John Lehr and Nancy Hower didn't know a lot about Westerns when they embarked on writing their new Hulu comedy, "Quick Draw." But they dug up comedy gold while researching the Old West.
"It's amazing the stuff that never made it into the Westerns because it was so ridiculous, but it was actually true," Northwestern grad Lehr said by phone from L.A. last week. "We stumbled upon this steam-powered vibrator from the 1800s that I was just like, 'You got to be kidding me!' No, absolutely true.
"It was just like, 'Nancy! A steam-powered vibrator!' So of course we worked that in immediately."
Obviously well-researched and bawdy, "Quick Draw" is a loose, improvisational show that hits way more than it misses. Hulu launched the series Aug. 5 with the first two episodes; new 23-minute episodes debut every Monday.
Lehr stars as Sheriff John Henry Hoyle, a Harvard-educated lawman who, with his reluctant deputy, Eli (Nicholas Brown), uses the emerging science of forensics and his sharpshooting skills to bring down the Wild West's most dangerous criminals. Unfortunately, what the sheriff has in book smarts he lacks in common sense, and things often don't go his way.
So far, Hoyle and Eli have crossed paths with outlaw Cole Younger and con artist Pearl Star, two characters Lehr and Hower based upon real historical figures. Monday's third episode, "Mail Order Bride," centers on the Bloody Benders, a factual Kansas family from the 1800s who would book people into their inn just to rob and murder them.
A bit of their research also has inspired a weekly drinking game for viewers.
"We found these Old Western recipes of drinks ... that are totally ridiculous," said Lehr, whom some fans may remember from his three season on "10 Items or Less," a TBS comedy he and Hower wrote, or from playing the Cavemen in the popular Geico TV commercials.
In addition to each week's episode, Lehr and company create a 2-minute "Quick Draw Mixology" video that presents the recipe for a drink like Gin & Pine or Whiskey Skin and the word—"sheriff" for example—that signals viewers to take a sip.
"These drinks are just horrid; they're just like nasty," Lehr said, laughing. "I don't know what these people were thinking back then."
Lehr, who trained at Second City in Chicago and live on Wrightwood and Racine, talked more about his inspiration for "Quick Draw," why he chose Harvard as the sheriff's alma mater and why comedians on horseback make him laugh.
QUICK DRAW MIXOLOGY: GIN & PINE
We talked a long time ago during "10 Items or Less."
Three seasons. We're thrilled. It's still on Hulu. It's funny because once "10 Items" went onto Hulu it seemed to really kind of find its audience. I got like 12,000 followers and people who are just really into that show. It's so great. Thank God for Hulu.
Was the resurgence of that show on Hulu a reason that you thought you should do an original show on Hulu?
It didn't work that way with me, but it may have worked that way with Hulu. When "10 Items" was canceled my partner Nancy Hower and I ... did a couple of pilots. We did one for Comedy Central and one for NBC. And in that time Hulu approached us about doing something for them. So maybe their interest was connected to the "10 Items" views on Hulu, I don't know. I never thought about that, but you're probably right.
What made you decide to do a Western?
Believe it or not I had been wanting to do one for a while. Nancy and I have been talking back and forth for a while about doing one. We just love the idea of taking our brand of hybrid improv comedy and putting it in a historical setting. ... Improv can get a little out there at times, which is one of the things that's so great about it. And when you set it in a historical context, in a weird way it feels more grounded because we don't know exactly how people behaved back then. So I think people give it a little bit more leeway. Whereas when you set it in maybe the current setting people might say, "I don't know anybody like that."
You set it in the cowboy days and people are like, "Well yeah, I can see a goofball like that coming from Harvard saying those things. It's possible." And then just the idea of putting a bunch of comedians in cowboy outfits with guns and horses just seemed hilarious to us. We loved "Blazing Saddles." I mean our show, the tone is totally different I think from "Blazing Saddles" but we did love "Blazing Saddles." And the idea of doing like a "Spinal Tap" in the 1800s, it just seemed like a good idea.
Now why Harvard and not Northwestern?
