Saturday, 11 January 2014

Navigating the Minefield of Military Comedy

Navigating the Minefield of Military Comedy, Recent workplace television comedies have explored all sorts of occupations – from a paper company ("The Office") to the city hall of a small Indianan town ("Parks and Recreation") to the set of a fictional television variety show ("30 Rock"). But it's been a while since we've seen one focused on an institution that employs more than 2 million Americans: the U.S. military. That is until Friday, with the premiere of "Enlisted," a new Fox comedy about three brothers working together on a rear detachment base in Florida.

"It's a very noble workplace where crazy stuff happens, and life and death is always just a step away," says "Enlisted" executive producer Mike Royce. "It's not really on television other than in insanely dramatic form."

However for the show's creator Kevin Biegel, the choice of setting as well as its three main characters was first and foremost personal. He is the oldest of three brothers, and while he never served in the military himself (he's made a career writing on shows like "Cougar Town," "Scrubs" and "South Park"), a number of his family members have, including his father, grandfather and uncle.

"It was a world that I knew about from them, and the people that I love did the job. It always seemed like an interesting place to set a show and tell stories from," Biegel says.

"Enlisted" begins when the trio's oldest brother, Sgt. Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) the so-called "super soldier" of the family, is sent home from his tour in Afghanistan to the Florida base as punishment for his disrespect to authority. He is tasked to lead a "Rear D" platoon, made up of the soldiers who stay behind to support those deployed. Among the misfits whose charge he is taking is his overenthusiastic if not oversensitive youngest brother Randy (Parker Young), who often struggles to keep up, and their wise-cracking middle brother Derrick (Chris Lowell), who seems to be in the army out of lack of better things to do (an issue that will come to the forefront in future episodes).

The show's humor focuses on their dynamics, as well as their interactions with the rest of the diverse "Enlisted" cast which includes Pete's boss, Sgt. Maj. Donald Cody (Keith David), a been-there-seen-that commanding officer, and Pete's antagonist (and thus, maybe love interest) Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral), the take-no-prisoners leader of Pete's rival platoon.

"Instead of having a show set in an office and you've got to find the inherent drama in an office and it's obviously possible, here there's stakes included," Biegel says. "You hear the word 'soldier' – that actually means something to people."

The show is not meant to be a satire, and military politics are all but absent aside from a drone joke here or there. ("Enlisted" however isn't afraid of occasional race humor: for instance the African-American Sgt. Maj. Cody, an amputee, wears a white prosthetic leg because "my size only comes in white.")

But "Enlisted" creators intend to touch on some of the "serious" issues soldiers face. Early episodes features Randy volunteering with a military family support group and Pete mourning a friend killed in battle.

Though he describes the show as 90 percent comedy, Royce, whose past credits include dramedies like "Men of a Certain Age," says this touch of drama is one of the things that attracted him to the project.

"We're taking the serious things seriously, honoring these people who do this work," Royce says.

Adds Biegel, "There hasn't been many military comedies because of those serious issues. People say, 'How do you make this stuff funny? How do you make jokes about the military?' Our answer was, 'You don't make jokes about the military. You make jokes about the characters. And with the serious stuff, you do the serious stories.'"

Royce and Biegel worry that the show's trailers do not do this aspect of show justice and fear that people will assume "Enlisted" is making fun of military life.

"Promos just have a hard time telling the story, so I certainly could see some people reacting to a 10 second promo and getting the wrong idea about the show," Royce says.

Adds Biegel, "The fear is – my own friends and family have this fear – is like, 'OK, the Hollywood people are going to do a show about us soldiers; they're just going to make fun of us.' But that's not the case."

(With the show's setting, Biegel is also embracing his Florida roots, being from Sarasota, near the fictional town the show is set.)

They have engaged directly with military websites and blogs to address this issue, and have also taken to Twitter to respond to those who have tweeted their skepticism of the show, often personally sending them screeners in the hopes of disproving those misgivings. "I'm sure Fox isn't super happy that we sent the show out to hundreds of people," Biegel jokes.

Also concerning the "Enlisted" producers is some of the technical mistakes they made in the show's pilot – "We did some of our homework, but we didn't do enough of it," Royce concedes – like the details of the uniforms. When the premiere airs, they will be sponsoring a contest geared at current or former servicemen to point out what the show gets wrong, and promise from the second episode on the course has been correct. "Enlisted" brought in military consultants to shape subsequent episodes and has also made use of input from the many veterans hired to play extras on the show.

Biegel compares his desire to get the details right on "Enlisted" to his experience on the hospital TV show "Scrubs," where he says real-life doctors often complimented him on the accuracy with which it treated its medical cases. "The more real these aspects of the world felt, the richer the comedy felt and characters felt because it wasn't coming from this made up place," Biegel says.

Even when playing it extremely safe with its military setting, the show's humor is more sophisticated than it first appears. "Enlisted" is often silly but it's not dumb. Slapstick gags and at times over the top performances come alongside lots of witty wordplay and some meta-jokes (the pilot pokes fun at its "Modern Family"-eqsue lesson-of-the-day epilogue and a later episode features a fantastic riff on "Chopped"). Biegel says he was inspired by "M.A.S.H." and had the first hour of "Stripes" playing on repeat while he was writing the pilot, but also counts more recent, civilian comedies like "New Girl" and "The Office" among his influences.

"We didn't want it to feel like it was something that was out of time, [but] that it was contemporary," Biegel says. "We realize in this world we can be, I don't want to say absurd, but that we can expand our boundaries a bit."

He also says that many of his ideas for the show's comedic situations come from suggestions from his friends and family who currently or formerly served in the military. Their emails make up a 100-plus page "research book" he and the writers draw from.

"Everyone was like, 'Here's the kind of stuff in the military that you never see on TV or in movies. Here is the funny stuff we do day to day, the heavy things that happen and very personal stories.'" Biegel says. "For us that was a gold mine.

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