Getting Real with Casey Johnson and David Windsor
"You rarely get the opportunity, especially in network comedy, to create change," says David Windsor.
Having worked together for nearly two decades, writer/exec producers and now co-creators/showrunners of ABC's The Real O'Neals, Casey Johnson and David Windsor have set out to push boundaries and encourage conversation.
The Real O'Neals, (which is also co-created by Joshua Sternin and J.R. Ventimilia ) has tapped into the new evolution of families in which skeletons are no longer kept under wraps. Using their unique senses of humor mixed with a lot of heart, Johnson and Windsor have helped create a show that has resonated with people all over the world.
How did you two initially pair up?
Johnson: I was a writer's assistant on Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, remember that great show? I'd worked for Danny Jacobson and Wiener and Schwartz, the creators. And David was working for an executive at 20th and hated it. And that's where we met. He came over to me and said "If this pilot goes, will you help me get a job as a writers' assistant?" So I'm responsible for everything good that ever happened to David!
Windsor: That's why I give you half of my salary!
Johnson: Exactly! We were writers' assistants on that show for two seasons. We both wrote separate scripts and our showrunner said "They're both really good but I don't have the money to hire you both." So we went out and had White Russians at a bowling ally.
I love that you remember that!
Johnson: Yes! That's why our company logo is a bowling ball! So we decided that if they couldn't hire us both, let's try to write one together. And we did and it worked out well and we got our first script. But our partnership was really forged when we were assistants. We thought if we can get through those four AMs in some gross trailer on the Fox lot, we can get through anything!
Windsor: I think we got lucky because we both share the same mindset and it just clicked right away.
Johnson: We always had the same sensibility. We rarely fight. Maybe there's a big one coming up…
Windsor: Rarely! I think maybe one or two in 17 or 18 years.
Johnson: Yeah, it's kind of incredible! Now that we're running a show, the partnership has become even more important. And we like to tell stories the same way. Most importantly, we love being funny certainly. But we always love what we write to have some heart to it and for it to matter. And that's why The Real O'Neals has been such a perfect project for us.
Speaking of The Real O'Neals. It was loosely inspired by Dan Savage's life. How did you start collaborating with him?
Johnson: Dan had been talking to the studio network about doing something loosely based on his life. Just the logline of what Dan went through is amazing! And we were so excited about the idea of telling a real coming of age story of a gay kid on network television. It hadn't been done.
We were thrilled that ABC wanted to do it. It was exciting to us, so we talked with Dan and heard stories. And then we went off and came up with what we thought worked as a show.
Windsor: His life was basically just the framework for it. We had been working on ABC shows for a number of years and we knew what worked for them. We knew their family comedy brand and wanted to add to that.
Shake it up a little?
Windsor: Yeah and we did! The subject matter of a divorcing family and a gay kid drew a lot of attention. To ABC's credit, they never ran away from that. They encouraged us to write the show we wanted to write and not be scared of anything.
We were able to tell these very honest stories in the show that were reflective of a lot of the gay writers on the staff and their coming of age stories. And like Casey said, that just really hadn't been done before on network TV.
The show is about a Catholic family in Chicago. Did either of you grew up Irish Catholic?
Johnson: No, I went to a Jesuit high school so I like to say I'm "Catholic adjacent." But we made sure to hire some Catholic writers. And we have two Catholic executive producers.
Windsor: And we hired a Catholic consultant.
Johnson: I think it made people very nervous that this family was Catholic and that we were gonna talk about it. The Catholic League took out an ad before we premiered telling people to boycott the show or send postcards to Disney. But really our response at the time - and always has been - was just watch the show.
It's a faith-affirming show. The church is really important to this family. Especially with what they're going through, they need it more than ever.
We wanted to make sure we had authenticity and people's real stories. We never wanted to assume anyone's experience. And so our staff has been incredibly important to the show.
Shifting gears to the cast. How did you discover Noah Galvin, your "Kenny?"
Windsor: It was a search! We had Martha Plimpton and Jay Ferguson. And then we got lucky enough to get Matt Shively and Bebe Wood, who had three other offers. But we were missing Kenny. Then we got tape from New York. I watched and said, "You guys, I think there's something in this kid. He's amazing, let's bring him out!"
The second he walked in, he was asking all the right questions like "Where is this character in his (coming out) process?" And it instantly clicked. We didn't even know how unbelievably talented he is. He can sing and dance and he's an incredible actor!
The show also deals with the idea that family members aren't always living their lives openly. Do you think that's reflective of modern families?
Johnson: There's this image of perfection that we all try to put out, but what's really going on underneath is not so perfect. So I could relate to that from my own life and people really connected with that on the show.
And it's sort of the O'Neals' journey to be more who they really are - their authentic selves. We always fight to show that their relationships are going to be deeper with one another when they're more real with each other.
You can see it from a generational standpoint too. Kenny's grandmother was a much tougher sell than the kids.
Windsor: We thought that was sort of reflective of this country. Our grandparents were much like Kenny's grandmother. And that changed in America with our parents' generation. And now many kids feel like gay marriage is not even an issue for them.
It's nice being able to reflect that in the show. And to show both sides of it, to be honest. There are other people out in the country who have a hard time with it. Let's talk about that! It's good conflict and good fodder for conversation to sort of help things get better in the world.
Johnson: We love that we're able to have a conversation between these family members. Now we've done it over 29 episodes. It's not like you just have an argument and walk away which is, I think, what we're doing a little bit right now in our country. We're having a hard time finding a way to talk about things.
That's what was really exciting about this show. These people love each other and they're not gonna leave each other. They disagree about what they're going through but they don't leave. They stay and they have the conversation. And we find humorous ways to do it because humor brings people together.
Speaking of humor, the season two opener with the rainbow bat-phone-chain was delightful!
Windsor: I give credit for that sequence to Todd Holland (one of the show's executive producers/directors.) He told us that he was having a conversation with his mom while they watched a gay pride parade on TV. And she said "Todd, can't you just call them and tell them to dial it down?"
And he said "Yeah, Mom, I'm gonna call all the people in America and tell them to dial it down." And we thought that's such a funny image, dialing a rainbow bat phone and calling all these people!
Johnson: At the end of the season, we gave Todd the rainbow phone! He has it in his office!
Anything you're extra excited about in upcoming episodes?
Johnson: One of my favorites is this 90s rock set music video. Kenny has just broken up with his first boyfriend and he's just devastated. It's his first heartbreak and he imagines himself in the 'It Must Have Been Love" video!
Any last words about the show?
Johnson: We want a season three! We have more stories to tell. And we really do think this is an important time for this kind of television.
Windsor: We've recently been named on all these top ten lists. We've just gotten an Humanitas nomination and a GLAAD nomination. We love telling this story because it's helping people out in the world. You rarely get the opportunity, especially in network comedy, to create change.
We just got an email yesterday from someone saying "I watch this show with my kid and they just came out to me." Or "You guys have inspired me to come out to my family." Or "I live in Afghanistan and it's not safe here, but hopefully one day it will be." I mean, really powerful things.
So, that's not lost on us. We carry that with us all the time and we feel the responsibility of that. We want to be able to keep making the show so that we can continue to help in whatever little way we can.
The Real O'Neals airs Tuesdays at 9:30.