‘This Isn’t Funny At All!’: The Inside Story Of How ‘One Day At A Time’ Balances Comedy And Tragedy

01.24.18 10 months ago 6 Comments

Netflix

Rita Moreno has won all four EGOT trophies. She is a living legend. She breathes such life and energy into everything she says and does on Netflix’s One Day at a Time remake that she wrings huge laughs out of lines and gestures that wouldn’t be funny coming from virtually any other performer.

Even the great Moreno can still miss a line, though — especially if the material is good enough.

It’s an August afternoon on the show’s Los Angeles soundstage, where Moreno and her co-stars are doing a run-through of the second season’s eighth episode, a flashback to Elena’s birth and the turmoil that followed. Moreno’s fellow living legend, producer Norman Lear, is watching from a respectful distance, along with showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, director Phill Lewis, other members of the crew, the writing staff, and various Netflix executives. Everything is going swimmingly until Moreno blows her cue, leaving everyone standing around waiting for her to speak.

“I got too distracted watching the scene,” she confesses. “It’s really good!” A crewmember quips, “Someone should put this on TV!”

This isn’t just banter or self-aggrandizement. It’s a really good scene, from a really good episode of a stealthily great show(*), and one that’s learned to pivot pretty effortlessly from broad comedy (in this one, Moreno’s Lydia and Tony Plana’s Berto can’t keep their hands off each other, much to the dismay of Justina Machado as their daughter Penelope) to sincere and sober discussion of real-world issues, as Elena’s blissful newborn days are disrupted by serious events. By the time the episode’s climactic scene has been filmed, several crew members and Netflix executives are audibly crying, prompting writer Dan Hernandez to break the tension by quipping, “This isn’t funny at all! We’re gonna be here a while!”

(*) For more on what makes the series so great, here’s my review of the first season, which wound up in my top 10 for 2017. The second season, which debuts Friday, feels very much of a piece with the first, even if there isn’t as significant a narrative through-line as year one had with Elena having her quinces and coming out to her family. Every now and then, the balance of punchlines and hot-button issues doesn’t quite work — there’s an episode that morphs into a gun control debate without warning, where most of the show’s political material is carefully set up — but it mostly remains a joy, and the finale (about which I’ll have more to say next week) is a dynamite piece of theater.

It’s a very successful run-through, but that doesn’t mean the work stops there. As every sitcom does, each performance of the script leads to a writers’ room meeting to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and how to make all of it better. They drill down to the most minute details, like Kellett insisting that adding the word “practically” to a punchline will make it much funnier because of how Moreno will pronounce it, or Royce wanting to change a joke about how Lydia thinks “FUBAR” is a “Chinese chocolate bar” to “Chinese nightclub” just to avoid the repetition of “bar.” Because Berto’s deceased in the present day, several writers keep pushing to do more with him while they can (“We’re obsessed with him,” explains Michelle Badillo. “He’s the dad that none of us had!”), while Calderon translates the lyrics of a Spanish lullaby sung to baby Elena for the non-Spanish speakers in the group.

As with any writers’ room, there’s plenty of opportunity for digressions, if not outright distractions — at one point, Royce refocuses the group’s attention by pantomiming reaching into a box and declaring, “Hey, look, there’s some comedy in there, we can find it!” — but soon, they’ve solved a number of lingering problems they’d had with the script, and almost every proposed change put on the whiteboard during this meeting winds up in the completed version.

The changes made, the group splits up to work on individual assignments, and I sit down with Kellett and Royce to talk about the rewriting process, what they learned about the show in season one, and more (this conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity):

Last year, what episode was toughest in the rewrite phase to finally nail down?

Royce: Five.

Kellett: The deportation episode.

Why that one?

Kellett: Because it’s difficult subject matter and we really wanted to try and be as sensitive as we could to what that is.

Royce: Structurally, also, that was envisioned as much like episode seven, which was the bottle episode, where Penelope’s on hold the whole time. That was going to be people showing up for a party, it turns into a discussion that gets out of control, and I’m not even sure we had half of the stuff we ended up having in there. Definitely Carmen was part of it, but it was like one long dinner party. A lot of it was not working, Penelope’s story in particular.

Kellett: She was just reacting, really.

Royce: And the story was too much, “We want to talk about stuff” as opposed to having a plot. So, we found out there, then we went through another iteration at the table, that was also, production-wise, a four-day week, so we had one less day to get all our shit together, and it just was a rodeo, ’til we got the tape back, when it was fantastic.

Eight episodes in, how has it gone this year, compared to last?

Kellett: I like this year better. Last season at the wrap party, Mike and I were like, “Oh, we’re screwed.” We felt really so good about season one, that you’re like, “What else are we gonna do?” I’m just as proud of this season and where it goes and where we arc out and stuff we got to talk about and that’s exciting. Because at the beginning it’s a blank page.

Royce: It’s definitely, in some ways, more ambitious.

The way this process works through Netflix, you’re making your first season entirely in a vacuum other than feedback from people working on the show. So, once it went out into the world and people saw it, how, if at all, did that impact things you did more or less of this year?

Kellett: I don’t know if it changes what we do necessarily. I think we’ve been so moved by the kindness that we’ve received. When you come with your show, you just start waiting for the trolls and the people that are going to take a dump on us. And there are people who are like, “I hate multi-cams! Oh, the laugh track!” I mean, I get it. I get it. It’s either your thing or not. I would say give us three episodes, if you don’t like it, then we’re not for you, and that’s okay. But people have been pretty nice. But I think we were going to do the stories we were going to do regardless.

Royce: I think it gave us confidence in the tone of the show. Not so much subject matter necessarily, cause that all came sort of … But just like, but this comedy with hopefully a lot of drama in it.

Kellett: People seem to be responding.

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