By Sean Tuohy and Daniel Ford
Showrunners Kevin Biegel (also known for “Cougar Town” and “Scrubs”) and Mike Royce (also known for “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Men of a Certain Age”—a personal favorite of mine) eagerly agreed to answer some of our questions even as they continued to fight hard to keep their show on the air.
The world needs as many well-written comedies as it can get, so do them a favor and tune in to “Enlisted” on Sundays at 7 p.m. on FOX. Biegel is also offering a steak dinner to any Nielsen family that tunes in. So there's that.
Daniel Ford: When did you two decide to become television writers?
Kevin Biegel: I'd always wanted to be a writer. I grew up making and loving movies, but never thought of it as a real profession. Early on after I moved to Los Angeles I got a chance to do roundtable punch up on some movies, and off of that experience I realized that I really enjoyed writing with a group of people like that. Television is pretty much that nonstop, so I decided to pursue it from there.
Mike Royce: I was a television-watching fool growing up and used to make Super 8 films with my friends during my tween/teen years. Then went to film school and started writing there but took a detour to be a standup comic during my twenties and much of my thirties. That led me back to TV writing when "Everybody Loves Raymond" offered me a job.
Sean Tuohy: Where did the idea for “Enlisted” come form? Was it from somewhere personal?
KB: It was very personal. I'm pulling stories and relationships from my life, my relationships with my two younger brothers, and also our feelings/my feelings toward the military because I grew up with it as a reality in my life. My father, grandfather, and uncle all served. I had written on “Scrubs,” and liked being able to write about specific character relationships that I was familiar with in a very specific workplace world.
ST: How did you pitch “Enlisted” to the network?
KB: It was basically as a workplace comedy, albeit a workplace you hadn't seen in a comedy for years. I was really specific about the characters, and also about the tone and feel of the show. I just wanted to ensure that they knew it was something big and inviting and joyous while also being serious at times—that it would shift from comedy to some more dramatic elements at times and then back to comedy. I really tried to show that they could co-exist like they had on shows I had always loved and that I hoped this show could be like in success.
ST: Sergeant Hill has PSTD, which is not a very funny topic, but “Enlisted” approaches in a real way. What research did you do in regards to PTSD? Do you think the show will help shed some more light on this issue? Have you had any feedback from members of the armed services regarding the show?
KB: We did a lot of research, talked to a lot of veterans and men and women currently serving. It was of utmost importance that we didn't fall into the harmful stereotype of "person back from war who is a ticking time bomb." That's not a fair view to take of men and women coming back from deployment, but it's one that a lot of shows unfortunately do because...well, maybe because it's easy, or maybe because they don't want to take the time to show a better, more honest portrayal for the majority of veterans. It's not funny, you're right, but we never intend it to be funny. We want it to be honest to the character, we want to be respectful of it, and we want to be able to address it in the middle of a comedy both because of the challenge and because it's the kind of show we want to make.
I like comedy that challenges me with more emotional stuff, that doesn't always just go "joke joke joke" and then you're done. We want to be funny first and foremost, but if we're going to do a show set in this world we have to address the tougher aspects of it. If we don't, I don't think we're doing a very good job. We've heard from a number of people in the military community, and we are absolutely humbled when they say that the show has helped them go get help, has helped them have a dialogue with their kids about their experience. That's amazing to us. Someone wrote the other day that “Enlisted” has started coming up in their group therapy, just as shorthand to talk about experiences that sometimes aren't so easy to talk about. That blows me away, and it makes me proud to be a part of the show.
ST: Did you receive any support from the Army?
KB: Initially we didn't, because they feared we were just going to mock them; that we were just another piece of pop culture that was going to make fun of them and their way of life. I think now that they see the comedy is coming from a group of people who have very personal connections with the military, they are more open to us in an "official" capacity. We had to prove ourselves, which is totally expected and cool. We should have to prove ourselves!
ST: “Enlisted” is part workplace comedy, part family comedy. Is it difficult to balance these two types of humor?
MR: You know it's funny because workplace comedies are about family in some sense...that group of people becomes a family. That's especially true in the Army—see the phrase "Band of Brothers." In this case we have the added dynamic of the Hill brothers working out their family issues but it just adds to the depth in my opinion. It gives us more places to draw from. I think given the chance to do future episodes we would delve into more family members of both the Hills and the other characters.
ST: Unlike other comedies that take time to establish their humor, “Enlisted” establishes it very well in the pilot. How long did it take the writing staff to discover the show's voice?
MR: Kevin established very specific voices for the characters right from the start. He is drawing from his own trio of brothers for Pete/Derrick/Randy so the back and forth and punching came right out of him. Command Sergeant Major Cody's voice also flowed right out of him, I don't know how but there was a specificity there that was hilarious and really clicked. Sergeant Perez’s badass quality too. Then our amazing cast took those words and their immense talent and took everything to another level. The other platoon members only had one or two lines in the pilot but they immediately showed off their many comedic talents (including some choice ad-libs) and we wrote to all that as quickly as we could.
DF: Workplace comedies used to be staples of the television landscape, but seem to be harder to develop audiences today. Do you think that trend will ever come back, or will these shows find a home on cable or online channels?
MR: There is a great flattening going on where most comedies draw similar numbers. Networks are trying to adjust their expectations. Comedies need nurturing and I think there's a slow recognition that it's okay to keep something that's doing "so-so" because today's "so-so" is tomorrow's hit in this day and age. That works better than constantly chasing “Big Bang Theory” numbers and ending up with even worse ratings than you had. And if you look at history pretty much every single mega-billion dollar comedy hit started out struggling.
DF: You've both been involved in great television shows with long runs, and television shows that were critically acclaimed, but struggled to find an audience. Has there been any point in your careers when you thought, "I need to do something else, I can't keep going through this."
MR: Everyday! But then I remember I have no other skills. I barely have these skills.
KB: Sure, then I see all the free food in the kitchen at work and I'm like, okay, this is pretty sweet. I should keep trying to do this. Work is all about free food, basically.
DF: What's the best part of working in a writer's room on a television show? What's one of the most memorable moments you had while writing "Enlisted" or any of your other shows?
MR: In a good group, you get to bitch and moan and celebrate and laugh your ass off. There's all these funny people around you making you laugh and then they pay you. It's honestly absurd (don't tell the studio).
KB: It's what Mike said. You get to hang out with funny people all day long, and thankfully they're all really kind and cool as well. We didn't hire one dick! I think as far as a memorable moment, I am kind of partial to that time we sat a table going, "Are we really gonna have a gun that makes people poo their pants? Really?" and then going all in.
ST: Is there any chance that “Enlisted” can live on while on another network?
MR: Yes! And that's all I can say right now. Well that and please watch our last four episodes, Sundays at 7 p.m. EST/6 p.m. CST.
KB: Tell every one of your friends to watch if they can, tell them to tell their friends, and if you can find a Nielsen family we'll buy them a steak dinner if they tune in.
DF: If this is truly the end for "Enlisted," at what point do you start developing a new idea for your next show?
MR: Pretty much now. I'm writing a pilot, but still focused on doing whatever we can for “Enlisted” first.
KB: Kinda always for me, actually. I love “Enlisted” with all my heart, but I'm a writer and I'm always working on something. I beat myself up a lot. I have to do it or I hate myself for not doing it.
DF: Name one random fact about yourselves.
MR: I have a full head of hair that I have hidden since age 25 under a bald cap.
KB: I know the name of every shark that swims in every ocean.