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Arts and Entertainment

TV Junkie Interview: Mike Royce, Co-Creator of TNT's 'Men of a Certain Age'

At the 2011 Peabody Awards - left to right, Ray Romano, André Braugher and Mike Royce holding the award.
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I've been unabashedly in support of TNT's "Men of a Certain Age" ever since I got the first screener of the show almost 2 years ago. It wasn't just that it was the show that brought Ray Romano back to TV, which could only have been a good thing, but it was because it was a show unlike any other and it had pulled together an unlikely group of people. I've interviewed André Braugher about the show, and have talked to Scott Bakula on more than one occasion but it took a while to finally speak with Mike Royce who co-created the series with Ray Romano. The short blip I had with them at the Peabody Awards wasn't enough and Mike was gracious enough to give up even more of his time as the mid-season premiere barreled down on him. Mike Royce was a successful stand up comedian before he began his association with TV where he has been among many other things: a writer on "Saturday Night Live," a longtime writer and producer of "Everybody Loves Raymond," and the showrunner for another favorite (but far too short-lived) show "Lucky Louie." Look at how different those shows are both in terms of their structure and their approach to their subject matter - it's obvious that the man has a vision and that he's uncompromising about that vision. Sure, the photographers and "Access Hollywood" people might swarm the show's stars but it's the tall quiet guy off to the side that is the one making the party possible.While I'm probably the targeted demographic for the show, a male in his 40s (early 40s!), it's how this show is made that is more intriguing than any direct affinity I have for the characters. The show is about 3 childhood buddies played by Ray Romano, André Braugher and Scott Bakula who are in their late 40s/early 50s. They are at different stages in terms of their relationships with women, development of family, and career development but they've made it a point to be present in each others' lives, to meet regularly for lunch at the local diner, and to go on fitness hikes in the hills around LA - kind of like what actual human beings do in real life.

There are no car chases or shootouts, they are not trapped on an island with smoke monsters and they don't suck on anyone's blood. They've bucked the TV trend by being normal, accessible, and realistic and it's incredibly refreshing to tune in to something that doesn't require a suspension of the laws of physics to make the leap of faith and connect with any of the characters in the show. Yes, it's a "dramedy" but there's more drama than comedy, much like real life, and the comedy isn't jokey or punchy - it's the very real and everyday type humor that is shared between friends and family.

You don't need to be in your 40s or 50s to enjoy this show or to relate to what is happening in their lives, you just need to be an adult who has lived in the United States and you'll be able to make a connection to understand the dramatic turns and laugh at the situations you'd laugh at in your real life.

The 6 episode mid-season run of "Men of a Certain Age" begins tonight at 10pm on TNT. You should watch.

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Thomas Attila Lewis: It's a real pleasure to speak with you finally, we didn't have much time to talk at the Peabody Awards in New York.

Mike Royce: Yeah! You get around, I said "there he is at the Peabodys."

TAL: It's a great place to meet people who are involved with some really great shows, and if you noticed, it's not insanely mobbed [by media] there.

Mike Royce: Right, yeah! It is a room full of incredibly talented people, I'm not trying to lump myself in there but I was kind of in awe [laughs]. My wife was most blown away because she met Charlene Hunter-Gault from the [PBS] "News Hour" and a million other things. You just get blown away by the PBS people.

It's funny though because nobody wants to talk to me, at these shows. But at the same time, André [Braugher] and Scott [Bakula] didn't want to steal our thunder but the cameras kept trying to get around me to get to them. "I'm sorry I'm in the way, I'm a writer, there's a reason why I'm not in front of the camera."

TAL: But you were in front of people, in front of cameras for quite a while as a comic.

Mike Royce: This is true, I am quite comfortable in front of people are cameras. But at this point in my life, in my career, which I'm extremely happy with, is to be behind the camera. Therefore "Access Hollywood" wants nothing to do with me.

TAL: I'm really excited about the upcoming season, I've seen the first few episodes and they're really great. This is one of my favorite shows, I'm so happy to have come across it.

Mike Royce: Did you see all the summer shows, all six of them?

