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'Back in the Game' Creators on Finding Big Laughs From Little League

Brothers Mark and Robb Cullen talk with THR about finding inspiration from their own family and playing and coaching Little League.

Back in the Game Robb Cullen Mark Cullen Inset - H 2013
ABC; Getty Images
"Back in the Game" with Robb and Mark Cullen (inset)

Brothers Mark and Robb Cullen found inspiration close to home for ABC's freshman comedy Back in the Game. The baseball-themed comedy was based on years of playing Little League with their over-the-top father and, later, returning to the field as coaches of Mark's two sons. 

The duo, who will reteam with Las Vegas star James Caan for the Maggie Lawson starrer, hope the Little League setting serves as the perfect dynamic to connect with viewers who recall their own youth sports experiences, be it softball or baseball. 

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the Cullens to discuss the appeal of drawing inspiration from their family, former teammates and players, the rise of semi-autobiographical fare and getting network notes on their lives.

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Who first pitched the idea of doing something semi-autobiographical?
Mark Cullen: I was thinking about it because of all these characters that were in the league I was in while Robb and I were coaching my sons. I'd never seen such interesting and petty politics in all my life; there was a lot of drama in everything you did. We knew we wanted to do a family show, and I wanted to explore my family. We wanted to explore our past with our father, and we thought baseball was a great backdrop.
Robb Cullen: We coached both of Mark's sons through Little League, and it seemed to never fail that every time we'd have a practice or every time we'd have a game, one of the kids would come up and say something to the effect of, "I think my mom and dad are breaking up," or "I'm having this problem with my sister," or "This is going on at school," or "I feel like I'm being bullied." Kids were coming to us with this stuff, and it felt very organic to us.

How much of what we're seeing actually happened to you guys as coaches or as kids?
MC: There's a lot of truth to all of it, not only in the relationships between the characters but also what happens on the field. We're drawing from hundreds of games and years of experience of what went on. So everything that we do on a baseball field, we're like, "Remember the time that the kid from the Tigers did that thing and that coach was thrown out?" And we'll write that.
RC: Our dad was also a very aggressive coach when we were young. If we were ever hit by a pitch, our dad would tell us to throw at the kid 'cause we generally pitched and played shortstop. So when someone was beating us, accidentally or not, we would scare the hell out of them and throw at them. And oftentimes, our dad would say, "If you don't throw at this kid, you're not getting in this car -- you're walking home." And it was a good eight miles to home. (Laughs.) We have some of that in the pilot, and we've learned a lot from all the things we've encountered from all our years of coaching and playing.

Have you heard from any of your coaches or players?
MC: Yes. The guys that I coached with and some of the players are looking forward to seeing the show. Some of them have already seen it online and ask, "Is this that person?" My answer is always that it's a mix of people. If it's resonating, it's probably true.

ABC has two semi-autobiographical comedies -- yours and Adam F. Goldberg's The Goldbergs. Why do you think we're seeing so many semi-autobiographical projects now?
RC: Some of it has to do with the way things are playing out with the country now. A lot of kids are moving back home with their folks because times are tough, and it's bringing up a lot of childhood memories and the idea that all of our families are pretty crazy. Why not put that down? It feels like the environment is such that there are a lot of families coming back together after a long time, and I think it's reflecting in what we see on TV.
MC: I also think if you're honest in what you're writing about in your own life, then people can see themselves in it, and that makes it more enjoyable. The more honest it is, the more that they can relate to it in their own lives. And it's like, "Oh, yeah, my family is like that."

STORY: Cullen Brothers, James Caan Preview ABC's 'Back in the Game'

Adam mentioned the note process was actually easier because he could go back and explain how events on the show happened to his family when ABC questioned certain points, and ABC in turn signed off on it. Has that been your experience?
MC: Like us, I bet you he's lying. (Laughs.)
RC: Unfortunately we didn't get to tape our Little League. (Laughs.) When we set out to write a show, we didn't set it for any specific time or specific place. ABC's been tremendous with it. We're trying to make it as real as possible in terms of the way kids talk. The network notes have been really supportive. It's our job as writers to push as hard as we can, and they push back, but they've been really great.
MC: They have their notes about the scripts, and we'll explain how it happened. And their note is, "OK, that's good, it gives it more validity." It lets you run with it a little bit more.

Considering the show has so much of your lives in it, how do you plan to handle the instant feedback when the show airs?
MC: I'm going to be with my family, and we're all going to hang out and watch the show -- and maybe I'll throw the ball around with my boys.
RC: We make shows that make us laugh. We're starting the seventh episode, and so far it's made us laugh out loud. We get to watch little pieces of our history, little pieces of our dad, and Caan playing it makes us laugh. We're thrilled, and the idea that a lot of people will get to see it is very exciting to us.

Do you have any current or former Major League Baseball players coming in?
MC: We have plans to bring some people in; it's coming together. They're good names. We are doing the show during baseball season, so it's hard to get guys, but there are some really good names we're talking to.
RC: We already had a couple former baseball players who recently retired who have been on the show. We won't tell you in what capacity, but they've been really funny and incredibly great with the kids.

Anyone you can share?
RC: Rob Dibble. He's still involved with the game. He's scary-looking if he's throwing a pitch to a 10-year-old kid. (Laughs.)

Who's on your dream list?
RC/MC (In unison): Greg Luzinski!

Back in the Game airs on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. Will you step up to the plate? Hit the comments with your thoughts.

E-mail: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit