Wilfred: articles

Wilfred the underdog wins war on awards

THE Chaser team finally met their match last night: a floppy-eared dog called Wilfred.

The first night of the Australian Film Institute Awards in Melbourne saw some major surprises, including the ABC's The Chaser's War On Everything being beaten for best TV comedy series by Wilfred, the droll SBS show about a dog who acts like a human.

Wilfred, which also won best performance in a TV comedy for Adam Zwar, attracted a tenth of the Chaser's audience this year.

Another ABC ratings triumph, Spicks And Specks, was beaten for best light entertainment series by its SBS rival RocKwiz. Two other ABC shows, The New Inventors and The Sideshow With Paul McDermott, were overlooked in the same category.

The multicultural broadcaster had a triumphant night, with five prizes at the "industry awards", which lead into tonight's televised ceremony from the Melbourne Exhibition Centre.

David Ngoombujarra was named best guest or supporting actor for the remote legal series The Circuit and Vicki Saylor won the equivalent actress award for the indigenous drama Call Me Mum, which airs on Sunday.

While there were no prizes for Jack Thompson and Justin Smith, the actress Sue Smith won best television screenplay for the ABC's controversial waterfront drama Bastard Boys.

In the film categories, there were just as many surprises. Director Richard Roxburgh's intense immigrant drama Romulus, My Father, which led the film nominations with 15, was shut out of the craft categories.

In what may be a pointer to the main prizes tonight, Tony Ayres's drama The Home Song Stories, about a Chinese nightclub singer who brings her two children to Australia, claimed five gongs.

By Garry Maddox
December 6, 2007
Sydney Morning Herald

Life of a dish slicker

SO YOU thought Dr Harry Cooper had taught you all you need to know about the behavioural instincts of dogs.

But how Harry would deal with the psychological complexities of Wilfred makes the mind boggle.

Wilfred, the star of the eponymously titled SBS black comedy, is far from your average pooch.

Not only can Wilfred talk, he's deeply insecure, manipulative and has little concept of etiquette.

He smokes, has an unhealthy appetite for nachos and has a naughty habit of dragging his backside across owner Sarah's (Cindy Waddingham) lounge room floor.

Given the ageing Wilfred guards Sarah with a not-quite full set of fangs, it's hardly surprising her love life is a minefield.

Boys have no hope of going the distance with her unless they meet Wilfred's strict standards of approval.

Enter Adam (Adam Zwar), full of hope about his prospects with Sarah until he meets the scruffy canine, played by Jason Gann.

Between filming at Darebin Parklands, where the smoking, foul-mouthed Wilfred stamps about the fringe of a pond trying to catch ducks, Gann tells why he thinks audiences will relate to this mould-breaking sitcom.

"I think there are a lot of people out there who have begun a relationship with someone, not realising they would also have to form some kind of relationship with that person's pet,'' Gann says.

"I always avoided girls with dogs or cats because there was this added pressure. That pressure is evident in the show because Adam is in love with Sarah and Wilfred is in love with Sarah.''

Zwar and Gann, regulars on Channel 10 sketch series The Wedge, co-wrote Wilfred as a short film.

It won Best Comedy, People's Choice and Best Actor (Gann) at Tropfest 2002.

Given the film's success, the boys felt a TV series concept was a natural progression.

March 14, 2007

Biting back… a feline-costumed Kestie Morassi with Wilfred (Jason Gann).

Dog's days are over

Without a hint of emotion, Adam Zwar is telling how the time has come to put down his dog, Wilfred.

"That's probably it for me," Zwar says. "I've had my fill."

Fortunately, Wilfred isn't real. He's the fictional star of an eponymous comedy series.

Still, the announcement will devastate fans of the mongrel, who returns to SBS tonight for a second season of eight episodes. As Zwar says, those episodes will be Wilfred's last.

Wilfred was conceived in November, 2001, after Zwar befriended a young woman who invited him home. There, the young woman's dog started out suspicious, then grew jealous.

Upon hearing of the incident, Zwar's best mate, actor Jason Gann, started playing at "being a dog who's jealous that his 'missus' has brought home a bloke". It was, they realised, a good idea for a short film. The pair then wrote a script, casting Zwar as the hapless suitor and Gann as the pooch.

The result was Wilfred, a seven-minute short in which Gann - dressed in a scruffy dog suit - ate corn chips, watched DVDs and smoked a bong. It proved a hit at Tropfest in 2002, winning best comedy and best actor for Gann.

Wilfred also led to a comedy series of the same name on SBS, which aired in 2007. Meanwhile, Gann and Zwar made feature Rats and Cats and worked on the comedy series The Wedge.

Now comes series two of Wilfred.

"I reckon the second series is much better," Zwar says. "We know a lot more about writing series television, about A and B stories and making sure the whole series has an arc. Jason and I were just starting out when we wrote the first series."

Series two is excellent. Director Tony Rogers is on form, the scripts are taut and the guest stars are a treat, including Kestie Morassi as a sexy cat, Stephen Curry as a doomed cockatiel and David Field as an old mutt. Also appearing alongside Cindy Waddingham are Dan Wyllie, Samuel Johnson, Josh Lawson and Kym Gyngell.

