"Surviving Jack" is a comedy series that is based on best-selling author Justin Halpern’s autobiographical book “I Suck at Girls.” Set in the 1990s, the ensemble series (which premiered on Fox on March 27, 2014) is about a man becoming a dad, as his son is becoming a man, in a time before “coming of age” was something you could Google. Jack Dunleavy (played by Christopher Meloni) ex-military and an oncologist, is a no-nonsense kind of guy. He sees little, if any, need to sugar-coat the truth. Up to this point, Jack’s been the parent who’s left for work early, come home late, eaten the big piece of chicken, yelled at his kids and gone to bed. But after years of deftly raising and running the family, his wife, Joanne (played by Rachael Harris), is starting law school, leaving Jack as a full-time parent for the very first time.
Jack’s teenage son, Frankie (played by Connor Buckley), is just starting his freshman year in high school. Lanky, quick-witted, self-deprecating and not entirely sure of himself, all Frankie wants to do is fly under the radar. No matter how embarrassing the situations Frankie gets himself into are, Jack is there to pick up the pieces and lead his son to manhood …with the least gentle hand possible. Even more confusing to Jack than Frankie’s growing pains are those of his daughter, Rachel (played Claudia Lee), a gorgeous and super-smart 17-year-old high school junior. Up until now, Rachel’s done everything right. But no longer under the watchful eye of her mother, she has become a handful. Meloni and Harris recently did a "Surviving Jack" telephone conference call with journalists. Here is what they said in the interview.
Chris, this is your first time starring in a sitcom. Were you nervous at all, or were you have any trepidation when you first began taking on this role?
Meloni: No. No, trepidation. I love comedy and I have confidence that — well, I know it’s funny. Maybe it doesn’t translate that it is in fact funny, but yes, no trepidation.
Harris: It’s funny, Chris.
Meloni: Thank you. Thanks for backing me.
Harris: Oh, yes. That’s not a worry.
Social media has become a big part of our society. Will either of you be live tweeting, and are you looking forward to the fan feedback you’ll be receiving instantly after the episode airs?
Harris: I’m going to try to live tweet it with Claudia Lee. So I know that I’m going to do that. I think the gals are going to handle that part of the thing. But yes, I love the instant feedback from fans. It’s really fun.
Can you just kind of talk about how you became involved in “Surviving Jack”?
Meloni: For me, it’s just kind of the usual — lot of scripts sent my way. I responded to this one because I thought it was the best-written. I knew [“Surviving Jack” executive producer] Bill Lawrence both personally and professionally. So I trusted his taste and his ability to give this project the best shot of seeing the light of day. And then after that, I met Connor and Claudia and then Rachael came on board. So it all just fit in rather well for me.
Harris: Yes and for me, I came into the project later and what attracted me to it was I had worked with ["Surviving Jack" co-creators/writers] Justin [Halpern] and Patrick [Schumacker] before on another show. I had met them and they were lovely and collaborative. But really, when I knew Chris was attached, I thought that was a very big draw for me just because I had loved his work in so many other things.
What is your favorite part of working on the show so far?
Meloni: I would have to say how they’ve written the characters and their relationship to one another, the parents’ relationship, Rachael and me, and the parent’s vis-à-vis the kids. I just think they’re well written relationships.
Harris: I can say yes to that, and then also my favorite thing is just rehearsing and trying to find like the best things that we can. Like I find the rehearsal process for the show has been really fun and really collaborative.
Meloni: Good answer. Damn, I wish I thought of that.
Harris: I know. I know. I know. But really, the fun part is making it work. You’re not in control of the outcome or what other people think, but I know we’ve had a really good time making it. So that’s been the best part so far.
What’s it’s like to work with Claudia Lee, and what are some of her strengths as an actress?
Meloni: There’s so much, but do you want me to … [He says to Harris] You go.
Harris: OK. I will say that it’s the best thing. It’s like she’s very professional and can still maintain being a 17-year-old. I think also think without being affected or trying too hard, she’s just a very smart gal and I’ve always said I want to be Claudia Lee when I grow up. She’s more mature at times at dealing with different situations than I am, and I just find her very kind and generous.
Meloni: Right. I’m kind of in line with that. She’s smart. She’s savvy. She’s unaffected. She has a very — there’s a clarity about who she is, what she wants, what she’s doing and on top of that, she’s very kind to my daughter and takes her out to do “girl” stuff. So that’s pretty cool.
Do either of you have a favorite Claudia Lee story, either on set or off set?
Meloni: Well, I have a couple, but I’ll just stay with one. One on of the episodes, she is berating her mother Rachael Harris about cooking little pigs in a blanket, frozen pigs in a blanket and her line is, “Mom, really? Be better.”
