The scripted comedy The Hard Times of RJ Berger, from co-creators/executive producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith, is currently in its second season on MTV. It’s funnier, more ambitious, raunchier and even more heartfelt, as the anatomically gifted teenager, RJ Berger (Paul Iacono), not only has to navigate the horrors of high school, but he also has to deal with the separation of his parents. And, if things aren’t already hard enough for RJ, who finds himself caught between the girl of his dreams (Amber Lancaster) and the girl he lost his virginity to (Kara Taitz), he will meet an older woman who poses a whole new set of challenges.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, David Katzenberg talked about wanting to outdo themselves for Season 2, writing to their strengths this time around, balancing the raunchiness of the series with the heart, and their hopes for a Season 3. He also talked about overcoming the expectations of his family name, branching out to direct episodes of another show for MTV, establishing his production company, KatzSmith, with business partner Seth Grahame-Smith, and wanting to make a name for themselves in feature films as well as television. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
DAVID KATZENBERG: I think Seth and I definitely set out to outdo Season 1, in terms of our writing, our directing and really putting the money on the screen. Obviously, we learned quite a bit from Season 1, like our strengths and our weaknesses. We just tried to make a better show, all around. In terms of the style of the show, we still have our animation and we still ground RJ while the rest of his life is somewhat surreal. For us, we really set out to just improve our show, and I think we were successful.
Did the shooting schedule feel any less intense, this time around, since you had that experience from Season 1?
KATZENBERG: Yeah, it got easier, in that we wrote to our strengths this season. In terms of the production, when we had certain big set pieces days in a row, our crew would get exhausted. But, in Season 2, we really wrote to our strengths and what we’re good at shooting, just because we have to shoot so quickly. We got an extra half-day this season, which I definitely think helped. That said, if we get a Season 3, I think we could probably use another day.
Does it feel like an advantage when you know what to expect, or does it also work to your disadvantage because you find yourself over-thinking things more?
KATZENBERG: Probably the latter. In trying to make a better season, we probably did a lot of over-thinking. We took in so much from Season 1, from every aspect of making a television show, that we felt much more prepared than we did in Season 1.
KATZENBERG: I think we both tackle everything together. A lot of times, our credits get split up because we have to, in terms of writing, directing and producing. But, for the most part, we both have our hands in everything on this show. It helps that there’s two of us. We see eye-to-eye on almost everything, and we joke around all the time that we’re in love and we see each other more than we see our girlfriends and wives. But, we work really, really well together. We’ve been partners for a long time and, if anything, it’s just nice to have someone else there that can make decisions as well. I trust the decisions that Seth makes.
When you guys initially met and started working together, did you realize right away that you clicked so well together?
KATZENBERG: Yeah, I think so. We definitely got along really well, and our personalities are somewhat similar. We met on (CBS internet television series) Clark and Michael. I recognized right away that Seth was an extremely talented writer, and I still think so. The last two years of his career, he’s really proven himself. But, we worked really, really well together, even on Clark and Michael. To this day, we joke around about the fact that we’ve never really had a blow-up. Maybe it’s still coming, but we’ve been partners for four or five years now and it’s still going strong.
Is it nice to know that you guys have paved the way for the original programming that MTV is exploring?
KATZENBERG: Yeah, it’s great. We were thrilled to be at the forefront of scripted comedy for MTV. Obviously, we were unsure. There were so many unknowns, at the time. Even in making the actual show, it was just something that MTV hadn’t really done before, so there were definitely many things that were uncertain, but Seth and I took it as an opportunity to really prove ourselves. If we could be the first scripted comedy and actually make it as a successful show, we felt like that was really a huge step in moving our careers forward.
Do you intentionally balance the raunchiness and outrageousness of the show with the heart that it has, so that you don’t offend viewers? Have you ever found moments where you’ve had to keep that in check?
KATZENBERG: Yeah, absolutely. What we do is really try to ground certain aspects of our show, that kids can relate to and that makes it feel real, and in doing that, we buy ourselves certain moments of heightened reality. Grounding certain aspects of the show is what allows us to get away with a lot. RJ is charming and he has a ton of heart, and the show has a lot of heart. I feel like that’s what makes it feel real, and also lets us get away with absurd stuff.
Is there anything that you’ve ever been surprised that they’ve let you get away with on the show?
KATZENBERG: Seth and I, on Season 1, had a Dick Clark joke that was pretty out there. Seth and I actually had a $5 bet. I said that I didn’t think it would make it into the show, and Seth said that he did, and it made it into the show. We couldn’t believe that it actually made it in there. We try to write stuff that kids are going to relate to and that people are going to respond to and think is funny. We don’t intentionally try to make people upset, but with anything you do in life, you can’t make everyone happy. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. We’re constantly offending people, but not on purpose. Obviously, everyone has their own opinion, so it is what it is.
Have you ever felt bad about what you put your cast through?
KATZENBERG: I don’t feel bad about putting our cast through anything. They all have a good time.
Adding in the additional drama this season, of RJ having to deal with his parents’ divorce, was it even more challenging to find that balance with the comedy, so that you didn’t get too serious about it?
KATZENBERG: Yeah, I think so. We definitely skirt a fine line, especially dealing with the touchy subject of parents divorcing, or separating. There is a lot of comedy that comes out of it, but it comes out of it because the situation is so real and all this stuff is happening within the scenes and scenarios. There’s definitely a fine line, but I think we did a pretty good job with it. I don’t think we make fun of the fact that RJ is going through tough times. It’s something that a lot of people can relate to and understand. What we do best is just heighten the situation a little bit more. It’s really the way that most kids feel, and then you push the boundaries a little bit.
