Episode 350 – F is for Family – Showrunner Mike Price
Episode 350 – F is for Family – Showrunner Mike Price
Mike Price is a Writers Guild Award and three-time Emmy Award-winning Writer and Producer. He is the Executive Producer and Showrunner of the acclaimed Netflix animated comedy series F is for Family, which he co-created with series star Bill Burr.
He is also a Writer and Co-Executive Producer on The Simpsons, having written over 20 episodes of the show – and served as a script consultant on The Simpsons Movie.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews Emmy Award-winning Writer, Producer and Showrunner Mike Price about his work on The Simpsons and F is for Family, the influence of improv on his work, the dread of the blank page and how COVID-19 has changed the writers’ room.
Michael Price on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0697052/
Michael Price on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-price-417a1311
Forbes Interview with Mike Price: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2020/10/12/interview-michael-price-the-simpsons-writer-and-co-creator-of-f-is-for-family-talks-the-art-of-writing-adult-animation/?sh=33acd7573352
[03:02] Mike Price Introduces Himself
[10:41] Starting Out in Improv
[13:29] Mike Talks About Joining The Simpsons
[23:39] The Lego Star Wars Franchise and Meeting George Lucas
[30:35] F is for Family and the Creative Process During COVID-19
[37:46] The Dread of the Blank Page
EPISODE 350 – F IS FOR FAMILY – SHOWRUNNER MIKE PRICE
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 350! I’m speaking with the Showrunner of F is for Family, as well as a Writer and Co-Executive Producer on The Simpsons. I’m really excited about this Podcast. We talk about how he started as a writer, how he joined The Simpsons, the Lego Star Wars Franchise and Meeting George Lucas and so much more!
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Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:04] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
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INTERVIEW WITH MIKE PRICE
[03:02] Allan: Mike, thanks so much for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Mike: Sure! My name is Mike Price. I am a writer and a producer on The Simpsons, and I was a Co-Creator / Showrunner for F is for Family on Netflix.
[03:21] Allan: I love that! One thing I ask every guest. Growing up, did you always think you’d be in some creative role?
Mike: I don’t know. Growing up I was a fan of tv, film. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey and I loved watching old cartoons and old movies. This was before the internet or cable, or streaming. Whatever was on tv was on tv. I grew up in an area that had several stations. I really gravitated toward the comedy of W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello. I even remember the old comedians. My favorite cartoons always were The Loony Toons. I became an encyclopedic fan of them. I’d learn the names of the characters and directors. I just loved it all and I never thought I’d be able to do it. In terms of creating and writing, it didn’t hit me as a thing I could do. I thought I was funny. My family is Irish Catholic and they were very big on making jokes. We learned quickly. We were 3 years apart from each other. It wasn’t until high school that I could see I could try to do that. SNL was fairly new at the time. I started to think it’d be fun to write that sort of stuff. But I never thought of it as a career choice.
[06:24] Allan: Do you ever look back at that moment and realize you’re actually doing it?
Mike: Absolutely! It was several years after high school that I started doing it. I was in a theater in college. I was an actor and a director. I went to grad school for theater. I came back from grad school and had various jobs. It wasn’t until I started getting involved with improv and sketch comedy in NYC that it led me to this path. After I moved to LA, it was very hard. I finally got my shot on a low budget sketch comedy. I was writing the first episode. That was exciting! And it got picked up and made into a pilot. It was shot at a studio in Hollywood which is now called Sunset Gower Studios. Back in the day, it was Columbia where they made the 3 Stooges. The window out of the bathroom faced the Hollywood sign. I’d be standing there staring at it.
[08:32] Allan: I used to live in Santa Monica. I was always so proud that I could see the Fox Plaza from my apartment.
Mike: I still love to see the Hollywood sign. Also, as a kid, I idolized everything about Hollywood. When I first moved out here, I was just driving around. Whenever I’d pass Paramount, I’d be like, “Wow, that’s Paramount!” Or when driving on Barham, I’d see the WB tower and the whole lot. It’d put me in the mindset of Blazing Saddles. I still couldn’t believe it! I’d work at the Fox Studios (before COVID), and I’d be driving up to the studio and it’s still so exciting.
[10:41] Allan: You’d mentioned studying improv. How were you able to utilize that later on?
Mike: It was hugely important. When I speak to younger artists who are trying to write, I recommend they take an improv class. I was at a school called Gotham School Imrov which was the offshoot of The Groundlings. It was a great training ground because it used games to spark your imagination. Then, they’d teach us by saying, “Take that character that came out in the improv and write a scene / monologue at home.” You’d have to craft the actual thing. It taught us sketch writing. It was all spontaneous. The essence of improv is yes-and-ing. It’s building on what the previous person said. Any collaborative thing is that! It’s that spirit of being open to new things and building on it. Improv was hugely instrumental to me.
