Today’s Guest: Kit Boss, writer, producer, “King of the Hill,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Carpoolers,” “iZombie”
BOB ANDELMAN: Kit, welcome to Mr. Media.
(2012 UPDATE: Congratulations to Kit Boss, who shared an Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Animated Program” as consulting producer of “Bob’s Burgers” on Fox!)
The confounding thing about seeing your friends become successful is that while you’re obviously happy for the good things that come their way, a tinge of jealousy and envy is not unusual, and that certainly captures my feelings about today’s guest.
Most of you won’t know this man by name, but when you hear his credits, I think you’ll agree with me that he’s accomplished an awful lot, and you will probably understand why I greet him with a touch of envy, at the very least.
Kit Boss was a gangly young kid when I met him more than twenty years ago in the Clearwater Bureau of the St. Petersburg Times. He arrived as this year’s intern, joining the staff for a time in search of real-life newspaper experience. Kit was an instant hit with the staff, funny, self-effacing, and extremely talented at capturing life’s special moments in a way that the best journalists do.
When he later joined the Seattle Times as a TV beat writer, Kit participated in a few critics’ press tours in Los Angeles. He met several men and women who wrote for TV and started thinking, “Hey, maybe I could do that.” And eventually, he did.
So where, you’re wondering, have you seen Kit’s work? Well, his first job was writing a season for “Bill Nye, the Science Guy,” and he won a couple of Emmys for it. His next noteworthy gig was a big one, getting a story credit on the final season of “Seinfeld.” That led to a staff writing job on “King of the Hill,” which was then in its third season. Over the next seven years, he rose to executive producer on that show.
When “King” was briefly cancelled, Kit moved on, eventually landing a job on HBO’s sitcom “Lucky Louie,” starring comedian Louis C. K. When it ended after just after one season, he was asked to adapt the British series, “Creature Comforts,” for CBS. And “Creature Comforts” begins a limited run on CBS on Monday, June 4th, at 8:00 PM, which is why Kit – the show’s executive producer – is here today.
KIT BOSS: Thank you, Bob. Thank you. Your voice is just dripping with jealousy. It’s such a pleasure.
ANDELMAN: Well, and unfortunately, Kit, that introduction was so long, we’re out of time.
BOSS: Oh. You failed to mention my hot wife, Bob.
ANDELMAN: Well, you’ll send me a picture, and we’ll post it and share with everyone.
BOSS: It’s really good to be here.
ANDELMAN: Well, that’s great. I’ve been doing Mr. Media now for a couple of months, and no one has ever mentioned a hot wife before, so I’m going to be completely distracted for the rest of the interview.
BOSS: They’ve got them. I’ve Googled those guys, and they’ve all got hot wives.
ANDELMAN: Well, Kit, tell everybody about “Creature Comforts” and explain, if you would, why our mutual friends, Tim and Bridget, are really squeamish about its debut.
BOSS: Oh, gosh. Well, it’s such a cool idea, and I can say that because it wasn’t mine. It’s easy for me to say that. It’s sort of a hybrid between animation and a reality TV show but more like an old style documentary kind of show where we start with documentary audio that we gather from interviews conducted with just ordinary Americans all around the country, and then we take the audio, and we animate it coming out of the mouths of plastocene animals that are done in stop-motion animation, like “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” or “Gumby” or more germane to this discussion, Wallace & Gromit. The same studio that does the Wallace & Gromit movies is the studio behind this show. They’re the ones who first did it, Nick Park, the guy who’s won a few Oscars. He was the one who came up with the idea and did the Academy Award-winning short in I believe it was, God, no, I’m blanking, I think it was in the late 1990s that he won an Oscar for that, and that led to a British series of the same name, “Creature Comforts,” and now it’s crossing the pond, and we’re trying to do our version of it for CBS.
ANDELMAN: I need to point out in the interest of total disclosure that if it wasn’t for “Creature Comforts,” there probably wouldn’t be a Mr. Media today, because Kit actually hired me as a field interviewer for the show more than a year ago, and that forced me to invest in a digital audio recorder, and when that assignment ended, I started thinking of other uses for it, which led to this interview series.
BOSS: Wow, I had no idea.
ANDELMAN: Yeah, so it all comes back to you, Kit. Everything comes back to you.
BOSS: Well, that’s a weight off my shoulders. I hope your listeners or listener, whatever the case may be, appreciate that.
ANDELMAN: I hope so. Well, you know, journalism, you gotta disclose everything these days.
BOSS: What was that experience like for you doing those interviews?
ANDELMAN: It was hysterical. This is a little inside, but I wound up interviewing friends of ours from the newspaper business, Tim and Bridget, and they were perfect for it. Of course, now you are interviewing me.
