RR LogoJim Piddock's Family Tree

Interview by Joe Montague

Jim Piddock Phone One AThe television show is called Family Tree and it airs on Sunday evenings on HBO in America and it also airs on BBC 2 in England. The one-half hour comedy was co-created by Jim Piddock and Christpher Guest and the show revolves around the character of thirty year old Tom Chadwick who explores his family tree and his ensuing adventures. Guest and Piddock wrote and produced eight episodes which were first broadcast early in May (2013) and Guest directs the shows, while both men appear in Family Tree, Piddock in a recurring role as Mr. Pfister an antique dealer.  Recently, Jim Piddock visited with Riveting Riffs Magazine in our virtual studio, to talk about Family Tree. The third episode in the series was broadcast on Sunday June 2nd.  The show which stars Chris O’Dowd as Tom Chadwick, Tom Bennett as Chadwick’s best friend Pete Stupples, ventriloquist and actress Nina Conti as Tom Chadwick’s sister Bea, Michael McKean in the role of Tom Chadwick’s father and Ed Belgley Jr. as Tom Chadwick’s American cousin was filmed both in England and the United States.

“Partly it came from the business sense, because NBC Universal is based in both countries and we wanted (Family Tree) to have an English component and we wanted it to be shown there. Chris (Guest) and I obviously have strong ties with England and we thought it was a big enough story to straddle the Atlantic. It appealed to us. Fairly early on we decided that it would start in England and then it would come to America. After that decision was made it fit perfectly for Chris O’Dowd,” explains Jim Piddock.

As for the original inspiration behind Family Tree, Piddock says, “(Christopher Guest) had inherited a box of stuff from his father and he was just going through it and he said to me, I like this idea of somebody trying to find their roots and their genealogy. What do you think about it? We were having lunch and I said, well I like the idea, it is a very appealing idea and a very universal one, but I think it is more of a TV show than a film, because there is not a beginning, middle and end. It is not a film structure. Just a tree by its nature has all of these branches and you go in different directions. You want to go into different worlds and different episodes and that you can enter every week. Very quickly we figured this was not a film idea and there would be more fun and much more to be mined by doing it as a series. During the process of doing Family Tree, my brother had done quite a bit of research on my side and I knew little bits and pieces, some of which actually comes into episode two. My brother was left (these things) by a great aunt and there were photos and pieces of memorabilia that go back over one hundred years.

I suppose what about genealogy that I find interesting is not so much what you find, because mostly people find very ordinary things. Occasionally there are some surprises and dark secrets and there are fun things. Everyone goes in expecting to be descended from Cleopatra and Napoleon and they’re not (he adds with subtle humor that he is indeed descended from Cleopatra). What interests Chris and I more than just the specifics is the bigger picture of why people want to know their family history and what implications it has on their present. The show is really about a guy who is trying to find himself, to find out what his role in the world is and where he fits, in the grander scheme of the chain of history.  He’s an impressionable person too. He is rootless and rudderless at the beginning. He has no relationship, no job and no real sense of close family. This is someone who is quite willing to go wherever he wants to go. It is great for comedy, because he assumes certain things in his identity crisis. It is really what we all ask in life at some point, who am I? Where do I belong?  What is my role in the world? Where do I fit in the grand scheme of history? Those are the big themes. It is always about people trying to do their best with some delusion, trying to do their best in the world and trying to achieve something in the world. (It is about) trying to contribute to the world and with the best intentions, but not always with the best results,” says Piddock.

If you were thinking that the writers would soon run out of new ideas for a show based on someone exploring their genealogy you can banish that idea in a hurry, as Jim Piddock and Christopher Guest are just hitting their stride.

“We have just been asked to come up with ideas for season two and within two or three hours Chris and I came up with a list of fifteen episode ideas and with at least ten “b” story ideas within those episodes.  A lot of these came up the first time and we just didn’t have a chance to use them in the stories. The other thing is it changes. While there is no shortage you don’t want to get stuck in a familiar pattern. The one thing that everyone has said about the show, so far this season is it is constantly surprising and you never know where it is going to go.  That is inviting to everybody. It enters completely different worlds and it takes you places you never thought you would go. It has a hugely wide canvas that no other series would have. What we can do now once we have established the premise of the show is the storylines can be driven less by premises, because we get that, so the family tree search can take somewhat of a backseat sometimes.  The stories then become character driven and you can have a story one week that actually does not have much to do with the family tree. It can be about another character, a sister and it can be about anybody. You definitely start writing storylines about the character. It is the one thing that happens with any show as opposed to just the situation or the premise.  You get to take time with things and you can have an episode where not much really happens. It is just about what happens en route as opposed to the actual root,” he says.

