'Enlisted' EPs on Getting Military Attention, Working With Vets and Shipping Out
Executive producers Kevin Biegel and Mike Royce talk with THR about the semi-autobiographical comedy's inspiration from "Stripes" and "M*A*S*H" as well as feedback from servicemen.
Cougar Town's Kevin Biegel is finding humor from a source close to home for Fox's freshman comedy Enlisted.
The single-camera comedy revolves around three very different brothers in the Army's dreaded Rear Detachment unit as they care for military families -- and each other. The series is based on Biegel's relationship with his two younger brothers and the second semi-autobiographical comedy this season (joining ABC's The Goldbergs).
Below, Biegel and fellow executive producer Mike Royce (Men of a Certain Age) talk about the military's response to the series and mistakes in the pilot, what would happen if ace soldier/eldest brother, Pete (Geoff Stults) -- who is sent from active duty to Rear D -- were to be shipped back out again, as well as the chemistry between the cast, which co-stars Chris Lowell (Veronica Mars) as the wise-ass middle child Derrick, and Parker Young (Suburgatory) as the needy yet ambitious and lovable youngest brother, Randy.
Kevin, what inspired you to tell such a personal story?
Biegel: The starting was very much me and my two younger brothers. Pete is me and Derrick is my middle brother, Robbie -- the grumpy Eeyore but secretly the most emotional one of us. My youngest brother, Ryan, is Randy, who is this hyperactive loving person who wants to please everybody. I had these tense relationships with my brothers and it always seemed like a cool thing to write to because in the turn of a dime, we can go from being incredibly juvenile, with the mentality of a 15-year-old, to being really serious and dealing with some really heavy stuff. My dad served for a while, my grandpa did and my uncle was a helicopter pilot in the Navy; my brother-in-law was a lieutenant in the Navy and I had a lot of friends growing up who served and still serve. Enlisted reminds me of the hospital in Scrubs where it's this world where incredibly serious things happen, but it's also sometimes ridiculous funny. And that seems like a great place to have a grounded show.
What do your brothers think of the show?
Biegel: I had this grand idea [of] getting popcorn and siting on the couch and watching the pilot with my brothers. They didn't laugh once! The pilot ended and they looked at me and said, "We don't talk like that!" So, of course, it turned into a brother fight (laughs).
One of the most endearing parts of the pilot is the brothers' gesture -- hands on heads. Is that something that comes from your brothers as well?
Biegel: Mike and I are both suckers for emotional shorthand. We have, in my family at least, a lot of things like that. But that came from Pixar's Up. There's a gesture where Carl (Ed Asner) has a gesture he shares with his wife and that always seemed amazing because it's one little motion but it carries a ton of weight behind it emotionally. I thought it'd be cool to do something here where this one silly little thing -- when they put their hands on each other's heads. It's a loving gesture without having to say this big proclamation of, "I love you." It seemed like a cool thing to have a quick visual shorthand for the world of the show.
Royce: It was in the first draft that Kevin wrote and I didn't quite know what it was, but once we started filming it became such a great signifier. It's one of those things that you dream of coming up with, like a catchphrase. It's in a few episodes and it comes back in the finale.
Considering there still are troops abroad, why is the time right to do a military show? Did that help with the pitch or is it a case of writing what you know?
Biegel: Both. There hasn't been a military family show on TV in a very long time. With the current situation we are in -- and have been in for over a decade -- people rightly so have been wary of combining the word comedy with the military. If you were going to do a show, that's just nonstop hijinks. That wouldn't fly. Mike and I both wanted to respect the reality of what these men and women have to go through. Not to be on a soap box, but there are important things to talk about: these are people; these are people I know personally and I love as brothers, fathers, uncles and friends and those are the best kind of people to write about because we care about them. The fact that some people think it's a little dicey because we are a country at war to us is a good thing because, if anything else, it gets some eyeballs on the show like, "How are they going to pull off a comedy set in the military?" Hopefully they'll see that we do it with a lot of love and respect.
What kind of feedback and/or restrictions have you gotten from the military?
Biegel: There's some technical stuff from the pilot that we got wrong, [that] we didn't do our due diligence on, like haircuts. We thought, "Maybe because it's a comedy we can be a little fast and loose with some of this stuff." We just got some stuff wrong, and we realized very quickly that for a civilian eye it might not matter, but for the people that do this job, that stuff totally matters and that makes sense.
Royce: Not just from a respect standpoint but for accuracy. The military is a giant workplace in America, and millions and millions of people work there and they want to know that we had done our research and were not going off half-cocked.
