Jason Katims definitely knows how to get the waterworks started.
As head writer and showrunner of the late, great "Friday Night Lights" and the currently great "Parenthood," Katims has established himself as the reigning master of TV cry scenes. (As any fan of those shows can tell you, you'd be wise to get a box of Kleenex handy before you start watching.)
But with his new NBC sitcom, "About a Boy" (premiering this week), Katims is looking to make us laugh instead. Based on the Nick Hornby novel and the 2002 Hugh Grant film, "Boy" stars David Walton ("New Girl") as Will, a gleefully irresponsible bachelor who befriends the 11-year-old boy living next door ("1600 Penn's" Benjamin Stockham) against the wishes of the boy's over-protective single mom, Fiona (Minnie Driver).
It's a change of pace for Katims, who sat down with us during NBC's winter press tour to discuss his shift from drama to comedy. "It's definitely a different approach," he says. "But I've really enjoyed it. I always wanted to do a comedy. I started as a playwright, and a lot of the plays I wrote were comedies."
After years of crafting hour-long dramas with multiple intertwining subplots (it's hard to keep all of the Braverman family drama straight sometimes, isn't it?), Katims says he's enjoying the snappier pace of a half-hour comedy. "What I like about it is, you have to really focus. You have to get things going very quickly. It's less forgiving, in a way."
Get a sneak peek at NBC's "About a Boy" right here:
But rest assured, "FNL" and "Parenthood" fans: "About a Boy" definitely has the same naturalistic, heartwarming feel of those shows. As Katims puts it, he didn't want to "do a comedy that didn't feel anything like anything I've done before. I don't think I would be good at that." (Plus, "FNL" and "Parenthood" can be pretty funny at times, right? In another universe, Landry and Crosby would fit right in on a network sitcom. In fact, Katims says Dax Shepard will pop up as Crosby on "About a Boy" sometime this season.)
His shows are all about family at their core, so it's fitting that Katims describes "Boy" as being about "this weird family forming that will never admit they're a family." He even draws a direct line between "Boy's" Will and Marcus and "FNL's" Coach and Matt Saracen: "You go back to 'Friday Night Lights'… 'Friday Night Lights' and 'About a Boy' couldn't be more different tonally. But thematically, the idea of telling the story about a surrogate father with his son, there was a lot of that in 'Friday Night Lights,' and that's what this [show] is about."
The "About a Boy" pilot pretty much covers the entire plot of the movie, so where does the show go from there? Katims says the first season centers on the escalating battle of wills between Will and Fiona, "this sort of tug-of-war between these two parents over this kid, how this kid is being influenced, what he's learning. And you realize at some point that it takes both of them to raise this kid. And of course, they would never admit to each other, or themselves."
One thing Katims is reluctant to admit to himself: that he cries when watching his own shows. "This is embarrassing, but I do," he admits. "In the editing room, I'll watch the show and I'll get affected by it. And I'm always having to try to hide that from the editors. To be crying and affected by something that you wrote is… it's not cool."
Why does he think his shows strike such an emotional chord with viewers? "I have always been drawn to telling stories about people, and wanting to get underneath the skin of that," Katims says, adding that his characters tend to buck the current TV trend of deeply unlikable antiheroes.
"You see a lot of stories about bad people and villains. I have a feeling that most people I meet, and most people you know, are trying to do the best they can. So I try to do that with the characters in these shows. They're trying to do good. They're not trying to do bad. So when they flounder, it's with the best intentions. It's because of their flaws."
Hmmm… if that's true of "About a Boy," too, maybe we will need to keep that box of Kleenex handy after all.
"About a Boy" premieres Saturday, Feb. 22 after the Olympics on NBC.