It’s a pretty good time to be Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, co-creators of HBO’s unconventional family comedy “Togetherness”. Having made their bones in independent film, the Duplass brothers are now in demand on TV both in front of the camera and behind it. This year, Mark will wind up his stint on FX’s “The League”, and Jay will return into season two of Amazon Studios’ acclaimed comedy “Transparent.” The pair also play the memorable. insufferable male midwives Brendan and Duncan Deslaurier on Fox’s “The Mindy Project.”
“We never planned any of this,” Jay admitted. “We honestly just thought that we would just make stuff on the side, that we would just probably be editors or something. That’s what we did in our early 20s.”
“Or teachers, even,” Mark added.
“We just feel crazy lucky!” said Jay.
Their latest project, “Togetherness,” premieres 9:30 Sunday, January 11. Jay executive produces while Mark, also an EP, stars as Brett Pierson, a sound editor living in a lovely Los Angeles house with two kids and a solid, if sex starved, relationship with his wife Michelle (Melanie Lynskey). When his best friend Alex (Steve Zissis, who co-created the show with the brothers) decides to give up on his stalled acting career and head back to Detroit, Steve coaxes Alex to move in with his family instead. At the same time, Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) decides to stay on indefinitely.
Sounds like, say, “Full House”. But it does not play out that way, not by a longshot. “Togetherness” is one of the most thought-provoking new shows on television and a stand-out among new comedies, with characters who are as hilarious as they are flawed and heartbreaking. It may also be one of the most relatable portrayals of human connection, and disconnection, that TV has shown in a long time.
We sat down with Jay and Mark Duplass at the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour, currently underway in Pasadena, California, to talk about what inspired the stories viewers will see playing out over the show’s eight-episode first season.
IMDbTV: This is one of those shows that if you walked it into a broadcast network pitch meeting, they’d say, “Oh! This is like ‘Modern Family’!”
Mark: All of the elements on paper technically could make for the sh-ttiest network sitcom ever. But Jay and I talk a lot about how we make things. We actually try not to reinvent plot and story. We tend to think, ‘Use those to your advantage.’ What we like to do is pick out the chess pieces inside of the plot and replace them with different kinds of elements and let them interact in a way that’s more unique. So you’re still sending the viewers on the rollercoaster that they’ve gone up before, but hopefully the way we deliver it is unique.
IMDbTV: The last time that HBO did a show that had the same kind of typical network comedy conceit was…do you guys remember “Lucky Louie”? In retrospect, it was very much underappreciated for what it was. When you two were conceiving the show, was there any trepidation about using these frameworks that have been used previously, as Louie did?
Jay: Not really. We are so insanely picky about what excites us and what we want to be doing. We only realized later that we conceived something that could be pitched to a network, when we start talking about it objectively. The way that we talk about things is way non-conceptual.
Mark: It’s a little more myopic.
Jay: I’ll come to Mark, and I’ll say things like, “Steve (Zissis)’s” life should be a TV show.” Think about Steve, he was the guy from our high school who was the president of our high school. He got all the girls. He was the lead in all the plays, just like he says in the show. And now, he’s chubby and bald, and he’s dying in Hollywood. He’s afraid that he’s going to die with his magic inside of him, and no one’s going to get to hear or see what he’s capable of.
…Our style is documentary and verite. The stuff that we write about tends to come from our lives. At the time, we were in our late 30s, and we had young kids, and we were getting our asses kicked by these kids. But everyone was looking and us like, “You have everything. You have a house, and you have wonderful wives and family, and you have an incredible career.” But at the time…we were trying to find some kind of balance where we could be great dads and good husbands, and also keep our careers going, and we felt like we were drowning the whole time.
The more we talked about it, the more we started laughing about it. And then other people, we’d start talking to other people and they’d start laughing at us and say, “Oh yes, same stuff happened to me.”
… It was the type of thing where we were just like, “Oh my god, this is a phenomenon that’s happening to us right now, and everyone we talk to about it can relate to it.” You know, normally we would do a movie but this thing just kept going on and on. There was so much material. We were like, “Maybe we should go back and talk to HBO again.”
