‘Men of a Certain Age’ – ‘Let the Sunshine In’: Mid-season post-mortem with Mike Royce

“Men of a Certain Age” wrapped up the first half of its season tonight, and the end came so quickly that a lot of us (myself included) were a little shocked to realize we’d only be getting 6 of the season’s 12 episodes now, with the rest coming in the summer.

So when I got a chance to talk to the show’s co-creator Mike Royce during an afternoon at press tour, I asked him about the odd scheduling, and he said he and Ray Romano take the full blame for it. In lieu of a review of the mid-season finale – which I thought had some funny moments at the hotel (particularly Owen’s heater) and then some fine acting from all three leads in the final scene – I’m going to run the full transcript of my conversation with Royce, which covered the scheduling, TNT’s feelings about the show, the stories told so far this year, and even a few hints about the back half of the season. Some very mild spoilers, but “Men” is a show that’s kind of spoiler-proof, no?

The first and most obvious thing is people are freaking out about the 6 episode thing, so please walk us through that.

Well, the thing is this was always the plan. We had a number of no- great choices.  Mostly based on our unwillingness to do more than 12 episodes.  Ray actually had to have his arm twisted just to do 12.  He wanted to do 10.  He wanted to do it basically just like last year.  He would have preferred – and actually I would have preferred in a perfect world – to just run 10.  You know, who cares when it”s on?  The problem was last year we ran 6 episodes, and TNT has all these deals with the NBA, so when January rolls around their Monday nights start getting taken up, plus there”s no lead in – not that we”re the most compatible show with “The Closer” – but nonetheless, we”d be even more out there (alone).  So what happened last year was we ran 6, then took a week off. Everybody thought we were canceled or something. And the ratings had been going up from the premiere, and then they were in the toilet for the 7th and 8th episodes. And there was another week we had to take off, then 9 and 10 we kind of came up a tiny bit because of the season finale, but the rating just went off a cliff.  So TNT wanted to put us on in the summer (of 2010), and there was no way that we could turn things around that quickly.

So this was what they proposed: “Why don”t you do 4 and 8, or 6 and 6?” And the problem with doing less than 6 is you”re not eligible for things – Emmy-wise and things like that.  Otherwise we could have maybe done a mini-season – and then that would have pissed somebody off too.  It all pisses everybody off, but the bottom line is that this is the only way we can get on into the summer because the summer is where the ratings are. And for us, it”s the best plan even though it sounds like right now it”s pissing people off. 

But the alternative, and TNT did indeed leave it up to us, would have been to say, “No, TNT. We know better. We”re going to run the 10 again just like before.” And then we might have our ratings suck and then have them go, “Well, see, we told you so and sorry.”  You know, that”s the end of everything.  So right now, I wouldn”t say they”re happy with the numbers, but we”re not dead or anything like that. We’ve been reassured so many times because Ray and I obsess about it.

Ray”s not neurotic.  What are you talking about?

Yeah. (laughter)  I don”t think we can go down a hell of lot more.  But I think we”re okay and the summer should probably bring in with it a built-in lift, and then hopefully we”ll get some more people to it as well.  And the good thing is, honestly speaking you can start watching in the summer. I think you will feel like you missed something but you won”t be confused.

 And ideally if the next…if the summer 6 do well and you get renewed for a 3rd season, would the idea be to duplicate this or to just do the summer next time?

I think the idea is to just do the summer but to be honest I don”t know. They might come and say, “Hey, that worked pretty good, the 6 and 6.”  They like to split them up.  And our problem is it”s good to split them up if they have 15 or 16 so they do 4 and 12.  We”re never probably going to do that many, but then again I make no promises.

So you knew though that going in writing this season that “Let the Sunshine In” would be the last episode to air for quite awhile?

We did.  We didn”t know right away when we started the writing, but we knew pretty early on so we were able to kind of adjust what we had already started to make it feel like a finale.
The taco truck scene is very much a…

Right, right. It”s semi-reminiscent of the end of the season last year where they have 3 epiphanies. 

