The Puppet Master

Creator Dave Holstein on set of Kidding.
Creator Dave Holstein makes Kidding exactly like nothing else on television.

Written by Lisa Rosen

APRIL 2020

When you lose someone, you’re the one who gets lost. And how quickly you can re-assimilate to what everyone else considers normal behavior is often confused with how soon you’ve found your way back. Grieving at length can distress those around you, and for a fairly good reason: it can drive you mad.

In Kidding, Jeff Piccirillo (Jim Carrey) plays Mr. Pickles, a children’s show host so beloved to the world that when a gang of car thieves in a chop shop realizes that they boosted his car, they reassemble it and put it back in front of his apartment before he misses it.

When Jeff’s son Phil is killed in a car accident, a malfunctioning traffic light is to blame, but that doesn’t stop Mr. Pickles’ fans from lobbing pickle jars and curses at the house of the truck driver who smashed into the family. Meanwhile Jeff, a man so kind and openhearted it’s almost disconcerting, financially supports the injured driver and his child, in secret.

But Jeff is not a saint. “There’s no story in that guy,” explains creator Dave Holstein. “There’s no conflict; he’s just really nice.” Instead, Holstein puts Jeff in an unbearable position: How can Jeff continue to be a good man in a cruel world?

Dave Holstein with <i>Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time</i> puppets.

Holstein sits behind the desk of his Kidding office, wearing white-framed glasses and a light blue button-down shirt patterned with tiny jellyfish. The room is filled with pickle paraphernalia—stuffed, neon, soda. A doormat reading “Hi cruel world” greets visitors heading into his office. He stole it from the Kidding premiere. After a moment of discussion, he decides to turn it around, so the greeting will face him as he leaves the office instead.

Holstein has created a world particularly cruel to Jeff. In the year since the accident, Jeff has become separated from his wife Jill, at her request. Their son Will, Phil’s twin, who was also in the car, struggles mightily. Jeff’s father Seb, the Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time producer, won’t let Jeff do what he wants on the show, namely talk openly to his young audience about death. The “Mr. Pickles” brand must be kept safe and profitable at all costs, even if that means replacing Jeff with an animated character. Jeff’s sister Dierdre, the master puppet-maker, fights her father in his efforts to replace her brother because she knows it will destroy him, even as she helps the plan along. Jeff’s wife Jill is seeing another man, Peter, whose questionable ethics affect Jeff horribly. Throughout the entire first season, you can almost hear the time bomb ticking in Jeff’s heart, about to blow him sky high.

But grief is a funny thing. Along with the expected dark, sorrowful, raging, weary, confused range of emotions, it can be full of laughs. Kidding makes room for it all. “You have to approach it as a comedy, or else it becomes two toned. A gray scale,” Holstein says, adding that Six Feet Under was his favorite show.

The results mean Kidding can be as whimsical as the Puppet Time children’s show, filled with sweet and gentle delights. It can then veer from poignant to sexually graphic, magical to cynical, violent to surreal. “The world has drugs and tits and ass and all the things that premium cable wants you to do, but the character is pure,” Holstein says. “It lets you have heart and humor at the same time.”

But Seriously, Folks

Holstein began his career writing musicals with his best friend Alan Schmuckler, who writes many of the original songs for Kidding. They had some early starving-artist theatrical success, but his route to television went through two beloved TV-director uncles; “it’s a nepotism story, a great way to sell myself.” One uncle started working on a new show called Weeds, and offered him a production PA job. The second season, he was an office PA. Creator Jenji Kohan needed an assistant in New York for the summer, where Holstein had a play running—she saw the play, made him the writers’ assistant, and gave him a freelance script. “That began seven years of Jenji, and she was a great mentor.”

Photo by Ron Tammariello

By the end of the series, Holstein was a producer. “She had assembled a room of playwrights and others not familiar with television, which made it easier for her to break all the known TV rules. [Weeds] was tonally a dramedy, which was sort of new at the time, and it was a female-forward reaction to the Sopranos, but with Jenji’s sense of humor. So it could be a lot of things. We worked from 10 to 4, with a two-hour lunch, and we had a lot of character-based decisions. It was not the way you should write a TV show.”

Roberto Benabib, Kohan’s second-in-command on Weeds, saw a kindred spirit in Holstein. “We have a shared love of mixing comedy and very realistic drama together simultaneously, at all times,” Benabib says.

