Survivor’s Remorse’s Mike O’Malley on Telling Universal Stories and Running a Show About a Black Family As a White Man

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Mike O’Malley has two director’s chairs on Survivor’s Remorse — one to sit in, the other for his feet. His crew cracks up when O’Malley realizes the one for his feet reads: “For Mike’s Feet.” The series is O’Malley’s first gig as a showrunner — prior to the Starz comedy, he worked as a writer on the Showtime series Shameless, and he’s perhaps best known for acting roles in Yes, Dear, My Name Is Earl, and Glee, the latter of which earned him an Emmy nomination. Survivor’s Remorse seems like an unlikely choice for the showbiz veteran, considering it’s centered on a black family. On the surface, one could rightfully ask: What does a white guy from Boston know about the black experience? Perhaps about as much as Norman Lear knew when he created Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. O’Malley told the Los Angeles Times the key to his show’s success is a diverse writers room. But when we chatted in April, he was having a hard time grappling with the idea that people of color are justifiably leery when they’re not at the head of the table telling their own stories. Whatever formula he and the writers employ to create such pointed and relevant comedy, it works, because Survivor’s Remorse is arguably one of the best comedies on TV right now. We caught up with O’Malley to talk about running a show about a black family, creating a universal human experience, and working in a nonessential industry.

What’s it been like working with the actors on Survivor’s Remorse?
You’ll hear me talk about the actors and their fierceness, depth, and bravery. They’re sorcerers, they’re alchemists, they’re the ones trying to put [together] all these different elements and get gold. We know in history people are unable to put different elements together and create gold, yet it’s what you’re asking actors to do every day. You’re asking them to relax enough with the confines and restrictions of the lights and the cameras and you gotta hit this mark, to relax enough to create what seems wonderful and beautiful.

I love M-Chuck. She’s my favorite. It’s so important to have a black queer woman on TV that feels organic.
This season she’s very much about how we live now as Americans. She goes to therapy. She asks her mother to go and her mother says, “You’re doing great. You got a new haircut. Pray it off.” And she’s like, “This isn’t about praying it off.” And she has this whole thing about, “I’m here, I stumbled across these things, but I gotta get better and it’s tearing me apart.”

Did you hire writers who can convey the black family experience authentically, or do you think writers can write anything?
For writers, you just have to have the ability to not restrict your imagination. Men can write about women, women can write about men, straight people can write about gay people, gay people can write about straight people. I look at this show as an actor. I think as an actor. When I was looking at writers for the show, that’s what I would talk about and that’s what I would look at in their material they submitted — people who are writing about characters struggling for themselves because that’s what I really think is universal. I’m trying to get at what is universal about people’s experience. A father can get into an argument with a daughter in much the same way the argument he would get in with a son if the issue at stake is, How do you behave in life in a way that doesn’t bring conflict into your life? You have to ask for writers who are fearless, inventive, and willing to take on subject matter, and that in the exploration of that subject matter they’re not leaning on their own pen.

There’s been a lot of pushback around people of color not being able to tell their own stories in Hollywood. Straight Outta Compton comes to mind. You essentially created a black show. How does a white guy create a black show?
In terms of why [executive producers] LeBron [James] and Maverick [Carter] asked me to write it, you’d have to ask them. I’ve never asked them. I just said, “This sounds like a cool story; I wanna write about it.” I know how people are, for people to look at a show and say, “Wow. Majority of the cast is black, then that’s a show about a black family.” I bring it down to, this is a story about a family from Dorchester, Massachusetts. Everybody should be able to relate to it. It’s a story about really anybody’s family. Should you be able to punch your brother and get away with it? Maybe. If your mother wants to have plastic surgery, is that something that would make any person uncomfortable regardless of their orientation, background or race? Probably. So that’s a universal story. When a cousin betrays another cousin do you have to be rich or poor, or Chinese, or Indian to make that something you can relate to? Hopefully not. If you have someone who’s betrayed you [whether] you’re black, white, Native American or Indian, I think the betrayal feels the same. And the heartbreak feels the same. The love in a marriage feels the same. Disappointment feels the same.

I can’t tell you what experience the actors are having doing this, but I know — I’m gonna be 50 this year, so there’s always a lingo thing. Now I would say, “Hey, I’m totally psyched to go out tonight!” and I put that in a 24-year-old’s mouth and whether that 24-year-old’s black or white, that’s the wrong lingo to put in their [mouth], but the idea [is the same]. “I’m pumped, this party’s gonna be off the hook, this party’s gonna be jammin'”…whatever it is, whatever the lingo is, I may be wrong, but the idea that I’m really excited to go to his party — that’s cross-generational. People have been excited to go to parties since parties began.

