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Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life is not your average network comedy.
Every episode is told out of chronological order — usually kicking off with someone running for their lives, a car blowing up or some kind of over-the-top stunt. Every episode also ends with the main character talking directly to the camera, a device rarely seen outside of mockumentaries such as The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family.
The ambitious single-camera series centers on Barrett (Jack Cutmore-Scott), a charismatic twenty-something simply trying to survive the standard everyday struggles of adulthood — a towed car, a lost iPhone — with the help of his roommates (Charlie Saxton and James Earl), his friend (or more than?) Kelly (Meagan Rath) and his older brother (Justin Bartha) and sister-in-law (Liza Lapira).
To break down the series, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with creator Jay Lacopo and showrunner Bill Callahan about the show’s unlikely influences (Cloverfield, anyone?), nixed stunts and the hurdles along the way from script to screen.
Where did the idea for this first come about?
Lacopo: It started out as a found-footage show in my head. I had gone to see Cloverfield and that was such an interesting way to do a monster movie and I thought, “Could you do a comedy with found footage, with traditional comedy characters and tell the story that way?” I thought of that eight years ago and over time it evolved into what it currently is: sort of a combination of Ferris Bueller and The Hangover.
What were those pitch meetings like over the years for the show?
Lacopo: I pitched it twice seven years ago and I realized, you had to find the exactly right place for this show. I actually had a couple of different ideas going into 2014 pitch season, but then I went in and met with Gail Berman and she had a relationship with Fox, and I pitched her the title to her and she said, “That one sounds interesting. Tell me more about that one.” As we talked about it, it gained more and more traction. We went in and pitched it at Fox and they immediately got exactly what the show was and they were on board.
It’s interesting you say the title is what grabbed her because the title changed a few times since it was picked up to series.
Lacopo: Originally it was Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Your Twenties and then they wanted to open it up a little bit more so we changed it to Life. We always felt the Cooper Barrett part was the unique part of the title anyway and we liked telling the story through his eyes. We think pretty much people will call the show Cooper Barrett anyway.
Every episode of the show is framed specifically within the conceit of “How to Survive … .” Were you ever concerned about that becoming too restricting?
Lacopo: That wasn’t my concern. That’s what Bill [Callahan] was here for. (Laughs.) My initial concern was write a pilot that I would watch, write a TV show that I would watch and get a pilot made. … I was doing this one hurdle at a time.
What were some of the biggest hurdles?
Lacopo: One is cast the show well. Meagan Rath was the only one we saw for Kelly. She happened to come in on the first day we were casting, and every word that came out of her mouth was exactly right. 20th [TV] loved her, she had just done an arc on New Girl, and we were like, “She’s cast!” I originally wrote Barry with a Jack Black from High Fidelity-type character in mind, but James Earl came in and crushed it. As far as Jack Cutmore-Scott goes, it’s really hard to find a 25-year-old who has a real facility for language. He came in and was great with the dialogue and incredibly charming and with no false swagger, with a sense of humility, which is a really tricky find. Those were some of the initial hurdles, and then once you make a pilot that’s at least resonating internally, then we get an episode order and then it’s, ‘Bill, how do we do this?’
You mentioned that you expanded the original premise from just being about surviving your 20s, and the show also features Cooper’s older brother and sister-in-law. What do you think they add to the story that wasn’t there before?
Lacopo: When I pitched the show I said, “When I talk to my friends in their 40s about their life in their 20s, they always wind up saying two things: ‘I can’t believe I didn’t die’ and ‘I had the time of my life.’ ” That’s where the show fits, in the blessing and the curse of those years of your life. Even though the character is in his late 30s, Josh represents a 40-year-old’s way back into that decade of life. I know guys that are like this. Guys that married young, didn’t get a chance to sow their oats in a way and now do it in small ways.
As you were going through and writing the episodes, how challenging was it find to ways to intersect these characters who are at different points in their life?
Callahan: It was nice to be able to cut away to other stories and get an older perspective and to make the show feel a little broader than just this simple twenty-something romp, particularly through Josh’s eyes as a guy who, like Jay said, has lost his life but aspires to be his brother, at least for a couple hours a week. But, you know, the more stories we tell with more characters, the show felt fuller.