Northwestern is the Harvard of the Midwest. You're absolutely right, however, while Northwestern alums are pretentious there's no doubt about it, I think Harvard graduates trump them by like a thousand percent. And we just loved the idea—if you've ever met anybody from Harvard, or maybe you are from Harvard, but people who have graduated from Harvard, nine out of 10 of them will let you know in some way that they went to Harvard in the first three minutes of your conversation with them. And we just loved making fun of that, lampooning it. Nancy's brother went to Harvard. One of our favorite actors, Christopher Liam Moore who is on "10 Items or Less," went to Harvard. The CEO of Hulu went to Harvard. So it's kind of like walking in a minefield. But I think they're pretty good at laughing at themselves.
So that little trait that John Henry Hoyle has of reminding people is pretty accurate then?
I think he certainly represents a demo of the Harvard alums for sure. He's pretty confident that his education is everything.
Did you have to think a lot about what John would be like? He's smart, but no common sense. And then he's an expert sharpshooter.
The gun thing came in the 11th hour. We had built kind of this great character. We loved the "CSI" of it all. We kind of stumbled upon that when we were researching around that time. The cowboys were in the beginnings of criminal investigation, so you had like elementary ballistics and toxicology and identification and crazy stuff like phrenology. Based on the bumps on your head, they thought they can tell if you're a criminal or not. So this idea of figuring out a crime based on the evidence, this sort of Sherlock Holmesian approach was just kind of taking hold. So we loved that. That fit right in with the Harvard thing. And like you said that he was book smart and street dumb really appealed to me just because there's inherent comedy there.
But yeah, Nancy came up with the idea if what if he's a great shot. ... We needed the town to want him to be around. And we thought well, if he's a great shot they'll allow all of his ridiculous behavior because he's a good shot. And we loved the idea of him being a great shot and it being just a total natural thing. He's done nothing, it just comes naturally. So all of his hard work and education that's not what the town people love, it's just this gift that he has that's why they accept him, which really appeals to us.
I bet a lot of people who watch it, because it's funny and has a lot of the silliness in it, wouldn't even imagine that you and Nancy actually researched anything.
Yeah, there is a lot of factual stuff, believe it or not, in this show. For instance Episode 3 is centered on the Bloody Benders, this actual family ... [who were] kind of the first serial killers. There's conflicting reports as to whether they were actually a family or just posing. But they were pretty scary, evil people. So we worked that in 'cause we think that's funny ... There's lots of stuff like that we just loved. Whenever we were like looking for something we would just start researching. ...
Does your writing start with the research?
Yes, absolutely. One of the first things that like grabbed us was they haven't discovered fingerprints yet but they did discover that everyone's ear is basically shaped differently. And so there are these actual wanted posters or identification posters with different drawings of different outlaw's ears. And so when you kill a guy and you thought he was Billy the Kid you would, you know, take the drawing and hold it up to his ear to see if that was in fact Billy the Kid or not. I was just like, "You got to be kidding me? That's just brilliant."
In Ep. 2 John has that poster on his wall with the ears that he uses to try to decide if they're criminals or not. That's funny.
That's right. The anthropometry where your features are linked to your criminal behavior is just unbelievable and incredibly flawed and racist and just stupid, you know? But hilarious and it also just sheds a little bit of light on how smart and fancy we all think we are. Of course in 100 years people are going to laugh at our stupid stuff, which I love.
You go from the research to writing. Do you plot it out or is it all improv?
It's both. We map out the show really specifically. Nancy and I write really dense single-spaced scripts that the executives are just like, "Oh my God." But there's no dialogue in the scripts. And this is the way we did "10 Items" too. No dialogue in the scripts and the actors never see the scripts. Because we don't want the actors focusing on trying to tell a story. The idea is that the story needs to unfold naturally.
And obviously I'm in almost every scene, I wrote the scripts, I know the story. Nancy's directing; she knows the story. So we can occasionally nudge it where need be. But if we're doing our job right the situations that we're putting these guys in and the back story for each character and where they're coming from and what they're trying to get, the story kind of unfurls in a pretty natural way. I mean my character needs to, because of the CSI of it all, I need to throw out some clues, things that I'm discovering. ... But other than that it's really great when it works.
