Given that Alan Thicke will forever be associated with the 1985–92 sitcom Growing Pains, his latest TV project feels downright Warholian. He stars in Unusually Thicke, a Canadian-produced “reality sitcom” premiering tonight on the TV Guide Network that sends up annoying reality-programming tropes (e.g., intrusively plucky background music, swooping establishing shots showcasing the family mansion’s beige exterior) but also plays out like a scripted comedy. It is surprisingly astute at skewering the ridiculousness of everyday Hollywood, such as when Alan is outed as a swag-bag hoarder and is convinced by his wife, Tanya, and teenage son, Carter, to unload it via a charity garage sale — which, of course, winds up involving Bob Saget doing stand-up for bargain hunters. (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, LeVar Burton, and Minnie Driver also turn up in the premiere, and future episodes will feature John Stamos, David Hasselhoff, and, yes, Robin Thicke.). Vulture spoke with Thicke about the show, how much Honey Boo Boo he’s seen, and the inevitable Growing Pains comparisons.
I’ll start with a very bad but very Thicke-appropriate pun: Your show really “blurs the lines” between the reality genre and sitcoms. Did that make it a difficult show to pitch?
It was one, quick conversation with some friends at the Slice network in Canada. It was a pretty instant sell; without a pilot, they bought 14 episodes. And then as soon as TVGN got wind of it, they saw the sizzle reel and they were in. So we felt encouraged that maybe we could get some eyeballs on it. We’ll find out quickly enough if we found that sweet spot between Honey Boo Boo and Larry David.
Right, you’ve compared it to Honey Boo Boo in other interviews, which makes me wonder: How much Honey Boo Boo has Alan Thicke actually watched?
Uh, I’ve watched it. I have seen it. My jaw drops occasionally. I do like what I perceive as a genuine, authentic reality of that show. I grew up in a very small, very simple town in the far north of Ontario, Canada. I refer to it as a hockey town, a rugby town; only women had teeth where I came from. I used to do jokes like, you know, the best-looking girl in town was inflatable. They got mad at me for that — they didn’t deny it, they just got mad at me. So I know the small-town vibe, I have great respect for small-town values and standards. I’ve also watched most other reality shows at least a couple of times, partly to find out where our show fits.
Where do you believe that is?
We’re not as quirky as Duck Dynasty, we’re not as funny as Curb Your Enthusiasm, we’re not as sexy as the Kardashians, we’re not as combative as any of the Real Housewives.
Have you ever seen The Comeback? Your show reminds me of that owing to the similar premise of an ’80s sitcom star doing a family-based reality show — but also because you have similar moments of keenly observed micro-humor.
Absolutely, love it. In fact, I hear that The Comeback is coming back.
I’ve heard that, too. Do you think —
[Garbled talk and sounds of buttons being pushed.] Sorry, they’re trying to teach me to use the cell phone with the speaker, holding it away from my face. But I was clearly so fond of you that I was nuzzling it as we spoke. Now I’m embarrassed.
That’s okay. That actually answers one of my questions, which is whether you’re really as technologically un-savvy as you make yourself out to be in the pilot, when you hold your head at a 90-degree angle rather than learn how to rotate a photo on your computer.
The truth is that I am perfectly savvy for the things that I choose to use technology for. There are so many apps and options that I really couldn’t care less about, that I’m just not into. I ignore them and therefore have no skills set for them. The things that I choose to use it for, which is mostly email and writing, I’m perfectly skilled with those.
No social media?
I am not so much Facebook. I enjoy Twitter because I think it’s a great discipline for comedy, to have to try to be funny in 140 characters and actually say something and make a comment. Whereas Facebook, if I hear one more time that your cat threw up, I’m gonna throw up.
Who first had the idea for Unusually Thicke? You, your wife, your agent?
It really started with Tanya, who has a sparkling personality for reality shows — and consequently, she was being recruited by a few reality shows, but they were the kinds of shows that are, you know, a little abrasive with each other, a little confrontational. And her feeling was that those kinds of shows are already being done perfectly. They do them very well, the mold has been cast, and we weren’t going to be able to do anything different or better in that genre. So we started talking about taking our family drama and trying to find the funny side, the lighter side. Warm and amusing — the goal wasn’t hilarious or meaningful, and it certainly wasn’t to be too corny in a throwback-retro-sitcom kind of way.
While watching the pilot, I thought your wife and son may have been played by actors. I was thinking, Where did he find these fantastic people to play his wife and son? And why don’t I recognize them from anything else? They were really funny!
Good, thank you. Yes, well, I feel that Tanya and Carter are both naturals …
I know! Alan, how are they not more famous than you?
[Laughs.] Well, it’s my third wife, third son — third time’s the charm. I’m very proud of them. I mean, when Tanya calls my skates “hockey shoes,” that was purely her. And all the things that you see from Carter are just his wonderful personality. I’m not even around when he does his little confessionals, when he’s talking to the camera. I’m not in the room, I’m not in the house, because I want him to be free and open and expressive without dad looking over his shoulder. So I’m terribly impressed with what he does.
And is that really your house?
The parts that represent our house are indeed our house. The stories are very real, taken from our life. The dialogue is not scripted but it is plotted. We’re not just relying on how fabulously interesting we are. We do a story where I’m in Barrie, Ontario, at a charity hockey game on the same weekend that Tanya’s 20th high-school reunion took place. That really happened, and therefore the dilemma becomes, it’s hard to be a good father and a good husband if you have to do both at the same time.
It’s surprising that there’s no script because some nice jokes land really cleanly. On so many other reality shows, you’re watching a lot of people trying to talk over one another.
I’m proud of my craft as a writer, so I feel I’d better be able to come up with a good, off-the-cuff one-liner once in a while. I wrote for comics on TV before I was ever on TV myself. So if I have an art or a skill, I’ve always considered it to be comedy writing — not acting so much, not hosting.
But you’re best known for acting in broad TV comedies, and here you are on a show where the humor’s very subtle and offbeat. Was it difficult for you to make that shift?
It’s the same difference between film and Broadway. When you’re on a stage, it’s very big and over-the-top because they have to see you in the back row, whereas film is in tight. I’ve found I could bring it way down, speak the way I really speak, in my dull, droning monotone. I didn’t have to project and be kind of the hyper Dr. Jason Seaver from Growing Pains. I am considerably more boring than Jason Seaver. If they want to see a dry, flatter delivery, that’s who I really am.
You’ve written a couple of parenting books, and from the show, it looks like you and Carter have managed to sidestep that awkward, tense phase of a parent-adolescent relationship.
I am so enamored of this young man. He knows that I’m his biggest fan and biggest supporter. I’m truly not looking forward to an empty nest about 15 months from now when he’s off to college. He’s been just a wonderful companion to me on every level.
Once you’ve sent him off, your next advice book really ought to be about how to make friends with famous people. Because every celebrity in Hollywood makes a guest appearance on your show.
Yes, there’s a lot of sucking up. I’ve been an honest worker bee. I haven’t ever screwed anybody out of anything. I’m happy to say that when I’m on the circuit, appearing on talk shows, it’s the same circuit that my son Robin is on and I always hear from people that he was just here last week or last month and how polite he was or that he treated people well. I’m proud of that part of my reputation. It’s not so difficult to go to somebody to ask for a favor occasionally that way. I think there’s a lot of quid pro quo in my past. I’ve built up some goodwill and I’m cashing in.