A chat with DeAnn Heline, DeAnn Heline interview, The Middle, Murphy Brown, How I Met Your Mother
DeAnn Heline

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As Bullz-Eye’s go-to guy for most things TV-related, I’m the first person to be understanding when people say, “I’ve heard good things about (INSERT SHOW HERE), but there just aren’t enough hours in the day to watch everything I hear good things about.” With that said, however, I’m still surprised that I don’t hear more people talking about ABC’s “The Middle.”

No, it’s not as raucously hilarious as “Modern Family,” nor does it have a Big Time TV Star as its lead actress like “Cougar Town” does with Courtney Cox, but it sure seems to come a lot closer to reality than any other sitcom on the network. Granted, that may be because I’m married, have a child, and struggle with my bills on a monthly basis, just like Frankie and Mike Heck (Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn). Or because my attempts at participating in social activities in high school went almost as poorly as those of Sue Heck (Eden Sher). Or because the resemblance between the social tendencies of Brick Heck (Atticus Shaffer) and my own as a child are downright spooky. But whatever my reasons may be, the simple fact is that I love “The Middle,” so does my wife, and even my 4-year-old daughter asks to watch the show.

With “The Middle” sitting within the Honorable Mention section of Bullz-Eye’s TV Power Rankings, I reached out to ABC for an interview. Series co-creator DeAnn Heline, who cut her sitcom teeth working on “Roseanne,” “Murphy Brown,” and “How I Met Your Mother,” stepped up to bat, and we had a great chat about one of the funniest (and most relatable) family-friendly sitcoms you may not be watching.

DeAnn Heline: Hi, Will!

Bullz-Eye: Hey, DeAnn, how are you? It’s a pleasure to talk with you.

DH: A pleasure to talk to you, too!

BE: We met fleetingly in January, when I had the opportunity to tour the set of the show…and couldn’t believe how incredibly accurate a representation of a messy house it was.

DH: (Laughs) Great! So where are you from?

BE: Virginia. In Norfolk.

DH: Oh, sure, I know Norfolk. One of my summer jobs was as a performer at Busch Gardens, in Williamsburg.

BE: My wife, however, is from Iowa, so she very much appreciates the middle-America sensibilities of the show. Also, “The Middle” is one of the very sitcoms that our 4-year-old daughter wants to watch.

DH: And that’s nice, right? I mean, we all have kids, and it’s nice, because there are very few shows anymore, it seems like, for the whole family. Kids watch the Disney Channel, adults watch their own shows…we’re very proud of the fact that you can watch “The Middle” as a family.

BE: So, obviously, it’s a show that hits kind of close to home for you, but what are the origins of “The Middle”? How did it come about?

"We all have kids, and it’s nice, because there are very few shows anymore, it seems like, for the whole family. Kids watch the Disney Channel, adults watch their own shows…we’re very proud of the fact that you can watch 'The Middle' as a family."

DH: Well, actually, we first wrote it about three years ago, and we had a deal with Warner Brothers to come up with some idea, so Eileen (Heisler) and I started talking about, “Okay, what do we want to do?” And I guess two things struck home: 1) we were both tired moms, so we thought we should write a show about a tired mom, and 2) living out in L.A., we were yearning for and missing home, in the Midwest. So we thought we’d set it in the Midwest. At the time, there were no shows set there. We came up through the system, worked on “Roseanne” and all, but at the time, there were no shows that really reflected middle-class or the middle of the country, so it was very deliberate on our part to set it there and to make it about people dealing with real problems and real issues. We wanted to sort of have a show that really reflected what was going on, hopefully in a funny way. So we came up with that idea, pitched it to Warner Brothers, and they liked it, so we sort of honed the pitch and pitched it to ABC, who immediately loved it and bought it. So we did the pilot, and…originally we did a pilot and Ricki Lake was cast in it. The only person who was from the original cast was Atticus Shaffer, who plays Brick. And, y’know, it turned out well, but I would say that the chemistry wasn’t what we have now, certainly. So the network at that time didn’t put it on their fall schedule, but they also didn’t say “no.” They just sort of put it on hold for awhile and extended the actors’ contracts, so we were sort of in this holding pattern where it wasn’t picked up but it wasn’t a “no,” and it lasted for…oh, gosh, something like six to nine months. Finally, we heard back that it was a “no,” that it wasn’t going to happen. But then the Writer’s Guild strike happened, so we were all out of work for awhile, and when the strike was over, our agents said to us, “What do you want to work on now?” And we said, “You know what? We really still love ‘The Middle.’” And I don’t know why we ever really thought it would come back… (Laughs) …because it’s pretty amazing that it did. With networks, once they pass on something, it’s generally done and gone, even if they loved the script. But in this case, ABC actually had been talking about it and went back and said, “We want family comedies, we love the script, maybe we need to do it again, so let’s give it a try.” And…actually, that was last year at this time that we did the pilot, we got Patty Heaton, and…it was great!