When Weeds ended, Holstein moved on to Raising Hope, a sitcom that adhered to all the rules he never knew. “It was a network comedy, you worked until 9 p.m. writing jokes, and it was more about jokes per page than it was necessarily character development, or at least at the level that Weeds was, and it was disheartening that there wasn’t this ‘let’s just fuck shit up’ kind of atmosphere. So I wrote Kidding on spec just as a place to put my feelings.”

He started with a character who had two goals that couldn't coexist: “He wanted his show and his family. And he wanted to be two different people—Mr. Pickles and Jeff. If he gets one he can’t have the other. I think a good pilot that can go 100 episodes is someone with a problem they can’t solve.”

That tension is at play throughout—with the twins, the balance of light and dark in the universe, “and the duality of all of us, how we’re all good people who do bad things every once in a while, and how we come to terms with those bad things. I think that’s what this character is going through. ‘I know I’m a good person, a bad thing happened to me.’ That whiplash is the tone.”

He sent the script to a friend who writes children’s television, who corrected Mr. Pickles’ lines. “You really can’t, for instance, assume every child has a house, you have to say ‘home,’ and all these wonderful things that helped the language feel really real,” Holstein says.

Watch Out for Falling Coconuts

The show was so challenging to explain that Holstein didn’t bother. “It’s not a pitchable show,” he acknowledges. But the spec wasn’t an easy sell either. The first line of the pilot was, ‘Think Jim Carrey, and fondly remember The Truman Show.’ “Then of course my agents were like, ‘Jim does not do television. This should be an hour. It’s too dark.’ And I was like ‘No, no, no, no.’” Even Kohan told him it was too sad.

But it proved a great sample, landing him plenty of work. “Everyone who read it had a very personal response to it, there was always a lot of like, ‘Gosh, this is a really special piece.’ I was like, ‘Great, would you make it?’ ‘No, absolutely not.’”

Holstein started with a character who had two goals that couldn't coexist: “He wanted his show and his family. And he wanted to be two different people—Mr. Pickles and Jeff. If he gets one he can’t have the other. I think a good pilot that can go 100 episodes is someone with a problem they can’t solve.” — Dave Holstein

Except for Jason Bateman. He loved it, and came aboard to star; they wrote the bible together. Holstein, then working as Benabib’s number two on his HBO series The Brink, took it there first, but HBO said no. As did everyone else.

Finally, after six years of trying to get it made, his agent talked Showtime CEO David Nevins into reading not just the pilot, but the entire bible. Nevins met with Holstein and Bateman and bought the show in the room, straight to series.

“I was 31, 32, and I was like, ‘This is amazing. I finally have a show on the air!’” Holstein said. He even had a photographer friend take his headshot for when Deadline wrote about him. “Then Jason called me and said, ‘I’m so sorry to do this to you, but I just read this script called Ozark, and I’m going to go do it.’ It was the biggest low point of my life, because I had done it all—I’d gotten past all the no’s.”

But he wouldn’t let it die. Showtime said they’d still buy it—if Carrey played the lead. Holstein heard Carrey was producing a Showtime series called I’m Dying Up Here with Michael Aguilar, so he submitted the Kidding pilot as a way to make them read it. Instead, Holstein was the first writer hired on I’m Dying Up Here (created by Dave Flebotte, based on the book by William Knoedelseder). After eighteen months on the show, getting mixed messages about Carrey’s interest in Kidding, Holstein learned that Carrey wanted a particular director: Michel Gondry, with whom he worked on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, story by Kaufman & Gondry & Pierre Bismuth). Holstein, a fan of Gondry’s, said yes immediately. Within days, it all fell into place. It only took eight years.

Photo by Ron Tammariello

“I’m a pretty good collaborator, and I love consensus,” Holstein says. “If I believe something, and eight people believe something else, I will always happily go with the consensus that I’m wrong. But at the same time, this process was very validating. All writers think they’re terrible. There’s not a lot of self-confidence in our vocation, and it was just helpful for me to stick to my guns for so long and be rewarded for it.”

He immediately contacted Benabib. “I said ‘Roberto, I know you’re 20 years older than me and you don’t need to do this, but would you be my number two on Kidding, because we’re great together.’ And here we are.” They’ve since formed a production company, serving as lieutenants on each other’s projects.

Benabib calls Kidding “Dave’s homage to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, something many other writers have tried to do and failed. Dave finally found a key, which is children’s television. You make Howard Beale Mister Rogers, and suddenly the idea is fresh.”

Holstein smiles to hear that, noting that Network is their favorite movie. “In a way, the structure of Season 1 just takes what Network does in the cold opening and expands it into ten episodes,” Holstein says. “But the problem with any story about someone losing their mind is you hit a wall very quickly, and in TV you need story. So it couldn’t be about someone just spiraling out. Howard Beale isn’t the lead of that movie. It had to be about someone recovering, so you had somewhere to go with it.”

