How A Hotel Guest Book Prank Inspired The Creator Of 'My Name Is Earl' To Create His New Comedy [Interview]

It's not too late to catch up on TBS's new comedy The Guest Book. This week brings the third episode, and even though it's an anthology series, you'll want to keep up. Set at the Froggy Cottage cabin, each week sees a new guest check in with a new story. However, the manager Wilfred (Charlie Robinson) and the strippers from nearby Chubby's are always there, and single father Andrew Brown (Garret Dillahunt) seems to be staying longer.

Creator Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl, Raising Hope, The Millers) got the idea when he  started writing funny stories in guest books where he stayed. The Guest Book is based on those stories, and they will all pay off in the season finale. Garcia spoke with /Film by phone last week, in a good mood since episode two saw increased viewership.

This is not a single location. You've got Chubby's and various locations leading up to the cabin.

We're all over the place. It wasn't like Room 104. That's why it's funny to me that we got compared to that show just because first logline. It couldn't be more different. We not only have Chubby's and the rental place and what have you, but every story we go outside of the house a ton and some stories there's a lot of lead up before you even get to the cabin. Other stories, there's flashbacks. We did not get cabin fever, as you might say.

And you still have to watch The Guest Book in order, right? You can't skip around.

I mean, look. When I showed it at the Austin ATX, I showed episode seven just because I love all my children, but that was one where Michael Rapaport just killed it. He was amazing. So that's what I showed and people weren't lost. They weren't confused. It was fine. Now, they would have enjoyed what was going on with the regulars a lot more had they watched one through six in order before they watched seven. So it's not 100% necessary but you're going to enjoy it more if you watch them in order. Especially once the season comes to an end, now you're really going to want to have seen at least a few leading up to it, if not all of them, to really fully appreciate the show.

Did you have some fun making the "previously on..." different every week?

Yeah, because I knew I had to do a "previously on..." just real quick just in case you missed one. There's always the fear in this show that [viewers] hear "anthology," they know it's mostly a new show every week so they do miss one. So I wanted the people to be able to be caught up and enjoy which is why I think at ATX people probably were fine with it because they got caught up real quick. If you're going to do a "previously on..." how are you going to do it. You want to try to do it different and fun. I always loved Shameless's "previously on." I know that short-lived show BrainDead did a song every week. Seemed like a lot of work but it was fun. So I wanted to have something I could shoot in one day that has one camera. I thought, "What about these two guys and one of them just loves the show and the other guy isn't interested?" which felt very real to me. I can see that happening all over the place. Some people get into things and some people don't so I thought we would have fun with that.

Speaking of music, who's the band that plays in the bar?

Oh, HoneyHoney. They're fantastic. I went out to see this singer-songwriter Hayes Carll in L.A. one night which is unusual for me because I usually don't leave my house. I'd had a couple beers and I was sitting there and I was watching this guy. I was standing around and I'm like, "I like live music. It's fun. What if we had a band that played at Chubby's every Sunday and we just use them for the ending music?" Music isn't cheap and I always like to use music in my shows, but if you do a cover version, it's half price because you're just paying for the publishing. I thought if we found a great band, maybe they could record a cover version and an original song for each episode and that's what we did. My music supervisor found this band, HoneyHoney, he knew them. They came in for a meeting, read the script. They totally were into it. We just got along instantly. Suzanne [Santo] and Ben [Jaffe] are their names. They wrote an original song and did a cover song for every episode. In editing we figured out which works best for the episodes. Sometimes we used covers and sometimes we used originals.

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Are you going to put out HoneyHoney's soundtrack?

We're working on it, yeah. They have their own albums and they each have solo albums. She had a party last night for her album release but like I said, I don't leave my house so I didn't end up going to it. We would love to put out an album. I know our music supervisor is all over it.

You'd written these stories in guest books, but since each episode leads into the next, how did you connect your own stories in the right order?

What I did with that is I have 14 or so stories that I wrote in guest books. I laid them out at the beginning when I knew I was going to do 10 of these for a season. I picked the ones that I thought I would use and then the last episode is not from a guest book because that's a culmination of all the stuff that's happening with the regulars. The guest book stories didn't have regulars in them. They just were all standalone stories. I knew with the TV show I was going to have regulars. Then I also came up with new stories, episodes five and six. What I had to do was lay out the stories and match them with what I would have happening with the regulars. Then I'd place them in a way that stories I felt weren't going to require as much time to tell, I put later in the series because I knew I would be using more time at that point with the regulars. As the show goes on, we spend more and more time with the regulars and their stories start to get more and more interesting.

So the Garret Dillahunt and Charlie Robinson story was just for the show?

That was just for the show. I didn't even know where I was going. Even around episode five or six, I still didn't know where I was going with that. I just let it breathe and do what it did. I found my way to the ending. I wrote all nine episodes before we started shooting and then I waited to write episode 10 until I saw the chemistry with the regulars and I saw how things were working. I had an idea of what it would be but I waited until a few weeks into the season until I started writing episode 10, which is not unlike how I used to write these stories in guest books. I would just sit down and start writing, had no idea where the stories were going which is completely opposite of how I would normally write a TV show where I need to know everything before I start writing dialogue.

How did you remember all these guest book stories?

Here's the thing. I'd write it in the book and then I'd always type out a copy on my laptop and take it with me. At first it was because I just wanted to read it to people on set and my family and make them laugh. They would just be like, "Oh my God, you left another one. What did you write this time? Then, after I'd written three or four of them, I thought I'm going to do a book at some point of short stories, so that's why I was making copies of them. Then towards the end I was like no, I've got to do this as a TV show. I even think my writing became a little bit more visual as I was starting to really picture this as a TV show towards the later stories I wrote in the books.

