Having run the creative gauntlet in the first 100 episodes of PSYCH, during a press set visit in celebration of the show’s 100th episode, creators and executive producers Steve Franks, Kelly Kulchak, and Chris Henze shared the secret to PSYCH’s success in casting characters and creating a show with a razor-sharp balance between comedy and drama that keeps the fans clamoring for more.
One of the things about PSYCH is that it’s got such a strong ensemble. Are we going to see some of the other characters mix it up this season?
STEVE: We always wish that we could play with the dynamics of the other characters as much as possible. But we always get led back to the dynamics that are always really strong, Shawn and Julie, Shawn and Gus, Lassiter and Juliet. We definitely like to mix it up. One of my favorite thing when I write scripts is that I love to put Lassiter with anybody else, like Lassiter and Woody in the “Hangover” episode last year. That was all so fun.
KELLY: That was like a magic episode where you just got to see everybody in a twisted weird way. It was really fun
PSYCH is fun to watch as a family as it feels so joyous.
KELLY: [Steve] is the most amazingly joyful man I’ve ever met in my life. He approaches everything as it’s going to be the best day, the best script, the best episode. When we were shooting the pilot, he was like, “Oh, I’ve been breaking some episodes for the first season.” I’m like, “Oh, don’t.” (Laughs) It’s like, “No, no, no,” and he will be like, “I think we’re going to go to season seven, season eight.” He just is so optimistic and so amazingly fun to work with.
It’s important to have that in television because it’s just a nice, regardless of where your life is or where your day was, it’s an hour where you can just laugh and have fun.
STEVE: Thank you so much for that. I appreciate it when someone says something like that because to me it was all designed as sort of a reaction to what was on television. It’s like everything was just dark, and even comedians, they were mean-spirited and offering comedy of pain. So we struggled that in every episode, ’cause for me it’s like I want people to be laughing as much as possible, but in the moments they’re not laughing, I’d like them to be grinning in the other times. It’s just important that you feel the positivity that’s coming out of it. [Shawn and Gus] make fun of each other to a certain degree, and they do horrible things to each other occasionally because the way friends do. But it’s never about let’s humiliate this person and-and all of that. We struggle with it. Like the episode we did last year, where Shawn goes into the mental hospital undercover, there was a whole thing where Shawn was going to go to shock therapy, and I’m like, “Hold on. This isn’t funny.” I’m like, I’m like, “Oh, my god, poor Shawn.” For me, the things that make me happiest is I would like this to spread a little sunshine into people’s world as silly and ridiculous as that sounds. To me, I write this show for me and I would like to feel that way. So I appreciate it.
How you work out the balance so that PSYCH’s not too serious, but retains its lighter mood?
STEVE: We never wanted to go to melodrama, but we like the drama. We like the reality of real emotional conflict and having to deal with those moments. If we get to a moment that’s too serious, we know that our fans will get a little antsy. I had a similar thing when I was writing the Indiana Shawn episode last year at Despereaux’s funeral I always knew going in, that Shawn’s eulogizing him was the core idea of the episode, and of Shawn’s failure to accept death, to accept the existence of it, and to choose eternal optimism over the acceptance of death. And it just turned out and the plot twisted and he was right. So for me, it was like get to the moment, have a moment and then get to the joke as-as soon as humanly possible, without undercutting or taking away what it is. I think it’s such a tricky balancing act because we operate not just with funny serious; we operate with so many tongues, where we get farcical at moments, and then satire, and it just because there’s so many things that we can do. When we do that the harder balancing act is funny and macabre because we go to the dark corners every once in a while, and it’s always like, “Okay, this is cool. This is really dark, but how do we get back to PSYCH-land?” So we want to make sure we can navigate the hallways of comedy and emotions. I say there’s 88 keys on the piano and we wan to play ’em all. So we want to make sure that we play all the types of comedies, smart comedy, funny comedy, smart comedy, dumb comedy. I embrace the silly. I love the silly. Too much silly, and it’s like, “Eh, what are they doing? They’re jumping the shark.” But we’ve jumped the shark 75 times, so we can jump as much as we want.
KELLY: But it’s funny, because every once in a while, we bring out the pilot to have everybody watch the pilot again just because it did play all of the 88 keys. That great moment when [Shawn’s] talking to the bad guy, Ian, saying something like, “My dad needs me too and I know what it means to disappoint.” There’s that real emotion coming from it. It was just that moment where you are like [James] is such an amazing actor. I mean he really can go left and right and up and down, and it’s just amazing. But finding those moments, you can’t have them every week. But it’s such a pleasure to come to those moments where you can have him just stop being Shawn Spencer and just focus on that moment.
