A to Z is a new romantic comedy premiering on NBC tonight, chronicling the relationship between Andrew (Ben Feldman, Mad Men and many other shows) and Cristin Milioti (How I Met Your Mother, Broadway’s Once), two young people seemingly fated to come together, and the comprehensive chronicle of their relationship. So why are we talking about this on a comic book site?
Well, the pilot was up on Hulu before airing on TV, and while watching it, we noticed a very, very specific reference where a couple characters mention going to San Diego Comic-Con dressed as Nightwing and Starfire from Marv Wolfman’s run on The New Teen Titans. This was on top of a whole subplot in the episode involving the hoverboard from Back to the Future 2, and an old making-of video that convinced many young people it was real.
This merited investigating. So we got up with the series’ creator, Ben Queen, and confirmed it – he’s a major fanboy.
Queen – who also has some geek cred for writing Cars 2 for Pixar and creating the short-lived Fox series Drive with Nathan Fillion – got up with us for a quick chat about his new show, the influence of comics on his life and work, and of course the most important question – are hoverboards real? Read on to find out what we discovered.
Newsarama: Ben, how did you come up with the premise of A to Z?
Ben Queen: I'd been carrying around the title for years in a notebook, and always thought it was a nice organizational structure for a season of network television. And the sweet simplicity of it felt right for a relationship show, which I was dying to do. The relationship is loosely based on my experiences with my wife – the pilot story literally happened to us.
Nrama: The show is rather interesting in that it acknowledges the clichés of romantic comedy, but also steers into the curve of them and what makes them compelling. What drove you toward that angle, and what's the biggest challenge of maintaining that over the course of a season/series?
Queen: I have a little theory about TV - which is a pompous and ridiculous thing to say considering I've had one other show on the air, which lasted only six episodes. But here goes anyway: I think TV pilots, for all the specificity and weirdness that are necessary to make it fresh and idiosyncratic, need some archetypal characters and ideas so that there's big oak-like things to hang a series on.
Specificity is the enemy of cliché, as they say, so I tried to dig in and find ways to get very detail oriented about what made this story and characters feel different.
Nrama: And of course there's your leads, whom my friends, be they gay/straight male/female, all have crushes on at least one of them. What were the challenges in casting them, and how has what they brought to the characters affected how you write their fictional counterparts?
Queen: Zelda was not a challenge at all. Cristin Milioti came in the first day of auditions and nailed it. She's unbelievably talented and we're lucky to have her. She does that vulnerability mixed with tough exterior thing that is impossible to find. Plus, she has insane comedy chops. It's hard to find someone that can deliver a joke well too. She can make bad jokes good.
Andrew was more difficult to cast and I had to personally pursue Ben Feldman – I stalked him a little, including making multiple pitches to his agents/managers. I just knew they'd be great together. We'd tested Cristin with a ton of actors, and nothing against those guys, who were all very talented, but there just wasn't the spark that Ben and Cristin had together.
The show lives or dies on the chemistry of those two in my opinion.
Nrama: I had some Mad Men joke about Ben's nipples, but let's ignore it in the name of good taste. Still -- it'll be a while before I stop instinctively clutching my chest when I see our ex-Ginsberg.
Queen: I love Mad Men so much. I wish we could get Ginsberg's character to make a cameo on A to Z.
Nrama: Okay, here's what led me to contact you for an interview – the very, very specific reference to Nightwing and Starfire in the pilot. That wasn't just a random comic book reference, that required some knowledge!
So spill it – are you a comic book fan?
Queen: The whole New Teen Titans run in the 80's by Wolfman/Perez was my favorite - still is. The Judas Contract? (laughs) I was a huge Batman comics fan and always loved Robin more than Batman, mostly because he got to hang out with Batman! Now that I'm an adult, I realize how that was just the kid in me relating to the sidekick nature of the character, which is obviously the whole fricking point of Robin…
Anyway, I also remember seeing Nightwing and Starfire in bed together and being like, what? That comic was the introduction to adult life for me. And it was seriously kickass. If my wife wanted to go as Nightwing and Starfire for Halloween I would marry her… wait.
Nrama: And who are some of your favorite comic creators?
Queen:I pretty much read anything by Grant Morrison, Darwin Cooke. I love Alan Moore, especially the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And I like Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine. Reading nothing right now but looking for recommendations!
Nrama: And have you made it to Comic-Con yourself in real life?
Queen: I wrote a book, The Art of Cars 2, for Pixar when I wrote that movie and I got to sign it at a table there. It was crazy. I went with cash in pocket to buy a Millennium Falcon toy, but couldn't find one. A bummer for sure.
Nrama: Another very specific nerd reference is that hoverboard. Tell me how that came about in the script, because I remember that preview. Also, did you get the actual hoverboard Mattel made a few years ago? It was not well-received and Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale actually disowned it.
Queen: I saw that documentary when I was a kid, and believed Zemeckis when he said hoverboards werereal. I've run into a few others since then that had the same thing happen to them, so I thought it would be fun to put it in the pilot just for those people. The show is filled with specific pop-culture stuff like that.
We've put money into the budget to afford real clips of stuff like that too. It gives a sense of real world arcana which is my favorite thing. I don't want to ruin any surprises, but some of these episodes have such fun stuff. I did not get that hoverboard, but I imagine anything that does not actually float you around like magic would be a disappointment.
They exist for real, by the way. Universal let me ride one when we were shooting the pilot – they're just not allowed to release them because parents groups don't want children to ride them. (laughs)
Nrama: And can we expect more very specific comic/SF/etc. references in upcoming eps, and if so, can you give us some previews? Also curious if there are any fanboys/girls in the cast and/or writers' room…
Queen: The characters of Dinesh and Lora (the programmers) are our way into that. It's unending. Right now I'm trying to find a way to tell flashbacks the way DC and Marvel do with those “Editor's Notes.” You know, like Wolverine will mention a kiss with Dazzler and the editor will say, “See Uncanny X-Men #207.” I love that stuff.
Nrama: So we're a comic book site -- why should our readers check out A to Z?
Queen: It's loaded with pop culture references that aren't just dialogue, but cool clips and music. I developed the show while I was working at Pixar too, and that sense of putting your whole self into what you do – including your childhood obsessions – is something that rubbed off on me.
This is a relationship show but it's also about Back to the Future, Hawaiian shirts, Emily the Strange, Sesame Street, Wall Street, The New Teen Titans, Laverne & Shirley and everything else that's been stuck in my brain for the last few decades.
Nrama: And what all can we expect this season?
Queen: You'll see the complete dating history of a young 20-something couple from beginning to end this season. At the end they will stop dating – so whatever that means to you…
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Queen: Just that we tried to make it for guys as much as girls. So… girl/guy power!
A to Z premieres at 9:30 p.m. EST on NBC tonight.