Photo: Eric Charbonneau/Showtime
John Wells
“If I have anything that I’m really proud of, it’s that I’ve been able to put together groups to write where we can all really have a great time. That’s what ends up elevating the material.”
The Lighter Side of John Wells
Few realize that the former WGAW President and exec producer of ER and Southland began his career on a comedic note. Now, with Showtime’s Shameless, the über-showrunner finally gets the chance to return to his roots.

Written by Denis Faye

(February 10, 2012)

People tend to forget that über-showrunner John Wells started his career on a comic note, producing such timeless classics as Nice Girls Don’t Explode [written by Paul Harris], the 1987 low-budget comedy about a woman who causes things to spontaneously combust when she’s turned on…

What? You don’t remember that movie? How odd. I suppose it’s forgivable though, considering it might have been slightly overshadowed by the former WGAW President’s later work, including television shows such as China Beach, Third Watch, ER, The West Wing, and Southland.

But while you might have forgotten Wells’ lighter side, he did not. “My career took a much more dramatic bent for a long time,” he says, “but I was always interested in getting back to writing something that was a little bit more comedic.”

So when he was approached to develop Paul Abbott’s BCC comedy series Shameless for Showtime, Wells signed right up. The series centers on an alcoholic father (played by William H. Macy) and his severely dysfunctional brood as they struggle to survive below the poverty line. Admittedly, the pitch sounds less-than-hilarious, but as the show rolls through its second season, it’s evident that Wells and his writers have created an extremely funny, boundary-pushing show that will be revered long after Nice Girls Don’t Explode, perhaps undeservedly, drops completely off the Amazon Best Sellers list. (It’s at #173,827 at this writing.)

Wells spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his work on Shameless, a show that teaches us that a dysfunctional family isn’t necessarily a bad family and that necrophilia is a comic boundary one probably should not cross.

Shameless seems like a departure from a lot of the stuff you’ve done before, which tends to be about institutions such as hospitals or the White House. What drew you to this particular show?

Photo: ©2012 Showtime
William H. Macy and Blake/Brennan Johnson in Shameless.

I see family as an institution. What we’ve tried to do in the shows before is to show how, within work places, you often end up functioning as a family. Those people that you work with are at least as close to you as your family members, because oftentimes you’re spending more time with them than you are with your own family. So these dynamics, family dynamics, is what’s always interested me.

In the other shows, a lot of times the person’s role helps define their character. This show feels like the opposite. The character helps define their role.

Yeah, that’s true. These people don’t have a lot of opportunity to be defined by their work; they’re defined by the limited opportunities that they have, and they’re trying to break out of the role.

Several times in your career you’ve taken someone else’s concept and really made it sing. What’s the trick to that?

If I have anything that I’m really proud of, it’s that I’ve been able to put together groups to write where we can all really have a great time. That’s what ends up elevating the material. I come at it from, “This is interesting to me; I think it will be interesting to some other people.” Then I find other writers that are interested in the subject in the way that I am and just have a good time. You end up spending a lot of time talking to each other and telling stories and most of what is in Shameless is someone talking about their own family, only exaggerated or expanded in some fashion. That’s what we’ve tried to do on all the shows.

Do you feel different degrees of comfort working on your own creations as opposed to someone else’s creations?

All television shows are huge collaborations, and everybody who participates in it is part of that, and so I don’t really see that distinction. You know, I have done things that I was very involved in creating from the get go and that experience hasn’t felt very different to me from the ones in which someone’s had an idea that we’ve worked on and found our way into it. So, almost immediately, the individual idea quickly becomes part of a larger thing that everybody’s trying to do because it’s simply not a singular art form. It’s not painting in a gallery or writing a novel at home.

What was your process for Americanizing Shameless?

Not much! When I saw it, it reminded me of a lot of people that I had grown up with and situations in my own family. And that’s what I talked to [British series creator] Paul [Abbott] about right away, was that I felt there was actually quite a bit about it that was really universal. The only thing that we really addressed in the Americanization of it is that there are different ways in which people try to survive below the poverty line in the United States in the way that the government programs are set up, in the way that housing is set up. That informed a lot of our early episodes, but otherwise, families are families. We were just trying to tell stories about our families.

And when you were going through the existing content, how did you decide which stories to use and what to leave behind?

We brought all of the major characters because I thought they were wonderful. We made some changes in the racial makeup and things like that, small things. What happens immediately though, on any show, is that the actors who you put into the roles inform who these characters are going to be in the future. So first we did the pilot, which was very similar to the British show, then we looked at what we had with the actors that we’d actually cast and what their differences were and similarities were.