So what kind of story do you feel you were trying to tell in these 6?

I think sometimes people think our show is a lot of navel gazing and moping, because when you hear “mid-life crisis,” that”s just what comes to mind. And that always bugs me because I feel like we”re not doing that. That actually the show is a lot about not doing that.  The first season was about the guys waking up to, “Hey I”m not necessarily happy with where I am.”  And the season is about figuring out about what to do about it.  This season they”re doing something about it, you know?

I want to talk about what you said about how a lot of the show is about working with against the expectation of the mid-life crisis.  A lot of the show seems to be working against expectation in general.  I write about that in my reviews a lot. Like, Albert goes to the party and nothing really bad happens. And that”s interesting.

There”s a number of reasons why that makes me happy, if that”s what people are enjoying, that”s what we”re going for. I think it”s rooted in storytelling, and we have such small stories that they have to be both realistic and surprising which is tough to do. And I learned from someone good, which is (“Everybody Loves Raymond” creator) Phil Rosenthal.  I think that is funny because they”re 2 very different shows – “Raymond” and “Men of a Certain Age” – but our writing process can be very similar just in terms of the nuts and bolts of it. It was a very similar process, and the way Phil thought about story even though sometimes the story seemed to be insanely small, the twists and turns were always still there. And it played out in both realistic ways, within a sit-com format.  But the stories can be very surprising, too.  Yeah, a lot of the situations are “cliché” situations, so then how we tell the story has to be not a cliché.

Like, ever since we started the show, Ray wanted to do the colonoscopy weekend. Since the first day in the writers room of last season.  And we kind of knew if we did a show that involved that in any way last season, well… everybody already thinks the show is about Viagra and all that bullshit.  And also, we didn”t have a story.  But he had heard about how Tom Hanks and a couple of other celebrities did this: went to some fancy resort and make kind of a weekend out of it.  They played poker all night while they were cleaning themselves out.  I don”t know all the details, but Ray thought it was just a natural idea. Obviously, they”re turning 50 and this is something you do when you turn 50.  But, of course, the whole situation is fraught with horribleness.  Horrible cliché and it”s just disgusting, so we just knew that that part of it was kind of a Macguffin. That it had to be something driving the story but that wasn”t really the story.  And so that, I think, is a pretty good example of if you”re doing a show about guys turning 50 and you do a show about a colonoscopy, there”s a lot of hacky ways to go about it and there”s a lot of hacky and predictable outcomes and a lot of wrong turns you can make if you, say, have someone be diagnosed in the show with something horrible. And we didn”t want to do any of that.  So it seemed like a natural thing for all the stories we were telling to come to a little bit of a resting point for them to then chew on it while they were all together.

I also noted that you jump from them in the elevator to them getting ready for the exam. You do not take us though the whole night of them stuck on the toilet.

Right.  Well the punchline for the whole thing really is that Tucker Cawley, who wrote it, did such a fantastic job. In the writers room of course it”s very foul, like it is in any writers room.  Tucker became sort of the butt of the joke, because he hates shit jokes.  Anytime those jokes start taking hold in the writers room, he tries to stop it. He taps out. And then we handed this show off to him.  And that”s actually where the whole little scene about “You’re not going to make all these little ass jokes,” and the guys are going, “No, that”s half the fun.” came from. I don”t think we could have made Tucker write that part even if we wanted to.

What I’m wondering is, in the writers room, when an idea comes up and is the cliché, how does that work? Are you going through and asking, “What would a usual show do in this situation?  Do we need to run away from that?”  Or is that not even brought into it?

Sometimes we say that.  Sometimes it becomes literally, “Okay, that”s the cliché.  Let”s just not do that.”  But it”s really – I don”t want to sound heroic – but it”s just usually more organic that than. It”s just a story we”re telling because we embrace clichés sometimes if it”s natural – clichés are clichés for a reason.  The story about Joe discovering Lucy having sex and all that stuff.  I think that where he confronts her is certainly a scene you”ve seen versions of before, but the way they played it and hopefully the specificity of the writing helped it stand out.  I mean Ray was so fantastic in it.  What I personally liked about it was that the story started out over here with the divorce and almost a Ray Barone obsession with that little tiny thing where he’s “the defendant,” but it quickly became really about a much bigger thing in his life and that notion that I found very relatable when you get to 40-50 that just the whole world is changing and you can”t stop it.

