In Hulu’s coming-of-age comedy PEN15, creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as versions of themselves reliving the pains, pleasures, and cargo shorts that defined the turn-of-the-century tween experience. For two comedians raised in the ’90s, who better to cast as a parent than one of that decade’s sitcom stars? Home Improvement’s Richard Karn, ingrained in millennial memories as the plaid-clad Al Borland, takes on the role of Maya’s father, who in PEN15 is the drummer for a Steely Dan cover band that plays motel swimming pools. In real life, Erskine’s father Peter is a successful jazz musician who’s played with the actual Steely Dan, among others. We talked to Karn about taking on the role, picking up drumming tips from the real Mr. Erskine, and the prospect of a Home Improvement revival.
So, Maya Erskine cast her real mother to play her mom in the show, but brought you in to play her father. Was it intimidating to take on such a personal role? What was the casting process like?
Well, it was last summer and I didn’t really know anything about the show itself. I had seen Maya on a show that she had done in Florida, she was pretty great on that. I’m blanking on the name of that show — it was about a medical examiner. I got a call to play her dad, and it’s funny, because until I met him, I wasn’t quite sure why I specifically got this call. But I look a lot like her dad! Who’s a world-class drummer, by the way. He was in [’70s jazz fusion band Weather Report] and everything. So he helped me look like I know how to drum.
What kind of tips did he give you?
He really helped me with how he holds the sticks. There’s a bunch of different styles — you’ve got Ringo, who does the cross-over, and you’ve got him, which is more parallel. He gave me a flair for what he did. My character isn’t quite as famous as him because Maya wanted me to be in a Steely Dan cover band, so I’m in a band called Stealing Dan. Which, you know, it required basic rock-and-roll drumming.
Were you a Steely Dan fan beforehand?
Absolutely, their songs were always one of my playlists. I’m old, so they were up-and-coming when I was in high school and college. [Laughs.]
Do you have a favorite drummer?
Well, let’s see. When you’re in high school you learn how to drum in class on your notebook. There were some runs from “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” or “Wipeout,” or even Ringo Starr had one little drum solo at the end of Abbey Road. I guess the biggest thing was watching Buddy Rich on Ed Sullivan, because he became famous in an odd way for being a drummer.
Did you ever play an instrument yourself?
I took saxophone in elementary school and I got to where I could rattle off a pretty good “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
It sounds like you could relate to Maya’s situation in the show, where she’s a subpar instrumentalist in a school musical.
Oh God, that episode was so much fun to do. Working with Maya, the script is there, but every once in a while you just go sideways a little bit. It was really fun filming it. It didn’t feel like Home Improvement, like a series where you rehearsed and then did it in front of an audience. It was more like doing an independent movie for a few months.
Was it strange to act across from Maya’s real-life mother Mutsuko Erskine, since she obviously knows your role better than you do?
Well, I know I enjoyed it. And for not being a trained actor, she was very lovely and natural — and she knew that role inside and out because she was that role. She was Maya’s mom! She wasn’t trying to do more than what she was. And she never mentioned to me, “Oh, you should do this because it’s more like my husband would have done.” We got along well.
The show is set in the year 2000, which obviously for the creators was a very nostalgic time.
Yeah, which doesn’t resonate with me that much. It’s not like going to the ’60s or ’70s, which for me would be nostalgic. But the one thing about the year 2000, I guess, is the fact that there wasn’t as much social media. That’s the big thing. You had to do stuff over a landline telephone.
What was that year like for you?
The year 2000 was very interesting, because it was the year after Home Improvement finished. I had eight wonderful years of doing a regular job, and then it was kind of like leaving school, in a way. All of a sudden, your time isn’t as structured, you have to figure out what you want to do, what’s the next thing to strive for and be a part of. Plus, the year 2000 was all mixed in with “Oh my God, we’re gonna go into a new century. Are the clocks gonna work?” There was all that bizarre hysteria.
How much of the teen experience depicted on the show is the same as it was when you came of age?
Gosh, I think it’s pretty similar. Even though you didn’t have the explosion of MySpace or Facebook or any of those early things. They had a lot more channels on television. When I was growing up, you didn’t have behind-the-scenes stuff like VH1 or E! Entertainment. You knew the bands at face value, and if you were a real big fan, you would read their stories in magazines. For the kids growing up in the year 2000, there was more information. So, you had more of a transition from being oblivious to being sophisticated.
What kind of kid were you like when you were 13?
Well, it was finding out how to deal with girls for me. It’s still really hard, because you’re trying to navigate all these different groups. And who are you? Are you the cool kid, are you the nerd, are you the athlete, are you the popular one, are you the shy one? Today, it’s still gonna be a lot of the same human reactions and traits.
Given Erskine and Konkle’s ages, they probably grew up watching Home Improvement, right? Did they ask you about the show?
Yeah, they grew up with it and they watched it with their families. That’s the wonderful thing about being in a show like that — it was very popular with kids who then are now grown-up, and they come up to me now and say that I was a big part of their childhood. It’s not really about me anymore, it’s about how the show influenced a generation of people.
In one scene, you can see a Jonathan Taylor Thomas poster on Anna’s bedroom door. And since you’re on the show, that would mean someone else must have played Al Borland in the PEN15 universe. Any idea who it could’ve been?
Well, it can be my son now. Oh God, thanks for that idea! I might pitch it to the writers.
Is your son old enough to play Al?
Oh, yeah. He’s younger than when I started out, but he looks like me.
Keep it in the family.
Speaking of, will there ever be a Home Improvement reboot or reunion?
Great strides are being made. Tim [Allen] wanted to reboot Last Man Standing, so he’s taking a year or two or whatever to accomplish that. After that, maybe we’ll look at Home Improvement. We’ll see what the producers have in store. It’ll be interesting to see where people end up 20 years later and if we can sustain something that’s interesting for people to watch.
What level of talks have there been?
Talking to the actors who would have to be there. I think they’re all in accord. The producers, which are Wind Dancer and Disney, just have to come to terms. They had a little bit of a falling out they’re trying to rectify.
Any idea what the show would look like?
Yeah … we don’t have Wilson, obviously. So Tim thought it would be a great idea to have everybody meet at his funeral. That would be a great jumping-off point. What would Al have got into? Maybe he would become a contractor again, or maybe he would have another little show like Yankee Workshop. I think that would be nice.