It’s a sunny day in Venice as two residents out walking their dogs stroll past what looks like a local block party — only it’s a set with actors, one of whom is dressed in a floppy-eared dog suit. They innocently inquire: “Is this a Disney show?”
“Hardly,” actor Elijah Wood says and laughs. After all, this is no ordinary dog: Wilfred is a foul-mouthed, bong-smoking, beer-drinking pooch with an Aussie accent, the titular character of FX’s new half-hour comedy series, premiering Thursday.
Wood plays Ryan, a young ex-lawyer having an emotional meltdown. In the first episode he’s drafting suicide notes and trying to overdose on pain-pill smoothies. His attempts at ending it all are interrupted when his attractive neighbor Jenna (played by Fiona Gubelmann) asks him to mind her dog, Wilfred (played by Jason Gann, who co-created the series and played the same role in the original Australian version), who Ryan sees as a man in a cheap dog suit. This sets up an unlikely buddy comedy in which Wilfred becomes Ryan’s devious wingman.
Gann and Wood are shooting scenes from an episode titled “Isolation” in which Wilfred goads introverted Ryan to partake in a block party and meet some of his neighbors. While they fuss and pet Wilfred (who everyone else sees as an ordinary, friendly dog), Ryan awkwardly engages in conversation with an elderly resident (played by veteran actor George Coe) with embarrassing results.
“Wilfred acts as a life coach, bodyguard and saboteur all in one,” says Gann, who strips down to his furry pants and white undershirt between takes to cool off. But there are also plenty of reminders that he is still a dog, chasing cars and digging holes in the backyard. There are even four different dog suits. “This is the one that looks like he’s just had a bath,” explains Gann, who in real life prefers the company of cats (he has two at home).
“That’s what made this such a unique but broadly relatable idea,” says John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Networks. “How many people have dogs and wish they could talk to them, and [wonder] what that dog would say back to them?”
FX hopes this will be one foreign comedy import that’s not lost in translation. After the failure of the diluted remake of another much-loved Australian comedy, “Kath & Kim,” Gann acknowledges die-hard fans are worried.
“They think [Americans will] ruin it, but I wouldn’t have made this show if I didn’t think it would be a lot better,” he says.
“The fact that we have one of the original cast and creators was very important to me,” says Wood, best known for his role as Frodo in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “It gave me the reassurance that we would keep the integrity of what they did in Australia.”
“I never imagined I would still be in a dog suit when I’m 40,” says the 39-year-old Gann, who is just as deadpan and no-nonsense as his canine alter ego. “When they started to mention [American] actors they thought could do this, like David Arquette or Zach Galifianakis, I said, ‘Where’s the suit? I’m doing it.’”
Gann conceived the initial idea with fellow Aussie actor Adam Zwar (who played the Ryan role in the original version) after Zwar relayed a story of dating a girl with a pesky pet dog. “I started pretending I was the dog, smoking cigarettes, asking nosy questions — just mucking around. We didn’t really think we were creating anything,” says Gann.
They made a short film that won awards in Sydney’s Tropfest and screened at Sundance in 2003. It became a TV series that first aired in 2007 (IFC ran it last year). The basic conceit of the original show was a lighthearted triangle between a hapless boyfriend, his girlfriend and her interfering pooch, but this one takes a much darker twist.
“Every episode explores a theme of recovery and each week Ryan learns a lesson about living his life courageously and being happy and we never quite know what Wilfred’s real intentions are: Is he a force for good or bad?” says show runner David Zuckerman, nestled on a bench on the patio of the Venice Woodsman cottage, which doubles as Ryan’s house.
“We spent a lot of time talking about the character’s psychology,” continues Zuckerman, who previously worked on the animated series “King of the Hill,” “American Dad” and “Family Guy.” “But we also do an awful lot of fart jokes — so it really depends on what you are looking for in an evening’s entertainment.”
For Wood, who is making his first foray into series television, “Wilfred” is a chance to try comedy, though it might come as a shock to see Frodo smoking bongs and discussing toilet habits.
“Because ‘Rings’ is so forward in people’s heads, I was definitely interested in doing something that was smaller and very different,” says Wood, who returns to Middle-earth later this year when he films a flash-forward in Peter Jackson’s upcoming “The Hobbit.” “This was one of the funniest and most original scripts I had ever read.”
Chris Klein, who guest stars in four episodes as Jenna’s obnoxious boyfriend, says Wood is ideal for the role. “Something that most people don’t know about Elijah is that he is incredibly funny, so a show like ‘Wilfred’ is a perfect fit for him,” he says.
For FX, whose other boundary-pushing comedies include “Louie” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Wood’s name on the marquee is a big bonus. “We make low-budget comedies. We would never have had the audacity to offer it to Elijah,” says FX’s Landgraf. “I think we caught an enormous stroke of luck.”
The show has also attracted an impressive lineup of guest stars, including Klein, Jane Kaczmarek, Dwight Yoakam, Ed Helms, Rashida Jones and Mary Steenburgen, who plays Ryan’s free-spirited mother.
“I’m a huge dog person, so this just appealed in so many ways,” says Steenburgen, who shares a very funny make-out scene with Wilfred, who she sees as merely an affectionate dog.
It’s time for a lunch break on set and the writers are discussing ideas for future episodes. One suggests having Wilfred drink from a toilet bowl with a shot glass.
“That’s what I love — all these dog moments,” Wood says and laughs. “I don’t think this is anything like what I’ve seen on television before. It’s … unique, dark and strange.”