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'Parenthood' boss Jason Katims on Joel/Julia, new comedy 'About a Boy'

MoviesEntertainmentDavid WaltonNick HornbyRay Romano

Some might argue that Jason Katims is the cardiac specialist of television shows.

In recent years, the writer-producer’s heart-tugging power was perhaps most palpable in cult favorite football/family drama“Friday Night Lights” — compelling its fans to live life according to its maxim, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” Then came the almost weekly cry-fests brought on by the emotional turmoil in family drama “Parenthood,” currently in its fifth season and prompting such hashtags as #tears and  #sobbing. Next month, he’s presenting his next heart-y project, only this time it’s a comedy: “About a Boy,” another adaption of a movie by the same name, which in effect is an adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel.  

The half-hour stars David Walton as Will, whose life gets a jolt when an 11-year-old boy (Benjamin Stockham) and his mother (Minnie Driver) move in next door. The NBC series is getting a post-Olympic rollout on Feb. 22, with its premiere airing at 11 p.m., before moving to its regular time slot on Feb. 25 at 9 p.m.

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Show Tracker spoke to Katims earlier this week about deciding on the half-hour format for “About a Boy,” his penchant for matters of the heart, and — because we couldn’t NOT ask — the Joel and Julia story line on “Parenthood” that’s left some huddled in a corner in the fetal position and others throwing remotes at the TV.

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“About a Boy” doesn’t feel like a traditional comedy in that it’s not playing for laughs. And it’s a setup that easily could have fit into a drama format. What was the reason behind making it a half-hour?

I felt something in that movie and in that book that I really connected to. It was that theme of surrogate parenting, surrogate fathers. I think that’s something that even though you can, say, look at “Friday Night Lights” and think these are opposite shows, those themes sort of play through. So I was drawn to that, and it felt like there was a way to do a show that could live in the half-hour world while also allowing me to tell the kinds of stories that I like to tell, which is stories about people, about relationships, and watch those relationships begin to grow and get more complicated as they go. And I really wanted to do a show that’s funny but doesn’t feel like you’re being hit with so many jokes that you lose the characters. We wanted a show that was uplifting and funny and heartwarming, but wasn’t so funny that you were left wondering, "Who are these people?"

That’s why I felt that if I was going to do a half-hour, that way made more sense to me as something that I could bring my experience and the stories I like to write seemed to fit very naturally into that format. It’s fun doing it. It’s a challenge. You only have half the time to tell the story, and half the pages, and half the scenes. But what I liked about it — you know, both “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights” were big, huge ensemble dramas, so I like this. It’s fun for me. It’s a different kind of challenge to focus on a much smaller cast. You're not doing as many story lines, so you’re able to focus more. It’s been really fun to do.

I also appreciate that it gives the tear ducts a break.

Right. To me, I’m just looking for those moments for the audience where they’ll kind of connect to it. What’s fun about comedy is you’re pushing things a little further than you would in a drama; you’re pushing reality a little bit more. But what I try to find — is that while things get pushed to maybe levels of absurdity, it’s still relatable. You’re relating to it from the point of view of a mom with a son or this guy who’s faced with this kid that’s won his way into his heart.

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There is so much heart in every one of your shows. Is it safe to say Jason Katims is a softie, a sentimental guy?

Ha! Perhaps. To me, I’m really interested in telling stories about real people and relationships and how people interact and family. I’ve been lucky to do most of the few shows that I’ve done, where that’s the lion share of what we’ve done. You’re able to take a lot of stuff from life, from stuff that you observe and see. In that way, you save a lot of money on therapy.  

With shows about doctors or lawyers, cops or whatever, there’s more story to tend to. You don’t have as much time to focus on what’s going on between people. That’s what I like to do, and it’s rare to be able to tell those kinds of stories, to find the home for those types of shows because they’re maybe not as sexy.

