'Enlisted' producers Kevin Biegel & Mike Royce talk about FOX military comedy
On getting laughs while being respectful to the military, the 'Stripes' influence, and more
It isn't often that the creator of a sitcom gets choked up talking about his new show, but "Enlisted" isn't your typical sitcom. On the one hand, it's a goofy workplace sitcom about a straight-arrow brother (Geoff Stults from "The Finder") being forced to work alongside his misfit brothers (Chris Lowell from “Veronica Mars” and Parker Young from “Suburgatory”). On the other, their workplace happens to be an Army base, and even though they work in a rear detachment unit, doing support work on the homefront for the soldiers serving overseas, and the family members left behind, it's at a time when we still have soldiers risking their lives on foreign soil, a fact the show isn't blind to.
Before FOX moved "Enlisted" to midseason (it debuts on Friday the 10th at 9:30 p.m.), it was one of the few network fall pilots I genuinely liked, as much for the way it tried to balance "Stripes"-style hijinks with an acknowledgment of what's happening in the military right now. It's a show that manages to find laughs in Army life without actually making fun of the Army or its soldiers, a distinction that's important to creator Kevin Biegel, who learned to balance comedy and emotion on "Scrubs" and "Cougar Town." When I sat down with Biegel and fellow executive producer Mike Royce (co-creator of "Men of a Certain Age") back in the summer, Biegel got visibly emotional several times while discussing the subject matter, as well as the show's influences, his relationship with his own brothers, and more.
Assuming I have time next week (when approximately 73 new and returning shows are debuting), I’ll write a separate review, but if that doesn’t happen, know that I enjoyed it a lot.
Kevin, how closely does the relationship you have with your brothers mirror the one on the show?
Kevin Biegel: It was the reason to write the show. I wanted to do something that was incredibly personal, which may be a fool's errand in network television. But it just struck me that those relationships with my two younger brothers are the longest, closest relationships I have in my life. I have a sister I never talk about but I do have a sister, I have my folks, but they are the people that have been with me through some horrible things and some great stuff. So I really wanted to see if I could figure out how to write about that specific relationship. And as far as like the idea of why I set it in the military, I have so much military in my family it seemed like it would be kind of a nice thing to maybe put that intense brother relationship in the context of a place where literally brotherhood is one of the most important aspects of the job.
Does the military let brothers serve in the same unit like that?
Kevin Biegel: You can. There's been plenty cases of two brothers serving together; there's some cases of three. Especially because were on a state side base it's not such a huge stretch that, people are going to think this is totally fake. If you had 18 people in the same family on the same base it might be a little funky, but it's not that crazy.
You're setting a show in the military at a time in which our military is still active overseas. We're still in combat and there's a lot of controversy over whether we should be there. It's not like doing “Stripes” in 1981. This is a fraught time.
Kevin Biegel: Yes. It is. It's a very fraught time, which to me was the exact reason to do this show. There hasn't been a military comedy on TV in something like 20 years. It's been an ungodly amount of time. And yet I have so many friends that do this job. And you get two versions of a soldier in popular culture. You get the super soldier who's like something out of a video game who has no personality. Or you get like a “Hurt Locker” kind of guy, who's so ravaged and damaged by war that he can't even communicate with people.
Mike Royce: Be clear, these are depictions in the media.
Kevin Biegel: Depictions in the media, yes. And in real life that does exist. There's also a giant middle ground of people and people I know that do this job that love this job, that are inspired by this job, that are frustrated by this job sometimes, that find the humor in this job sometimes. And it just seemed crazy to not acknowledge that world, that we have to deal with it with kid gloves and not even talk about men and women that do this job day in and day out. These are happy, wonderful, noble people, people I know and they are funnier than anybody I know. So it just seemed like the right thing to set a show in this world and acknowledge this world and tell the stories of this world. And also at the same time acknowledge, in the course of this show that we're going to do, some of the harder things that happen because of war — the effect that war does have on people. We're not going to shy away from any of that.