TAL: The first four, and it seems that at the end of where we left off, is that Terry, played by Scott Bakula, seems to be the one that made the most compromises on his ideals, of what he'd want to do. Like he's trying to "be good" and fit in with everybody. It seems like he might be having some second thoughts about that and what he's given up.

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Mike Royce: I think part of his thought process is, "Am I compromising?" You know what I mean? I don't think he said "I need to buckle down" and became a fuddy duddy. Throughout the first season he was figuring out what he wanted out of life and decided to make some changes to go in that direction. So he's making money and getting comfortable and he's starting to question that, just because, "OK, am I just kind of settling?" Which is what I think people tend to go through, especially actors who decide to do a regular job and it becomes comfortable. I went through this in my 20s when I was temping - for a while there I was, "Why should I even pursue this [comedy]? I'm making money, I'm happy in a way." So this is entering his head and the same thing relationship-wise. "I want this serious thing and at the same time it's happening quickly, so, DO I want it? Is it everything it's cracked up to be?" I think he probably had the married-people-are-boring gene and didn't want to turn into that.

TAL: I think Scott does such a great job with Terry because on a completely superficial level, everybody knows a Terry, but what you guys have written fleshes out the character so much.

Mike Royce: Well thanks, and Scott really brings that third dimension to him. When we were casting we did look at a lot of guys and I think we had more of a stoner guy in mind. The problem with that is that it was almost too much of a stereotype because when the guy is 50, you almost didn't believe they even tried. Whereas Scott really brings the dimension where, yes, you know that guy, you know that he probably got every lead in his high school play and in college; he's still a good looking guy who got by on charm and maybe a little used to things going his way because of that. You get to Hollywood and every one of those guys is here! So they can't all be Clooney. Terry is a talented actor who is a good-looking guy who got some work but never quite got over that hump where he was famous or could even make a solid living at it. He could make somewhat of a living but every week brings a "ok, what am I doing here?"

TAL: There's also something so lovable about Scott, you just want to take care of him.

Mike Royce: You get the sense from Terry that his heart is in a good place even though he's somewhat childish and has a lot of issues [laughs] but he is not grizzled dog who's 50 years old who thinks he's been burned by relationships with women and has some terrible take on love. His thing is, "I have a hard time believing in one true love and if that's the case why am I settling down with someone because that's not really the way life is supposed to be?" But he's fighting with that because there are a lot of things that are good about being with the same person.

TAL: It seems like this season was really shaping up with him seeing what others have in that area and wanting that.

Mike Royce: I think that's sort of the unique situation we have with the show because it's sort of about this time of life, this age, the stakes are higher because it's the last stop before you are an old man. If you want these things you kind of have to get a move on before you become a man in a wheelchair or man whose sperm doesn't work [laughs].

I'm very happy with this season that we give Scott a chance to shine with where the story goes, perhaps because André [Braugher] is such a renowned actor Scott gets a little overlooked but I think he does some incredible incredible stuff this summer.

It's interesting about André too because he also brings that third dimension to Owen because we had pictured this very overweight, let's say someone more overweight than André, a guy who's much more downtrodden - but what André brings to it is a guy who has the constitution to be a commanding person but it's not there yet for the character, we see glimpses of it. It's like that adage, "Men aren't great but they have greatness thrust upon them." Once he becomes the boss he has trouble rising to the occasion but he sees in little drips and drabs that he can do it. It's not fake that he's becoming a good leader and at the same time it's two steps forward, one step back [laughs].

TAL: The other thing is that even though André has that gravity on the screen he can still let Richard Gant be the big guy, he doesn't overshadow him, he really does become "Junior" in so many subtle ways.

Mike Royce: Absolutely, and a lot of people have noticed that he calls him "Daddy" which makes some people a little queasy and it made us queasy at first because we don't call our dads that. André just did that and the first time he did that Ray and I looked at each other and I went to talk to André and said that we didn't think he really had to do that and André looked at me like that was a weird direction to get but he felt that's what his character would do. For some people it falls weirdly on their ears but it really does work, it's perfect, because it's a reflex, that character has been used to be in that guy's shadow and used to that guy commanding everything. But now André says that he yells that at him half the time now. It was this thing that lived from his childhood. In many ways he's being respectful when he says that but it's this carryover. I think it works great. Also, it's pretty tough to overshadow Richard [laughs] - he's pretty awesome.