Biegel: After the pilot, we got it as squared away as possible. We hired the best the military advisers we could -- they're all veterans. We made it a priority to hire veterans on the set. A lot of the people who march in the background are veterans who help us with how they'd address each other and phrases they'd use. We wanted to get that stuff right and the second we let the military know that we weren't beyond approach. We know we screwed up. We're doing a coin contest online where it's a "spot the mistakes from the pilot" for the military community. If you send us a list, we'll send you a challenge coin, which is a big thing in the military as far as a mark of achievement. We wanted to let them know that we get better and we don't want to be these high and mighty Hollywood people who think we can make fun of the military, because we're not making fun of the military. Once they saw that that our intentions were noble, they would come around and embrace us.
How much did stuff like M*A*S*H and Stripes influence Enlisted?
Biegel: They are a giant influence. M*A*S*H is a huge influence. M*A*S*H had 11 seasons to do what they were doing and hopefully we can do a little bit of what they did as far as combining serious stuff with comedy. I don't think we are anywhere near as political as M*A*S*H was.
Royce: Emotionally, we still are trying to get there. The show certainly starts out with a Stripes influence and then as it goes along, you see M*A*S*H creep in and then we hope it becomes its own thing.
Biegel: In the pilot, there's a giant Stripes influence, but I'm not sure Stripes was having a guy at a bar looking at a wall of soldiers that had passed away and having a quiet moment or talking to his brother about dying or having a father that died in combat or talking to his boss, who lost his leg in combat. Some of this stuff is for jokes, but it's not there without thought behind it. It's there because we're planting the seed for some heavier stuff.
How political will you get?
Biegel: We thought we were doing a full season and then midway through we got 13 episodes. We kind of have an end goal for the first season, so we have to shuffle it a bit forward so we can get there. If we do one of those heavier stories and it's the second episode, it might be tough because they might not know the character. But after 20 episodes, it will mean a hell of a lot more.
The show kicks off with Pete reassigned from active duty to the Rear Detachment unit. Could he wind up shipping out again?
Biegel: Absolutely. The great thing about this is it's a malleable world where getting deployed or getting sent somewhere is absolutely real. They're troops and they've trained to be soldiers, so there's nothing that says these guys can't get shipped out somewhere. That option is open to us and it's realistic, which is pretty amazing. One of the advisers we talked to said there's a lot of other places they can get shipped to. Not to shortchange that idea of going to the Middle East, but it's fascinating and dramatically interesting that we can send these guys wherever we'd like. The flip side of that is that Rear Detachment is there taking care of the post while others are away, and there are a whole bunch of soldiers who are deployed right now from this base, so they might even come back at some point and the whole social order might get totally flipped around.
If Pete were to get deployed, would you follow his combat? Or the series stay set at the base?
Royce: I think any of those are possibilities. It depends on what, story-wise, we think is interesting. What's great about this is the ability to do that. Logistically, we'd have to figure out how and what story we want to tell. It's all on the table.
How much of what we're seeing onscreen actually happened to people you guys know?
Biegel: Some of them are so personal that one of my brothers isn't speaking to me right now! (Laughs.) We joke about something he did when he was younger that's on the show.
Royce: There's also an episode about pranks, and the ideas came from real things soldiers have done to each other explained to us by people in the military.
Biegel: Before this season started, we sent out a million questions to the military friends I've got and the ones that are still serving. We put them together in this hundred-something-page book and gave it to all the writers for research. There was a lot of stuff that came out of there.
The guys have incredible chemistry together. How much time did they spend together before filming?
Biegel: How much time did they want to spend together? (Laughs.)
Royce: How much time did they spend getting away from Parker spending time with them? (Laughs.) They clicked right away. They are all versions of their own characters; it's not something we planned. We cast them because they acted the character really well but then the dynamic between them is exactly what those characters are, too. It's weird because Geoff is really a younger brother and Parker is really an older brother -- and I'm not sure what Chris is but he's is the middle brother no matter how you slice it. They're inseparable -- except they're also driving each other nuts! Chris disappears and keeps the peace while making snide remarks about what the two of them are doing.
Biegel: Parker will show up at Geoff's house unannounced, sometimes naked because, "I'm just doing my laundry." Chris secretly loves hanging out with the guys. Chris just wants to be like, "I'm James Dean over here in the corner. I don't need anybody." But in reality, he loves hanging out with those guys. They're totally buddies and there's a very loving thing going on there.
Enlisted airs on Fridays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox. Will you watch?