Five decades ago, The Odd Couple made its debut as a stage play. And now, two films, and four versions of the television show later, CBS is doing its own take on the story.
The story of the CBS comedy is a familiar one: two divorced friends, Felix (Thomas Lennon) and Oscar (Matthew Perry), decide to move in together. Felix is neat and perhaps a bit uptight; Oscar is a slob. Naturally the two drive each other crazy, but Lennon and Perry’s fun chemistry makes their dynamic pop.
Series stars Perry and Lennon, and executive producers Garry Marshall — who worked on a few of its previous incarnations — and Bob Daily sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about the show’s modern retelling, getting a premium time slot, the show’s evolution and more in a wide-ranging interview.
Being put behind The Big Bang Theory is one of the best time slots on television. What was your reaction when you learned the show would air there?
Perry: I think it’s great. We know a lot of people will watch the first one, and we’re really happy with the first one, so hopefully people will like it and want to watch the follow-up [episodes]. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that time slot, but we want people to watch the show, so that’s the way to do it: put it after Big Bang Theory and before the final episode of Two and a Half Men.
Lennon: We had [filmed] all these shows, and it felt a little like we were doing them in a vacuum, [though] we did them for a live audience. They went great for the live audience, but that’s like 250 people. It was nice for the network to confirm what I felt was true: the shows were really, really funny, and something very special. We went from no feedback at all to the best time slot on TV.
Bob Daily: One of the things that’s interesting is when they tested the show, a lot of people are too young to remember the series, so I think it’ll feel new to a lot of people. The Big Bang audience, in particular, it will feel like a fresh concept for them. [Matthew and Thomas] have such a following that I think we’ll get a lot of those guys to stick around.
Lennon: People will wonder, “Why didn’t they do this before?” Don’t tell them they did it five times! Everybody, act casual! (All laugh.)
Garry Marshall: They used to say, “Let’s look at the first season and see how it did.” Then it was the first 13. Now, three or four [episodes] is where it comes down to. I think you have to start off well, but I feel very confident having done the other ones. The other one started very slow, but this one I think will start much faster.
As you approached this show, was there anything you really wanted to steer clear from that was handled in any of the previous version of The Odd Couple? Was there anything you had to incorporate?
Lennon: I think everyone thinks, “Oh, are you playing Tony Randall?” And I’m not. I’m playing Felix Unger. That was the real challenge coming into it: create something totally new, from the characters all the way back to the play. We’ve both done that, in our own unique ways. It’s been very fun, but it’s a challenge. It’s a huge thing to step into.
Marshall: In the original [show], Jack Klugman and Tony Randall were worried they weren’t going to play [The Odd Couple play stars] Art Carney and Walter Matthau. It goes along like this. They’re playing real people.
Daily: I’m sure you’re also worried about not having to play Fleabag and Spiffy from the ’70s morning cartoon The Oddball Couple. (All laugh.)
Lennon: Everyone keeps asking, “Are you just going to be doing Ron Glass from The New Odd Couple?” And I’m like, “I’m not doing Ron Glass!”
Perry: And I’d be Demond Wilson, right?
Lennon: We have to have them on an episode, right?
Daily: What a great idea.
Lennon: They’re neighbors!
Marshall: You know why that show failed: they wouldn’t get new scripts; they used the old scripts. It doesn’t quite work.
Perry: Is that true?
Marshall: That was the truth! To take the [dialogue] of two Jewish men and put them in the mouth of two hip African-Americans, it didn’t work.
Lennon: Luckily, we’re not hip at all.
Marshall: [This show has] brand new scripts, brand new stuff, and they do it beautifully.
What kinds of modern storytelling are you able to tell in this version that wasn’t possible during the original television show’s run in the ’70s?
Marshall: It has easier censorship, it has more modern things you can talk about now you couldn’t talk about then. It makes it for young people who are watching TV. It has a pace that’s a little faster than the old pace, because they have to get [the story] in for less minutes [per episode]. They move along very briskly. I think it has a lot of stuff you couldn’t do in the old days.
