Family Comedy Draws Laughs and Clashes From Real-Life Inspiration

·5-min read

The new hit ABC sitcom “Home Economics” centers on three siblings in dramatically different economic realities, and whenever a cast or crew member questions a comedic setup, they turn to co-creator Michael Colton, who based the series on the financial disparities within his own family.

“We’ll say, ‘Would that really happen?’ and he’ll pull out a picture on his cellphone and say, ‘Yes, it did,’” chuckles star Topher Grace.

Grace plays Colton’s avatar, the not-so-bestselling novelist Tom, who with his wife, Marina (Karla Souza), struggles to keep their family afloat, as does his sister, Sarah (Caitlin McGee), a chronically underpaid social worker, and her wife, Denise (Sasheer Zamata); youngest brother Connor (Jimmy Tatro) runs his own private equity firm and is swimming in cash — he lives, as he points out, in Matt Damon’s former home — but his marriage has collapsed.

Colton explains that he and co-creator John Aboud (their collaborations include “Penguins of Madagascar” and “A Futile and Stupid Gesture”) experienced lean and flush years in their screenwriting career, and a dip in fortunes formed the genesis of “Home Economics.”

“I was collecting unemployment,” recalls Colton. “I have a twin brother who works in private equity, and he sold a company and made like $7 million, and I have an older sister who works with troubled kids and has always been massively underpaid. I was talking to John about these mixed feelings of anxiety and insecurity, but also pride and then jealousy, and it felt like there was fodder for a TV show.”

“It’s about how money can screw up relationships, especially long-term relationships,” says Colton. One personal anecdote lit the creative lightbulb. “My brother was asking if our family wanted to go on vacation with his family and he would pay for everything. I was like, ‘Great,’ and my wife was like, ‘I don’t want to take their money,’ and we got into an argument. And John’s like, ‘Oh, that’s the show.’”

During development, pre-COVID-19, the duo wrestled with concerns that audiences might not embrace a sitcom mining laughs from financial inequities, says Aboud: “They don’t want to have those kinds of conversations.” But the pandemic made such topics “inescapable.”

“People don’t, in polite conversation, talk about money or sex,” agrees Colton. “But we felt taboo is conflict; conflict’s good for comedy — let’s run toward that.” Instead of focusing on the first-class problems of a clan like “Modern Family,” or the built-in money woes of “The Conners,” the pair dove into family members experiencing very different financial realities. “There are so many stories that we can draw on that have not been on TV.”

One ingredient they included from ABC’s history of successful family comedies was heart. “Our usual default is absurd nonsense,” says Aboud. “We wanted the challenge of doing something that could be hard-funny, like previous things we’d worked on, but also have that accessible part that was in that tradition.”

Colton adds, “We’re trying to do big-tent television that everybody can enjoy. John and I have bounced around: We’ve done family stuff, hard R-rated stuff, live action, animated features and TV. And this is a rare thing I can watch with my wife and my children and my parents.”

Grace — who’s enjoyed a varied career since his acting debut on “That ’70s Show” in 1998 (including “Traffic,” “Spider-Man 3” and “Black Mirror”) — was looking to make another unexpected career move. “Whatever was the last thing I did, I tried to do something the opposite. It’s a horrible way to make money, as my agents can attest to,” he laughs.

His much-praised turn as David Duke in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” planted the seed to shift into a lighter gear. “I was getting scripts for white supremacists and neo-Nazis,” he says. A return to his sitcom roots felt like an ideal reversal.

Grace responded to Colton and Aboud’s writing. “I realized this wasn’t a concept they had come up with out of thin air,” he says, recalling Colton regaling him with stories about his family. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s at least 200, 300 episodes of things that had happened between them.’ That got me really excited.”

Grace says playing Tom is reflective of his own life today. “He’s got it worse than me: He’s got twins and an older kid,” says the father of two. “But I know that feeling. He’s trying to be creative. He’s an author and he’s underwater. You’re lucky when the thing you’re doing, especially if it’s a long-term thing like this or ‘’70s,’ matches up a little bit with you, so you can steal from your own life.”

Aboud observes, “That was a stroke of good fortune to get Topher, because in discussing what kind of actors we had in our minds, Topher wasn’t someone we thought was an option because he’s a movie star,” says Aboud. “It was a bolt out of the blue, and we immediately started laughing because he’s so perfect for Tom.”

The creators credit Grace, who’s also an executive producer, for helping them zero in on the deep bench of actors who form the show’s ensemble, who display a chemistry together.

“We knew we were getting close to people [in casting sessions] because Topher would say, ‘Would you mind if I read it [with them]?’” says Colton. “Then, we knew he was excited, and we all got excited.” Once the final cast was assembled, Grace felt something electric. “Everyone’s a different kind of character, but they all kind of move in harmony,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, man. We got it. We got that chemistry.’”

After a lengthy, pandemic-imposed pause before production began, Grace says the increasingly connected team felt a delight in working together and this was key to powering the show’s charm and appeal. “Not only is that kind of joy what people are looking for, but how you feel while you’re making it hopefully translates to the viewer,” he says. “I think they can feel that watching it.”

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