As for the request to write more episodes, “Universal NBC which makes the show has to be prepared for any eventuality.  There is no question that people love the show. The critics absolutely love the show. The audiences that have seen it love the show. HBO and BBC have been incredibly supportive all of the way through and they have made it very clear that they love the show. We just have to find our audience, which always takes a while.  Provided we can find our audience and I think we will, I think there is a very good chance that we will be seeing a second season fairly soon.”

Jim Piddock takes time to talk about some of the actors who appear and why they were selected. “We wanted an everyman (for the role of Tom Chadwick) who could be both funny and engaging and Chris O’Dowd is both of those and many more things.

Nina Conti (Bea) was in Chris’ (Guest) last film For Your Consideration. She is a terrific actress and she is a ventriloquist who has this extraordinary act that is totally unique.  She is the Penn &Teller of the ventriloquist world. She questions the whole art form and in a very surreal nature in her act. We liked the idea of having the character and we didn’t know in the very beginning that it was going to be a sister,  who has this monkey puppet on her hand at all times and who often speaks the truth. It seemed funny to us and a really good idea. I don’t remember seeing that in a comedy. We had that in mind very early on and it made sense for her to be the sister.  In episode one you find out why she has this puppet. It is not really talked about, the family just accepts this monkey as part of the family and people talk to it as though it is a person.

Tom Bennett, (as Pete Stupples) is Tom Chadwick’s best friend in the show and he gets into arguments with the monkey, because he is not the brightest bulb and (he starts to laugh) he actually engages in arguments as if it was a real person. Jim Piddock Photo Two

It is very fascinating and it takes us into some very interesting areas. Nina is just wonderful. She does the voice and she has conversations with herself and with other people doing both voices and it is pretty extraordinary.

I play Mr. Pfister (Tom’s friend) who runs the antique shop right below his flat. I am sort of a very avuncular figure who is sort of the mythical mentor. I send him on his way and I help him on his path with finding information and giving him knowledge of my understanding of the world of antiques. It was just a fun way for me to pop into a scene for every episode and I can sit down and I don’t have to walk and talk at the same time.

Chris said to me, how do you want to be involved other than the writing and the producing? He wanted me to be in it. I wasn’t old enough to play Tom’s father, so it was just a matter of finding the right role. Then he (Christopher) said to me one day, you are a man of many faces and voices, how are you going to play him? I said, what is the least funny accent that you can think of? We thought for a while and he said, probably South African. I’ve never seen a funny South African that I know of.  I started riffing in South African and it made him laugh a lot and every time that the character came up, I would do the voice. It kind of got stuck and Karen Murphy the other executive producer begged me not to do it about a week before. She said, oh please you can’t do that. Of course that just made me one hundred percent certain that I was going to. It was a challenge for me. That is how the accent was chosen. It is ridiculous, but it was fun to do and it came out in an amusing way. I am sure there are South African sitcoms, I just haven’t seen them.  It is just that kind of an accent that you don’t associate with laughs. It was kind of fun.

Once we got to America we really hit the jackpot with all of these people (other actors). Michael McKean is in the British episodes playing the English father. He is obviously very adept at that as we have seen in Spinal Tap. Then there is myself in England. Once we get here Ed Begley, Jr. is a cousin and Carrie Aizley is his wife.  We have Bob Balaban, Don Lake (The Bonnie Hunt Show), Fred Willard (Modern Family – TV) and Kevin Pollak. We get into the meat and potatoes of Chris’ troupe and there will be more.  Hopefully if we do another season we will try and get everyone in.  Chris himself appears in it playing an equally strange character as mine.  He has a southern accent and an interesting look too,” he says.

Family Tree incorporates the use of a lot of improvisation and in fact when the subject is brought up it elicits a chuckle from Jim Piddock.

“Almost all of what you see (on Family Tree) is improvised. It is laid out in a very clear outline and actors come in and they do their thing. After I did Best In Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006) people asked me to do more (improvisation), because there are not a lot of things that are done completely improvised.  It will be a case of people doing a script and then saying let’s improvise around it. I tend to work with a lot of directors and other actors who are strong in the improv arena and you end up doing a hybrid of the script and improvising.

There is a big difference between improv clubs and what we do. Improv clubs are where actors stand on stage and people shout out things and they just riff off of it. Ours are very character based and are very actor based as opposed to that. It is really actors from whatever world they come from film, television and theater and they are just actors who like to take the risk of working without a safety net.  They feel free enough to just go and to trust that.  They often have a bit of a writer in them too, because their writer’s brain comes up with stuff,” says Piddock.

The conversation segues into how challenging it might be to be the screenwriter and also to act in your own production. Perhaps it might even be easier.

“I don’t find it easy, some people might. When I am writing I almost never think of myself until the last minute and then I go, is there anything in this that I can play? I am really concerned with the bigger picture. When we were doing the show in England I needed to take two days off when I shot myself, because my head was so in a producing mode and it was not easy. I have a new admiration for people like Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood or anybody who directs themselves or Ben Affleck or any of those people, because that is very difficult. With the improv thing it is even harder, because with a scripted thing you know that if you learn your lines you are halfway there.  It’s not easy to switch hats and hopefully it will get easier,” he says.

