'Dads' EPs Court Criticism and Make Changes After Accusations of Racism

Giovanni Ribisi Tonita Castro Seth Green Dads - H 2013
Jennifer Clasen/FOX

The effects of a barrage of bad press won't reveal themselves until the morning after Dads' premiere, when the ratings will show whether Fox's advertising campaign playing up negative reviews moved the dial in the right direction. For now, at least, the executive producers are basking in the attention that the criticism has brought -- attention that seems harder and harder to come by every fall.

Dads, toplined by Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi, has been one of the more unavoidable new projects this season. Its harshest critics have called out the show for its treatment of race, gender and sexual orientation -- as well as a general lack of urbanity.

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Co-creator Alec Sulkin and EP Mike Scully had a candid chat with The Hollywood Reporter on the eve of their premiere. And in addition to defending their controversial sitcom, also executive produced by Seth MacFarlane and co-creator Wellesley Wild, the duo offered some historical context on "offensive" comedy, praised their network's aggressive promotion and revealed their biggest change since filming the pilot. (Hint: Don't expect to see Brenda Song don another Sailor Moon costume.)

Sitcoms, historically, have been celebrated for being politically incorrect. Why do you think comedy is so afraid to offend right now?

Alec Sulkin: I think those things are usually cyclical. Even the shows that have been praised for shirking political correctness at one time or another had to go through their own controversies. … Even the shows that we love, like The Simpsons, went through a lot of trials and tribulations before they became these beloved American treasures.

Mike Scully: I think there has been much more openness in drama to offensiveness and antiheroes, with shows like House, 24 or Breaking Bad. Comedy has been slow to come around. When Married … With Children first hit Fox, there were a lot of people calling it offensive. And Americans, when you tell them not to watch something, they find that offensive. They want to make that decision themselves.

Married … With Children seems like the most correlative show. Have you thought much about that show through this process?

Sulkin: The moment they started getting attacked, I think it brought a lot of people to the show who wouldn't have otherwise checked it out. Once something is a hit, it's a little more bulletproof.

Scully: There were similar articles for that show before it ever aired. It was coming on at a time when comedies were warmer, fuzzier shows like Cosby and Family Ties. Married … With Children was the antithesis. America ended up liking the characters and the humor. It ran for 11 years and now it's this beloved show.

What do you think of the commercials plugging negative reviews?

Sulkin: I think it works and it also speaks to a larger point. If you see a quote from a website calling something "morally wrong" or "tasteless," and then you see normal people coming out of a screening laughing, I think that speaks to viewers.

Scully: I think the audience is much more willing to let a show evolve than critics are. Critics used to know how to watch pilots and understand that it's just a template for what a show will be. Critics seem to have forgotten about the evolution of the show and that most get off to rocky starts. You don't have everything figured out your first episode or even your first season.

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Doesn't the term "morally wrong" strike you as a little extreme?

Sulkin: We might not be the most objective judges of it, but it certainly made me laugh. It's that finger-wagging thing, where you're picturing a schoolmarm telling you what not to do. If somebody calls something "morally wrong," I'm definitely going to give it a shot.

Scully: I think a thumbs-up from the Parents Television Council is almost a kiss of death for a show.

What have audiences been most responsive to?

Sulkin: Edna. People love the maid played by Tonita Castro. It's a great cast. People love Seth Green beyond all reason. Men think he's funny, and women think he's adorable. Giovanni, frankly, I don't know if we deserve him he's so good.

You both have backgrounds in animation. Are Fox's notes much different now that you're doing live action?

Scully: In live action, they don't like your characters bursting into flames as often.

Sulkin: It's one of their pet peeves.

You're the only multicamera sitcom on Fox right now. Why not a single-cam?

Sulkin: There's a certain warmth and familiarity and kind of comedy that you just can't get with a single-camera show. CBS knows how to do [multicam], and they continue to do that, but it feels like other networks have fallen off of that format. It just seems like a good opportunity for us to try to bring that back for Fox.

Even though the bad reviews have given you a lot of press, do you wish the reception would have been a little warmer?

Sulkin: We would have loved it if it had been universally positive, but there's something about the sinister nature of the comments about the show that piques interest in a way that positive reviews would not. So many shows get lost in the shuffle, and who knows if that will change, but so far we have received a lot of attention.

What's the biggest change you've made since filming the pilot?

Sulkin: Some of that speaks to the "controversy" around the pilot with Brenda Song's character. We wanted to be clear that she's a person of great importance around that office. If that didn't come across as clearly as we had hoped in the pilot, it's definitely something we've addressed in the next few episodes. It becomes painfully clear that these guys are a mess without her. It's something from the pilot we kind of had to recalibrate.

UPDATED: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted a Dads critique that calls the series "morally reprehensible," when the ad in question cites a review calling the show "reprehensible" and "morally wrong."

E-mail: Michael.OConnell@THR.com