Do you ever wonder what goes on inside the head of your pets, or more specifically your dog? As a parent of a fur baby, I've often wondered what my dog is thinking. Whether she's being naughty and brazen or my daughter's best friend (because let's be clear, she USED to be my dog, but she's not anymore; she's essentially the therapy dog of my special needs daughter), I've always wondered what's going on between those adorable ears of hers.
ABC's new comedy “Downward Dog” makes me wonder a little less. On a recent press trip to Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of seeing the Pilot and Second Episode of the new comedy “Downward Dog” and I laughed the entire time (I may have shed a few tears, too. It's like writer Samm Hodges was inside my head and the head of my dog. Unreal. Incredible. Heartfelt. Genius. All the feels.
“Downward Dog” stars Sam Hodges (Co-Creator/Executive Producer and the Voice of “Martin,” the dog) and Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated Allison Tolman (“Nan”). Based on a web series, “Downward Dog” follows the day-to-day life of Nan as told by her increasingly lonely and philosophical dog, Martin.
Nan attempts to juggle her tumultuous personal life with a stressful career, unjustly supervised by her self-obsessed boss. Having her story told from the canine perspective provides a uniquely unfiltered point of view that helps us laugh and cry about what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. It’s a show about a dog and the girl he adores, and even at their worst, Nan and Martin just might be best for one another. It will make you look at your relationships with fresh eyes, perhaps the eyes of your dog.
Samm and Allison were gracious enough to sit with us during this exclusive interview last month to give us a little bit insight more about ABC’s newest television comedy sitcom “Downward Dog.”
Martin is a hound mix rescue from a Chicago shelter called Paws Chicago, whose real name is Ned. When they first started the show, he had just barely been rescued, so he had no training. “I was very patient,” Allison said when describing working with Ned at the beginning. “No, he was jumpy. I mean, he was a rescue dog and had rescue dog anxiety.”
Our American Staffordshire Terrier is a rescue, so I can relate to being patient and having a dog with rescue anxiety.
Samm felt it was important to have a rescued dog in the show, not a dog that was purchased from a breeder. “That was always important for us in the dog is to have him not be this like kind of showy kind of pure bred,” Samm told us. “And also for his character, he thinks he’s very important. He thinks he’s the most important being in the world, but it’s important for us that he’s very like just a regular old dog, you know?”
On how the show came about
Samm: So Michael Killen and I, who’s not here right now, but we’re co-creators of the show and we were both commercial directors working in Pittsburg, and we created this web series, God, like 4 years ago now we started working on the web series just for fun. Michael had done a lot of stuff with talking animals, the Taco Bell Chihuahua.
Allison: The ‘Yo quiero Taco Bell' that’s, that’s Michael. So, he was well versed in how to make animals talk and not look like they’re just licking peanut butter off of their faces.
Samm: I was a very unlikely collaborator with him, because my writing has always been way more…I had a little darker tone. But one day he was like, ‘Ooh, you just try to write these monologues?' And then I wrote the monologues, and then we were trying to cast for the voice, I just did a read not for myself to do it but just to be like, ‘Something like this.' And then Michael ended up using that read as the dog, and so that’s how I kinda got shoehorned into that role.
Allison: And then I mean it kinda snowballed from there. The shorts, they’re online. You can watch them. And they’re beautiful. They’re what sold me on the project.
Samm: Which she was, she was a bit hard to sell.
Allison: When I read the script I was like, ‘There sure is a talking dog in this. Sure is the star of the show.' But then I saw the shorts and I was like, ‘Oh, I get it. It’s like sweet and down to earth and kind of indie.' And then I was really into it. So, that’s kind of how it came about. And then they wrote this great script and they had these awesome shorts to kind of back it. So, when they decided that they were gonna try to make it into a television show they had…
Samm: We had a lot of interest. It was definitely a big project bringing it from the web series to the show and trying to figure that out, but a lot of that was just trying to figure out how that worked with human characters and then kind of just realize that.
I think in the shorts it was about how a dog’s view of his own life. And then we realized a dog has such an intimate view of the life of the owner. So it became much more about the character of Nan and he as an angle on her life, 'cause he sees all these moments that no one else was there and he’s there for her in these moments of there was very—I was just very alone and to wrestle with it. And so that was a shift, I think.
On what they want people to get out of the show
Allison: I think that this is a really special show, because I don’t feel like there’s a lot of, if any, TV shows that really focus on this relationship, which a lot of people, their relationship with their pet is significant. Some people, for me it’s like the most significant relationship in my life. I don’t have kids. And I’ve had my cat for 17 years. Like she’s the longest standing relationship of my entire life, and I grew up with her. I’ve had her since I was 19 years old.
So, the like transformative power of like loving an animal and being in charge of this little life, like truly, truly has affected the person that I am, because I grew up with this cat. I was a baby when I got this cat.