Daily: Matthew’s character is no longer newspaper columnist, he has a satellite radio show. That’s a big difference. It’s been fun to see him on the air and interacting with people like [NBA star] Dwight Howard, [former NBA player] Chris Webber and [sports journalist] Rich Eisen.
Lennon: The sports guys on the show — I always say, “Oh, hello!” as if I know who they are. Generally they’re often tall and handsome. And I go, “Hey, sports guy!” And then I go back to whatever I was doing.
Matthew, the last few shows you’ve done have incorporated sports stars into the world. (Perry’s 2011 ABC series, Mr. Sunshine, took place at an arena, while his 2012 NBC series, Go On, had Perry’s character as a sports talk radio host). Is there any athlete you’ve yet to get in one of these shows that you’re really hoping you can land for a potential season two of The Odd Couple?
Perry: There’s a lot of people. With Mr. Sunshine, I had my dream person, which was Jimmy Conners, which was really fun. Having John McEnroe do a show would be amazing. That would be really fun.
Lennon: You just listed two of the sports guys I know, which is amazing.
Perry: Have John McEnroe come on and play the nicest guy in the world would be funny; that would be great.
Garry, you were on set while much of the series was filmed. What was it like for you the first time you saw Matthew and Thomas playing Felix and Oscar?
Marshall: I know Matthew very well, I didn’t know [Thomas] — I thought he was craft services!
Lennon: I had an apron on, which is why. It was a very nice apron.
Marshall: Thank goodness I did not go up and say, “I’d like chicken noodle soup.” I did research, and now we’re going to work together. We’ll all work together in other mediums; I do other things sometimes.
The show underwent retooling from its initial pickup to what will air on CBS. What do you feel is there now that simply wasn’t there during the first version?
Lennon: There were some changes and things like that, but to me, it was a gift to get one more run at it. Doing a pilot, you get 21 minutes and 30 seconds, and it has to be absolutely perfect. The odds against you are steep — it’s like running up in Normandy; your pilot going through to the next level is really intense. Getting two runs at doing this, I feel like everything got a little sharper, a little funnier. It was very helpful to me to play the character twice.
Perry: Plus we didn’t have to learn our lines [again].
Daily: From a writing standpoint, when we originally cut the show, we didn’t love the way it ended. As a writer, it was like, “We get another shot at it?” I’d love a shot at [redoing] every episode.
Marshall: A lot of times the network isn’t too supportive, but they’ve supported us because they really feel good about it.
Perry: And it’s a two-way street. We take their notes and don’t battle with them. It’s a collaborative thing. I’ve been involved with shows where people fight the network notes, and we don’t really do that. We try to do our version of whatever that note would be.
The original pilot had Matthew’s Go On co-star Sarah Baker playing the role that Yvette Nicole Brown is now playing. Was Sarah worked back in for another role, like Tina Fey did when she had to recast Rachel Dratch on 30 Rock, or is she simply off the show?
Perry: We love Sarah Baker. Maybe we could figure out a way to have her come back. We absolutely love her. She was very funny. [The storyline] changed.
Daily: That would be great. Maybe in season two.
Marshall: It is a tricky business. You know the movie August: Osage County? It won the Pulitzer Prize on Broadway. They did the movie, and the audience said, “We don’t like the ending.” They said, “Why?” “What happened to Julia Roberts?” On Broadway, the girl playing the part exited the door. You can’t let Julia Roberts exit. They had to reshoot it, and it ended with Julia Roberts. Why did I tell that story? [Sarah’s character] was insulting the hell out of [Oscar]. I don’t think the audience likes it when people put him down. [Felix] can put him down, because they have a thing. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was just a part of a phenomena in celebrity and stars, and it’s a part of the business.