And when it doesn't work it's usually OK. You can find it on the set in a way where I don't think you can with scripted material. Because the actors know their characters better than you and they are like, "I wouldn't say that." And you're like, "Oh yeah you're right. All right."
So Nancy just gives them a little direction on the beats they need to hit?
I mean she doesn't tell them too much about what needs to happen in the scene. Usually what she says is like, "Look, you're a whore, you own the saloon, Hoyle owes you money. And so he's going to be talking to you about some stupid case but all you want is to get paid."
And the takes are really long. They're like 15-minute takes so we usually do like four or five maybe and then move on. And then we roll four cameras and then Nancy and I go back and look at all of it. We have editors but Nancy does the final edit with me in the room, which is where I'm at right now. We're working on the last episode.
And then a lot of that stuff you don't use ends up in those "Beneath the Saddle Outtakes?" (See those here.)
Yeah we have so much more, we don't want to overwhelm Hulu. I would love to show an entire 15-minute take just so people can see how [it works]. I think they would find it interesting.
You've shown some bits of takes from the first episode in the morgue. That was interesting to see rejected versions opposite what you did use in the episode.
Yeah. And to see some that are similar and some that are way off. Yeah, I totally agree. I love that stuff. Because we cut it so well that people are like, "Wait, this isn't improv." And it's like, "Yeah dude it is, look."
Has working for an Internet show been any different than working on a network show for you?
I've been asked that and the honest-to-God answer is not at all. I mean we haven't noticed any difference at all. I mean there is a certain energy to Hulu that's really infectious. They're young, they're just launching original material. They're excited about it in a way that maybe other companies would be that are more jaded. But for me, from the writing-the-notes process, very much the same as a network. They're a little more considerate and thoughtful then some of the other bosses I've had. We're fully union, which we're very proud of. I think the product is certainly as good as any show that you would find on basic cable or out there. Yeah it's interesting 'cause they're not really a network and they're not a studio but there's some original content coming out too so it's kind of a nice, it's a really nice sweet spot to be in as a creator.
Do you find that you get away with more stuff?
Not really. I'll tell you this, though, they are very respectful of our point of view. I've worked with companies where they're like, "I don't care how strongly you feel about it, we don't want it and it's not going in." Where as Hulu, they may disagree with you but they'll hear it out. There's definitely much more collaboration, much more back and forth. I think that's where a lot of television just hits the wall because it's got some chefs in the kitchen who maybe should be a little bit more open-minded. Just not so certain they know how cancer should be cured. Where as these guys are a little bit more, "OK, all right, well, let's try it." That's just really fresh feeling.
With the Western, you're doing something you probably really haven't before as a comedian. How has this experience been with the horses and everything? There's a bit more to consider than "10 Items or Less."
It's so hilarious. It's just a bunch of comedians on horses. I mean there are so many times when I've been sitting there in my full-on cowboy outfit having a very serious conversation with Nancy about some production element, which in and of itself is hilarious. And then to see a really nervous, uncomfortable comedian on top of a horse being led by a trainer trying to explain to him how to ride?
Comedians never get to get murdered or shot. So we would have our shootout scenes and on the first take everybody dies immediately. [We're] like, "Wait, guys, guys."
And then for me like doing stunts is hilarious. I mean I've never done anything like that before, been in a fight scene. It's great, it's great. The guns are heavy. They're really heavy, so holding it out away from your body like cowboys I guess did, it's exhausting. We're all just wimps.
Did you have training, or was it better that you didn't look like you knew what you were doing?
Not really. And that's the good thing about my character is like anything I screw up is kind of OK. I'll tell you, all the extras on the set are all these Western extras. And they were incredibly helpful. They were into it. They're kind of into it in the way that like, you know, Civil War reenactors are into that. It's more than just a gig for them. They're like into it, which can be a little disturbing. But they also generally know what they're talking about, which was very helpful.
Did you have a take that was kind of a great thing but you decided you just couldn't use it?