Has TBS been cool with the language and sexuality?

Yeah, they're great. From day one, they basically told me, "We're a cable channel. If you say f*** or c*** we're going to bleep it and if you show frontal nudity we're going to blur it." Those were the rules. I'm not a big fan of bleeping or blurring on TV shows because it just takes me out of it. So I just made sure I didn't say those words and when we had nudity, I shot it in a way that just the natural focus of the camera would do the blurring for us, put people in the background, focus on something in the foreground, don't have to have that shot of pixelation.

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Did all of your guest book stories have a dark tone with meth users and such?

Yes, a lot of them did because they were intended to kind of freak people out. You go in the book from "We took the kids sledding" to "a couple meth heads broke in." The meth head one specifically, I went up there to the mountains to write and the place where you get the key was closed for the day. I paid for the place but I couldn't get the key so I had to break in. After I broke in, I was like, "All right, what if somebody broke in? Who would break in?" Episode 5 is an original. I did not put that in a guest book. That one and the witness protection program are ones I just sat down and came up with. However, because I am OCD and it's important to me that the show stays true to what it is, I have written guest book versions of both those shows and I will be putting them in guest books. It's important to me that all these stories were at some point left behind.

Is it accurate to say The Guest Book has very dark elements but a light approach to it?

I think it's completely accurate. It's nothing we discussed. The way this came about was they read these stories. They read these guest book stories. I said basically I want to turn these into TV shows and they said at the time, "Why don't you write six of them as scripts so we can see how they translate because we really like them." I said, "All right, what you don't know is I've already written two of them as scripts so why don't I give you those and you decide if you want to do it." They read the first two and said, "We're on board. Let's do 10." It was never a conscious development process of we're looking fro this kind of show or we're looking to do this kind of things. The stories just are what they are and they jumped on board.

Is it also a bit of screwball comedy with physical slapstick and hijinks?

Yeah, I'd say that's in there too. Look, I just write what amuses me. As far as the stories being dark and twisted, that's kind of what I started with and as I think about season two and I've written a couple episodes just for the heck of it for season two, I stay along that path. There's something funny to me about doing more dark and twisted stories but finding quirky funny things that are going on within them. In episode one, a guy gets hit in the head with a bowling ball. Initially in the guest book story, a guy just drops down and jumps on him and knocks him out. There's no big bowling ball swinging. It turned into that for TV and it amused me. I'm certainly not afraid to find humor in different things. I think there's a lot of different things that make people laugh so I just write to amuse myself.

If you wrote all 10 episodes, was there any writers room?

There was no writers room. I had three people, some friends, one that was actually working on the show as a writer's assistant and two others that were working on other shows that did a little punch up. I would filter it through them. They would send it back with a few jokes and I would put those in but there was no writers room. I just wrote all of them before we started shooting and ran with it, which is how I plan to do season two as well.

Did Rapaport love playing a big dork?

I think he loved it, yeah. When I finished writing that one, he was the first person I thought of. I've worked with him many times and you've seen him play all kinds of different roles. You don't see him play this kind of guy too often. Certainly not the same character at all but I've seen him do this type of thing for the movie Special. He plays an awkward, weird dude who thinks he has special powers. He was great in that and so I just thought of him right away, that he would be fantastic. I knew I wanted him to be in one of these and this is the one I thought. He got the script and instantly was on board. Weeks and weeks before we started shooting, I'm getting calls and e-mails and we're having discussions about the character. He really gave it a lot of thought and dove into it.

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Did you ask all your old cast members to be on The Guest Book?

Yeah, for the most part. Some people just weren't available yet. I'm hoping that season two, I can get them available. Martha Plimpton was quite upset that she couldn't fit it in her schedule, especially with Garret Dillahunt being in every episode and Shannon [Woodward] coming in. Ethan [Suplee] wasn't available to come in. My hope is that anybody I didn't get to work with from my past in season one, I get to bring in in season two. I'd love to have Jason Lee on this thing and Ethan. Even from The Millers, Will Arnett couldn't work it out to be in one but I'd love to get him and Sean Hayes. Hopefully I get to bring back all my friends.

Do you have anything else in the works?

I'm hoping we get a season two. It's looking promising now. We've been going up in ratings so I'll be working on those. I have a Broadway musical that premieres on Broadway in February. We start previews in February. It's the Jimmy Buffett musical called Escape to Margaritaville. We did very well in La Jolla for three months and we go to Houston and Chicago. Then in the spring we're on Broadway.

So the songs are all the Jimmy Buffett catalog?

Yes, we basically took all of Jimmy Buffett's songs and Mike O'Malley, actor/writer, he and I wrote the book. So we came up with an original story. It's not like the life of Jimmy Buffett like Jersey Boys. It's more Mamma Mia! in the sense that we took the music and came up with an original story.

Had you ever done Broadway before?

No, Mike called me one day four and a half years ago and said, "Do you want to write a Broadway musical?" And I said, "What are you talking about?" He said he'd worked with Jimmy Buffett on something a long time ago. They had approached him about writing the book for the musical. Jimmy Buffett was a big My Name Is Earl fan which Mike knew so he suggested we write it together. That's how it all came to be. We got to hang out with Jimmy Buffett for the last four and a half years. It's been a dream.

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The Guest Book airs Thursday nights at 10:30PM on TBS.