The show could have gone in a lot of different directions, Holstein adds. “There’s the Bad Santa version: He’s a kid’s performer who does a lot of drugs and fucks hookers. Wouldn’t you want to watch that for three episodes? Sure. And there’s the version where Jim Carrey goes manic and psycho and Cable Guy, but also Mister Rogers.”

But Holstein didn’t want to create someone going from good to bad. Or even from bad to good. “The first writer I interviewed, Noah Haidle, said, ‘What’s the series?’ and I said, ‘Well it’s Mister Rogers to Mister Rogers.’ It’s someone who’s trying not to break bad, and you’re hopefully rooting for him not to break bad, because if he can’t keep a moral center, what hope do we have?”

Pulling the Strings

Holstein credits Kohan with showing him how to put a great writers’ room together. “You just want people who have a unique voice at the table,” he says. To that end, he hired Joey Mazzarino, Sesame Street’s head writer for over 20 years. Mazzarino thought he was just going to be handling the puppety parts, but Holstein wanted his input everywhere.

“It was like jumping into a very cold ocean,” Mazzarino says of the first few weeks in the Kidding writers’ room. “I’m so used to writing funny stories, and sketches about the letter Q, and then to deal with the death of a child and divorce? I was like, Uh-oh, I’m not in my wheelhouse.”

Holstein calls Mazzarino his secret weapon. “Joey is one of the quintessential experts on a child’s mind as a television viewer. And he has a pure heart; he’s the heart of Mr. Pickles. He clutches his pearls at some of the things we do on the show, and it’s beautiful. He is half of the tone of the show.”

Photo by Ron Tammariello

Counters Mazzarino, “Dave’s got an innocent heart, underneath the cynicism of a comedy writer. He and Roberto are very kind people, and run a great room.”

As on Weeds, the hours are sane—10 to 3:30, with no time wasted on YouTube videos. “We’ll start with what’s called a slush,” Holstein explains. “For Episode 2, we’ll list all the things we have to cover from Episode 1, all the hanging chads as we call them, the story points we have to satisfy and continue. Once we’ve looked at this word cloud, all right, can we connect some of these into scenes, is there a story here? We go from that to character beats of stories.” Each day they focus on one character’s story beats. “Jeff wants this, he can’t get it, he tries this he fails, he tries this he succeeds—it’s something really simple.” Once they find the structure, “we beat it and beat it until it’s tight and it works and there’s no holes,” before going back through it again and unpacking each scene, down to the tiniest transitions.

“We have ten-page, single-spaced outlines for a half-hour TV show. You can write Episode 10 the same time you write Episode 2. Every element has to have three acts. Every little detail has to have an escalation and payoff”—sometimes from a later episode to an earlier one.

They work backwards as well as forwards. When discussing the Japanese concept of Kintsugi, “the idea that you build back up a broken pottery with gold and how it’s like your scars, we were like, god that’s cool, let’s make a show about that,” says Holstein. Episode 7, “Kintsugi,” written by Jas Waters, features one of the show’s most poignant lines about those gold scars: “It’s not that you’re broken, but that you’re healed.”

“What I learned early on in the first season was that a lot of the time, the right pitch is the opposite of what another show would do, because Jeff’s always doing the unexpected thing,” says supervising producer Michael Vukadinovich. “There will be a good idea, and then we’ll say, ‘but what’s the Kidding version of that idea?’ It’s always a little left of center.”

When last we saw Jeff at the end of Season 1, he was (SPOILER) sitting in his car in shock after deliberately running over his ex’s boyfriend. Holstein was unconcerned that he didn’t know where the story would go from there. “All of the best writers I’ve ever worked with will say if you know how to get out of it, the audience will too, so paint yourself into that corner.”

They worked on the solution for the first few weeks back in the room, “and I think we knocked it out of the park. I’m so proud of the writers for helping me figure it out too, answering it in a way no other show could answer it. But yeah, he hit a guy with his car.” The second season (which aired after the interview) expands on all the elements of the first—with more twins, more Pickles, more magic, more music, more pain, and more shit getting seriously fucked up—while always managing to stay true to the show’s underlying premise.

Mazzarino sums up the show’s un-sum-up-able tone as a kid’s view of the world. “It goes from incredibly funny to incredibly sad to incredibly scary; I think that’s everything about being a child.” Stands to reason. After all, Holstein points out, the title of the show is Kidding.