Each episode starts at the climax of a story, like on the back of a truck in Mexico or on the run, and then circles back to the beginning. How did you decide on that narrative structure to tell everything out of chronological order?
Lacopo: In the pilot, I wanted to raise a very simple question: How did this guy end up in this situation? And then use the episode to answer the question. It seemed like a really clean, fun way to do a comedy. It’s helpful and also challenging.
Callahan: There were some scripts that we toyed with not doing it. We were worried about getting too formulaic but we found every time we had it, it provided a unique little grab at the top of the episode that hooked the viewer and also there weren’t any other shows doing that consistently, so we leaned in to it. We always think it’s fun when you pay off a bet at the end of the episode and as long as we found that the shows were fun, and there was something relatable that we could tie up at the end, we knew that it would work.
A lot of these episodes have ambitious stunts and big set pieces. Is there one episode from season one that stands out as the most challenging?
Lacopo: You haven’t seen the episode that starts with Jack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean yet. (Laughs.) That one’s coming. When we were watching dailies, Bill and I saw the car exploding at the same moment and Bill — who has 22 years of television experience — is like, “How are we doing this on a half-hour television show?!”
Callahan: On this show, everyone was so on board with maintaining the spirit of the pilot and keeping that look and that action element. Everyone was so can-do and we kept asking for stuff and they kept doing it. There’s another episode that you haven’t seen where they start the episode laying in the middle of the forest at night and we reveal a bear walking around them and then one of our characters is up in a tree and we have a shot of the bear climbing up the tree. We think up crazy stuff, but what surprises us is when they come back and say, “Yes, we can do it.”
How do you balance these bigger, more over-the-top moments with the heart of the show?
Lacopo: Every week, that is exactly the key to the show and that is something Bill always has his eye on, is how do we ground this story in the characters and the relationships so that we can go to these extreme places and the audience always says, “Yes, I believe that that happened.”
Callahan: Every time we thought of a wild adventure, we’d be like, “Well, we’re not going to care about that unless it means something.” We always answered that question before we proceeded. Sometimes, it was a lot of trial and error and new scripts after table reads, but the episodes that worked, and we feel like most of them do, all of them achieve that.
Were there any big ideas or stunts that you didn’t get to do in season one that you want to do in season two?
Lacopo: We want to do them hanging off the side of a cliff.
Callahan: We actually scripted this year Cooper in a car as water starts to fill up the car because he’s at the bottom of a lake. We came dangerously close to shooting that but we were told it was going to be $150,000. (Laughs.) So we do it early when there’s money in the budget next year.
You also touched on the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic between Cooper and Kelly. What is the long-term trajectory of those characters romantically?
Lacopo: They are two characters who met each other too early and met each other too young. Now the question is whether they will get it together individually in time for the two of them to ultimately wind up together.
Callahan: If they ran into each other at 32, 33 when their lives were ironed out, they’d be off to the races, but they met each other for the first time at 22 and every time one of them gets close to having their life together enough to date the other, the other goes in the opposite direction. We talked a lot about our experiences in our 20s where we met some great people but we just could never get it together. We loved the idea of there’s a genuine connection and they really can’t figure out why it’s not working, they just know that it’s not. Until they get to that point where they do have their stuff together, we plan on just having a lot of fun and heartbreak and interesting stories about all the ways it doesn’t work.
It sounds like it won’t happen for awhile then.
Lacopo: In trying to tell a contemporary on-and-off-again love story, there may be some progress and also some failure, getting them together and having that not work out. But we’re always sort of searching for doing something that feels at least relatable to a contemporary love story, but also keeps the tension alive in their relationship.
Jay, in addition to writing and producing, you’re an actor as well. How has that transition been from acting to writing and working mainly behind the scenes?
Lacopo: I love having that skill set in terms of being on set and just being comfortable with actors and communicating with them and stuff like that, but it’s been really nice developing this other side. I’ve never been in a writers’ room for an extended period of time beyond the pilots that I’ve done, so it’s nice to get better at this. That’s my goal with every episode, is do good episodes and keep getting better and better as a writer and executive producer.
Are there plans for you to pop up on a screen for a small role?
Lacopo: Absolutely not (Laughs.) I got my hands full on this end. Don’t stress me out!
Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life premieres Sunday at 8:30 p.m.ET/PT on Fox.
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