THE UNICORN, the half-hour comedy premiering on CBS Thursday, September 26, stars Walton Goggins as the title character, Wade Felton. It should be noted that there is nothing magical, or equine, about Wade. However, he is still a rare creature: a devoted family man, raising two young daughters, who is romantically available after a year of mourning the death of his wife Jill. Wade’s friends, one couple portrayed by Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins, the other couple played by Omar Benson Miller and Maya Lynne Robinson, are determined to help Wade – who has not been on a date since before he and his late wife were married – navigate dating in the age of computer sites and apps.
Writing/producing partners Bill Martin and Mike Schiff (who together created the series GROUNDED FOR LIFE and THE SINGLES TABLE) created THE UNICORN based on the real experiences of their friend Grady Cooper.
Martin relates, “A few years ago, our friend Grady and his daughters went through the worst thing any family can go through. For two years of his life, he just had his head down in the weeds, just trying to take care of his [critically ill] wife and make sure his daughters were okay. And it was weird, because when it was finally our and the clouds parted and he stepped out into the sunlight for the first time in years, his life got funny. There was still a lot of sadness and it was never easy, but it was funny. And we would talk to Grady. He would tell us stories about what his life was like. And Mike said to me, ‘Could that be a TV show?’ And I was like, ‘I think it is, but I don’t think we can ask him.’ So we just sat on it, went about our business, and a few weeks later, Grady said, ‘This is weird, but do you think my life could be a TV show?’ We said, ‘Yes, thank you. It can be. Let’s do this.’”
Schiff begins talking about finding comedy in a new chapter of life; Martin joins us partway through the discussion.
ASSIGNMENT X: First, have to ask – are you related to Congressman Adam Schiff?
MIKE SCHIFF: I’m not. I get excited every time – there will be a headline that says, “Trump Blasts Schiff,” and I’ll go, “Wait a minute!” But it’s not me.
AX: You were hoping that you did something …
SCHIFF: Yes. I would like to believe that I did something.
AX: How did the two of you come together as creative partners?
SCHIFF: We met in film school in the ‘80s, at Columbia. We have very different backgrounds. He’s from central Florida and I’m from New York, but we met there and we started in the film program. Somebody in the program had written an episode of KATE & ALLIE, and we said to each other for months, “We should do that, we should try that, we could do that, we’re funny together.” And we finally started writing specs, and moved to L.A. in the early ‘90s, and we’ve been working together for twenty-seven years now professionally, and longer than that [overall].
AX: How did you decide on Walton Goggins as Wade? Because he’s maybe not the first name that pops into your head for a network comedy.
SCHIFF: He was not at all. Actually, the idea came from [executives] David Nevins. Honestly, we think Walton is terrific. We would never have thought of him for exactly that reason. And David brought him up, and we had a meeting with him. One of our producers [on THE UNICORN], Peyton Reed, who’s also an old friend of Grady Cooper, and also a friend of ours, had directed Walton in the second ANT-MAN movie. So the four of us sat down, Peyton being the person that Walton already knew. I’d admired Walton a lot, but I didn’t know who I was going to get. Because I’ve seen him play scary guys. And he came in, and he was so passionate about it. That’s the Walton that’s real. That’s not an act. When he gets passionate about something, he gets excited about it, and his passion was so infectious immediately. He had written things all over the script, and he was asking us about specific things that we had torn each other up about. When you’re writing a pilot especially, you worry about every adjective, but that he was worried about every adjective, too, was so interesting to us, and we immediately said, “Is this real? Could we actually get this guy?” And he signed on, and we were so excited.
We also loved that, it’s funny, the shows that we spent the most time on were THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, and John Lithgow was not known for [half-hour comedy] before he did that, he was playing movie villains, and then we did GROUNDED FOR LIFE, and Donal Logue was more an indie film actor, we brought him to a network sitcom. And so it also felt right to us that it was something that you weren’t expecting from him [Goggins]. And I don’t mean any disrespect to people who are sitcom comedy actors who are brilliant, but we loved that he was not what you expected.
AX: Now, in terms of the people that the unicorn needs around him, how did you decide which people those should be?
SCHIFF: We whittled. Originally, there were three couples. And there were just too many people, but they were all based in various forms on friends of ours. And friends of Grady’s. Because we’re in the same circles. Honestly, we just went with our instincts of what sorts of people should be around him. And then of course, when we cast them, they became those actors in a way that they hadn’t been [on the page]. We just wrote people, and at a certain point, they became those actors, who were our best actors for these roles, but we did love the idea of the couple that had one kid, because their lives are very different from people we know with multiple kids, and I have three kids. We just took them from our lives. And often, by the way, once Bill and I will talk, we’ll find we each have the same touchstones, and we know, okay, that’s something [that feels valid], because it’s something we both have.
BILL MARTIN: The thing is, it is based on a real-life situation, which is our friend Grady was surrounded by good friends. And in a way, Rob Corddry is like Peyton Reed, our director friend who looks like Rob, kind of sounds like him, and it kind of felt very natural. And once we had Rob and Michaela, the tone of the show made itself known. Then we knew it was not going to be just sitcom actors. We had to get interesting, different, improv-y-feeling real people to fill it out.
AX: In THE UNICORN’s first episode, there’s a scene where the adult main characters are all sitting around a computer, looking at a dating app and talking. Was any of that improvised, or is it all completely scripted?
MARTIN: No, they improvised a good amount.
SCHIFF: I think that scene is mostly from the script. By the way, we’re very flexible with that.