Perry: That was an interesting thing with the Lauren Graham episode [where she played Oscar’s ex-wife, Gaby]: we bicker in the beginning, and the audience did not like that. They wanted to see us get along.
Daily: They came to embrace it, but you’re right, at first [they didn’t].
Perry: “We don’t want to see these two people, we don’t want to see them fighting.” Hopefully [Lauren] will be able to come back and do more.
Daily: We’d love to have her come back once or twice every season.
Speaking of Lauren’s character, what can you share about Gaby’s interaction with Oscar?
Perry: One of the things that was important to me in playing Oscar — because he’s kind of a scoundrel and he’s a womanizer and drinks and gambles — [is] where the heart comes, he kind of longs for his ex, and misses that relationship a little bit. Lauren and I have been friends for 10 years, and have a great chemistry together. People liked seeing us together. I liked the element of Oscar missing that relationship and wishing he could have it again, and not being able to.
And what is her relationship like with Felix?
Lennon: I feel like she really likes me. She is the only person who can really, truly, commiserate with me over what we’re going through. I think there’s a natural camaraderie between us being his other half.
Daily: She even refers to Felix as the “new wife.” So that was a really fun dynamic. [Regarding] what Matthew just said, heart has been very important to us in these stories. I think that’s one of the reasons, in my opinion, a lot of shows don’t succeed. I think that snarky comedy only goes so far. The heart of this show is the relationship between the two guys … they choose to live together because they’re lonely. It’s tough; they haven’t lived alone in 20 years, and they want some companionship in their lives. The heart is underlining the show, and that’s very important to us.
What can you preview about the evolution of Felix and Oscar’s friendship throughout this first season?
Perry: I think the fact that there’s some similarities between the two of them. The show hinges on the fact that they’re different and they drive each other crazy. But we sort of found — and I’m not sure if Bob did this on purpose — but we found there was a bit of a template to the show where there is a bit of a summary scene at the end of each episode where Felix and Oscar talk about their two stories, and what we learned. I love when shows have that type of thing. There’s a lot of heart in those scenes. We just got lucky we have chemistry; people can be talented and not have chemistry. But he and I do have that chemistry, and the show hinges on that. So we got lucky.
Lennon: Some part of me feels like both Oscar and Felix and both [Matthew and myself] — (to Matthew) I bug you sometimes, but I know you love me. And I think we love how much we bug each other a little bit. Which I think is what it all hinges [on]. They don’t drive each other crazy — they love how much the other one drives them crazy on some level, and kind of need it.
Marshall: And would miss it if it wasn’t there.
Perry: I think a big dynamic of the show is how much Felix annoys Oscar. Which is a really fun thing for us to play, because we fight well.
Lennon: We really do. It’s so much fun.
Perry: In the pilot episode, I think our strongest scene is a big argument we have.
This has been a fairly rough year for networks to launch comedy shows. What is your take on how things have been going?
Marshall: I think there’s always room [for comedy]. Every year, they say comedy is dead. People have to laugh. And they will find places to laugh. The Odd Couple is a good place.
Lennon: It’s a totally cyclical thing. People are always like, “This is dead because something didn’t work, or this is dead because everything has to be this now.” When you’ve been around for a while, you realize, this happens every couple of years. This format is completely dead, and this format is all anybody is going to do, and then it just cycles. Funny stuff tends to win.
Perry: That’s the truth of it. If it’s funny, people are going to tune in and watch. I think we’re making a funny show.
Marshall: No laugh track — it’s all [audience laughter] live. It’s part of the spirit of the show.
Daily: And both these men were born to do a multicam comedy in front an audience. The whole cast comes alive in front of an audience, which makes it more fun. [They’ve] done plenty of other stuff, too, but in front of an audience, they’re fantastic.
Marshall: Some actors don’t do well in front of an audience.
Lennon: I’ve worked with actors who are terrified of a live audience.
