Peter Tolan [Interview]

 

Hello Folks! And happy November to you all. We are just off a whirlwind of emotions after 31 straight days of horror related fun. And while we love it so much each and every year, it can be taxing to be focused on the frightening for so long. That’s why we are now coming out the gates swinging with an incredible interview with an absolute legend outside of the world of horror. It’s Peter Tolan, Everyone!

Tolan is damn near a magician when it comes to writing hit films and television series. Seriously Folks, his credits are simply astounding. From hit films like Analyze This (as well as That) and the seriously underrated reworked adaptation, Guess Who? and just so damn many more films, which will be discussed below. And then there is the television! We talk about Home Improvement and The Larry Sanders Show below, but how can we not at least bring up even briefly such incredible projects like Rescue Me and Murphy Brown (also mentioned below). He’s also a force behind the project Buddies, that was previously mentioned just days ago due to the appearance of our new friend Robert Zappia.

So Folks, welcome back to the real world of Trainwreck’d Society. Nothing better than adding another incredible Emmy award winning writer to the TWS family. We are so excited that Peter was able to spare some time to answer a few questions for you all here. So please enjoy some words with an absolute legend, the great Peter Tolan!

 

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What inspired you to get into the world of entertainment? Was it an aspiration you can remember having since adolescences, or did you just happen to find yourself in this world one day?

I was not inspired; I was pushed. I was a bit of a class clown in school, and in seventh grade (I think) my homeroom teacher strode over to my desk and informed me I was going to be the lead in the play the drama club was doing – very shortly. She was friendly with the teacher who oversaw the drama club, and when the kid who’d been cast as the lead dropped out, my teacher told her, “Don’t worry, there’s a kid in my homeroom class who thinks he’s funny. I’ll show him.” So I was in the play – which is not something I would have sought out by myself – and I was nervous before going on, but I got that first laugh on the little stage at the Scituate (MA.) Junior High School – and that did it. I was hooked.  Everything that’s happened since grew from the seed planted by that first laugh.

 

What was your very first paid gig in the world of entertainment? And were there any sort of lessons learned from this experience that still affect your work today?

Hard to remember.  I’m sure I was so happy about being paid that I wasn’t able to focus on learning anything! Years later, when I was in my early twenties, I worked at an improv theater in Minneapolis called Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop (it’s been around for a long time, and it’s still in operation).  I learned a lot there, because I was on stage in front of a paying audience doing seven shows a week in addition to improv sets after the main show.  You can’t be on stage that much and not learn something. And even though I stopped acting after a certain point and focused solely on writing, my writing is completely informed by the hours I spent on that stage in the Twin Cities.  It put a clock in my head in terms of storytelling – knowing how long to spend on one story beat before moving to the next – that sort of thing.  Out of entertainment, my first paid gig was a paper route – where I learned that a lot of people don’t like to pay on time.  Which I still deal with.

 

In 1991, you worked on the debut season of one of my favorite series from my time as a kid in the 90’s, Home Improvement, which happens to star our dear friend and past guest Patricia Richardson. I am curious to know what it was like to work on the early days of this now legendary series? Could you tell that it was going to be a hit right from the beginning?

I was working at Disney on a show called Carol and Company, starring the great Carol Burnett.  (I wrote a couple episodes of Murphy Brown at the same time, but technically Carol’s show was my first job in LA.) When that show ended, I should have had a clear exit to join Murphy Brown, but for some reason Disney held me back and said I’d have to work on the pilot and first six episodes of Home Improvement before I could go to the other show.  While Home Improvement was not my complete cup of tea, it was very funny, Tim made for a great lead, and it smelled like a hit from very early on.  In fact, Matt Williams (one of the creators of the show) – knowing that I was leaving for Murphy – told me flat-out, “You should stay. This thing’s going to be huge.”  I responded, “I have no doubt – but I came to LA to work on Murphy Brown, so I feel like I sort of have to follow that initial dream.”  But yeah, very early on it was in the air that Home Improvement was going to be big – and that rarely happens – where people just know.”  This was a long time ago – back in the days where the writing staff took a keen interest in the ratings – and mostly because the numbers (for both Murphy and Home Improvement) were huge.  I mean – huge.  I look at the ratings now and see popular shows pulling down a 1 share. I mean – how do you get excited about that?

 

The following year you moved to the absolutely legendary series, The Larry Sanders Show. It’s a brilliant program that deserves every bit of the acclaim it has received. I am curious to know what it was like to work on such a revolutionary project? And how was it to work on such a hilarious project? Was it as much fun to work on as it has been for audiences to watch?