STEVE: Yeah. Some of my favorite moments is a wordless moment. It’s an episode that is controversial among the fans, and people don’t like it, and I love it. It was the season premiere of two, called “Ghosts” and my favorite moment is the moment where Shawn finds out that it was his mom who left, and he’s blaming his dad, and he’s been holding all of his stuff. And there’s a moment where Corbin walks into the station to come to see him, and it’s this wordless moment. That to me is like that’s what I crave in this show.
KELLY: Because you can see that his dad still likes his mom and there’s just so much going on in that moment. That’s a great moment.
STEVE: I was obsessed with that episode, with the idea of like, “Who did it?” And it was Shawn who did it. Yeah, there was a bad guy, but Shawn is the one who was haunting the house and doing all that stuff. But it was about Shawn’s ghost. I like to have balance, I love to find those moments, as many as possible.
Do you have any favorite episodes or moments with characters, just things that you just really love?
STEVE: I love Woody. Curt has just been such a wonderful revelation for us in the last few years, and the more we give to him, the more we want him in more. He’s just fantastic. As for episodes, I love all the ones that I wrote, and the ones I love more than that are the ones I wrote and directed. (Laughs) It’s hard to be objective. The episodes I do love the most are my childhood wish fulfillment episodes, like doing the Indiana Shawn episode, like having our own factory and having them swing and then doing boat chases. I also loved the Despereaux episodes because it’s so fun when Carey Elwes is around. I love to write the Despereaux character, ’cause he’s just so fun. It’s funny because he makes Shawn and Gus look totally foolish every time. For Shawn, it increases his love for him, the more that [Despereaux] pulls [one over on Shawn]. Those are fun. For me, Indiana Shawn episode, just because we built that entire underground thing with the levers and the thing, and then I got to hang out. I have 150 pictures of me in that set just hanging out. I love “Tuesday the 17th,” because that’s that the one that James directed the first time, and it was really cool. And I loved the Hangover episode “Last Night Gus.”
KELLY: Yeah, that’s one of my favorites.
STEVE: I always love Andy’s episodes ’cause they’re really funny.
KELLY: I really loved “Tuesday the 17th.” That was super fun.
STEVE: That was really good. I loved the “Clue” episode. I loved everything that was here.
CHRIS: It’s hard. There’s been so many moments. When I think of it, all those little moment, the Henry moment outside the office is really special and memorable, and I love those little moments. I couldn’t even tell you which episodes they’re in. One of them is Despereaux, where Shawn — really James, and you have to know him well enough to know that it’s James — but sometimes he’ll get so tickled he’ll get this shit-eating little grin on his face, and I know it’s because he’s having such a good time or it’s just this little funny thing that he’s making himself laugh or the actors around him have made him laugh. It’s so fun to take those little moments and use them in the cut because you know it just feels like Shawn, but to us, it’s the fun of making the show.
KELLY: There’s a great moment in the pilot when they’re standing looking out at the cabin, and there’s a line for them that he said. It’s, “Oh, no, Lassie. What should we do?” And he was really mocking the line, like just for his own enjoyment. And we ended up using that in-in the show, perfect for that moment and that character. But that’s the kind of thing that you write. I just love it, that it’s just he’s almost inside himself.
STEVE: Anyway, there’s-there’s a lot. There’s a lot. We’re lucky.
Is there going to be an arc similar to the Yin/Yang story to that for this season?
STEVE: This season, we got a lot controversy with the doing the Yin/Yang trilogy because it was darker than we usually did. So we were happy when we wrapped it up because is was not that funny. Especially as it got darker. But there’s some big character development stuff this year.
KELLY: Yeah, a lot of characters are dark this year.
STEVE: But we’re not launching a new trilogy. I like to think of the Despereaux thing as a 12-parter. But there’ll be some surprises and there’s some fun stuff of people we’re bringing back that will make everybody happy and excited. But I don’t think we’re launching a new trilogy, but the musical has a “killer on the loose” aspect to it. But it’s not that dark.
What was it like casting PSYCH initially?