In the first 12, we did about five shows that were based on the British series and the rest were all original ideas. But you know, because we’re talking about families and the dynamics of these specific characters, you end up traversing a lot of the same territory as Modern Family, which is a wonderful show, and find things that were in Malcolm in the Middle, and find things that were in All in the Family, and find things that were in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. These are universal situations.

All those kinds of things start to happen as soon as you begin doing a show. If you talk to people on The Office, they’ll tell you something very similar. You make changes based on the cast that you have, and you then discover that they interact in ways and characters change in ways that completely define the direction you’re going to go.

That’s interesting. I’ve never had a showrunner really talk about the chemistry of the cast before, influencing the decisions they make.

It’s very dangerous actually to not do that, because then you’re just trying to get the characters to act the way that you absolutely want them to act and not seeing what actually happens between them. It’s foolish to not take advantage of what’s actually happening between the actors.

How do you find working at Showtime different from the broadcast networks?

The obvious thing is you’re only having to do 12 episodes compared to 22, and you can arrange your storytelling in a very different way if you’re doing fewer episodes, particularly when it’s serialized. You have the time to plot the whole thing out and to write a substantial amount of it before you start shooting and that allows you a very different rhythm in the way in which the storytelling happens.

You don’t have commercials so your plotting can be very different, you don’t have to be focused on what happens at the break, which I find to be very helpful, to not have the show feel so episodic. Because things can develop more slowly, you’re not worried about somebody turning the channel at the first commercial break. And you don’t have to remind people what’s happened when you come back in from the commercial break. All those things are great.

And the subject matter that we’re able to tackle we would never ever be able to do at a broadcast network. We talk very honestly about sexuality – not sex but human sexuality, how people actually interact with each other physically, which is really central to the show, not in a salacious way. These are people who have sex, and this is how adults react to each other. We make fun of it sometimes, but we also try to really lay it out. And you know that’s a great relief.

In the room, do you sit there and just say, “Oh, how much can we go for it?”

No. We laugh a lot. Basically, it’s an unbridled comedy room. Anytime you talk about a comedy room, it’s a pretty ribald place. We actually have to self-censor ourselves because there is no place we can’t go. So the question we always come back to is, “Is it revealing of character in some way? Is it useful to the reveal of the character or is there some sort of social satire that we’re trying to do?”

We’re trying to do a lot of subtle and not so subtle social commentary about the class system in the country, what people have to do. So we’re intentionally making fun of a lot of the things and quite a bit of it is outrageous because we’re trying to make a point.

Have you ever done anything that Showtime just said “no” to?

No, although we’ve shot a couple of things, but we all looked at it and said, “Nah, we’re not going to do that.” Partially because it seems damaging to the character in some way, and there are things that you can do where you’re afraid the audience won’t be interested. You know, that it’ll say, “I didn’t need to see that or I didn’t want to see that.” We try to avoid that.

Can you give me an example or would you rather not?

Sure, it’s not a secret. They usually end up on the DVD anyway. We had a scene in an episode that recently aired in which Frank, for money, ends up helping a woman die by having sex with her because she has a heart problem and she wants to die. He’s in the midst of having sex with her when she actually dies. He freaks out and gets off of her.

When we shot it, he gets off of her, and then he thinks about it, and he says, “Oh what the hell, I’ll finish,” and he gets on. It made us all laugh, but it was a laugh that was outside of the context of the character. It was just a little too broad, and it didn’t really do what we wanted it to do. We thought it might undermine his character a little bit, that it was kind of too far somehow. And all of those are just judgment calls.

But Showtime hasn’t said to us, “No, don’t do it.” I think in large part, the reason that they don’t have that sensitivity is the show is grounded in a very dysfunctional family, but it’s a dysfunctional family that ultimately loves each other and tries to take care of each other.

People routinely stop me on the street and say, “Hey, I love that show, I wish I could go over there and hang out.” Which sounds kind of crazy but it’s real. You understand that they really care about each other when a lot of less dysfunctional families don’t.”

Yeah, I definitely got that sense. I can think of a lot of people who claim to be in happy families that don’t nearly have the cohesiveness that this group has.

Exactly, and that allows us to push the boundaries because you know ultimately they’re safe because they love each other.

That’s interesting because it does make you want to look at how we define a good family and a messed up family.

That was Paul’s point in the first place and what attracted me more than anything else to this series idea. It’s a point about my own family. We might be pretty fucked up, but we love each other, and we look out for each other, and ultimately, that’s what matters more than all of the dysfunction.

You just defined my family.

People stop me all the time and say, “Hey, I love that show. That Frank guy reminds me of my dad.” And nobody means it literally, but they mean that there’s dysfunction in their family. Their dad drinks too much, their dad smokes too much pot, their dad split on their mom, their mom was undependable and left. You know, whatever that is, everybody has their own individual story, but it feels somehow familiar, and you can laugh at it because of that.