Mike Royce: The rear detachment aspect was not something that I was aware of (before), but these guys are the guys who stay behind to take care of the base while others are off at war. Tons of Americans work at a base that's in the United States. But it also, to me one of the great things that brought me to the project was that there's stakes. There's stakes that are out there and you sort of hear the thunder; it's out there. They're not going to go fight and be in a war, but their workplace has importance in the world. And so there's a great mix of the mundane that they have to do on the base every day in this job, and it gets boring, and just like every other workplace you have to make it interesting, and all the things that come with a workplace comedy. But at the same time, it's unexplored territory. I remember growing up where it was like we were never at war; now for the last 20 years we're always at war.
Kevin Biegel: There's two generations of kids who've grown up at war. There is a generation of kids have grown up since 9/11 and there's 25 million active and retired veterans in this country. If you extrapolate that and say every one of those maybe knows three people or has three people they care about, you're talking about 100 million people. But yet nothing is acknowledging that existence. And no shows are talking about what it's like to do that job and I just don't think that's right. To be on a soapbox for a second, I think there is a world of stories out there that should be acknowledged and the funny, goofy, crazy stories as well as the heavier stuff. Because the show that's being sold right now, that people have seen, isn't the show we intend (to make); the pilot isn't the show we want to do eventually. The world of “Scrubs” is where I cut my teeth. That show mixed stuff that was kind of silly with some intensely emotional moments. That's what this show is going to do.
So you have to balance a couple of things here. You have to get laughs about the Army without making it seem like you're making fun of it.
Kevin Biegel: Yeah, but that's one distinction though. We're not getting laughs about the Army. It's all character-based laughs. We're not trying to do some wicked satire here. This isn't poking fun or mocking anything. All the laughs here come from the anatomy of the situation these guys find themselves in and the characters. This is never going to be the show where we're just mocking Uncle Sam for whatever choices they're making. It's not about that and we can't make it political one-way or jingoistic the other way because we're going to lose viewers.
The pilot is very respectful of the Army and makes clear the importance of this unit even though it's staffed with misfits. But you've got people on both sides of the spectrum where if you go an inch this way or an inch that way, they're going to hate you.
Kevin Biegel: All we can do at the end of the day is say, “Here's the show in its entirety.” And our intentions should be very clear once you see all of these episodes. And episode to episode, we're never doing anything that we feel is pushing it too far or making fun of or something that's going to offend people. We pull ourselves back all the time saying, “This is going to be too much. We don't want to offend so-and-so.”
Mike Royce: We're never mocking the idea of being a soldier. All the comedy hopefully comes from the fact that this is their workplace. The Army gives you this big broad canvas and a lot of outside stuff and there's just a big things that happen there. It gives you the opportunity for physical comedy, yes, some slapstick and some broad stuff, but that's part of the mix. It doesn't mean that we don't want the characters themselves to be grounded and the characters to be there for a reason. They'll be questioning maybe what reasons they're there for, but that's part of the fun.
Kevin Biegel: They're human beings too. And at the end of the day anyone can get offended by anything. And it one person takes offense at something we do, I apologize in advance. But we can't try to answer every single possible offense from the get-go, because then whether it's in the Army or whether it's in an office or whether it's they're police officers, you're going to totally cripple yourselves. All we can do is try to tell a really true honest stories about these characters and brothers in this world and do everything we can to let anyone in the military know our intentions are noble and it's just to shine a light on a job that we think is interesting and important.
You both have experience with comedy/drama hybrids, Kevin with “Scrubs,” Mike with “Men of a Certain Age.” What discussions have you had with Fox about taking the show in some of these more serious directions you’ve talked about?
Kevin Biegel: They're for it. They've known from the get-go that there's things that we want to deal with in the show that you wouldn't normally see on a sitcom. I even contend that even in the pilot, Geoff sitting in the bar and having a private moment looking at a picture of a soldier who passed away isn't something you normally see. Having him talk about his father who passed away isn't something that happens, I love “30 Rock”; it isn't something you do on 30 Rock every week. We don't want to scare an audience away and we certainly don't want to be treacly, but we want to make sure that all of that comedy and all the characters is grounded by something real in each of these episodes in each of the stories that we tell. And every time we've come to Fox and said, “Look, we want to take this character here, we want to show that maybe Geoff’s character isn't 100 percent the same after he came back from overseas,” they're behind it because they know that we're being very careful with it. But they also know that's an area that we want to go. If we're just goofy, the show's not worth doing.