STEVE: We started with James. There’s this weird casting thing where people get so big that they become what they call “offer only”. So you never hear them read it. So it’s like, “Oh, I know that person. They won’t read it.” So you have to guess that they would be great in saying the words. I think collectively we said, “We don’t want to do that. We need to see it. We need to see it happen.” And we found James. James grows this crazy off-season beard every year that we now are comfortable with. But he comes in with this mountain-man beard, and it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, a homeless person came in.”
CHRIS: It’s funny ‘cause for a homeless person, he’s funny.
STEVE: And he reads and I’m like, “Okay, whatever.” But in there you see the eyes and the sort of the devilish charm that he has, and it’s like, “Oh, my god, this is it.” Then we brought him back the second time, it was like, “Okay, I like, I like the homeless guy, and I like this guy.” But it was in the second one when he came back —
KELLY: And he shaved.
STEVE: James had shaved a little bit and Shawn Spencer was under that beard. It was funny ’cause we had talked about it before. For me, I’d come from movies, and every year I would write a half-hour or multi-camera comedy, which wouldn’t get on the air. So I didn’t know anything about one-hour shows and how they worked. So James and I talked like on the eve of his audition and he’s like, “Listen, man, this is going to be my last run at making a pilot.” And I go, “Well, listen, I don’t think anything about making a pilot, so I’m not going to make it like those other people do.” I said, “I think what I have to offer is I don’t know the process. I’m not going to try to do it like those people because I don’t know how to do it like those people. I only know how I want to approach it.” And I said, “I want to approach this show like it’s a little movie every week, and it’ll be self-contained, but in the course of 120 episodes it’ll get to the same distance that a movie would.” I think because of the sort of irreverent approach that we took to it, we were both free. I was free of any expectations and he was free of his past. Together we were able to just sort of to go crazy. And credit to our network, they saw it because they were looking for a show that should go with MONK, and they thought, “Oh, hey, quirky detective,” and, “go, make this.” We delivered something that was nothing like MONK. It was quirky detective, and then it was our show. So they said, “Hey, but there’s something here and it’s different.” They liked it and they put us on the air.
KELLY: But we had Shawn first and then Chris recommended Dule, and then we put the two guys in a room together, and they were fantastic.
STEVE: And here’s the great thing, Dule showed up, and we just said, “Well, let’s just have a meeting.” ‘Cause I liked Dule, but I didn’t watch THE WEST WING. Don’t tell Dule that. But I did see the film “Holes” I even wrote a PSYCH dinosaur episode where he’s trying to remember the guy who was in the hole. Anyway Dule was “offer only.” But he came in, and we just said, “Well, let’s just talk with him.” And we talk with him and after about eight minutes, Dule goes, “You want to run this?” And I’m like, “Oh, my god. So let’s do this!” And it was great. They had the instant chemistry and we knew we had our right guy.
KELLY: And Corbin was great. He came in, and he actually ad-libbed at the end. They did the scene where they’re at the restaurant, when Shawn’s grown up, and at the end of it, he made Shawn pay the check, and that was his ad-lib at the end, and it was just this moment and it was like the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and you’re like, “Oh, he’s the guy.”
CHRIS: Tim was the first Lassiter to come in, if I remember correctly, or one of the first, certainly on the first day. We all went, “He’s really funny. That works, that’s great.
Ad then I don’t know how many more sections of Lassiters, and we kept going, but just saying, “Well, it wasn’t as good as that first guy that we saw.” So then we brought him back. …
KELLY: Tim was huge. Just came in and just chewed the scenery and pulled the chair out and sat on it backwards with gum in his mouth.
CHRIS: Yeah, he just embodied this guy.
KELLY: So great.
CHRIS: And-and played him so well. You loved him, you hated him, you wanted to laugh at him. It was just great. So Tim was kind of the easiest one, I think.
KELLY: I thought Kirsten was really amazing. ‘Cause she was pregnant for real, which was so awesome.
STEVE: The amazing thing about Kirsten is if you close your eyes, she sounds exactly like Ellen DeGeneres.
KELLY: Yeah, she does. The other thing that you don’t think is was that they had so much trust at USA Network for us and they were like, “Who do you want? Who do you believe in?” And they fought for us every step of the way. It was really amazing to feel that kind of empowerment and just belief in support. That’s a huge process ’cause you can fall in love with someone at the network who’s like, “We don’t get it,” and it hurts to have those people that you just love and are just so excited about.
