Allison Tolman is allergic to her co-star.
That’s not a euphemism for Hollywood diva behavior. Ms. Tolman’s canine co-stars literally caused her to have an allergic reaction on the set of ABC’s “Downward Dog” last fall in Regent Square.
“I take an allergy pill and I’m usually OK, but if he licks me ….” she explained between scenes with a dog in October on the show set and filmed in Pittsburgh. “The puppy was licking my face, which was adorable and I didn’t want to stop him, but then my lip got a little puffy, a little collagen-y and then makeup has to deal with it.”
Created by Pittsburghers Michael Killen and Samm Hodges, “Downward Dog” follows Pittsburgher Nan (Ms. Tolman) and her dog Martin (voiced by Mr. Hodges and played by Ned), who speaks directly to viewers through computer-generated technical wizardry, but whose voice is not heard by Nan.
The show’s biggest hurdle — internally at ABC and externally with audiences as “Downward Dog” premieres at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday before moving to its regular 8 p.m. Tuesday time slot May 23 — is how to describe the series without it sounding like every bad talking animal show that came before.
“We thought, this has got to be a complete mess,” said John Hoberg who, with wife Kat Likkel, was brought in to be the “Downward Dog” showrunners after the pilot. “We had to see how bad a talking dog show for a network is.”
After meeting with Mr. Killen and Mr. Hodges, they found themselves saying yes to working on the series.
“We seriously had a moment of, ‘Wow, they cracked it,’ ” Mr. Hoberg said. “They figured out how to do something people have been doing a long time — talking animal shows — in a cool and intellectual way and to tell real stories.”
“I feel like it’s touching but not in a crying-eating-ice-cream way,” Ms. Likkel said. “There’s emotional truth to this thing.”
Even Ms. Tolman was hesitant when she first heard the pitch.
“My first reaction was, this sounds ridiculous,” Ms. Tolman said. “And then I read the script and it was really funny and smart, but then I was still confused about how there was a talking dog in this funny, smart show. Then I saw the shorts this is based on, which are on the internet, and I was sold 100 percent. It’s a tonal thing you can’t really get from reading it and it’s hard to describe the show. I think you have to see it to get it.”
On the set
Rather than build a set on a stage, which is standard procedure for TV comedies, “Downward Dog” filmed almost all of its scenes on location.
For Nan’s house the production rented a home on Lancaster Avenue in Regent Square. The interior for her workplace, the in-house ad agency for Urban Outfitters-like retailer Clark & Bow Outfitters, was the old Hipwell flashlight factory in Allegheny West, previously used on “Those Who Kill.” (A building on First Avenue is used for exterior establishing shots.)
Other filming locations included Frick Park, West Park, the Hot Metal Bridge, Wigle Whiskey, Carnegie Music Hall, the Washington’s Landing bike path, Reed Smith, Silky’s Crow’s Nest in Sharpsburg and the East End Co-Op.
The show also has Pittsburgh-specific jokes in some dialogue that will be funnier to locals. In a later episode, Nan’s best friend and co-worker, Jenn (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), complains that her boyfriend’s parents offered to give the couple money for the down payment on a house — in Wexford.
“Oh my God,” Nan replies. “That’s, like, ground zero Stepford-Wife-Pilates-Land.”
It’s not unusual for TV series to hire cast and crew locally and to bring some from out of town and that includes Ned, the lead dog of “Downward Dog.”
Prior to the TV series, Mr. Killen and Mr. Hodges filmed a web series of the same name using a local dog, Sadie, who has a cameo in the ABC pilot in a dog training class scene. But Sadie was old and died two months after the pilot was filmed.
“We wanted an everyman dog, one that wasn’t beautiful, one that was kind of awkward and then we got this picture of this one dog who was too gorgeous, too Hollywood for our weird little series,” Mr. Killen said. “We continued to look for an older, anonymous-looking dog and finally decided, because of Ned’s eyes, we just couldn’t keep shooing him to the side. His eyes are almost human.”
Ned, who was 3 when the “Downward Dog” pilot was filmed in late 2015, was discovered by a California-based animal training company in a Chicago dog shelter. They brought him to Los Angeles for two months of training and then to Pittsburgh for production. Ned has continued to live with his trainers since.”
“He’s funny because he’s not a big people pleaser,” Ms. Tolman said. “I think I’ve seen him wag his tail a couple of times. It really becomes his set when he’s there. We cater to where he’s at that day, which is good. It didn’t give me any chance to be a diva because he was the diva on the set. He was the one in charge.”
