Andy Daly, star of Comedy Central’s new mockumentary series Review, outlines the rules to writing his character Forrest MacNeil, a critic who rates life experiences like addiction, racism, and making a sex tape with dark and entertaining results.
Written by Denis Faye
(March 28, 2014)
Every writer loves that magic moment when inspiration strikes. You’re toiling away (or maybe just sitting around) when, out of nowhere, BAM! An amazing idea drops into your lap. There’s nothing better.
Except, maybe, when someone else’s amazing idea drops in your lap – as happened to actor-writer Andy Daly when Comedy Central approached him about adapting the Australian pitch black mockumentary series Review with Myles Barlow. “It’s very, very dark and very funny and extremely well executed,” Andy says enthusiastically. “I was like, ‘Yup! This is it. That’s for me.’ So I can’t take credit for coming up with the idea, just stealing it.”
But Andy can take credit for the creation of über-critic Forrest MacNeil, the host of the American version of Review, whose life we watch implode as he samples and reviews various aspects of real life including addiction, racism, making a sex tape, and being Batman.
Much like its parent show down under, Review is incredibly dark – probably one of the darkest comedies you’ll see on TV. Lucky for Andy, if the show steps over the line, there’s another great aspect to riffing off someone else’s idea he can employ – pointing the finger. “Ours is dark,” he admits, “but believe it or not, theirs might actually be darker.”
How do you make sure you don’t take things too far?
Photo: © 2014 Comedy Central
Andy Daly in Review.
I don’t know if I could boil that down to a method as much as just a feeling that we’ve gone too far. Maybe I’ll say it this way: it’s very important to us that Forrest be a person in the real world, and that he’s not evil. He’s not sociopathic, he just has this incredible sense of mission for the show and all of these various blindnesses that cause terrible problems. They cause terrible things to happen, and they necessitate him behaving very badly, but he didn’t go into this experience in order to behave badly.
So as long as we stick to those basic rules, it seems like things can’t get too dark. So when the world was overly evil or Forrest went too far into appearing to enjoy behaving badly, those were the times we pulled back, not because it felt like we crossed the line but because it felt like we were violating the rules of our show.
So the trick really is to keep him in a way likable so that he can do all these horrible things. That’s the balance?
I guess so. Of course you try not to think about how likable he is on a likability scale or anything like that. The purity of the concept of this show is that this is a guy who would not be doing any of this if not for this show. So he would never divorce his wife, and he would never get addicted to drugs, he would never rope somebody in to a bank robbery –he just has to do it for this show.
The damage he causes with the reviews is cumulative across the season, unlike a lot of television satire where the process begins anew each week.
Yes, there is no rebooting at any time of anything. The attraction, to me, of this project initially in the Australian version in their second episode, he divorces his wife, and then he’s in a custody hearing where the opposing counsel brings up all of the things that he’s done in the past 30 days, which are obviously reviews that he’s taken on for the show. And so the fact that he is immersing himself in extreme life experiences for this television show is wreaking havoc on his life. That, to me, is what this show has to be about if it’s going to make any sense.
This is a guy really doing things that he would not otherwise do, and if that’s your premise then we have to see the effect of what he’s doing, and we can’t just wipe them away at the end of the segment. What I love about this idea is that the experiences are cumulative, they pile up on him and things get worse and worse.
Review follows the rules of documentary much more slavishly than, say, The Office, which has a pseudo-documentary style but not really. On that show, the camera goes places that a documentary wouldn’t go. You’re much more on the ball about it. Is that challenging?
It is – and I give an enormous amount of credit to Jeffrey Blitz who ran the writing room with me and directed every one of these episodes. And he, of course, won an Emmy [for directing] for The Office so he understands very clearly what the rules are and when you can bend them and what happens when you do.
We started with one conceit, which is that perhaps the cameras that follow Forrest are small enough and unobtrusive enough that people aren’t really noticing them and looking at them all the time.
That’s a big buy-in that we’re asking for. Obviously his wife and his coworkers are aware of the cameras, but when he’s out in the world doing things, people don’t seem to be aware of them, and we’ve asked the audience to accept that to greater and lesser degrees at various times. Within that, we’re trying to be very true to what a documentary would do. In other words the camera is not in front of Forrest, the camera follows Forrest.
It made sense to me. Look at Candid Camera. People have been hiding cameras since the ‘70s.
That’s right, yeah, absolutely. But in reality we shot with these giant cameras that were obvious.
Why did you have Forrest MacNeil be Forrest MacNeil and not Andy Daly?
I thought about that. I thought about the way that Stephen Colbert is a character on The Colbert Report, and I didn’t think that it would be possible because I’m playing the character, and obviously it’s not me, it’s a character. I understand that you can name a character your own name but that feels like a layer of confusion with no reason. I was more interested in the Alan Partridge model, where the ability to say, “This is not me, this is somebody else,” allows me to do more ridiculous things and to think about this guy in different ways.
Do you plan to just keep him and his adventures in the show or will he show up on talk show circuit as himself?
I shied away from a lot of that stuff. I did do one interview for Grantland as Forrest and it went well and sometimes I go out on tour with Forrest showing clips of upcoming episodes of Review. It’s fun, but the world that we created in the show is so specific and the rules about who Forrest is and what he does are so specific that in a sort of spontaneous, improvised setting, I’m afraid of violating the Forrest rules. So I just wouldn’t want to do anything in character as him on a talk show or elsewhere that feels like it diminishes the show in any way. I wouldn’t rule it out – but I’d be concerned about it.
It’s interesting that you’ve put so much thought into this web of chaos that you’re weaving and how delicate it is. I don’t think a lot of people do that.
It’s a very specific world, and there’s a lot to think about because it’s not a show within a show. This is Forrest’s show that we’re seeing. And so everything that’s on there is something that he’s wanted us to see and that’s a big rule to keep in mind.
Do you have a list of rules somewhere? Or is it just unspoken?
Yeah, there is a list of rules. When things go wrong it’s Forrest’s fault. He doesn’t run into crazy people in the world; he is the crazy person in the rational world. There are no peeks behind the curtain that are necessary in Forrest’s mind to explain to the audience what it’s like to do this experience. It’s a challenge to maintain all those rules.
A cringe joke versus a haha joke – when you’re coming up with those, do you have a different process?
In general, we feel like by setting Forrest up as this pompous fool who’s set out to do these really dumb things for what he believes to be the good of humanity, we’ve bought ourselves a lot of opportunities to punish him. That combined with how upbeat and how chipper he is is a recipe for cringe comedy – that we’re punishing him and he deserves it but he also seems like a good guy. And the people in his world who are being punished as collateral damage don’t deserve it, so the cringe comedy is built into the premise. The big, silly laughs just come along for the ride. But they’re not broken down into two categories of writing; it all just blends together.
Now that I think about your reluctance to cross Forrest into other media, I feel robbed because I’m thinking of the Spinal Tap guys and Stephen Colbert and how they bleed out into the real world. But Forrest will never do that, he’s just going to be encapsulated in this little half-hour show.
Oh, I don’t know. Yeah, all right. You’re persuading me.