will get their first taste of Wilfred, the lovable anthropomorphic dog that smokes pot, uses foul language and offers questionable advice to the depressed, but lovable protagonist Ryan. While it’s safe to say people here have never seen a show quite like it, show creator Jason Gann has been entertaining Australian audiences with the character for a decade.
Gann and his friend Adam Zwar first brought the Wilfred character on-screen in a 2002 short film. That eventually lead to a TV series in Gann’s home country of Australia, which ran for two seasons. Wilfred is set to make his American debut tonight on FX, with Elijah Wood playing Wilfred’s human companion Ryan.
We recently caught up with Gann to talk about adapting the show for an American audience, showing up to work in a dog suit every day and writing a unique comedy that is “ball-tearingly funny.”
How did you get into show business? When did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
I went to an all boys school and I wasn’t good at anything. Then they brought drama to our school for the first time and we did a musical. All the young boys played good women, so my first couple roles were women. I came on stage and said my first line and everyone laughed at me. I thought, “Oh my god, this is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.” I said my next line and the audience laughed again. I walked off stage mortified, like, “What have I done?”
And everyone ran up to me and said, “Ganny, they love you. They love you.”
I said, “What? They’re laughing at me.”
They go, “Yeah that’s a good thing. They love you.”
And I’m like, “Holy shit.”
From then on, that kept happening in every show I did. I wasn’t trying to be funny or anything. I was just coming out delivering my lines in what I thought was a truthful way and people responded to me. So after a couple of years of that I realized I had some sort of comedic performing gift, I decided to give it a crack. So I studied it and thought I might get to be either rich and famous or a drunken bum in the street, or maybe both, but I went for it.
You’ve definitely developed a deadpan style of comedy. Do you think that happened unintentionally because of those early years getting laughs on stage while delivering your lines earnestly?
I think it was unintentional. I think that if I had a video of myself at 14 delivering those lines from Paint Your Wagon as Suzanne, Leader of the Can-Can Dances, you’d probably find a similar delivery to Wilfred in a way.
Having said that, I branched out and had a good theatre career for a while. I played Hamlet when I was 22 and it went really well, but one review said, “This must surely be the funniest Hamlet ever.” In the dramatic roles I’ve played, I’ve extracted the comedy out of them.
But this particular series, Wilfred, the performance goes really extreme. I go into some very large territory. It’s kind of maniacal and larger than life, but I think the reason I get away with it is a) it’s truthful still, but b) because I spend so much time in that deadpan delivery that I can afford to push it at other times. And that’s something I developed over the years.
Wilfred began as a short film in 2002 and then was turned into a TV show in Australia. Where did the original idea come from and what was the process like adapting it into a show?
The guy who wrote the short with me, Adam Zwar, I was staying at his place one night almost 10 years ago now and he told me this tragic story of this date he had with this girl where when he went home with her, went inside briefly and there’s this dog sitting on the couch looking at him as if to say, “What do you plan on doing with my misses?”
We both thought that was funny, so I just started acting as this dog, offering him a bong and joking about his night out and pretty much that improvisation was the short film. As soon as we did it, we went, “That’s a short.” We wrote it down straight away. A week later, we shot it. It was completely organic. It wasn’t like, “Let’s come up with something for a short film,” although we knew we wanted to make one. It just went from there.
We had so much success with the short. It went around the world and had such a great following, which is unusual for just a short film. But we thought we could make a pilot with the money that we’d won. And because the short film was so successful, I just made that the first seven minutes of the series. I thought, “Well, at least I know people will love Wilfred in that first seven minutes.” So the seven minute short was the first seven minutes of the Australian series.
When we were making the American version, it developed into a really different show. I’m really proud of it for its differences. I knew I had to tread carefully with how we introduced Wilfred because he can be a real prick. And he has to be that. But you have to get that right balance of Wilfred right at the beginning because it can easily tip over. Particularly because I’m in a dog suit, audiences could go “What is this?” and maybe dislike Wilfred if I’m too much of a prick too early.
So with David’s script, and I think he got it just right, we worked on getting that introduction to the Wilfred character just right again. For us as TV makers and even the American guys who are producing the show, we’re already fans of Wilfred. When you love Wilfred, it’s easy to just assume that everyone will know and get it straight away. But you have to educate a new audience and slowly introduce them to Wilfred. I think that we’ve done that pretty well.
What made you decide to come to America to try and adapt the shows you had created in Australia?
Renegade, who had the rights to Wilfred in Australia, they’d been trying to sell the format for a while over here for an American version. I had another show I created back home called Mark Loves Sharon and I went to MIPTV, which is in Cannes, to try and sell the format. I just wanted to make some money, basically. There’s not a lot of money in Australian television. And here I’d been, having starred in and written three TV shows, and still didn’t own a car. So I’ve got to look beyond these shores.
So we got a buyer interested in Mark Loves Sharon from MIP, so I came over here with the mind to try to get a better deal from someone because I knew that there was interest in my stuff. I really believed that I had something to offer as a creator.
