Maybe the most amazing thing about “Spaced,” the cult-favorite British comedy that finally arrives on DVD in this country Tuesday, is simply that it was allowed to be the show its creators really wanted it to be.
To watch the show as an American viewer is to marvel at the appealing looseness, the frequent cutaways and pop-culture in jokes, even the fact that its characters look like regular people. Created by Jessica Stevenson (who now goes by her married name, Jessica Hynes) and Simon Pegg, the show told the story of two mildly motivated flatmates in their mid-20s but enlivened that seemingly mundane situation with stories that found room for both massively geeky (frequent “Star Wars,” comic-book and video-game references) and appealingly realistic humor, starring the two creators.
“We had a very clear idea about how we wanted to do the show, a very clear idea about its style,” Hynes says. “... The fact that we were both so young and so much of that world, you know, I think that was a major selling point. I remember something the executive said when he saw it - Humphrey Barclay, he’s called, he’s a great British (TV) executive. ... His words were, ‘I don’t understand a word of it, I love it.’”
The very engaging Hynes spoke to me last week from her home in London. Here are some of the highlights of our chat, starting with how she, Pegg and director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) brought “Spaced” together after working together on another show called “Asylum”:
“I was really keen to work with Simon again because I had a really good time with him and Edgar on ‘Asylum.’ And I was sort of thinking about doing a sitcom, and he was thinking about various things, trying to get the next project off the ground, basically. I had an idea for a sitcom, but I mainly wanted to write something Simon would really want to do and ultimately that Edgar would want to direct. ...
“I pretty much based the outline of ‘Spaced’ on my experiences living in London from 18 to 24 - in rented flats, in squats, shared houses, sublet council places - and being unemployed or working in really awful jobs. ... The situation was based on a house I had lived in with this eccentric landlady upstairs who had a teenage daughter, and they were always kind of rowing with each other. That sort of set the scene. I wanted to write something that would be really fun for me to play and fun for Simon to play and would sort of bring the comic characters of Marcia the eccentric landlady (played by Julia Deakin) and Brian the artist (Mark Heap). Simon brought Nick (Frost) in - who was this amazing undiscovered talent at that point - to be Mike Watt.
“We wanted to think about a way of elevating it, getting away from that quite gritty realism that was quite fashionable at the time with things like ‘The Royle Family’ and ‘The Office.’ Although I have absolute respect and love for those shows, we wanted to do something that was slightly more elevated, a bit more fantastical and surreal.”
Did the look and feel of all the asides and pop-culture references come naturally to you?
I think that’s how we thought. That was also part of it. You’d write a scene and it was always ... “Oh, that’s a bit like that scene from such and such.” Because the fact is when you’re writing comedy, it’s like something (else) all the time. It’s that kind of thinking you have constantly. You come with an idea or a joke and you think, Have I done that? I think we’ve done that before. ... When you’re in the position of writing stuff, making stuff up, more often than not someone will say, “Oh yeah, someone did it in such and such and so and so.”
There’s a whole episode of South Park called “Simpsons Already Did It.”
A: (Laughs) Exactly. Someone already did it, someone already had that thought. There you go. We were always thinking along those lines - every time we’d get a scene, there was always something that would be reminiscent of that. ... At the beginning of season two, Daisy’s done some traveling between the two series and she comes back and sees a (gun) on the kitchen work surface. ... Immediately you just think, it’s got to be the scene from “Pulp Fiction,” when Bruce Willis comes in and finds the gun. ... I suppose one doesn’t sit down and think, “Hmm, what else could we possibly do?” It just sort of pops into your head. But I think if you’ve watched enough films, it’s sort of in there somewhere.
When did you become aware of the cult following Spaced has in the United States?
Simon said that he once saw people walking down the street with Daisy and Tim on their shirts. I thought that was amazing, but to be honest it didn’t really hit me until we did the commentary for the American DVD (in newly recorded tracks, Hynes, Pegg and Wright chat with the likes of Diablo Cody, Patton Oswalt and Quentin Tarantino about the show). I was just like, “I’m in the commentary box with Diablo Cody, with Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino and Matt Stone. What is going on? What the fuck is going on?”
Were you involved in rounding up any of those folks?
They’re Edgar’s friends (laughs). Yeah - I’d like to say they were mine, but he’s the really friendly one.
I gather you weren’t involved at all in the FOX pilot? (The network picked up U.S. rights to the show and filmed a pilot, which picked up some bad buzz in the industry and ultimately didn’t go forward.)
Right. (U.K. producer) Granada sold it to them, I think, and they sold it on to a producer and writer who were really keen on turning it into an actual business. God forbid. In Britain it’s always pilot season. We do two series and we sort of take to our beds. In America it’s different. There’s big pressure - the series I’ve got coming up ... it’s a big pressure for me to have to write the whole thing. It does give it an authenticity, a gritty quality. But it makes it fucking difficult to write 100 episodes. ...
They were advised, strongly I think, not to contact us, and they didn’t. We weren’t told until it was sort of released in the press. Granada should have told us and maybe they should have contacted us - but I’m not a bitter person. It didn’t go, and in some ways I kind of felt, they put in an effort there, maybe they were slightly off the mark. But it’s almost a cultural difference, and a different attitude to television as a business than there is in England.
I didn’t see this version, but the sense I got from those who did was that it’s probably best that it didn’t go forward.
Yeah - I think there was a very slim chance that it would have worked. “Spaced” ... was a real sort of goulash. It tastes unbelievable, but nobody wrote down the recipe, because we understood what the recipe is. One of the things that was intrinsic was the equality between Daisy and Tim. That was one of the things that went absent from the (American) pilot, I’m given to understand. The setup from the beginning wasn’t Tim and Daisy as equals, it was, ‘This is Tim’s show and Daisy’s kind of the girl in it.’ Which was never the case. It was two people who were sort of equally funny, equally active, equally motivated throughout the whole series.
And early on especially, Daisy sort of drives the action while Tim sits and mopes about his breakup.
Absolutely, yeah. I’m just doing it. We shared. We did a bit of this and a bit of that but we were equal. (Pause) Some would say I was better. (Laughs). No. I won the comedy award. (Laughs)