Jason Gann

Jason Gann has had a very diverse acting career starting way back in 2000. Two years later, he co-starred in the short film, “Wilfred,” written with co-writer/co-star Adam Zwar. He acted in several roles afterwards before stepping back into the furry role of Wilfred in 2007 for two series in Australia. More recently he’s lept into the hearts of American viewers everywhere as the lovable, sociopathic Wilfred on FX’s hit adaptation. I had the good fortune to speak with Mr. Gann this past week about a litany of things, including just how stepping into Wilfred’s mindset is easier for him than you’d think.

How did you initially feel when approached with the adaptation of your series?

Well, the first thing, is I came over here to sell format rights for two shows that I created back home. My goal was to actually get a job somewhere as a staff writer in Hollywood. I was really kind of overwhelmed with the response and everyone just said, “We want you to be in this,” and so I sold myself over as a comedy actor, and I actually said no at first when I was propositioned to play Wilfred because I’d sort of been in and out that suit for several years and I kind of felt like I had taken it as far as it could go. But talking to my producing partner, and eventually David Zuckerman, who ended up being showrunner they had a really fresh take on the show so I was excited about it.

I can imagine the intial uncomfortableness with being presented with it, especially if it is your baby, and someone comes and says that to you, it’s got to be a different situation for you.

The way that Jeff pitched it was, you know he said that this could be your “Mork and Mindy,” like the alien is the dog and people will remember it. And  if the show goes well, you should be able to design your own career that Robin Williams has. And I said, “Well, I loved ‘Mork and Mindy’ as a kid,” and I love Robin Williams. It was a really hard place to argue, so I said, “Look, if you can sell it with me in it like you suggest, then I’ll do it.” And so it was kind of ironic in the season that we had Robin Williams as a guest star in my show, it was just really exciting for me, and it’s been the best decision that I’ve ever made. It has opened a lot of doors for me and other opportunities for me as well since I’ve been here.

Yeah, and it was really funny to see Robin Williams pop up in the season premiere (Progress). It took it towards a more surreal plane that Wilfred has been leaning towards, especially in the second season.

He was a fan of the show and Elijah was working with him on promoting, “Happy Feet Two,” and Elijah reached out to him. Robin and his wife are big fans of the show and would he consider being a guest on the show, and I was just like, “Are you serious?” We had already broken the stories and on the surface there wasn’t anything … there just wasn’t a role for him, and so we had a bit of dilemma like, what are we going to do? We need to find something. This is not the kind of show–we don’t put stunt casting before the characters, we build the characters first and then we see who we can get. We were able to mold that character a little more to fit Robin and it really spoke to what he did with it.

It was a great little cameo, and obviously something was a little off when he started delving into his past roles.

Yeah, he played with that a bit, and I don’t know if you can hear but as he gets shocked by the paddles, as he’s going down, he says,”Shazbot!” Which he just did on the day, because he had done one of the lines from “Good Will Hunting,” I think it was or…

“Dead Poets Society?”

Dead Poets, yeah. Dude, I still can’t believe we got him and I got on so great with him and he really is a magic dude.

Do you present [David Zuckerman] with the various ideas for episodes or do you delegate to him as show runner? Or is it more of a collaborative effort?

I’m always pitching stories and when we first started, when it was just he and I before the show had been picked up to series, it was before we built a team, it was new for me to pitch ideas. That was a wake-up call for me, because I’ve always been doing the heavy lifting in the writing. So to pitch ideas that were rejected, that was sobering. But, I’ve learned a lot more about story writing. For me, it was always comedy first. And it still is. But with David, it’s story first. David’s always saying, “The story’s got to work, and then we can always make a funny.” But for me, it’s if something is funny and I’ve never seen it before on TV, let’s try to get it in. Like in season two, with the voodoo dolls, when Wilfred is performing fellatio to himself with the voodoo doll. That was an idea that came up in the room in season one, but we couldn’t fit it in. An idea like that, when we came up with it, I just said, “That has never been done.” I know that has never been done on TV. When I find something that’s never been done on TV, that’s hilarious. I want to do it, I want to find a place to put it in. But it’s got to work with the story. In the past in Australia, it wasn’t up for debate, it would’ve gone in. But, you know, you  can find a way for it to come in later. You remember these things. I love what I’ve learned about story and I totally agree that the story has to work first and that you can always make it funny. Back then, when we first started, my theory was that being funny was what brought me here and  so that’s what I have to stick to and I’ll still fight for the comedy when I need to but I’ve been really pleased with what David and I have done together. So, it’s worked and I’ve learned a lot.