TAL: You guys have this triangle, this three-legged stool with these characters. It doesn't feel like a "Ray Romano vehicle."

Mike Royce: I agree, it's one of my great missions to make people understand. I think some people have preconceptions because of what Ray has done in the past. Because he's a comedian, more than anything else, people expect one kind of show which has 2 problems sometimes: they show up for a show and it's not the kind of show that we're doing, or people don't show up because they think it's all jokey. But now we're getting people showing up because they know what to expect, we're getting the word out.

TAL: One of the first things I ever wrote about the show was, "even if you hated 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' you should check this out." Look at the format, it's an hour long, there's more drama than comedy, but the comedy is not jokey - there are no set-ups. The kind of humor is very real and tangible humor that you would have with a group of buddies.

Mike Royce: That's what we're trying to do, it does present a challenge when trying to promote it. You certainly want to feature the fact that it's humorous because you don't want people to think it's depressing or whatever. At the same time, when they make a "comedy promo" out of our clips - it doesn't look great to me because I think promos have to be set-up and punchy, and punchier than our show. I think mostly people love the diner scenes, because there's a lot of funny stuff that goes on there. I think people like their chemistry, it looks like friends joking around with each other in a somewhat real way and I think you're laughing along with these guys who seem like real people. You can't get that with a 30 second promo.

TAL: At the same time, the colonoscopy road trip [episode] was awesome because there was tons of humor throughout it but then you felt that these guys had some dread about it because of many different reasons: what if they find something? How much is this going to hurt?

Mike Royce: We knew we had created a show where the tension would be there that people would expect somebody to have something wrong. I think the colonoscopy was, if I may use the term, the maguffin. It's something thematic for the show but was really there to drag everybody along and tell the personal stories that are going on with all 3 of them. People expect a show called "Men of a Certain Age" to be a bunch of jokes about Viagra and colonoscopies but when we actually did an episode that was about getting a colonoscopy that people's first reactions are "that's just gross and stupid" but it's turned out to be a lot of people's favorite episode because it's none of those things. You really have to drag people to it and put them in front of it and say, "See! It's not that!"

TAL: I'm seeing more younger people now getting into the show. Younger people contacting me and saying "You've been writing about this show for a while and I finally checked it out and it's great."

Mike Royce: We're seeing that too. I think that we're entering a phase now that's really great. The show is, at it's heart, a relationship drama with humor. I think anybody can relate to it at that level. The theme of going through mid-life is their situation but you don't have to be in that situation to relate to it.

TAL: One thing I kind of noticed is that I didn't see a lot of hiking in this second half of the season. They seemed to be too busy.

Mike Royce: They are coming up but to be perfectly frank, hikes are expensive [laughs]. Diners are cheap, hikes are expensive. This year budgetarily we were a little more challenged to stay within budget because when Terry started working at the dealership, that's a location and we were at the location twice as much vs a set which would be cheaper. We did have a hike that we had to convert to a diner scene but we hope to do more next year. People love the hikes and we do too but it was a bit of an economic thing.

TAL: That's funny: Hikes are expensive.

Mike Royce: Yeah, and they're kind of a pain in the ass. Diners are the easiest thing to shoot and also we love them so it's not like we're doing something against our will, we love being there. A hike, you know it's hot [laughs], there's a lot to schlep up there, camera equipment, people are in the weeds, you've got a Steadicam happening, but of course we love the hikes, we will keep them, it's a theme of the show.

TAL: Well, as I said I'm a big fan of the show and I'm so hopeful of hearing about your renewal.

Mike Royce: Oh, me too!

TAL: But you guys have a Peabody now which you will be sharing.

Mike Royce: I'll be emailing a photo of that to everybody at TNT until we get the renewal.

TAL: You should put a JPG of it in your signature file so that every email says "Peabody-Winning Mike Royce"!

Mike Royce: [Laughs] TNT has been great, we're not behind the 8 ball or anything, they were happy with the Winter run, they were satisfied with it. They think we're doing a good show and they want to make sure people are watching.

The 6 episode mid-season run of "Men of a Certain Age" begins tonight at 10pm on TNT.