“I think there’s something about not having rules and about having freedom,” Holstein said to IndieWire before the show’s premiere in September. “For better or for worse, the ability to be able to do that is where I come from. I come from rooms that want to not lull you into a sense of repetition. I have no problem opening Season 2 thirty years earlier and seeing what happens.”
The dark comedy, which marks the return of Jim Carrey to television, spotlights the grieving of childrens’ TV show host Jeff Pickles (Carrey), which takes on a surreal edge thanks to Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), who directed six of the 10 episodes and oversaw the show’s visual design.
“There is this picture on the show that is constant, but in his private life, he evolves,” Gondry said to IndieWire about how he approached Jeff as a character. “Little by little he cracks open and you see the sadness and madness. It’s a sort of chaos due to his position of wisdom, his working for young children, and his real life where this wisdom doesn’t apply at all. So that’s how I define him.”
The hiring of Gondry followed the hiring of Carrey, according to Holstein, who wrote the script with the “Truman Show” star in mind. “When Jim read it, Jim was like, you know who would be perfect for this? It’s Michel. And if Michel says yes, I’m doing it. And then Michel said yes, so yeah,” he said.
That choice of director, Holstein felt, gave him and the writers “license to be as fucking weird as we wanted to be. You’re sitting in a room full of writers, you’ve got Showtime giving you a ton of support, you’ve got this cast, and you’ve got Michel directing it. I said look, we’ve got ten half-hour episodes, we are going to swing for the fences or burn this place to the ground. There’s no in-between. Having Michel around allows you to just do stuff that’s off the grid. It really inspired us to craft some shots, some stories that we wouldn’t normally get to do, but we felt that we have everyone behind us on this.”
Under Gondry’s guidance, the blur between reality and fiction has been intense, with extremely complicated long takes and surreal puppet moments enhancing the show’s depiction of Jeff Pickles’ strange existence. But if Gondry hadn’t come on board, Holstein said, “I think we would have had the same ambition, the same desire to try to be different in a landscape of 500 shows, I think we would have still tried to be our weird selves. There are a lot of very smart weird people on the show that weren’t Michel that all had an axe to grind.”
But that said, Gondry still enabled a whole other level of strange. “What I said to Michel the first day was, ‘Look, are there ever been commercial ideas you’ve had, or video ideas you had, that the executives wouldn’t let you get away with, that you’ve always wanted to do? Because that’s where I start. Keep that in mind as we go through that we can get away with anything we want right now, and let’s try it.'”
“I was surprised at the producer executive for the studio,” Gondry said. “He really let us work, with very few notes… I mean, the subject is really sort of original or if not bizarre. The fact that they went for this subject in itself, we got away with that, I think.”
Gondry said that his motivation in trying new things wasn’t simply for the sake of being unique — and his real focus was to “just make a portrait” of his characters, the good and the bad alike. “I try, in what I do, to be myself. So for instance, most of the time when I do film, I put the camera at the same level as the character. I don’t try to put it so that the character feels superior or put the camera here so the character feels inferior. I like to think like a person, like if they were my cousin. I always think of that way. I think it’s very basic, but I think it’s trying to shoot with a certain kindness.”
“Michel is hands-on in that he knows what he doesn’t like and he knows what he likes,” co-star Catherine Keener (who plays puppet designer Deirdre) said of their collaboration. “I think he’s got a pretty wide girth, he’s sort of accepting of whatever the riff is. He just sees it then which I love in a director. I love, love, love.”
“He encourages [surprises],” Keener said. “He’s very receptive. He’s just cool.”
This meant that Keener would show up on set and not know “how every beat was going to play,” which she valued, because “my experience working with directors, I like that room for… I mean, I ask a lot of questions, I can bug the shit out of people. But I can’t help it, it’s just questions, questions. I’ll go way, way in the middle of something. And I don’t know, they put up with me. They really did in a nice way.”
Also helping enable those surprises was Holstein’s nine-year history with the network, having worked on shows including “Weeds” and “I’m Dying Up Here.” “They’re going along with my brand of insanity. I’ve always been the writer on a staff who says ‘let’s try something crazy,'” he said. “I think they knew, when they were to give me the reins, that I was gonna try some stuff.”
Holstein said without hesitation that he and the team got away with everything they wanted to do, which he credited in part to the cast. “There’s a lot of faith in them. The best networks I’ve worked for give the show a platform for everyone there to do their best creative work,” he said. “And when you have people that are that established, like Jim, and Catherine, and all the Oscar nominations in the air — when all that’s floating around, I think there’s a lot more trust to just let us be who we are.”
When being interviewed by IndieWire, “Kidding” had yet to receive a second season renewal, but Holstein said that he knew how the show ends. “I’m not going to lie and say that I know Season 2, 3, and 4, but I know the movements of the character. I know where they have to arc through to get to the end, and I know how to work backwards from that ending,” he said.
In general, his primary goal is to keep engaged. “I think if you’re not excited to sit down and write it, no one’s going to like watching it,” he said. “You can get bored by just trying to follow the same thing over and over again.”
Erica Parise / Showtime
The point, Holstein said, is never “to be weird for weird’s sake. We never just want to be, ‘here’s a crazy Michel Gondry shot for the sake of it.’ So to me it was about establishing an emotional foundation in the pilot, a clear emotional want for the character, so that by the end of the season it’s not style before substance. I think it’s an easy path to go down when you have someone like Michel around — ‘let’s think about the crazy shot first, or let’s work backwards from the weird. When you try to work forward from character, they find the weird.”
Added Holstein, “It’s crazy that they put me in charge. It’s nuts. But it’s great.”
Production on “Kidding” had wrapped before the show’s premiere, which Holstein appreciated because it meant that no matter what, “we did this incredibly ambitious thing and if it becomes one of those shows that no one watches and everyone hates, you wrapped. You did that thing, you made it through with these great actors,” he said.
“Our last two days, we were shooting at the Honda Center, we shot an icecapade — an icecapade directed by Michel Gondry. No other show has that. And that alone makes me happy that we even did that, so I’m just living in that euphoria right now of, we fucking did it. They said we couldn’t do it, and we went to the Honda Center and we shot an icecapade, and there was an eight foot baguette with eyes and a frown, and he’s singing. That’s our life right now.”