Talking with ‘NTSF:SD:SUV’ Writers Jonathan Stern and Curtis Gwinn about Procedurals, Robots, and Kiefer Sutherland

Adult Swim’s procedural parody NTSF:SD:SUV is in the middle of an amazing second season, which has been even better than the show’s funny, ridiculous first year. Created by and starring Paul Scheer, the comedy crams a ton of great, fast-paced jokes and impressive guest stars into every tiny 11-minute episode, and it’s grown to be as consistently funny and quick as its companion show Childrens Hospital. I recently had the chance to visit the NTSF set, where I participated in a roundtable interview with two of the show’s main writers, Jonathan Stern (Childrens Hospital) and Curtis Gwinn (Fat Guy Stuck in Internet). Stern and Gwinn spoke about how they book such amazing guest stars, the difficulties of topping the absurdity of real crime shows, how the season’s most emotional moment involves two robots, and most importantly, what Kiefer Sutherland thinks of their show.

Journalist: So, Paul [Scheer] was telling us you almost had Liam Neeson and John Malkovich guest star.

Curtis Gwinn: And Patrick Stewart too. It was all scheduling.

Jonthan Stern: So they say.

Gwinn: Yeah, it could be a nice way of saying no, but what we’ve found is that most people do want to… and there’s very rarely a flat-out no. I think all those folks, especially guys who do drama and things like that. Like Kate [Mulgrew] was saying. She’s been doing these sober, sci-fi procedurals for so long - you’re not allowed to laugh. She said that when they would laugh, the producer would be like, “Okay. Okay. Enough laughing, settle down, settle down.” And to do something like this is a real nice change of pace for them. Especially if they’ve been doing dramatic acting for 30 years… to be ridiculous and do something ridiculous is fun.

Stern: And most of our guest spots come in and out in a day. We had one day when we had one great guest star after another, two hours each. Ray Liotta was the first one that day, Aubrey Plaza was number two, Jay Johnston…

Gwinn: Ellie Kemper.

Stern: Yeah.  Then, they can all go off and do their day job.

Journalist: If you guys get a third season, will you then think about some of the scheduling issues beforehand to perhaps get a Patrick Stewart?

Gwinn: It’s not really something we can do because of our budget. Yeah.

Stern: It’s out of our control, really. Besides you never know. Patrick Stewart might be available in January, but the when it comes time to shoot, pretty much anything will take priority over NTSF.

[All laugh]

Gwinn: Yeah, and the other typical thing about when we shoot is… we shoot right at the same time as pilot season in Los Angeles. So a lot of actors do say no, not because they don’t want to do it - they all want to do it. They can’t commit to something because if they get a pilot, they have to do it. They can’t do this one guest spot in lieu of, you know, a $30,000, or whatever it is, payday for a pilot.

Stern: It’s a lot of last minute, you know, “Hey, are you doing anything Friday? You don’t have any auditions Friday? You’re free? Great.” Sometimes, it’s “And we’ll write a part for you.”

Journalist: Is that part of the fun that adds to the creativity?

Gwinn: That’s one way of saying it: it adds to the creativity. Sometimes it makes you fall into great choices that you didn’t know, like Steven Williams, who is the chief on 21 Jump Street, was in Paranormal and in X-Files. We weren’t sure who was going to play Brandon’s father on the show. We were looking and looking, and he was a guy who just happened to be available. And we weren’t sure. We were like, “Well, maybe he’ll be great at it. We’ve never seen him do comedy.” He came in and I think he’s done the best guest starring job. He was just amazingly hilarious.

Journalist:  So when you’re looking for something like that - casting that type of role - are you giving names to casting, is casting giving you names? How is the process?

Stern:  Our casting director this season is Allison Jones. There’s probably 100 names go back and forth every day on different parts. And a lot of it is our brainstorms and her brainstorms and maybe she happens to know who’s available or friendly to this kind of thing. And then here’s someone you don’t know but I know they’d be great for the show or our friends, but back to something you were been saying about writing for our guest stars… we have kind of a bank of guest agents that we’re always trying to fit to the scripts. For instance, Aziz Ansari this season plays “The Toucher,” a man who gets the power to see the future by putting his hands on 12-year-old autistic boys.

Gwinn: Where’d you get that idea?

[All Laugh]

Gwinn: One of our friends was on 24 with Kiefer Sutherland, and she was like, “You’ve gotta just get Kiefer to do it! I’ll ask him to do it.” We’re like, “He will tell us to go fuck ourselves… we’ve been making fun of his show.”

Stern:  But we have a whole bunch of those type of guests come in and do a funny bit and come out that are back pocket. We’re always looking for places in the script so that if someone suddenly says - if Aziz suddenly says, “I’m free next Tuesday,” it’s like “Great. Let’s make him The Toucher. Let’s put The Toucher into that screenplay.

