David Jenkins is an alumnus of NYU’s Graduate Acting Program. While being a professional actor for several years Jenkins realized that writing was his true passion and began producing screenplays. Jenkins eventually developed an idea about a comedy centered on people who had been abducted by aliens. The pitch for this show was championed by Greg Daniels (known for his work on SNL, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, The Office, and more) and by Conan O’Brien (you should know who Conan O’Brien is). The show was eventually picked up by TBS and is now called People of Earth. Wanting to learn more about this science-fiction comedy and Jenkins’ background, he was awesome enough to allow me to interview him.
Nicholas Yanes: When did you know you wanted to have a career in the entertainment industry? Was there a specific movie or show that inspired you to pursue this path?
David Jenkins: I wanted to be an actor when I was a teenager. And I ended up doing a lot of “storefront” theater in Chicago back in high school. Storefront theater means a theater that’s set up in a retail space somewhere (usually between a Chinese food restaurant and casket company or something) and small theater companies put on plays. My mom and dad loved movies, and I was exposed to them a lot as a kid. As I got older I kind of grew to like ensemble comedies and naturalistic comedies the best. Movies like Midnight Run, The Dream Team, Royal Tanenbaums, The Last Detail, Gosford Park, Big Night, just off the top of my head, fit that bill. Some TV shows that made an impact on me growing up are Cheers, The Sopranos (very funny show, seriously), Six Feet Under, Taxi, and Seinfeld. I seem to like shows and movies with large casts that make up a kind of a non-traditional family. And funny is always better to me. Even in a drama. Everything should be at least a little funny.
Yanes: You double majored in Philosophy and Political Science, and then you went to NYU’s Graduate Acting Program. What pushed you into pursuing this? Were there any key lessons from this experience that you still fall back on?
Jenkins: Well, I guess I still considered myself an actor through undergrad. My parents were pretty supportive of my desire to be an actor, but they strongly recommended that I get a liberal arts education in undergrad. It was important to them that I knew how to think analytically and put my thoughts into words in a clear way. At the time, I felt a little bit like a coward. I kind of wished I had the guts to go off to New York or LA and just be an actor. But that would have been a big loss on my part. Getting those degrees exposed me to a way of thinking that has informed my writing quite a bit. I still wanted to pursue acting after undergrad, and heard that NYU had the best Grad Acting program in the country (which was arguably true at the time I went). Getting into that program seemed like a good way to move to New York start a career there. And it was. I met teachers there that changed my life and taught me to reconsider how I saw acting and writing.
In undergrad, I had a very good Political Science professor – a guy named Jay Corrin who looked a little like Harvey Keitel — who used a phrase called “a sociological imagination.” This means an ability to imagine oneself in different circumstances politically, racially and in terms of class. And this is basically what most good acting and writing needs: a sociological imagination. I then had a really good acting teacher at NYU – a guy named Ron Van Lieu – and his approach to acting was: The character is just you in different circumstances. So in a way, my acting training was very much a continuation of the stuff I learned in undergrad.
Yanes: When you started writing your own plays and scripts, what were some of the challenges you encountered? Further, what was the piece you wrote that you felt embodied your voice the best?
Jenkins: Just doing it. Actually sitting down and putting stuff on paper. Every day. That was the biggest challenge. It’s gotten easier as I’ve gotten less precious, but it can still be a challenge. Writing plays is different than TV. Plays you write by yourself. And they take me a long time. It’s also easier to be precious, and kind of get in your head about things. Every play I’ve ever written is the same thing: I get to the second act, and I figure out I’m writing about the thing that scares me the most. The thing I don’t really want to face. And then I have to decide, do I really want to face that thing? And go through something kind of painful? And sometimes the answer is no.
Yanes: Greg Daniels and Conan O’Brien are Executive Producers for this show. In a fair fight between you three, who would win? In an unfair fight, who do you think would win?
Jenkins: Oh jeeze, that’s tough. Fighting Conan would be like fighting an ostrich. He’s just so damn tall. And he has talons. And Greg’s pretty wily, so you can’t count him out. I’m younger than both, so that’s a check in my column. But I’m short (5’8”). Could work for me could work against me, sometimes having a low center of gravity is good.
Yanes: On a serious note, how do you think you’ve improved as a writer by working with Daniels and O’Brien?
Jenkins: Working with Greg has just been a master class in how to build a story. The man is just a story machine, he effortless understands how story structure works, but isn’t threatened by something that deviates from tradition. He really just wants to see a character change through the proposed circumstances of the story, and won’t quit until that journey is clear. The thing I’ve learned the most from Greg is: boiling the story down to the emotional beats of the characters’ journey helps pull a script together. Greg and I both seem to like very layered things that look as messy as actual life, but underneath Greg’s work is almost always the scaffolding of a clear emotional journey.
