A talking dog, two advertising guys, and a Fargo star walk into the Sundance Film Festival. That’s not the setup for some hipster comic’s hacky punch line; it’s the story behind ABC’s new rom-com, Downward Dog. Allison Tolman stars as Nan, a Pittsburgh-based Everywoman with two male influences in her life: her sweet, maybe-boyfriend Jason (Raising Hope’s Lucas Neff) and her dog Martin (Ned, a real-life rescue pup). The latter, an overly sensitive creature who tends to speak passive-aggressively about his owner’s shortcomings, delivers mockumentary-like asides to hyperanalyze their lopsided relationship. (In short: Nan should, like, totally appreciate him more, given he’s, like, totally obsessed with her.)
The sitcom is co-created by Pittsburgh ad men — Samm Hodges, who voices Martin, and Michael Killen, responsible for Taco Bell’s legendary talking Chihuahua spots — based off their web series of the same name. To ensure that Downward Dog would meet Peak TV’s high standards for bittersweet, wryly told dramedy, earlier this year it became the first-ever broadcast comedy to premiere at Sundance. Vulture talked to Tolman about working with Hollywood outsiders, Martin’s monologues, and the preexisting condition that comes between her and her co-star.
Talk me through how you became part of this show. I’m picturing your agent saying something like, “Two words. Allison: Talking. Dog.”
Very close. It was two summers ago and I was on set for The House and I got an email: “Here are several projects that we’re looking at for you … um, and this is a new show we think is really cute and funny. There’s a talking dog in it.” I was like, “Oh, dear.” I was immediately horrified. “Oh, it’s a kids’ show like Dog With a Blog. I’m not interested in doing that. I don’t even have kids. I have no reason to do a kids’ show.” And then I read the script and I was doubly confused. Clearly, it was really smart and really funny. The jokes were there and this woman was interesting. But then I was like, “If she’s so smart and funny, then why did you put a talking dog in this?” I still didn’t get until I watched the shorts the show is based on. Then I was like, “Oh, I get it. It’s hyperrealistic. I understand now.”
Do you think Samm Hodges and Michael Killen’s outsider status ultimately made the show better?
Yes, I do. I think it made it harder to get made, but I think it made it better. Everything that makes the show what it is exists because this came from outside the system, down to the fact that we shot it on location in Pittsburgh and Samm is the voice of Martin. They wanted to keep it that way; they didn’t want a voice-over artist to come in. The key was having showrunners who really knew the system and knew how network television works and how Hollywood works.
If I may get a little dramaturgical for a minute, I have a theory that Martin’s monologues are like a canine embodiment of toxic masculinity.
He has this bloated sense of self-importance. He constantly downplays Nan’s contributions to the household. But it’s refreshing because Nan isn’t bothered because she can’t hear it.
Oh, man. You just fucked up my whole weekend. I’m just going to be thinking about that. I love this!
If Nan actually heard the things Martin says about her, it would be very demoralizing and dark.
It would be terrible. But it’s also palatable to us as an audience because it’s a dog.
Exactly! So it’s like, imagine if you could go through life as a woman not hearing all of the toxic noise around you.
And being able to filter it so you’re just like, “I love you too, pup. Good boy!” That’s so interesting. I love that.
Samm Hodges’s vocal performance as Martin is brilliant. It’s full of these vocal tics usually gender-coded as female: the vocal fry, the overuse of “like,” the uptalking. Is that how he talks in real life?
He puts on a bit of a millennial voice when he gets into the booth. It’s not a full-on performance. It’s very much Samm’s speech patterns and the way he uses words, but he definitely puts on the vocal fry and he doesn’t say “like” nearly as much as Martin does. There’s a little bit of a character that I think he slips into when he gets into the booth.
We also have to talk about your insane chemistry with Lucas Neff.
It’s weird, right?
It’s fantastic! It’s so intense but it’s so light.
I know, I know. When we finished episode two [when Nan and Jason decide to just be friends], I was truly, truly in mourning. Like, when will we see each other again? When will we be together again? I’ve never had a reaction to another actor the way I had with Lucas. When I was already in the role and they were looking for people to play Jason, we did a chemistry read. I was like, “Obviously, that is the person.” But it was also really terrifying to me because there was a lot of electricity there. Not knowing at that time where these characters were going to go, I thought, “This is gonna be a lot of emotionally taxing work, to exist on that plane constantly for two months.” But luckily, we have some ups and downs so we don’t spend all of our time in that place for the entire season.
