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Raising Hope Creator Greg Garcia on Balancing Sweet and Crass, and Being Licked by Cloris Leachman

Much of the media buzz surrounding Fox this fall has focused on Lone Star's spectacular belly flop and the struggles of Running Wilde. But lost in all that bad news has been the quiet success of Raising Hope, the network's sweet (and sometimes sour) new family comedy from My Name Is Earl creator Greg Garcia. The best-reviewed network newcomer of the fall on Metacritic, it was the first new show of the season to get a full-season order, a sign of how much faith Fox execs have in it. And while its post-Glee time slot is a big reason Hope is averaging a healthy 8 million viewers each week (counting DVR numbers), the show has held relatively steady since its debut, indicating viewers like what they see. Assuming Hope can keep it up, it could turn into something Fox hasn't had in years: a successful live-action comedy it can actually be proud of (sorry, 'Til Death). Vulture caught up with Garcia to talk about how the show has been evolving, the joke he ceded to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and what it was like running the perpetual TV-critic punchline Yes, Dear.

So how was Raising Hope born?
My Name Is Earl was canceled, and I think within a month, I was over at Fox pitching this idea. It was an idea I was thinking of maybe doing as a movie, but I didn't have it fleshed out fully ... and it didn't have an ending. So that made it a good TV show, because you don't need an ending.

What specifically led to this idea?
In the past I've said these things just pop into my head, and that's gotten me into a little trouble because people try to jump up and say I took it from them. But I really just try to sit back and think of what would make me laugh, and create the characters in my head and come up with these situations. It isn't anything from real life. It's just sitting down and creating a little world in your head.

With Earl and now Raising Hope, you've shown an ability to write blue-collar characters intelligently, without pandering. A lot of critics seem to appreciate that, but some have suggested you're making fun of middle America, or treating them as dumb.
That's certainly not my intent at all. Everyone's entitled to their opinions, but I don't get that. It's comedy: You're going to make some people dumb, whether they have money or not. It's always my intent to just kind of laugh with people, and to keep it as real as I possibly can. There's also a big difference: With Earl, it was about criminals and one of them was trying to make himself better. This show is just lower-income folks; they're not criminals. And I don't think they're dumb as much as they're just not as educated as perhaps they could be.

Why don't you think there's more blue collar on TV? You and The Middle, and maybe now Mike & Molly seem to be about it in prime time ...
I don't know if it's that more people aren't writing it or pitching it. Or perhaps maybe the networks are a little scared of it. Everybody loves glamour and glitz. When they see a dirty house with just normal people, they worry maybe that people won't want to sit down and watch that. They want more fantasy in their lives, to watch something that's nicer than what they have. But for me, I'd rather go home and look in the window of that family than the window of some family with money that has it all together. It just seems more interesting to me.

Earl and Hope have gotten largely good reviews. Yes, Dear, not as much so. Do you and Chuck Lorre ever trade stories about being underappreciated by critics?
I've only met Chuck once, during the writers' strike. Though last week I sent the writers on The Big Bang Theory a giant basket of cookies and muffins to thank them for kicking NBC in the nuts every Thursday. [NBC canceled Earl in 2009.] I heard Chuck thought that was funny, but I haven't traded stories with Chuck. You know, Chuck has had a lot more success than I have in the syndication game, so I'd guess that Chuck doesn't really give a shit what anybody thinks. He's got a great deal of America on his side liking his shows. I got beat up with Yes, Dear. You just kind of take all that hate and put it in a box, and when you need it, you go get it for inspiration. But [critics] have been nicer with the other stuff, which is definitely better than getting stomped on.

Do the bad reviews get to you?
At the time when you're in it, you really get bothered by that kind of thing. But when you work in the business for a long time, you get perspective. I get that people need to have their angles. But sometimes [critics] are like a dog with a bone and they just won't give it up. I mean, the thing that always was curious about Yes, Dear was, okay, I get it, you don't like the show. But then for six years to continually shit on the show? At a certain point, it's like, "Listen: America seems to be okay with it. They're watching it, it's staying on. Why don't you move on to something else?" I'm not sure it always has to be the easy joke to lash out at it ... We call [an easy joke] a clam in the comedy business. Critics can have clams just like comedy writers.

