Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail has filled his show with visual and narrative references to great films of the past. But as viewers of tonight’s episode learned, he’s also willing to lift from lower-brow fare, too. The first third of the installment was a truly insane gambit: It was done entirely in the style of a 1990s sitcom, much like what one would see on ABC’s famed TGIF lineup. There was a laugh track, a set of hokey backdrops, a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, even a cameo from ALF (caps intentional, as that was technically the way his name was written). But perhaps the most delightful throwback of all was a zippy theme song with horrifying lyrics like “imagine yourself in a world numbed with pain.” As it turns out, not only did the tune sound like a TGIF theme — it was actually written and performed by the musical duo responsible for most of those themes. We talked to episode writer Adam Penn for the lowdown on the whole sequence.
How did the idea to do the sitcom homage originate and develop?
The sitcom homage grew out of Sam stepping into the writers room and posing a pretty simple question: If Mr. Robot were to "protect" or "shield" Elliot from the pain of the real world, what would that physically look like? What makes up Elliot's "happy place"? For many of us in the writers room — especially Sam — the classic American sitcom stands out as a sort of mental "comfort food." Life may be chock-full of pain, tragedy, and anxiety, but families like the Tanners (of Full House) or the Winslows (of Family Matters) were there every Friday night, figuring things out together.
These families, and the worlds they inhabited, presented a rose-colored window into a version of reality in which any problem is manageable. Knowing what we know about Elliot's backstory and upbringing — the isolation, the sadness, the paranoia — the world of the American sitcom seemed like the perfect "happy place" for Mr. Robot to usher him away to.
How was the song put together, and did you write the lyrics?
I so wish I could take credit for writing the lyrics! But sadly, I cannot. In every aspect of the show, Sam is a stickler for details. Whether it's a hacking sequence or an '80s slasher B-movie, it needs to look, feel, and sound legit. So when it came time to put together the theme song, Sam reached out to Bennett Salvay and Jesse Frederick, the writers and performers on the original TGIF sitcom theme songs (Full House, Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, Step by Step). We had a few meetings with them in which we discussed the themes to touch upon in the song. They then presented us with some variations on lyrics, as well as a demo. Once all of the elements were agreed upon, Bennett and Jesse went off to record the final version which, in my opinion, is perfection. It takes me back to my TGIF-watching days, while also integrating shades that are uniquely Mr. Robot.
What specific '90s shows were you looking to reference and build on?
We wanted to reference the type of show that Elliot would have watched as a young kid. Due to his age, that puts him smack in the late '80s, early '90s. So we obviously were inspired by ALF, but also the entire TGIF lineup. More specifically, within those series we looked to draw inspiration from road-trip and vacation episodes, since that was the framework of our sitcom.
How on earth did you guys get permission to use ALF, especially given that you have him commit vehicular manslaughter?
Fortunately for us, Paul Fusco — the original creator of the ALF character — was a fan of the show and was excited to be a part of it. I also think he was intrigued by bringing this beloved Melmac-ian wiseacre into the pitch black world of Mr. Robot. As far as the vehicular manslaughter — I believe it helped that it was depicted in a heightened, unrealistic, sitcom-y way. Plus the fact that the hit and run was not premeditated. ALF clearly had lost control of his vehicle. So despite the fact that ALF was involved in this act of vehicular manslaughter, we made sure to stay true to the character. His actions may differ from those on his sitcom, but the character remained the same.