[13:29] Allan: That’s cool! How did you get involved with The Simpsons?
Mike: I was aware of it, of course. When it first came on, I was just getting interested in doing this sort of stuff. I remember seeing the early Simpsons on the Tracey Ullman Show. When it came on, I was just getting involved in comedy and we all watched it. We watched it as a group. My getting involved in it stems from my very first sitcom show called Homeboys in Outer Space. It was on the UPN Network. It was really fun and silly. It was a parody of Star Wars, Star Trek, stuff like that. But as consulting producers on the show were these two guys who just got a deal with Disney, Al Jean and Mike Reese from The Simpsons. At the time, they were taking a break. I got to know them from there. Homeboys was canceled and they hired me to be on the set of Teen Angel. I really enjoyed working with them there. We kept finding yourselves working together. We got along and they liked me. Al became the showrunner on The Simpsons and he called me one night, “Someone just left, are you interested?” It was perfect timing because the show I was on was getting canceled. Al hired me and that was 20 years ago.
[16:42] Allan: What is it like to work on the most iconic piece of pop culture and the longest running animated show?
Mike: From a personal career standpoint, it’s been unbelievable. It’s the greatest thing to have a job. I just said it so many times, “This show got canceled, and this show got canceled…” That’s the life when you’re doing this sort of a job. You kill yourself to get on a show and it lasts a season. It’s really nomadic in that way. To be able to join the staff of The Simpsons (which was on the 13th season when I joined), no one knew it’d still be running 20 years later. I thought I’d have this job for a couple of years. From the financial security point, it was incredible. But I also knew I was stepping onto one of the greatest comedies of all time. I was really intimidated by it. My first couple of weeks was a real learning curve. I watched whatever I could. But there were these side characters I didn’t know, like Gil. It took a while to figure out all the characters and the key to writing a good Marge joke, or a good Homer joke. It took me about a year to feel like I knew what I was doing.
[19:41] Allan: What would be the difference between a Marge and a Homer joke?
Mike: Homer is like a dog. He’s excitable and gets distracted. It was hard to get a hold of Marge. One of the jokes was that she was comfortable getting marginalized. She is confined to the old idea of what a mom and a housewife is. There was an episode where she dressed up and said, “I feel like a wife of an executive.”
[21:11] Allan: You came on around the 300th episode. They’re past 700 now. How do you keep coming up with fresh ideas?
Mike: Well, sometimes we look at other characters that we haven’t plunged into. We did an episode that was about finding out about Chief Wiggum’s wife. Marge ended up having an episode with her. Sometimes it’s that. Or a combination of characters. But also, the show responds to what’s happening in the world, political or social. We have Marge getting involved in a sneaker design. It’s not easy, that’s for sure. We’re always looking for new ways to do it. We did a two-parter which was a Fargo-like version.
[23:39] Allan: With the Lego Star Wars franchise, how did you get involved with Lucasfilm? And how different is it from The Simpsons?
Mike: It started 10-11 years ago about putting on a show that was an animated comedic take on Star Wars that was going to be run by the guys who run Robot Chicken: Seth Green and Mathew Senreich. It was going to be called Star Wars Detours. George Lucas brought on a team and they were looking for people for that. They had groups of writers spend time with George Lucas at the Skywalker Ranch. They asked me if I was interested. I was but at the time, I couldn’t get away from The Simpsons. The people from Lucasfilm remembered me and when the Lego Star Wars idea came up, my name was in the running. They didn’t really know what they wanted to do but they’ve done some video games that didn’t have any dialogue. I got a call from my agent [that] they asked me to come up with an idea that would be fun. I wrote this thing and it became the first short story. I got a call saying they loved my story. I flew up to San Francisco and had a meeting. I went off and wrote some stuff. They were very free with me and told me to have fun with it. The one thing I did come up with was that one of the characters was a stowaway. His name was Ian, but then you find out his name was actually Han. It was fun. And they had me do a bunch more. I did get to go to Skywalker Ranch and meet George Lucas, and pitch some ideas to him. That was right around the time before the Lucasfilm sale to Disney went through.
[29:19] Allan: It’s been about 10 years since I was there. I used to work for ILM and the first day I was in orientation. The person to my right was in marketing and the person to my left was there to feed the horses.
Mike: The day I went to meet with Howard Roffman and his office was at the Presidio. We got to walk through the halls of ILM. It was unbelievable! ET’s bicycle was hanging from the ceiling. I could’ve just turned around right there and went home happy.
