For those of you that haven’t seen any episodes yet, the show follows Danny Burton, a bonafide ladies man and goofball, who leads a ragtag group of newfound friends — and his sister — through a dating world that they can’t seem to find their way into.
Indiewire spoke with Sztykiel via phone to discuss how the show came together, what makes a person undateable, and why so many men try to live up to the awe-inspiring Vince Vaughn. Below is an edited transcript.
I was wondering if “Undateable” was always going to be set in Detroit?
Yeah. The brief backstory of the project itself is that it’s based on this book that is a little more than a picture book of guys who made bad fashion or hair choices. It’s a picture book that says, “Goatee Guy.” And then there’s a picture of a guy with a goatee. And Warner Brothers liked the title and the concept and basically said, “You guys should conceive of a television show around that title.” Myself and Jeff Ingold, who is basically Bill Lawrence’s partner — he went to Seaholm and is from the area — and our other executive producer Randall Winston, who went to Southfield Lathrup and is from the area — the three of us were all involved in the show and said, “Hey, man. Let’s show some hometown love, and set this thing in Detroit.” And Bill, who’s from Connecticut, said, “Look. it’s perfect because this is a show about underdogs, and Detroit and Michigan are underdog places, and it’s nice and thematic to fit the show as well.”
How did you get connected to all the Michigan people out here?
Randall is a Southfield guy who has worked with Bill Lawrence since the beginning of Bill’s career. He worked with Bill on “Spin City” and “Scrubs” and “Cougar Town.” So, they’ve worked together since the beginning. And when Bill started his production company, Doozer, he asked Jeff — who ran comedy at NBC for a long time — to run it. I got in with them because I knew Jeff professionally, and we both shared the same hometown. He reached out and said, “Hey, man. We have this project called ‘Undateable.’ Would you be interested in coming up with a concept and writing it?” Knowing Jeff as a good person — and having the hometown connection — I jumped in. The fact that both of us were from the suburbs of Detroit, we knew very early on that we wanted to set the show there, regardless of whatever it became.
I notice every episode there’s a Michigan flag, but I don’t see one from [Michigan] State. Is that because you’re a big Michigan fan?
No. I mean — Look, man. I will say full disclosure — I’m the eldest child. I have three sisters, and the eldest of the three sisters went to Michigan. The youngest of the three sisters went to graduate school at Michigan. My brother-in-law went to school in Michigan, so there is a lot of Michigan pride in my family. I went to USC. My uncle played hockey for Michigan State. So I’m sort of divided. The reality of that is this: If you look, there’s a much smaller Michigan State flag on the wall near Justin’s office. It’s occasionally in frame, although rarely. And the truth is when we rehearsed the pilot episode of “Undateable,” there was a huge Michigan State flag where that Michigan flag is. It is still a mystery — [before we shot the pilot] someone on the crew, obviously a Michigan fan, switched it out for a Michigan flag. I don’t know who did it. I don’t know when they did it, but it was a Michigan flag in the pilot. And it’s been a Michigan flag ever since.
It was a joke, and as I was writing the pilot I wanted to keep the show as rooted in the reality and the history of Detroit as possible. My logic was that when Justin was thinking of a name for the bar he wanted to pay homage to Detroit’s rich boxing history, and that’s where that name came from. It was also the underdog vibe of Detroit — that it is a town that gets a black eye occasionally, but still presses onward and upward. That’s a lot like the character — to act with a full heart and a lot of optimism naming the bar “Black Eyes” — not realizing that he’d inadvertently named it something that can be confused with “Black Guys.”
First of all, thank you for coming to a taping. It’s the most fun I’ve had in my career. And I’m glad you got to check it out and be a part of it. It is crazy in the best possible way. The way that it came about was Bill and I had always talked about doing a live episode and the reason was this: During our first and second season, our taped nights — just because we have four stand-up comics and some great improvisational actors — were always these raw, raucous, really energetic experiences. Then we’d edit the episodes down and it never quite captured the energy of what was on stage. So, Bill and I said it would be great to do this show live so all of America could participate in the energy we get to experience on our tape nights.
NBC loves doing live shows. We knew that, and so we reached out them and said, “If it’s something you guys would be interested in, we’d love to try a live episode.” They said, “Great. Let’s do it. We love the idea.” We did the live hour at the end of season 2. Then NBC came back to us and said, “Do you think you can pull off an entire season of live TV?” Bill and I are both probably optimistic and confident to a fault and said, “We could do a live season of television.” And that’s sort of how we ended up there. We’ve survived so far, and we’ve got one week left to go.
