An Inside Look at Writing For ‘The Michael J. Fox Show’

We love Michael J. Fox (yeah, we’re talking personally, not just his work cuz he really is a hella guy), and are rooting for his new series. (We’re also waiting for something really new and interesting, oh yeah, and funny to appear on it, but that’ll have to wait for a TVWriter™ review.)

Meanwhile, here’s a little something to read about it – and, more importantly, about what it’s really like to get your first gig on a TV comedy show – on your phone while you watch the next episode:

The Michael J. Fox Show - Season Pilot

by Elena Sheppard

There are real-life parallels happening Thursday nights on The Michael J. Fox ShowAs Michael J. Fox (beloved actor, household name) returns to NBC primetime with his new sitcom, his character Mike Henry (beloved news anchor, household name) is returning to his desk on NBC’s nightly news. Henry, like Fox, is coming back after a post-Parkinson’s diagnosis hiatus, and the show pokes fun at the baggage that brings, both professionally and personally. “NBC’s going to milk it by showing me in slow motion with lame uplifting music in the background,” Henry says in the pilot episode.

It’s no easy task getting a gig writing for a program like The Michael J. Fox Show, one of the most exciting new comedies on television this season. After last week’s premiere, PolicyMicchatted with Annie Mebane, one of the show’s 11 writers (she also worked on Communityand Happy Endings) about breaking into the TV writing business, the delicacy of Parkinson’s jokes, and why Michael J. Fox is still one of the funniest guys on television.

Elena Sheppard (ES): I’d love to hear a little about how The Michael J. Fox Showcame together and at what stage in the process you became involved. 

Annie Mebane (AM): I’m not sure exactly who approached who first in terms of Will [Gluck] or Michael J. Fox, but Will Gluck and Sam Laybourne created the show based on a lot of Michael J. Fox’s real-life situations. They brought it to networks, and it sparked a bidding war, and then NBC bought it with a 22-episode commitment.

The pilot was shot over last December and January, and that’s when my writing partner, Steve Basilone, and I heard that it was staffing up to start in March. We are both huge Michael J. Fox fans — his work from the 80s and the 90s — and both of us really appreciate how he’s reinvented himself as a philanthropist and an activist, his books, the way he handles himself. We just really admire him on a lot of levels. So we were very interested in the project and … we just aggressively told everyone we knew, “please can someone help us get a meeting with this show.” We read the script, and it was very smart and heartwarming, but also funny and had a lot of fresh jokes in it, while still feeling like a family sitcom in a sort of cozy way. We interviewed, and were just crossing our fingers like crazy. Then we got the job, and started in mid-March. We all worked in Los Angeles for three months before we moved to New York. Almost the whole staff had to relocate, but we were all willing to do it because we really believe in the show and really love Michael J. Fox, and all of our upper-level producers. It’s such a great environment that the cross-country move made perfect sense. I don’t think I’d do that for just any show.

ES: I can’t believe you guys all moved. That’s kind of amazing.

AM: I know! It was sort of overwhelming, navigating the renter’s market with the whole series. We were trying to break stories while also pounding the pavement looking for a place.

ES: The show obviously has a lot to do with Parkinson’s disease. In the writer’s room, behind the scenes, how do you guys know if you’re crossing a line with a joke, or what’s going too far? That seems like it could be a very gray area. 

AM: A lot of times, we approach the stories as, “this is a relatable story that could happen in any family,” and then Parkinson’s is the twist or the detail that makes it specific to our characters. I know for me, personally — and I can’t really speak for everyone, because I don’t know how they think about it — but I think if the joke is like, “ha ha, this person has a disease and is shaking,” I don’t find that structure funny. But I enjoy jokes about people’s reactions – I find the character Kay in the pilot really funny. I like her because she highlights the real absurdity of how people react to Michael J. Fox. She’s trying so hard to be deferential that she’s mildly insulting. I think that’s a funny attitude to highlight in a show that has a character with Parkinson’s. A lot of the jokes that are about Parkinson’s come from Mike [Fox] himself. He has a great sense of humor, and a lot of times he’ll say, “I could make this joke here.”

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