Matt Watts and Bob Martin: Still crazy after all these years
There’s a moment in the second episode of CBC’s revived Michael: Every Day where actor and series co-creator Bob Martin’s character David Storper, while racing down a hotel hallway thieving food off a room-service cart before opting to just take the entire thing wheels and all, states how he hasn’t “had this kind of fun in ages.” In the throes of jubilant lunacy one gives pause to ponder two things:
- I agree!
- Where has this show been for the last five years!
Thus sets the pace for what looks to be a hilarious second season for a series that was rescued from first year cancelation much to the disdain of fans of chronically neurotic comedy.
In case you missed it the first go round when it was called Michael: Tuesdays & Thursday, the show follows Matt Watts as Michael Dyer, a character dealing with his neurosis the good old fashion way: therapy! Martin’s David plays the shrink who takes much more of an interest in his patient then he should when he deduces Michael would be the perfect test subject for experimental psychiatry. The inevitable comedy ensues!
Martin based the show on Watts’s actual peculiar tendencies, something the show’s star didn’t seem to mind at all despite how exposed it left the real life version of David.
“I'm a huge fan of exposing yourself for comedy, so there's nothing off-limits as far as I'm concerned,” Watts tells Ottawa Life. “Vulnerability is the key to comedy.”
Despite the popularity of similar shows like Louis, Curb Your Enthusiasm and An Idiot Abroad, the CBC axed the show after a 12 episode run back in 2011. It had good reviews but also had trouble latching onto a ratings audience with numbers reaching as low as 153,000. Perhaps decent numbers for a Youtube post but not so much for a television show. Adios Michael!
CUT TO: Five years later.
Watts, Martin and series fans are all taken by surprise when the CBC opts to renew the show.
With a possible slew of stories already planned for the original run, Martin opted to shift gears from patient to doctor for the second season.
Two duo return to Ottawa. Like the show itself, Michael is also five years older. While both mains have gone through changes, the characters still find an odd dependency on each other that borders on a crazy kind of charm.
“It’s wonderful to be able to revisit Dr. David Storper and his patient Michael after five years have passed,” says Bob Martin. “Season 2 is hilarious and touching and even shocking at times. And Ottawa has never looked better!”
A city more known for its politics and suit-wearing buttoned-down civil servants packing lunch hour coffee shops with paperwork and briefcases, Ottawa isn’t generally looked upon as the bastion of comedy however it was here where the show finds a perfect backdrop for the antics of its characters. Where better than to explode a collection of anxieties than in a town where people will probably just shuffle away a few steps, clutch their attaché a little closer, and politely let the madness unfold?
Season 2 debuted last week and continues Sunday nights at 9 pm on the CBC.
We had a chance to chat with both Martin and Watts about the series revival, filming here in Ottawa and continuing the show’s comedic take on neurosis.
Ottawa Life: How did you first discover Matt Watts and what was it about him that had you feeling you wanted to develop a show around his neuroses?
Bob Martin: I’ve known Matt longer than my character has known Michael. We first worked together on Don McKellar’s CBC show Twitch City. Honestly, he is like the younger, funny, anxious brother I never had. We are both painfully self-aware, and spend too much time talking about our mental and physical shortcomings and, in a general sense, how disappointing life is. Matt was in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy around the time the CBC approached me to develop an "urban comedy”. I was telling CBC executive Jenny Hacker one of the stories Matt had told me; about how with the help of his therapist he systematically overcame his fear of small talk, when the idea for the series hit me. Then I called Matt and asked if it was okay to exploit his pain. I assured him that my character would be more pathetic than his, and he agreed.
Before being approached by Bob, was there ever a part of you that thought your tendencies and personality would be prime material for a television show?
Matt Watts: No, at least not the anxiety disorder. I never saw how therapy or any of my phobias could be the subject of a comedic drama/sitcom. I thought maybe some of my more neurotic tendencies, sure, but not the actual disorder. Bob was the one who saw the comedic potential in my every day horror and shame.
Shows around neurotic characters blurring the edges of fictional portrayals and real life personas have become popular in the last decade. How do you navigate these waters with the real persona, taking portions of them and creating the character of Michael?
Bob Martin: I believe comedy is about avoidance. Heroes deal with obstacles head on. Comic anti-heroes do everything they can to avoid dealing with their problems directly. Curb is a great example of that. That’s why neurotic characters populate modern comedies. And we find these characters funny because we recognize our own behaviour in their Rube Golbergian mechanisms of avoidance. We recognize the truth. Most people are not heroic, at least in a literary sense. I’ve always thought that it’s the job of the comedian to mine their own fears, prejudices and vanities, to put these uncomfortable truths on the page, or the stage or the screen. The character you create can be, in a sense, the worst version of you. I find it therapeutic, actually.