BOSS: That’s true. It’s the old newspaper reporter in me. I just don’t like answering questions. I’d much rather be the one asking them.
ANDELMAN: Well, it was great, because I know that there was a whole platoon of interviewers….
BOSS: More than 40 across the country.
ANDELMAN: Was it that many?
ANDELMAN: You guys were great in that you gave us a Web site to look at or some discs to get familiar with the style and the way to do it, and I knew having watched that when I sat down with Tim and Bridget, for example, that they were going to be gold, because they have interesting voices, and they interact with each other, and I would be interviewing them, and I could be picturing in my mind that these two could be animals. In a nice way. We love them, but….
BOSS: Well, it was a really interesting, kind of slippery process, because they have great voices, and that’s kind of where it starts.
We want voices that are filled with the kind of character that an animator can listen to them and just kind of imagine what a creature might be doing, because we never see, none of us ever sees the people doing the interview. Everything that comes after that is sort of invented. We invent what animal they are, we invent the situation that they are in, we invent their body language.
And if you start with a great voice that has a lot of character, and I can quite honestly say, it’s pretty rare, it’s a hard thing to find someone who has a voice like that. I certainly don’t have it. Most announcers, most journalists don’t have it, because they’re trained to kind of take the edges off, but Tim has this great, kind of southern Indiana drawl and a ton of attitude. You know, he had opinions about things, and Bridget, too, and despite that, the really interesting thing is, we only used one clip of their voices in the entire series. That’s how much good stuff we had to choose from.
ANDELMAN: Oh, that’s great. That’ll put them at ease, too.
BOSS: Yeah. They’ll only have to worry about that one. That one’s really, really embarrassing. Fifteen seconds.
ANDELMAN: Well, it was a great concept. My daughter, who is now ten, would have been nine, I guess, at the time, watched over my shoulder as I was watching sort of the training videos for how to do it and the kind of thing we were looking at, and she and my wife just thought it looked like it would be hysterical.
BOSS: The original show, the series, not just the Oscar-winning short, which was ’89 was actually when Nick Park did that. That’s when he won the Oscar for the short film, the series was just hilarious. One of the biggest challenges for the British show was getting across the idea to the viewers that these are real people. They are not scripted responses. They are not actors in a sound booth somewhere recording lines like every other animated show. It’s just people who are spontaneously answering questions, and it’s hard when you see the show to imagine that none of this stuff was invented. It was just people kind of speaking from the heart.
ANDELMAN: And God bless each and every one of them. It’s funny.
ANDELMAN: I want to come back to animation in a minute, but I absolutely have to ask you about your experience on “Seinfeld.” Spike Feresten was your contact there, right?
BOSS: I was introduced to Spike by a friend we have in common, and Spike was one of the writers on the show from very early on, and he rose to become one of the co-executive producers or executive producers of the show. At some point, I just got in touch with Spike and was interested in being part of that show, because it was such a great show. He suggested that I just pitch story ideas, that I just write down, make a list of one-liners for the different characters. What might happen in a show, as a way to maybe get Jerry and Larry interested enough to interview me for a job. The job never happened, and I kind of forgot about it at a certain point because I got the job on “King of the Hill.”
During the last season of “Seinfeld,” just out of the blue, I got a call from Spike, just a message on my machine saying “We used one of your story ideas, and we’re shooting it this Friday, and so if you want to come and watch the taping, be our guest, come on down.” So I went there to watch this story that I had completely forgotten I’d even pitched be shot.
It’s not that exciting a “Seinfeld” story, because I didn’t get that close to it, but I got my name among many others on one of the episodes in the final season, so that was pretty cool. I’m not surprising anybody by saying that’s one of the best shows ever.
ANDELMAN: Now the episode was called “The Maid,” I believe.
BOSS: It was “The Maid,” yeah. The main story — not my idea — was where Jerry starts going out with his maid.
ANDELMAN: Right. And she starts doing less and less work.
BOSS: Right. Right. But he keeps paying her, so that’s a little bit of a questionable, you are sort of wondering, okay, this looks a lot like what you might call a prostitute. And the story I pitched was of George where he just gets it in his head that one of the things standing in his way of being a happy, successful person is that he just needs a nickname. He needs a cool nickname and that the name will sort of transform him. If people didn’t think of him as “George,” but in this case, he decided that the name he wanted, the nickname was “T-bone,” that he would suddenly have this cachet, that women would melt, and he’d get promoted. And of course, it goes horribly wrong. The name he winds up getting is the name of a monkey, and hilarity ensued, but pretty much my pitch was that he decides that the name is key and that he tries to get people to call him T-bone and it doesn’t work out, and….
ANDELMAN: Do you remember any of the ideas that you suggested that didn’t fly?
BOSS: No, I don’t. I’m sure I have a list of them somewhere, but it would be painful and embarrassing.