Mike Royce: The way we're approaching it isn't like we can't wait to take the show into this dark area or this dark area or this dark area. It just means we want the world to be grounded and real and then we're trying to tell a good story. Those good stories go into what these people do; what these people do go into certain areas. Comedy is job one. Obviously it's a comedy but just like “The Office” can get emotional, we're emotional people.That's what we discovered about each other.
Kevin Biegel: Oh my god.
Mike Royce: And as much as we want to have a fat guy on a wall occasionally, and a broad joke here as part of the mix, what we're drawn to is the real behind the characters. And that helps drive everything. And once we ground it we get into the silly because we can have fun with it.
Geoff Stults is a guy who Bill (Lawrence) would call a handsome face jock, but he's shown to have this sillier side over time.
Kevin Biegel: Yeah, he's been great. We really needed someone on this who could ground the entire thing, but you could also buy as a soldier, you could also buy as a big brother, and he was also funny. And Geoff gave us all of that. The great thing about him is just from day one on the pilot, he was so engaged as far as meeting every single actor. He read with a couple hundred actors before we found Chris and before we found Parker. He really wanted to make sure that this seemed like a real cohesive brother unit. And I think that's one of the strongest things about the show is that there's no fake chemistry, it's all real. They're like three brothers. They act like three brothers.
Mike Royce: On “Men of a Certain Age,” Ray (Romano) obviously was around and we did everything together. Geoff, even though he was not co-creating the show or whatever, he came to all the reads and everything. The chemistry thing reminded me that on “Men of a Certain Age,” the most important thing was that we had to buy that they're friends. The moment that you don't buy they're friends those shows not working. So we spent an enormous amount of time on it. Geoff was really intent on that as that was our intent is that that relationship is the thing that is the anchor of the show. And these guys, that chemistry between them, I don't want to oversell it, but they really clicked and it took a little while to find it but Geoff was like driving that. And it works really well.
Kevin Biegel: And it turned into these guys. I mean Parker's hanging out at Geoff's house and Chris is making fun of both of 'em for hanging out so much together. Parker follows Geoff around like a puppy dog; it's hilarious.
Mike Royce: They really have embraced their roles offstage.
Kevin Biegel: It makes our job easier.
How do you fit someone with such a goofy persona like Parker Young’s character into this world?
Kevin Biegel: Well, he's earnest, and that's what drives him, and he's enthusiastic. And on these bases in rear D, such a huge part of that job is dealing with the families of deployed soldiers and dealing with the husbands and wives and the kids of these soldiers who are overseas. And maybe engaging with those people is something that Geoff's character and Chris's character wouldn't be great at. But Parker's character’s wonderful at it.
Mike Royce: In the pilot you see a lot of what Randy wants to be but can't be and is terrible at. And as we go along you see also the whole other side, which is he loves being there. Why does he love being there? He's good at certain other things; he just has this whole other skill set.
Would you each say that “Stripes” is your favorite military comedy or would you pick something else?
Kevin Biegel: “Stripes” is my favorite.
Mike Royce: Yeah, I guess I'd have to say “Stripes.”
Kevin Biegel: “Stripes” was on repeat while the pilot was getting written.
Mike Royce: First hour.
Kevin Biegel: Yeah, the first hour of stripes.
Do you guys go back at any of the older military comedy shows like “McHale's Navy,” or “The Phil Silver Show,” any of that when it was in repeats growing up?
Mike Royce: I have not. I'm trying to get my head full of current military knowledge so I know what world I'm in. If I know the workplace, it's more about the personal show what's happening there.
Kevin Biegel: And I really wanted to do something that reflected the world now. You go back to like Bilko or “McHale's Navy,” as funny as those shows are, those shows on the air now would be what the show shouldn't be. If it's just straight goofy and funny, that's not what this show should be. And I didn't want that to, I don't want to say “taint,” but I didn't want this show to take that kind of directional turn. It's still got to be funny; it still got to be engaging and people still have to like it, but I don't think we can do Bilko today. You have to tweak it a little bit. I love “M*A*S*H,” obviously, but for inspiration I'm looking at stuff like “The Office” and “New Girl.” Those people who exist in those worlds on those shows also exist in the world of the military.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com