Despite the show’s initial cancelation, how did you feel about season one and your experience working on it?
Matt Watts: Honestly? The first season was a blast. I was terrified when I first flew out to Ottawa to shoot, and coming home I felt the best I ever had in my life. Then the cancelation came and I fell down a very dark hole.
Why do you feel the show was brought back into the lineup after it’s cancelation?
Bob Martin: I think the network likes it. They always liked it, but Michael really stood out that first season. It was like nothing else in the lineup. Now the CBC has evolved. It's a little edgier, a little more cable. It’s an exciting time to be working with our national network, and they have been incredibly supportive
Matt Watts: I think that after a regime change at the CBC they recognized Michael as the kind of show that underlined the direction they feel the network should be taking with their comedies. Smart, cable-like programming that could only exist in Canada on the CBC. I think they also thought it wasn't given a fair chance, and maybe it should be given a second one. Whatever their reasoning, I'm eternally grateful. They've been lovely. I think that after a regime change at the CBC they recognized Michael as the kind of show that underlined the direction they feel the network should be taking with their comedies. Smart, cable-like programming that could only exist in Canada on the CBC. I think they also thought it wasn't given a fair chance, and maybe it should be given a second one. Whatever their reasoning, I'm eternally grateful. They've been lovely.
Outside of the obvious, was there anything else that went into the choice to skip the show ahead five years for the second season?
Bob Martin: The obvious was unavoidable. I hate to admit it, but I really aged in 5 years! We couldn’t afford the CGI necessary to remove the grey and tighten my skin. But the jump created an opportunity for elliptical story telling. A lot happens to our characters between the first and second season; a lot of misery for David in particular that we only casually mention in dialogue.
How, if at all, would you say the character has evolved over that space in between season one and two?
Matt Watts: Well, without giving too much away, I'll say that Michael feels he has changed. But if you watch all six episodes, you'll know the truth.
Bob Martin: David has devolved. Without Michael as the still point in his world, David has slipped into a morass of depression and self-doubt. Michael, on the other hand, has fared well. At least, it appears he has fared well. At the beginning of season two, he’s living in Toronto in a fancy condo. He’s excelling at work, he’s dressing like an adult. The only problem seems to be a parallelizing fear of flying that appears without warning. Of course, we learn that fear is only the tip of the phobic iceberg.
David is not in good shape. In the five years between seasons he married and divorced again he wrote another book which failed more spectacularly than the first, and he co-produced a TV show about CBT. That was a success, actually, but only after David left the project. You have to hit rock bottom before you can bounce back. Unfortunately, the bottom is quite low for David.
Why was Ottawa chosen as a shooting location?
Bob Martin: We felt, because of the large number of civil servants in Ottawa, that it was uniquely qualified to be the setting for a series about two neurotics. And As I said earlier, I had set out to create an "urban comedy", as per the networks wishes. And let’s face it: it’s a beautiful city. It deserves to be showcased.
Can you tell me about your experiences in shooting here in Ottawa and what you two enjoyed?
Matt Watts: The people, the restaurants, the weather (no matter how hot it gets in the summer, it cools down at night), the architecture. You know what was great this time around? The vibe of the city is completely different. Not to get political, but the first season we shot there was still under the Harper Government. This year the Liberals were in power, and you could actually feel the difference in the air. There's a calmness about our capital now. It was nice. Really nice.
Bob Martin: We loved shooting in Ottawa. Great locations, great crew, great restaurants. And I’m a motorcyclist, so I was out tooling around the Gatineau Hills whenever I had an off day. I love it there. I’m waiting for the canal to freeze so I can take my son skating. Global warming is messing up our plans.
How have you found juggling the various positions on this show bring producer, writer and acting?
Bob Martin: I’m a control freak. I would find it much more difficult if I wasn’t writing, producing and acting. But the truth is, I shared the responsibilities. While I was head writer, Matt Watts and the wonderful Lynn Coady also wrote. And Don was the caption of the ship. Without Don there would be no Michael.
What was it like working with Ed Asner this season?
Bob Martin: I love Ed Asner. You hear that world? I love the man. He is a sweetheart, although he pretends to be a crusty old curmudgeon. He is very intelligent, very witty and an excellent comic improviser. I enjoyed every moment we spent together, and that includes the time we were stuck in a car tow rig for three hours.
As somebody who was the inspiration for the show, is there anything about you that you think is off limits in regards to what gets portrayed or is everything kind of fair game?
Matt Watts: I'll admit, they fill in/hide my hair loss. I'm a bit self-conscious about that.