In Conversation With: Jim Dauterive – Austin Film Festival 2014

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Jim Dauterive is an Emmy Award-nominated writer and executive producer of the acclaimed animated television series Bob’s Burgers. In March 2014, the show’s third season premiered on the Fox network to significant praise. Mr. Dauterive was previously the showrunner and executive producer for the hit show King of the Hill, and has written several feature scripts. On March 2nd 2014, he spoke at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center as part of the Austin Film Festival’s Conversation in Film Series. Following the event, Jim Dauterive spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about the best alternative comics working today, the evolution of Bob’s Burgers, and his admiration for show creator Loren Bouchard. This interview has been transcribed, compressed, and edited from audio.

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Sean Malin: The alt-comic sensibility has really begun to pervade film and television to a point where it’s nearly overtaken the mainstream. Just a few years ago, there was a point where [Bob’s Burgers star] H. Jon Benjamin was making 11-minute shows that were only being watched on Adult Swim around midnight. And now, especially in animation, he’s a king. When did alternative comedy reach the top of the heap?

Jim Dauterive: I don’t know that it’s at the top of the heap yet; I think it’s cresting. We were aware when we started the show that our fans would be kind of cult-y. And I don’t mean that they were actually in cults – it’s just that our audience isn’t a mass audience yet like the fandom of The Simpsons or Family Guy.

SM: You should never say never: look at how far Family Guy has come after two separate cancellations on Fox.

JD: At the moment – knock on wood – our numbers are good and it doesn’t look like Bob’s is going anywhere. What [creator] Loren Bouchard and the staff and I have control over is the quality of the show. We can’t control anything else, like the changed timeslot [to accommodate Fox’s Cosmos, Bob’s Burgers airs on Sundays at 7 p.m./6c]; we can complain about it but we don’t control it. So all we guarantee is that we will make the shows good. Critics seem to notice that, so hopefully it’s enough.

SM: The show does seem to be finally hitting its stride critically. I remember when it first came out…

JD: The reviews were not as good as now *Laughs*. But it takes every show a little bit of time to grow and evolve into something good. Like I mentioned [in conversation,] the musical aspect of the show has evolved. Loren has always been musical at heart, but he’s just now finding a way to give voice to that.

SM: Is the critical wave that Bob’s Burgers is cresting on purely the result of critics taking notice of the show, or is your own work on the series evolving, too?

JD: What we’re doing now in Seasons Two and Three has prompted some critics to actually go back and give us reconsideration reviews, but I don’t think what we did in Season One was as interesting as what we’re doing now. When I go back to those episodes, I still like them, but we’ve really started to understand what works on the show. Everyone – the artists, the writers, the actors, and even the audiences and critics – are on this trip together now. And now with Season Two hitting Netflix and the show airing on Adult Swim, we seem to be doing well.

SM: I’m impressed that there’s any overlap between the family audience watching Fox’s Sunday night lineup and the people watching syndicated episodes on Adult Swim. It seems that there’s now a bridge between the Adult Swim animated series that my generation used to watch – Home Movies, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Aqua Teen – and what Fox now finds attractive for a broad demographic. Is it only my generation that’s spurred on the fresh comedic approaches in their series?

JD: Well, I don’t know about that, but Loren and I definitely knew when we brought the show to Fox that there was nothing like Bob’s Burgers on it. The rhythms are different than anything else, the comedy is “smaller” than on The Simpsons

SM: Smaller in what sense?

JD: There’s a hyperrealism to it – not big jokes, not big storylines. No really crazy stuff. Most of what happens happens at the local school, or at Bob’s restaurant, or upstairs in [the Belchers’] apartment. With the jokes, we’ll just beat them into the ground; we have so many anticlimactic act-breaks where we go beyond whatever dramatic incident was supposed to mark the next act, and instead the characters just keep talking *Laughs*. That really comes from Loren and Jon Benjamin’s mind-meld, although we can’t even really write their rhythms. If the actors catch us trying to do that, they’ll resist it, so the writers will just get them to the doorstep of a joke and let them run with it.

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SM: You co-run Bob’s Burgers and were the showrunner of King of the Hill as well. Do you direct the series?