Is it true there’s an open bar backstage for, you know, the cast to have fun with?
There is an open bar in what is called our social lounge which is just to the right of Danny and Justin’s house that’s for — were you in the audience or on the floor?
If you had been on the floor, there’s a monitor in there so people can watch the show and live-tweet it. Social media is such a massive part of our experience. So, people are tweeting about the show, and having some cocktails. During the show. Between the show. And again, during the west coast broadcast. The cast, to their credit — I can’t speak to what happens between the shows because we’re usually rewriting the script, but I think the most part, to their credit, they save the heavy drinking until after the west coast show.
It was absolutely a decision that we made early on. I have never done stand up — I’ve done improv comedy, which is a completely different animal. But Bill was a stand-up early on in his career, and we got very lucky. We found Brent, who was a PA on “Conan.” He came in and auditioned, and was so funny and so perfect for the role of Justin. And then Rick Glassman came in for Burski. And Ron Funches came in for Shelly. It was kind of a perfect storm. We knew we wanted to cast stand-ups. We were actively looking for them. And then we got very lucky finding these new voices that didn’t have a ton of television experience, but sort of innately got it and were great.
Then we were able to cast Chris D’Elia, too, and the great thing about it is that all four of those guys knew each other as close friends. Rick and Brent, I think, live next door to each other in the same complex. They all tour with Ron. Chris and Brent have been friends for six or seven years and even Bianca had known Chris the longest — for I think ten years. So, we had a built-in chemistry even from the first day of rehearsal, which I think is the hardest part of any show. It’s finding chemistry, and we were lucky to have it. I think having four stand-up comics really allowed us to write a show built around jokes, and then allows those guys to be big and take big swings and riff their own lines. The kind of stuff that I don’t think you could do otherwise.
I go back and forth. I love our writing staff. They are all incredibly talented, hilarious people and there would be no show without them. It can be overwhelming. Not as much anymore because I’m used to it, but early on it was overwhelming. You sit in a room looking at a computer screen and basically have people pitching jokes or lines of dialogue to you and it’s my responsibility to then decide what the best version is and to write it right there in front of everybody. That was overwhelming at first. I’ve gotten used to it and that’s kind of second nature. The nice thing about writing a screenplay is you can experiment with stuff, try things out in the privacy of your own mind, and fall on your face — not in front of people.
The thing that’s tough about a writer’s room is you may pitch a joke and no one laughs and you go, “Okay. Wow. That’s not funny.” The good thing is you get instant feedback. You know right away whether or not something works. And truthfully, the one thing I will say, is you cannot replicate the value of having 14 other brains that are funnier and sharper than your own in a room. I mean, as creator of the show, I probably get a lot of undue credit for stuff that is written by those other 14 people.
I read that a big influence on you was “Swingers,” and I noticed that in a lot of your work — “Undateable,” “Due Date” or even “Alvin and the Chipmunks” — there’s the alpha and then there’s the kind hearted, sensitive guy. Like Danny is the alpha. Justin is the sensitive one.
I was wondering if you were one of those two in your life?
And what you’re saying lands right on your first film, “Made of Honor.” You see the alpha transforming to the sensitive guy, so that fits pretty well for you.
Yeah. Exactly. I think that’s a lot of guys. Very few of us are Vince Vaughn and at the level of alpha charm and charisma and confidence. And that’s why Vince Vaughn is Vince Vaughn. But I also think very few of us are the Mikey character from “Swingers.” I think that’s a character who’s in a very defeated, emotional place, and I think that’s why he is the way he is. You really see him get his confidence back at the end of the movie which I think is awesome. I think most guys are somewhere in the middle, and constantly looking for that balance.
And finally, have you ever felt yourself to be undateable?
Absolutely, man. I think that when Bill and Jeff and I pitched the show, the original pitch was “everyone goes through an undateable phase in their life because of your job, your financial situation, your fashion choices.” Whatever it is, I think we all go through a phase. I certainly went through that phase in my twenties when I was wearing Birkenstocks with socks, and I bleached my hair blonde, and was a wearing a puka shell necklace, and just was a dip shit basically and was an aspiring screenwriter. You don’t look great, I think, on paper at that point as a mate. In the dating world, you feel undateable at that point. And that’s what the show was in the beginning. Guys that are stuck in that period in their life, and Danny comes into it with a spark to help them find some confidence. I think the great thing about our show is all these characters found their confidence pretty quickly, and now we’re just watching a show about a group of friends who are helping each other navigate their way through life.
Check out the season finale of the hilarious and spontaneous “Undateable Live” tonight at 8pm on NBC.