Five years after it first aired, we talked to Forrest MacNeil himself, Andy Daly, about the making of “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes,” and the legacy it has left behind.
Originally the episode had a fourth segment, “Batman,” in which Forrest goes to a custody hearing dressed as the Caped Crusader. It went before “30 Pancakes,” but it made the episode too long and editors suggested it be moved to episode four. That contributed to the first season going from a planned eight episodes to nine.
Nerdist: The idea for “Divorce” came from the original Australian show the series was based on, but where did the idea to place it between pancakes come from?
Andy Daly: When we started to craft that third episode, we wanted to put divorce and this custody hearing in the Batman suit in there. Then it was just a matter of what else to put around it. We had a wall of index cards with various topics, and they ranged from trivial to life-changing. The idea came that the segment preceding “Divorce” should be so small and trivial Forrest felt insulted by it. We liked him kind of saying, “This is not what I’m here to do. This is so minor. It’s so silly. It’s so dumb. Give me something meaty,” and then having a careful-what-you-wish-for moment when the next thing he gets is divorcing your wife.
“What’s it like to eat 15 pancakes” was one of the cards on the wall that someone on our writing staff had tacked up there, and it seemed like the funniest, moronic thing for him to be insulted to have to do before divorce.
After the heaviness of that and the custody hearing of Batman, we thought, “Let’s give him something again that’s trivial and stupid to have to do.” We pitched on it for a long time before somebody said, “What’s it like to eat 30 pancakes?” It just made us laugh so much that he would have to then revisit that same thing. Did you know right then you had a memorable episode?
AD: Definitely not. I tend to be the most skeptical person in the room for almost every idea. I like to poke at it like the Devil’s Advocate from every angle to make sure we have something good. I was concerned about the plausibility of him receiving those requests in one episode. I always wanted this show to feel like it’s taking place in the real world and that real world things happen to him. What were the odds of this happening?
It wasn’t until we put all of the segments together that it felt like, “Oh, the character gets to go on this really intense journey in this episode and we understand how meaningful the journey has been for him by making him do the same thing before and after, to see how the experience of the same thing has changed.”
It also gives us a benefit of exploring something we always wanted to explore on the show, which is that there is no objective evaluation of any experience. Your experience of eating too many pancakes before you’re divorced is incredibly different from your experience of eating too many pancakes after you’re divorced. So it nullifies the entire exercise of Forrest’s show.
This episode also marked the debut of one of Review‘s most important characters and arguably its greatest villain, producer Grant (James Urbaniak), the Palpatine to Forrest’s Anakin.
Was Grant introduced in this episode to soften the horrible thing Forrest did to his family, by having him pushed to this bad place by his boss?
AD: We didn’t specifically create Grant to take the edge off of “Divorce,” that was a happy side benefit. We talked from the beginning about giving Forrest a producer character who was going to be this malevolent, thoughtless character. The original idea was partly to make Forrest less of a psychopath. He’s a dope and hapless, and he is obviously deeply flawed and not exactly what you’d call a good guy, but he’s not on balance, and there is another force there pushing him.
It was very tricky to us because we always felt like this is not exactly a show-within-a-show scenario. What you’re seeing for those 22 minutes is what Forrest is presenting to you, so there is no peeling back the curtain of Forrest’s show unless it’s important for Forrest to convey his experience.
We had a really hard time figuring out, “When are we going to see this producer character? It was in “Divorce” we felt like, “Oh, this justifies it because this is the first time that we feel like Forrest would try to weasel out of something.” Then the idea came up–if we’re going to see him try to weasel out of it in “Divorce,” it’s better to set him up and actually allow him to convey his rationale earlier in “15 Pancakes,” on something where the stakes are much lower.
Review had an unusual filming schedule. All episodes were written and “locked in,” then filmed in blocks like a movie, with every scene at a shared location filmed together.
How many days did you film at the restaurant?
AD: Any time you see the diner in season one, that was all shot in one or two days. Both “Pancakes” were not even a whole day.
How many pancakes would you say you actually ate during filming?
AD: I had a little spit bucket right next to me on the seat of the booth, and you can really tune into that stuff. No individual shot actually lasts all that long, so I was able to just do a lot of chewing and a lot of fake swallowing, and then spit into the bucket frequently.
I think in the end, I probably swallowed the equivalent of one full pancake, but I had over the course of that day so much Aunt Jemima’s syrup in my mouth that it made me jangly.
