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Queue And A

‘F is for Family’ Creator Bill Burr On Avoiding ‘70s Cliches: “Our Mission Statement Was No Lava Lamps”

Where to Stream

F is for Family

In the opening scene of Netflix‘s new animated family comedy F is for Family, we get a good idea what flavor of sitcom dad Frank Murphy is going to be.

Murphy — voiced with escalating irritation in the scene by stand-up comic and show creator Bill Burr — comes home from work, sits down for dinner, and the phone rings. And it rings and rings because it’s 1973 and that’s what phones did in 1973. And by the end of the scene, he’s yelling at a neighborhood kid in the driveway to “get the [you-know-what] out of here!”

But over the course of the six-episode series, you see Frank Murphy develop into something more rounded and more complicated than the typical sitcom dad. He’s navigating parenthood, marriage, a big change in work responsibilities, and petty vanities like having the best TV in the neighborhood. Sometimes he flies off the handle, and sometimes he doesn’t.

“You’re not gonna leave a character where he is,” Burr says in an interview with Decider. “These characters are all gonna go somewhere because that’s what real life is like.”

DECIDER: The scripts for F is for Family would shoot well as a live-action family sitcom. Why did you want to do it as an animated series?

Bill Burr: The idea started with me wanting to animate childhood stories — just combining the craziness of being a kid with animation. I was just going to do it as little vignettes for my website and never got around to it. I went in for a meeting with Vince Vaughn’s production company Wild West and threw the idea out as we were wrapping up the meeting. They had wanted to do an animated show, and the next thing you know we had one.

How did you work through the scripts? Did you do table reads with your voice cast?

One of the writers would write an initial script, we would do three or four passes to punch it up, and then we would do a table read with as many of the voice actors were able to come in and do it so we could hear where the laughs were and what needed to be fixed. Once we got all of that down, we would go into the studio and record.

The show is loosely based on your own childhood. Have you gone to your childhood a lot in the past for your stand-up material?

I have. I feel like my generation was the last to go outside and come back home after the streetlights were on, letting the oldest kids watch the siblings. The younger generation wears helmets when they ride their bicycles and have play dates. They’re growing up with a fear that there’s a predator behind every tree, which is something people didn’t worry as much about when I was younger. For better or for worse, it was a much freer time to be a kid.

I can remember going to play three or four houses down the street when I was a kid, and things are a lot different than that today.

If I had kids now I would be afraid to let them out of my sight. When I was a kid, there was no information whatsoever. The worst you would hear was, “Stay away from that guy. He’s a dirty old man.”

Did you ever run behind the mosquito truck and play in the fog? That’s something you reference in one of the episodes.

Yeah! We thought it smelled good! We used to ride our bikes behind it.

Another thing I saw on the show that I haven’t seen for years is cigarette vending machines.

Yeah, those were all over the place. What’s cool about the show is that guys my age will remember this stuff younger people relate to the family dynamic — the fighting between kids and what have you — even if some of the things in the show are foreign to them. The animators for the show are in Ottawa, and they’re all in their twenties. It was great to hear from them that you didn’t have to grow up in the 1970s to get the show.

The show is set in the 1970s, but it’s not really a show about the ‘70s. How did you find the line between injecting a lot of ‘70s pop culture and just doing a show about a family?

Our mission statement was: No lava lamps. They way a lot of shows have depicted the ‘70s is with a lot of lava lamps and people dressed like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. We didn’t want to do that.

Did you know while you were making the show that it was going to be distributed by Netflix, or did that come afterward?

That came afterward. While we were making it, we thought it wind up somewhere like Adult Swim. We didn’t really fit in with their lineup, and Netflix was Vince Vaughn’s idea.

Will your next stand-up special be at Netflix?

I think it will be at Netflix. They’re the modern-day HBO for uncensored comedy.

Photo: Netflix
The show has a family-in-a-neighborhood setup that’s similar to King of the Hill. Is that one of the shows you looked to for how to structure a family story?

No, I hadn’t actually seen much of that show. One thing that isn’t in the early episodes much is Frank’s job and the people who work there, and there’s also a story with a radio station. There are also kids in school, and we use television for a lot of social commentary on that period.

The TV shows that the characters watch and some of the music you hear when they’re in the car is fictional. Was that something you did for creative reasons?

Colt Luger is a takeoff on cop shows from the ‘70s. He’s a former sex symbol movie star whose career has cooled off so now he’s having to do TV.

You have talked before about good comedy material coming from mistakes. Do you think that’s true for F Is for Family?

There are a lot of things that happened to me as a kid, but it’s an amalgam of everybody in the writers’ room and their experiences. There’s a scene where the kid version of me is up in a tree with older kids throwing rocks and shooting a BB gun at them. That actually happened to me and a friend of mine. Not the BB gun part — we added that because it was funny.

The early episodes are centered around the older kid.

Kevin, the older kid, is more likely to take on Frank — more rebellious. Bill is at that purgatory age where he’s beginning to see his dad as a human being and not a perfect person.

Do you have specific ideas for another season, or would you more come into the writers’ room and see where it goes?

We’ve already had meetings about what a second season would be about. When you go to sell a show, the networks are not buying a show unless you have a five-season arc. You have to show them that the series has legs. You can’t get six episodes into it and do the same thing over and over again. The networks really want to see how the characters’ lives are going to move forward.

[Watch Bill Burr’s F is for Family on Netflix]

Scott Porch writes about the streaming-media industry for Decider. He is also a contributing writer for Signature and The Daily Beast. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottPorch.

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