JD: Nah, Loren directs the episodes, and he’s really a great director, so open to suggestions, and he knows how to talk to the actors. I’ve only directed it on the rare occasions when he takes a vacation. We also have an audio team of four or five writers who help the actors do pick-up lines if there’s ever a suggestion. Loren’s philosophy is, “best idea wins, no matter where it comes from.”

SM: How often do the actors make suggestions that aren’t purely improvised lines but actual contributions to the storylines and writing process?

JD: Not that often, but all the actors are invited to write scripts if they want to, so over time, hopefully…oh, but Dan Mintz, who plays Tina Belcher, wrote “The Equestranauts,” the episode that we just showed [at the Harry Ransom Center.] That was the first episode he wrote of this show, but Dan’s worked on other shows as a writer so he’s got the background for it. And he did such a great job and took the script through the whole process, which is extensive. There’s a lot of rewriting; you have to have no ego to be able to stand it.

SM: I’m a longtime fan of Benjamin, [Kristen] Schaal [who voices Louise Belcher], and [Eugene] Mirman [Gene Belcher] as comedy writers, but I was especially fond of the latter two on Flight of the Conchords. What made that series so special was that it was the kind of show where no one gave two hoots about how a musical comedy or TV show should look. Does Bob’s share that interest in breaking open the form for comedy?

JD: Yes. What happens next once you’ve done that, I do not know, but we’re hoping people won’t tire of that anytime soon.

SM: Are there specific forms or genre that you and Loren want to explore while you’ve got the forum for it?

JD: The show is becoming ever more musical to the point where our Fall 2014 premiere is completely set to music wrapped around the drama. We’ll definitely do more of that, as well as continuing to play with animation style. Loren likes to be a bit more true to himself. The writers will try to play around the edges of that – because, you know, [the show] is on Sunday nights – but he knows that…he’s seen shows die because they’re too quiet.

SM: You mentioned that the principle actors often make suggestions about their lines or improvise. Does that ever come into conflict with actors of a more traditional background or performance style – for example, with Kevin Kline [who recurs as Mr. Fischoeder], is it jarring for him to work with Schaal or Mirman, noted absurdists?

JD: In Kline’s case, that was a calculated risk that totally paid off. Nobody knew how…all we knew was that he was a great actor who could sing and do anything. It turns out he can give-and-take with everyone, especially Benjamin – we love when those two guys work together. A lot of names come up [for the show] and we’ll ask, “Can they improv?” If we’re uncertain about whether they can or not, we won’t try to cast them. We look for someone who is a known quantity in comedy above all. That’s leading us to develop this core of comics, a kind of repertory company beyond the original cast – the Silvermans [Laura and Sarah] play Andy and Ollie, and we like to use [Keegan-Michael] Key and [Jordan] Peele together and individually, so they’re in it a lot these days. All of them are just fantastic. Then there are people who we’re just starting to discover are really good and fit well into the show, like Brian Huskey, who plays Regular Sized Rudy. We’ve been using him more and more, as well as Lindsey Stoddart [who plays Cynthia], one of our stars who we’ve been plugging into a lot of roles, Brooke Dillman…It’s such a pleasure to write for these people. I love it when you can, “expand the world,” as network speak would put it.

SM: Do you personally follow comedy trends and movements in the industry to help you decide whom to cast on the show? Or is that more up to the writers and Loren?

JD: Me personally? Not so much – I’m the [Johnny] Carson, I’m the old fuddy-duddy there. But I love having a staff of young, eager writers who expose me to things and will go see people down at the UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] to check them out. They love doing that stuff, and then they’ll show me a clip on YouTube or something.

SM: I wanted to address something you mentioned during the presentation: snark. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that there are two basic kinds of people watching comedy: those who love snarky comedy that bites you in the ass for watching it, and in animation I’m thinking of Archer or South Park; and those who watch more softhearted or approachable comedy like Bob’s Burgers.

JD: We learn a lot from our fans about this because they are extremely perceptive. Loren is always the champion of the underdog, and that shows with Bob – we don’t make a big deal about this, but no one [on the show] is judgmental about anything. We don’t shine lights on any lifestyle or kind of person, whoever they are. People have started to notice that and appreciate it – everybody is human, and I think that’s the really cool thing about Bob’s Burgers.

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