Sunday, January 29, 2006

Sex, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll: An Interview with Love Monkey Creator Michael Rauch

On the surface, Love Monkey's Tom Farrell seems the embodiment of cool. He's an A&R rep for a record label, paid to hang out in clubs and discover new talent. He rubs shoulders with musicians like Ben Folds and Aimee Mann, and one of his best friends is a former professional baseball player.

But he's not cool. He's not trying to be cool. In the words of the show's theme song (by the Odds), he is a sheep in wolf's clothing, the mere illusion of someone who is cool. And that is so much cooler than cool.

As played by Ed's Tom Cavanagh, Tom Farrell is endearing even as he loses his job and girlfriend in the same day, even as he stumbles through painful attempts to pick up women, to do the right thing, and to channel Jerry Maguire in front of his unreceptive boss. There's a refreshing lack of cool cynicism to the show, thanks in part to the sweetness of the Toms.

"When you have the actor Tom Cavanagh, he's so likeable that I could put him in a Nazi uniform and put a swastika on his forehead, and you'd still love him," jokes writer Michael Rauch, Love Monkey's affable creator.

Fortunately, Love Monkey is more High Fidelity than Hogan's Heroes. And like High Fidelity's Rob, Tom is passionate about music to the point of elitism. In the pilot, he says about his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend: "She listens to Jewel, while I prefer music." In the second episode, he's thrown for a loop when he discovers his new crush, the near-perfect Julia (Ivana Milicevic), worships Starship's We Built This City. It's almost enough to crush the crush.

Based on a novel by Kyle Smith, Love Monkey captures the spirit of that book and puts it in a more TV-friendly environment. "The book dealt with real people and relationships - friendship and love and not having love - and that's really what appealed to me," says Rauch.

But the character was originally a tabloid journalist, and CBS balked at a show centred around a newspaper. So native New Yorker Rauch recalled the time when he hung out with an old friend who worked in the recording industry, "going to clubs to hear bands play and meet women and get drunk," and based Tom's job on that slightly more sexy world.

"That was how it went from being somebody else's book to being my show," he explains. "Creatively, it felt like, OK, now I can have some sense of ownership over it."

The music: “It's a character in the show"

The music industry is more than a setting for Tom's workplace – music itself is an integral part of Love Monkey. "Since the show is about a guy whose job it is to find new music, we're trying to use it to help find new music, too," says Rauch. "Our music supervisor, a guy named Nic Harcourt, sends a lot of new, up-and-coming bands to us, and we pick the songs we like and the bands we like and put them on the show."

These new artists mingle with appearances by a wide variety of better-known musicians, among them John Mellencamp, Aimee Mann, Joshua Bell, and Dr. John. Even New York's musical landmark, the soon-to-be-shuttered CBGB, makes a memorable appearance in the pilot.

"It feels like the city becomes a character, and adds texture to the show and informs the stories we tell," notes Rauch, who wants to show the grittier but still glamorous side of New York by shooting in places like Brooklyn and the East Village.

30-somethings: “There's a lot of pressure to succeed in your career, to find a mate for life, to begin that next step"

While Love Monkey centres on Tom and his mostly male buddies, it doesn't raise a testosterone shield that's impenetrable to a female audience. Male-focused though it is, there's a romantic comedy vibe to the show, which is as affecting as often as it is funny. At times, Love Monkey feels like an opportunity to eavesdrop on men in their natural habitat - and it's not as scary as we women might think. Sure, they ogle women in bars, talk about sports and sex, and act like 13 year olds with credit cards (to quote the book), but Tom and friends also reveal their insecurities about careers and relationships, and their confusion over simultaneously wanting love while being afraid of the commitment.

Bran (Judy Greer) tries to act as Tom's voice of reason. "You can't keep swinging from branch to branch forever, Tom," she admonishes her fickle friend. "Eventually, you're going to have to pick one and settle down. ... If you keep looking for the perfect branch, you're going to end up one lonely monkey." She's also the one to remind him that the world does not, perhaps, always revolve around him.

"Tom is a very likeable guy," Rauch says about the character. "He treats people with respect. He doesn't do anything intentionally malicious. He's just full of passion, and sometimes the passion gets in the way."

So does Tom represent the typical mid-30s guy? "In my experience, it's pretty close, but that might tell you more about me than you want to know," Rauch laughs. "There's definitely a lot of guys in that age range who are kind of stuck between full-blown adulthood and wanting to hang on to the vestiges of childhood."

The rest of the ensemble cover the gamut of social possibilities. There's Mike (Jason Priestley), the only one of the group who's married - to Tom's pregnant sister Karen (Katherine La Nasa). Shooter (Larenz Tate) has an unsatisfying job, but prides himself on satisfying the ladies. And Jake (Christopher Wiehl) is an ex-athlete and now sportscaster who feels the need to hide his homosexuality for fear of destroying his career.

Bran could be Tom's female near-equivalent, a single woman navigating career and relationships. "One of the storylines we're going to be following is the notion of being a successful woman in your 30s, and the pressure to get married versus the desire to be a full-time career person, and how that's different for women than it is for men," says Rauch.

Finding an audience: “We're kind of a guinea pig"

Love Monkey was recently launched mid-season on powerhouse CBS, which makes it something of a surprise that it wasn't titled CSI: Love Monkey. With nothing similar on the network, the show seems to be hanging from a lonely branch on Tuesdays at 10.

"They are very patient with the show, and they're so supportive creatively, but I do worry how long it will take to find our audience on that network," Rauch admits while filming the last of the eight episodes scheduled to air this season.

Maybe because of that, the show has turned to some creative Internet marketing. Besides the obligatory show site on, there's a website for the fictitious label where Tom Farrell works, True Vinyl records ("Saving the world from crappy music, one gig at a time"). It includes bios of the fictional artists seen on the show and links to actual artists who've made appearances. The main characters also have MySpace pages, including Tom and his first find for True Vinyl, the John Mayeresque Wayne (really new Sony recording artist Teddy Geiger), whose site lets you listen to the songs he plays on the show.

Love Monkey returns to CBS with a new episode on Tuesday, Feb. 7, after this week's preemption by the President's State of the Union address. In Canada, the show also airs Mondays at 10 on Global.

(For more of my discussion with Michael Rauch, see the transcript of the Q&A.)

Cross posted to Blogcritics