I’ve been lucky to spend time with Conan, but most of his advice to me was on the nuts and bolts of producing. He gave me a very good piece of advice that I tried to use during production. He said that he tries to make everyone he works with feel comfortable by including them in a joke. For example, there’s a young guy who works on his show who – for whatever reason — looks to Conan like a naval admiral. Conan refers to him “the Admiral.” That sounds like a small thing, but there are so many people involved in a production. And everything moves so quickly. Making people feel seen and included goes a long way in pulling a team together and getting everyone to work in the same direction. Everyone wants to feel like they’re part of something at every job, television production is no different. Conan is a master of making people feel seen. He is freakishly good at that. I will never be that good, but for the rest of my career, I will aspire to be.
Yanes: You created People of Earth. What was the inspiration for this show? Given the existential nature of alien abduction claims, did your philosophy background influence how you approached this idea?
Jenkins: The idea of People of Earth came from an article I read about an alien abduction support group. I really liked the people in the article, they seemed very normal to me. Very recognizable. They could be you or me. They had normal jobs. But then this one very unusual thing had happened to them (so they say, and who are we to say they’re wrong?) and they are now in a position of having to process it.
I’m always attracted to settings and circumstances that provide an excuse for existentialism, and for whatever reason this just checked that box for me. It was going to be a play at first, just a bunch of people in the basement of a church trying to understand a larger than life experience. And then we’d decide if we’d believe them or not. But when I decided to make it a pilot, I knew the aliens had to be in the show. And I liked the idea that the aliens were grappling with many of the same banal problems that the humans are. And that being an alien on a ship is just a job like any other, which comes along with all of a job’s pettiness, boredom and management issues. I’m sure a philosophy background had something to do with my interest in this stuff, or maybe the other way around. Apparently Karl Jung wrote a book on alien phenomena. I haven’t read it yet, but I should check it out.
Yanes: Alien abduction narratives tend to be in the horror/suspense genres in television and film. Why did you want to write about alien abductions from a humorous perspective?
Jenkins: Well, I wanted the abductions themselves to be played pretty straight. To me, that’s much funnier than making a “comedy version” of something. The actual abductions on our show should be a little mysterious and have a proper size to them. But there’s a lot of comedy to be mined around the aftermath of the abduction. In the immediate aftermath, aboard the ship, it’s learning that the aliens are pretty much just like us. And they’re prone to all of the same arguments and annoyances. And in the longer run after the abduction, there’s a bunch of regular people trying to piece it together. They feel like, “What the hell happened to me? A lizard guy showed up in my kitchen?” I mean, when you write about this stuff very literally, it just gets funny. I hadn’t seen this done in a way that wasn’t campy before. That seemed like a show I’d like to watch.
Yanes: People of Earth is your first TV show. How does it feel just to see your idea on TV?
Jenkins: There’s a thing over the past year where a bunch of people talking about the likelihood that we’re living in a simulation. Elon Musk kind of famously talked about the odds of this, that our world is possibly the result of another culture’s very advanced simulation. Having this show happen, working with Greg and Conan, seeing the sets built, coming to set and actually meeting the aliens for the first time – all of these things feel like this is some kind of a simulation. It just seems impossible that this happened. And yet, I guess it did. It is an incredible feeling.
Yanes: Now that you’ve seen actors bring your characters to life, are there any characters that have worked better than expected?
Jenkins: They’re all great. We spent a lot of time building this cast. And in a way, all characters work better than expected when the right actor comes into the room and reads the part. Suddenly, what you wrote becomes ten times better. And then you cast that person. I will say, the character of Jeff the Grey was the most daunting for me. I had no idea how we’d pull it off. None of the producers of the show – including me – have done visual effects and prosthetics in a meaningful way before. I kind of became the defacto prosthetic guy, and tried to guide our prosthetics team into building something that could show a range of expression. The comedy of the show, and in much of Greg’s work, depends on being able to see the small facial expressions of the actors. That’s what makes something believable and funny. And we just got tremendously lucky in finding Ken Hall, who plays Jeff. He is just exceptionally funny and dry. But it wasn’t until we had him in the prosthetic and did a makeup test that it became clear that this was something very special. Playing through a prosthetic is a skill, and not everyone can do it. But Ken is able to get a tremendous about of comedy and pathos across, and makes Jeff feel like a very real character.
Yanes: Over the past few years TBS has become home to ambitious comedic talents. Could you comment on how being on TBS has allowed People of Earth to develop in a way other networks may not have allowed?
Jenkins: They’ve just been great. As a network, they’re hungry. They want to make a name for themselves. Those are the people you always want to be around. Getting a chance to meet and work with Kevin Reilly has been an amazing experience. He’s dynamic, very positive, and has a great instinct for what a show might be missing or how it could be just slightly better. The highest compliment I can pay them as a network is that they allowed this show to be truly weird. They didn’t try to sand off any of the edges or make it overly broad. A lot of unusual stuff came their way from our writers room, and they were unfailingly supportive. They’ve been hugely accepting of my voice – way more than I could have imagined – and willing to take chances that a lot of other places wouldn’t.
Yanes: Finally, what are some things you are working on that people should keep an eye out for?
Jenkins: What?! Besides People of Earth season one? I’m still in post in Toronto! Give me a minute to catch my breath!