Chris Kelly Interview: "Downton Tabby" Lampoons "Downton Abbey" with Feline Finesse
Image attributed to Simon & Schuster
Chris Kelly is a writer and producer, known for Real Time with Bill Maher (2003) and Politically Incorrect (1993). He was a contributing editor at the National Lampoon and a writer for Late Show with David Letterman and has been a writer/producer on a half dozen network situation comedies.
On December 3, 2013, Simon & Schuster released Kelly’s first book entitled Downton Tabby, a hilarious feline parody of the hugely popular British period drama TV series Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes and starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt, among many others.
“I know so many people who write for television who love Downton Abbey. You watch those characters and the stories, and they are so vivid. If you’re a real fan of the show, you’re thinking about it on and off all the time. You go, ‘Oh. That’s just like Anna. That’s just like Bates.’”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Chris, as an animal lover and fan of Downton Abbey, I must say this is an adorable book!
Chris Kelly: Oh, thank you so much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you come up with the concept?
Chris Kelly: (laughs) I have three animals right now. I have a cat, a dog and a guinea pig. One morning I was getting up to feed them all, and I realized that it was exactly like Downton Abbey when all of the bells go off. So, I thought, “I am Carson. It’s my job now to take care of this family of animals.” That’s what got me starting to think about it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I assume you’re an avid fan of Downton Abbey?
Chris Kelly: Yes I am.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham is one of my favorite characters, and you portray her as a hairless cat in the book!
Chris Kelly: (laughs) She’s always been so beautiful and always had those enormous eyes! But now she really does look like a hairless cat, and she has this wonderful posture, too. She’s always leaning forward to try to understand what others are saying and recoiling in horror from it at the same time (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Now that you mention it, I can see what you mean (laughs). Did you ever think the servants should be mice instead of other cats?
Chris Kelly: That’s funny. I did think about them being dogs, and there’s even a joke in the book about them working like dogs, but then as I thought about it, it seems it was a much more complete world with them being cats. I sort of had to justify that in the book and ask, “Well, why would a cat do hard work since they don’t?” A line in the book explains that’s just how rigidly the class system was enforced, that even cats would work. But it is funny because exactly like the English aristocracy, my animals exist to give me something to do. Their job is to provide work for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it “Grumpy Cat” who started this worldwide cat craze?
Chris Kelly: The Internet loves cats. There was Keyboard Cat. Remember him? Half the time when you’re online, it’s a catlike behavior. What do we use to look for things online? We use a mouse. But it is funny that it’s not dogs online really. I guess there are dogs, but it’s mostly cats.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe Mouseton Abbey came out a few months ago.
Chris Kelly: Yes. It’s a children’s book I think. With humor books, although there has been some great humor written about dogs, it seems that the best humor books have always been on cats, which is kind of weird. But there is sort of a tradition of it.
Do you remember the French for Cats books or the Latin for Cats books? I think they’re comic characters because like silent film characters, they have so much dignity about them while they’re being caught doing things.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is this your first book, Chris?
Chris Kelly: It is my first book. I was a magazine editor and a magazine writer before I worked in television. But this is the first book that I sat down and wrote by myself.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s interesting that your first book combines the animal world with television.
Chris Kelly: I know so many people who write for television who love Downton Abbey. You watch those characters and the stories, and they are so vivid. If you’re a real fan of the show, you’re thinking about it on and off all the time. You go, “Oh. That’s just like Anna. That’s just like Bates.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And the new season just started. I must admit I’ve cheated a bit and watched the first couple of UK episodes …
Chris Kelly: I’ve avoided doing that. The Downton Abbey Wiki page, which is run out of England, has it all there, but I’ve just avoided finding out anything about the new season.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about your career, Chris.
Chris Kelly: I’ve written for lots of television, but I’ve been working for Bill Maher on and off for 20 years. I was the head writer at Bill’s old show, Politically Incorrect, and then I left and did some sitcoms. I did a show called Grounded for Life for 5 years and a bunch of other shows after that. But I’ve always gone back to Bill because I love writing late night monologue, and that has been exciting to go back and do that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Since you put the words in Bill’s mouth, so to speak, do you share his opinions on religion and politics?
Chris Kelly: One of the things that I respect about Bill is that you don’t have to … what he wants to hear are other opinions. What he likes in the writing room is when he can hear other people’s opinions, which gives him something to push back on and gives him an idea of what other people are going to say on the show.
One of our writers, who has also been with him for 20 years, just wrote a play about the Bible, so there’s a divide in the room about atheism for instance, although I worked on Religulous as well as a consultant. And there’s a political divide in the room, which I think is really healthy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Which side of the room are you on?
Chris Kelly: I’ve been so long with Bill that my children are always asking, “What do you believe?” You know, I’d like you to find out. You can decide for yourself about those things (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, it’s my job to ask the questions (laughs).
Chris Kelly: One of the great things about Bill is when he was on Celebrity Jeopardy a long time ago, it was the first time he took all his winnings, and he gave them to PETA, and it was the first time any of us knew he was affiliated with PETA. I remember someone once asked, “Why didn’t he give that money to some other charity?” Bill explained that he liked animals better than people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw recently, “My Labrador retriever is smarter than your honor student.”
Chris Kelly: Which is something Bill put in a much less nice way, and it got him in quite a lot of trouble (laughs). Bill used to say that he makes a bad firsthand impression. I was reading your magazine and was so happy to see an interview with Eric Braeden. On Politically Incorrect, we taped at CBS Television City where they shoot The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. When a guest fell out and it was just a crunch, we’d ask Eric to come be on the show. He was always a great guest.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And Eric is a great interview. Back to the subject of your political and religious views …
Chris Kelly: I don’t want to go against Bill on these things. But Bill is the last bachelor, and I have three children. Bill is an atheist, and I am not. But that doesn’t mean he and I can’t be friends.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You are absolutely correct. Were you a struggling writer before you “made it” on television?
Chris Kelly: I used to write for the Village Voice right after college, and from there I started working at Comedy Central. Then I was working with Michael Moore and then with Bill.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds like the writing doors just kept opening for you.
Chris Kelly: Well, I think I was making $75 a week at the Village Voice, so I think of that as struggling (laughs). At the same time, I worked for a tiny literary agency for a couple of years after school, which was fun and a nice education in publishing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you know if a joke is going to work before it gets to the audience?
Chris Kelly: When you write jokes for an audience, you can hear it right away. With a book, it’s different. There’s a children’s book author (wish I could remember her name), but she once told me, “You should never show anyone anything that you’re working on because you could get discouraged.” But the temptation is to show people all the time, especially with humor, to get feedback right away.
What people laugh at in a joke is when they realize that something is true. That’s what Bill taught me. You can’t lead people that far. You can lead them a little way, but it has to be something that they sort of believe before they can follow with you to the punchline. James Thurber said almost 100 years ago that the first rule about writing humor is that people should understand what you’re talking about.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What makes you laugh?
Chris Kelly: Off the top of my head … Keyboard Cat. Also James Thurber’s Fables for Our Time, which is still perfect. A lot of British comedy. Once you have kids, you go back to some of that stuff. You go back and you watch them watch something, and you say, “This is still good!” You watch the Marx Brothers or you watch Some Like It Hot or The Apartment.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How old are your kids?
Chris Kelly: I have twins and they are 16, but somehow we still adopted a guinea pig. I thought we were out of the phase of me coming home and finding new pets have arrived. That is how we got the rabbits and the tortoise and the lizard.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have plans for another book?
Chris Kelly: Yes. I’d love to do a second one. I think it would be another English one … maybe cats and James Bond.
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