ANDELMAN: Now, it’s interesting to me that you pitched an idea that they went for that was for George, and I hope you’ll forgive me, but thinking back, I would say that you years ago looked a little more like Kramer, although you had Seinfeld’s wit without a doubt.
BOSS: Yeah, what was the word you used, gangly?
ANDELMAN: Did I say that?
BOSS: Yeah. You’re right. I was a gangly individual.
ANDELMAN: Yeah, I mean, you’re a grown-up adult now, but….
BOSS: No, I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’ve got a bit of a protruding Adam’s apple and a face a bit like a hatchet.
ANDELMAN: Now, I didn’t, don’t put words in my mouth.
BOSS: You said I was self-effacing, so here’s….
ANDELMAN: Well, that’s true.
BOSS: But yeah, I am tall and kind of lanky, and I don’t have this sort of physical comedy gift that Kramer has, that Michael Richards has, but I’m sorry, I interrupted you. Were you going somewhere with that?
ANDELMAN: No, I just wanted to listen to you talk some more.
BOSS: The point is that I’m not an attractive man.
ANDELMAN: No, no, no. I think the point was that it was interesting that they bought an idea that you had for George, although I physically connected you to Kramer but intellectually connected you to Seinfeld. I think was the point.
BOSS: How interesting, because I feel like there’s more George in me than any of those. I mean, George is just a prisoner of his own neuroses, and I don’t know, I think my interior life is very George-like.
BOSS: Yeah, and I think, I mean, Seinfeld has such swagger, you know, and such confidence as a character. He has his neuroses, but they aren’t debilitating, and George, I think, I tend much more toward the George.
ANDELMAN: Well, now, see, that leads to the final area that I want to talk with you about, “King of the Hill,” because this other mutual acquaintance of ours, when he found that you worked on “King of the Hill” was like, “I couldn’t imagine anyone less likely to be writing for a show based in Texas than Kit,” and like I said, I associate your wit, I could make the connection to Seinfeld easily. George seems a stretch to me, but Hank Hill. Tell me about Hank Hill.
BOSS: Well, I immediately connected with Hank Hill and his kind of obsessive nerdiness… He loves propane. He’s a propane dealer. He works at a propane business, sells propane and propane accessories.
BOSS: He loves nothing more than to think and talk about propane. He has a very small, obsessive world that he lives in, and there’s a lot of that in me. I just connected to that. The Texas thing to me — it was more a show about suburbia or about those kinds of in-between parts of the country that aren’t really the countryside and aren’t really a big city. You know, they are not the outskirts of a big city, they’re just the kind of mini-mall land in between. Up to that point, I don’t think any TV show had really captured that part of life, and that was the other thing. I mean,
Hank doesn’t just love propane, he loves his lawn, and he loves his Dallas Cowboys, and I grew up in a place where lawn care was a really big part of life and where I spent most weekends on a riding mower. There were a lot of things about Hank that I could really relate to.
And even if they weren’t things that were part of me, they were things that were very clearly drawn. As a comedy writer, what you’re really looking for are just strong character traits that really give you a guidepost to where the humor is going to be in a character, and King of the Hill was filled with those kinds of characters, so I found it really fun, really rewarding as a writer to work on that show.
ANDELMAN: Now, anyone could look at IMDB and see which episodes you are particularly credited with, but what I’m curious about is, are there any particular characteristics or threads that you added, having been there for so long and started so early that you added to the Hill legacy?
BOSS: Well, Hank doesn’t change a lot. He’s still at Strickland Propane where he started, and he hasn’t gone through any real big life changes. Hank hasn’t really evolved as a character — to his credit, because I think he’s such a great character that doesn’t need to change. Peggy kind of flits around a little. I mean, I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I think one of the episodes that I wrote was where Peggy goes to get the job at the Arlen Bystander.
ANDELMAN: Oh, right.
BOSS: The little paper there.
ANDELMAN: Where they re-write the press releases.
BOSS: Right. And she ends up, she gets a column. She does like a home advice kind of column and winds up telling her readers that a great cleaning tip is to combine bleach and ammonia because you get the cleaning power of bleach and the clean smell of ammonia, not realizing that she’s just given a recipe for nerve gas, a very simple form of nerve gas. So I don’t know, I may be responsible for, I don’t think there were any accidental deaths that came out of that. I think there was a “don’t try this at home” kind of disclaimer somewhere, or at least we didn’t hear about anybody trying it.
ANDELMAN: Not yet, but now people can associate a name with that advice.
