F is for Family has become one of Netflix’s biggest hits in the animated sitcom space. Along with Bojack Horseman, they are leading the charge for Netflix to become a serious player against the likes of Fox, who is still thought to be the king in this arena. We got to speak to Michael Price (who is a co-creator of the show with Bill Burr) and ask him some questions just a week after season 3 was given the green light.
Michael Price is no stranger to the animated sitcom world having had a huge role in the writing process of The Simpsons. He is responsible for creating award winning episodes for the show as well as serving as a co-executive producer. In addition to his work with The Simpsons, Price is also has credits in the Lego Star Wars movies and TV series.
In our interview, we ask Michael about the process of creating the show as well as getting him to tease some snippets of information about the upcoming season 3 which recently got announced.
Can you walk us through some of the history of the show and how it came to be?
Bill Burr had told stories about his childhood in his stand up for many years, and he thought animation might be a good medium for it, maybe in “Tracey Ullman Show Simpsons”-style shorts that he could put up on his website. But then he had a meeting with Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsley at Wild West Productions where he told Vince and Peter about his animated shorts idea and, as it happened, they were interested in developing an animated series. They started looking for a writer with animation experience and that’s where I came in. Bill and I hit it off – we had similar experiences back in the 70s – and we developed the show together. Luckily, Netflix liked our idea and we were in business.
How is working for a company like Netflix different than working for a more traditional media outlet?
Netflix gives us just a fantastic amount of freedom. We have no restrictions on language, which, obviously, is essential for our show, where we pride ourselves on being able to depict characters speaking and behaving the way people really speak and behave. They also don’t give us a lot of creative notes. They trust that we know what we’re doing and let us do it. It’s wonderful.
How does working on F is for Family compare with working on The Simpsons?
The main difference is in the story-telling. The Simpsons is famously built around a model where every episode ends where it began. The world resets every week. That’s one of the reasons it’s been such a gigantic world-shaking hit and has been able to stay fresh for 29 seasons. Our show is serialized — built for the Netflix binge-watching model. So we do serialized storytelling, where each episode leads to the next. Time passes on our show. The characters hold onto and are affected by what came before, and if we’re around long enough we’ll see them get older and move further into the 70s. It’s fun to write this kind of show because that’s the kind of show I like to watch.
Can you explain a bit the process behind the different stages of creating an animated sitcom? Timescales for each stage, working with the different departments etc.
Well, it all begins with the writing. We’re just in the starting phase of working on Season 3 right now. We spend a couple of weeks figuring out the arc of the season — where we want the Murphys to go this year. Then we break the season arc out into 10 separate episodes and assign those episodes to writers to write drafts. As those drafts come in, we then work on the scripts as a staff, rewriting the stories to fit the overall seasonal arcs, punching up jokes and so on.
Then, as each script is ready to go, we do a table read with the cast to see how it plays in front of an audience (we invite our staff, friends, family and other guests to watch the read). We rewrite the script based on how it plays in the table read and then we record the actors. We try to get as many actors together in the studio as we can so they can play off each other, but it’s not always easy to do that with our big cast full of busy actors.
Once the show is recorded, it goes to the animators at Gaumont Animation in Paris, where they design new characters and backgrounds and storyboard the episode. A month or two later we get to see the show in animatic form – that’s a rough version of the whole show – and we’re able to get an early look at what works and doesn’t work in the show and make adjustments. We record the actors again for any new lines and the show is then put into color animation production. That takes another couple of months to produce. At the end of that process we get to watch the whole show in color animation, and then we have time to make final adjustments to the show – fix story points, make jokes better, cut stuff that doesn’t work. As the animators work on the final retakes we go into the editing room with our great editors and hone the show down to be the best it can be.
The final step is adding the sound effects and music, which culminates at the “Mix”. That’s where we put the finishing touches on the sound design of the episode and send it off to Netflix. The whole process of writing and producing 10 episodes takes a little over a year.
Did experiences from your own upbringing influence aspects of the show? If yes care to share one of your own stories with us?
Oh absolutely. While the show originated with Bill Burr’s childhood experiences, once I came on I brought in a lot of my baggage. I grew up on a cul de sac, and a lot of the Murphys’ neighbors are based on the people I grew up with. A couple of specific stories from the show came from my life. My older brother Tim actually ruined our new color TV with a magnet he brought home from school. Mr. Goomer is based on a guy in our neighborhood who would walk his dog, somewhat creepily peek in everyone’s windows from the curb, and very creepily wipe his dog’s butt with toilet paper.
What’s been your favorite episode so far?
I think the first episode of Season 2 is my favorite so far, just from the standpoint as a writer. We had a great first season and I felt we really had to come back with a Season 2 premiere that did a lot of heavy lifting. It was a big challenge to come back after a year plus off the air. I had to re-orient the viewer to where we left Frank and the family off, set the new storylines in motion, check in with a bunch of our secondary characters, and above all make it funny. When I thought up the afternoon at the sled hill as a place to accomplish these things it all clicked in my mind. Plus I love writing songs and I got to write the Mohican Airways jingle for that episode.
How involved is Bill Burr in the writing process?
Very. Bill’s with us in the room probably about 90 percent of the time, which, given his huge career as a comedian, is simply amazing. I’ve worked on other shows where the star was also one of the creators, and Bill’s involvement in the writing process is simply exceptional. But he doesn’t throw his “star” weight around. He’s just one of the guys in the room, pitching amazing jokes and great story details pulled from his life experience. He’s the best.
Do you swear as much as Frank?
With season 3 now confirmed, what can we expect going into a third season?
We’re just in the early writing phase now, so I can’t tell you too much. But if you’ve watched all of Season 2, you’ll know that the Murphys will be going into the season with a couple of fresh challenges. We’re not sure exactly where we’ll pick up, but it won’t be too long after the end of Season, probably somewhere in the spring of 1974. I can say that we plan to focus a little more on our neighborhood this season, after the first two seasons spent a ton of time in the workplace (both Frank and Sue’s). We’re going to flesh out our secondary neighborhood characters a bit more, add some dimension to them, and probably introduce one or two more new characters to the cul de sac.
What are some of your other favorite shows on Netflix?
I love UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT – it’s just an amazing joke machine with a lot of heart. I don’t know how they do it. I’m also a big fan of LADY DYNAMITE (co-starring our own Mo Collins), and, like everyone else, I was blown away by STRANGER THINGS. I’m constantly on Twitter telling people who are clamoring for the next season of F IS FOR FAMILY to be patient, these things take time, but at the same time I’m out here yelling “I WANT MORE STRANGER THINGS NOW!”