CHRIS: Well, there were like executives that had come from a place of trusting people that had vision, not that that was necessarily us, but certainly the person who creates the show, and that’s what they knew. They had a handful of shows on their network, so they were not jaded by the process of “we do this all day and we test every other month and we sit in here, and we decide who we want our network and producers can all kiss our ass.” It’s like sometimes you get that attitude from the people that churn out pilot after pilot after pilot, and they just get sort of into a regular motion of “we’ll tell you who we like, we know what we do at our network.” And this was a network that really was like, “Well, we know how to do it with the people that we do it with, but we really defer to this person ’cause they know what they’re doing, and we support them.” And they really had that kind of attitude, and frankly, they still do in many ways. And now they have, I don’t know how many shows on the air.
CHRIS: So we were beneficiaries of that philosophy.
KELLY: They’re a great network, for real.
STEVE: And we’re not just saying that ’cause some of them here.
KELLY: We’re not just saying that, no. Great partners.
STEVE: I say it everyday, “We can’t take for granted the situation we have,” and James and I especially when we talk about stuff, because I don’t know if I’ll ever have a show that’s this much fun. I don’t know if you’ll ever be allowed to do what we’re allowed to do. I have a board in my office with a checklist: I want to dinosaurs. I want to do this. I want to kung fu. I want to do that. And I’ve checked off almost all of those. So in that situation to create a show that gets on the air, and that stays on the air, with all of those elements–
KELLY: And it develops this fan base, which is crazy.
STEVE: I think I go beyond that. I say every time when an episode comes together and it’s watchable that it’s a miracle. If it’s good, it’s like it’s gravy because you have the best intentions. You have something that’s on the page that’s brilliant, and you hope it’s going to be awesome and that it’s going to be the best thing we’ve ever done. Then you get there and it’s raining, and because of the rain or because one thing, the set thing doesn’t work. So everything can fall apart at any moment, so when it works, you’re so grateful for it. We just try to have the most fun we can while we’re doing it, and we appreciate it every single day.
KELLY: Chris and I have great perspective because we’ve produced other shows while we’ve been doing this show, and it always hasn’t been smooth sailing, and you always look back at this and think, “I wrote a script, they loved it, picked it up, went to series, loved every second of it.” You know, it just doesn’t happen. And it’s so hard to get a show on the air.
CHRIS: And even though we’ve developed a lot of other stuff and we have a lot of other stuff in contingent development as a company and we have other stuff together that we have sold, it’s my children that I always come back to because once every couple of months, one of my kids will say to me in some random moment when we’re in the car, “Hey dad, what are you gonna do when PSYCH’s over, like for a job?” And I go, “Um, there’s gonna be other stuff for me to do, don’t you worry.” And then I go work about 70 hours that week freaking out and appreciating every moment of this show.
What has it been like to cast a love interest for Gus?
STEVE: It’s tricky. It’s incredibly tricky because I always say as a viewer myself, that when you bring someone new into the ensemble, people are going, “Whoa, whoa, who is this person who’s coming into our space?” But I think Gus has suffered enough through, six years in seven seasons. He deserves to have a girlfriend, and we have a really great love interest that comes in. But it’s always about, “Alright, let’s make sure this person comes in, that we like them, that we embrace this person.” You know, if Gus came in and had an awful girlfriend who just was horrible all the time, it’s like, “Why are they doing this?” Some people say, “No, it’s really funny, and then Shawn hates her and then they’re fighting,” and I go, “No, that’s not joyous.” So it has to be someone who fits in with our world who adds something new to our world. That’s always the most important thing. Something makes our character happy and makes our character more complete. What we loved about Parminder Nagra is she came down to our offices and we met her, and we knew. She’s so together and so beautiful and English and proper and all that stuff. So the first thing I tried to do is I just tried to get her to talk “salty.” It was great. It was loose and free and I thought, “Alright, this is cool. She’ll totally fit in.”
