started doing narration for them and then they, literally at the last minute… No, not “literally.” But figuratively at the last minute, a week before air-time, they say, “Eh, why don't we try putting The Narrator on camera? Maybe that'd be something different.” And I'm like, “What? On-camera? Me?” So then they brought me in for a screentest and they dressed me up like a grownup and they softened my mustache a little… I normally wax my mustache up into Salvador Dali points.

HitFix: And they didn't want that?

Dan Piraro: Yeah, they said, “Yeah, maybe less wax in the mustache,” although dressing like this is more or less the way I always dress. I've been wearing hats for years.

HitFix: Does it become sorta an “Our Town” thing if the Narrator is a physical presence in that way?

Dan Piraro: That was literally mentioned, yeah. Jon said, “We're thinking about in kinda an 'Our Town' way, where you just kinda pop in even now and then and describe what people are seeing on the screen, just kind of draw the storylines together for them.” And I thought, “Yeah, this is actually a clever idea. It actually helps the show. It works.” The format works. They tried a bunch of different things. They were experimenting with a lot of different ideas, some kind of a unique new way to draw the show together, to draw the storylines together. This was the one that they thought worked best. So here I am!

HitFix: You're a writer. How much are you actually getting to write what you're saying?

Dan Piraro: Not all that much. The producers choose the best storylines throughout the week and they cobble them and edit them together and create something and then someone writes some basic lines for me and then between the producers and I, we discuss the script and the various scenes that they associate with and quite often I suggest little changes here and there and they almost always like the suggestions I make, but sometimes they don't. And sometimes they make suggestions that I really love and sometimes I'm like, “Yeah, I can't convincingly say that.” And, of course, my tendency is to want to interject as much humor into it as possible, because I find everything in life funny in one way or another. And sometimes my humor gets into it and sometimes we'll write the kind of line that could be humorous depending on how you read it, so then we'll do five takes. I'll do the straight version, the serious version, the very funny version, the slightly whimsical version and the just-a-little-smirk version and then they see which one fits best in the show.

HitFix: And you're looking forward to seeing which of the options they use?

Dan Piraro: Yeah, I won't actually know until I see the episode. I don't know which one they'll choose.

HitFix: How much time are you actually spending watching the feeds and keeping track of what's going on in there?

Dan Piraro: I have not had time to watch the feeds very much. I end up getting run-downs on the more interesting developments and I definitely see highlights and things and then, of course, when I get my script and I'm watching the video that they've edited together for the show, then of course I know exactly what's going on that week, because I'm commenting on it in my narration. So I know more about it than a casual viewer and I know less about it than an obsessed viewer. But these first couple of weeks have been a lot of work for me.

HitFix: How do you want audiences to look at you and your role in this? You're sorta the 15th character on the show. What do you want people of when they see you?

Dan Piraro: You know, I don't really think of myself as a character. The stars of the show are the people within the compound and I'm nothing more than The Narrator. I'm a person who guides the audience through the happens and so I really don't think of myself as a big personality on the show, by any means. I'm really not bringing a lot of personality. I'm just kinda explaining to people what they're seeing. I'm kinda the ringmaster and they are the act.

HitFix: Sure, but FOX could have somebody who looks like Ryan Seacrest and does that, but instead you look like you. How do you think it sets the show up that, effectively, the first person we see on “Utopia” is you?

Dan Piraro: Yeah. [Very seriously.] They thought about Ryan Seacrest, but they wanted someone better looking. People are getting tired of his fairly mediocre face. [He's unable to keep a straight face and laughs.] So they ended up with me. Ummm… Quite honestly, because I was cast in a backward fashion — they cast me first as the narrator and, at the risk of sounding immodest, they really loved what I was doing with the narration, so then when it came down that they decided to put me on camera, I was not their first choice, look-wise. They didn't say, “Bring me somebody that looks like a cross between…” I should come up with a good line for that. [The woman Piraro fans know as “my amazing assistant and the love of my life, Olive Oyl” suggests Salvador Dali and John Waters.] John Waters and Salvador Dali! In fact, one of the producers at some point during one of the screenings said, “It's a little like having John Waters narrate the show.”

HitFix: Well, it's a full-year show. They could decide to pair you with a buxom blonde sidekick by November. 

Dan Piraro: I seriously hope not. [He laughs.] That's the thing. All along, they didn't want the show to be like other reality shows and there are some very different, fundamental aspects of the show that break it from other reality shows and consequently, they didn't want the host or The Narrator, to be like other shows. They didn't want the Voice of God. They didn't want Morgan Freeman doing the narration. I don't think they wanted some handsome 25-year-old millennial doing the hosting. They wanted something a little different. In fact, one of the producers said that my goal was to be a cross between Sigmund Freud and… Somebody. They wanted more of a sociological expert kind of an attitude, not a showbiz attitude, but more of an anthropological, sociological like, “I'm guiding you through this experience… Let's watch now.” That kind of a feel. I can pull that off. I actually have studied quite a lot of anthropology in my life and they didn't even know that about me. That's what I find so interesting about this. I find it interesting from a scientific point of view, more than for entertainment value.

“Utopia” airs Tuesday and (for the next six weeks) Friday nights on FOX.