After spending two decades on network television working on traditional and then single-camera sitcoms from “Yes, Dear” to “My Name is Earl,” writer/producer Greg Garcia is breaking out of the comedy box with a new anthology comedy show at TBS.
“The Guest Book” follows the guests of Froggy Cottage in the small town of Mountain Trace as they come for vacation but get sucked into the drama of the residents. Each episode features a rotating guest cast, which is not something Garcia thinks he could have accomplished anywhere but TBS, who was taking a chance on new kind of storytelling as they re-brand their comedies.
“If the only place I could have done this show was on a network, I would have because I liked the style of it, and I liked the stories. But I would have had to water it down,” Garcia tells Variety.
“These stories all came from a place of going away to write network shows, and my little treat while I was there was to write something in a guest book that I could never do on network television. It’s flexing muscles and having fun and going on a journey, and it’s very fulfilling to be able to do the stories as I always envisioned them.”
Ahead of “The Guest Book’s” series premiere, Garcia talked to Variety about the inspiration behind the show and how it evolved from a hobby to his latest professional project.
What about strangers’ vacation stories screamed at you to create a whole new series around them?
I was getting ready to go into season three of “Raising Hope” and it was hiatus, so I didn’t really have an office to go to. I have three kids at home, and it’s loud and busy, so I was like, “You know what, I’m going to go away to the mountains and just rent a cabin where it will be quiet and I can’t procrastinate.” But I go up there, and sure enough I’m still having trouble coming up with stories, so I look over and there’s a guest book, and I start reading people writing things like, “We went sledding with the kids;” “I came up here with my mother-in-law to get her some fresh air;” “The dishwasher doesn’t work,” whatever. And I wanted to write something, but I wanted to make something up. So I ended up writing this 35 to 40 page story that was about two guys who went up there from work, and they didn’t really know each other that well, so they were playing cards, and one of them caught the the other cheating, and he stuck a fork in the guy’s eye. It got dark but also comedic, and I wanted to freak out the people who came next. It was a lot of fun for me.
In saying that you made things up in the guest books, should the audience assume characters on “The Guest Book” are also embellished?
I looked at it as the fake stories I put in guest books are, within the world of the show, 100% real. We’re just documenting what happened to them. For me, it was the fun of these crazy stories coming to life.
At what point did you decide to split the storytelling between the weekly guests with the townies who run the businesses?
That was more when I started to think about selling it. At the time, people were still nervous about anthologies. From a marketing point of view, who do you put on the billboard? So I thought about doing a hybrid and including the people in the town. Because when I go to these places in Big Bear or wherever, every house has the same pizza place magnet on the fridge, and I’d always get the keys from the same old couple that ran the cabins. There were constants, so why not have those people on the show, too?
How did you settle on how much time to spend with the characters that live in town and therefore connect each episode?
I’m slowly telling their story, so there’s only really about 10 or 15% of them in early episodes. Somewhere around episode three for four the audience will notice there’s something going on there that they should be paying attention to, as well, and then in the 10th episode it all comes to fruition.
Was that limited screen time something that came up as a concern when casting those characters?
Perhaps some actors might look at it and be concerned that they only have two lines in an episode. When they came in to audition, they didn’t know it was going to build to be their show at the end. But we have people like Charles Robinson, who has done a lot, but this is a little edgier, so that may have held appeal. Carly Jibson hasn’t done a ton, but she’s extremely talented and hilarious, and this gives her an opportunity to showcase that. I got lucky, too, that some of them had seen some of my other shows and knew it would go somewhere because I was making a deal with them to be in nine or 10 episodes. And then you have someone like Garret Dillahunt, who I’ve worked with in the past, and I just tell him he’s in every episode but on some he only has one page of dialogue so I can shoot him out real quick! He was on board because there was a trust there.
Did you struggle with wanting to see more of the weekly guests than the one episode they were in allowed?
Certainly there are people that I want to come back to the cabin, but you just store it away and think of season two. And there are a couple of people who make shorter repeat appearances after their initial episode, too. But some of the people we got — like Jaime Pressly, who is on “Mom” — wouldn’t have been available to do more than one episode, so it was a benefit we only needed them for a short time.
How did you strike the balance of comedy within the show? Many characters who visit the cabin are actually dealing with serious things, like affairs or trying to bond with a new boyfriend’s child.
I tried to find relatable things but then take them in directions that were very unexpected and darker for comedic affect. So, case in point, a couple that is worried that their son is marrying an atheist. That is a concern that many might have, but they won’t take it to the extreme that you’ll see Stockard Channing does! So you need to start with something relatable to pull you in but then allow it to go off the rails. A lot of episodes are designed like that.
At the end of each of your episodes, you set up the first scene of the next story. Was that a tactic to ensure audiences are deeply invested in a time of peak TV so they definitely come back next week?
The tease at the end does come a little bit from a marketing standpoint of not knowing where the show was going to end up, but I do like the idea of a viewer saying, “OK, that was one ride, and now I’m going to go on a totally different ride with these other people, and what are they up to?” And maybe they recognize an actor they know and like. So if the one you watched is an eight out of 10, maybe the next one is a nine or a 10, but you continue. That’s the fun of anthology. You have no idea what you’re going to get. That’s exciting for me.
“The Guest Book” premieres on TBS August 3 at 10pm.