 A special element of “Parenthood” has been its guest stars, particularly the way “Friday Night Lights” alums have been featured. Might we see that in “About A Boy”? Or will it mostly be “Parenthood” faces given the ease? David Walton appeared in last week’s episode of “Parenthood” during the poker game.

Yes, in fact in an upcoming episode, Dax Shepherd will be on, playing Crosby Braverman. It’s just a cameo. Since they are both set in Northern California, it makes more sense.

Who is the ultimate man-child — Will or Crosby?

Oh my God. Um, well, I would say right now Will is the ultimate man child if you take him from “About a Boy” Season 1 and Crosby from Season 5 of  “Parenthood.” But if you were to go back to Season 1 Crosby, that’s a tossup. That’s too close to call.

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Let’s talk about the boy of “About a Boy”: Mr. Benjamin, who probably deserves his own accompanying reality show. I imagine it’s exponentially harder to find the right kid for a part — given experience and maturity levels.

The title is “About a Boy,” so so much was riding on finding the right kid for this. When we were casting the pilot, we worked really hard in casting the kids. You usually get stuck on at least one kid, and you never know what that’s going to be. We saw lots of kids. We started Skype-ing auditions — people from New York, Canada, England. It was getting very discouraging. I mean, the kids were great, but we needed somebody who was going to be able to capture this very unique spirit of Marcus. Then Ben came in. I think he was like three lines into his reading and I looked at Jon Favreau and I was like, “It’s him.” As we all say, he’s the only pro on the set.

I feel like it’s finally time we address the elephant in the room because I don’t want the anger in my eyes to begin to make you  feel uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to play it cool. So, let’s cut to it: Joel and Julia.  What? Why? How? Huh?

Uh, you know, because it happens.

No. I need more than that. Seriously, though, some people felt Joel’s response was out of character, others thought it snowballed out of control. How do you respond to that? Can you understand the frustration?

Well, what I think is that, my personal opinion is that I feel with the Joel and Julia relationship is that while there is this incredible love between them, and always has been, there’s also been throughout  their relationship lots of tension. They’ve always been a couple that maybe has an issue but then kiss and make up at the end of the episode. But we felt that there’s been such a transition in their lives — Julia not working, Joel going back to work and a lot of the struggles they’ve had with Victor … they’ve been pushed a lot further than they’ve been pushed before. So I feel what people are responding to is they don’t expect that to happen, they expect them to kiss at the end of the episode. But I feel this is what happens. You have people you think are the best couple and that they’ll always be married, and then suddenly you hear that they’re separated. We were interested in telling that story because we don’t want Joel and Julia to always be the C story. The actors are so great. And there is hope for Joel and Julia.

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Another interesting story line you explored this season centered around Hank (Ray Romano). I imagine this wasn’t something you set out to explore with him all along. Talk about what led to the idea that he might have Asperger’s.

Yeah, I hadn’t always foreseen it. What happened was I went to an Asperger’s conference a couple of years ago and sat in on a meeting of fathers of kids with Asperger’s [Katim's son, who the “Parenthood” character Max is loosely based on, has Asperger’s]. It’s a group of maybe 15-20 people, and in that meeting, several of them had been diagnosed through their children’s diagnosis. They talked about what that revelation was like. It varied a lot between people of what it was like for them — whether it was good or bad to know, what it did to them finding out as an adult.

The reason why I was interested in telling that story — first of all, I wanted to tell that particular story, the idea of an adult having it, because a lot of adults are being diagnosed late. And the other reason why I wanted to tell that story is because kids with Asperger’s grow up. I was interested in telling a story of what that could look like. I thought about it a lot in terms of whether it made sense with Ray. I thought about it myself. I talked to our consultant, who is a psychologist and works with people with Asperger’s, and I obviously talked to the writers of the show. But truthfully it wasn’t what I had intended for that character.

We worked very hard with the writers, the directors, with Ray to build up that story so that when it happened it felt natural. I think that Ray has done such incredible work on the show, and I think that this has given him an opportunity to even go further than last season.

Follow @villarrealy

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

 

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