"It energised the set having those guest stars," Zwar says. "For series one it was just Jason and me, so we spent a lot of time just staring at each other every day. At the time we were also making 52 episodes of a sketch comedy and a feature film so trying to get the right energy was hard but this time around it was great."

So why is Wilfred being put down?

"I don't want to be a 40-year-old man talking to a guy in a dog-suit," says Zwar, who has new show Lowdown premiering soon on the ABC. "I want to explore other characters. I could probably write Wilfred 'til I'm 70 but I've got everything I want out of these two series."

If cats have nine lives, however, Wilfred has at least two.

"We have just sold the format rights to America," Zwar says. "And Jason is based there now. He's gone off to make his fortune and he's going to be involved in the new Wilfred."

Really? Let's hear from the man in the dog-suit. "I've been over here in LA for a month," Gann says. "And yeah, I'm very involved with Wilfred but I can't talk too much about that. But that's looking good and so is a bunch of other stuff. I'm just loving being part of the industry over here."

You can take the dog out of Australia but you can't take Australia out of the dog. And apparently you can't take this Aussie out of the dog-suit.

By Sacha Molitorisz
March 8, 2010
The Sydney Morning Herald


The American remake of Wilfred hits all the right notes.

You can teach an old dog new tricks

Getting the Australian comedy Wilfred remade as an American sitcom faced one very significant hurdle before it was out of the gate: writer-actor Jason Gann, who co-created and starred in the Australian version, refused to put on Wilfred's costume.

"I said outright, I am not getting in that dog suit again," Gann tells The Guide. "My manager said, either way, everyone will know you were the dog [in Australia] and if you don't do it, someone else will try to. I said, 'That's fine, I'll do it. If you can sell it, I'll do it."'

They did, he did and the fruit of nearly a year's labour debuts this week on Ten, five days after its launch in the US.

Australian audiences first met Wilfred in a short film screened at Tropfest in 2002, written by Gann and Adam Zwar and directed by Tony Rogers. It was a 6-minute mini-masterpiece in which Wilfred (Gann), a bong-smoking dog, demonstrated little enthusiasm for his owner's new boyfriend, Adam (Zwar).

Television came calling, it was adapted into a series for SBS and two seasons were produced. It won two AFI Awards one for best comedy and another for Zwar's portrayal of Adam and was popular with critics. It was inevitable the Americans would sniff about. Ever since American television made the iconic blue-collar comedy All in the Family out of Britain's Till Death Us Do Part in the early '70s, it has demonstrated a voracious appetite for remaking other people's ideas.

But the path to hell is paved with good intentions. No one sets out to make a bad remake but they often do just look at the recent US versions of Coupling and Kath & Kim. The reasons why remakes fail, however, are nebulous and quite hard to define.

The disconnects, when they occur, usually fall somewhere between the US studio's ambition and the often brittle essence of the idea they are trying to adapt.

The three attempts to remake Fawlty Towers, for example, came with very different approaches to the character of Basil Fawlty: Harvey Korman, John Larroquette and, in one extraordinary example, Bea Arthur.

Gann says he was willing to protect Wilfred at every turn. "As long as I'm involved, everyone who's worked with me knows I'm a fighter," he says. The evolution of the US Wilfred, he says, is a case of "so far, so good".

That could be, in part, because the producers have wisely retained the strongest element of the Australian version: Gann's "part Labrador, part Russell Crowe on a bender" portrayal of the title character. It could also be the work of American screenwriter David Zuckerman, whose television credits include The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, King of the Hill, Family Guy and American Dad!

"David had a whole new vision for the show," Gann says. "What he pitched back to us was a real vehicle for the character, rather than the same show, just with American accents.

"It's a new show. But it sits next to the Australian version very comfortably," he says.

It is Zuckerman's association with Family Guy that may give the Wilfred remake what it needs most: an American sitcom sensibility that suits the concept.

Superficially, the two are very similar both are rude, un-PC comedies that feature talking canines. But they are connected on a more subtle level, both being, as Guide critic Melinda Houston said of the Australian version, "hilarious and creepy, utterly obvious but still left of field".

The most significant departure from the original is the lead character, Ryan. Zwar's Adam was an ordinary suburban bloke from Melbourne. Ryan, played by Elijah Wood, is described as "an introverted and troubled young man struggling unsuccessfully to make his way in the world".

In the first episode, we meet Ryan on the verge of suicide, having written four drafts of his suicide note and, to be frank, not doing a very good job of it.

"From the moment we meet him in the pilot you know he's a new character; he's nothing like the role of Adam," Gann says. "And the fact that he is a next-door neighbour to Wilfred's owner, instead of the boyfriend, means that there is not that same love triangle dynamic."

Wilfred's owner, Jenna (played by Fiona Gubelmann), is a television news producer in need of someone to babysit her dog. She interrupts Ryan's attempt on his life and asks him to mind Wilfred. In the hours that follow, a complex friendship is formed.

