This Halloween, TBS debuts its new comedy People of Earth. Wyatt Cenac stars as reporter Ozzie Graham, who investigates a support group for people who believe they are alien abductees. Although he publishes a skeptical story that brings unwanted attention to the group, Ozzi begins to sympathize with the members and also question whether or not he may have experienced abduction.
People of Earth comes from producers Conan O’Brien and sitcom mogul Greg Daniels of The Office and Parks and Recreation. David Jenkins created the show and attended Turner’s party for the Television Critics Association, where we got to sit down with him. Watch People of Earth Monday nights at 9 p.m. on TBS.
Is this the first show you’ve ever developed yourself?
Yeah, first one.
How did you hook up with Greg Daniels?
Well, I specced the script and I thought it would be a good idea. I really like the people at Conan O’Brien’s company. I met them and I thought they were very nice and they’re very genuine. They were really excited about the idea. So when I went to spec it, I thought I’ll send it to them first. David Kissinger, who’s Henry Kissinger’s son, is the president of Conan’s production company. He worked with Greg at NBC on The Office. He sent him the script and said, “I think you might like this.” And he liked it. It worked out. We met once and Greg’s kind of like a professor of television. It’s a very theoretical conversation and at the end up it I was like, “Oh, I’m never going to see this guy again.” He just kept being interested in the show and then he signed on pretty quickly.
What made you see the comedy in people who believe they’ve been abducted?
I think it’s pretty tragic and stuff that’s tragic is usually pretty funny. It’s a very unfair thing to have happen to you. If you were abducted, there’s no one you can tell about it because everyone’s going to think you’re crazy. The only person you could tell about it is somebody else who’d been abducted. It’s kind of a self-selecting group. So I kind of liked the idea of a bunch of normal people who had this unexplainable thing happen to them, there’s something inherently sad and funny about that.
Do you have to be sensitive with the comedy, knowing there are people out there who believe this really happened to them?
Yeah, I think you do. You have to be sensitive about the comedy in general with everything that I like. When you’re doing behavioral comedy, you just have to really care deeply about your characters or you’ll write stuff that makes them look ridiculous or frivolous or too broad. If you really care about them, you’ll put them in bad situations because that’s your job as a writer, to put your characters through hell, but it’s also your job to give them dignity and to want to root for them to figure it out.
You’ve included the three major classes of aliens that abductees describe. Did you want to give credence to all the stories?
Yeah, there’s a lot of it. The thing I liked about using those three is it gives you a nice box. The show could easily be, “Oh, I’ll invent a purple alien and this one goes like bleep blorp blorp.” But if you go with stuff that actually exists and you can go to Wikipedia and there’s an entry for each of those aliens, it gives you a nice box and it creates a lore for the show that to my mind makes a good anthology type show.
Do the aliens get to be funny too?
Yeah, they’re pretty funny. I think the people we’ve got playing them are hilarious. It’s hard to not get them to totally carry the episode away. That’s how funny they are.
How much do we see the aliens each episode?
I think when you’re starting out, we see them for about 10% and that seems to grow over the course of the season as we get to know them more and more. By the end of the season, the idea is that they’re seamlessly integrated into our cast on some level.
Are you focused on spending most of the time on Earth or could the characters eventually board the ships?
Could be. It’s an interesting thing because there are certain things that break the conceit for me. I don’t think you necessarily want to go, maybe, I don’t know, who knows? I don’t think you want to go to another planet and see it’s a whole different culture. To me, the fun of it, I like movies like Starman where Jeff Bridges is an alien but he’s on Earth and he’s trying to figure out how to be human. That, to me, is fun. There’s a lot of things you can do with it and there’s a lot of fuel there. It feels like once you start going to different planets and doing stuff like that, you’ve kind of run out of gas.
Are you thinking of People of Earth as a continuing serialized story?
Yes. I think that you want episodes to have a standalone quality in some ways but every episode should go forward and there should be arcs that go through the entire season. You should feel like if you’ve given yourself to the show that it’ll pay off if you’ve watched it from episode one to episode 10 in the first season. But also if you’re coming to it as a casual viewer that there’s going to be enough of a meal there in episode seven that you could start there and say, “Oh, I get it. I get who these characters are.”
Is Ozzie still reporting on alien abductions?
He continues to be a journalist, yeah. It’s a big component to that character and what he values is searching for the truth.
Is he still covering the alien support group?
He ends up working for a local paper and he thinks he’s back burnered journalism but it’s always alive for him on some level.
I can certainly relate to his editor. Did you base that on anyone?
I based him, he’s probably an amalgamation of a bunch of bosses I’ve had over the years.
How did you populate the support group with distinct enough characters that they all represent different points of view?
I don’t know. It was just I had a bunch of ideas for characters that would be fun. I had a bunch of ideas for different television shows that you could say each of these characters could have their own show. Then smashing them all together in a support group felt right. They all could’ve had something where it was like oh, yeah, you could make a show that’s a farmer and he’s struggling with things, or a postal carrier, what’s that like? I like stuff that’s pretty rich in terms of what people’s jobs are. I like stuff that’s varied in what their class might be and all those people are kind of thrown together. I think Cheers really did that well.
Now that their cover’s been blown, which characters respond well to notoriety for being alien abductees, and who really resists fame?
I think it’s an interesting group. It’s kind of like an AA style group where people don’t really want to advertise it too much. I think Gerry, the guy who wants to be abducted very badly and it hasn’t happened, he’d be quite all right being a national presence for alien abduction. I think that Ana Gasteyer’s character is more about therapy and she likes to lay low. I think Wyatt’s character is ambivalent about it coming out that he’s somebody who’s experienced alien abduction.