Now, the idea of the mind bet and someone following it so absolutely, does that come from somewhere or was that wholly an invention?

Oh that was Ray”s.  Ray does that. You didn”t know that?  I thought you knew that.

I didn”t know that. Though that doesn”t surprise me to know that. 

No, no.  We actually tried to do it on “Raymond.”  We tried to do a show about it. A long time ago, Ray (Romano, not Barone) had a gambling problem.  It was pretty brief and he was fortunate enough to have it happen, as he says, before he had any money, and he went to GA and it’s a way long time ago.  But he does do this mind bet thing. And I don”t want to say he has it under control, but he had to put a curb on it for himself. Because what he does is, he gambles in his head because it”s something like a game whatever, and if he loses he can”t do something.  It”s always a punishment.  That”s what we always make fun of him, like he never wins anything. There”s no prize.

But as he says, it in a very strange way replicates a little bit of that feeling when you’ve got more riding on the game.  And now I think he”s limited to golf because he”d be in these situations where he’d piss people off because things would happen like on our show, except in a much bigger way. He”d lose things that”d involve other people.  He”d fuck up their schedules, like he would cancel long-standing golf dates because “I can”t play golf for 3 months because the Giants didn”t cover.” And we tried to do that story on “Raymond,” and it just didn”t work because without the character who actually has a gambling background just sounds insane.  It just becomes this obsession that”s pretty insane.  But that was another thing that he always wanted to work into the show and it seems like a perfect coping mechanism for Joe. We were worried that the audience would be confused by what the hell it was, but I think we hit it enough times that people will be on-board for the end.

I feel bad for Owen.  There are good churrascaria right here in town.  You don”t have to go out to Palm Springs for meat on swords. I’ve been to one in Glendale, I think.

I’ve been to one in Burbank.

Speaking of Glendale, what, if anything, can Owen do with the other property his dad stuck him with? Because you ended that episode with him going to see it. Was that just him recognizing the enormity of the problem is that him coming up with a plan?

I think it”s both.  We just thought it was good to end the episode on “the thing that”s standing in my way.. The albatross that I have now.”  And what happens with that is something you’ll have to wait and see on.

What idiot advertising director does not think that Melinda McGraw is hot enough to be in a commercial?

Mike:Yeah, we had that discussion.  We”re like, “We cast someone too beautiful.” The great thing is, that discussion goes on all over Hollywood, but that”s happened, you know?  “She”s not hot enough.” “She”s not hot enough.” “SHE is not hot enough?”  And it happens with much younger people even and it becomes this crazy thing. I”ve luckily been mostly immune to shows that operate in that world, you know? But it”s completely nuts.  So we knew that it actually didn”t matter who was playing that role, but that story would have worked because there would be a douchebag somewhere saying, “You know what?  I”m not feeling it with her.  She”s not hot enough.”

Obviously, unlike a divorce, Terry can always change his mind and go back to acting, but how interested are you in seeing him not do that for awhile?

What I would say about Terry, first of all, is he, in a way, he has the most to accomplish. All the other guys have a lot of shit that he just doesn”t have.  Whether he wants it or not is a different story but there”s baseline elements of your life that he just doesn”t have.  So we think it”s more interesting to see him try to be a different person than try to stay the same, you know?  Because there”s those guys, too, who are like, “I want to try to retain my bachelor, my ability to pick up young girls and my whatever.  I don”t want any of it to go away.”  And we feel like with him, something sort of turned because of the stuff that happened in the first season and he”s really making a go of this whole thing.  It’s hard for people to change. Our view is they can change, but it”s really hard.  So you work all the time.