CHRIS: What’s interesting about this is that we think we have pretty good taste collectively and individually about things. And I think it’s part of what makes this show special is that all of us collectively and individually spend a lot of time on the details and a lot of time on casting and a lot of time on colors and locations and things like that. I think it makes the difference between a good show or a lazy show. When we get to a situation like with Parminder where we struggle to find the person that we felt was going to be not only right for Gus, but right for Dule to work with and have chemistry with, and Dule has his own opinion about what that is because he knows better than we do, and we have to consider that. But then we have to look at it from an audience perspective, and then the network is like, “Well, we just used so-and-so on one of our shows, and they’re great,” and so sometimes their focus and their knowledge of who’s out there is a little bit more influenced by sort of what they know or what they’ve done, the experiences they’ve had. So you kind of go back and forth, and you’re, “Am I going to put up this fight or I’m not going to put up this fight?” I think we usually end up putting up the fight when it’s important, picking your battles, and this was one of those. Parminder wasn’t our idea. I think James came up with her name really kind of out of the blue really trying to think of someone who had a softness about them, a likeability about them, but was different because Gus has had so many like you know girlfriends of the moment or of the episode that she couldn’t just be hot, and she couldn’t just be funny. We’ve done all that. She had to be a slightly different. Everything about her was a little bit different, and she’s a really good actress, and she’s funny, but she’s kind of known for her drama, and she was a little bit of a name. Then the funny thing is she “offer only.” So we were never really gonna get to see whether or not she could have that lightness and that banter and that fun. But we thought it would be cool if she did, because any good actress, like it’s interesting to show those other sides of them nobody’s seen before. But she agreed at our request to come down and just hang out and sit and talk, and I think sometimes it’s taking those extra steps that makes a difference because she could have come down and been a completely different person than we had hoped, and then we would have been back to the drawing board. But I think you’ll find that she is all those things. She is really fun and a great sort of match for Gus.
KELLY: So we stumbled on her in that relationship. It wasn’t meant to go any further than that. But there was such chemistry that you know we just kept bringing her back.
How did the “Clue” episode come about?
STEVE: James, Kelly and I all worked on breaking the story last year, and it was all centered around the Tim Curry character, Nigel St. Nigel from “American Duos.” And-and Tim was unable to do it. So we’re like, “Okay, we’ll just push it to next year.” Well, we couldn’t make the dates work with Tim again, but we had this wonderful story that we really love. So we had this great situation. So it was really interesting how it’s filtered from James and Kelly and I. We knew we wanted to do “Clue” because Tom Lieber is the biggest “Clue” movie fan. We love the idea of doing a drawing room mystery and having three separate endings. You cannot imagine the amount of technical calls we’ve had about when voting will stop, how people can vote, what we can list, the things we can do on the screen. So it was a massive undertaking. Thank god that we didn’t do it last year because I don’t think we would have had the running start that we would have needed just to make all of the things happen with the “Clue” tribute episode.
Do you have an idea of an endpoint for PSYCH?
STEVE: I know where I want to go, and we’re getting there. I knew what I wanted to do with the Shawn character ’cause we knew what his needs were right from the beginning. I feel like we’ve actually traveled a lot of that road in his relationship with his dad, which is always one of the two core relationships that I imagined from the pilot. Obviously, I didn’t know that the Juliet character was coming in until later, but I sort of had designs of bringing Shawn down that road and just happened to be on the second character. But I think especially with what happened at the end of last year, I think we were traveling down that road. I always thought of this show as a movie. I thought of it as 120 episodes, and each episode was one minute of a movie. So at 30 episodes in, there should have been this turn of the-the character, this incident that sort of starts him on the journey of the change, and I think we’re kind of right on track. I always think in terms of the-the arc of the show is it’s not a serialized show. It’s not a soap opera or anything like that. There’s a lot going on that we have to service. So it’s like here’s the two friends that’s go on adventures, and then those adventures should inspire changes and it pushes in the right direction in terms of character. I feel pretty happy about how we’ve done it so far.
How far into this process did you think that 100 episodes was actually going to happen?
STEVE: Day one. (Laughs) I jumped Kelly on saying on the pilot, I’m going, “This is going to be so cool when we do a hundred of these.” And she’s like, “Shut up.” I have a thing called tempting fate, where as when we walk in somewhere, I go, “Oh, there is no chance of anything bad happening right now. We’re going sky diving, and it’s going to be perfect.” So I think if you do that, there’s less chance of something bad happening. So I always said from the beginning, “This show’s gonna run at least five years,” and probably longer.
What can you guys tell us about what is upcoming?
STEVE: We were thinking about doing [the musical episode] in Season Eight. I’m working on it right now, and it is all encompassing. It’s going to be epic in scale, and it’s really fun, and incredibly hard. It’s going to be PSYCH’s first 2-hour movie.
To meet Gus’ new lady love and to find out what next great adventure Despereaux may be plotting, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of PSYCH on Wednesday nights at 10:00 p.m. on USA Network.
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