When 'The Wonder Years' Meets 'Sportscenter': A Conversation With Kevin Jakubowski, Creator Of 'Play By Play'

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?

playbyplayhouse(22of117)

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!

play by play 3

Kevin Jakubowski: Actually, looking back, I think what changed the most was probably the character of Rocco. We cast Max Amor to play Rocco—Rocco Cortez, who is Pete Hickey's best friend—and Max just gave such a unique take on the character.  As written, the character was sort of this hustler; he talked a mile a minute; he was sort of this Vince Vaughn type of guy. The 14-year-old Vince Vaughn. But Max brought in this really unique wide-eyed weirdness to the character, which I really loved. And so, even though the words on the page never really changed, what was funny about those words changed because Max brought something really unique to the character.

Blake J. Harris: Let me ask you one more question about Play by Play...and it's not even really about the new show, but more about your writing sensibility. In Play by Play, as well as Assassination of a High School President and even some of the stuff you've done for Nickelodeon, there's a stylized tone to how you tell these stories about kids. It's super serious—noir-ish in a way, almost hard-boiled—but also kind of silly and light-hearted. There are elements that remind me of Wes Anderson. Is he a big influence on your work? And either way, I'd be curious to know what shows (or films) do you think had an influence on this project?

Kevin Jakubowski: Absolutely. Bottle Rocket and then definitely Rushmore...I mean, Rushmore is why I wanted to be a screenwriter. I don't think I actively try to imitate that, but that dry, deadpan humor that Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson wrote, I just really love that. I think the directors of this series, Susanna Fogel and Charles Hood, really captured that really, really well. And were able to bring a tone that was serious—because when you're in those situations, they are serious—and still funny because when you're looking at it from the perspective of a thirtysomething it can be light and funny because those stakes really aren't the end of the world. And I think the directors were able to do a really good job with that, along with the other writers for Season 1 (Justin Varava, Sean Lavery, Kerri Doherty) I think they really all brought their A-game. In terms of other influences: again, The Wonder Years was huge, and Freaks and Geeks too, and then movies like Stand By Me, The Sandlot and A Christmas Story.

Blake J. Harris: Unsurprisingly, those are all stories about adolescence; so let's jump back to your childhood. Where did you grow up?

Kevin Jakubowski: I'm from a little town outside Chicago called Batavia.

Blake J. Harris: And did you know early on that you wanted to be a writer?

Kevin Jakubowski: Yeah, pretty much. [laughs] So there's this Dr. Seuss book called "My Book About Me" and in it you're supposed to write in what you want to be when you grow up. Well, at the time I didn't know how to write "Screenwriter" or "Director" so I just wrote "Movie Maker" in there. So I think I always kind of had that in mind. And then in high school, me and my four closest friends did an access comedy series called "A Bit Carried Away." Which was just sort of like a low-rent, low-budget 16-year-old version of Saturday Night Live. It was so much fun. I mean, it wasn't great—we had no idea what we were doing—but in our town it made us kind of famous...that really got me into it. Like if those guys had all been like, "Hey, Jakubowski, we don't want to go to college, we just want to hit the road and do this: I would have been like yup, let's do it."

playbyplayhouse(83of117)

Blake J. Harris: [laughs] You were living the Wayne's World dream.

Kevin Jakubowski: Well it's funny you say that because where I grew, in Batavia, it's by Aurora (of Wayne's World fame). So it was kind of funny when we were doing the access show in the mid/late 90s; we did kind of feel like we were living the "real-life version of Wayne's World, so to speak."

Blake J. Harris: And what did you do next? How did you actually going about becoming a "Movie Maker?"

Kevin Jakubowski: So my other big passion was sports. Especially hockey. I wanted to play that in college and was able to play at Villanova University; so that was sort of a big reason for going there. But I also had a column for the paper, which was always a lot of fun. Then after that I started applying to grad schools, film schools. That was always kind of the plan, to figure out how to be a director. So I started applying to all these schools, but I wasn't getting in anywhere. [laughing] It was like everyday I would get a different rejection letter. But I did get into one school, which was in Ireland: University College Dublin, which is James Joyce's alma mater!

Blake J. Harris: Nice!

Kevin Jakubowski: So I got in and decided to go there and it was really one of the best things that could have ever happened to me. It cost maybe a quarter of what it cost to go to grad school in the states. I lived in a foreign country, I worked at a pub and I got access to all these really great stories and situations; and you know, as a writer, your stories and your experiences are everything. So that led me to write what I consider my first good screenplay, which then bizarrely (very quickly) got me an agent in LA. Then I spent a year back home, in Batavia, just writing and saving up money and then I moved to LA.

Blake J. Harris: What was the script that got you that attention?

Kevin Jakubowski: It was called Fair Play Paddy Fenski. And it was about this Irish sport called Hurling, which is crazy. It's actually the world's oldest team sport; it's kind of a cross between lacrosse and field hockey. It's super fast and super violent and it's the national sport in Ireland. So every year, there's like 90,000 people who come to see the Ireland Final every year in this place called Croke Park. And these players are all, like, national heroes; but they're not full-time athletes. They don't get paid a penny to play this sport, so they all have regular jobs too, which I just thought was this amazing thing! It was like glorified high school football.

Blake J. Harris: [laughs]

Kevin Jakubowski: So my script was about an American who goes over to Ireland to try and help save his grandfather's pub and realizes he has this legacy and becomes a hurler. That's what the story was about. And that's what took me to L.A. So I moved out west and I got an internship on the Sony lot where I didn't make any money. And then I got a PA job on South Park, where I was for two years. And there I was writing scripts and managed to get a couple other optioned for no money, but I was making progress.

Blake J. Harris: Sure.