BE: Obviously, she’s a perfect pick to play a mom, but how did Neil Flynn come into the picture? He’s played a dad before, certainly, in “Mean Girls,” but he’s not really known for dad roles.

DH: You know, he was…”Scrubs” was ending, and we were putting a list together and talking about people to play the dad, and I have to say that there were a number of people on the list, but as soon as we saw Neil’s name on the list, we were, like, “Oh, my God, he would be perfect. He would be great!” So we were really excited to have him come in and audition. I can’t remember, but there was something that happened with miscommunication where he didn’t make it the first day, and we were, like, “Oh, no, where is he?!?” Because he was the one we were the most excited about! But he finally made it in a few days later, and he was just fantastic. And we already had Patty by that point, so to see them together was really fun. The network loved him, obviously, on “Scrubs,” so he was the second person we got.

BE: How was the process of casting the kids? You said Atticus had been with the project pretty early on.

DeAnn HelineDH: Yeah, he came in just through our casting. We were sitting there, trying to cast the role, and…I don’t want to say that he was the hardest part, because each part is difficult to cast, but he’s a very specific character and very quirky. We were seeing a lot of kids who do the Disney shows, but we weren’t seeing our particular kind of kid, and we were sort of getting a little discouraged. I mean, nobody really came even close, you know? But then they brought this kid in, and he just…from the moment he opened his mouth, we were just on the floor, cracking up. And he walked out the room, and we were, like, “That’s it.” He just nailed it, and there was never any question. He then went in from of the studio and the network, and he was so funny. So, yeah, he was from the original pilot. And then as far as the other kids, yeah, they just basically…well, Charlie and Eden came in through our casting department and our casting directors, and they both just nailed it, too. They were hilarious, so…there you go!

BE: I’ve enjoyed the way that Axl and Sue have evolved since the beginning of the series. At first, Axl seemed almost like a Napoleon Dynamite kind of character, very aloof and prone to saying, “God!” But he’s come a long way since then. Did it take you awhile to figure out how to write for the character as well as for Charlie?

DH: Yeah, absolutely. Charlie’s really made the character his own, definitely. That’s the great thing about doing television: you write this character and you cast it, but then each week you’re sort of discovering what that actor can do and what he brings to the character. You’re honing the character, and the great thing is that you’re writing him and changing him as you go. But, yeah, he was a tough part, because in the pilot, Axl has the least to do. As a matter of fact, when we were auditioning for that role, we actually wrote extra dialogue that wasn’t in the pilot because he didn’t have all that much to do. Then after several episodes, we got to write more for him, and…he’s just quirky, and just the way he moves physically. He’s so real, but he’s hilarious. The way he talks, the way he moves, we definitely now have started writing towards that.

BE: Similarly, with Sue, I’m very impressed by the tightrope you guys are walking with her…and, for that matter, with her ex-boyfriend, Brad.

DH: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly!

BE: What gave you the idea to give her a boyfriend who everyone believes is gay, even though Sue herself can’t see it? And when you had the idea, did you think, “Oh, this is going to be rough to make this work”?

"We were putting a list together and talking about people to play the dad, and I have to say that there were a number of people on the list, but as soon as we saw Neil (Flynn’s) name on the list, we were, like, 'Oh, my God, he would be perfect. He would be great!' So we were really excited to have him come in and audition, but there was something that happened with miscommunication where he didn’t make it the first day, and we were, like, 'Oh, no, where is he?!?'"

