There’s very little that feels aspirational about the existence of the typical sitcom dad. Soft around the middle, a dork who is susceptible to being dunked on by a wife who barely seems to like him and their wicked and precocious kids. No style, no real personality, no zest for their daily life or job. They exist, but do they? Maybe that’s a harsh read. Or maybe that sounds charming to some, like the focus group of mad dads that probably set the whole thing in motion in the ’80s. But as a millennial starting to consider a changeover into dadsville, the examples proffered by pop culture aren’t great. Adam Pally gets that.
Best known as a loveable slacker/smart-ass on Happy Endings, Pally really hasn’t had the chance to mine his primary existence as a husband and father of three. Enter NBC’s Indebted, a chance for Pally to step into the sitcom dad space, bringing a welcome weariness for those consuming tropes and a plan to upend them. It’s simple, really, he’s trying to be authentic in both his look, attitude, and relationship to the show’s other characters. And that authenticity is what helps to set this effort apart from past attempts to coolify the sitcom dad. Efforts that have mostly felt like re-skins.
Dan Levy (not the Schitt’s Creek one) is an architect of that plan as well, serving as the show’s creator. He and Pally go back, their kids are friends, and they have what he describes as similar backgrounds and similar lives. Together, they’re telling a story about what he describes as a “very specific family” that connects, in general ways, with his and Pally’s reality.
“I feel like there’s this moment in your life where you have these young kids around you. Your life is insane. You’re super tired, super busy. But you’re really happy with your life — it’s just exhausting. And Adam plays it so well,” says Levy.
We spoke with Pally recently about aesthetic choices that allow his character to stand out, what separates his and Abby Elliott’s TV marriage from the pack, learning from his TV parents (Steven Webber and Fran Drescher), and how the show might handle our new post-COVID reality.
You guys have the nicest sitcom house. Props to the set designers. It’s like an Ikea showroom.
Yeah, I think that’s honestly how we wanted a lot of it to feel. You know part of these sitcoms is that you want to feel… especially with multi-cam, you want to feel comfortable in the house that you’re living in for 22 minutes. Because multi-cams are considered, like, an old way of doing things, I think we wanted to go against that and do something that had a vintage vibe but updated to look how we really live.
The way the world is right now, do you feel like it’s possible to work this situation (the quarantine) into a show like this or do you have to just kind of move away from it next season?
I think we’ll approach it the same way we approach everything going on now, which is like, we’re not the show that is going to get inside of the dilemma and tackle it. But we are the show that can help live with the tiny inconveniences of the fallout. I’m quarantined out on Long Island with my mother-in-law right now and I can tell you I have a lot of things that I could write about. You know, like having to tell my mother-in-law why the disease doesn’t care that she’s a strong broad from Queens… [laughs] you know, like that’s funny to me. And I think it’ll be funny when Fran Drescher does it [on the show]. I think there’s a lot of room to be funny. I think you’re seeing it… like, big ups to everybody doing comedic stuff right now. I’m on my phone all day long and one of the only things getting me through is, you know, reading my friends who are still writing jokes. Big ups for anybody who is doing it right now.
How much inspiration do you and the other writers get from those personal experiences with in-laws, with mothers and fathers?
I mean, we try to take everything from a place of truth first and then we build on that. And again, we’re trying to do something that is not going to give you the answers but show you the problem, if that makes sense.
It does, definitely. One thing I really like about the show is the relationship between you and Abby Elliott’s character, that husband/wife dynamic that isn’t necessarily that kind of cliche sitcom kind of thing.
Well, a couple of things that Abby and I wanted to avoid when we first started the show… like, I’ve never understood why married couples on TV are always upset. I understand that conflict is easier to write than harmony, but I don’t know why the husband and the wife need to conflict on all of these shows. And we wanted to do a show where the husband and the wife like each other. I mean, I think both Dan and I come from marriages where we like each other. And so most of our comedic inconveniences aren’t coming from, “how are we going to get away from each other?” It’s, “how are we going to be with each other?” And so I think Abby and I were really looking to bring that in. And then I think the other thing we really wanted to do, similar to the set, was like make sure that the look felt right. Again, like on TV, there’s this version of a married dad or mom that is boring. Everything is just kind of boring — they want to appeal to everyone. And we were like, I think what will appeal to everyone is what’s exciting. I think that just seeing that in the wardrobe changes the way you feel about us.
Yeah, I mean it seems like the wardrobe is somewhat close to your sensibilities. I met you once on the set of The President Show and I remember you were rocking some throwback Jordans, so you’ve got some style game and obviously your character has some style game.
Yeah, I think Dan does and I think everybody on the show does. You know, like Fran Drescher definitely does as well. Abby Elliot too. I think people relate to Abby and I because they see ourselves in that.
I’m curious what it’s been like to work with Fran Drescher and Steven Webber and how that’s influenced things.
Oh, it’s a dream. It’s great. They’re right up my alley. It’s like having an extra set of Jewish parents. You know, obviously, Fran’s kooky and Steven is nuts, but I like that. And I learned so much from working with them. Not just, like, tangible things like comedic timing and all of that. But also vibe and like how to feel in a moment and how to not put so much pressure on things. When to accelerate, when to pull back. You know, like that kind of stuff can be really helpful when you’re dealing with people who are so sure of themselves. So I think I’m lucky.
This feels a little unique relative to the rest of your career in that it’s got a family angle to it where you’re playing a dad. Why did that connect to you right now?
I was looking to do something like this. Right before this I did another show on YouTube with David Caspe (the creator of Happy Endings) and Sam Richardson, who I think the world of. And it was a big swing and it came out terrific, I loved it, and I’m so proud of it. Called Champaign, ILL on YouTube. But it kinda got swallowed up by the amount of stuff going on and no one could find it. The subject matter was specific and I had just come off that and I had put a lot of myself into that and I wanted to do something that was equally myself, but on the other side. Something that was a little more tangible and a little more something that had the possibility of reaching more people.
I just saw the Main Event/Netflix announcement. Can you talk a little bit about how working with the WWE came to be. Are you a wrestling fan?
I’m not a super wrestling fan. I read the script and I liked the script and I really liked the director, Jay Karas. I think he’s a funny guy and I liked in the script the way they were treating a multi-racial family and I thought it was an interesting part for me because, again, I haven’t played a lot of dads, and this was a different kind of dad a so I thought I wanted to give that a try as well. I was excited to do something [where the character was] a little more grounded and, you know, it’s this big fantastical movie, I don’t have to do too much and the wrestlers were great.
I know you said you’re not a wrestling fan now, were you a wrestling fan like way back when you were a kid?
Yeah, I loved it. I had like Ultimate Warrior toys and whatnot. I loved Hulk Hogan, but I wouldn’t say that I’m like an adult fan. My kids are too young to be into it, but they will like it now when I make them watch the movie and tell all their friends.
‘Indebted’ airs Thursdays at 9pm ET on NBC and ‘The Main Event’ drops April 10 on Netflix