11:15am PT by Liz Shannon Miller
'What Just Happened': Fred Savage Explains the Truth (and Fiction) Behind Fox's Meta Comedy
When Fred Savage was 12, he moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to star in the iconic '80s sitcom The Wonder Years, and his father, noticing that Savage was a little lonely in this new city, gave him the first book in the The Moon Is the Sun at Night series. "I just fell into that world and immersed myself in that book, and from the pages of that book I got everything that I was looking for in that time in my life," he recalls.
OK, that's not actually true — at least, the part about The Moon Is the Sun at Night books. Instead, the above story is a part of the dense backstory built into Fox's extremely meta comedy What Just Happened??! With Fred Savage, in which the actor, producer and director stars as the host of a Talking Dead-esque post-show for a Fox drama called The Flare (which doesn't exist), based on "author" TJ Whitford's books (which also don't exist).
The version of Savage seen in What Just Happened??!, per the aforementioned backstory, is a super fan who invites celebrity friends, including Rob Lowe, Ken Jeong, Tiffany Haddish, Jillian Bell, Randall Park, Yvette Nicole Brown, Vince Gilligan and Joel McHale, to "react" to the latest big reveals on The Flare while also participating in standard talk-show segments, including interviews and games. Clips from The Flare, directed by Jon Cassar (The Orville, 24), are seen each week, and the Flare "cast," including Kevin Zegers, Guillermo Diaz and Shiri Appleby, even make appearances on the show, co-hosted by comedian Taylor Tomlinson.
According to Savage, What Just Happened??! — debuting Sunday on Fox — isn't a satire of talkback shows but instead his and co-creators Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein's unique solution to Fox's request to come up with an idea for a talk show.
"Not a lot of people get to say this, and I know how rare this is, but we are really shooting the show that we pitched, which is an after-show about a show that doesn't exist, that I host," Savage tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The first minute or two minutes of our show is the final scene from that week's The Flare. It always ends in some moment of suspense or terror or excitement, and so the scene ends, and it minimizes in the corner of the screen, and then it goes right into our show. It's spinning on a lot of different elements: a little bit from the after-show world, and a little bit from the late-night world, a lot of elements from early Letterman and Conan, where they'd go out and do remote pieces out in the field. We're squeezing a lot of show into 22 minutes."
Savage was eager to explain the true origins of What Just Happened??! to THR, but he also went into character at one point as Fred Savage, host and fan, who said that he was "elated, thrilled and terrified" when he heard that his (again, fictional) favorite books would be adapted as a Fox drama. "They said it was unadaptable, so it was a thrill for me. But there was also this question — are they going to serve the books well? I watched it with great excitement and trepidation," he says, tongue-in-cheek.
Below, Savage reveals the truth (as well as a little bit of the fiction) behind What Just Happened??!
What were the real origins of this show?
I have a deal over at Fox [the now Disney-owned studio side] to produce and direct shows for them, and they asked me to think about doing a talk show, because they have baseball in the fall and football in the winter, but don't really have anything to promote stuff in the summer. And I didn't want to do a talk show.
I met with my partners on this, Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein — we had met a couple times in other development seasons, trying to find something to do together, but nothing ever quite matched up. I was a huge fan of theirs just as people; they had a show, Drawn Together, that I just absolutely loved. We were trying to find something to do together, and they had an idea, and we married that with the talk show idea and found this meta aspect to it. We came up with this idea that we thought was hilarious. We were like, Fox will never do it. They'll never let us do this.
We first pitched it to them two years ago. And throughout the process of getting greenlit, we pitched almost every department at Fox, because it required a different approach. Just the talk show aspect is not something the people at Fox do. We had to have a meeting with the casting department and say, these aren't like five-year, seven-year series deals. These are like talk show appearances. Every department had to not only buy in to the show but be willing to do something different than the way they normally do it. Fox's willingness to not only take a big creative swing with us, but also to work twice, three times as hard on their end to rethink the way they do their jobs, the way they approach their shows, just for these nine episodes, was really incredible.