The Australian version, Gann says, simply presented the twisted paradigm at the heart of the show that the dog, which everyone sees as a dog, is seen by Adam as a man in a dog suit as a fait accompli and got on with making jokes. The American version leaves that question whether Wilfred's anthropomorphic nature is real or a figment of Ryan's imagination a little more ambiguous. "It gets into the mind f--- of that much more and it's an interesting balance of that and the comedy," Gann says.

That balance is aided enormously by Wood's performance, a blend of Ryan's masculinity with a pervading sense of emotional fragility.

"That otherworldliness that Elijah has in his eyes there's another world going on in there," Gann says. "And the filmic tone of his delivery complements my work and I think adds a real validation of the Wilfred character because of how he views Wilfred."

With the local and US launch dates so close together, it's difficult to gauge the success of the show. The US network FX has filmed 13 half-hour episodes, not far short of the 16 half-hour episodes that comprised the local version from 2007 to 2010.

Regardless of what happens, Gann has no regrets about taking the driver's seat for the remake. "If you have an opportunity to make a show in America, you take the opportunity and then you work out how to make it good. Because this is the big show," he says.

"I want to make the best television in the world and that's why I came over here, because this is where it's being made. How it goes remains to be seen but I'm working with amazing people."

Did you know?

Wilfred was originally produced for the Tropfest short film festival in 2002. The signature item that year was a match, which Wilfred produces to light his bong one minute and 15 seconds into the film.

It didn't win Tropfest but was voted best comedy. The winner of the festival that year was Lamb, directed by Emma Freeman, about a man, his blind son, a dog and a lamb fighting a harsh drought. Lamb has not yet been adapted into a sitcom.

After the US market turned Till Death Us Do Part into All in the Family, a stream of British-to-US remakes followed, including Sanford and Son (from Steptoe and Son) and Three's Company (Man About the House).

Most remakes fail, notably Viva Laughlin (from Blackpool), axed after only one episode. Remakes of The Vicar of Dibley (The Minister of Divine) and Are You Being Served? (Beanes of Boston) never got past the pilot.

By Michael Idato
Sydney Morning Herald
June 26, 2011

Jason Gann as Wilfred and Elijah Wood as Ryan in the US remake of Wilfred.

Aussie mut Wilfred's a doggone hit

THE TV industry is littered with the corpses of failed remakes.

While there have been success stories, including The Office and Hawaii 5-0, the list of shockers is immense.

In recent years, we've had the "re-imagining" of shows such as Knight Rider, Melrose Place, 90210, Bionic Woman and the UK musical series Blackpool, which was relaunched in the US as Viva Laughlin.

It boasted Hugh Jackman as a producer and cast member, but had one of the most miserable launches in TV history and was canned after two episodes. It was even suggested Viva Laughlin could well be the worst TV production of all time. Ouch.

The millions wasted on duds serve to illustrate the extraordinary success story that is Wilfred, the Aussie sitcom about a bong-smoking, occasionally malicious mutt played by a bloke (Jason Gann) in a dog suit.

Wilfred came into the world 11 years ago, when journalist/actor Adam Zwar started reflecting on a visit to the house of a girl who had a domineering dog. Zwar and Gann wrote and co-starred in their classic short film Wilfred, then spent years hoping a network would pick it up for series development.

SBS took that punt and the sitcom about a hapless guy (Zwar) trying to woo a girl (Cindy Waddington) with a manky dog (Gann) quickly achieved cult status.

The US registering interest in an Australian sitcom concept is not new.

Mother and Son, Sit Down, Shut Up (despite the fact that the original was a shocker) and Kath & Kim have been picked up, but Wilfred breaks new ground because Gann remained part of the package.

Gann was reluctant to be part of the remake, until realising he would have to endure seeing an American actor in the Wilfred suit if he turned the opportunity down.

In a pitch to producers (including Family Guy's David Zuckerman), it was asked why Wilfred, in the US version, should speak with an Australian accent.

The response was simple: Don't you know all dogs speak in an Australian accent.

Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood was cast as Ryan (a significant variation on the Aussie version's character, Adam).

Critically, Wood says, the new show is faithful to the essence of the original.

Wood says producers were expecting an audience of about 1.5 million when the sitcom made its US debut, but it reached more than four million.

"I can't imagine this show without Jason in it," Wood says. "I had been given an assurance he would be involved in it and that made me confident it would retain everything that was so special about it.

"Jason is fantastic. There are a lot of people here who are following what is happening in Australian comedy. Chris Lilley is a guy who has a real fan base here now.

"I got an impression of Jason, what he is like, once we started working.

"A lot of people were afraid that the show would be anaesthetised for US TV, but the only real difference is that we can't use the 'f' or the 'c' words or have nudity."

Wood, 30, is a rare kind of actor in celebrity-obsessed Hollywood. He's internationally renowned for a string of movie roles but, unlike many who began their careers in childhood, he's stayed on the straight and narrow.

Asked why it is he has avoided the pitfalls that can come with fame, excess, and taking yourself too seriously, he points to his mother, Debbie.

"I attribute it 100 per cent to how I was raised and my mother," he says.

"I had it drilled into me - humility and perspective. In my home life, I was never allowed to consider myself any more or less important than anyone else."

By Darren Devlyn
August 31, 2011
Adelaide Now