If there’s a show of the summer, it’s FX drama The Bear.
Joanna Calo, whose credits include BoJack Horseman, The Baby-Sitter’s Club and hacksrecently joined TV’s Top 5 podcast hosts Lesley Goldberg and Daniel Fienberg to discuss FX/Hulu’s culinary dark comedy The Bear. The series, created by co-showrunner Christopher Storer (Ramy), was developed as a film before being adapted for television. In the interview, Calo opens up about the challenges of bringing the food and restaurant world to scripted television, avoiding tropes and staffing a writers room with food service backgrounds in mind.
DANIEL FIENBERG Let’s start at the beginning. There are so many interesting creative pieces to The Bear. The series was created by Christopher Storer. You came on, you’re showrunner and director and producer; it features Atlanta veteran Hiro Murai among the executive producers. Talk us through how all of these pieces came together, including your involvement.
JOANNA CALO This was a project that had existed for a while without me. It was a feature and then it was a show. And then in the way that shows sometimes do, it got stuck. They wanted to bring on a showrunner, and that’s me. And it took off from there. I thought it had this amazing energy to it; it had its own language. I saw things about it that I wanted to change.
FIENBERG How is the script that initially attracted you to the project different from the first two episodes that exist?
CALO One of the things that changed greatly ended up not being put into the final pilot. We wrote a big explosion for Jeremy [Allen White], getting at this thing that happens in kitchens, which is that the hot temperatures and the close quarters and the abusive cycles often lead chefs to yell at each other. There was this big moment for Jeremy to freak out at everyone. If you’ve seen the series, there are moments like that later on. When we made the pilot, we decided that we were able to draw that out for longer, but I do think that it showed FX what Jeremy could do and what the show could be. And that was something exciting to them. And also Sydney [Adamu] was supposed to appear first in episode three. And I loved her and I said, “let’s get her in.”
LESLEY GOLDBERG What is your own food service background?
CALO I do have foodservice background. I have never been a chef. I very much am a huge Ruth Reichl fan and I was a huge Jonathan Gold fan and grew up listening to Jonathan Gold and learning about Los Angeles and understanding how cities are affected by food. And so, because of that, I’ve long been a lover of that world and a reader of that world. But my own food experience is that I worked in the dining hall in my college and at an ice cream store in New Jersey, where I’m from, and I absolutely loved it.
GOLDBERG How essential was it to have a writers room where food service stories were important? Did you look for that in some of the backgrounds of the writers that you hired?
CALO I did look for it, but we were incredibly blessed with Matty Matheson, as well as Chris [who] has his own experience and background in the chef world, and his sister Coco, who also came on to help us with the food. They would come and tell us their stories, and we ate them up. The stories were so good and so vibrant. There were themes running throughout them that we could pick up on. We definitely only hired writers who had had [those] jobs. We had such amazing access to these really detailed stories of real-life chefs that our writers were able to sort of get to the character stuff and focus on the character stuff, but also focus on the larger themes that are there about running a small business and found family and all the things that hopefully people are feeling in the show.
GOLDBERG This does seem like a role that was written with Jeremy Allen White in mind. Obviously, he’s returning to Chicago’s South Side after 11 seasons on Shameless. And, honestly, this could have just felt like a Shameless sequel, just about Lip. What did you see in him when you cast him that made him right for this role?
CALO I have always been a huge fan of his. I think he pops in that show. When I joined this project, I was delighted that he was at the top of Chris’ list. … And we were lucky that he said yes because I think he’s incredibly talented.
GOLDBERG What else were you looking for in casting? Kitchens are an incredibly diverse place and your show definitely reflects that.
CALO Another thing that really drew me to the project is the characters were so exciting and set up to really get to be co-workers without feeling forced, which sometimes diversity can feel these days in television. We were looking for surprising people, the most exciting people, and people with kindness at their center as a way to like ground some of the sharper edges of the show. And Lionel [Boyce] and Ayo [Edebiri] were people like Chris had worked with in different ways. And Ebon [Moss-Bachrach] was someone that we both really admired and kind of just found through the casting process. All the people that we cast were willing to read, which was a really interesting process to navigate. And that wasn’t even about them, showing us how good they were, we knew how good they were. But it was a way for us to meet them and talk to them and see if they wanted to work with us and see if they kind of could have a shared energy.
FIENBERG There’s a lot of intensity to the show. And I think that the intensity is probably amped up by how tight the show is. But how did it end up being a half-hour show? How did it end up being eight episodes rather than the 10 you mentioned?
GOLDBERG And how did it end up getting the all eight episodes dropping at once?
CALO The half-hour discussion had happened before I was there. But Chris and I really stayed true to what we wanted the voice to be. … It’s like, would you really want to be in that kitchen for more than half an hour at a time? I think you need a little credit break to get you through. These things were honestly just told to us, and we were so grateful that FX wanted to make the show that we were like, “OK, yeah, sure.”
FIENBERG How do you know when you’ve told as much story as you need to tell and that you don’t need to pad it out just because 20 minutes feels like a short episode?
CALO Sometimes these things are short, or they’re small amounts of story, but we knew that the talent in these people that these stories would be would come through. It originally being a feature, I think we often tried to think of it as still just one big feature. And so how could we tell the story without hitting people over the head with it? Is it a different experience to just live in this kitchen and get lost in the food and letting the food represent connection between these people as if you’re making a musical and there’s a dance number.
FIENBERG Speaking of the “not wanting to hit people on the head,” were there specific tropes or conventions of the genre that you specifically said we just don’t want to do that or maybe we’ll save it for season two or season three , we just don’t want to lead with the familiar things that people expect from our restaurant comedy?
CALO We really want to never do any tropes ever. You know how sometimes tropes are actually accurate? I actually feel like with chef shows, they’re not accurate. It’s so much posturing, and so much ego and like, obviously, Carmy has an ego. He speaks to it, and we see it, and we see his confidence, but he also is incredibly tortured, and has an insane life where he works 20 hours a day, and then like, shoves a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth. So I think like our understanding of, at least this, this kind of chef and this kind of kitchen was that there is not a place for those tropes. At least for now, we’ll see. Maybe we’ll run out of ideas.
GOLDBERG One of the things that I liked about the show is the found family vs. the real family, and how this really combined the two because this is an all-star chef who returns home to help rebuild the family business after his brother’s passing. One of the things that I think is so great is the way that that found family becomes part of the real family because it is a family business, too. But can you talk a little bit about how that worked in the writers room? And what inspired that larger theme?
CALO That larger theme is what made some of the people at FX the most excited about it from the beginning. That if we could create the best version of a work family. I’ve always loved the idea of writing a show where it’s a place that people want to work. And I feel like The Bear is like, half that and half where you never want to work. This idea of like right now we’re all craving connection. And these workplaces, where we’re shoved up against people that we maybe wouldn’t normally connect with can be some of the strongest relationships that we have in life. The idea of putting that on Carmy as someone who really struggles with his own family, but kind of can’t help but try to kind of push away intimacy in his work life, but it’s like it’s all around him.
GOLDBERG The finale sets up what could be a very different second season. How much have you already mapped out?
CALO Very little. Do you have any ideas?! We are drawn to the differences. That feels exciting to us. And again, hopefully unique. But also, there’s still stories about the past that needs to be told. So I think we’re hoping that there could be a little bit of both.
Interview edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full conversation in the player, above. TV’s Top 5 is a weekly podcast featuring news, reviews and showrunner interviews. Subscribe here.
The Bear is now streaming on Hulu.