What is more comforting for a man who is grieving: a world of puppets or immersing one’s self in the seemingly simpler time of the 1960s? For Jeff Piccirillo aka Mr. Pickles (Jim Carrey) of “Kidding,” it seems to be the latter.
The second season of Dave Holstein’s Showtime comedy has expanded its worlds-within-the-world outward from “Puppet Time,” Jeff’s children’s television show, to also include a “nostalgia center,” which Jeff visits to deal with another death.
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“We kept thinking, ‘Emotionally, where would Jeff want to go?’” says Holstein. “We thought about Superman’s Fortress of Solitude — the one place Superman could go where he’s not Superman. And we thought, ‘What is the place where Jeff goes where he can escape himself?’”
The concept was inspired by a real-life Cleveland, Ohio facility that the writers’ room read about in the New Yorker — a space is rooted in the 1960s to provide dementia and Alzheimer’s patients a sense of being back in a more familiar time. In “Kidding,” everything from the bar to the patients’ rooms to a main street and a bus bench is built to be indoors in a safe, locked care facility — but it is it’s also designed so that the patients don’t realize the limitations.
In the center, Jeff is sometimes a bartender who debates the merits of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and sometimes a stand-in for a patient’s dad, or for another’s husband.
Escaping into the 1960s was a new design challenge for production designer Maxwell Orgell. The show didn’t want to “Mad Men” approach as if we were shooting in the ’60s or ’70s, Holstein notes. Instead of changing the visual look through cinematography to ground the audience in this new world, it was production design (with an assist from wardrobe and lighting) that took over the aesthetic.
The nostalgia center is built “to treat people who need to feel like they’re in that era, but it’s also done in suburban Ohio and not in Hollywood,” Holstein says. “This is about doctors putting on a show,” Holstein says.
To better capture this vibe, Orgell shares that he visited real-life nostalgia centers and noticed that they tap into a near “child-like state of ‘The sky is blue, the grass is green,’” he says. “They’re very literal with those kind of things.”
From there, he was able to construct the color pallette that was a “weird parallel to ‘Puppet Time’ but not directly related to it,” Orgell says.
While the brown of natural wood was important for the throwback bar set, the areas that were designed to be outdoor spaces, such as storefronts and the backdrop behind the bus bench, featured vibrant pops of blue and orange with the lush greens of shrubbery and a carpet that stood in for grass.
It’s an “ultra-reality that’s built around comfort as opposed ot realism,” and pragmatism instead of slavish accuracy, Orgell says, “so it would always feel like a weird set — a Disneyland sort of thing.”
Also similar to Disneyland: Everything in the nostalgia center is scaled in order to make it feel “safe and small,” Orgell points out. “Street lamps and things like that were half to a quarter scale.”
The nostalgia center set also had to feature hallways and a modern employee lounge just beyond the reach of the patient areas. These needed to be detailed in a much different way than the vintage posters that filled the patients’ spaces. Orgell also had worked to create an entry way between the bar and the lounge — something that a patient couldn’t pass through, in order to avoid having the illusion of their 1960s world shattered.
For this, he built a large refrigerator door in the vein of a speakeasy that wouldn’t shatter the illusion of an earlier time.
Further complicating matters, none of this was built on a soundstage: The bar was created by “reskinning” a diner on the Sony lot, but the majority of the rest was built in an exterior area.
“I often build exterior sets on soundstages, but in this case it’s the opposite so it’s about flattening out the lighting,” Orgell says. “I’m finding artificial light sources like sconces and street lamps and trying to kill all existing light in the place. Everything was covered; there was no natural light coming in.”
The production team discussed the strangeness of using fluorescence to create the look of exogenous light, and decided to lean in to the effect, considering the bizarre aspect of the nostalgia center set. “That’s one of the things that makes it feel off-putting,” Orgell says. “We wanted to emulate that a little bit too.”