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HBO’s ‘The Brink’: What the Jack Black, Tim Robbins Comedy Isn’t (‘The Daily Show’) and What It Is

HBO's 'The Brink': What the Jack Black, Tim Robbins Comedy Isn't ('The Daily Show') and What It Is

Created by Roberto and Kim Benabib, and executive produced by Jerry Weintraub, Roberto Benabib and Jay Roach, HBO’s “The Brink” stars Jack Black, Tim Robbins, Aasif Mandvi and Pablo Schreiber (most recently quite memorable as Pornstache on “Orange is the New Black”) as part of an ensemble caught up in geopolitical turmoil on a global scale. 

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HBO has labeled “The Brink” a dark comedy, but bleak would be more accurate — the first two episodes screened for critics are tonally on a level with “Dr. Strangelove.” This, it turns out, is not a coincidence, as the cast and producers revealed at the winter TCA press tour today.

The creators got inspired by a museum trip.

Roberto Benabib, who wrote the pilot with his brother Kim, credited the initial inspiration for “Brink” to visiting a museum exhibit devoted to the films of Stanley Kubrick, including “Dr. Strangelove.” “We realized that there wasn’t a lot like it at the present point,” he said, as opposed to the 1970s, where many comedies had a dark, political cast. This led them to wonder what, exactly, a TV show of that genre would be. 

But “The Brink” is far more grounded than “Strangelove.”

One thing Roberto noted was that much of the comedy of “Strangelove” had a broad, “Mad Magazine”-esque quality (with character names like “‘King’ Kong” and “‘Bat’ Guano.”) So for “The Brink,” the approach was focused on keeping some level of realism to it. “It’s a comedy based in the real world, because what’s going on is real serious,” he said. 

To that end, “The Brink” employed Urdu and Pashto as advisors to ensure their portrayal of Pakistan, especially, had realism to it — saving the satire for the broader political figures, while Rafiq (Mandvi)’s family, trapped in the middle of the ensuing conflict, was portrayed more sensitively. 

“[The producers] talked about tonally what they wanted and what I was entering into,” Gugino said, who joined the show in Episode 2 to play Robbins’ wife. “And what needed to be played was very real… There are some absurd circumstances and some heightened circumstances, but the relationship [between her and Robbins] is very real.” 

“The Brink” is not “The Interview.”

“Kim Jong Un is not in this show,” Weintraub stated in response to questions about whether the film’s politics would land the show in a kind of trouble similar to that experienced by the Franco/Rogen comedy. He also expressed “there was no fear on this stage,” when pushed on the question of its sensitive subject matter causing problems. 

It’s also not “The Daily Show.”

The key distinction, for everyone, was the fact that the political comedies which now dominate late night are responding to live news events. “It’s satire driven by character and not the day’s news stories,” Mandvi said. 

But it made great use of its “Daily Show” alumnus.

Mandvi, who co-stars in the show, was also a part of the writing staff. “Aasif was in the room from day one,” Kim Benabib said, offering up both an acting perspective as well as perspective on Pakistan, an area of the world Mandvi knows very well. 

“Dr. Strangelove” wasn’t the only inspiration, especially for the actors.

While Mandvi did watch “Strangelove” again before production and “found points of inspiration in it,” Schreiber looked to another cultural touchstone: The classic war dramedy “M.A.S.H.” 

“‘M.A.S.H.’ was what stood out tonally,” he said. “I really loved not just the tone but how it affected the politics of the day.” He then mentioned hope that “The Brink” would have a similar effect. 

Co-star Maribeth Monroe, who had been relatively quiet on the large panel, then chimed in: “My entire performance was an impersonation of Peter Sellars. Could you tell?”  

Being a satire means it has to be funny.

Roach, who directed the first episode, has a backstory with HBO (directing the political dramas “Game Change” and “Recount”), but said his broad comedy experience — his first major film was “Austin Powers” — had a bigger impact. (Roach doesn’t see “Game Change” as a comedy, for the record, no matter how absurd Sarah Palin might seem today.) 

He also agreed to sign onto the project in less than 24 hours, according to Weintraub, despite an alleged tendency to be slow about it.  

“It’s a very exciting form of entertainment in that… it must be funny, but it is dealing with content and with issues that are relevant to how we are living today,” Robbins said.  

As dark as things might have gotten, it wasn’t a tough shoot

“The set was run in a very human way,” Robbins said. “This was actually a group of people who cared about their crew and their cast.”  

And Weintraub was effusive about the experience: “I would go into work with a smile on my face and go home with a smile on my face and get a big check at the end of it.” 

“I had a great time, even when I was being waterboarded,” Black said. “We made that funny.”

“The Brink” premieres tonight at 10:30pm on HBO. 

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