‘One Day At A Time’ Creative Duo On How Their Netflix Comedy Beat The Reboot Jinx

Most of the recent wave of TV reboots and revivals have been disappointing at best, but I really enjoyed Netflix’s One Day at a Time remake, which manages to feel both old and new at the same time, and is in many ways an improvement on the ’70s original. Though sitcom legend Norman Lear developed the original show and had the brainstorm to remake it with a Latino family at the center, the actual heavy lifting on the new version was done by comedy veterans Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon Kellett, who had never worked together before, but seemed destined to partner up on a Lear sitcom, since his most famous one, All in the Family, already had a Mike and Gloria. (Royce: “Norman took immense delight in one of our first emails when we signed it ‘Mike & Gloria.’ ‘I’ve got a new Mike & Gloria!'”)

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Calderon Kellett and Royce (pictured above on the left, along with Lear and stars Justina Machado and Rita Moreno) about how they got involved in the show, what aspects of the original they wanted to keep, how the fictional Alvarez family is patterned after Calderon Kellett’s own, and more. There are no real spoilers for the season, save for a joke that Moreno delivers in the finale, which is at the very end of the transcript. That’s all coming up just as soon as I wear a sheet mask…

What was the origin of each of you getting involved with this, and what was the mandate you got from Norman of what exactly they wanted you to do?

Mike Royce: Norman had this idea to have a Latino take on One Day at a Time, as a sort of re-imagining. They talked to me because I have experience sitcom-wise. They talked to us separately. It was super daunting at first to think about doing a Norman show again in any format, because it just seems like, “Oh my god.” How can you live up to anything that he’s ever done? Once they were talking about not doing the old scripts, but using the old show as a framework by which you can create a new show with the same premise, my mind really started percolating. I think Gloria did too separately, and then we met. Super duper successful work marriage.

Gloria Calderon Kellett: Yes. It’s true. He is our yenta. Norman brought us together. I was going to take a season off to develop. I had gotten the phone call, Norman Lear wants to have lunch with you. I was like, “What?” As one does. I went in there and he had presented the idea. He just asks great questions. We just had a great conversation for an hour and a half. He asked me about my family. What it was growing up. My parents came off of a plane not knowing any English. I think they knew “John is a boy, Mary is a girl.” That was it. He just asked about my upbringing and what it was like, et cetera. By the end of it, he said, “Great. Let’s do this.” I was like, “What?” Mike and I finally met each other. It was like, “Oh, this guy. He seems great. All right.”

Gloria, did your family come from Cuba?

Calderon Kellett: They did, both of them. My parents came in 1962 during Operation Pedro Pan, which we talk about on the show. Rita’s character, we make her a Pedro Pan kid. There were about 14,000 Cuban kids that came over between like ’60 and ’62 when we were trying to get Castro out. That didn’t work out, so they say many Cubans stayed in Miami, but many moved all around the country. My parents both ended up in Portland, Oregon weirdly enough. I’m West Coast Cuban. I was born in Portland where there’s a actually pretty vibrant Cuban community. We moved to San Diego for high school. I’ve been West Coast, not Miami at all, which always shocks people.

One Day at a Time had an afterlife in syndication for a while, but not as long as some of Norman’s other shows from that era. How much experience did you have with it beforehand?

Calderon Kellett: My mom is the second oldest of six, so I had young aunts that were like 10 years older than me, so they watched it. It was in the periphery, but I didn’t really grow up on Norman’s shows. I found them all afterwards, people talking about them, and then I would find them at the Paley Center. I didn’t know a lot about it. I sort of knew Schneider was a character and the handyman with the vest and cigarettes. Single mom. That’s all I really knew about that original series.

As you were preparing to actually remake it, did you revisit it at all or did you decide, “We’re not even going to worry about anything other than archetype of single mom, plus Schneider and whatever else we’re going to do”?

Calderon Kellett: We watched the first two together. In the (original) pilot, Mackenzie wants to go spend the night at a party with boys. She’s having an argument with her mother about it. We thought, “Okay. We’ll do something in that similar vein.” The second episode of the original series also deals with sexism, but boy, 1975 sexism’s different than modern sexism. After that, we had so much stuff that we wanted to talk about. We had already developed our characters now. We’re getting excited about them. That’s when we really started doing our own thing. We wanted to just keep that Norman Lear, “Let’s talk about real issues that are affecting a family” vibe and hopefully a real and organic way. Let’s try to live up to his canon of work. But we really didn’t watch any more shows, at least I didn’t really. I think we watched the one with the dad coming back, but that’s it for me.

