Tim Baltz finds comedy in analyzing the struggles of his (finally) streaming show ‘Shrink’
There’s a sweet and salty show, now streaming, about a grieving therapist who ignores the ethics of his profession, gets intimately involved in the lives of his patients, and seeks counsel from an older mentor who tells him it’s not his job to steer patients into making better decisions.
It’s called “Shrink,” and it was made in 2017 for NBC’s now-defunct streaming service Seeso, which went under that same year. After being kicked around from platform to platform and at times being completely orphaned, the comedy’s eight episodes are now available to watch on Peacock.
When “Shrink” premiered, Times critic Robert Lloyd said it “has heart, without getting sentimental. ... I, at least, came away feeling good.”
The above intro sounds notably similar to “Shrinking” — a similarly named series on Apple TV+ that premiered in January with a very similar premise. In that show Jason Segel plays the therapist, spiraling after the death of his wife, inviting a patient to live in his guest house, and going to Harrison Ford’s older therapist for wisdom. It’s the creation of Segel and the team behind the beloved Emmys juggernaut “Ted Lasso.”
The folks who made “Shrink” are much less famous and made much less money. But comedian Tim Baltz, its creator and star, doesn’t want to complain — he’s just grateful his little comedy baby, which took six years to conceive, is back out in the world.
“Making a show, any show, is incredibly difficult,” says Baltz, who currently plays the milquetoast BJ in HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones.” “So I look back at those circumstances and I’m kind of amazed that it happened, given all the experience that I’ve had since then.”
Baltz, 42, plays a variety of Midwestern yokels on the improv comedy podcast “Comedy Bang! Bang!” — like Randy Snutz, an amalgamation of dudes he grew up around in the far-flung suburbs of Chicago. But behind the cheeseheads he’s so good at portraying lies the brain of an incredibly thoughtful man who speaks fluent French; his mother is a native and his aunt is a nun in Paris.
“Growing up between two cultures kind of makes you hyper-observant as a defense mechanism,” Baltz says, “and makes a lot of cultural traditions seem arbitrary.”
He was on track to pursue a PhD in French literature but lost his 50-page thesis paper during finals week when “the universe stepped in and crashed my computer,” he laughs. “I was like: ‘Well, I’ll do improv for a year.’”
Baltz was already in love with improv comedy, taking the train to Chicago since he was 13 and watching people like Jack McBrayer, Stephnie Weir and Seth Meyers onstage at Second City.
“Everyone was playing at the top of their intelligence, and it just felt like comedy and poetry up on its feet,” he says. “I was mesmerized by it.”
He performed Shakespeare as a teenager and did theater in college, and he was captivated by Chicago improv’s uniquely theatrical yet grounded emotional flavor of funny. He took classes at the iO Theater and toured with Second City.
“Shrink” was the organic fruit of it all.
Baltz and his co-creator, Ted Tremper, were inspired by the less-than-comical predicament of medical school graduates who don’t get matched with a teaching hospital, and how one way to defer paying back enormous student loans and keep their license is by offering free therapy.
Tremper had access to a garage, and they asked their funny friends — including future “Saturday Night Live” star Aidy Bryant — to improvise as patients of Baltz’s hapless therapist. He cast the “mother hen” of Second City, Sue Gillan, as his character’s mentor and one of his teachers, Claudia Wallace, as a hostile receptionist. They shot 12 therapy sessions over a few months with borrowed digital cameras for a total cost of about $200.
Baltz uploaded the episodes to Vimeo, where it became a staff pick, then constructed and submitted a pilot to the 2012 New York Television Festival — where it won best comedy pilot and the critics award. Jean Doumanian, the one-time “SNL” producer and longtime producer for Woody Allen, snapped it up, and Baltz and Tremper moved to Los Angeles in 2013 to pitch the show to networks. Executive producer Patrick Daly would later became instrumental in getting the series made with Jean Doumanian Productions, and help facilitate the show’s streaming revival on Peacock.
“TV was at this interesting point,” Baltz says. “The mumblecore wave had crested, and a lot of those self-made, indie techniques were being applied to TV for the first time. And we were right at the beginning of that. There was this promise that you could make really good TV on an indie budget, and without the kind of glitz and glam.”
They met with FX and AMC, but another upstart cable channel — Pivot — offered them a full season and, better yet, were cool with them leaving pages blank for improv.
“Things were popping up that were new, and they were taking off, and you couldn’t tell which one was going to stick,” Baltz says. “So we were like, ‘Wow, you’re going to order a 10-episode season? That’s incredible!’”
Branded as a network for millennials, Pivot was home to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “HitRecord on TV” and the only place to stream “Friday Night Lights.” It was run by Evan Shapiro, former president of IFC. But the channel floundered, and “Shrink” was stuck in development hell for more than two years.
When Shapiro moved to NBCUniversal, he devised a new comedy streaming service: the ill-fated Seeso. Besides hosting the entire library of classics like “SNL” and “Monty Python,” Seeso incubated quirky original ideas from a hungry young talent pool that overlapped with the Upright Citizens Brigade and “Comedy Bang! Bang!”
Baltz was cast in “Bajillion Dollar Propertie$,” a real estate reality spoof that featured other “CBB” regulars like Drew Tarver and Paul F. Tompkins. In hindsight, Baltz says, Seeso was “this very quaint experiment that aimed for middle-class budgets to give younger, up-and-coming creators a chance to make something without the pressures that you would normally face at a network.”
“Shrink” was finally greenlighted at Seeso, and Baltz hastily whipped together eight scripts in eight weeks, with a budget for only one additional writer and less than $600,000 per episode. They shot in Chicago with most of the performers returning from the original web series — but “our location budget was small enough that I think one of the characters worked at a bank, and they were like, ‘We can’t get access to a bank.’ We were going to film in Wrigley Field at one point, and they were like, ‘Yeah ... we’re not going to do that.’”
Baltz laughs at this “really special blur of an experience” now, and considers it a creative blessing: “Money buys time, and time buys the ability to problem-solve the way you want. When you have less time because of less money, then your problem-solving has to get really creative, and quick. That was a very rewarding challenge, because we came through it. I wouldn’t really change anything about [it].”
The series starts out as a kind of office sitcom, filled with montages of improvised therapy sessions, but gradually becomes more romantic and more surreal — with bizarre dream sequences and a very dark turn.
Seeso gave Baltz almost total creative freedom and ordered a second season.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “while waiting for budget increase approval, a couple weeks or a month before we would’ve begun a writers room, we found out NBC was pulling the plug on the entire platform. Bittersweet, if only because we knew where the characters were headed and how the world would evolve.”
The show’s arduous life-and-death cycle was prophetic of the new television order — where streaming services sprout up like wildflowers and many die on the vine, where shows are abruptly canceled or shelved or even completely removed from their original platforms, and where indie talents are often passed over for huge celebrities.
“Who knows if we were in more turbulent times with it, who knows where we’re headed,” Baltz says, “but in this odd way our show’s a little microcosm of all these different things that did and will continue to happen. I’ve learned just about every Hollywood lesson possible from this little show. It’s determined to just continue teaching me. And I’m really grateful for all those things, because that’s the reality of the business.”
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