Men who work in sausage factories don’t like to eat the stuff at home because they know too much about how it gets made. “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball often feels like a sausage maker.
“Because I work in TV, I don’t watch TV,” says Ball, whose odd drama about a family of morticians is nominated for 23 Emmys. “I hate to say it, but the last thing I want when I come (home) after producing a TV show all day is to watch more TV. I like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘South Park,’ but I’m way behind on all of them.”
Sometimes, Ball’s ignorance of the TV world around him hinders the creative process — “Every now and then, I’ll come in and pitch this story and the other writers go, ‘Yeah, that happened on ‘ER’ three years ago'” — but more often than not, he feels it helps make “Six Feet Under” seem unlike anything else on the small screen.
“I like to hire writers who don’t have years and years of TV experience,” he says, “because they tend not to think in those ironclad paradigms and formulas, which all those scriptwriting books teach.”
Odds are that Syd Field never gave lessons on where in the three-act structure to place a scene where a teenage girl brings a severed foot to high school or how much time to spend on an arc about a character’s bout with sexual addiction. It’s that sense of complete, wild unpredictability, however, that “Six Feet” fans love.
“We have a saying in the writers room when we’re dealing with philosophical or spiritual or existential moments: ‘Oh, that’s a little Touched by an Angel,'” says Ball. “That’s the instinct to make people feel good, to present the happy-ending aspect of things, and I just don’t think that would work for our show.”
While the “Six Feet” stories are so memorably strange, they always take a back seat to the Fisher clan.
“One of the things I really like about this show is that it’s less plot-driven and more character-based than a lot of what you see,” says “Six Feet” star Peter Krause. “As an actor, you want to do behavior, you want to get into relationships, and that’s really what Alan Ball is interested in.
“He’s interested in why people behave the way they do, why relationships take the shape they do, what inspires people to change their lives or keeps them from changing their lives.”
Ball, a former playwright and screenwriter who won an Oscar for his “American Beauty” script, enjoys the extended amount of time he gets to spend with his television characters.
“It’s almost like a novel,” he says. “You get to follow these people throughout, not just a three-act structure that takes place over two hours, or one play with one specific event. You get to live with the characters for months or even years.
“We love to let the characters change,” he adds. “It’s not a sitcom where everybody has their voice and it works in a great way and you want to see the same thing over and over again. These characters are all on bizarre journeys that you don’t expect them to go on.”
Ball based the Fishers very much on his own family, and some of their ennui no doubt comes from the misery he felt as a writer on network sitcoms like “Grace Under Fire,” “Cybill” and his own “Oh, Grow Up.”
“In my experiences, I was encouraged to create mainstream programming and I foolishly tried to do it,” he says, “and I was completely terrible at it.”
Despite his positive experience in the world of pay cable, he’s made peace with the network business (“I am very guilty of some network-bashing,” he says, “and that’s, more than anything, from my lousy track record at networks.”) and sees the value of a balance between straight-forward television and experimental shows like “Six Feet Under.”
“There will always be an audience for the really traditional stuff, because it’s very comfortable, it’s very soothing. I certainly understand that, but I also think there are always people who are looking to go somewhere new.”
The TV biz
Show that first got you hooked on dramas: “‘Mission: Impossible.’ I was a kid, it was so exciting, and I just loved it, not so much the nature of the espionage, but because of the way the characters pretended to be other people and create fictional situations. It appealed to my dramatic imagination.”
Most compelling characters on today’s dramas: “The only characters I really know are the ones on my own show, and I don’t want to be a jerk and say, ‘Oh, my characters are the most compelling by far.'”
Best place to launch an innovative and realistic drama: “I think it’s hard to do a good show anywhere. You can get all the right elements, the greatest cast possible, the greatest concept, the right network and still something won’t fly.”