So I came over here to try to sell format rights to my shows and everyone who saw the shows just loved them, but they all said the same thing, which is, “You’ve got to be in these.” “America’s waiting for you,” they’d say or “No one else can play this like you; you’ve got to do this.” I’d been an actor for 20 years, but it had taken a backseat to writing and producing in recent years. So here I was, I came over here to sell TV shows and I inadvertently ended up selling myself.
I mean, the truth is that one of my first things when they said, “I think you should play Wilfred again,” I said, “I’m not getting in that fucking dog suit again.” Like I felt like that, you know what I mean? It wasn’t a pleasurable thing to get in that suit.
Then Jeff Kwatinetz [a producer on Wilfred] said, “Well you know the thing is it’s like you’re only going to get this chance once and if you don’t do it then someone else is going to.”
I thought, “Yes, whatever,” you know, like they’ll never be as good as me type thing, and then I said, “Who are they talking about?”
He goes, “Well, the name Zach Galifianakis is being mentioned.”
I said, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. If you can sell it, I’ll do it.” Suddenly for the first time I imagined someone else in a dog suit being hilarious, and I just went, “Look, if this show goes ahead, if they can sell it, which I didn’t think they would, I’ll be in it.” And they sold it and I was shooting my work.
I’m glad I did, by the way. It would’ve been a crazy move, looking back, if I hadn’t done it.
How much control have you had over the American version of the show? Have you been involved in the writing and in the adaptation process?
Yeah, I’m a co-executive producer and I wrote two episodes this season. And I’m a staff writer in the room breaking all of the stories. I did hand it over in a sense to David [Zuckerman, the show runner]. I hadn’t made television in American before and I want to make the best television in the world. That’s why I came here. I see this sort of as my apprenticeship to work under David to learn about the American system.
So I did that and I really loved his interpretation of the show. As he said, this is a new vehicle for this character. I’ve been really open and flexible to the direction of the show, but at the same time, I’m fiercely protective of the character and the fact that it’s got to remain a comedy. I’m in there battling all the time to make sure everything I can do to make it be funny.
I know certain things that are going to happen that are going to make people like Wilfred. I’ve been doing the character for 10 years. So those are the things I concentrate on and I have to trust my own instincts.
Even though there have been other major changes to the show in adapting it for the American version, do you feel the character of Wilfred has essentially remained the same?
That’s kind of what I mean. I have, but I really like the new direction he’s taken as well. David said to me at one stage when we were shooting, “I’ve noticed that Wilfred’s got this lightness and this sense of fun about him at times, which he didn’t have in the Australian version.” And he said, “I love it.”
I said, “Yeah, I love it too.” It gives me as a performer a much broader range to play, but I think dogs are kind of excitable. Rather than him just trying to sabotage Ryan’s life like he had done with Adam’s life, he kind of serves as a bodyguard and a protector as well, which I really enjoy.
One thing that is really fascinating about the American version is that there’s quite a bit of ambiguity about Wilfred’s actions. At times it’s unclear whether he’s helping Ryan by forcing him out of his shell or just putting Ryan in bad situations for his own amusement. Do you guys ultimately see Wilfred as a positive influence or a negative influence in Ryan’s life?
As long as Ryan’s not killing himself I think he’s got to be positive because that’s where he started. You know?
And I think anyone that’s also had an untrained pet that really misbehaves; they can just drive you insane. If you step barefoot in some shit in the house or something like that, there are times when you go, “What am I doing with this dog? I want it gone.” But then there’s other times where you cuddle with them and look in their eyes and just go, “How could I get rid of you?”
I think human friends too, we have a lot of friends, people in our lives that aren’t always a positive influence and they might be hard work, but they’re worth it and its sort of fun having them around. So I think that it’s a very real relationship like that. I mean if I kicked everyone out of my life that wasn’t a hundred percent positive influence I’d be pretty … I hang out with assholes is essentially what I’m saying.
Ryan definitely is in a dark place when the show begins and Wilfred certainly injects some much needed fun into his life.
That’s what I love about this show. I didn’t just want to do a reboot of something else that people would compare and say, “Oh, it wasn’t as good as the original.” It really had to be different for me to fall in love with it. I really love Wilfred’s relationship with Ryan and I have to say that although a lot of that was in the pilot, a lot of that has come from what Elijah [Wood] brings to the role of Ryan. We didn’t really know who Ryan was beyond that pilot until Elijah joined us. Now we all have a real love for Ryan and empathy for him. That, in turn, informs the Wilfred character, who wants to look out for this guy, even though he has all of the selfish motivations of a dog. Elijah being involved has really broaden that whole relationship and opened up that world.
It seems like FX has given you a lot of leeway in terms of what you can get away with on the show. There’s drug use, language and a even a scene that involves shitting in someone’s shoe. Is there anything you have wanted to do that the censors wouldn’t allow?
Yeah, there’s always stuff. I’ll want to push it as far as I can and David will generally have a feeling before it gets to the network whether they will really love something or react negatively. But you just never know. There’s some things that you think are going to be fine. The network goes through and they read every script to make sure there’s nothing offensive in it and some small things will surprise you. But there’s other things that we think, “They’re never going to let this through, but let’s just put it in anyway,” and they love it.
