Jason Alexander's new series hits new comedy notes
“Hit the Road,” the new AT&T Audience Network series from Jason Alexander, is a blend of the offbeat craziness of “Seinfield” with the musical beat of “The Partridge Family.” The Swallows — the greatest band you've never heard of — are a chaotically dysfunctional family of would-be pop stars traveling the country in search of their big break. They may just get that opportunity if they can survive living in a cramped tour bus where dignity is just a word in the dictionary.
It's obvious from the bird-like name of the family that “The Partridge Family” was a big part of the conversation when Alexander was trying to get the show on the road. But he was also influence by real-life family bands such as the Cowsills, Jacksons and Osmonds.
“They're just great fodder for comedy,” Alexander says. “You have real life people experiencing real life challenges and traumas and joys, and trying to grow, and, at the same time, every time they get an opportunity, it's all smiles, and this has to be perfect. And God forbid, we don't look wholesome and decent in Americana, the whole thing could crash and burn.
“It's that tenuous balance that is really the centerpiece of the comedy of the show.”
Alexander could use a centerpiece that's funny enough to keep his new comedy going. Since “Seinfeld” ended, Alexander has struggled to find a successful project with his “Bob Patterson” and “Listen Up” dying quick ratings deaths. He's kept busy in the post-”Seinfeld” world doing guest appearances.
“Hit the Road” needs to draw enough viewers to keep the bus rolling, but the question is who will be watching. The show has plenty of family elements but the very adult nature of the humor will make it difficult for multiple generations to watch the show together.
Alexander's not certain who the audience will be for “Hit the Road.”
“There is so much comedy on television that lives in this arena of pushing the envelope of behavior, of language, of political incorrectness, of social sensitivities, and they're all getting a lovely audience. I think that's our audience too.” Alexander says. “It is our job and the Audience Network's job of just letting the audience not get blindsided.
“I would hate for a parent to sit down with their 10-year-old kid, thinking, ‘Oh, this is the guy from ‘Dunston Checks In' and ‘Cinderella.' He's got a family show.' Oops. So, we don't want anybody blindsided. But that's why the tag line on our show that I've seen is ‘Family band; not a family show.'” And with that proviso out there, then anyone who wants to come aboard, I think, should have a very good time.”
It's been almost 20 years since “Seinfeld” ended and at that time the NBC comedy was considered to be very adult in content. You couldn't have an episode about someone's name rhyming with a part of the body back then and not get surprised looks.
That's all changed with the explosion in streaming services where the guidelines are far less strict. In the first two episodes of “Hit the Road” there's profanity, drug use, erections, explosive bowel movements, death by intercourse and very visual sexual acts in the bathroom. Along with this content freedom comes an escape from the strict parameters of commercial television.
Alexander says the advent of cable and pay TV, where there are no advertising breaks, opens up a new way to tell stories.
“You break that five act structure that we all had to adhere to. Your 30-minute show is actually 30 minutes, as opposed to 20 minutes. So, you can sit with characters in moments in a more realistic way,” Alexander says. “You can explore things deeper. Twenty-five years ago you could not do this show.
“When we were doing ‘Seinfeld' and we wanted to do the show about abstinence, that was a huge deal. And if you look at that episode now, it's fairly soft. The envelope has opened wide up. And for some viewers they see that as a scourge, and for the rest of us we see it as a great opportunity.”
The show was created by Alexander but it's not designed where he has to carry every scene. Knowing that would be the case, the key for him was to find the right group of actors who could blend together into a comedy band. That group includes Amy Pietz, Natalie Sharp, Nick Marini, Tim Johnson Jr. and Maddie Dixon-Poirier.
Some of the cast members have more musical abilities than the others such as Sharp who has been writing songs for years and even penned a tune for the series. The majority of the songs the Swallows perform was written by Alexander who has a lengthy history with musical theater.
The last big hurdle was finding the right name for the band. Since “The Partridge Family” was a major influence on the show, the decision was made early this family band would also have the name of a bird. It doesn't hurt that the name has a double meaning opening up plenty of opportunity for jokes - often in the form of graffiti on the side of the bus.
“We looked at lark. We looked at warbler. We looked at loon. We looked at parrot. And then, you know, literally we Googled ‘names of birds,' and we hit swallow and we went, ‘Oh, of course. Of course. And what would his name be? Ken. Ken Swallow.' And we went, ‘Oh, OK. Now we got it.',” Alexander says. “And if that's on the side of a bus, it's going to invite graffiti.
“And so we just thought it was a great way to add to the dysfunction and what could we do to add complications to this family. Walking around with a moniker like ‘Swallow' is just another cross to bear for them.”
Rick Bentley is a Tribune News Service writer.