[30:35] Allan: I’d love to talk about F is for Family. When did the show come about?
Mike: It started with Bill [Burr] and his comedy and his life. He would do bits in his standup about growing up and how his father would yell at him; and about being bullied as a kid. When he started his career in the ‘90s, his stories would get laughed at. But with the current generation, they came off as sad. He wanted to reclaim them as comedic. He was never comfortable working on tv and nothing ever worked. He thought the network would water down his comedy. When this came around, he had a meeting at Vince Vaughn’s production company called Wild West Production Company. They mentioned that they wanted to do an animated series. They brought me on to meet with Bill to see if we were compatible. I am a little bit older than Bill but we have a shared outlook about how we grew up. We laughed about how free we were as kids to run around. I grew up in New Jersey and they’d send this giant mosquito truck blowing out this toxic pesticide. And we, kids, would run after it. He had a lot of respect for The Simpsons, too.
[34:00] Allan: I love that! How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
Mike: It happened so fast 2 years ago, in March 2020. That one week in March where it got worse every day. We went home to be virtual on Zoom. (I’d never heard of Zoom before.) Suddenly, we were working remotely like this. It took a while to figure it out. And I’m sure every person remembers what it was like. The thing we weren’t sure about, even though we knew we could write like that, was could we actually produce the show like this. Turns out we could. They sent mic setups to the homes of the actors. Most actors had podcast equipment already. Animators are mostly drawing on tables. The whole show was done remotely. The last season of F is for Family, we started working on it in 2020. And it just came out this past November. So the whole season was created remotely. Laura Dern did all of her part sitting in a closet in her home. We’d be recording her and a plane would fly over her house. But she did a great job! They all did a great job!
[37:46] Allan: It’s pretty surreal. You’ve got an immense amount of experience. Do you still dread writers’ block or the blank page?
Mike: I’m going through that right now. Doing this podcast is distracting me from doing a script assignment for The Simpsons. I love the idea and we spent a lot of the time in the room. But I feel that way every single time. It’s daunting. I tend to take the last script and plug in its outline. But I still have to convince myself I know what I’m doing.
[39:22] Allan: Over the course of the show, what was your process like with Bill Burr?
Mike: Over the course of the 5 seasons, he did an amazing thing for the first two seasons: He had the writer’s room meet full time for about 4 months. For that first season (which was only 6 episodes), he put everything in his career on hold. He was a full-time member of the writing staff. He didn’t want any special treatment. He was self-deprecating. It was incredible! For the 3-5 seasons, a lot of things in his career started taking off, his films and touring. We had a great relationship. He was less in the room for the last two seasons. But he’d be super involved in the beginning. One of the funny things we used in the fourth and fifth seasons was this idea he had where he was on a trip with his wife. Their Uber driver Bruce would say, “This is Bruce again.” “Bruce Again” would become a running idea. As we got into the production of it, he’d zero in and do his pitches for his character Frank. It was a great way to work together.
[43:06] Allan: What was it like to create the show and wrap it up?
Mike: We didn’t have a grand plan of what the seasons would be like. It was an incredible experience of coming up with silly jokes. One of my favorite running jokes was where Bill, the kid, tried to shoplift a hockey stick and he got caught. When they asked for his name, he gave the name of the school bully. Later on, the bully was beaten up by his father. Later on, the actual bully was about to beat up Bill. When he rides away, he gives his own name. A character bit became a thing. The character of Kevin had a fear of water. There is a moment where he falls through the ice. Frank comforts him. It’s so fun to create this world for the character. The difference between that show and The Simpsons is that each Simpsons episode is its own self contained universe. But on F is for Family has a through arc. We didn’t expect to end with season 5 and we had to bring it to a satisfactory ending.
[46:41] Allan: You’re working on Pink Panther now…
Mike: I’m not really involved with that. It’s on my IMDb. I got called a few years ago. I had a chance to meet a couple of my heroes like the producer (who produced the original one) Walter Mirisch. He is now in his 90s. He made The Great Escape. I got to work with him. Blake Edwards who was the director of the original one and his widow Julie Andrews was involved on the project. As it happens in Hollywood, I did some work on it but they wanted to go in a different direction.
[48:13] Allan: I saw that. My wife is doing a Pink Panther wrap for one of her car projects. I’m looking forward to it. Thank you for your time, Mike!
Mike: My pleasure, Allan! It’s fun to talk to you.
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Mike for taking the time to chat.
Please take a moment to share this Episode. Next week, I’m sitting down with Craig Weiss, Executive Creative Director at CBS VFX and Jim Berndt, Head Virtual Production.
Until then –
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