Fred Barron Interview

With his machine-gun delivery and livewire personality, Fred Barron could be the hero of a sitcom. Instead, he creates them - and has made his greatest mark in Britain with the marvellously cynical sitcom My Family. But what led Fred, an American, to base the series here in the UK? And are the Harpers inspired by people he has known?

Ben Harman

British viewers may not be aware, but you're a bit of a big cheese in the comedy world. Tell us what you've done.

Well I started off in journalism, but my original ambition had always been to write creatively, ideally in the field of comedy. Now most journalists do tend to have these flights of fancy, but I was lucky enough to actually make the dream come true and break into the career I really wanted.

I was also lucky enough to work on some pretty remarkable shows - I wrote and produced The Larry Sanders Show and also worked behind the scenes on Seinfeld.

What inspired My Family?

The idea came to me when my father passed away. Now he was this very irritable, grumpy and witty guy, a dentist in fact, who had a very low tolerance of just about everybody and would do things like smoke around his patients and so on. And when he died I just thought, I've got to write about him. And not just him, but the rest of my family - such as my mother, who had a talent for destroying every meal she attempted, my scheming Machiavellian siblings, and of course myself - a lazy teenager on the run from responsibility. So you'll recognise the characters from the show right there.

So why base it in the UK, rather than the States?

Basically, My Family is a very British sort of sitcom in tone and subject. For one thing, it's got a middle-aged dentist in the leading role, which isn't glamorous enough for most US networks. On top of that, the dentist in question is sullen, sulky, annoying, cynical and world-weary - again, jarring with the sort of sparky, feel-good characters you get in US sitcoms.

In fact, when I showed the script to one executive he said I should tweak it to make the father a "grumpy but lovable with a radio talk show". I asked if he meant a sort of "Frasier with kids", and he nodded. At that point I realised I could never get the series made the way I wanted it - but luckily a friend brought it to the attention of the BBC who were totally open to the cynical gags I had in mind.

Are there American influences on My Family, though?

Well I think the actual content, the tone of the jokes and interplay of the characters, is all very British in its sensibility. It doesn't have the hugging and "moral of the episode" stuff that you see in a lot of sitcom. However, I'd say the production of the series is quite American insofar as it uses teams of writers on each episode. The same way that shows like The Simpsons do. This is sharp contrast to British sitcoms, which tend to be written by one or two people at most (think Roy Clarke, John Sullivan, and so on). I think our method accounts for the sheer number of gags per minute on My Family - a lot of brainstorming goes on behind the scenes!

How did you choose the actors to play the lead roles?

Well obviously Robert Lindsay is so well-known and respected that I was aware of his work from way back, but I knew he had to be cast as Ben Harper when I saw him on Broadway in a production of Me And My Girl. His comic genius really struck me, as did his talent for physical humour - it was almost like seeing Norman Wisdom at his peak. As for Zoe Wanamaker, a colleague suggested her and we sent her the script - but apparently she was sceptical about doing a sitcom until she actually read it during a flight and loved it. So we've been quite fortunate to have two amazing stars for the series.