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Friday, January 21, 2011

Q & A with Mike Royce, Co-creator of 'Men of a Certain Age'

Men of Certain Age is one of my favorite TV shows. If you aren’t already familiar with it, it stars Ray Romano (as Joe), Andre Braugher (as Owen) and Scott Bakula (as Terry). They play middle-aged friends who are beginning to sense their own mortality and it heightens their sense of urgency to pursue everything they want to pursue.

The series, which airs on TNT on Monday nights, was co-created by Ray Romano and Mike Royce. Royce was also a writer/producer on the hit show Everybody Loves Raymond and he has numerous other writing and producing credits.

Royce was kind enough to do a Q & A interview with me recently via e-mail and I had a blast picking his brain about the Men of a Certain Age characters. Here is the interview:

After Everybody Loves Raymond, I read that you sat down with Ray Romano with the intentions of doing a movie together, but as you spoke about mid-life issues, you gave those issues voices in the form of Joe, Owen and Terry – the three main characters in Men of a Certain Age. First, is that accurate? Second, did you wonder if a show that explores the way middle age men think and feel (from mostly a dramatic, non-comedic point of view) would find a significant enough audience?

That is an accurate description of how Ray and I went about creating the series. As far as the audience, honestly we mostly worried about making the show good. We figured if it was something that we might want to watch, then hopefully there were also an audience out there too. One thing we realized was in our favor was that there was no show portraying this age group of characters in the way we were hoping to. We figured there’d be people who could relate.

Also, while the show’s premise involves middle age, I feel like the way the show has evolved really expands that premise into relationships in general: family, friends, romance, work ... a lot of relatable parts of life.

The restaurant scenes seem so natural. It’s typical guy banter, giving each other the business about women, hobbies, and various other things. How much of that is scripted and how much of it is three actors who are staying in character and just letting the conversation flow naturally?

All of the scenes in the show are scripted, including the diner. The only thing we encourage the actors to do is make it feel as conversational as possible. That means sometimes they talk over each other, or add a word or phrase here or there. But even in those cases it sticks pretty close to what’s on the page. The actors are just really damn good and make it seem like natural conversation.

The guys are willing to challenge one another during these conversations in the restaurant. They almost always deflect the challenge, but they take it with them and think about it, usually concluding that their friends were right. This really rings true to me. Apparently it rings true to you as you write these characters as well?

That is a dynamic that happens a lot on the show, yes, although we try to avoid the “friend gives advice and other friend takes advice and his life is changed” simplicity that can be a trap. Most of the time the guys are just musing about the events of the day, which are whatever their stories happen to be in that episode, and of course friends will always give other friends advice but much of the time 1) that advice is totally ignored and 2) the advice is bullshit! (It’s easy for somebody to say “here’s what I would do.”) However these guys have been friends for a long time, and so things they say to each other will reverberate in their heads and potentially affect how they act going forward.

Owen is diabetic, has sleep apnea, and struggles with his weight. Joe’s bookie is dealing with cancer. In the most recent episode, the guys made a weekend out of getting colonoscopys, which caused them to consider the possibility of a positive diagnosis. Mortality is becoming more real to them and it seems to be motivating them to pursue their dreams harder. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes, absolutely. Without getting too maudlin, part of being middle-aged is becoming aware of your own mortality. And that feeling manifests itself in lots of interesting ways, comic and otherwise. Of course much of the time it is subconscious but it can ignite a “shit or get off the pot” feeling. It can depress you sometimes. It can make you take your life seriously for the first time ever. Lots of manifestations.

Both Joe and Terry are unfulfilled, professionally speaking. Joe has an unsettled feeling about owning his party favors store – as if he should have done more with his life – and that has led him to think seriously about pursuing the senior golf tour. Terry’s acting hasn’t worked out well enough for him to make a living, so he’s changed careers and become a salesman. So much of a man’s identity is wrapped up in his work, but at the same time, most of us never reach the pinnacle of our dream job. Talk about that dynamic in Joe and Terry’s life.

Definitely on our show we explore how the characters deal with what the hell happened to their life over the last 30 years in comparison with what they thought would happen after they left college. And we feel like life is so interesting at this point because a lot of great things have happened. It’s not like they sit around going “woe is me.”

Owen and Joe are both successful businessmen in varying degrees and even Terry has what he considers to be a happy life because he’s doing what he wants to do even though he’s not as successful as he wants.

The conflict comes, as it did in our pilot, when each of the guys kind of wakes up to the fact that maybe they ought to reevaluate and make sure they’re headed in the right direction before they all become old men. This is the time when you have to do that. Work-wise you’ve accumulated a bunch of skills and moved up the ladder so the question becomes “is this what I do for the rest of my life? Because if it’s not, I better get started with the change RIGHT NOW because time is kind of running out.”

That’s what all 3 guys are dealing with ... making sure they’re headed in a direction in which they will be satisfied when they are all in rocking chairs at the old folks’ home.

In the first season, Owen seemed lost. His father didn’t respect him. Even his wife, at times, seemed to shows signs of disappointment in him. But after his father retired, he stuck up for himself as the rightful heir to his father’s dealership and it worked. Now he seems to be coming into his own, even though his dad won’t let go of the reigns. Talk about his character arc and how far he’s come.

I don’t think Melissa ever showed disappointment in Owen beyond the fact that she wishes he would stand up to his father more. And I think we’ve seen that he is growing in confidence and stature in that department. But Melissa and Owen have a relationship that is pretty rock-solid in that she just wants him to be happy (and vice-versa). They are a good team and love their family life together.

However, Owen’s work success has always been tinged with dissatisfaction because he is in a place he never wanted to be: at the dealership working for his father. He tried to get out from under after college but the business he started failed and he had to come back and knuckle under for the old man. Who was of course harder on Owen then on any of the other salesmen. But at the same time, Owen was successful, made a good deal of money and providing for his family.

Now ... Owen has the opportunity to finally make the place he always hated actually be someplace he wants to go to work. Because he’s being allowed to lead, and that’s a different thing than he’s used to. And I think we see he’s got the potential to be a really great leader, but that growth comes not all at once and with a good amount of growing pains and setbacks.

We’re at the midway point of season two with six episodes in the can and six to go. From what I understand, the season won’t resume until summer. Is that correct? How are the ratings this season and what can you tell us about the final six episodes of the season?

The ratings have been okay, although it’d be nice if they were a little higher. The reason we’re airing the other six this summer is because last year we had a ratings drop-off over the last few episodes because as you get into January, TNT has deals with NBA on Monday nights, and we have to be pre-empted and it screws with people’s heads. Last year a bunch of people thought we were cancelled even though we had four more episodes to go!

So the plan this year was to split the season in order to get some episodes over to the summer where the ratings are always a little higher. TNT is very very pleased with the show and all indications are we’re going to be fine. But uh ... tell people to watch! : )

You can follow Mike on Twitter: @MikeRoyce


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