Journalist: Is that that kind of Childrens Hospital-UCB crossover group that you guys kind of have where you mean in the back pocket?

Gwinn: Yeah. I mean they’re all friends. It’s like with Childrens Hospital, whether it’s like David Wain, Ken Marino, Corddry and then Huebel, Scheer, and Aziz from Human Giant… I come from UCB, as well. I kinda came up behind those guys at UCB. Through those connections, we know so many people, and then those people know even bigger stars, who we sometimes have them call in favors for. “Hey will someone do this or someone do that?”

Stern: But we do find now - moreso with Childrens because it’s been on a little bit longer than NTSF - that people who are familiar with the show, I mean Huebel’s always coming to us. He texts me, saying “Hey, I’m working with such and such. I’m working with so and so, and they’re a big fan of Childrens. They’d be willing to do something next season.” And then it’s like “Great. We’ll write something for them next season.” But as people now know what they’re getting themselves into, they reach out to us and sometimes through our casting directors.

Gwinn: That’s why I was so thankful to, in the first season, guys who took risks, like Jeff Goldblum and J.K. Simmons, who weren’t sure what this was and they did it anyway. And they were so awesome and such nice people too. That legitimized us, definitely. When Paul went out to whomever next, he had this reel, like Jeff Goldblum, J.K. Simmons, John Cho, and all these really wonderful, talented people. It made it a lot easier to ask that tier of actor or comedian to come in and do it.

Journalist: Is the shooting schedule the same as it was last year, where you’re doing it in this sort of piecemeal shoot the location out?

Gwinn: We’re basically treating it like a three-and-a-half-hour movie, which is a challenge for us to write all the scripts to completion before the season even starts. Your normal TV show, every week, they’re working on next week’s script and they don’t know what they’re gonna shoot until the week before. We have to be very disciplined and figure out the whole season in advance.

Journalist: Does that change the way you write it? It sounds like a lot of the characters don’t really have arcs.

Stern: It’s also keeping in the way that our audience probably watches the show, which is stoned at midnight, out of order, at various times.

Gwinn: Plus, it’s the replay value that any network, most networks want you to not have story arcs.. The first thing they ask you is to keep it episodic, individual, so then you can play at any time, out of order, and it doesn’t matter, people enjoy it.

Stern: But even character arcs within an episode… It’s okay for us to reinvent a relationship in the next episode. They’re friends in this episode, they’re enemies in the next. But we do try and stay consistent, but what we don’t do is invest too much emotional power into “Wow, I really care if they’re going to get together by the end of the episode.” We might be playing that story, but you don’t truly care. We actually had a scene the other day where the robot, its feelings were hurt about something.

Gwinn: He was proposing marriage, and the other robot said no.

Stern: We all were watching that like, “Wow, that was the truly the most emotionally resonant filmed scene in the whole season.”

Gwinn: June was watching it on the monitors. She was actually upset. She goes, “That robot made me feel more than any other performance on the show.”

[All laugh]

Splitsider: Are there any episode ideas you haven’t been able to fit into this season that you still want to do next year?

Gwinn: I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it. Hell Cops. There was a kidnapper who kidnapped Trent and Kove’s children. He’s a Satanist, and he killed himself knowing where the children were hidden. So the kids are in a box somewhere… Trent, in order to find out the information, kills himself too to go to hell to get the guy to bring him back, so he could find out where his kidnapped children are located.

Stern: And when he’s in hell… there are some people in hell that are so bad, that there’s a police force in hell.

Gwinn: Yeah, Hell Cops…We wanted Ving Rhames to play the chief of police there and we wanted Ray Liotta to play the Hell Cop who gets partnered up with him.

Stern: So Trent has to do this favor for the devil and help track down one of their escaped souls in exchange for being sent back to Earth.

Journalist: Is there any film or TV show that you’ve been trying to parody that you haven’t gotten to yet?

Gwinn: All the one hour dramas pretty much, even the ones we love. Especially the ones we love… We have a long list… [a] database of characters based on Walt from Breaking Bad and Don Draper from Mad Men. We have character parodies of all those that we want to get to.

Journalist: So, it doesn’t just have to be the cop [shows]?

Gwinn: No, no, no. It lends itself to that more easily, but… I will say that it is difficult for us to be more absurd than them. We find ourselves sometimes coming up with ideas, and Paul will be like, “They did it way crazier on CSI. [Laughter] That’s not as even close to as crazy as Hawaii Five-O did it last week.” So, I feel like we’re in competition… a little bit.