Mike, you’re a little bit older. Did you have many strong memories of this show? Were there any parts of it that you felt, “Okay. This is something we can definitely bring into 2016/17, and this absolutely has to stay behind in the ’70s”?

Royce: I didn’t watch this in preparation. I was 11 or 12 when the show came out. I remember what most people remember: Schneider is goofy and funny, the theme song, I have a crush on Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips, and Bonnie Franklin’s the coolest mom in the world. When re-watching it, it was interesting to see how powerful some of the drama was. Of course, as a kid, I wasn’t really focused on that.

Schneider, obviously we had to rethink Schneider in bulk. That’s an iconic character that you don’t want anyone to try and emulate in a behavioral sense. At the same time, that guy didn’t really fit into this show anyway. Pat Harrington, from what I’ve read about it, pushed to make his character a little less of a (sleaze) as they went along. He was the guy that you would find coming into the house, coming into the apartment and being a presence that you wanted there. It didn’t really fit our thing to make him a guy who is constantly trying to get Penelope into bed or something like that. We did go through a few versions. It was interesting to see the old version and just wrap our heads around what the new version was. We happily landed on this face of gentrification. He comes from money, privilege. He doesn’t see it a lot, and he really wants to be part of this amazingly warm family because his family life was so screwed up. He’s just a really good foil in contrast to the working class family that we have. It’s just a big process from the old guy to the new guy.

So it wasn’t a situation where you said, “Okay, hipster is to 2017 as lounge lizard is to 1975.” It was just whatever was going to fit in here?

Royce: Yes, yes. We started almost from making him a kind of an ugly American type, which was a little bit more like the old guy, bombastic and willing to weigh in where he doesn’t have any business weighing in. Some of that’s still there. He certainly the guy who likes to blab when he gets the chance, but it’s coming from a whole different place. Through the audition process and rewriting and rewriting to try and make material meet person. It was definitely a big evolution.

How did you decide that Penelope was going to be a veteran?

Calderon Kellett: That started with Norman. Norman is a proud veteran and deals a lot with and speaks to veterans a lot. I’ve had the great privilege of doing that with him this year. I think he initially really just talked about the ex being a veteran. The more we talked about it, Mike and I were looking at each other going, “Well.” We also had veterans come to the room and talk to us. It seemed like a lot of these veteran families, these men and women are young, hot and in the best shape of their lives. They meet each other when they’re in service. We were like, “God, maybe it’d be really cool if Penelope was a veteran too. They met in service. She knew him before he went off. They were both deployed.” We don’t really get to hear the veteran story that often and certainly not from the female point of view. That would be cool. It started from Norman, and then Mike and I took it and made it. Mike obviously had a lot to say because he had just come off of Enlisted, so he had already sort of been entrenched with a lot of army stories and what not. It just fit.

Royce: This is the underground secret second season of Enlisted. Thought that I’d point that out there.

Calderon Kellett: That was a great show, so …

Schneider probably goes shirtless about as much as Parker Young did on that show, so I could see that.

Calderon Kellett: You’re welcome, world.

Ann Romano had two daughters on the original. Penelope here has a daughter and a son. Any particular reason you wanted to do that?

Calderon Kellett: We both have a daughter and a son. I have a brother, a younger brother as well. We just had a lot to mine with daughter, son stuff. Also, introducing the Rita character, we had another woman in the house. It seemed like, it’s going to be a lot of ladies; let’s get some dudes in there. We just thought, what would make for the best stories?

When you were conceiving Lydia, was this a case of “Our dream is we get Rita Moreno, but we will aim for something lower,” and you got Rita Moreno?

Royce: Exactly.

Calderon Kellett: My whole life I’ve been joking that my mom kind of looks like Rita Moreno. My mom is like also a five foot one, 100 pound ball of serious like no joke. She has a (big) personality. She’s very quiet on set, which is very funny because my parents come to every episode. She’s very quiet on set, but she was no joke to grow up with. A lot of this stuff, this conversations her and I have had from being old school, very beautiful, aging beautifully, looking like a million bucks and what that means. There’s just a lot of great stuff to mine. When I talked to Norman on our first visit with one another, I said like, “Oh, picture Rita Moreno. I’ve been joking my whole life. That’s sort of what my mom looks like.” My mom is all over the opening credits of the show and some people think that Rita’s my mom and my mom is Rita in many photos because there is a very strong similarity. I had said that and we thought, “Well, hopefully we’ll get somebody like Rita.” Norman just picked up the phone and was like, “Oh, we’ll call her.”