We, as a rule, just push it as far as we can and wait until they tell us not to do it. But they’ve been really amazing. They’re ready to take the risks with us. They share the vision for the show.
How long does it take you to get in costume and ready for shooting each day?
Look, it doesn’t take long. I just basically have the pants and the feet. I tie the arms around my waist like a pair of firemen’s overalls and the wardrobe girl just has the head. Just before I shoot each take, they come in, put on the head, zip it up and ask me to perform, then rip the head off and unzip it again. I’ve got a cool in-between look, a sexy look — I wear kind of a wifebeater and a cap and I’ve got the black nose. I’ve worked pretty hard to develop that look.
How uncomfortable is the suit when you are in it?
When people ask me how uncomfortable it is or how hot it is, I say it’s as hot and uncomfortable as it looks. How you imagine it is; that’s what it is. But when you’re watching a whole episode or you’re watching the series, through the magic of television you see a guy in this suit for a half an hour or however long it is, but the reality is I’m never in it longer than 10 minutes at a time. However long it takes to change setups and lighting changes and scene changes – most of my day is not spent with the suit on.
But I’ve always used the fact that it’s annoying and hot and frustrating as my characterization because from the beginning, the short, I’ve felt Wilfred is a human stuck in a dog’s body and that’s where his frustration comes from – being stuck in this body. And as soon as I put that suit on, that’s exactly how I feel. I really don’t have to do much work to get into character once they zip it up.
What was it like doing a guest appearance on American Idol in the suit?
It was surprisingly fun. Elijah is such a great support for me. If I didn’t have him next to me, it would have been difficult. He just validates the character of Wilfred and what I’m doing so well that it makes it a pleasure to do it. It makes it actually fun to do it.
So I just threw myself into the reality of what would Wilfred do. Wilfred would love American Idol. He’d love all the judges and stuff. So I just sort of clapped and acted like Wilfred was informed on everything. I was in there for about 45 minutes and it was a fun stunt.
When you go out with Elijah Wood, how long does it take someone to bring up Lord of the Rings to him?
People are usually polite enough to make it their second question. [Laughs.] So it comes up, but he’s great about it.
Do you have plans for the premiere? Will you watch it when it airs?
That’s a tough one. I think I’m going to be tweeting during it. I’ve seen it. [Laughs.] I’ve seen it a lot.
It’s funny, the Australian version, season two especially, I think I’ve seen all the episodes once. Then that’s it. Once it’s locked away and it’s sent away, I really feel like it’s not mine anymore. And I can get kind of anxious when I know it’s on TV. It’s a weird thing, you know. When your show’s on TV live, or even promos, it’s one thing to see promos on a laptop, but it’s another thing to be watching TV and all the sudden a Wilfred promo comes on and the heart skips a beat. It’s like, “Holy shit, right now how many people are looking at this – are looking at me – right now?”
So sometimes I’ll watch it on my own, but quite often I won’t watch it because it can stress me out a bit. It’s weird; you can feel people watching it. People might think that’s just in my head, but I really don’t think it is. It’s the difference between having a DVD of your favorite film on the shelf and you’ll never put it on, but then if it’s on TV you’ll watch it. You can sort of feel an energy to the film happening because you know a bunch of other people are also watching it at the same time, which is the power of cinema and television and why I believe it always will be a communal thing. People get worried that everything’s going to be on Netflix and people are just going to watch TV shows on their own time. I think people want to come together and see things at the same time, so there’s definitely an energy when a lot of people are watching something at once. But whether or not I want to join in on that on my own stuff – I don’t know.
To make sure as many people as possible are all watching the premiere together, how would you sell the show to anyone who has maybe seen the promos on TV, but isn’t sure whether or not to give Wilfred a shot?
I said to David once, it’s “ball tearing.”
He’s like, “What? What did you say?”
“This is ‘ball-tearingly’ funny. It’s funny, like it tears your balls off, I guess.” [Laughs.]
For me, that’s what I think I bring to the show, what my goal is: to make it ball-tearingly funny. If you don’t want to get caught up in the conceit of what everyone else can see – what Ryan can see and what they can’t see – or get caught up in the psychology of it all or if you’re not a dog owner and don’t want to enjoy imagining what goes on in the mind of a dog – if none of that appeals to you, but you like to laugh, I think it’s as funny as anything going around.
I also think it’s got a lot of heart and it doesn’t take long for people to get past the fact that it’s a dude in a suit. Wilfred fans that exist already, both Australian and American fans, they don’t see a dude in a suit. That’s Wilfred.
Even I’m a Wilfred fan when I’m watching it. I’m like, “Oh, that Wilfred. That dog did it again.” I get caught up in it. So – shit, I’m not going to say “give it a chance,” but it’s funny.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Wilfred premiers tonight at 10 pm on FX. For more information on Wilfred, check out our preview of the show.