News Column

North Allegheny grad on writing team for 'Michael J. Fox Show'

September 25, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 25--Just about every child of the 1980s has a few memories in common. And there's a good chance Michael J. Fox is in a few of them.

It was possible to miss, or forget about, the "Back to the Future" (1985, '89, '90) movies and his sitcom "Family Ties" (1982-89). But not likely.

"I think 'Back to the Future' was the first movie I saw in the theater multiple times," says TV writer Stephen Basilone, 32, a North Allegheny grad ('99). "I think I saw it three times. 'Come on, Dad, let's see it again!' I was on vacation in Florida -- it was raining or something -- and it blew my mind."

Fox's battle with Parkinson's disease, which he first revealed in 1998, slowed his career and forced him to leave the TV series "Spin City." After several guest spots during the past few years on high-profile shows -- "The Good Wife," "Rescue Me," "Boston Legal" -- he's back starring in a sitcom. In "The Michael J. Fox Show," he plays a character similar to himself -- a popular personality (newscaster) trying to get back in the business while coping with Parkinson's. His struggles to balance family and career, while managing his illness, are played for laughs.

The first episode airs at 9 p.m. Sept. 26 on NBC.

Basilone is one of the main writers on Fox's new show, along with his writing partner Annie Mebane.

"Our episode was directed by Fred Savage (child star of 'The Wonder Years')," Basilone says. "He became a friend of ours. But 10-year-old me was losing my mind."

Basilone has written for other sitcoms, but "The Michael J. Fox Show" is a bit different in one respect.

"The TV shows I've worked on have never been family-based," he says. "They've had a family dynamic among friends. In 'Community' and 'Happy Endings' and a series called 'Breaking In,' there's been a family-like support system, but it's not a real family. You always have to create situations -- 'Why are these people hanging out together?'

"You can also get a kind of a little more sweet and earnest in a show like this, because they're a family, and because of the nature of who Mike is, the adversity that he's overcome, and what he means to people."

The rest of the cast features some other familiar faces, like Betsy Brandt from "Breaking Bad," who plays Fox's wife.

"It's great to see her in a new color, other than purple," Basilone says.

Wendell Pierce -- known best as a hardboiled cop in the series "The Wire," and as a trombone player in "Treme" -- is Fox's character's old boss.

"He just crushes," Basilone says. "Everybody's great in a table read, but he and Mike both take things that are straight lines and can somehow turn a joke out of them. ... I'd watch a show where Wendell Pierce just grumbles and mutters."

Basilone and his writing partner are part of a crew of 11 writers on the show.

"The writing staff is all incredibly talented -- it's kind of a hybrid of half people from 'Community' and half people from 'Happy Endings,' so I knew a lot of people going into it."

"The Michael J. Fox Show" has been really fun and pleasant so far, says Basilone, even when they're working 14-hour days. That positive atmosphere isn't always guaranteed.

"I love 'Community,' " Basilone says. "It was the first time I got to go onto a show and be a big fan of it. It's also kind of a notoriously difficult place to work. In Season 3, there were times in which people would be there for 48 hours or longer. All very talented people, but just a chaotic environment."

The battles between the talented, temperamental creator of "Community," Dan Harmon, and actor Chevy Chase, in particular, are the stuff of television legend.

Writing television comedy requires not only a sense of humor, but the willingness to work with others.

A script "written by one person, at least in comedy, is a total anomaly," Basilone says. "Everybody has their fingerprints all over everything -- people pitch story ideas, people pitch jokes. It's a very collaborative group environment. When everybody gets along, it's fun to do. Once you get used to that, it's great. If you have one thing that 12 people sitting in the room think is really funny, chances are, it's really funny."

Certain parts of the job are more fun than others, but a lot depends on timing.

"I like being in a joke room, doing joke pitches," Basilone says. "I like generating ideas for stories. It's like anything else. Some days I feel like I'm pretty decent at story. Other days, I feel like I'm garbage at story, so I'm going to stick to jokes. Some days are victories, and some days are like banging your head against the wall."

Basilone's wife, Lauren Morelli, 31, a McCandless native, also writes for television, although she focuses on drama. She's currently writing for one of the hottest shows at the moment, "Orange Is the New Black," on Netflix.

"The Michael J. Fox Show" is being shot in New York; Basilone and Morelli live in Los Angeles.

"In January, we'll finish up here," Basilone says. "I'll go back to L.A. and see my dog."

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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(c)2013 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

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