Mr. Killen, a Millvale native and 1982 graduate of Churchill Area High School, studied graphic design at Carnegie Mellon University and began his career in TV making graphics for PBS’s “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” in New York before later moving to Los Angeles to study at the American Film Institute. He moved back to Pittsburgh in 1999 and co-founded the production company Animal Inc. in 2001 with Kathy Dzubiek, who also is an executive producer on “Dog,” and Jim Kreitzburg. The company specializes in making TV commercials but also branched out into documentary films, including “Blood Brothers” and “Fursonas.”
Mr. Killen, who now lives in Upper St. Clair, began animating animals’ lip movements for TV commercials while working in Los Angeles in the 1990s, including the Taco Bell Chihuahua.
“Downward Dog” co-creator Mr. Hodges worked at Animal as a commercial director when Mr. Killen mentioned his idea for a talking animal series.
“It was when [Disney Channel’s] ‘Dog with a Blog’ had come out and Michael was depressed because he wanted to do something that was cool with talking animals and he thought that was going to ruin it because it was in the market,” Mr. Hodges recalled. “I was like, why don’t you try to do something completely unlike any other talking dog thing and go against trope.”
Mr. Killen asked Mr. Hodges to try writing a script keeping that suggestion in mind, and it turned into a web series.
The series generated some interest from the “Ellen” show at Warner Bros., but Mr. Killen and Mr. Hodges got the sense Warner Bros.’ intent was to buy the idea and then go their own way. Mr. Hodges and Mr. Killen wanted to stay involved.
The fateful twist in the show’s development came when Steeltown Entertainment CEO Carl Kurlander brought Pittsburgh native and Hollywood agent Jimmy Miller (brother of comic Dennis Miller) to Animal to see Mr. Killen’s work for another project.
“I stopped the meeting to show him two episodes of the ‘Downward Dog’ web series,” Mr. Killen said. “[Jimmy] called us several times over the next couple of days and he took over negotiations with Warner Bros. We were correct that what we were being presented wasn’t a deal that was worthwhile and then he guided us on the best way to position ourselves.”
Mr. Miller called the meeting one of those “amazing moments in a career.” He believed in the creators and the project and encouraged them to develop scripts.
Mr. Hodges and Mr. Killen spent a year developing additional scripts, story ideas and a series bible. Mr. Miller introduced the pair to Pittsburgh booster Thomas Tull, then CEO of Legendary Entertainment, which was just moving into TV. Legendary came on board to co-produce “Downward Dog” and at one point Mr. Tull ensured the project stayed in Pittsburgh when there was a state budget impasse in 2015, which held up the commitment of state film tax credit funds.
“There was a sketchy two- or three-week period where it looked like the show might go to Canada or Atlanta,” Mr. Killen said. “Thank goodness for people like Jimmy and Thomas Tull who were able to keep this a Pittsburgh product.”
Having the web series to show network executives proved to be the team’s ace in the hole.
“We went out to Los Angeles and in one week pitched it to 12 places and we got, like, six offers,” Mr. Hodges said. “Paul Lee at ABC was most passionate and he swore to God he wouldn’t make it into ‘Modern Family’ with a dog.”
Mr. Lee ordered the “Downward Dog” pilot, which was filmed in Pittsburgh in December 2015. However, Mr. Lee was fired in February 2016. It was unclear whether’s Mr. Lee’s successor, former ABC drama head Channing Dungey, would share Mr. Lee’s interest in “Downward Dog.”
Ultimately, Ms. Dungey ordered the show to series in May 2016, albeit with a short eight-episode order and no spot on the fall 2016 schedule.
Then came the January announcement that “Downward Dog” wouldn’t air until summer. That wasn’t exactly a show of confidence on the part of ABC executives, who opted to give the network’s sole in-season comedy time slot to a different high-concept comedy, “Imaginary Mary,” starring Jenna Elfman. ABC canceled “Mary” on Thursday.
But also that month, four episodes of “Downward Dog” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival — the first time a broadcast network scripted comedy screened at the festival.
“It felt like [that audience] was laughing at everything,” Mr. Killen said of the show’s reception at Sundance. “It was the warmest reception I could imagine. I’ve had a lesser reception showing episodes to family members.”
Mr. Killen said “Downward Dog” producers are now happy with ABC’s marketing plans to support their show, which include billboards in major markets, influencer posts on behalf of the series on social media sites, series-themed speed dating events for pet lovers and integration with the Pittsburgh Pirates Pup Night Tuesday at PNC Park.
“It’s really up to the show now, which is the scary part,” Mr. Killen said. “We made a show we love and we think it should find an audience. ABC’s marketing effort is robust and now it comes down to if people like the show or not.”
TV writer Rob Owen: [email protected] or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday then 8 p.m. Tuesdays starting May 23, ABC.
Starring: Allison Tolman.