Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 2, 2010

A Ph.D.-to-be on TV

Stanford student Greg Bratman is also co-creator of Fox comedy 'Sons of Tucson'

by Rebecca Wallace

Greg Bratman is certainly not the only high-flying kid from Palo Alto to enter a Ph.D. program at Stanford. But he just might be the first environmental-science student to co-create a TV show.

"Sons of Tucson," a half-hour comedy that premiered on Fox last month, is the brainchild of Bratman, 34, and his actor friend Tommy Dewey. The pair met in a theater improv group while they were Princeton students, then started doing two-men, multi-character shows. Before they knew it, they were also writing scripts for film and TV.

Bratman and Dewey thought up "Sons of Tucson" as a family comedy about four kids — one of whom "just happens to be an adult," Bratman said in a recent interview. The premise is that the three Gunderson brothers are left on their own after their white-collar-criminal father is sent to prison, and they need a phony dad to register at a new school. So they turn to Ron Snuffkin (played by Tyler Labine from "Reaper"), who is a slacker but also a resourceful and rather charming liar.

What results is a shady business deal that turns into a family of sorts, complete with a cute teacher (Natalie Martinez), who may or may not be immune to Ron's banter.

The show is billed as having an offbeat flavor similar to that of the 2000-2006 Fox program "Malcolm in the Middle," and some familiar names show up here, including Justin Berfield, who played Malcolm's brother Reese and is one of the executive producers of "Tucson."

Bratman also gives a lot of credit to another executive producer, Harvey Myman, for getting "Tucson" to the small screen. He helped Bratman and Dewey formulate the show and make the script tight.

"A lot of times you'll go in and pitch an idea, but we were unknowns in television. It's very hard if you haven't worked in television before. We had to have a fully fleshed-out script," Bratman said.

The "Tucson" team started shooting the new show last September and wrapped in December after creating 13 episodes. The show is currently airing at 9:30 p.m. on Sundays and is scheduled to do so until June.

Bratman said that making the pilot, in particular, was a great collaborative learning experience.

"We were on the set, got to be in post-production and had a say in pretty much everything," he said. "I just saw so much and learned so much about how it was put together."

While the later episodes were being shot, Bratman and Dewey stayed involved, working with other writers, being on the set and giving notes to the director.

"We didn't give many performance notes because the actors were all great. We were adjusting for our own writing," Bratman said. "Sometimes you can't tell whether something you've written works until you see actors doing it."

Working with children was challenging in part because they had to be in school and were less available for shooting, Bratman said. He became particularly fond of lead actor Labine, who "was like a father figure in every way to these kids ... the ways in which he would gently pull them back to getting on course."

There are, of course, no guarantees on how long the show will continue, but Bratman says he's hopeful that the network will ask for more episodes. A fan of TV's "The Wire" and the British version of "The Office," Bratman likes television because of the way a series "can serialize and stretch out story and get deeply into character in a way that a screenplay can't really do."

So far, "Tucson" has gotten a mix of press; while the San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman didn't find the show funny, Los Angeles Times critic Robert Lloyd praised its "unsentimental whimsy."

The program, Lloyd wrote, "is a lesson in just how many old tropes, previously seen characters and stock situations one may hammer together into a television series and still arrive at something fresh and real."

Besides pursuing television work, Bratman also has a few screenplay-writing projects going with Dewey, and he says he'd like to do some more acting as well. His theater resume includes appearing in TheatreWorks' "The Grapes of Wrath" in 2000.

At the moment, he spends much of his time in Southern California, where he lives with his wife, fellow Gunn High School graduate Kristin Kleidon, and their young son. Bratman and Kleidon "went out in high school and got back together 10 years later," he said.

Meanwhile, of course, there's the Stanford Ph.D. program, which Bratman doesn't sound that daunted about. After all, he was in the midst of getting a master's degree when he and Dewey started writing "Tucson."

An affinity for Stanford runs in the family, too. Bratman's father, Michael, is a Stanford philosophy professor. "Palo Alto," Bratman said, "means a lot to me."

Info: For more about "Sons of Tucson," go to www.fox.com/sonsoftucson.

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