Well, that made me laugh so much, as well as my daughter who was on set that day that my daughter actually made up sweatpants for Christmas for each of us which on the back, on the butt says, “Meloni” and on the front panel, it says, “Be better.” She inspired that Christmas gift for the Meloni family. So we always have her around the house basically.
Harris: Oh, my gosh. I love that. I love that story. OK. Mine really quickly is in a similar vein though, but I was concerned about the way that I looked in something and she just grabs my arm and she says, “Rachael, just stop. Just stop. You look great.”
It was like, “Thank you, Claudia.” It was kind of like in that vein of like “Just don’t, just don’t do that. Just don’t.” That’s just very much her. She’s like, “Just don’t worry about that.” I don’t know. Very strange. Very mature or I should say wise. Wise is probably better than mature.
Chris, can you talk a little bit about the “American Gladiator” scene in Episode 2 of “Surviving Jack” and having the fun with the physical comedy?
Meloni: That was a lot of fun to do. It was pretty precarious to be tethering on top of furniture while hurling broomsticks around with pillows attached to the ends. Those three guys, my son and his two buddies on the show, are always grab-assing around anyway. So it gave me a nice, fun opportunity to get in there and basically “play with the boys.” So that was a lot of fun.
Is there any fashion or pop culture stuff from the 1990s that makes either of you cringe?
Meloni: This is all yours, kid.
Harris: Thank you. For me, it would be acid-wash jeans, but it wasn’t just acid wash. It was the fact that they were like regular jeans and they had a flap that came up like as a cinch. Like a belt that went all the way up to the bottom of your rib cage. They were like stylish mom jeans and we all wore them and thought that they were amazing.
And the other one would just be I think it would be self-belts where you have a belt that’s the same pattern as the dress. I know. I know.
When working with younger actors who were born later in the ‘90s, how did you help them understand more about the ‘90s?
Meloni: Well, very slowly because, first of all, we’d break them to the news that there was a time in history where cell phones and computers were not there and they really couldn’t wrap their heads around that. So we pulled out a PowerPoint presentation for them.
Harris: No, that just made me laugh. Yes, we did do that, but then also they didn’t recognize a lot of the music from the ‘90s. Like the makeup and hair people, we’d be singing songs from the ‘90s and we’d be like, “Oh, that’s so amazing” and we would just get blank stares from Claudia Lee.
Connor’s pretty hip. Connor, I feel like, kind knew the music, but the other boys, Kevin Hernandez and Tyler Foden, their eyes would glaze over, like, “Yes, look at these old folks talking about the ‘90s,” which was hard.
Meloni: Very difficult. Very difficult.
Chris, we see your blunt parenting style in “Surviving Jack.” Does that relate at all to your parenting style in real life?
Meloni: One hundred percent accurate and the same. I don’t change. I leave the house and arrive with the same skills and my little bag of tricks and I go home, same skill set.
Harris: He’s not really like that.
How does your characters' marriage differ from other marriages we’ve seen on other TV sitcoms?
Meloni: Do you want to take it or do you want me to take it? Go ahead.
Harris: Well, just steer me in the right direction if I start to meander. Well, first of all, I think what’s different is kind of no eye rolling and I never put my hands on my hips, like, “Oh, Jack, what are you doing?” because obviously, he’s taking up parenting as I go back to law school. But I think the thing that’s great about our relationship is they really love each other.
They don’t feel put upon by each other. I’m not the ball and chain, and he’s definitely not this man that I don’t respect. I think what’s different is we have a deep respect for each other. We both really like each other and we both have each other’s backs when it comes to parenting. We may differ as far as how we would go about things, but at the end of the day we’re both really glad to be parenting together. We really like each other. How’s that?
Meloni: I like that. Yes, I think that one of the marching orders —and it comes from the pilot episode — “Jack,” my character, deeply, deeply loves Rachael’s character, Joanne in his life. He voices that without compromise or anything. He loves his wife deeply and unashamed to admit to it.
You have great chemistry with each other and that the relationship really does feel like you’re married. Was that something that you just naturally clicked? Did you work together to kind of develop it? Did you have a back story about their relationship?
Meloni: Yes, you know what it was is we met each other, hated each other, and I was like, “She’s so overbearing!” And she’s like, “Oh, he’s Mr. Know It All!”
And then we bumped into each other and she dropped her schoolbooks. I picked them up and the whole time we really like secretly liked each other. It just happened that way. Right, Rachael?
Harris: Yes. Exactly. No, I know that I really, really like Chris and I admire him. Like I like his work, but I also like the way he talks about his family and I love the way that he talks about his kids and for me, that was really appealing. So I think that when you genuinely like someone, you have chemistry with them.
Meloni: It’s easier to please them.
Harris: I think we knew what kind of relationship they have, but I think you can’t just materialize chemistry. I think it’s there or it’s not.