DH: Well, the idea came about early on, and I think that Eileen, my writing partner, has said that she had a boyfriend in junior high who, when she thinks back on it, thinks, “He had to have been gay, I know he must’ve been,” but nobody said anything and she was sort of oblivious to it. And Sue’s the kind of person who I think wouldn’t necessarily catch on, and at that age, you’re not necessarily picking up on those signals, anyway. But, obviously, the parents were, but they’re very accepting and tolerant. So we just thought it would be funny for Sue to be so into her first boyfriend and for everyone to know he was probably gay except for her. So that’s the way it came about, but…you know, I would say that only tightrope we were walking was who we cast, and being respectful and making it funny but…well, we’re just careful. We’re always careful when we’re making shows, because we’re not trying to make fun. We’re just trying to make it funny. So, yes, absolutely, we’re very conscious when we have that character in an episode to treat him with respect…but to still be funny. (Laughs)

BE: The same kind of goes for Sue, too, where if you painted her with too broad a brush, she’d be legitimately pathetic, whereas she’s just optimistic enough that you’re still rooting for her.

DH: Yeah, for us, Sue yearns. She wants things so badly, which is what a lot of 13 and 14 year old girls are like, but she’s the extreme, obviously. But she tries so hard. I think the great thing about her character is that she’s so optimistic that she bounces back. Hey, we all would want her enthusiasm! She just doesn’t give up. And the fun thing is that in the season finale, Sue finally makes something. The way it comes about is very funny, but she does finally make something, so that’ll be fun to play next year, because she ends up making the cross country team. But, yeah, we always try and make sure that the kids are very fleshed out, that they’re not just stereotypes, that Sue’s not just a nerdy girl. She tries. We don’t want to make her pathetic. She’s incredibly optimistic. But with all of them, we hopefully show many sides. We try to, anyway.

BE: And with Brick, I absolutely relate to him. For one thing, I’ve got a 4-year-old who has something like nine imaginary friends, but she’s fully aware that they’re fake, and if you dare to say that you’ve seen them, she’ll be, like, “Daddy, they’re fake.”

DH: (Laughs) Well, that’s good! She’s got a good imagination!

BE: Unfortunately, she’s also now prone to whispering under her breath.

DH: Oh, no. Sorry about that!

BE: Now, when the time came to expand the ensemble…Chris Kattan came into the cast relatively late, didn’t he?

DH: Yeah, you know, when we had originally written the pilot, we didn’t really have any friends for Frankie at work or anything. Again, some of it was that, in the pilot, you’re trying to get introduced to all of these characters, but you have so little time. But after we did the first pilot, we realized that she seemed sort of alone in this world, and we really wanted to make sure as we moved forward that she had a friend at work, and we just thought it was more interesting to see a male/female friendship because it’s something you don’t see a lot on television. And we just knew that we wanted someone funny, and we heard that Chris Kattan was available. Again, he didn’t have a lot to do in the pilot, but since then, he’s had more to do, and he’s just a funny foil and a different voice from anyone else on the show, so it’s fun to have him there.

DeAnn Heline

BE: Plus, you’ve also got Brian Doyle Murray as Frankie’s boss.

DH: Oh, he’s just the best, and he’s the nicest guy in the world. I have to say that we have the nicest cast. Everyone is just lovely and so nice and wonderful, but him especially. He’s just like a big teddy bear, but he’s so game to do anything. He’s so nice…and hilarious. Absolutely hilarious.

BE: I read an interview recently with Neil where he was acknowledging the interview’s premise that “The Middle” doesn’t get as much love as, say, “Modern Family” or “Cougar Town,” possibly just because it’s not as high profile. But do you get a lot of audience response?

