From public access to network sitcom

Co-creator Dan Milano talks about the long, exceedingly strange trip of "Greg the Bunny."

Topics: Television,

On Wednesday morning, just hours before the new Fox sitcom “Greg the Bunny” would go before viewers for the first time, co-creator Dan Milano talked to me by telephone from his Los Angeles office.

How did this show get started?

It was originally a show on public access called “Junktape,” that two of my friends and I put on, Spencer Chinoy and Sean Baker. We wanted to host bizarre film clips that we had, that we’d edit into these weird montages. Like we would edit the Vietnam scenes in “Forrest Gump” along with the jungle scenes in “Predator.” And we would make Predator hunt Forrest Gump, and just show bizarre clips from documentaries. Greg the Bunny was the host, because none of us wanted to appear on camera. Then we started using Greg to interview people in public, and we attracted all this fan mail. People just loved the puppet. So the Independent Film Channel asked us if Greg could become their network bunny, their corporate icon. And we were ballsy enough to say that we didn’t want him to be their icon, but that we did want to do programming for them. So they let us do a bunch of short films and vignettes in which Greg would do little movies and Warren the Ape would do trivia about the movies they showed on the network. After two years of that, we shopped Greg around Hollywood and [co-executive producer] Neil Moritz, who mostly does movies and had never really done TV, bought the idea from us.

Now, how did the sitcom wind up being the backstage story of a TV show?

Spencer and I are obsessed with neurotic comics. We are obsessed with Woody Allen and Albert Brooks and Garry Shandling, and “The Larry Sanders Show” is one of my favorite shows of all time. We knew that if we were going to be exploring egos — and since puppets are usually associated with kiddie shows — we should do a “Larry Sanders” type thing.

You play Greg’s voice?

I like to say I “handle” Greg, and I handle Warren the Ape as well. And, traditionally, all the “handlers” do the vocals as well as the physical performing.

Do you use anything to help you? Like, say, helium?

Gee, no. Just coffee and cigarettes, although I’m seven days clean on the cigarettes.

How did you get such a great cast?

Everybody came out of the woodwork. Our casting tapes are treasures, because we have so many wonderful actors who auditioned and it was so hard to turn some of them down. I think people just wanted to be a part of the pilot. I think what Eugene Levy [who plays director Gil Bender] was really attracted to was that, as he said, “I couldn’t tell by the script who is a puppet and who is human. And I think that’s great.” We wanted Sarah Silverman from the get-go, because I was a huge fan of her stand-up and of the stuff she did on “Larry Sanders” and “Mr. Show,” which is one of my favorite shows. We knew we wanted someone like Eugene [Levy]. He’s one of my idols and it took me weeks just to calm my nerves around him. We kept saying we wanted a “Seth Green type.” We were trying to discover some new, young kid, but then finally we just said, “Well, let’s talk to him.” He and I hit it off and decided to do it. He made the decision to join us within eight hours.

One thing I noticed was that the puppets have a lot of the better lines. The humans act more as the straight men.

We tried to give it an equal balance in the scripts, but I think the puppets have an unfair advantage because they’re puppets. I seriously think that if you have a human and puppet both say a line, especially if it’s a straight line — like one that comes from a neurotic place — it’s going to be funnier coming from a puppet because you don’t expect it. You don’t expect a puppet ape to talk about his ex-wife.

Do Greg’s eyes switch back and forth from buttons to real eyes?

They do. There’s no real logic to it. Unfortunately we decided — after shooting a bunch of episodes that are not airing in the order that we shot them — that he would go under the knife and be given peepers. Personally, I love the buttons and I always have. I think they’re deconstructive and they’re so cute. But the network got a little nervous. They wanted people to invest emotionally in the character and connect with his eyes.

Is it weird to be making fun of a network while working for a network?

It’s really enjoyable. It’s really great that we can bite the hand and it’s really cool of Fox to let us do that. By the same token, we’ve tried not to be so inside Hollywood that we alienate some viewers. We try to make a certain percentage of “Greg the Bunny” be about the making of the show, but most of it is about the characters’ daily lives. The stories aren’t always going to be behind-the-scenes. But with a character like Sarah Silverman’s, who is a network executive, we can have a lot of fun. We’re developing her character more and more. We have one episode coming up that’s all about her and Warren the Ape.

What’s it like for you to see Greg on network TV?

Gosh, I could go off on the whole dream-come-true thing. It’s so much fun to be doing this. But it’s also strange to be coming from public access and independent cable where you have so much creative freedom to a world of structure. But it’s been a trip to make sure the material doesn’t suffer while adapting to a new format.

Are you happy with the way that’s working out?

Yeah, I am. But if people like the show, I want to tell them to keep watching, because if we can get this thing picked up and do another 13 episodes, they’re going to be so much better. Mainly because we’ll have learned from our mistakes, and because everybody gets brave if they have a hit. You’ll see the show evolve, if it works.

It seems like shows get less and less chance to evolve lately.

Everybody’s nervous, and money is tight. So, yeah, they pull things right away. And this is the kind of show that is a water-cooler show. You have to go to work and someone will say, “Did you see that puppet show last night?” and you’ll say “No, I don’t want puppet shows,” and they’ll say, “You know what? Check it out, because there’s a monkey on there and he has a conniption fit, then he gets drunk and throws up in his car. I think you should watch it.”

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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