Jonathan Ames: Starz's 'Blunt Talk' a Lot Like 'Larry Sanders'

Patrick Stewart Blunt Talk - H 2015

Patrick Stewart Blunt Talk - H 2015

When Blunt Talk viewers are introduced to Patrick Stewart's Walter Blunt during Saturday's series premiere, he's hitting a low point: An attempted hookup goes bad, and Walter — a newsman — finds that suddenly he is the story everyone's talking about.

But despite Walter's sad start, the Starz comedy aims to be lighthearted.

"I think [viewers] will laugh and be delighted, and they'll come to love these characters," Blunt Talk creator Jonathan Ames tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's not a dark comedy. Hopefully, like at the end of a Frank Capra movie, you'll feel some uplift."

Ames talks with THR about the nontraditional development process for his show, influences including Network and humorist P.G. Wodehouse and more.

The way Blunt Talk came about was a bit different than some of the other shows on television: Seth MacFarlane and Stewart — who had a history from Family Guy and American Dad! —  decided to do a comedy together and then, together, sought you out to create the show. How did that experience compare to the more "traditional" pilot process?

I've written a few pilots. This is the second show I've written that will get on the air. The biggest difference with this is Seth wanted a comedy for Patrick Stewart. I came up with the idea for the comedy, which is why I'm the creator of the show. The first big difference was: I wrote this with Patrick Stewart in mind. Normally, when you write a pilot for a TV show, you don't have an actor in mind because you haven't cast them yet, and the network will want to weigh in on that. So this was written specifically for Patrick Stewart — that was the first big difference.

When I wrote Bored to Death, I didn't have Jason Schwartzman in mind. I had met him, and I did want him for the role, but I was not tailoring it for him. Though later he came to inhabit it perfectly. This, I wrote with Patrick Stewart in mind. I made him English because of Patrick. And a man of a certain age. This was written for him. That's the biggest difference.

The other difference is, it's hardly an office comedy, whereas my last show was on the streets of New York about a wannabe detective. Now I was writing a very interior show with a much larger, diverse cast — a larger ensemble.

What was the balance you wanted to strike between Walter's work life at his show and his personal life in the first season?

When you're writing for TV, and budgets, you have to be on certain sets for certain amounts of time. Even when we're in the office, though, it's Walter's life. The two worlds were [intertwined] — his private life and the office. In that sense, it's like Larry Sanders: You're behind the scenes, but it's always about the character.

In the Blunt Talk work office, like many other places, it doesn't seem like a lot of work is going on. (Laughs.) There's a lot of spooning, a lot of love-making; this is an unusual office.

The show was given a two-season order right out of the gate. When you sat down to craft the story, did you look at arcing the two seasons together, or did you just focus on the first season?

I always look at one season [at a time]. It was enough to figure out who all of these people were, what the stories were. Let me lay the groundwork, let me see what this world is, let me see who those characters are, and season two will flow from that. Then, as you work, you think, "Oh, we can do that for season two," or, "Let's remember that for season two."

When viewers first meet Walter, he's in a bad place — he's just been publicly disgraced. What is his big goal this season?

He states it in episode two: He wants to be a better father to the American people — and then to his own children. We see him wanting to deliver the news in a way that it can be helpful to people and maybe to even give them hope in these very dreary times.

[In episode four,] we meet his young son, and he wants to rebuild that relationship. When we first encountered Walter Blunt in episode one, he's hitting bottom. The rest of the season, he's on an upward trajectory. As he says, he's been given a second chance. He wants to make the most of this second chance: to do his job well and to be a good father. It's about trying to be the man he should be.

How much is he willing to do to change? And as a writer, how much growth can you actually let him have?

He tightens the belt in the first season. He's not going to be quite as reckless as he was. And we don't want him to change too much because we want him to be real. People don't change overnight. But I think he changes just enough so his life doesn't careen into complete disaster.

Walter does have a delightful relationship with his manservant, Harry (Adrian Scarborough). What can you share about their dynamic in season one?

When I saw Adrian Scarborough audition, I was like, "He's perfect." Patrick had recommended Adrian because they had done a radio play together. That was a brilliant idea on Patrick Stewart's part. And once Adrian showed up and started to rehearse, he just inhabited Harry. And the two of them — their chemistry, the respect for each other, the sniping like a married couple — they just ran with it.

I've always been fascinated with the master and the manservant relationship. I'm a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse. My logline for this show is, "It's a cross between Network and P.G. Wodehouse." And P.G. Wodehouse famously created the character Jeeves and the Wooster and Jeeves stories, which were first written in the beginning of the 20th century, and he wrote them for 50-60 years. And there was the PBS series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the roles. Not necessarily a lot of Americans are familiar with the Jeeves character — they might know the "Ask Jeeves" website, which I think is defunct. But I was a longtime admirer of this relationship in the Wodehouse canon and wanted to re-create it in a TV show and, in fact, wrote a novel, which was very much an homage to Wodehouse. This has been an ongoing interest of mine.

There is also a good amount of physical humor in the series. How much of that was something you always planned to put in it, and how much was injected after you saw what Patrick was capable of?

I like physical humor, and I like slapstick. We did put a lot of demands on Patrick, but we are a comedy, so it wasn't necessarily an overly long chase sequence or an overly long scene with his manservant with a sword. He's in excellent shape. But we also didn't overdo it. … It was all within reason.

The show also has breaks from the norm — in the first few episodes, there's a cut to an older movie clip and a dream dance sequence. What balance did you find worked best when figuring out when to go more outside of the box in storytelling?

That's just the whimsy of making art. When I wrote the pilot, I knew, for some reason, I wanted him to have a vivid dream about a film. It was originally [Federico] Fellini's La Strada, but we couldn't get the rights to that, so, for some reason, Trapeze came to mind. It was the perfect clip to capture Walter's perfect flight and fall. And then I was like, "I'll have him collapse in the end."

And then episode two could begin with a near-death experience — I used to watch all these Busby Berkeley videos on YouTube because I like The Magnetic Fields' song "Busby Berkeley Dreams." And by listening to and watching that song on YouTube, there were all these complications of Busby Berkeley choreography, which I may have seen a little of as a child, Saturdays, watching movies, but I wasn't very exposed to Busby Berkeley. But I just loved all these kaleidoscopic images he would create, and I wanted the chance to try it myself.

It's the whimsy. I don't know where and when these things come to mind. And maybe don't overdo theme. But the show has enough elasticity where you can have these things in them.

You also have some fun guest-stars in store.

[Episode-four guest-star] Moby is an old friend of mine from New York. He had seen me perform, I don't know, a dozen years ago. He once had me open up for him at a concert; I used to do storytelling. We tried to do a talk show together because I had a talk show, and he became my partner [in that] briefly. He's just been a friend.

He wrote the theme song for our show, as well as the news theme song, and I thought he should be in it. Moby is bald, so Walter's ex should go for him because it's like going for another bald guy.

Elisabeth Shue is in episode five. Jason Schwartzman is in episodes five, seven and 10. Richard Lewis is part of our core cast. And in our core cast we have Jacki Weaver and a lot of great people.

Blunt Talk premieres Saturday, Aug. 22, at 9 p.m. on Starz. Will you watch?