DH: Oh, we do! I have to say that, yes, it’s hard, because out of the gate, “Modern Family” got a lot of press because it’s a fantastic show and absolutely deserves it, but…the cool thing about our show, I think, is that it really has that thing where, once people start watching it, everyone is talking about it. I think Neil said something about how slow and steady wins the race… (Laughs) …so we’re just thrilled that people who watch the show absolutely love it. Most of the critics have been incredibly kind and get the show. And the nice thing is that a lot of people are talking about how what makes our show different is that it’s one of the only shows up there that’s really reflecting what’s going on out there with the economy and what real people are going through. The thing that I love most of all, though, is that our fans talk about how relatable it is, not only what they’re going through with the economy, but just in terms of those parental moments and how you parent and what your kids are like and what your hopes and dreams for them are. I’m most proud of the fact that it’s relatable. I think comedy is always at its best when it’s relatable. So, yeah, we’ve been really happy. Honestly, I can’t complain. People have been incredibly wonderful about the show.

BE: You mentioned the season finale and Sue’s plotline, but I’ve gotten the impression from other interviews that you’re pretty excited about Brick’s storyline, which involves a guest appearance from Betty White.

"We always try and make sure that the kids are very fleshed out, that they’re not just stereotypes, that Sue’s not just a nerdy girl. She tries. We don’t want to make her pathetic. She’s incredibly optimistic. But with all of them, we hopefully show many sides. We try to, anyway."

DH: Oh, my God, yeah. She’s really funny. She plays the school librarian, and, you know, Brick loves books, but his problem is that he checks out all of these books and never returns them or returns them late or whatever. And Betty plays the sweet librarian who’s pretty much had it with Brick. (Laughs) It’s really fun to see the two of them together, and she was just so lovely. A dream. And, of course, we were all just so excited to have her. It was funny when she agreed to do it because we were all excited, and I saw Atticus, and I said, “Atticus, can you believe it? You’re going to get to be in a scene with Betty White!” And he was, like, “I know! I’m so excited!” I said, “Do you have any idea who Betty White is?” He said, “No! But I hear she’s really great!” (Laughs) After that, I think he watched some “Golden Girls” and “Mary Tyler Moore” to catch up. He was so cute. I think all of the other actors were jealous that they didn’t get to be in a scene with Betty, because it was basically just a scene with Betty and Atticus, but it was really, really fun, and we’d love to have her back.

BE: You’ve had a lot of other great guest stars this season, too, including Amy Sedaris.

DH: Oh, yeah, and that was a thrill. We’re such huge fans of hers, and she’s good friends with Chris Kattan, too, so it was great for her to be on the show.

BE: I also loved the episode with Vicki Lewis playing the woman from Social Services.

DH: Oh, yeah, I loved that one, too. We’d worked with Vicki on the show “Three Sisters.” It’s great to have people come back that we’ve worked with before and know and love.

BE: Do you have a favorite episode from this season?

DH: Oh, gosh, it’s hard. You know, you like different ones for different reasons. I would say one of my favorites is that one with Vicki (“The Scratch”). That’s probably one of my all-time favorites. I also love the one that’s called “Siblings,” which is the one where Frankie sort of realizes that other people’s kids get along, so why don’t hers get along better? And they’re playing football in the yard. That one’s very simple, but I loved it. I also really liked “The Spelling Bee,” and I also feel like we’re ending the season really strong. There are some really good episodes coming up that are really funny. There’s a Mother’s Day episode that’s really funny.

BE: Yeah, I saw that Marsha Mason’s going to be in that one.

DH: Yep, Marsha Mason is going to be playing Frankie’s mother. I think we’ve got two more shows after that one, and they’re both very funny, too.

BE: Is there any particular episode which is most taken from your own life?

DeAnn HelineDH: You know, they all are. (Laughs) I don’t know if you saw the one with Brooke Shields, where Sue does the “Kung Fu Fighting” dance…? That, uh, actually happened to me. (Laughs) Which seems so crazy, but, yeah, when I was a kid, these bullies across the street were threatening us and challenged us to a fight, so my friend and I thought that the way to fight would be to come home from school, quickly choreograph a whole routine to “Kung Fu Fighting,” and drag the boom box outside. The only difference was that, for us, it was snowing! So we tried to use our “Kung Fu Fighting” moves on them, and they just pushed us into the snow and walked away. (Laughs) Some of the strangest things come from real life. Really, the character of Brick comes from Eileen’s son, ‘cause he whispers to himself, and some of the quirky things that Brick does…he’s a huge reader. Eileen has twin sons, but her one son, Justin, has done these things, so we’re always hoping for more. He’s getting older, but we’re going, “No, keep doing the quirky things!” (Laughs) So there’s that, but…gosh, there’s just so much. If it doesn’t come from us, it comes from the writers. That’s what great about the show. If it doesn’t come from us, it comes from our kids. You can draw from your own life, and I think those things always ring more true. Even the weird things. (Laughs)

BE: You were talking about Brick being a big reader. When I was a kid, I think I alienated every friend I had by going over to their houses and, when they wanted to play, I just wanted to sit down in front of their bookcase and read their books. Or comic books. Whatever, as long as I was reading.