Kevin Jakubowski: And then I started writing with my buddy who was also working there at the time. Tim Calpin. We wrote a couple scripts, the second one being Assassination of a High School President. Which got us all these crazy meetings. You know, him and I were getting Trey Parker lunch and picking up Matt Stone's laundry and we were having meetings with, like, Paramount and Universal in between, secretly. Still trying to keep our jobs! But the script sold and because of that, the one we wrote right before that also sold. We were able to quit our jobs. Assassination made the Blacklist.

Blake J. Harris: I know this was all a while ago, but do you remember how the idea for Assassination of a High School President came about?  

Assassination Poster JPEG

Kevin Jakubowski: Sure. Tim was actually working on a novel at the time with that title. And when he told me, I was like, "Uh, that's the best title I ever heard in my life!" At the same time, I was working on another script that was about this newspaper reporter in high school who could never finish any article he was writing on but still considered himself this great writer. And then one night I was just watching JFK—Oliver Stone's JFK—I don't know why, but for some reason; I was like: what if we did something like this in high school. What if we did, like, the Big Lebowski set in high school? Or Fargo set in high school? It could be really funny. And because, as a kid, the stakes feel so high to you, we didn't need to have people getting killed or anything like that. I mean, when you're 15, who gets elected class president can feel just as much like life or death. So Tim and I just got to work on it and it totally clicked. We wrote it in about 2-3 months. We were actually house-sitting for Trey Parker when we wrote part of it, which was inspiring...

Blake J. Harris: Ha!

Kevin Jakubowski: Yeah, and then it just kind of snowballed from there. You know, I was 27 (I think) at the time, so it was just amazing. It's all happening!

play by play 4

Blake J. Harris: Not only that, but with pretty significant actors too. How were you able to get Bruce Willis on board?

Kevin Jakubowski: So a lot of big producers were interested and eventually it went to Vertigo, which is Roy Lee and Doug Davison, who had done The Departed, Lego, all kinds of huge movies. They really just championed it. Then Bob Yari, of Yari Film Group, really liked the script. I think there was just a lot of heat on it and set something up where essentially if they could get a big name to play the principal they thought we could get a green light. They got it to Bruce Willis, who loved it and wanted to do it and from there we were able to attract a lot of other great actors. It's a really great young cast. That's a lot of people's first movie. Luke Grimes, who ended up going to American Sniper. Vincent Piazza. Zoe Kravitz. Melanie Diaz. John Magaro. Reece Thompson.  Just a lot of really good, talented, young actors. That our casting director and our director (Brett Simon) were able to cast really well.

Blake J. Harris: Flashing forward a bit, you started focusing on television...

Kevin Jakubowski: So we shot Assassination in the summer of 2007 and then Tim and I got a bunch more studio work after that. I think, in total, we wrote 7 or 8 scripts together in the span of five years. And then we kind of went our separate ways a bit and I segued into TV. I had two ideas for shows that I really liked, and they were both kids shows (which was a bit of a surprise to even me!). So I pitched one of them to Nickelodeon—an animated show called Dickie Danger & The Cafeteria Kid—and that sold, so I developed that with them. Then a little while after that I pitched the other one, a live-action show that was kind of like "The Office, but for Kids."

Blake J. Harris: "The Office, but for Kids?" I like that.

Kevin Jakubowski: Yeah. Because when you're a kid, school is your job and I think we forget that. And you can do a really great workplace comedy that way. And that was coupled with this idea that there were these two brothers; the older brother, who's kind of this idiot, who got held back (and claimed he did it on purpose, because it made him the "coolest guy in his grade now") and then his younger brother, who's super smart, and he gets bumped up a grade. So now these two brothers are forced to co-exist. So I developed that with Nickelodeon over the course of a couple years. We shot a pilot, which they really liked, and then they eventually picked it up for series based on some tweaks (including a title change) and that became Legendary Dudas.

Blake J. Harris: And that brings us to right before Play by Play. But before we finish up, I wanted to just ask you a few questions about 8-Bit Christmas.

Kevin Jakubowski: Sure!

Blake J. Harris: So if I recall correctly, in addition to the book, you actually wrote a screenplay as well. In fact, I think the screenplay came first. Is that right?

playbyplay(39of167)

Kevin Jakubowski: Yeah. It started as a script. I think it was the 3rd script I ever wrote, and it was called Nintendo Christmas then. I wrote it when I was working at South Park. And it got optioned by a little company, which was really exciting! And it got close to getting made, and I was actually attached to direct. But it didn't happen so I just put it on a shelf for, I don't know, 7 years. And, well, even though I'd set it aside, I couldn't get the story totally out of my head so I started thinking: hey, this would really make a great book.

Blake J. Harris: Had you ever written a book before?

Kevin Jakubowski: [laughs] No, I hadn't. So there was a learning process there—which was definitely tough—but after I wrapped my head around the idea, it just felt really natural and exciting to write. You know you're doing something right—and I know you know this—when you sit down to write and you're like: this is fun! So that's what it was like with 8-Bit Christmas.

Blake J. Harris: And since the book is about a kid who's dying to get an 8-bit NES for Christmas, I have to ask—my final question: were you ever lucky enough to find an NES waiting for you under the Christmas tree?

Kevin Jakubowski: I was! I think it was Christmas 1988 (or '87). It was a seminal moment in my childhood, and that's what the book is about. Kids in our generation; if you're of a certain age, that was it—that was the greatest thing you could get for Christmas. And, you know, my friends and I we just obsessed about it and prayed to god every night that we would somehow get it. And so getting it for Christmas was just amazing. Just this magical thing.

***

To check out the first episode of Play by Play, you can stream it right here.