Inspired by his own childhood, Tim Doyle assures us The Kids Are Alright
Imagine growing up a middle kid with seven brothers.
Tim Doyle didn't have to imagine it when he set out to write the new ABC comedy, The Kids Are Alright. He lived it. The series, set in 1972, premieres on ABC on October 16 at 8:30 p.m., following The Conners.
Doyle says, "My family grew up in Glendale in a fairly modest circumstance. There were 10 of us, eight kids, the children were all boys. Eight boys. The kids range in age.
"So, there was about a year and a half period, I think maybe a two-year period where we were all under one roof. When the oldest hadn't disappeared yet and the youngest hadn't been born yet and so this is why I picked 1972, because it was around then that it was the most intense with the most people in the house sharing and fighting over resources."
"[That was] also where my character was young enough to not be a teenager yet, not to be an adolescent who's going to be overwhelmingly driven by girls and that kind of stuff but rather, there's something very sweet about that preadolescent era in your life when your ambitions are unburdened by sex.
"Your ambitions are you want to be a cowboy or you want to be a fireman or in my instance, I wanted to be an actor and a comedian or whatever. So, there's something very sweet about that. So, I wanted to pick up the Timmy character at that point, rather than just him chasing girls which is so often the case on these shows."
Timmy, the middle child, was inspired by Doyle himself. "At a very early age I had a ridiculous love of show business and wanted to be a performer, wanted to be involved in this business any way I could manage and I was an insufferable clown about it," Doyle says.
"It was a way to differentiate myself from this mob of people I was living with and stake out my own claim to the kind of person I wanted to be.
"So, in that environment of all these people, I was put in a position to be a little bit of a non-conformist, to be a black sheep who stood out as asking for something unreasonable in a place where the resources were limited.
"I wanted to be creative. I wanted to be able to get out and do fun things, and our whole family's survival was based on cooperation and not asking for too much above and beyond the basics. So, I found myself at odds with the culture of the house and that's a lot of what we're writing about in the show."
The eldest brother, as well, is indicative of the era. "It's the structure of the pilot that this person with long hair comes back into the house and tells mom and dad that he's not going to continue with pursuing the thing that they'd expected him to pursue and yes, just the idea of that is a breath of fresh air in this house that's a little musty and feels like it might as well be the 1950's, and he's going to come in and shake things up a little bit and ask the mom and dad to reevaluate their values a little bit."
Even though Doyle grew up in the Los Angeles area, it wasn't much help to him as a young man. "At that time especially, it felt, even though we grew up here in the Los Angeles area and show business was all around us, it felt very far away from the life we were living and it seemed just as inaccessible as if we were growing up in Iowa somewhere.
"So, you'd know a friend of a friend whose father worked for one of the studios on something or we would drive by the various studios at various points when we're out and about in the area and you just look at those walls and you think, 'Wow, I wonder what's going on over there. I wonder what's going on, on those sound stages. What are they doing right now?'
"And it was just the kind of thing that always kept me very interested and very excited about the nature of this work and I was trying to figure out whatever angle I could find to get into this business from the time I was conscious enough to know it existed as a way of life for people."
Distant as it seemed, though, Doyle was determined, and he always stayed on the path, no matter how it meandered.
He says, "It was a long path but when I was a kid, I did a bunch of plays and things like that and in school, I was always the guy who wrote the sketches for the various events and would MC the event and I would get up and sing, not very well and I would do jokes not very well and do magic tricks not very well and then at a certain point, I started doing more and more writing, and I did journalism and I had this multi-prong attack on it.
"By the time I was in [college], I was directing plays and then I quit school for a while. I ran a little theater with some friends. We operated a little equity waiver theater for a couple years and eventually, I went back to film school at USC in the '80s.
"I went to film school and I went through that program and I came out the other side of that program having made a funny student film that got some recognition and Disney put me under contract to work on a show called Dinosaurs, which was a Jim Henson show back in 1990.
"It was my first job. I worked there for two and a half, three years on that job and then pretty much I haven't stopped working in TV ever since.
"I learned so much there and I met some of my writer friends who are still among my closest friends and it was just such a great seminal experience for me but by the time that happened for me, I was 30. It took me a long time of feeling my way around and sniffing the periphery of this business to land in a place where I was actually making a good living at it.
"So, for most of my youth and my 20s, I'm sure I looked to my parents like a ne'er-do-well.
"I was never going to have dental coverage or anything like that and then, it suddenly erupted around that point that I was going to work in show business and their heads snapped because it was like, 'Oh, not only is he doing this. It's lucrative and it's conspicuous and it's fun,' and so, they got very excited about my career but it took a long time for them to get fully on board with what I was doing."
In writing this show, Doyle drew on his family and their experiences, but never too specifically. "My parents are dead but my brothers are around and some of them are here and some of them are out of state and I'm closer to some of them than others. So, I've had some contact with a few of them about it but I'm trying to keep the brood at arm's-length a little bit.
"I hope they like the way the family is being portrayed. All the names are changed and I tried to avoid making any of the characters too specifically any one of my brothers. I borrowed aspects and characteristics from each one and rearranged them a little bit to protect my brothers' anonymity because they didn't sign up to be characters on a sitcom, but they will certainly recognize incidents and experiences from our childhood on the show."
When it came to casting, Doyle and his producers approached it with great care. Doyle says, "We worked hard at it. It was a very thoughtful process. I mean, we started with Michael Cudlitz and Mary McCormack as the parents and Michael had always been [first choice], almost from the time ABC was saying, 'Well, this might really happen. Do you have any casting ideas?'
"I made a short list of people I thought would be good to play the father. I didn't want a typical sitcom dad who was a comedian. I wanted somebody who carried authority and could be intimidating. My memories of my dad, a lot of the time, were him being pretty tough and being this very old school authority figure.
"So, Michael was very near the top of that list from the time we started, and then Mary came in and read, and I was surprised because I was a big fan of her work but we were still feeling out how to portray the mother because the mother is a little bit of a trickier role.
"She has this domineering, passive-aggressive quality. She says a lot of fairly harsh things as a way of keeping her kids in line and in her exasperation and exhaustion from the work that she does around the house.
"So, we had to find somebody who could pull that off without being unlovable, unsympathetic, and Mary came in and nailed it and after we saw her, there was no discussion and then the rest of the boys, it was a long process of bringing people in and flying people in. Half of our cast is from the New York auditions or the Chicago midwestern auditions.
"We saw people from everywhere. We saw people from overseas. We kept looking at tapes and bringing people in and then we created various teams of people who seemed to work together in terms of who looked like they might be a family and it was a slow winnowing process that obviously included the director Randall Einhorn and the casting people and bosses over at ABC, both the studio and the network and I think we landed in a really good place.
"When you're doing a pilot in the spring, the bulk of your time is spent on the casting process and we were working that from probably January through the end of March or whatever. There was a long period of time there where we saw session after session."
The casting process was further complicated by the fact that they were casting a family. They decided to take a different approach to that element. "Part of our priority, we gave up at a certain point trying to hope that people would look exactly the same or would match in a physical way.
"We decided to instead emphasize the differences and let them become distinct because that's part of the problem with a show with this many kids, right? You can't tell one from the other. You can't keep track of who's who and my hope was by the end of the pilot, you'd have a decent sense of who each of them are and I feel like that's one of the things we did successfully."
In the end, the success of the show is up to the audience. Doyle says, "It's a funny, lovely show and I hope they watch it. I feel pretty confident that if they sample our show, they'll probably like it."