All that chewing seems exhausting.
AD: Yeah, I definitely burned off that one pancake and all that syrup and then some. I do remember in the middle of shooting all that pancake stuff we broke for lunch, which is always weird. It’s lunchtime and you’ve been sitting in a booth eating all day. But I recall eating a fairly normal lunch. It was like, “I have not destroyed myself with pancakes today. I can have lunch.”
What was it you were throwing up in the parking lot?
AD: I think that was props. It was either 100% oatmeal or almost entirely oatmeal.
Season one of the show had a peculiar writing system, according to Daly.
How much of the episode did you write?
We had this weird process where individual segments were written by different writers, not that an episode was assigned to a specific writer. We were writing it more like a sketch show. That episode, I took “15 Pancakes” and “30 Pancakes.” Gavin Steckler took “Divorce” and Jeff Blitz took “Batman.”
Lots of different people had their hands in all of those scripts, so it is always a little dicey to look at a line and say, “I wrote that,” but I have 100% certainty I wrote the line, “This certainly is an upsetting number of pancakes,” which has resonated in ways I never would’ve expected. It’s so wonderfully validating to my sense of humor because I thought that was a funny thing to say about stacked pancakes. I love that people are throwing that around on Twitter.
Daly was also responsible for Forrest’s memorable monologue at the end, when he said the pancakes couldn’t kill him because he “was already dead.”
Long before you perform or even share it with anybody, do you know how good a line is when you finish writing it on a piece of paper?
AD: It felt good, but you never know. Once all those segments were in, I thought there was a decent chance that somebody would say, “Oh, no. That’s not how ’30 Pancakes’ should go,” and just have a complete rethink on how the whole thing should feel. I just made the decision in the writing process that he would feel sort of triumphant about it, but I didn’t know if that entire direction was going to work. One major change that did happen was how they edited the cringe-inducing middle segment, where Andy tells the love of his life he wants a divorce without revealing why.
How did people outside the writers’ room first respond to the episode?
The shooting of the divorce scene in the kitchen was a long shoot and [director] Jeff Blitz was really encouraging us to fully embrace the drama of that moment and to really go there emotionally as best we could. The beauty of that scene is the premise is so silly we can play a lot of things really straight and it will be funny. He’s divorcing his wife for a television show and can’t give her a reason for a divorce because there is no reason. He has this scientific method that if he tells her he’s doing it for an experiment, that invalidates the experiment. These moronic rules he has held himself to in the process of divorcing his wife are so stupid and so funny that you can actually play the divorce scene like a drama scene.
When we first cut the episode and submitted it to Comedy Central, it was already 32 minutes and it needed to be 22 minutes. This was just the rough cut to give them the chance to weigh in on what things they would cut and how they liked it in general. We sent them a version of the divorce scene that was not at all comedic. It was not funny. And [writer] Leo Allen watched it and said, “That is just pure Cassavetes. I wish that that version could see the light of day.”
Comedy Central came back and said, “Can it be funny?” and the editors went back and put together the funny version. It has the really amped-up element [where] Forrest can’t explain why this is happening, and that became the comedic dynamic of the scene. She is going through a crisis and he is too, but he is mainly stonewalling emotionally because he can’t explain why it’s happening.
That became the comedic hook of the scene, but there is a version of the scene that doesn’t even have that. It’s just brutal. When you saw the finished episode, did you know you had something special then?
AD: Yes. I think so. In the early cuts it was pretty obvious we had something special. When our editors Yana Gorskaya and Daniel Haworth came and sat us down and pitched me and Jeff Blitz this idea of reshuffling the sketches (and moving “Batman”), Daniel Haworth said, “Episode three is going to be your OK Computer.”
I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Episode one is our Pablo Honey, episode two is our Bends, and episode three is our OK Computer, the moment when the full potential of this enterprise is revealed. That was a meaningful moment to me. I like that album. That was when I felt like, “Wow, if even one person thinks that and can say it with a straight face, then, yeah, I think we’re onto something with this episode.”
How has the episode’s legacy over the last five years changed the way you view it and the show?
AD: I’ve read all of these superlative statements about it. I didn’t expect that. My fear going into the third episode was people were gonna be bummed out by it. I’m surprised by the reaction to it, but it has really, really delighted me because I feel like we made what we wanted to make, put our sensibilities in it and took big risks. And to have people respond to it is just incredibly validating and exciting.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.
Images: Comedy Central