Sanders was interesting in that we were keenly aware we were doing something very different, but as opposed to thinking it was going to be a big hit out of the box, we actually wondered if it would work at all!  So as much as we were excited about doing something out of the ordinary, there was a lingering sense (during the first season) that the whole thing could just crash and burn.  I remember very early on getting exactly what Garry was going for; he and I were in sync and doing a lot of the rewriting on the scripts – which was challenging but really enjoyable.  In terms of the “fun” of working on the show – yes, it was quite satisfying to be doing “adult” work (and I’m not referring to the language we were allowed to use; I’m talking about writing behavior as opposed to jokes), but it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Rip Torn, while absolutely brilliant as Artie, could be a massive pain in the ass to deal with.  He was a bully, and he’d target other people in the cast or directors or crew members (never Garry) for punishment; it was pretty terrible.  Garry and I finally had to sit him down to confront him about it, but he was ready for us!  He just sat down, spread his legs wide and stared us down – knowing he had us by the balls – because he was so good in the show, he knew we couldn’t fire him! I’m a fairly even-tempered guy; I rarely lose my cool.  But I had a roaring fight once with Rip – that ended (once the dust settled after a number of months) with me writing a script for him – secretly about our working relationship – that won him an Emmy!  Which just goes to prove: the entertainment business, she is sometimes not fair.  One more thing about Sanders – in stark contrast to Murphy and Home Improvement – nobody watched it!  Those were the early days of HBO, so the only audience we know of was people in the business.  They loved it!  People in the rest of the country, whenever I’d mention what I working on – they’d scratch their heads.  It was only in the later seasons that it become slightly better known – and even then, only slightly.

 

 

Your 2008 film Finding Amanda is an absolutely brilliant and touching story that you both wrote and directed. I am curious to know where this story came from on a personal level? What made you want to put this story out into the world?

The bare bones of the story happened to an acquaintance of mine; he had a niece who – he was very surprised to find out – was working as a prostitute in Las Vegas.  He asked if I had any connections in the Vegas Police Department (because back in the day I was a bit of a gambler and spend some time on the Strip) and wondered if I’d go with him to Las Vegas to maybe look for her and get her some help.  And in that moment – sick gambler that I was – I thought, “Hey, great.  I get to go to Vegas!”  Like, it had nothing to do with helping this poor woman; it was all about me having a good time.  And I caught myself in the moment and thought, “That’s a movie.”  So the details about the young woman and the prostitution are all made up; the details about Matthew Broderick’s terrible gambling – pretty much all from my actual life.  I mean, I lost millions of dollars betting the horses.  My wife at the time worked on the film, so we’d be shooting those specific scenes – where Matthew’s character would be stealing checks from his wife’s checkbook and lying to her – and I’d look over at my wife on the set, and she’d just be shaking her head, like, “You sick bastard.”  I guess more than anything I wanted to tell a story not about redemption, but about the first baby steps toward redemption – because addiction of any kind isn’t cured easily, and representing that in a film seemed false to me.  But seeing characters taking very small first steps – that interested me.

 

We always like to ask our statue holding friends this two part question: Where do you physically keep your Emmys? And does their physical location hold any sort of significance and/or symbolism?

I’m not a huge fan of awards.  I’ve won a number of them (and have been nominated for a great, great many more), but the truth is – I only wanted to win one: the Best Writing for a Comedy Emmy Award.  For whatever reason, I just wanted to be in that rarified company.  So I won it (with Garry, for the series finale of Sanders) and then I stopped caring about awards altogether.  I don’t even put my work up for consideration – because the whole award thing – who really cares?  All the times I won an award, you know what I was thinking about?  The thing I was writing at that moment– not the thing I was winning the award for.  But to answer your question: some years ago, I lived in quite a fancy home in Pasadena, and my office was off the foyer inside the front door.  The Emmys were on the mantle above the fireplace, but when you prominently display your Emmys, visitors see them and want to pick them up. It’s like a compulsion!  And then – because the awards were heavier than they thought – when they moved to put them back on the mantle, they’d hit the mantle – and soon little chips of paint would be missing.  That’s when we discovered the mantle wasn’t stone; it was wood painted to look like stone.  They’re currently on the buffet in my dining room – a little more out of sight.

 

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers? 

I’m currently writing and executive producing a reboot of the 90’s show Mad About You with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt (the original stars), and we’re having a hell of a good time doing it.  The shows are quite funny.  It will appear on Charter/Spectrum – twelve episodes – six dropping on November 20th, and the second six dropping on December 18th.  It’s a multi-cam – and I haven’t done one of those in many years, but it’s been fun flexing those muscles again.  In January I start an overall deal at FX – for whom I did Rescue Me – so I’m looking forward to rejoining that fold.

 

What was the last thing that made you smile?

Probably seeing one of my lovely kids.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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