'This Is Us' Boss Clears Up a Misconception: It's "Also Pretty Funny"

Ron Batzdorff/NBC
'This Is Us'

Christmas heart attacks and lemonade: Dan Fogelman breaks down the most challenging scenes and common misconceptions from season one of his Emmy-nominated multigenerational saga — and vaunted broadcast savior.

Proving that broadcast networks still can be Emmy contenders, Dan Fogelman's time-jumping drama was a pop culture phenomenon in its freshman season, landing broadcast's only drama series nomination (among nine others — including for stars Milo Ventimiglia, Sterling K. Brown and Chrissy Metz). The 20th Century Fox TV-produced series also finished out the season as broadcast's top-rated scripted drama among the advertiser-coveted demo of adults 18-to-49, helping NBC win that crown for the third time in four years — this time without the Super Bowl or Olympics.

The most challenging scene to write this season was …

There were two: The big goodbye speech from William [Ron Cephas Jones] to Randall [Brown] at the hospital. I wanted to make sure I got every word so that it was hopefully sparse enough but right. And then the fight between Mandy [Moore, who plays Rebecca] and Milo [her husband, Jack] in the finale. Getting the rhythm of their fight so that they would have room to go back and forth, almost like dual dialogue, was challenging. I'm a writer who uses a lot of words, and it was a matter of getting your words right and using them efficiently. In the goodbye scene from Ron to Sterling, you're hopefully getting across the verbal point that you want to make without making it too talky or too perfect. The same is true for a fight sequence between Milo and Mandy, just in terms of not overwriting, but not underwriting. It's always the challenge for me.

I still can't believe we got away with …

Toby [Chris Sullivan] falling through a coffee table on Christmas as our [midseason] cliffhanger. It was this very sweet Christmas montage that ended with a guy falling through a coffee table with a heart attack. I wondered if people were going to revolt. It turned out to be something that got them really excited and talking. That one was scary for me.

The biggest misconception about This Is Us is …

All the conversation is about how emotional This Is Us is and how much people are crying when they're watching it. I think the actors are really funny and the show is often quite funny, but it sometimes gets overshadowed by how much people talk about the emotion and the heart and the tears, which we don't have a problem with. But if you heard two people on the street talking about it, you might not realize the show is also pretty funny.

The person on This Is Us who has the most difficult job is …

Our producer Steve Beers, who handles everything, putting the show together logistically — it's surprisingly complex, where we're not often living on our sets so we're moving around quite a bit. We use a lot of expensive music, so that requires a juggling of our budget at all times. I don't envy his job. I think we've aged him five years in one season.

The line of dialogue I am most proud of this season is …

The lemonade speech ["I'd like to think that one day you'll be an old man like me talking a young man's ear off explaining to him how you took the sourest lemon that life had to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade"] from Dr. K [Gerald McRaney] in the pilot. It became such an important part of the response to the show. Even though it was at the very beginning of the pilot, it felt like we captured something there.

The actor I've never worked with but would love to is …

I've tried 16 different times to get different movie scripts of mine to Jack Nicholson with no success. So he would always be at the top of my bucket list.

If I could switch gigs with any other nominee for a day, it would be …

I'm Game of Thrones-obsessed, so I would die to be anybody on that show just to know what's going to happen right now, but they're not nominated this year. I'm friendly with Warren Littlefield, who produced my first TV show [Like Family], and he produces The Handmaid's Tale. I'd switch with him, because I feel like he's probably got a crazy house and a really great life. So I'd like to see his house for a day.

•••

ODDS ARE ...

There's a certain hometown hero appeal to This Is Us. The NBC breakout from 20th Century Fox TV gave broadcast a genuine hit during the 2016-17 season — the network cites an audience of 26 million, once all platforms are tallied — and the kind of prestige impact that no Big Four network has generated with a drama series since the early days of The Good Wife. (The last broadcast drama to win a series Emmy, by the way, was Fox's 24 back in 2005.) This Is Us has a unique momentum moving into the final round of voting — many people genuinely want to see a broadcast series rewarded with the night's highest honor. But the show may fall victim to an uneven playing field. With a comparatively modest FYC campaign and an admittedly less-than-splashy setup, This Is Us seems equally likely to be an Emmy bridesmaid. — Michael O'Connell 

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

comments powered by Disqus