Although it probably should come as little surprise that show creator Tom Hertz calls RULES OF ENGAGEMENT “television’s best kept secret,” what surely might is that we’re inclined to agree.
In fact, there’s a little something we at theTVaddict.com have been keeping from you. While most of you geek out over CHUCK or check in with HOUSE between the hours of 8 and 9PM on a typical Monday night, we’ve atypically been finding ourselves sticking with CBS following HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER in anticipation of RULES OF ENGAGEMENT.
For what RULES lacks in critical acclaim (see: MODERN FAMILY), big name stars (see: $#*! MY DAD SAYS) and online buzz (see: COMMUNITY), it more than makes up for by doing the only thing that we really look for in a half-hour comedy: Make us laugh. And a big part of the reason why is creator Tom Hertz. A Hollywood veteran who not only knows a thing or two about crafting jokes courtesy of a decade long year career on the likes of SPIN CITY and LESS THAN PERFECT, but was kind enough to take some time to discuss what it’s like working on CBS’ least buzzed about comedy.
What’s it like working on one of the most popular, albeit least talked about comedies on television?
Tom Hertz: As someone who created a show and works hard on something, you want it to be recognized and liked. But as frustrating as it has been watching a parade of other shows that I naturally didn’t feel were as good as mine — get on the air with big pushes, and be left on when the ratings were clearly nowhere near what we did when we on the air — you come to realize it’s a marathon not a sprint. And in the last couple of years I’ve come to accept where we were in CBS’ eyes. We’re the fourth outfielder, or the benchwarmer they knew they could put in and would do a good job at any time.
Is there any vindication having survived a steady parade of failed, higher profile CBS sitcoms?
Yeah, but I guess I try to be more zen about it and realize it’s not personal. CBS likes stars like Jenna Elfman and whomever else — whereas a lot of my cast like Patrick [Warburton] and Megyn [Price] are sort of old veterans of sitcoms or funny newcomers like Oliver [Hudson] and Bianca [Kajlich] — really great, but not giant names. Eventually I stopped yelling and screaming, “Look at me, look at me!” and focused on doing the best I can where hopefully we’ll be noticed, which is kind of the way it turned out.
Is there an advantage to flying somewhat under the radar of a traditionally watchful network in terms of getting away with story-lines?
I don’t know if it’s getting away with story-lines, but maybe I’m able to do stories more the way I want them. If you’re a fifth year show and there’s two new shows on CBS that I suppose get a lot more scrutiny and attention — the William Shatner’s show and MIKE & MOLLY — you’ve earned somewhat more respect and there’s a lot less in terms of asking for outlines, first drafts, and note sessions because they know RULES does a good job and will deliver a solid episode. I always said I wanted to be the show that delivers a great episode every week without problems or drama so the Network can focus on their new shows or on whatever is happening on TWO AND A HALF MEN behind the scenes at the time.
Tonight’s episode introduces Sara Rue as a potential surrogate for Jeff and Audrey who have been having trouble conceiving. Having worked with her on LESS THAN PERFECT did you write the character with Sara Rue in mind or was her casting merely coincidental?
It was a combination of both really. I know how funny Sara is from working on LESS THAN PERFECT, so when I saw her name on a list of possible actresses to play the surrogate character, I immediately said she’s great. You get her she’s going to be inventive, funny, interesting and is a great fit. I’m happy she was available and wanted to do it.
Surrogacy isn’t traditionally the funniest of subects, what was the genesis of the idea?
I remember back to the first seven episodes of the series where we started talking in the Writer’s Room about why Jeff and Audrey, who are in their 30’s, didn’t have kids. In sitcoms, there is this school of thought to simply not address it, as you don’t want to have a kid on the sitcom, it takes the edge off. And I thought, well you don’t have to have a kid immediately, but why don’t they have children? So we did an episode where Jeff and Audrey talked about having tried for a while when they were younger and nothing happened so they took a break to take the pressure off only to sort of get caught up in their careers. Next we did an episode where Jeff and Audrey got their reproduction systems tested, and we found out that Jeff’s swimmers are a little slow. Initially we thought about adoption, but with a surrogate you get a new funny character. Plus, we don’t have to have Megyn [Pryce] go through a whole season wearing a fake belly pad.
Unlike many CBS sitcoms of time gone by, Jeff and Audrey’s relationship seems so grounded in reality. How much of Jeff is based on your marriage?
Somewhat. I’m not as cynical as Jeff, but I have been married 20 years. Fights are less dramatic, not giant issues, you roll your eyes, walk away and let the other person cool down. Jeff had a line, marriage is a series of battles to be won or lost, his view of marriage is that it’s like a chess game. They feel real as a couple and we work hard to make sure it’s not a goofy dumb husband and the wife who is always “Honey, you’re so silly.” Megan screws up and is at fault as much as Jeff is.
When you’re a comedy showrunner do you watch what’s currently out there, or do you purposely stay away from shows as to avoid accidentally picking up ideas?
I watch a lot of stuff out of curiosity, but the shows I actually watch as a viewer and as a fan are COMMUNITY, 30 ROCK and MODERN FAMILY. Right off the bat, from the pilot, MODERN FAMILY started with what shows usually take many episodes to evolve to. Of course, I’ll also check in with HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, TWO AND A HALF MEN, MIKE & MOLLY and look at their ratings. You don’t want new shows to get better ratings then yours and there is always that competitive thing. You try and analyze each show, if a show is doing well, or if they have to replace it, will they move our show? You try and get into the head of the CBS programmers, but in the end I always come back to just do what I do, produce the show because I can’t control other things. I just hang in there and try to live by the mantra to produce the best and funniest episodes I can.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT airs Monday nights at 8:30PM on CBS (CityTV in Canada)