You know, the funniest thing is there will be moments, where I’m watching Wilfred do something like fellating the doll and I ‘ll just have this gobsmacked look on my face, and I’ll think, “Oh my God. We just went there.” And it’s funny that you mention that David has a big emphasis on story because he comes from ‘Family Guy’ where it’s just joke, joke, joke.

I think that was the struggle with him then, that he was the big story guy. Maybe that’s why on this project he had the opportunity to flex his story muscles. He’s known from, what I’ve heard throughout Hollywood, for being one of the most thorough story guys in Hollywood. I went from working in environments where I delivered to the network, the kind of one page outline of what could happen in an episode and it would often barely resemble what the outline was but I didn’t care because it was better because I went off into a tangent and took it into a whole new direction. And now, to have that story broken, you have to do it beat by beat and it also means that if it isn’t funny to one particular audience member at one particular time, then that’s not going to keep them engaged. Also, we’re able to take a break from the comedy a bit more often and sort of go to the more surreal and existential.

There was that whole episode with that spirit trip (Questions), and you don’t find shows that do that, let alone comedy shows.

Thanks. Yeah, that was a lot of fun to shoot and a lot of fun to watch. I actually had a lot fun watching that when it aired. It’s a little scary watching it, while you’re editing it, and thinking, are we going to alienate our audience? Are we going to scare them away? Are we going to scare away the audience members that are coming on board with this episode? The audience that we do have are very passionate and hopefully we keep going and delighting them. It’s good to have alternatives, you tire of eating burgers and fries every night.

Has there ever been content in an episode where the censors have had to say no? Is there any difference versus when the show was broadcast in Australia?

We never had any restraints when we were in Australia. There were two things, two big story things that I was overruled on in the Australian version but that was I was kind of  overruled on that stuff internally before it got to the network. The network  in Australia never had a problem with Wilfred and that had a lot to do with the fact that it was on SBS, which is a mixture between PBS and HBO, you know a government funded network. The only criteria that they gave us, as a multi-cultural network, is push it as far as you want. For instance, in the Australian version, you actually see Wilfred’s erect dick at one stage and it’s the length from my elbow to my fist, and some dogs, their dicks are the size of their legs. We’re never gonna see Wilfred’s dick on American TV. So, we didn’t have  that problem because we’re playing to an audience of a hundred-something people. It wasn’t like we were offending people. But, here we try to fight for little things here and there. Recently, in the episode with the doggie dancing, Wilfred jizzes on Ryan’s face. We actually cut a version of that, that we screened at Comic-Con, where you see it on his face and in the corner of his mouth. And that will be on the DVD. And you get the payoff when he goes under the blue light when the bouncer checks for his stamp a couple of scenes later. But, the actual scene you see where you see it on Ryan’s face, we had to delete that.

Oh, man, that was another moment, you know that’s not safe comedy and that’s what’s great about it. I mean, it is safe comedy ultimately but it’s not at the same time.

The thing is, so much of it is–and this is part of what I love about Wilfred, and even though I’ve been in and out of that dog suit for ten years now and for me, the story behind me in an animal suit goes back a long way. I had being doing a lot of children’s theatre, when I was a young actor straight from school, and that was what kept me alive for many years. It was hard work and so for me, still getting in an animal suit twenty years later is, at times, it’s like when I think I’m not going to miss that day when it comes. So, it’s such a rare character that you can do things like that. I mean, it’s somewhere between an animated character and a real life character. A human character could never get away with any of these things. It would be horrible. You would start to hate them, regardless of who the character was. But, because everyone can kind of understand, the base nature of animals that  find them kind of adorable. To think that you can do that kind of thing, a character jizzing on someone’s face, it’s a very, very rare thing. You know, David has told me there are certain things an animated character can do that a human character can’t. And Wilfred is somewhere in between that.

How uncomfortable are the dog suits to wear, day in and day out?