Stern: There was another episode, which was either identical to something we had come up with or like way beyond in terms of craziness… It was Daniel Dae Kim going to North Korea Brandon [Johnson]’s character goes back to Alaska to follow up on a case. How does Hawaii Five-O do that? He goes to North Korea

Gwinn: Yeah, where it’s like impossible to get in.

Journalist: You mentioned trying to get Kiefer [Sutherland] on the show. What about David Caruso?

Stern: He would have been great to play Trent’s dad.

Gwinn: Absolutely. Totally. 100%, you know? I don’t know, did we ever go out to him?

Stern: I don’t think we ever tried.

Gwinn: I know that Kiefer’s watched the show. The same mutual friend who told us, “You should get Kiefer.” She said that she played an episode for him at his house. This is how she said he watched it. She said that he set up a laptop, and he stood at his kitchen table with one hand on his kitchen table, just staring at it. [He] didn’t laugh once the entire episode. He went outside, stood on his patio that overlooked the Hollywood Hills. [He] just stood out there for a minute, then came back in and said, [serious Kiefer voice] “It’s funny.”

[All laugh]

Gwinn: Yeah, so if we’re lucky enough to get a season three, David Caruso and he would be wonderful.

Stern: Maybe it could be like Mamma Mia. Trent doesn’t know who his real father is…

Gwinn: So you want the Mamma Mia demographic too?

[All laugh]

Stern: Well in this case, I’m counting on it being a different demographic so that they won’t know we entirely ripped off Mamma Mia… Trent doesn’t know who his real father is. All these people have come.

Gwinnn: And he’s got to figure out whether his Michael Gross was his real father.

Stern: Whether it’s Michael Gross, Kiefer Sutherland, or David Caruso.

Gwinn: I like that we’re breaking a story right here.

[All Laugh]

Splitsider: It seems like Adult Swim is pretty hands-off. Did they give you a lot of notes?

Stern: No. They give us just the right amount of notes, and they’re very smart notes. And they get the show. It’s more of a steering us in the right direction. There’ve been a couple of times where [they’ve said], “Guys, this one is just way off base.” And it’s good to have an objective voice say that because we get like, “We’ve been working on this, we’re in love with it.”

Gwinn: Mike Lazzo, the president of the network, is our executive for this season. He got the show from the beginning. He’s the one who wanted the show, so he really gets and understands it. Like John said, his notes are great and he’s really smart. Also, Adult Swim’s reputation with creatives is super fair, and he wants you to do what you want. He rarely disagrees, and you’ve gotta take it really seriously when he does because he cares and he thinks about things. It’s not just a capricious note.

Stern: He also trusts you afterwards. When he gives a first note, he looks at the first draft. It’s like, “Here’s where I think it’s off and here’s where I’d steer it more,” or whatever his notes are, but then he doesn’t say, “Alright, I’ll see the revisions, and then I’ll see if you did it.” He’s like, “I’ve given you my notes, and I trust that you’re going to do what’s right and make it work from here on out.” And there’s no looking over your shoulder follow-up. It’s a great deal of confidence in us that we try not to abuse, and he’s also realistic in knowing - look, you’re only going to figure out so much in the script. There’s a lot that is all about how you play it on the set, and how you work it out when you’re rehearsing it.

Probably the single largest factor of making the show work or not work, is trying to get the tone right. It’s hard to explain what the tone is, more than to feel it out, and then, through the course of making the show, to have everyone who’s involved with it - the directors, the actors, the editors - understand what the tone is too, through experience.

Gwinn: Yeah, and oftentimes what’s on the page is funny, but may not be as funny because they’re not picturing exactly how it’s delivered or what it’s gonna look like. I read the script for Rushmore before I saw Rushmore, and I was like, “What in the world is this?” And then you see it, you’re like, “Oh, yeah. Of course. There’s the tone and the way they do everything.” So, with something like this when you’re trying to parody dramatic things, sometimes the line is just what it is. It’s just the delivery might be what’s funny.  It’s how it’s performed in a lot of cases in a show that’s parodying genre.

Stern: But our default is to play it for drama and not to play it comedy. Sometimes, we break that or veer from that, but it’s hard to know without trying it when it feels natural or not. What’s interesting is sometimes these shows, even CSI, has their light moments or ends with a joke or ends with everyone laughing at the HQ together. So, how do we do the light moments of this, that are light drama and not just comedy? And we do try that once in a while. We’ll see if it works… Because that’s probably the most mockable thing. When they’re trying to be funny, they’re terrible.

New episodes of NTSF: SD: SUV’s second season airs Thursday nights (Friday mornings) at 12:15 am on Adult Swim.

Talking with ‘NTSF:SD:SUV’ Writers Jonathan Stern and […]