And I think that’s what really special about it is that it’s a love story that I think is universal for a lot of people, because a lot of people are pet owners and love their animals but it’s not something that we really focus on. We focus on romantic love or familial love, but nobody really talks about what a profound thing it is to love an animal.
Samm: I think to choose a focus in this very like small thing about here’s a girl who lives alone [with] her dog in Pittsburg. And she’s not a movie star. Martin’s always asking kind of if he matters. Like, ‘Do I matter?' And for us I think it’s about how these little characters outside of where we usually put the spotlight on and how much our lives do matter and how much. There’s so much comedy and reality to that. But he’s always a character to me. He’s like he’s a mutt in the backyard of Pittsburg asking do I matter. And if he matters, then we all kind of matter. You know, that’s something about that I like.
On pet relationships and media
Samm: Making the show made me very aware of how oftentimes we can treat our pets in this very consumeristic way and just kinda make ‘em fit in our life. I mean I just kinda realized right now our life is not a good life for a dog to have.
On the inspiration for the show
Samm: Oh, yeah, I mean, well, I mean I grew up with dogs being my only source of solace. You know, as a kid I mean, you go to the dog and, and like my dog’s name’s Smiley. I’m crying to her and was like, ‘No one understands but you, you know?' And there’s that, and so I think that in Martin’s character is really based on what a dog’s experience is. Like dogs experience a lot of emotion, you know, and a lot of like really profound things they can experience, we just found out recently. But it’s less asking what is your dog thinking and more saying like what if your dog had human anxiety and existential angst, you know.
Allison: And how would it mirror your life? So really just took his own anxieties and put them into a dog’s mouth.
There were some incredible quotes in the two episodes we watched. Things that really resonated with me in terms of things I'm sure my dog thinks and feels based on her behaviors.
“I literally can't quit her.”
“Nan and I have a history that's pretty rife with miscommunication.”
“I'm a creature of love.”
“Love makes you vulnerable.”
And so many more.
You HAVE to watch this show. I can't wait for the rest of the season to air so I can see the whole thing! I feel so teased only having seen the pilot and the next episode!
On plot points created by simply having a dog on set
Samm: There were. So in Episode 2, I remember they had the script changed. The dog doesn’t always do what you want him to do on set. And so, when he lays down in front of the door and you like pushed the door open? Like that totally changed—he did that so well, that changed that act break for sure.
Allison: One of the most awesome side effects, I think, of having this dog who was not a well-trained dog when we started shooting is, like very much his own man, is that it’s like being with like a natural talent. Like there’s a lot of Ned in Martin. And he improvises, in a way. And so, even when I don’t have a human partner to work with, I have something to work with 'cause he doesn’t do the same thing every time. He doesn’t do exactly what you want him to do every time. He jumps down off the chair that you put him in, and you keep rolling and you see what happens. But we had some really fun stuff happen because he’s his own dog. He really is his own man.
Samm: Some of the best moments you’re gonna see if you keep watching the show. In Episode 4, they’re at a hot dog or a hamburger stand that he a hamburger—
Allison: I was holding this hamburger and talking and he just went ‘houuuump' and just put his whole mouth around it. And I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do!' I’m kinda lookin' at the trainer like,'What should happen?' But that made it into the show. It’s very real. ‘Cause, you know, the funniest thing about working with animals is they’re not complicit in what you’re doing. Like they don’t know why you just made them do the same thing 10 times in a row.
So he’s like, ‘I don’t know why you’ve been waving this hamburger in my face for 3 hours in the rain, but I’m gonna take a bit of it. Like it seems like you kind of want me to or you wouldn't keep doing that.' You know?
Samm: I think it’s important for us also with having a dog on set that we only do very natural dog things with him. It’s like Martin’s day is like go for a walk. Like, lay down on the couch.
Allison: Sleep some more.
Samm: And the fact that there’s no like skateboarding dog or a dog opening doors not only means the show feels real natural but also the dog’s not put in any situations where he’s just stressed out by anything.
Allison: We have amazing trainers, first of all, who are awesome collaborators and I feel like scene partners for me in so many ways, who take great care of him, but we also really didn’t put him positions where they would never put him in a position where they felt like he was doing something out of his depth. But because of the nature of the show, he’s never like jumping into rivers.
Samm: There’s no trapeze shots.
Allison: There’s no trapeze shots at all.
About “Downward Dog”
“Downward Dog” on ABC will premiere in a special sneak peek episode airing Wednesday, May 17th, at 9:30 pm ET on ABC. In “Pilot,” Martin battles loneliness and the need for Nan’s unconditional attention, while she struggles with a breakup and Martin’s recent bad behavior as he reacts to her newly busy work schedule.
After the special airing of the premiere, Downward Dog will air at its regular time on ABC on Tuesday nights at 8:00 pm ET.
“Downward Dog” online
I’ve been invited to an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles. As always, all opinions are my own.