The fact that he found something else he can do is interesting, and at the same time, he still knows how to do the other thing.  And the thing about him turning down the commercial, some people are like, “No actor will turn down a commercial. That”s crazy.” But I think we tried to be as fair with the details and still make it something that would be attractive to him but also it still would be embarrassing.  We felt like Terry felt like he had just started turning the corner in his new life. And that this was in some ways enough of a weird backslide that he first had to be convinced into it, and then when he realized there was more bullshit and meant maybe that he wouldn”t be able to see (Erin) again, that would put it over the top. Not to make him too heroic.  There”s selfishness to it also.

When I saw the scene at the taco stand and Owen wants to tell them about the dealership, I said to myself, “Oh, shit, he’s lost his ability to tell his friends about this stuff because Terry works there now.” But he tells them anyway. Is their friendship that strong that Terry”s going to keep that secret?

Well, I wouldn”t say that”s a huge plot point going forward. (pauses to think) Well, it depends on how you look at it. One thing I would say is that enough time passes between this show and then the first one of the summer where he has told Melissa by the time we get to the summer.  

And Donny Most will then offer Owen a job too and all will be well.

That was great!  You know, a childhood friend of mine, who”s an actress, says one line in that scene, so it was her and then the guy we used to watch on TV all the time.

Is he going to be back?

He could be. We”ll say if we get to a 3rd season, we want to do more and more with Melissa.  She”s like the 4th Man of a Certain Age – or a Woman of a Certain Age, and her situation is I think hopefully very relatable to women. 

You mentioned on Twitter that Andre”s lost something like 50 pounds.  He definitely looks thinner on the golf scenes.

You start to see if more and more in the summer.  In the summer you”ll really start to see how thin he is.

So do you have to start writing about that?

We have a line in one of the episodes, I think it”s in the summer, starting to address that.  I mean it”s not like he”s svelte.

Yeah, I know.  He”s not going to go Frank Pembleton, but I remember when you and I talked at the end of season 1, I asked how are you going to deal with it if and when he lost weight.

We haven”t had to deal with it that much.  We deal with it a little bit but it works perfectly for the character that he”s actually taking care of himself, you know?  We can always have a backslide.  But his health issues we didn”t do too much with, at least not yet I should say, in the winter, because we felt like that”s something that he had under control in the character.  The character had a little pump that we showed at the beginning of the season. We have a writer, strangely enough, who’s diabetic, and we didn”t know that when we hired him – it just became this extra bonus consultant thing.  He always assures us, because sometimes, we felt like, “Boy, Owen eats like shit.” And he said, “Well, there”s plenty of bad diabetics.  They just don”t take care of themselves.” It”s like you”re taking your body in places it shouldn”t go. 

So when I interviewed Ray at the start of the season, he made this joke about how he wants Joe to just be kissing women left and right.  And that’s happened a fair amount so far.

I think he jokes too much about that only because I think people think that that is the reality that he”s in the writers room going, “Give me a little kiss.” And it’s actually quite the opposite, where he”s like (Ray Romano impression) “Oh so people are going to buy this? Come on.”  Once we actually start doing it – start writing the story where someone”s attracted to him – he”s really worried that it”s not going to seem realistic.  And that definitely happened when we had the situation where he”s dating two women.  He”s like, “Oh we”ve gotta really be careful.”  But I have friends who are divorced and it’s an interesting thing to be someone who”s a commitment person, who”s suddenly thrown out into the world and you”re not in a place where you want to make a commitment now.  And at the same time that”s how you”re wired.   So we thought that was the way to go about it is that that”s an interesting story to tell.  He”s not Terry by any stretch.  He”s the opposite of Terry.  But he is in Terry”s world now.

And when he tries to be Terry, he screws it up.

Yeah, that was interesting. That scene at the door – we knew that people would view that in about 100 different ways, yeah. And Jessica (Tuck) was so good.

Was it always your plan to have Michelle come back when you introduced her last season?

It wasn”t (the plan) last year.  It was just she was so great in that episode and we knew we wanted to get Joe into a place where he’s dating. By the way, you haven”t seen the last of Dory.