The association and friendship between Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock goes back to the year 2000 and the filming of Best In Show when actor Eugene Levy introduced the two of them. It never crossed Jim Piddock’s mind back then that one day they would be co-writing and co-producing a television series together.

Jim Piddock was born in Rochester, Kent in the southeast of England and he grew up in Seven Oaks, Kent, the second youngest of four children. He moved to America thirty-two years ago and he has been an American citizen for the past twenty years. For twenty-eight years he has made Los Angeles his home.

“The first acting that I really did was at school and I think I was in my teens when I auditioned for a play. I don’t know why. I just thought it would be better than working. I believe I was fifteen or sixteen.  I got the part and I was only one of a couple of people who were a year younger and doing it.  I remember standing in the wings before my first entrance and feeling the greatest terror I had ever felt in my life and simultaneously knowing this is what I would be doing probably for the rest of my life. It was a strange experience and it was like that adrenaline rush was almost simultaneously terrifying and addictive.  It has turned out to be the case. Later, after I started talking about wanting to be an actor rather than a professional footballer and I was not good enough for, I found out that my grandfather was an actor. I had no knowledge. I just didn’t know about it. It turned out that he had an act with Charlie Chaplin in the early days. He was in Fred Karno’s Circus (Karno was an English theater impresario) where Chaplin cut his teeth, where Stan Laurel cut his teeth and where Cary Grant cut his teeth. One of my aunts told me that my grandfather had a musical act with Charlie and Sid Chaplin in the early days and my grandfather was offered contracts to come out to America to do films. His father, my great-grandfather was an opera singer and he said no, no, no you don’t want to do that, it’s a passing fad, there is no future in the film thing (he laughs). A whole generation above my father was involved in show business and the generation before that, so it is clearly genetically in my blood,” he recalls.

After spending a couple of years working in repertory theater in England, Jim Piddock decided to move to the United States.

“I came over and I did a one man show, which was quite successful and it took me to New York.  A month after being in New York, George C. Scott cast me in a play (Noel Coward’s Present Laughter) that he was in on Broadway.  I suddenly had a career on stage on Broadway and I did that for about three years, different Broadway shows. I did lots and lots of theater. Then I decided that I wanted to write more and to try more television and film, so I moved to the west coast.

I worked a little bit when I came out. I was starting over again and that is why I started writing more, because I had time on my hands.  I don’t know about pivotal moments. I would say pivotal moments were one, when I sold my first screenplay, which I think was in 1989 or ’90. I would say in terms of the acting I suppose Best In Show it reminded people that I was still alive as an actor. It put me back, because I had been writing more and producing more in the two or three years before that show and then people went oh yeah, he is an actor I remember him.  I started to do more.

The first two films that I had made were both thrillers. I try not to limit myself. I like to write what I like to write. I am working on a couple of things now, one is a romantic drama / comedy and done is a vigilante period piece set in the south. I am interested in a lot of different things and comedy seems to come naturally as a performer and especially the writing. I like to do both,” says Piddock.

Among his other accomplishments, Jim Piddock wrote the screenplay for the drama A Different Loyalty, which starred Sharon Stone and Rupert Everett.   He wrote the story and prepared the treatment for the feature film Tooth Fairy and he wrote episodes for the television series Silk Stalkings and Too Much Sun.  A small sampling of his acting career includes the recurring role of Hal Conway on Mad About You, four episodes as Drew Mercer on the Drew Carey Show, as well as roles on Murder She Wrote, Friends and Crossing Jordan.

As an actor who has worked on stage, has worked in television and has appeared in films, how does Jim Piddock view his experiences in each of those settings?

“On stage the immediacy is very rewarding. You get your laugh, you get your response and you get your applause right there. It is very exciting, it is very immediate. It is also very grueling. Doing eight shows a week is extremely tiring and to be perfectly honest, in the long run extremely boring.  It is like eating the same meal eight times a week.  I haven’t had time to do a lot of theater lately. Film is great, because you have a family whom you join for that run of the film. I love movies, so it is great to be a part of that and you can go to some interesting places.  Television is different, because if you are working on a series you get to develop a character and to live with it longer than you might normally, but not doing the same lines every week. You get the thrill of the longevity of a character with a difference every week.  They all have different fun things to offer,” he says.

Family Tree airs on HBO in the United States and Canada at 10:30 pm Sunday evenings. You can preview an episode of Family Tree here.                        Return to Our Front Page

Top Photo: Jim Piddock on Family Tree, Bottom Photo: Chris O'Dowd as Tom Chadwick on Family Tree, Photos are courtesy of HBO and are protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved.

This interview (May 2013) is protected by copyright © and may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved