In some ways, Josh Schwartz is the last man you would expect to be behind of the NBC television series “Chuck.” After all, Schwartz is primarily known for his hit shows “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl” -- teen dramas, which seem as far removed from action/adventure/geekdom as possible. Well, except for Seth Cohen and Summer’s Wonder Woman costume, but whatever. Along with co-creator Chris Fedak, Schwartz is letting his freak (and geek) flag wave every Monday night in the form of “Chuck,” which debuted last year to critical lauding and a slowly developed following of devoted fans before being cut short because of the Writers Strike.
Starring Zachary Levi, “Chuck” focuses of course on a guy named Chuck who works at a Buy More (think Best Buy) and is a geek in the very best sense of the world. Chuck loves “World of Warcraft,” “A View To a Kill,” and dresses up as the sandworm from “Dune” every year for Halloween. He also happens to have the government’s most uber-important supercomputer hiding in his brain. The FBI and CIA form a joint operation to both protect and use Chuck for his information. The outfit is headed by the lovely Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and the steel-jawed Casey (Adam Baldwin). Naturally, high jinks ensue.
Josh Schwartz spoke with CBR News all about the latest season of “Chuck,” fans who aren’t just teenage girls, and the show’s upcoming 3-D episode.
CBR: “Chuck,” and “Gossip Girl” are huge hits with their respective fanbases, as was “The O.C.” for a time. Which fans are the most rabid?
Josh Schwartz: Every fanbase is rabid in its own way. Because “The O.C.” was the first time I ever had an experience of putting anything out there in the public, that was the most rabid. I’ve never looked at message boards or blogs or reviews or anything like that. Before that, anything I’d written was read by me and four other people. So that felt pretty rabid.
“Chuck” and “Gossip Girl” have both grown in terms of fanbase reaction, so we’ve had a chance to expand verses coming out of the gate super hot and having nowhere to go but down.
Before it happened, did you think these shows would strike such a nerve with viewers?
You never anticipate that. Obviously, doing “Gossip Girl” and “Chuck” at the same time is interesting on a lot of levels, not the least of which is that there are two wildly different fanbases that follow the shows, or at least that was what I thought. I went to Comic-Con this year, and “Chuck” was in this 4,000-person ballroom, which was full. It was shocking. I assumed that if “Gossip Girl” was mentioned there, there would be a hanging. I was surprised by how many people there watched “Gossip Girl” or “The O.C.” “Gossip Girl” lives in this teen myth world and fashion world, but I still find a lot of young women who want to talk about “Chuck.”
I’m constantly surprised and encouraged by the crossover of the two shows, which isn’t helped by the fact that they are up against each other.
Following up on that, how do you feel about the fact that, for fans of your work, Mondays at 8:00PM have turned into the television equivalent of “Sophie’s Choice?”
Hopefully with DVR and iTunes and the myriad of options out there, it’s possible to watch both. Obviously, in an ideal world for me and my parents, the shows would not be up against each other, nor would they both be getting their ass kicked by “Dancing With The Stars.”
How have the ratings been for “Chuck” in recent weeks?
We’ve been recovering from this post-Strike hangover. We were doing pretty well before the Strike: every week was building and the numbers were pretty good. It was very encouraging, and then we went off the air for eight months and are in an incredibly competitive timeslot. Forget “Gossip Girl” or “Dancing With the Stars,” you’ve still got the CBS comedies and “Monday Night Football,” which is huge, and also “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”
It certainly started out slow, but we’ve stabilized and I’m hopeful for the future. We’ve already been picked up for 22 episodes, so we’ve got the time.
“Chuck” was renewed for a full second season even before the first episode of that season even aired. How does that feel?
NBC has been an incredible partner for the show. I don’t want to sound like a corporate suck-up, but it’s true. They have believed in the show from the get-go. They supported the show by putting us on Mondays at 8:00PM so we would have the “Heroes” connection and a better shot. They picked us up for the second season knowing the Strike was coming but still believing in us. Obviously, picking up the show for 22 episodes before it even airs is an incredible show of faith. They’ve also given us this 3-D episode that is going to air the night after the Superbowl, so they’ve been as supportive as I could hope.
Let’s talk about the Writers Strike and how it felt to have your first season literally chopped in half.
In some ways I felt very lucky because I knew that if I had been developing the shows a year later, “Chuck” may never have gotten on the air. So I felt very lucky that I got the shows onto the air before the strike happened.
In a real way, “Gossip Girl” benefited from the Strike because it gave people time to catch up on the episodes and then we came back and did a handful of episodes post-Strike against less competition, and that’s when the show really began to grow.
Did the Strike change your storytelling? What, if anything, did you drop or did you push anything major back?
We had a season one finale and the back of the season mapped out. We are still moving in a similar direction, though. Creatively, it was the best possible thing to happen to the show. Once a show gets picked up, the train leaves the station and is moving at an incredible velocity, and you don’t have time for reflection—you are just making the show. Having the chance to reflect on the show after a handful of episodes and open it up like a clock and see what makes it tick was incredibly positive creatively.
Let’s talk about all those guest-stars: Rachel Bilson, Kevin Wiseman, Nicole Ritchie. Where did it all begin?
