Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Behind the Scenes with Downward Dog's Title Character

Ordinarily, summer is a tough time for a network show to have its premiere; we the audience have been conditioned to tune out after May's season finales, and we spend more precious primetime hours still outdoors, enjoying the longer evenings of summer.

But Downward Dog seems to have timing on its side.  The show premiered on May 17, in a plum position following the season finale of Modern Family.  And of course Downward Dog, starring Fargo's Allison Tolman as single, dog-loving Pittsburgh creative executive Nan, follows in the wake of this year's earlier hit film, A Dog's Purpose.

Downward Dog co-creator Samm Hodges
and star Allison Tolman
In May of 2016, when ABC announced the show's pickup, it was unfortunately in the same breath as another show announced for midseason, Imaginary Mary.  And so the two shows became lumped together in the minds of critics, who thought ABC must be desperate to pick up shows about an imaginary friend and a talking dog.

Smartly, though, Downward Dog soon distinguished itself from the pack.  In January, the show, which is based upon a popular web series of the same name, became the first broadcast TV series to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, to positive reviews from the audience and critics.  And the ratings for the show's premiere were respectable, with a decent retention of Modern Family's audience, even though it aired against another big hit, Fox's Empire.

As of last night, ABC has now aired four of the series' eight episodes -- and word is, the network will be making a decision about cancellation/renewal any minute now.  My dog Gabby and I love the show.  And while she's got her paws crossed for season two, I spoke with the web series and show's co-creator, Samm Hodges, who also provides the voice of its irresistable canine star, Martin.

An erstwhile commercial director, Hodges says he and colleague Michael Killen originally created Downward Dog just so as to have a creative outlet not beholden to any client.  But as I also found out when I spoke with Samm, there's another interesting angle to this story, about how becoming the voice of a TV dog has helped not just his bank account, but his personal growth as well.

Downward Dog co-creator Samm Hodges
provides the voice of top dog, Martin

Must-Hear TV:  Downward Dog certainly has had an interesting path to the small screen, as it caught the eye of some Hollywood managers and evolved from your web series into a half-hour show.  But the other aspect I don't feel the press has covered at all is that here you are, voicing the lead character -- and as you mentioned earlier, you grew up with a stutter.  How has that affected how you feel about voicing a character for TV?

Samm Hodges:  I grew up with a stammer, and there are things about the way I speak -- whether it be stuttering or the fast-paced delivery and other techniques I learned to get through it -- that now are helping to make Martin's voice feel unique and special.  There are other things I can do to help, like tailoring the lines to match my speech pattern in way that won't give me trouble.  Plus, if a stutter does slip into a take, sometimes rather than retake the line we might decide to use it.  In the end, we just want to have a character that sounds natural, and hopefully the voice actor disappears anyway.  I think people are going to watch the dog, and I hope they don't think about me ever.

MHTV:  Do you find it challenging or difficult to perform the role?

SH:  I think a lot of the show is about owning your flaws, and looking at your flaws.  And for me, doing the voiceover with a stutter, I get really frustrated.  I’ll always dread it.  My wife always knows the day before I have to record, because I might be an asshole that day.  It's very hard.  If you've ever had a really bad speech impediment, you know you're never really over it.  I know it will always be with me, and yet I'll get past it.  But then when I do go do the voiceover, I end up also realizing that it makes the show feel really authentic for me.  Our whole show is about characters who are vulnerable, afraid to be made fun of, and not being the polished star.  We’re all kind of outsiders, and now we the producers of Downward Dog are part of this punk rock TV show on a network.  A while back, I had wanted to recast mysef, but then I realized that even though performing the role was a pain for me, it actually gave something to the show.  So I realized I’ll do it for the show.

MHTV:  Your voice has a laconic quality that really helps give Martin a fun personality.  You really should be doing voiceover for a career.  You must find that odd to hear someone say that to you in 2017, because there was probably a time as a child where you beat yourself up for your voice.

SH:  It’s crazy.  The thing is, whenever you’re told what you can’t do, it kind of makes you want to do it.  I think as a writer, I write from a place of trying to be really radically honest.  And the show is really radically honest.  And I feel that if I ask my actors to be vulnerable, then I have to step up and be vulnerable myself.  Martin provides me a way to make fun of all my worst qualities.  If Martin thinks he’s smart, I think I’m smart.  When you put that in a dog’s mouth, it reveals how silly we are.  We in the entertainment industry tend to be narcissists, and I’m a narcissist.  So I always thought I was special. And for me, being a dog who thinks he’s special is a way to admit how messed up I am, but also how I’m still a worthwhile person, 

MHTV:  What kind of work did you do to overcome the stutter the way you have?

SH:  It’s funny.  I was raised really poor.  I never had any speech therapist offered to me.

MHTV:  I had speech therapy in elementary school, and I know how hard the work can be.  That’s impressive!

SH:  I was a senior in high school and couldn’t really speak well.  I got so frustrated that my dad’s friend, who was an undergraduate for speech therapy, gave me a worksheet.  I would just read it out loud to myself.  I worked really hard at it.  There had been times in a McDonalds where they’d think I was mentally handicapped.  It was really embarrassing, but that ended up giving me a lot of confidence and makes me hard to embarrass now.  So if I’m pitching, I don’t get scared because I’ve lived through so much embarrassment.  It’s weird in life how things work out that way.

MHTV:  Where were you raised?

SH:  In Washington state.  In a cabin off the grid.  No electricity, no running water.  Really weird.  My mom passed when I was young.  Not a happy childhood.

MHTV:  I hope you give yourself a lot of credit for learning from a worksheet.  It’s hard when you have someone working with you, and you did it yourself from a piece of paper.

SH:  As a poor kid from a poor town with a stutter, I felt like I was doomed.  I felt like there was no way out. Then in high school, I was part of a mock trial.  I chose to be the lawyer, which is insane.  And I actually won the mock trial and got all these awards.  I decided I wasn't going to stop fighting.  It’s the kind of thing where someone tells you “You’re not going to make it.”  It’s such a motivator.  If I go back home now, most of my friends are still stuck there.  And the meth use is really tragic in small towns now.  I was lucky.  I think I worked really hard, but I was really lucky.

MHTV:  [Downward Dog executive producer] Kat Likkel has encouraged you to get a voiceover agent and career.  Would you want to pursue that?

SH:  I would, totally.  I’m a small-town kid.  I like working.  But it’s the last thing I ever imagined myself doing.  It’s kind of happened naturally, and that’s the weird way life works sometimes.  I would never have thought this would be where I’d be.