Technically, all I’m doing is dressed, like getting dressed for winter. It does get frustrating when you suit up three months out of the year, getting in and out of it every day for five days a week, and Wilfred’s in almost every scene. That last month, I do my best to keep my sanity, but often I’ll spend a lot of that last month, as much as I can, in my dressing room so I don’t infect the rest of the group with my negativity because it can be taxing.

I figured it had to be, because you’re wearing it all the time and the only thing that’s not covered is your face, and that’s covered with a little black dot.

Yeah, when I watched the episode the other night, and it’s an episode I had kind of underestimated and forgotten about it. You know, you go out and shoot so many and there are ones that stand out, like the acid trip one. Then, there are ones like the other night, where I watched and laughed a lot and I’m a Wilfred fan and when I’m watching, I forget it’s me and I mean, I know it’s me and I’m proud of it but I’m along for the ride as well. Each scene, I remember each time I’m in and out of that suit, once it’s all gone.

How is it that you’re able to emulate a dog’s internal dialogue so well? Did you have any pets to mine for inspiration?

A lot of it is intuitive, like I don’t have a dog, I mean I had one when I was a kid, you know I love dogs. I think a lot of it is the audience and the power of suggestion and having the suit on and sometimes I’m acting kind of like me only heightened and when I have the dog suit people are saying, “Oh, my God, you’re acting just like a dog.” You realize that’s people probably love dogs so much, because we see ourselves in them, through our mannerisms and physicalities, we have an evolutionary connection with animals. So, I often disappoint people when I tell them that I don’t study dogs and their behavior so much. I have two cats at home, and I don’t think I could have any other dog in my life than Wilfred.

Do you have the arc of the series mapped out, or is it a season by season plan?

Yeah, it is season by season. Until you know you’ve been picked up, you don’t think of it. Ideas will come to me and I’ll think that’s a great idea for an episode or that’s a really great direction we can take for the character that we’ve never seen before or done before and I’ll write it down and I’ll have a file I put it under and if the day comes when we get another season, then I’ll end up opening that file. You know, I’ve been doing this for twenty years now and I know shows get cancelled and shows come back, you never think too far ahead.

Are there plans to bring in your other collaborators or the original actors in the show just as a fun nod to the original?

We did talk about it, about getting Adam (Zwar) on here for the Bruce character, who ended getting played by Dwight Yoakam. It’s just such a time issue and Visas, if you’re already working in the American system, it actually becomes quite a bit of time and money and effort to work over here. You know, it’s something with Adam in particular, cause Adam is involved with the genesis of the idea, that  we could bring Adam in, in some way and he’s open to it. But once you get picked up, it all happens so very fast. You know, three months to write, three months to shoot, you just don’t have the luxury to plan these things.

Are there plans to release the original version on DVD in the States?

Umm, I don’t know.

You know, because that’s something I’d be very interested in seeing, just the difference between the two.

Well, it’s like a lot of things. It’s like merchandise, if Wilfred becomes a huge hit and if there’s enough of a demand for it and there are a lot of people who are so obsessive, they’ve taken painstaking measures to hunt them down and to have them. They want more Wilfred. And I’m happy they do that, but to me this is the show. It was originally a short film, then a series. I didn’t say to anyone, “You’ve gotta watch the short film.” The Australian version was like the high school education, and this is the university. That was the freshman and this is the sophomore. It’s part of it’s journey and when Wilfred is all said and done, when it’s all over then I’m sure people will go back and look at all that stuff. But right now, I’m just focused on this one.

It’s something I stumbled upon in discovering the show and became interested in and–

There’s so much to it that it’s out of my hands. Wilfred is such an intricate beast, just as far as how many people are involved with it from the beginning, I mean for a simple idea that we came up with, with two guys, there’s so many people who have ownership over Wilfred, even in Australia. There’s like five people, one of which is myself, who have a stake, ownership in the franchise. But then, there’s the network in Australia and three different government bodies who have an investment in it and there’s FX over here. There’s so many people involved, even in things like merchandise. There’s so much red tape, it’s so complicated that — people will write to me all the time, ” I want a T-shirt, I want a fluffy doll, and why can’t we get it?” Or, “why can’t we get dog suits in Australia?” And I just have to let it go and just say there’s so much that’s out of my control. I just climb in the suit and make people laugh. That’s my part.

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