Okay.  That”s good.

I can”t really talk about it beyond that, but the problem with Dory is, if he goes right back with Dory for the start of the season, we felt that like that was going to be a whole relationship there, and that”s not where Joe is right now.  And we”re not sure that”s the most interesting story to tell, you know?  The most interesting story to us was the commitment guy, and how his brain isn”t right for the way his situation is. So Michelle seemed like the perfect person to do this with. And also just the realistic way for him to sort of almost stumble into this weird on-again/off-again if you want to call it a relationship, you know?

Okay.  But is the relationship thing tricky sometimes. One of them is already married, one of them is now sort of getting into a serious relationship and in general when you”re in a relationship, especially a new relationship, you don”t necessarily have as much time for your buddies.

That”s interesting.  You know I never have thought about it that way, although the first show of the summer kind of is the interesting take on that without us even (consciously) doing it. To me, it”s always interesting. People and the network, and for that matter us, love it when the guys are together. And obviously they have a great chemistry, and at the same time you have to do a show realistically speaking where they”re people with lives and they can”t get together all the time.  It”s always hilarious to me that people still complain, “How do they have all that time to meet?” And meanwhile, mostly in every show they might meet once, you know?  They meet once or twice sometimes.  And the show can take place over a week or a couple of weeks. But there”s always going to be a tension whether there”s people who want them to be together all the time and at the same time you put them together all the time then the show, first of all is going to suck and second of all-who are they?  You know?  So we”re always looking for ways to get them together but it”s really mostly about, “Okay, what”s the stories we”re telling?” I feel like we”ve already sort of addressed the fact hopefully, realistically that they have lives and they can”t get together all the time.

When you”re working on what stories you”re going to tell in a given episode, are they always thematically linked – like for instance, in “The Bad Guy,” very clearly there”s a commonality to all three. Is that always what you go for, or are there some weeks where it’s just, “This is the story we”re telling about Joe at this point, this is the story with Terry,” and they’re just occupying the same hour?

We like them to be thematically tied together.  It”s sometimes stronger, sometimes not as strong.  I would say there”s always something thematically holding them together.  We try to have the titles help guide that a little bit, but sometimes then that ruins it, so we don”t do that.  You know I was actually regretting “And Then The Bill Comes”.  We went with that title because  that”s something that John Manfrelotti says as a punch line all the time. We thought that was funny to throw that in that particular episode.  And then just about  that was about it air, I was like, “Oh, we”re kind of tipping our hands.”

Okay, without spoiling what happens in the summer, what can people necessarily look forward to in the back six?

Things accelerate. I would say we”ve done some pretty meaty shows, but the shows get even meatier.  Mostly based on what we”ve now set up some things and we”re starting to pay them off.  And, yeah, the first few are just really just some punches emotionally. There’s some big stuff happening. It”s all the arcs: you keep following Owen dealing with his situation at the dealership, but also with Melissa and her job.  And we kind of have left Joe and the golf on the backburner a little bit, and we deal with that. And then Terry – when he ends the sixth episode by saying, “I think I”m in love” well, we”ll see what happens.

Well, your show isn’t necessarily plot-heavy, and viewers don’t need to know what the island is or anything. But in the unfortunate event where the ratings are not what TNT is going to want to renew, have you written the 12th episode with that in mind? You said that the 1st season finale was written that way.

We did, but only with like a 10% focus on that. I think we were more interested in closing the season than we were the series. I think I may have overstated that in terms of I think a side benefit was, “Well, if we only have one season, at least they got someplace.”     I think the same thing happens here, but I think it will be a little more frustrating (if we’re canceled).  I think just because I think people want to see what happens. But I like to try and follow the Matt Weiner dictum of burning through all the story that you think you should save for the 5th season and then see where you end up.   Not that we have, like you said, a lot of plot, but let”s get them to this place and then see how they get from this place to that place, and then you don”t know what the next place is going to be because we thought that was going to be the end of the series.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com