What do you say to someone who may be a critic and say why is this showrunner and creator telling a black story?
I guess what I would say is that I was asked to, right? The first answer to that phone call is not “no.” Let’s get together, let’s talk about it. Then they talk to you about it and you say, “Wow, this would be really interesting," and then you try to write it. I think as a writer, you can’t restrict your imagination. You can’t. The reason I’m a writer is to understand other people and myself more. The reason I’m a writer is to dramatize stories about human beings so that it improves my life. So that’s a very selfish thing. That’s what I’m trying to do. There have been plenty of things that I’ve written that other people haven’t cared about, but it hasn’t stopped me from being a writer. So, I don’t even think about other people. I’m just interested writing about human beings so if somebody calls and says we’d like you to do it, I’d say that sounds like a cool idea.

Do you want to create more shows?
No, I’m done. I do not like to be away from my family. I have small children. They’re still little so they’ll let you hug ’em all the time and tickle them and laugh with them and grab ’em and throw ’em around and hang ’em upside down. That’s tactile. That’s something I get a tremendous amount of joy from and now that’s absent from my life on a daily basis.

What acting projects are you working on?
I was in Concussion with Will Smith. I played the guy who wouldn’t buy him a new microscope, so I’m the bad guy now. Here’s Will Smith trying to buy a microscope that’s going to change science, and I’m like we can’t afford that because I was a government employee. I just did the Clint Eastwood movie Sully starring Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks is the pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson River and I play one of the guys on the National Transportation Safety Board. I say, “I think you could’ve made it back to La Guardia.”

Do you always want to write and act?
Yes. You go through your own journey in terms of deciding to go into a nonessential industry — you decide I’m going to be an actor and I’m going to write. And I’m going to write because I feel I have something worth saying and I think other people might enjoy that. Either they’ll be entertained by it, or it’s a conversation, or they’ll enjoy it, and because I want to connect with people. I do it because I’m trying to process how life is, and why it is the way it is, and how I’m confused and how it causes me pain as a human being and joy. You have to know when you go into it is most people don’t care what you have to say, it’s not essential to their lives, so you’ve committed your life to something that most people just don’t care about. And then you can say, well, people need stories, they need stories on how to live. They don’t, and they don’t need your story. So your job is just to convince enough people that what you have to say is worth their time, and if you do that, you get to work as an actor and as a writer.

Have you failed?
There’s plenty of jobs I’ve auditioned for that I haven’t gotten. I worked on Shameless for four years [so] I’ve written bad drafts of episodes. You can’t be like, “It’s so hard,” because you invited yourself into an industry that has forewarned you that we don’t need you or want you. You have to convince us that we need you or want you. So when you do that for 29 years and know that even the thing you work on hardest can be canceled. Then you have powerful people who move the levers of show business call you up and say, “Hey, what do you think?” You think about the next 25 years, you think about paying for college, you think about making a living, you think about doing what you ultimately dreamed of doing, and you say “yes” knowing that it probably won’t work out.

What’s been one of the best things about creating your own show?
One of the things that’s interesting about finding some of the directors that we found this year, in this conversation about women directors, is literally no one has given people opportunities so people don’t have the level of experience that they need. The pool is not big enough to choose from because people haven’t, in years and decades, encouraged, cultivated and given opportunities to people. That’s one of the things that has been cool about this show — seeing these other people rise up and take the ball and run with it who hadn’t been given that opportunity before and should’ve [because they] are just as capable and great as anybody else. Literally.

There’s a lot of camaraderie between you and the cast and crew. Is that something you set out to do intentionally?
Yes. When you’re the showrunner you can dictate that a little bit more. A television show is like a barn-raising where everybody has to come together and put this thing up so it’s sturdy and it’s wonderful, and that love and joy that people put into it is something that lets the actors do something that lifts off the page. I also like the idea that everybody feels ownership of this experience in a personal way as much as they can, and that they’re regarded highly and their contributions are valued because they are. As human beings we have to express that to one another. The point of my life is to be a dad, it’s not to be a creative person. It’s to be a dad first. And I have to be away from my kids. So I’m trying to get that energy of family in a big disparate group of people.

I think one of the reasons I’m so adamant of talking about the universality of the human experience is that you see when you talk to people on the crew and you let them know, “I really appreciate how hard you’re working and this joy you bring to work,” you see a physical change in them. Oh, I’m being seen, I’m appreciated here at this job, my life matters, I’m not just doing this job until I get to the job I really wanna do. Putting on the makeup of this person to make this face look really beautiful so this actress feels beautiful and stunning when she goes on to this spot and is shown on camera — that matters. The second AD who welcomes someone and says, “Can I get you something to eat? How can I help you today? How can I help you be more relaxed so that we can do this thing?” Not in some servile way, but how we can all help so that this thing that we’re doing can be wonderful and great. People don’t feel appreciated. Understandably. This might be the last episode we ever shoot, this person who has been in your midst for the last two months, eating with you and working with you, trying to make something real and unique and awesome. You’re about to say good-bye, and you don’t even know it, but before they leave, say thank you. Thank you for giving your best, thank you for bringing the heft of your humanity to this experience, thanks for being a cool person, I will miss you, good-bye.

This interview has been edited and condensed.