It makes sense. If things aren’t funny, the audience won’t laugh, and there’s no hiding that from the actors on stage/filming the sitcom.
Lennon: It happens on occasion. Then you cut it out, scramble, and go, “Oh, God.”
Daily: We embrace that and use it as a diagnostic tool: “Those three jokes worked great, the next joke was a disaster.” And then Garry and the writers will crowd around and write a new joke, and we’ll keep going until we find one that works. I view that as a plus.
Marshall: I’ve worked on a few shows, but this show, they actually have pages that have alternates to some of the lines. It’s not [always], let’s gather to think of something, [they’re prepped] and say, “Here’s an alternate.” And they go right through. The technology of today … still, you come and read a script, you come the night [to film], that’s the way it was in 1955. But the rest [of the process] is all new and modern.
Matthew, you’ve done a number of shows post-Friends. What is it about the medium makes you want to keep coming back?
Perry: I do need to work. There was this weird time when Friends was over where I was like, “I think I’m going to retire.” And there’s only so many hours in the day you can play a video game. I’m a guy who needs to have a creative outlet, and I like working. I like trying to bring something new to the table. Some of the shows I’ve done have at least aspired to be different. If this show doesn’t work, I don’t know what will.
Lennon: It’s 100 percent our fault. We have the time slot, we did the [work].
Perry: Me throwing this show out there, it’s right straight down the middle. It’s chemistry that works. It’s a proven storyline and it’s funny. If this show doesn’t work, I have no idea what to do.
Daily: We’re really going for that classic big tent comedy. The writers have worked on everything from Cheers to [Everybody Loves] Raymond to Frasier to Scrubs to Modern Family. All shows that were funny, and attracted a broad audience. We’re not doing a niche show that’s going to get 300,000 people.
Lennon: It’s not an art house project.
Daily: We want a big audience. That’s our goal.
Lennon: I’ve done cult-y shows. You can go your whole life and Garry Marshall will never know who you are.
Marshall: I know the [show’s] name! I keep calling it Reno 999. I don’t know what it is. [Ed. note: It was Reno 911!]
Thomas and Matthew, since you both are writers, what has been your favorite joke you pitched that made it in the show?
Marshall: They do jokes every week!
Daily: Tons of jokes, all throughout.
Perry: I think my favorite thing is getting Lauren to play my ex-wife. I think I suggested that.
Daily: Yes, you did.
Lennon: I don’t always pitch stuff, I just say it. I’ve found if you say it, sometimes it goes better.
Perry: And I’ve taught him — and this is a lesson I learned on Friends — if you’re going to adlib something, you don’t do it at the beginning of the scene, and you don’t do it at the end of the scene, because they’ll cut it out. If you’re going to adlib something, do it in the middle.
Daily: Why are you telling him that?!
Lennon: I walked in the door and say something very Felix-y, and they cut it out. Like, I’ll run in and say, “You’ll never guess which of the Three Tenors I just saw!” And that got cut out.
Perry: That got cut out, and I keep telling him, if he says that in the middle of the scene, it’s harder to cut out.
Lennon: In the pilot, I got my Enya reference in, which was a huge victory.
Perry: And I think you played the Odd Couple [theme].
Lennon: I do.
Perry: He plays [the theme] on the cello, which was a really cool thing.
What do you want to tell anyone who may be wary or unsure about tuning in?
Marshall: I remember in the old Odd Couple, there was a show we did, and Tony told me, “Maybe I was too over the top.” And I said, “All right.” I usually didn’t show them the show, but I showed him the show, and said, “Look, maybe there we could do a pickup.” And at the end, I asked, “What about Jack?” And he looked at me and said, “I never saw Jack [while watching the episode].” It’s absolutely true. And I think these guys would see each other.
Lennon: And I never, ever ask, “Was I over the top?” Because I know I was, and that’s exactly what I meant.
The Odd Couple premieres Thursday, Feb. 18 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS. Will you be tuning in?