‘Cracking Up’: The Show That Made Mike White Crazy

It’s a story as old as time and one that sadly continues to be relevant, usually on network television: a well meaning individual has a perfectly sculpted vision of a great television show in his or her mind. Then several evil network executives destroy that beautiful, untainted concept with copious notes that will turn that “artist friendly” idea into the first show in history to appeal to every human being in the world. It will also make somewhere in the vicinity of ten billion dollars. It pisses off the creator, and usually the project never sees the light of day, and possibly dreams of cable pastures fill the brain. Sometimes, it makes it to the airwaves, completely different from the initial pitch, but the creator is pacified by the money and lower expectations. Sometimes, it makes it to television, and the creator is completely miserable, and separates his or herself from the project entirely.

But when Mike White — co-creator and executive producer of the great HBO series Enlightened — which recently concluded its second (and possibly final) season — talked about his experience creating and running Cracking Up on WTF with Marc Maron recently, his experience with the 2004 Fox sitcom was shocking. White was so upset with the network interference that he almost was put into an insane asylum.

“It was a total disaster,” the School of Rock screenwriter said to Maron, before launching into an entertaining but scary cautionary tale of what can happen if you care too much in the TV business. White claimed that there were twelve people on one side of a table giving him notes, saying the show was too weird, and relying on it to retain all of American Idol’s audience (the first two episodes of Cracking Up were aired after episodes of Idol that brought in 24.6 and 22 million viewers, respectively.) “You got the wrong guy!” White allegedly pleaded to his bosses. He claimed he actually hoped that his own show wouldn’t get picked up, just taking the money he made for making a pilot, but no such luck. After a few months, he wrote a “fuck you all” fax to the head of Fox programming, hoping he would get fired. Instead, the head of the network allegedly cried in her office and asked for the next script. A psychiatrist sent him to Las Encinas Hospital, where upon realizing that it wasn’t a hotel where he can just hide and relax, and after futilely insisting that he wasn’t insane but just incredibly stressed, literally ran away. Three days later, mercifully, his show was canceled. White was elated that the nightmare was over. It would be six years before he took on his next television project, Enlightened, where he was free to mostly do whatever he wished, including writing every episode. It is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the medium.

What was fascinating about watching the six episodes of Cracking Up that aired was that it was actually possible to pinpoint when the show got noted to death, and it would have been obvious without ever listening to Mike White’s podcast interview. The single camera, live action comedy starred Phantom Planet drummer Jason Schwartzman as a psychology graduate student assigned by his professor to live with the Shackletons, an affluent Beverly Hills family that was kind to the university (monies) with a supposedly depressed nine year old in need of therapy. The twist? Tanner is the only normal one.

It was not much of a twist, but the psychoses of some of the Shackletons were fairly hardcore for free TV, and they were all diagnosed and spelled out by Schwartzman’s character Ben in a rant to his fratty best friend Liam* in the pilot episode: Molly Shannon’s Lesley was a “bipolar alcoholic” — she had broken into the liquor cabinet to get drunk and hit on Schwartzman because she suspected her husband of infidelity. The husband, Ted, played by Christopher MacDonald, was simply a “sociopath” for refusing to give Ben a clear answer about the cheating, bugging out about his pharmaceutical company being investigated about the SEC, and for looking like a worked up Christopher MacDonald when he was particularly animated. Teenage daughter Chloe was a “repressed erotomaniac,” spending hours practicing her cheerleading routines in her uniform to her webcam audience, believing that a man claiming to be Tobey Maguire was actually the really popular actor in 2004 who had just played Spiderman for a second time. High school quarterback Preston was “obsessive compulsive with homosexual impulses.”

* Played by David Walton in his first recurring role on television, an actor cursed to always co-star in shows that only last 6-13 episodes. R.I.P. Heist, Quarterlife, 100 Questions, Perfect Couples and Bent.

But in every episode after the pilot, these qualities were dialed down and mutated. The parents turned into basic TV weirdos with a tendency to shout, with the children simply being repressed and instilled with straight edge 1950s values, set up to be challenged and “corrupted” by Ben and party animal Liam. The infidelity was never even hinted at again, nor Dorsa the maid being stuck at her job because of constant threats to ring up the INS (despite being blamed for taking a dump on a couch). Lesley went from hitting heavily on Ben an hour after meeting him to having trouble saying the word “sex” without laughing. It may be a simplification of the truth, and it might be another example of giving the good-hearted creative way too much credit and giving the evil suits not enough, but considering Enlightened’s well-written characters and rich, nuanced universe, it seems like White was told to make the Shackletons more likable, which relied on the humor to come more from witticisms and slapstick than three dimensional characterization, something the staff was not prepared for.

Throughout the series, there were very few one-liners that came off as exceptional, but the physical humor and energy was definitely there thanks to MacDonald and Shannon. In “Birds Do It,” Shannon summarized their sex life with the five words “it is what it is,” which obviously upset MacDonald. The scenario wasn’t anything novel, but his fear and anger combining to bring the perfect combination of vitriol and anguish in repeating his wife’s line of “it is what it is” over and over again made it work. In “Scared Straight,” the two mistakenly ate a pot cake, leading to them freaking out and trying to hide their condition in front of their three kids and the drug counselor lecturing them right in the backyard. The construction of the set-up to MacDonald, Shannon and Schwartzman eating the offending cake was transparent, considering the audience knew what would eventually happen — it was made by Liam’s stoner girlfriend as an apology for exposing little Tanner to marijuana, so obviously someone was going to eat the thing by the end and get in trouble — but it was covered up by the committed comedic acting. The next episode, “Panic House,” relied too much on the actors acting crazy to hide how predictable the story’s ending would be. They build a panic room, so of course a bunch of them get locked in it. Liam tells Ben he’ll be there at 7, so he will be mistaken for someone and given a dosage of vitamin pepper spray.

Another transparent aspect is how the budget probably affected the stories. It was rare to see Ben, Liam, or the Shackletons outside of the Shackleton residence (when the kids went to prom, they got drunk and never made it out the limousine). But enough negativity and nit-picking: let’s talk about the cool guest stars. There were plenty for a six episode long series, but most of them were practically only appreciated by the hip kids and not by all of the Idol worshippers, and probably didn’t earn big paychecks to suck up the budget for their appearances. Zooey Deschanel practiced appearing on a Fox sitcom in “Birds Do It” as Schwartzman’s girlfriend. Amy Sedaris played the current girlfriend of Lesley’s old prom date, and while she didn’t get to do nearly enough in the episode, she at least got to wear headgear.

The old prom date was John C. Reilly, when he was beginning to focus mostly on comedic roles. (Reilly’s character sang “Superstar” by The Carpenters, which I assume was a cute nod to Molly Shannon’s SNL days. And/or it’s a romantic song that was in Dewey Cox’s ideal key.) Jack Black was a big deal by then, but since he was Mike White’s friend and neighbor, he probably acted for a lot less money than usual. He played the reformed drug addict and aforementioned drug counselor.

Despite the star power, Cracking Up was booted off of Fox in early April 2004, less than a month after it premiered. It’s too bad that Mike White had such a terrible time producing the series. The show isn’t anything to be ashamed of, and even if it was, you can’t find it on official DVD or YouTube (how I acquired the videos is a very entertaining story I can never talk about). It is not a masterwork, but that was never going to be possible, considering the time and the environment. Fox kind of did not know what to do with another single camera comedy that was around in 2004 — a show that there is a zero percent chance you’ve never heard of if you are reading this.

‘Cracking Up’: The Show That Made Mike White Crazy