KATZENBERG: We sat down in our writers room when we were breaking story, and with all the fun stuff happening with Jersey Shore at MTV, especially because that show gets also gets a lot of heat for being edgy and raunchy, we thought it would be funny to combine both worlds. Originally, we thought it would be funny just to have a Jersey Shore type of character, but the more we got into the script, we decided that it would be great if we could get a cast member, and Vinny was fantastic. He came in and he was well prepared. He knew all of his lines and he had questions regarding the script. We had a really good time. We had a fun time shooting. He’s taken quite a few acting classes, and he really came in and did a great job. He’s also one of the nicest people in the world. Paris’ cameo happened because she’s obviously a good friend of mine. We tried to get her in something in Season 1, but it didn’t really make sense. We don’t want to force cameos. In Season 2, we actually had something funny for her that didn’t feel forced or like we were doing a cameo for the sake of doing a cameo. We also had Weezer on this season.
Especially since you end your seasons with a cliffhanger, are you hoping to do a Season 3? Have you thought about where you want to go with the show?
KATZENBERG: Oh, yeah. Seth and I would both love to do a Season 3. This has been our baby for quite a few years now. It started with a short film, a long time ago, and we’d love to keep this going. I really feel like this show is part of the anchor of scripted comedy for MTV. We definitely know exactly where Season 3 would go, and I just hope we get there.
KATZENBERG: I’m currently working on a show. The title is not confirmed yet, but it’s The Untitled Awkward Show. It’s a much more grounded, female-oriented version of Hard Times. It’s another MTV scripted comedy. I’m not sure when it’s set to air, but I directed two episodes of that. It’s funny because it’s a completely different process. It was my first time going in to direct someone else’s show. I was lucky enough to get to work for myself, for the last two seasons, but it’s been great. I had a blast. It’s fun and refreshing to go on someone else’s show. I have less weight on my shoulders because I just get to go in and direct and be creative. I don’t have to worry about some of the other stuff that I have to on Hard Times.
Do you currently have any projects in development for your production company?
KATZENBERG: Our company, KatzSmith Productions, is just getting off the ground, and we are trying to cross over into feature-land. Seth has written a few features now, for other people, but we really want to create our own content, and go out and produce and direct our own content. Right now, we’re just getting off the ground. We have a comedy spec that we’re going out with soon. Seth is working on his next book. We have a couple of other feature projects that we’re involved in. There’s a lot of stuff in the air right now, so we’ll see how things land and where they fall.
You and Seth recently finished writing a script that was influenced by John Hughes movies. What was it about those films that made such an impression on you, and why do you think that’s been missing for so long?
KATZENBERG: We grew up watching John Hughes films. For us, it’s not exactly what we’re doing with Hard Times ‘cause Hard Times is definitely on the edgier, raunchier side of what John Hughes did. But, a lot of these comedies that have been coming out are comedies that are really edgy and sometimes try too hard. We don’t want to compete with Judd Apatow and some of the other big comedy directors right now, and try to do that. We just felt like there’s a whole in the market for a John Hughes, more heart than fart, movie. I don’t even remember the last time there was something close to a John Hughes type movie. We can definitely go raunchy and edgy, but Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips are ahead of the curve, and a lot of stuff that comes out like that is not quite there. We do want to go there one day, but right now, we’ve found a whole in the market and we’re going to try to attack that style of film. It’s really easy for Seth and I to get really edgy and raunchy. We can do it really quickly. So, this has definitely been a different experience for us, and we’re growing and learning quite a bit from it. We’re happy with the script. We’re fine-tuning and tweaking now, so that we’re absolutely thrilled with the script, and then we’ll go out with it.
Is that something that you’re hoping to direct as well, or are you open to having somebody else direct it?
KATZENBERG: I’d love to direct our spec, but I’m also open to having someone else direct it. We have so much stuff up in the air right now, so it’s really going to depend on what happens in the next six months, with everything that’s going on.
KATZENBERG: It’s definitely been extremely difficult for me. A lot of people just assume that my dad is paying and paving for me to have a career in this business, which is not true, at all. I think my last name can get me into meetings or get me into certain rooms, but these days, no one is spending money on a name. It’s not quite that easy. People Tweet to me all the time that my daddy is doing all this, but there’s not much I can do. I’m beginning to prove myself. We now have a second season of our show, we’re working on another animated show, and we have our feature projects and our company off the ground. The people that don’t believe, I will make them believe soon.
Have you gotten any valuable advice for your father, or learned anything just from watching the enormous success that he’s had, especially when it comes to establishing your company and figuring out how to maintain success in such an unpredictable business?
KATZENBERG: Yeah, I think I’ve learned mostly from his work ethic. He has an extraordinary work ethic that this whole town knows about, and he really just never stops. I just turned 28 and I’m trying to do so much at once. You’ve gotta strike while the iron is hot. Seth and I listen to a lot of the advice he gives us, but it’s mostly regarding our work ethic. He’s weighed in on some of our projects, but for the most part, we’re trying to do this on our own.
Now that you’ve established the production company, do you have a plan for how many things you can take on, at one time, without going completely insane?
KATZENBERG: No, we’re essentially doing everything right now. We have a woman that works for us now, who is essentially a creative executive. We’re trying to take on as much as possible. That was the point of starting this company. We have a few things on the TV side, and then we have quite a few things on the feature side. We just want to really establish ourselves in the feature world as well and have people think of us as a legit production company.