Oh my God. There's so much stuff that hits the floor. Mainly when things just digress, which is like kind of a natural process of improv where you just digress into some weird bizarre thing that has nothing to do with anything. That happened. We have tons of footage that's hysterical but it just doesn't fit with the plot. And when you have 22 minutes some stuff's got to hit the floor. I remember I went off in Episode 2, my daughter gets me drunk, I like improvised for like a 15-minute drunken monologue that cracked the crew up and Nancy just loved it
When we got in the edit room it's just like, "OK, we either make an episode about me being drunk or the one we wrote."
It's funny you bring that up. I actually have that written down: the drunk scene. I loved it. Was he drinking pickle juice or something? What was in that big giant jar?
Oh my God. That was a prop that wasn't meant to be drunk. We have a drinking game connected to every show. And so we found these old western recipes of drinks from the 1800s. ... The funniest one was this drink called Gin and Pine, which is the drink for the second episode. Basically you get a bucket, you put a pine log in it, you fill it full of gin and let it sit overnight. And that was the drink. And, you know, that's an actual drink from the 1800s. So the prop person made that big jar with a pine log in it. But that was just supposed to sit on the shelf. And the actress playing my daughter didn't know that and she pulled it down. And for continuity, once it's on the bar is on the bar. You're just in. And I had to drink that stuff. It was so nasty. It had like splinters in it. It was just terrible, just terrible.
Are the cast members friends of yours from improv or did you have to audition folks?
We do both, but a lot of them are ringers. We offer straight roles to people who are improv pros who we just know we can. Bob Clendenin, who plays the undertaker, is definitely in that category. Robert Cuthill plays my Harvard roommate. People like that we basically wrote parts with them in mind. And then we have straight auditions where people come in and we have a process where they improvised scenes that will never appear in the episode. So that they can get a sense of what the character is without us tipping our hat as to what is going to happen in the episode. Like Alexia Dox, who plays Pearl, Nancy and I taught a workshop at University of California Santa Barbara, or was it Santa Cruz? I think it was Santa Cruz. And she was in the class. She's like 21 years old and she was just awesome. We were like, "Oh my God. A gorgeous 21-year-old woman who's funny, we're going to snap her up."
You and Nick (who plays Deputy Eli) are funny together.
Yeah, his mom and dad are friends with my neighbors. And my neighbors said, "Hey look, the son of our friend wants to get into Hollywood. Can he come up and talk to you?" So he came up and we just chatted in my kitchen for an hour. And I was like, "This guy's awesome." And we used him on a presentation pilot that didn't go and then we pitched him as Eli for this and Hulu said yes. And he totally delivered.
I think you and Allison Dunbar (who plays barmaid and madame Honey) are pretty funny together.
Yeah, yeah. She did an episode of "10 Items" and we knew that she would rock it. Yeah, she is kind of like, I don't know, she's definitely one of the breakout performances of the series I think. She just totally nails that character and somehow has found it in her heart to find some love for Hoyle, the most annoying person ever. Which is so crucial to finding something about him that's nice.
What do we have to look forward to? You mentioned the steam-powered…
Vibrator, yes. That's coming your way like a freight train. Well, overall series-wise you're going to see the relationship between Honey and Hoyle kind of move forward. It I think culminates in the final episode in a nice way. We really wanted the episodes to sort of tie together so that people who watch them all in a binge will enjoy that. Cole Younger reappears a few times. And there's a really surprising connection between Hoyle and Cole Younger.
We basically took everything from Westerns that we love and had fun with it. You're going to see us captured by Indians. You're going to see us dealing with the Women's Christian Temperance Union. You're going to see the Watson murder cases and theft cases. There's also big corruption episode and the mayor is involved. Oh, we go to an all black town, which is historically correct town in Kansas in the 1800s called Nicodemus, which was populated entirely with freed slaves. Having diversity in a western is very difficult because being anything other than a white male, it was pretty horrid what was done to you. But as creators we really want diversity; that was a real challenge so when we discovered that it was like, "Thank God." So we have a murder case that leads Hoyle to the town of Nicodemus, which is really great I think. It's one of my favorites.
And it's three days ride away?
[Laughs.] Of course, of course.
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