There’s plenty of good comedy on TV right now, but a lot of it is auteur-driven and heavy. How would you would describe the show’s comedy?
Well, I’ve never been allowed to be a romantic lead. In a lot of other shows, there’s no way that I would be cast, even though in the real world, all sorts of people are meeting and falling in love and having sex and breaking up. I think that’s helped our show a lot. The key to our show — oddly, besides the talking dog — is the realism. I have trouble describing the show as a comedy because it feels limiting to me. A lot of vehicles for comedy-drama like this have a lot of heart and can be both of those things, but we haven’t seen that on network.
So according to your IMDb bio, you’re more of a cat person in real life?[Laughs.] Yeah, I’m a cat owner. I’m actually allergic to dogs. I grew up with dogs and cats, but then I moved out of my parents’ house and I got a cat when I was 19 and I think I just developed an allergy to dogs. So I have to take allergy pills when I go to work.
Allison, you buried the lede of this interview! You’re allergic to your co-star! This is insane!
I know, it’s dumb.
When did you tell them?
I told them after we were underway, after I was cast and after they cast the dog. “Guess what? We need to keep Benadryl on hand.”
You also worked as a professional dog walker.
I did, when I first got out of school. I got a job in a suburb north of Dallas at a vet’s office where I would walk all the dogs that were being kenneled. That’s what I did for that summer. I think at this point in time, I was close enough to living with dogs that my allergies hadn’t developed yet. But it was fun. It was a job. This one’s better. I like this one better.
The last time you spoke with Vulture, you talked about making the transition to the working life of an actor and the anxiety of not always knowing when your next paycheck was coming. Have you grown more comfortable with that?
I’m still not fully comfortable with it. As the paychecks get larger, you have a longer period of time that passes before you start to think, “Oh, shit. What if I don’t get another job?” You’re comfortable floating along for longer. If Downward Dog doesn’t get a second season, then I’ll be like, “Oh, man.” I’ll miss that regular paycheck because you can plan. I can plan to have no money, but it’s a plan. I don’t think that’ll ever go away. That might just be my personality. That might just be how I operate.
Do you talk about this with other people?
I think everyone I know, knows the feeling of, “Am I ever gonna work again?” Like, where is the next job coming from? I don’t think I know anyone who is so wealthy that they don’t worry about that. There probably is a level you get to where you’re like, “I’m fine forever!” But I don’t think I know anybody who’s really at that level yet.
You famously nabbed a guest spot on The Mindy Project by tweeting at Mindy Kaling. Are there any other shows you’d like to give shout-outs to?
Oh, man, yeah. I was never on Girls, which was a real bummer for me. I love Transparent, big fan of Transparent. I think Handmaid’s Tale is awesome and I hope it’s up for a second season.
It already has been renewed, yes.
Yeah, I would love to do something with them. There’s so much good television out, it’s bonker-balls right now. If Downward Dog isn’t renewed, it would be such a bummer. After I was done mourning for that, I would be really thankful but also immediately looking for another show that was my show. I really wanted to have a show that was my own vehicle, and I was lucky that this one came along and I didn’t have to write it for myself. So I don’t know, maybe I’d have to start.
You come from a sketch and improv background, so is that what you’d draw from to write your own material?
Absolutely. As soon as I got to Hollywood, the second question anyone would ask is, “So, you’re a writer too?” Like, “So, you’re a hyphenate! When are you going to start writing?” When I first got out here, I was like, “I’m not gonna write right now. I’m just gonna act for a little bit. Eventually, I’ll have an idea or a partner to go write with.” During Fargo and after Fargo, I found out how cruel people can be on the internet about your appearance. It really made me think that I want to contribute in a way that’s not visual, to contribute to my own career in a way that’s beyond images. It’s so hard to have your face and your body out there. I’m a smart woman and I can write and I have these other things to offer. Eventually, it will be the right time and I will start writing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.