MARTIN: The end of it is where they kind of went off, actually. Through the montage, it was pretty tightly scripted, but at the end, Rob and Michaela started to feel their oats.
SCHIFF: They’re so good with that, but when we shot the pilot, there was not a lot of room. They would improvise, and we had a thirty-three-minute first cut, and went, “Oh, okay,” and we had to cut most of it. Now, as we’re writing the show, we’re purposely leaving them room to do what they do so well, because we’d be foolish not to take advantage of that.
AX: The women in the group of friends seem particularly invested in getting Wade to date again. Is that just good friendship? Are they missing his wife Jill and are looking for somebody else to fill that role in their group?
MARTIN: That’s one part of it, that they were such a tight group of friends, and this is all from real life, that they are deeply invested in making sure that [anyone brought into it is] someone that Jill would have approved of. I think especially for Maya Lynne and for Michaela, their characters are carrying Jill’s torch, and feel like they are her sisters. And they want to look out for the girls, and look out for Wade, and make sure the family thrives.
SCHIFF: I think also they went through it with him when their friend was dying. It’s a bummer to talk about it too much, so we sort of allude to it, but they were there the whole time. And when they saw him go through that, and their daughters, who are their own children’s friends, they felt very much like, “We’ve got to make this okay.” Which has been true of people I know in this situation, not just Grady, but other people who have lost spouses, who are in our group of friends and families, who you feel like, “I’ve got to do something. What can I do to help this person who is in such pain?”
MARTIN: So one part of it is, which is true of Grady and it’s true of Wade is, he’s not slick, he’s not great at bullsh*tting, he’s a little bit of an innocent, and you kind of want to protect him. And I think they feel a little bit like that about Wade is, they don’t want to put him in the shark tank.
AX: THE UNICORN has both kids and dogs. How is working with them?
SCHIFF: [laughs] The kids are amazing. And the dogs are, too. Walton is a dog person. I’m not. I like dogs – I’ve never owned a dog. Those dogs are unbelievable.
AX: There’s a great moment in the opening episode when Wade wakes up and that dog is in the bed, looking just so understanding and compassionate, and it’s like, “Wouldn’t you like to wake up to this face when you felt sad?”
MARTIN: Yes. And Walt is such a dog person, that when we filmed that, he’d already been kissing that dog. He is such a dog person that they trusted him. So that’s probably the closest bond of any actors on the show, is Walt and the dogs.
AX: Is your friend Grady a writer as well?
SCHIFF: He’s an editor. It’s funny. He was actually one of the editors on DEAD TO ME, which he got after we did this pilot.
AX: What do your wives think of THE UNICORN’s premise?
SCHIFF: My wife was thrown by it at first. She said, “So wait. It’s a comedy, but the wife is dead?” And I said, “But it’s not about that.” She, by the way, is my biggest supporter, but also very candid when she thinks there’s something I could do better [laughs]. And I started to explain to her what I thought it was, and why it appealed to us, and she got into it. And then I knew she was on board when she was telling her sister what it was, but why it was funny. She was doing my role back. I have to say, I know it’s not going to be a headline in a newspaper, “Show Creator’s Wife Supportive of Show.” But she’s demanding, she reads the scripts, she wants to know what’s going on, she’s very into it now. So she’s totally on board. I believe Bill’s wife Emily is as well, but I don’t go home to her every night [laughs].
AX: How do you collaborate as writers?
SCHIFF: Some partners sit in a room together and hash things out, some fight, and some are cooperative. Bill and I, ever since we first started to write specs in New York in the late ‘80s – we’re still very young, though [laughs] – we write scenes separately. We figure it out, we send outlines back and forth. We used to do it back when you handed a floppy disc to each other. But we’d outline the script. One of us will write it, the other one will rewrite it, until we’re both satisfied with it, and then we’ll split the scenes up, usually for the first act, because then whoever is finished first then leapfrogs and goes to the next thing, until we have a script that’s assembled that each of us has written, but we haven’t read each other’s stuff. Then we look at it, and then we take the opposite scenes. And we keep rewriting it, and then we get back together, then we actually sit down in person and go through the last pass at it. But yeah, we generally collaborate separately. But we’ve been doing it for so long now that it’s almost never, “Wait, what did you do to my favorite part?” That happens maybe twice a year. We respect each other enough, and we understand that if whatever didn’t work for him, there’s got to be a reason for it. And sometimes I’ll say, “Why didn’t that work?” And he’ll explain, and I’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t think of it that way, what if we meet halfway?”
MARTIN: Yes, that’s pretty much it. It all started because, when we first started writing together, I lived on the west side of Manhattan, and he lived on the east side, and we had to exchange floppy discs. We just got in that habit ever since.
AX: Do you guys have any other projects going on right now?
MARTIN: This is taking our time. It’s taking more than the time we have. Season 1, we’re going to get through it, and survive it, and then maybe we’ll develop something between Seasons 7 and 8.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about THE UNICORN?
SCHIFF: Honestly, I think if people are yearning for something that’s not cynical. In a world that sometimes seems like it’s getting very, very cruel, it’s a show about people who have empathy and who are supportive of each other, and I hope that appeals to people.
MARTIN: Growing up, my favorite shows were shows like TAXI and CHEERS, which had a bunch of people you wanted to hang out with every week, because I felt like I’d love to have them as my friends. And I think these people are those friends that people are going to want to hang out with.
This interview was conducted during CBS’s portion of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with THE UNICORN creators Mike Schiff and Bill Martin on their new Walton Goggins CBS comedy series