So the first pitch was two years ago, before current Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier left AMC [which pioneered talkback shows].
Charlie Collier wasn't there then, but he was the rocket fuel. We were not dead for almost a year, and then all it took was the Disney-Fox merger to bring him over. He got the show immediately, and he's also a guy who's not afraid to take big creative swings. What Just Happened??! was the first show he picked up in his tenure. I think that all the things we're trying to do really fell into his approach for New Fox. This was all developed before he got there, but his arrival is why we have a show. It was Collier who was really just the spark that lit this whole fire.
To what degree did you and your partners develop out all of the aspects of the show's mythology?
Pretty thoroughly. I was really hell-bent on getting really deep into the mythology of these books, and the TV show. As we were developing the pilot, I'm like, we should be writing these books. At some point they convinced me that our time would be better spent than writing a 700-page sci-fi novel. And they couldn't have been more right. But the intention behind it is just like, if I'm going to be the super fan, if I'm going to be the guy who knows everything about this inside and out, lives it and breathes it, then I at least have to have done homework as a writer, as one of the creators of the show, as a writer of the show, to build out that world.
This is not the first time, by a long shot, that you've played a version of yourself on screen. For What Just Happened??!, do you have a definition of TV Fred versus real Fred in your head?
It's definitely my sensibility, my sense of humor, but it's a slightly skewed version of me. It's my sense of enthusiasm, it's my curiosity about other people. My family comes on the show and they play my family. It's definitely me. It's just a slightly heightened version of me.
So this isn't an opportunity for you to, as one example, make fun of Chris Hardwick?
No. This is not a spoof or a lampooning of anything. This is definitely using the fervent fandom that defines after-shows, and the pop culture that comes up around pop culture, and embrace it. No, this is definitely me, unapologetically enthusiastic about the show.
Why was it important to establish that The Flare wasn't just a fictional drama but a show based on a popular series of (fictional) books?
We wanted to give a deep sense of ownership to the love of the show. When things are made from source material, whether it's Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, there are those die-hard fans that just know the books and know the source material inside and out, and there's such a deep-seated passion.
We wanted "Fred" to have that deep passion going in. Our first episode follows the premiere of The Flare. So rather than learn about The Flare as it goes on, we wanted the host to already have that deep, deep love and passion for the material. The only way to do that would be to have it preexist the show and be adapted from source material. I'm here to embrace it. I'm not here to be a hater. I feel sometimes in the fandom world, you get people who talk such smack about Star Wars. They hated the film and they hated the new casting, and they hated the storyline. And you ask them, do you like Star Wars? "Oh yeah, I love it, it's my favorite thing in the world." So the slippery slope of fandom turns poisonous. I think you see that time and time again, anytime a new show is announced, a new bit of casting for a film is announced, a director or writers are announced. I want to avoid slipping into the poisonous side of fandom and just be really excited about the show.
This question is for host and Flare fan Fred Savage: what do you feel is the overall value of having an after-show for The Flare? What does this platform offer to both book fans as well as people who are just discovering the franchise?
It offers an opportunity to share in the love of this show and these books. So even if you are just coming to it, you can enjoy the show because there's people that you know, that you recognize, who might be your guide on this journey, or who you can share these feelings with.
I think there's a reason why these after-shows are becoming so popular, why this genre in the last five years has become so big. And I think it's because watching the show is one thing, but as opposed to a movie, TV you watch often alone, and so you still are looking for that communal experience. Chatrooms and things like that definitely give you one level of interaction and community. But then there's all these conventions that people go to all year long that are so popular. And then these after-shows are another facet of that. It's just a way to build a community and share this thing that you might watch on your own; you meet as wide a group as possible.
It's been so much fun. We've been blazing this trail, because there's no show like it — which is both thrilling, because we're kind of making this whole thing up as we go along, and a little terrifying. There's no road map.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.