Royce: Did you know that if you want something, Norman Lear can pick up the phone and get it for you? He’s like Domino’s for anything.

Calderon Kellett: That happened with Gloria Estefan (for the theme song) too. It was like, “It should sound like Gloria Estefan.” “Oh, let’s call her.” “Oh, okay.”

What kind of license does having Rita Moreno playing that role give you in terms of how big and broad Lydia can be?

Royce: I think Rita is very aware of her level. She loves going big, and she knows she can go big. She can get away with it from a performance stand point because her timing and her moment to moment work is so magnificent. Lydia is a big character. She love embodying it. We’re always at the same time making sure that she’s coming from a very grounded place. Multi-cam acting is such a specific type of acting and there’s very few people who are really able to nail it in my opinion.

It’s like a musical. You abide the rule of a musical. People break into song. For sitcom, you have to really get in that place where you’re a little bigger than normal. You can’t be too small. You can’t play the cheap seat, but you do have to play it to some seats a little bit. There has to be the little larger than life, but also feel very realistic within your world. It’s really hard. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who are good at it in the past. You see Rita, everybody on the show for that matter, I think they do such (great work).

Calderon Kellett: They’re theater actors. Theater actors, so many of them. We make them work that theater muscle.

Was Rita pushing to dance or were you pushing Rita to dance?

Calderon Kellett: Well, look, my parents dance almost daily in my living room. That is real. I joke about it. Celia Cruz is on almost everyday. That’s real… My mom dances constantly, as does my dad. They’re both unbelievable dancers. We just were like that’s what happens, so Rita, this is who it is. She’s an incredible dancer. At first, I think she wanted to make sure that people wouldn’t just see Rita Moreno dancing. That’s the gag of that. She was very protective of the character, which is beautiful.

Earlier, you mentioned being struck by how dramatic some of the original episodes were. That was obviously a big hallmark of all of Norman’s shows in that era. It’s been a part of some of the shows you guys have done before this. This show gets dramatic quite a lot. How did you figure out how much you could be serious without it undercutting the joke, and vice versa?

Royce: I think we did it on a kind of a episode by episode basis because generally speaking, we had a dramatic point that we’re aiming towards: What is the end of the show that we’re trying to get to? What’s the purpose of the story? A lot of times, that was a reveal that was dramatic that would play out as a dramatic something. It’s always episode by episode because sometimes there’s certain episodes where we don’t necessarily do that. They’re just different calibrations sort of. We’re always trying to be hypervigilant about earning it, making sure to earn whatever drama is coming. When we’re talking about stories, we want to make sure that each one has a purpose.

Netflix is relatively new to making their own multi-cams. Obviously, Fuller House is its own thing, but you and The Ranch are both these family, multi-cam sitcoms that are often most interesting when they’re getting really, really serious. Obviously, that’s also coming from you doing a Norman show, but was that something you were talking about with the bosses at Netflix at all?

Calderon Kellett: That’s what Mike and I like. We’re both big cry babies, Mike and I. We like to feel feelings. We’re not completely dead inside comedy writers. We come to the room with really personal stuff. Mike records almost all of our conversations. We use a lot of what he and I talk about. It’s true. You can definitely put me in jail. When we went in and pitched it, I think they knew that we were going to get serious because of the Norman of it all, but it’s also what (Mike) and I really respond to. We like that. We like having those real conversations with each other, even if we cry.

Royce: That was a little bit of the back and forth with Netflix at the beginning, which is how are we going to do a Norman show? It’s not going to be exactly like the original, but it’s got to come out of us. They want it. They’re all in. They trust us to do this. They’re buying a Norman Lear show, so they love the fact that there’s a lot of drama in there. Obviously, they want us to execute it well. Sony is the same. Sony, everybody is very onboard. As we got going, I think they were happy to see how it was unfolding.

Norman has his political activism. He’s 94 years old. How involved was he once you got a writer’s room up and were actually making the show? What was Norman’s role at that point?