DH: (Laughs) That’s exactly the way Eileen’s son Justin is! He’ll come over to my house, and I’ll be, like, “Hi!” And he’ll walk right by me, over to our bookcase, and start pulling all of the books out of the bookcase and just start reading. There could be a fire next to him, and he wouldn’t notice. He’d just be reading his books.

BE: Well, I’ll start wrapping up by asking you about some of the other shows you’ve worked on over the years.

DH: Sure!

BE: When I saw on IMdb that you worked on “Committed,” I knew it sounded familiar, and when I looked at the credits, I was, like, “Oh, right, Tom Poston played the clown!”

DH: Yes! The dying clown! (Laughs) I know it sounds crazy, a dying clown living in a closet, but that happened to us, too! When we lived in New York, a friend of ours had this great, fantastic apartment, and we were all over one night, and all of a sudden, out of a closet comes this old man in a bathrobe. I said, “Who’s that?” He said, “Oh, he’s this former clown, and he’s dying, but the person we’re sub-letting from lets him live in this big walk-in closet in the apartment.” So it was crazy, but it was from real life! And Tom was just…oh, it was just such a gift to be able to work with him. He’s amazing.

BE: I saw that you wrote a couple of episodes of “Doogie Howser,” then you went on to work on “How I Met Your Mother.” Did Neil Patrick Harris remember you from back then, or did you even get much of a chance to work with him in the “Doogie” days?

DH: Yeah, you know, Eileen had worked on the show, and then we wrote two episodes while we were on staff there, but we did still know Neil. He’s very sweet. We’d run into him over the years, and he always remembered us.

BE: You worked on “Murphy Brown” for quite a while as well.

DeAnn HelineDH: Yeah, which was a great experience. That cast was wonderful, and it was just a great learning experience as a writer. They really just ran a great ship there, and it was just a really fun, classy, great place to work. Before that, we worked on “Roseanne.”

BE: With “Murphy Brown,” I just wish the Motown music licensing wasn’t keeping more of it from being released on DVD.

DH: I know! I really wish it would come out. There are a lot of shows that are being sort of held up because of that. It’s crazy.

BE: What would you say is your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

DH: I guess I’d have to go back to “Committed.” We really loved that show, and I think it was just the kind of thing where we…it was hard, because we were put on at mid-season, and there wasn’t really a line-up. We were just sort of floating out there alone by ourselves, and it was on for, like, ten weeks and then gone. It’s one of the things where…well, it was funny and quirky, and we just loved it so much. It was a really, really fun project to work on, and we were sad that that one didn’t really go.

BE: And, lastly, what are your hopes for the second season of “The Middle”?

DH: Well, we’re excited for Sue to have a little success, you know, and…I think it’s just those great family moments. It’s been fun to send them on the road trips, like the spelling bee and those things, so in terms of the writing, it’ll be fun to do more of those. The nice thing is that you do start figuring out what works for the show, so you just feel like you know the show so much better now than when you started. Even though you’ve written a pilot, you’re still trying to figure out exactly what the show is, so we’re in a really nice groove now, sort of understanding what works. And it’s exciting to be able to go into Season 2 with all guns firing. My hope is…like I said, I think we’re getting more and more viewers and attention, and my hope is that we continue to get more, that people find the show and really like it.

BE: I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it continues to be more on the radar than it currently is. I’m trying to do my part.

DH: Thank you! It really does mean a lot. The attention helps us, and we appreciate it! And I appreciate that we’re one of your favorites. Tell your wife “thank you,” too…and your daughter! (Laughs)

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