IMDbTV: The extraordinary thing about “Togetherness” is that there are so many comedies on right that are either about people just starting out in adulthood, or about the family. There’s not really any other situation comedy on that speaks to the mud that gets into relationships, the muck of knowing other people and having them be integrated into one’s life.
Mark: Yeah. There’s definitely something to be said for the fact that your average show either shows the beginning of the road trip, where everyone’s packing, or the last five miles of the road trip. But you don’t often get to see mile 250 of the 500 mile trip, which is kind of what our show is to a certain degree… It’s hard to describe this, but when you’re taking this sort of approach we’re discussing, which is a like, a naturalistic, honest and ideally realistic approach in portraying relationships, that storytelling is normally 100 percent dramatic and almost didactic at times. …It really felt like, there’s really not much out there that is a “hard-hitting,” naturalistic, realistic portrayal of this time in life, that also has a sense of humor about it too. That’s kind of how we see the world, so it isn’t like we had to fabricate that. It’s, luckily, what we kind of like doing.
IMDbTV: Shows that start out like “Togetherness” does – as in, there are lots of laughs, and you’re really getting to know these characters and falling in love with them through humor, and then it becomes serious without growing heavy – it seems to be very difficult to pull that kind of thing off on TV. When some shows do that, the audience almost feels betrayed.
Jay: “Hey! I’m coming to have fun on a Friday night, dude. Don’t f—k with me!” Yeah, that’s our obsession in general. We want to laugh, but we also want to go deep. That’s where tons of our energy goes. We don’t have to talk it that much, but when we start talking about tone and riding that right line, that’s when Mark and I really start to dial in exactly what we want. It’s interesting, because we don’t have to do it that much on set. On set, we’re just trying for truthful performances and we’re trying to create scenarios that are going to make people laugh after the fact. In editorial, that’s when we really start talking about, how do we dial in the right amount of pathos and the right amount of comedy here?
Because sometimes, you just want to stick the knife in and let it sit there for a little while.
Mark: Well, and sometimes the knife is funny, too. That’s when it’s the best, you know, when the moment encompasses both these things and you don’t have to think: “Time for a little comedy here!” “Time for a little drama!” Where there’s a moment where you’re like, “I know that this is sad and hard for them, but I don’t know why, I want to laugh. That’s my favorite stuff.”
IMDbTV: Yes, and I think the idea of comedy of coming from pain can be hard sell on network television.
Mark: It’s certainly celebrated in independent film, which is where we come from, so it’s not strange to us. But I don’t disagree with you – it’s not easy to find, particularly on network television. Look, TV is an enormous investment. They want to know what they’re getting. They want it more f—king dialed in, because they’re scared to lose money on it. That’s why it’s great to be at a place like HBO, where they believe in us, and support us, and let us cast our friend from high schooland make the show that we want to make — which is unheard of, really.
IMDbTV: And this year, you may find yourselves competing against each other when the Emmys roll around. Are you two ready for that?
Jay: We talked about it.
Mark: We each brought our own therapists into the room, and we decided to just let our therapists have a boxing match and figure out what would happen. (Laughs.) I honestly have not even thought about that. Honestly, my first instinct is that it would be horrible if Jay and I were nominated in the same category for different shows, so that can’t happen. But at the same time…
Jay: If we’re both nominated, it’s like, what are you talking about? It would be the coolest thing in the world! I mean, honestly, the fact that I’m going the Golden Globes is insane to me. I’m going to be sitting with Jeffrey Tambor this year.
Mark: And you’re going to watch him in a Golden Globe.
Jay: I hope so. It would be amazing.
IMDbTV: Last question: If anyone were to sit down with you and ask you to recommend a TV series – besides the obvious answer – what would you tell them?
Mark: Go buy – immediately – “The Staircase”. It’s a 2004 series from the Sundance Channel. For those of you who are fans of Serial, get ready to have your minds blown wide open.
Jay: I agree with that. That was huge.