BOSS: Now we can definitely say, “Do not mix those two things together. It’s a very bad idea.” Otherwise, I don’t know, I’m not one of these people — I don’t have a great catalogue of my own pitches or … There are a lot of writers who can tell you the first joke that they pitched that ever got in a show, or they’ll be watching a show and can point out, “Oh yeah, that was my joke, that was my joke.” And I can’t remember those things. Maybe it’s like a survival mechanism to not… Keeping score like that seems like a terrible way to go through your life as a comedy writer unless you’re the best comedy writer in the world.
ANDELMAN: You make a great point, though, about the show in that it really, once it was established, it hasn’t really changed. There are different story lines, but the essence of the characters and who they are and what they are, you could watch, and of course, it’s in repeats all over, you could watch any episode on any day, and it would feel consecutive with the last one you saw.
BOSS: Yeah, and I think that’s a credit to Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, who created these characters. There is such a richness to them that you can keep… Now they’re back in production. They are doing season 11, or is it 12? And there is no sign of it slowing down.
ANDELMAN: But is it easier or harder to write for a show that is that fit? You can’t do “a very special episode of ‘King of the Hill,’” for example.
BOSS: Right. I wouldn’t want to. I don’t know. I guess you reach a certain point where, I always watch “The Simpsons” and wonder, well, how do you write for “The Simpsons” and come up with an idea that hasn’t been done without it going to just Crazy Town? You know, I guess I do go to Crazy Town a lot. That show always had the types of stories that they dealt with after the first several seasons, it’s a cartoonier cartoon than “King of the Hill” ever was, and I think that must be really hard when you’ve done 400 episodes. What story is there left to tell that they haven’t lived?
ANDELMAN: Mike Judge, obviously, created the show and also voices Hank Hill. Does that make it kind of tough on writers who are putting words in his mouth?
BOSS: He’s a great writer, for one thing, and one of the hardest things at “King of the Hill” as a writer was, if you’ve written an episode, you help in the post-production of the episode, so you help edit the episode, and you help direct the episode. You’re at the recording session where the actors are doing the lines, and they do each line three or four or five times, and you’re there to kind of direct them. Mike spends most of the year in Austin and has his own recording studio, and after the script is locked, he’ll go into the studio and just run through the lines and do two or three takes of each line.
The most frightening, terrifying, awful experience that I had as a “King of the Hill” writer is when you listen to the tape of Mike’s takes and you’re picking the takes, and occasionally he’ll come to a line, and you’ll hear him kind of go, “(Mutter, mutter), I’m not doing that.” Or he’ll under his breath kind of mutter about how he doesn’t understand what that line is for or what the point is or why it’s funny, and he’s always right, you know, because nobody knows his character better than him, and he’s the voice of the show. It’s his sensibility, so it really is a cringeful moment when Mike does one of those where he won’t do the line or he just kind of does it in a way that makes it clear that you better come up with something else to replace it.
ANDELMAN: Kit, we’ve got to wrap up, but I’ve got one more question for you. You wrote episodes of King of the Hill that featured cameo voices by two of pop culture’s most famous TV newspaper editors, Lane Smith, who played Perry White in “Lois & Clark, the New Adventures of Superman,” and Ed Asner, who played Lou Grant for nearly twenty years on “Lou Grant” and, of course, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Now, drawing on your vast years of newspaper experience, Bob and Joe and the guys here that you worked with and all the other guys….
BOSS: I have named some characters after my old editors at the St. Pete Times….
ANDELMAN: Oh, let’s come back to that, but I need to know: Lane Smith as Perry White, or Ed Asner as Lou Grant, who was tougher?
BOSS: I think Ed Asner. I mean, in a knock-down, drag-out fight, yeah, Ed Asner for sure. Ed Asner could kick both our asses with one hand tied behind his back.
ANDELMAN: All right. We’ll have to add this. You’ve named characters after real people.
ANDELMAN: Tell me about that.
BOSS: Well, I think there was, now my memory is going to fail me, but my two editors in the Clearwater bureau of the St. Petersburg Times, Bob Jenkins and Joe Childs, I think both of them wound up in that episode where Peggy goes to work at the Bystander.
ANDELMAN: You know what? I was thinking that I remembered Bob Jenkins as a character, but I couldn’t remember Joe. I’ll take your word for that. That’s got to be a little dicey.
BOSS: Well, you hope in the end that the character is funny without making them feel like… It’s almost never the case that you tie a specific trait from that person to the name. It’s just you’re always looking for names that are realistic and drawn from your own experience, and also, it’s a way just to kind of do a little tip of the hat to somebody that maybe you haven’t talked to for 20 years but is still part of who you are.
ANDELMAN: And Kit, while you’re waiting to see how things turn out with “Creature Comforts” this summer, is there animation in your future at this point?
BOSS: Not at the moment. I’m thinking about some other ideas that aren’t animated, but I don’t rule out, even aside from “Creature Comforts,” doing more animation just because it’s been so much fun. So I could see doing more for sure.
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