Bill Burr and Michael Price’s F IS FOR FAMILY and Being True to Your Story and Characters (Or Else I’ll Put You Through that Wall)
One of the great problems with contemporary literature is that it often overlooks the problems of the “average” person. The middle-class people (whatever that means in 2017) who worry about keeping a roof over their heads, who beat themselves up because they can’t buy their kid hockey gear for tryouts.
Netflix wisely picked up two seasons of F is For Family, an animated show created by all-time great comedian Bill Burr and all-star The Simpsons writer Michael Price. (That’s right, two people who have achieved everything I wanted to be well into adulthood. You can tell I’m at least a little bit of an adult because I have enough maturity not to hate them for it.) The program tells the story of the Murphy family, a middle-class suburban family in the 1970s. Frank and Sue have three children and a thousand concerns. I’ll go light on the Season 2 spoilers, but Frank has lost his job with Mohican Airways and is feeling pretty worthless. His wife Sue is picking up the slack by selling Definitely Not Tupperware to other women in the area, but she’s not happy, either. Youngest son Bill is dealing with a bully (who has an alcoholic father), teenage Kevin wants to be a rock star and little Maureen is on track to be a computer genius…if the adults around her give her that chance in time. The program features humor and pathos in equal measure, amplifying the effect of each.
Mr. Price and the rest of the writing staff have been extremely friendly and accessible on Twitter. At one point, they tweeted out the index card-plan they made to plot the course for Season Two. Mr. Price was kind enough to let me share it with you:
So, there are obviously spoilers if you zoom in and read all of the beats the staff laid down. On the other hand, we’re writers. We can enjoy literary works on two levels: that of the craftsman and that of the audience member.
What should we take away from this rare glimpse behind the scenes?
- Each episode (or chapter, if you’re writing prose) has emotional consequences. Look at the first cards under 201, 202, and 203. Frank is “hopeful,” then events leave him “devastated,” and then he “bottoms out.” Your story must have meaningful stakes that result in emotional change. Frank Murphy’s story does not result in earth-changing geopolitical consequences, but the events of the story have a big effect on him and his family. And that is enough.
- The writers plan arcs for each of the characters. Think of Dickens. Or The Simpsons. Each character is a fully vested presence in the world of the story. Accomplishing this goal is not easy, but sometimes, all you have to do is give characters a small moment of emotional truth. In Season 2 of F is For Family, Frank is so desperate for work that he gets a job filling the vending machines in public places…including the machines he once walked past at Mohican. His new boss is Smokey, an African-American gentleman who expects hard work and hopes to avoid his wife. Smokey could simply be a stock character, but the writers go deeper with him on a few occasions. At one point, Frank screws up, which should cost him the job. Frank goes to great lengths to fix the mistake. Smokey subsequently lets down his emotional guard and has an oddly sweet moment with Frank. Two people from very different backgrounds grew closer in understanding. (I’m tearing up here!)
- The writers fill a wall and put their whole story in front of them! I am not a big fan of over-outlining, but my work has gotten much better since I broke down each beat one by one before beginning my most recent book manuscripts. You’ll notice that the F is For Family team does not lock themselves into every single beat…the index cards can easily be removed or changed. The point is to have the shape of the story in your mind in a coherent way. The finer details, of course, will appear as you sculpt the work.
F is For Family is a show that is steeped in love. Sometimes that love is difficult and expressed in…confusing ways, but the Murphy family is all about love. The people around the family are also (generally) decent human beings. Being set in the 1970s, the writers have an obligation to represent the time with verisimilitude. (The appearance of reality in fiction.) One of the characters the Murphys see on TV is Tommy Tahoe, a Dean Martin manque who sings horribly misogynist songs about subjects like telling your wife to keep her mouth shut.
Everyone who reads this, of course, is a decent human being and would never think something like that about women, but that’s the point. For better AND worse, Tommy Tahoe would never be allowed on TV today. But this is the kind of entertainment that was mainstream in the 1970s. Have you ever seen one of the good, old-fashioned roasts? These stars, all of whom love each other, tell the most racist and sexist jokes you can imagine. But it’s all about togetherness and sharing a night together.
Mr. Price and his writing staff are surely great people, but did the right thing in presenting a heightened version of the 1970s as it was, not as we would like it to be. Another recurring element of F is For Family is Frank’s favorite show: Colt Luger. As you might expect from a crime-solver whose names are both guns, Colt is a hypermasculine crime solver who is not as…enlightened as we are. Example:
These kinds of shows were popular in the 1970s and reflect the time in which they were made. When you’re a storyteller, you must be more faithful to the story and the characters than you are to your own feelings. Otherwise, you’re not telling an honest story. You’re just giving a lecture.
Which brings me to one of the most beautiful parts of F is For Family: it’s very deep, but doesn’t force you to engage with it on that level if you don’t want to. In the contemporary parlance, Frank and Sue are struggling with gender roles placed upon them by themselves and by society. Frank’s neighbors are slightly cautious about the African-American who pulls up in front of Frank’s house. Maureen wants to build computers and Frank just has a little hold-up in his head that prevents him from giving his daughter what will make her happy. In a particularly sad Season 1 episode, Frank argues with Sue and calls the younger son Bill a “pussy.” Bill spends the rest of the episode sorting through his identity and how he wants to express it. So you could easily write college papers about F is For Family.
But most of all, the show will make you laugh and make you feel. What else could you possibly want in a work of fiction?