For a guy who puts a lot of borderline crass stuff in his shows, there's also an amazing amount of heart, like Martha Plimpton's singing to Hope in the pilot.
You're trying to appeal to a broad audience. So there are going to be people who are not going to enjoy a baby getting thrown up on. But they're not going to not watch the show next week, because they also really enjoyed the sweetness of Martha singing. And then there are people who don't give a shit about the singing and the sweetness, and they're going to be talking about the next day, "Hey, did you see that they threw up on a baby?" There's a certain amount of spreading it around. It's life: Nobody's sweet all the time, nobody's gross all the time. We just try to capture all of that. And then at the end of the day, do whatever's funny and tells a good story. We're not always going to be gross, but if we feel it's funny, we'll do it. And we're not always going to be sweet, but if we have a story that we feel we've earned it with, we'll go for it.

Do you shoot for a certain ratio between the two?
No, there's no chart on the wall of grossness versus sweetness. You know, in the pilot, we shot it where you didn't actually see him throwing up on the baby. Then I thought, What the hell, let's shake it up a little bit. It's not what the whole show is. But it got people talking, and they wrote about it, so: Good!

So how is the show evolving from the pilot? Is the universe expanding beyond the core of the family?
It's a slower build than in Earl. But we're populating different parts of the show, like the grocery store. They're going to go see a lawyer, and I can see them going back to him. I like to create a world and then go back to those characters. But it's going to be a slower build-out than Earl. There's also the possibility of aging this baby at some point. I've talked about jumping forward in time so that the baby is all of a sudden 3 years old. Because there's a lot more stories to be told with a 3-year-old than, say, the ages of 8 months and 2. I have three kids and it's been my experience that things get a lot more exciting when they start talking and have emotions.

So what's coming up on future episodes?
[In an episode airing tonight] we're going to investigate the world of secrets and what you keep from each other. We have Bijou Phillips coming back as our executed mother. She left a bunch of tapes for Hope. They're life lessons, and they're a bit crazy. So it raises the question of how much you hide from her, and how much you tell her one day. We're doing a Thanksgiving one where we're going to have the executed mom's parents over for the first time. Greg Germann (Ally McBeal) is paying the father and Valerie Mahaffey (Northern Exposure) is playing the mom. And the Christmas episode will reveal around a living manger. The discussion in the house is whether Hope is allowed to be part of the living manger and what the church feels about it.

Any more singing from Martha?
I think maybe in the Christmas episode.

Will we be seeing more of Shelley (Kate Micucci), the babysitter with a dead tooth and a crush on Jimmy?
Yes, she comes back quite often, but we took her dead tooth away. I watched the season premiere of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which I think is the funniest show on TV. And they had a woman with a dead tooth. And I was like, "Awww, shit! Ours hasn't even aired yet! How the fuck can you have two people with dead tooths?" So we shot an episode with her last week where we took her dead tooth away. I thought, What's the point? They did a dead tooth, I don't want to keep doing it.

How do you explain it?
Martha's character asks her, "What happened to your dead tooth?" And Shelley says, "Well, I thought it was unique and then I was watching a hilarious episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and a girl had a dead tooth, so I decided to have it fixed." I just figured, we got all our dead-tooth jokes out. And their dead tooth looked better than ours. That just bummed me out. Their's was all cool and gray. Ours didn't look as good. But Shelley has more to offer than a dead tooth.

How is the relationship between Jimmy and Sabrina (Shannon Marie Woodward) developing?
We're kind of taking it slow. It's the one thing in our show that's a little bit serialized so I don't want to say too much about it. But [tonight's] Halloween episode is a big episode for them. It progresses the relationship a little bit.

Cloris Leachman is a difficult character. You don't want to portray an old person as just dumb and batty, do you?
Her official diagnosis is: She has funny TV dementia. You can't take it too seriously. There are people out there who are confused, and it's sad and hard thing for families. But we're not telling that story. We're telling the story of a kooky woman who lives in the house, and sometimes she's not kooky. Hopefully people can just have fun with that. But we've actually found there are really great ways to have her not only be great comic relief in scenes. When she's lucid, she can really help advance stories a lot. Cloris is a hoot to work with. She licked me the other day.

She licked you?
Yeah, I feel like we've gotten to a place in our relationship we might not be able to turn back from. She's very affectionate. She's 84 years old and she's allowed to do whatever she wants. She's Cloris Leachman.

What sort of story lines will we see with her?
Well, in the Christmas episode, there's some discussion about the fact that there are no estate taxes in 2010. So they really only have two weeks left for her to die if they want to pay no taxes on the house. There's debate over whether they should stop trying to keep her character so safe. It's a nice little Christmas message that only our show will deliver.

Photo: David Crotty/patrickmcmullan.com