Killen, the owner of a Pittsburgh VFX production house, was aghast. As one of the minds behind Taco Bell’s infamous talking chihuahua, he had been hoping to do a show about talking animals for years. But this wasn’t it.
“I come in early one morning and my boss Michael looks distraught,” recalled Hodges, who was a commercial director at Killen’s company. “‘They took my idea,’ he says, ‘and they made a mess of it.'”
Killen then suggested that Hodges write it. Later that night, that’s exactly what Hodges did – and so began a wild ride that led from web short to ABC pilot, then to the Sundance Festival and now, nearly five years later, to finally premiering on broadcast television.
“Downward Dog” finally premieres on ABC this Wednesday, May 17, following the season finale of “Modern Family.” The show moves to its regular Tuesday slot next week, on May 23. We asked Hodges to share a diary of his experience, from that first germ of an idea in October 2002, to eventually making it all the way to Sundance (above) – where “Downward Dog” was the first broadcast network comedy ever showcased at the festival. Here’s his journey – a bit of a cautionary tale – of how one outsider made it to Hollywood, and although it nearly killed him, managed to create a show that he’s genuinely proud of. (And a recent spate of positive reviews bears that out!)
Michael shows me his laptop – on screen there’s a dog, talking about a blog, next to a Disney logo. Michael has lived much of his life with the sweet but unenviable conviction that a show about talking animals could actually be… well, good. I am incredulous, but try to be encouraging. Maybe there’s a way to do it. Play against the stereotypes. Elevate the genre, I say, not really believing it.
“Maybe you should write it,” he says. I laugh, but later that night type up a monologue, just for fun.
Over a year later, I’m in an edit suite, watching the final cut of the web series (above). Michael has shot seven episodes, between jobs, with me writing and recording monologues from hotel rooms in Orlando and Cleveland and Santa Barbara, on Sundays as my wife is left at home alone with our 3-year-old daughter.
Somehow, I’ve been convinced to voice the dog as well, despite the prominent stutter I struggled with well into college, and the total insecurity I feel about the pattern of my speech.
Over the past year I’ve had other doubts too. Should the dog actually move his mouth? Is it really wise for me to be spending the last years of my 20s making dog jokes? As the final episode finishes on screen, Michael and I look at each other. To my surprise, I’m choked up. He was right. This works.
Check out the very beginnings of one the coolest projects we've ever done: @DownwardDogTV
— Samm Hodges (@sammhodges) April 15, 2014
We’re holding a contract in our hand from a major studio. It’s a development deal with a lot of repetitions of the phrase “in good faith” in regard to Michael’s and my own future involvement, followed by a string of shockingly low dollar amounts.
A week later, [Pittsburgh native and Mosaic principal] Jimmy Miller walks into our office and Michael forces him to watch the web series. I don’t know who Jimmy Miller is, but apparently I should. He’s a manager I learn. “Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow…” the names of his clients are repeated, in excited whispers, up and down the hallways of our office for weeks.
“Don’t take that deal,” he tells us.
Next page: Did they take the deal? Things get more complicated.