Written by Less Than Kind showrunner Mark McKinney, reprinted with permission
We shot the last scene of Less than Kind on a hot July afternoon in 2012; a furious Josh Blecher (Ben Arthur) has tracked down his younger brother Sheldon (Jesse Camacho) and their confrontation is the final explosion of long simmering resentment.
It’s a loud scene, and the brothers are dropping F bombs in this leafy upscale neighborhood of Winnipeg. Our location scout paces nervously and assistants are sent hurrying to shoo away families with young children that have wandered over to watch. Dear reader, please imagine this picture beginning to dissolve …
It is 2005. I am finished on the last season of Slings and Arrows. I am unemployed. I complain to my agent. He retaliates by setting up a meeting with two new writers: Marvin Kaye and Chris Sheasgreen. Their project is a half-hour comedy about a raging Jewish father and his family, which features an overweight, precociously bright younger son named Sheldon. It’s based on Marvin Kaye’s life growing up in Winnipeg. His stories are hilarious, frightening and true. Marvin and Chris are also actors. We talk about acting. We agree it would be good to get great actors because then the acting would be great.
Obvious – sure – but that actually was a pivotal conversation and that understanding to try and find a cast of acting thoroughbreds and marry them to authentic story kept me motivated until the project finally crystalized two years later with an order for the first season.
Marvin and Chris were new to the scene and didn’t know what I, the purported veteran, had done my best to not learn; that TV series are a business, that shows are made, and interfered with, and ultimately judged by their ability to attract eyeballs and that they are not often enough ‘”art”. We wanted “art” and we didn’t know better. And that ignorance has made all the difference.
We wanted the Blechers to be a real family, warts and all, and extract from their stories and collisions comedy and drama, a ‘”comerama” or “dramedy” hybrid that could nimbly move between the two opposite poles. Nowadays Girls is a good example of this, Enlightened and Modern Family too but the only example we had in 2005 was Weeds.
Further setting a goal like that was personally dangerous for me because it quickly summons the most perilous waypoint a comedian can deal with; the impulse to show that the clown can cry. This is dangerous. It’s new territory. It requires a whole other sense of timing and structure and brother, it can go skin crawlingly wrong. i.e “You never go full retard”.
The dramedy of Slings and Arrows not withstanding I believed that staying funny required you stay close to your hard, unforgiving, acerbic takes on life, story and characters but as the years roll by and more just happens; kids, ailing parents and all manner of reversals of fortune. Life starts to demand that you acknowledge it with somewhat more care and detail. It threatens to make you, gulp, sincere. You are at risk of becoming the person you used to make fun of.
As we set out to sculpt our “comerama” we lean heavily on Marvin’s stories. There is something both re-assuring and demanding about springboarding off of real life. Although we will start to do it less and less over time they ground the first season in a place of “truthiness.”
In subsequent seasons the writers dig deep into their personal lives to keep the comedy rooted in reality. You can take the slights and drama of your remembered high school days and marry it with the fresh living fear you have for your kids and hey presto hilarity ensues. Our work day is 1/3 Oprah, 1/3 goofiness and 1/3 Halo 3.
When we begin casting we get very lucky (again) when Maury Chaykin agrees to meet with us for the lead role of the raging Dad, Sam Blecher. Maury was one of our greatest actors. He has been in a file in the back of my mind since his unforgettable absolutely perfect role in War Games. He also has a fearsome reputation. We meet a few times to pitch him the role of the father Sam. It’s like fishing for bear. We hook him with the character and reel him in very VERY slowly.
With Maury as our waypoint the rest of the cast falls easily into place around him. The comedy tone is dialed up to authenticity. He is a dream and the show we want begins to appear. The first season is good and the second is even better.
Maury died suddenly. We have lost our friend and lead actor. We have a conference call to break the news to the cast scattered across the country. A few days later my own Mom passes away, then a couple of months later another of our lead actors Wendel Meldrum loses her mother. Death is all over the place.
There is no avoiding the drama now. I quake in my clown shoes.
But the place where the show now lives is available to absorb these horrible blows. We realize we have created a real family and that the whole season can arc off the forces unleashed by the sudden passing of a father and husband.
Not surprisingly the first episodes that deal with the death of Sam Blecher are the best ones yet. AND they are funny too. The writers, directors and cast work through their grief through the show. Life and fiction meet. Yup – we might have a little art happening.
TV shows can go on for ever. But they shouldn’t. My favorite SNL update joke describes the Lost writers imagined reaction to a sixth season renewal as “Oh shit!”. There is no way we would ever ask to leave but it’s almost a blessing to be told at the start of the fourth season that it will be our last. It is something we can write to. We know how.
One of first things we talk about is the void of that first summer after high school ends and something else looms. It affects everyone. For Mom it’s the end of the family at home. For Sheldon it’s the beginning of the rest of the rest of his life. For his older brother it is the end of his real youth and the stories all flow out from there.
Back on set, in the last scene, our Sheldon Blecher is exhausted by an extraordinary day. He should leave Winnipeg but his brother is throwing the mother of all tantrums and the award winning Ben Arthur has never been funnier. And then the scene pivots; as the camera focuses on Sheldon we see he loves his ridiculous brother and knows, at this moment, Josh really needs a win. So he gets in the car to go home and falls asleep. It’s a perfect comerama moment. We shoot five takes and the last one is the best. The assistant director calls it. Less Than Kind is done. There are forty of us standing on sidewalk and lawns. We are kind of stunned. Then I am overjoyed and beaming but when I look over I see Chris choking back tears and Marvin weeping like a baby. He always does that. The clown is crying.
Oh yeah. I better call my agent.