Play by Play Series Creator Interview

If you liked The Wonder Years or The Sandlot — if you yearn for nostalgic tales told with humor, heart, and wit — then brace yourselves for the wistful joy of Kevin Jakubowski’s excellent new series Play by Play.

Set in the ’90s, Play by Play centers on a 14-year-old wannabe athlete named Pete Hickey (played by Reid Miller) and his herculean quest to find relevance as a freshman in high school. For anyone who’s survived high school, this challenge is all too familiar; but there’s one thing — even more powerful than living in his older brother’s shadow or his younger’s sister warpath — that put Pete’s journey into perilous territory: his freshman class is the school’s first to welcome girls. Which means that every sophomore, junior and senior at his school — all dudes — are gunning for the girls in his grade (and all too happy to take down Pete Hickey in the process).

Unlike most first-person narrated coming of age stories, Play by Play was created with a twist: the narrator (who, as with shows like The Wonder Years or The Goldbergs, is unseen) is a present day  anchor on Sportscenter; so the narrative on screen — the trials and tribulations of young Pete Hickey — is presented in a way that feels like highlights to a sports game.

The show, which premieres today on Go90 (Verizon’s freely available streaming service) is ambitious, endearing and consistently clever. Which is probably why Play by Play has already been picked up for a 2nd and 3rd season.

To learn more about how this show got made, I sat down with creator Kevin Jakubowski to discuss how Play by Play came to be. We also talked about the blacklist script that launched his career (The Assassination of a High School President), his script-turned-novel about the magic of Nintendo (8-Bit Christmas) and how a sport called Hurling changed the trajectory of his life…

play by play 1

Blake J. Harris: So a couple years back, I read and loved your Nintendo-themed novel 8-Bit Christmas. So much so, that I actually wrote about it for The Huffington Post. Ever since then, I’ve been keeping tabs on you and your career. So it piqued my interest when I heard that you—[half joking] the master of non-sappy nostalgia—had created a show in the vein of The Wonder Years but with a sports-oriented twist.

Kevin Jakubowski: [laughs] The Wonder Years meets Sportscenter!

Blake J. Harris: Exactly. So I want to hear all about the new show, Play by Play, which premieres today, and then let’s go back in time to talk about your high school experience, how you got into screenwriting and who you had to assassinate to get Bruce Willis into Assassination of a High School President. Sound good?

Kevin Jakubowski: Absolutely. Where would you like to begin?

Blake J. Harris: Let’s start at the very beginning, with the idea for Play by Play. What was it, where did it come from, and where did you go form there?

Kevin Jakubowski: I’ve always just been kind of bizarrely fascinated by high school. In particular my own high school: Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois, which is this old sort of traditional catholic high school and I went there at a very interesting time.

Blake J. Harris: Interesting in what way?

Fenwick '94

Kevin Jakubowski: So Fenwick had been an all boys school for about 60-70 years and when I got there, it was going through the transition of accepting girls. That had started one year before I got there. And so when I was a freshman, there was this really odd dynamic where all the juniors and seniors in the school were guys. All of them!

Blake J. Harris: That’s crazy. I mean, being a freshman dude is already the lowest ladder on the totem pole…

Kevin Jakubowski: Exactly. So for me and my friends, it was brutal! And that was something I wanted to try and capture in a comedy series: this environment where the girls want nothing to do with their freshmen classmates. Why would they want to make out with a 14-year-old little dork when they could hang out with 17 and 18 year olds who have cars and mustaches?

Blake J. Harris: You just can’t compete with cars and mustaches…

Kevin Jakubowski: I certainly couldn’t! So that idea—or part of an idea, really—had been floating through my head and then things kind of crystalized when I realized that the way I looked back on my highlights from growing up, it felt kind of similar to watching highlights on Sportscenter. And so I came up with this idea of a show being narrated by a present day sportscaster. It would be kind of like The Wonder Years but with a sports twist. And I think that in high school—for better or worse—we’re all trying to find our voice; and that is literally what this character Pete Hickey (played by Reid Miller) is doing. He is a kid who loves sports, who plays sports, but he’s slowly kind of finding out that he’s not going to do much with them! He might love them, but he’s not playing in college; he’s not as good as his older brother, or younger sister (or father or mother for that matter); this isn’t quite his thing, but doesn’t quite know it yet.

Blake J. Harris: I’ve lived through that!

Kevin Jakubowski: Yeah. Most of us have, at some point. There’s something universal in that realization (yet still entirely devastating).

Blake J. Harris: So as the idea started to come together, what were your next steps?

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Kevin Jakubowski: I decided to write a pilot on spec. So I did that and then gave it to my manager and agent. Try to find somewhere that’ll do it! And very quickly they found Complex (which is Complex Networks), who had me come in to talk about the show. So I went in and the meeting went great: We love the script! We’re thinking about making it! And, you know, you have meetings like that and 9 times out of 10, they don’t pan out. But a few weeks later my agent called me and said: they want to do it, they want 8 episodes. Wow! That’s great! So that’s what happened and their platform for first airing it is on Go90, Verizon’s new network.

Blake J. Harris: Now, I must admit, that before Play by Play I had no idea what Go90 was. I don’t know how familiar you were with the Go90 back then, but I think it’s fair to say that this is a network that most people aren’t familiar with (at least not yet). So I was wondering if you had any concerns going about making that the home for you show?

Kevin Jakubowski: So I didn’t know anything about Go90 either. But the more I found out about it, the more interesting it sounded. It’s this streaming platform, and it’s totally free. Anyone can get it. You don’t need to have Verizon as a carrier or anything like that. So in that regard, it’s a streaming service in the vein of Hulu or Netflix. And even though, like you said, it’s maybe not a service that everyone is familiar with yet, there were a couple of things that really appealed to me. One was that anyone could access Go90 and watch Play by Play. As a creator, you always want as many people to see your show as possible; so not having that barrier to entry, that was appealing. And the second thing—and I’ll be perfectly honest with you—was the creative control. Because they’re a very new company, they were more willing to entrust a lot of confidence in me and Haven Entertainment (the production entity of this). That was very enticing.

Blake J. Harris: Since you were given that level of creative control, I’m curious what changed the most creatively between pitch and production.

Kevin Jakubowski: It’s really funny because I’m not sure what changed. This has been so seamless in terms of what we wrote is exactly what we shot and it just came together almost magically. It was very different than the typical network process where you have a first draft that gets totally re-written; you have notes, you have a network draft, you have a table read, re-write, re-write, change, change, change. So that gave us a lot of freedom, which honestly with needed on our shoestring budget!

Blake J. Harris: Ha!

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