Calderon Kellett: He would come to all the table reads. He would definitely give us thoughts about various episodes. Episode four is a great one because it’s an out of sequence episode. We just felt like that was the best way to tell that story. At first he sat down, he’s like, “Gosh guys, I’m concerned about this episode. I just don’t get it.” The scenes were shorter. We were like, “Please trust us.” He to his credit said, “Okay.” After the first run through where he saw it completely, he was like, “Guys, we need to talk.” Mike and I were like, “Oh boy.”

Royce: He sits us down on the set super dramatically. The crew’s all standing around. I think we were off to the side, but it was like people were waiting for us. We’re just like, “We’re about to get read the riot act or something. We’re not quite sure what’s coming, but it doesn’t sound good.” He goes, “I said from the beginning that this episode wouldn’t work.” There’s a big pause and he goes, “But you live and learn.” He goes, “It came together beautifully.”

Calderon Kellett: We exhaled.

Royce: It was so nice. I think he was unaware that we thought we were being taken to the woodshed.

Mackenzie Phillips pops up in an episode. You got Michael Lembeck in to direct. Were there overtures made to any other surviving alums of the original show to appear, or you didn’t want to do too much of that because it’s its own thing?

Calderon Kellett: We wanted to pepper it in, and then it became, what would be the right thing we’re reaching out for? We felt like the Pam Valentine character, we wanted the character to be different from Mackenzie (on the original show). This character is something that we’ll probably recur and has a meaningful therapeutic role, and she’s a therapist now in real life. It was a nice nod. We hope to have opportunities for Valerie in the future if she’s open to coming back to play with us. That’d be awesome.

Royce: Part of it is we wanted to make sure it lifted off on its own, even the promo, we didn’t feature a lot of Schneider because we were afraid. We didn’t want that to take the focus, but of course, we want people to discover the new Schneider as they go along.

Just getting back to the Netflix of it all: You don’t have to deal with commercial breaks. The episodes can run as long as they want. Most of them run pretty close to the 30 minute mark. What was that adjustment like and, in trial and error, did you find that there was a length at which either a multi-cam episode or even a multi-cam scene can’t sustain itself?

Royce: We’re definitely testing the boundaries of how long a scene can sustain itself. That I know. It’s like when you take away some of the rules, you have to be even more disciplined, in my opinion. It’s great because it allows you to tell the story a way you want to tell it, much more like a play. Still with individual acts if you want them, but you don’t have to have them if you’re going from A to Z in a more direct sense… It made it a little more challenging because there aren’t rules. You’re not just like, “This has to go here. This has to go here. Now we have to set up the C story.” It’s much more like what its own thing is. Just from a theatrical perspective, the idea that we’re doing this filmed play, it really helped a lot to have the Netflix of it all.

Also, obviously, there’s no censors involved, but other than a couple of jokes where Lydia says something that she doesn’t realize sounds like a curse word, you don’t even so much as tiptoe up to taking advantage of that. Was there any talk about having more adult content, or does the family show aspect mean that was off-limits to you?

Calderon Kellett: Honestly, Netflix is a great partner. We had a joke in the pilot that I loved. It was at the moment where she finds out her son has been doing this exchange thing with the shoes. The original line was, “That’s some Jesus shit. That’s some Jesus shit right there.” Everybody was very supportive of it, and then Netflix said, “Hey listen, we just want to give you the numbers. You can totally do that joke. It’s up to you. You guys are the creators, but if you do, there’s a lot of people that won’t come back because they’ll think this is a show that swears, and they want to watch it with their kids. Again, we’re not saying you don’t have to do it, but just know that that could happen.”

We had a lot of other stories at that point. Swearing wasn’t important to us as it went along. Truthfully, it means so much more, I think, for a Latino family to be on the air. I didn’t want to lose people. We talked about it and we decided to cut that joke. It didn’t affect things as we went along, not really. We got to really do everything else that we wanted to do and talk about. I don’t think network would allow a porn episode either where we talk pretty openly about teenagers watching porn. They allowed us to do that episode, which I’m glad we did because it is a problem that’s out there that I think parents are nervous to talk to their kids about, but probably should. Everything we really wanted to do, we got to do.

Finally, getting back to the issue of Rita being protective of the character and not wanting it to be her playing herself, you got her to do the Electric Company “HEY, YOU GUYS!” yell at the end. Was that a negotiation?

Royce: Oh no. No negotiating.

Calderon Kellett: She was really happy to do it.

Royce: Sandi Hochman, our post supervisor suggested it. We’re like, “Oh my god. That’s hilarious.” (Rita) was like, “So which camera’s where?” She was into it right away.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com