Last year I asked Rachel Bilson to do a couple of episodes as a favor, and she was gracious enough to do so. We got some attention from it. It was a small storyline, but because there was somebody in the part that people recognized, we got a reaction.
We also got Kevin Wiseman from “Alias” in for a small part as a villain last year. It was not necessarily the most developed villain we had, but it seemed like a fun way to go. We have great, fun villains in the show and it seemed like a great opportunity to embolden the storytelling and make characters pop.
It began, for me, as a search for Steven Seagal and Jan Claude Van Damme. While that proved fruitless, there were a lot of other people interested in doing the show. It was fun for the cast to work with such varied actors. It’s been good for the show. People who were skeptical of it have been pleasantly surprised. I know some people were like, “Nicole Ritchie? Really?” but it made sense.
You still have time to get Seagal and Van Damme.
I’m not giving up!
Is there anyone else on the dream list?
Those are the two big ones. To be able to do that, especially in the same episode—ah well, a kid can dream.
We are shooting the 3-D episode with Dominic Monahan and he’s loving it and loving his leather pants. Zach is the biggest “Lost” fan, so they talk “Lord of the Rings” and “Lost” and it’s huge for him.
How fun is it to go from the hipness of “Gossip Girl” and really let your geek flag fly with “Chuck?”
We get to play Huey Lewis! For me and Chris Fedak and all the writers, it’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done. The first stories I wrote when I was younger were James Bond stories in my little Meade composition books, so to be able to build off of that is great. Chris and I love the ‘80s action comedies we grew up on, as varied as “Fletch” and “War Games” and “Spies Like Us” and “Die Hard” and “Tron,” and this show gets to be a little bit of all that stuff.
Whose idea was it to produce a 3-D episode?
It was NBC. They were doing this big promotion inside of the Superbowl and handing out 150 million 3-D glasses, so we are the beneficiaries of that. Initially their plan was to have a bunch of shows do it, but it was logistically complicated, so “Chuck” seemed like the best fit for that type of thing.
Can you tease any of the effects we’ll see?
Jeff eating a urinal cake in 3-D.
Did you see the “Medium” 3-D episode way back when?
The director of that episode is actually our resident director, so he had lots of experience with 3-D, and the technology has come a long way.
Let’s talk about the writing staff a bit.
It’s the greatest group of writers I’ve ever worked with. Chris and I went to college together at USC, and coming off of “The O.C.’s” last season and knowing that Chris was a talented guy, we went out for coffee and he pitched me this concept, which I thought was really great and clever and could be the basis of a really good comedy. Chris has an incredible imagination and it’s been an incredible collaboration and amazing to see him grow and flourish. When he was a kid, his dad used to wake him up and tell him about the climax of the action movies he just saw, so these stories are engrained in his head.
One of the [executive producers] is Matt Miller, who is really funny and loves romantic comedy and character-based comedy. Another writer, Scott Rosembaum, just came off of a few seasons on “The Shield,” so he had another approach to storytelling. We have writers from “Veronica Mars” and “Battlestar: Galactica,” so it’s basically a geek orgy.
Have you ever thought of switching the writers of “Chuck” and “Gossip Girl” for an episode?
We talked about it. Scott desperately wants to write a “Gossip Girl,” but we are all terrified that something terrible will happen to all of them.
What can you tease about what’s coming up on “Chuck?”
Jill comes back next week, played by Jordana Brewster! I’ve wanted to work with her forever. She’s funny and cool, so we thought she would be a good fit for Zach, and the arrival of Chuck’s ex—the girl who broke his heart—will add a lot of spice to the Chuck/Sarah dynamic.
We have an episode coming up in a couple of weeks which is like our “Dog Day Afternoon” at the Buy More at Christmas, which was a lot of fun. You’ll get a glimpse into Casey’s past and his training with his sensei, played by Carl Lumbly from “Alias.”
My favorite action set-piece that we’ve ever done, which was of course written by Chris, is in an episode called “Chuck Verses The Gravitron.” That’s all I’ll say.
You’ll get to see more of Tony Hale on the show as well. Over the next couple of weeks you’ll see the character get more traction and really become a problem for Chuck.
In how many episodes is Jordana Brewster appearing?
She’s in for three initially, but there is always room for more.
Is the Ellie/Captain Awesome marriage coming up sometime this season?
You’ll definitely start to see that play out.
Did you think that former recurring characters like Captain Awesome, the trio at Buy More, and Big Mike would get such traction and become regulars in season two?
We hoped. They will continue to expand as we move forward. We are going to see Jeff and Lester’s super group in a couple of weeks. We went out of the way to cast those parts with the thought that we need actors who can take these characters and run with them.
We always thought that Captain Awesome had a good shot at breaking out because he’s such a good character and Ryan is a fun actor. But seeing the love for Jeff now is very exciting after his Missile Command episode.
And finally, the geekiest of geek questions: If Summer from “The O.C.” and Blair from “Gossip Girl” got in a fight, who would win?
That would be a tangle and vicious and should be aired on PayPerView. But let me say this: I would not mess with Blair.