Meloni: And I’ll also say this if I can throw this in; I still feel like our angles of how we go about getting to what’s funny to each of us is different, but we both understand “funny.” What tickles our funny bone is in the same area. It overlaps, but it’s also a little different and I found that very appealing. The bottom line was she’s obviously very funny and understands what funny is and has great timing. Does that make sense to you, Rachael?
Harris: It makes perfect sense, yes. It also helps in the sense that we’re both each individuals, but that come together really well.
Chris, a lot of people do not know that your early TV career involved a lot of sitcoms, right?
Meloni: Someone’s done their homework.
It’s kind of funny that you’re still kind of playing off this tough guy persona here. Jack is funny, but he’s also kind of scary. Was that part of the appeal, and were you actively looking for a comedy after “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”?
Meloni: I was leaning towards a comedy and the threatening “Jack thing,” I didn’t intentionally make it thus. It’s just how the script struck me and I think possibly my physicalness kind of lends itself to that in combination with how Connor plays his part. He seems like he’s a kid who seems perpetually uneasy in his own skin. When you compare that to a guy like Jack who seems to me perpetually absolutely calm and comfortable in his skin, it really then makes my character a little more threatening or whatever.
At what point did “Surviving Jack’s” adaptation from the book shift to focus more on the dad character? Did either of you meet Justin’s dad and get some blunt advice from him?
Meloni: I haven’t met him yet. I look forward to it. I think he’s the kind of guy who’s like the kind of guy who’s like, “Yes, I’ll meet him when it’s a success.” If it’s not, he doesn’t want to be.
But I always thought that it’s seen through Justin’s, Connor/Justin’s eyes, the son’s eyes and Justin’s book really kind of is all about his dad, how his dad influenced his life with his aphorisms and his piffy statements. If anything, I think the show has caught up everybody in the swirl, meaning Rachael and my relationship, how important that is, the strength of that. That’s how I feel.
Harris: And I have never met Justin’s dad.
Going back to one of the previous questions about the era that the show is set in … Is there a particular aspect from the ‘90s that you wish were still around?
Meloni: I wish they’d bring grunge [music] back.
Harris: Yes. I wish that we could have it both ways. I wish that we could have like six hours, six to eight hours of Internet and cell phones and then for six or eight hours we have no access. So we have to actually just like use a land line and call people and wait for calls and things like that. How about that?
Meloni: Yes. Don’t you wish we could have self-discipline now?
Harris: Yes. I mean I guess I could do that, right, Chris?
Meloni: I guess so. It’s difficult. It’s hard, Rachael.
Harris: Yes. It’s really hard.
If the two of you could teach a college course of your creation, what would you teach?
Meloni: Adapting books to film, the decisions that must be made. I just find that fascinating. They have to take a book and figure out what to cut, what to condense.
Harris: I think my college course would be just on the premise of saying “Yes, and …” instead of saying no. It would be more like philosophical as far as saying “Yes, and” to live.
Meloni: The power of positive thinking?
Harris: Probably, yes. Maybe that is a college course already being taught. That would be my own like spin on it. I can’t wait to see that in print by the way, Chris. I can’t wait.
Was there ever a scene that you filmed like you couldn’t quit laughing because it was really funny?
Harris: I feel like there were several. I remember laughing a lot in your face.
Meloni: Yes, but that was usually because of my acting.
Harris: No. No.
Meloni: Yes, choices I made.
Harris: No. No.
Meloni: I’m over it, Rachael. Really.
Harris: I’m trying to think. Wasn’t it like that you had said something? I remember you were doing one scene and you couldn’t “antithesis” right on one word.
Meloni: Damn it.
Harris: Remember? And you were losing your mind. You were in the bedroom and you’re folding laundering.
Meloni: Oh, that’s right.
Harris: Yes. Remember?
Meloni: Oh, nuts. Yes, I became marble mouth.
Harris: Yes, that was amazing. That was amazing, and I know that’s really vague and not specific.
Did you guys ever play pranks or anything on set, anything that maybe was funny?
Meloni: No, I don’t think so, only because we have Connor and his two school buddies and they’re always doing boy prank stuff. Like if you look where they have their finger, then you have to drop and do 20 pushups or they get to give you a wet willy or just this weird … or they mag tag each other.
How do you most feel that you’re similar to and different from your characters?
Meloni: I’m taller than Jack in real life, but past that, our parenting styles are exactly similar.
Harris: I don’t have kids in real life and Joanne has two. I’m really just not old enough to have children that age in real life. I’m kidding.
Meloni: Joanne wouldn’t do that.
Harris: And then, I think that Joanne likes to rock a lot of shoulder pads on the show and I don’t.
Meloni: Oh, Rachael. Really?
Harris: All right. I do. I do wear them.
Meloni: Make peace with it. It’s time.
Harris: I know.
Meloni: It’s OK. She’s wearing stone-washed denim right now.
For more info: "Surviving Jack" website