Series creator for the Netflix One Day at a Time reboot Mike Royce will inspire you. As he reflects on his remarkable career, he is funny, humble, insightful, incredibly honest, and genuinely kind. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mike as he awaited news from Netflix on renewing One Day at a Time for a fourth season.
UPDATE 3/14/19: Unfortunately as of this writing, Netflix chose not to renew One Day at a Time for a fourth season. The shows dedicated fans are disappointed, and to many it came as heartbreaking news.
Simply put, the modern update of the Norman Lear classic is one of the most groundbreaking shows on television today. Portraying a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles, the reboot explores immigration, mental illness, addiction, gender identity, to name a few important issues highlighted through the characters’ struggles. Yet the show is never preachy, and always heartwarming. If you want this fantastic and unique show to be renewed, binge watch season three of One Day at a Time tonight!
Note: This interview has been edited for readability.
Reel Mama: I wanted to start if we could by giving my readers some insights into your experiences and journey. Who inspired you growing up?
Mike: I was inspired by pretty much all the popular, cool comedy at the time. Not necessarily just one person, but I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live. I wanted to be on Second City TV. I wanted to be on the David Letterman show. To some extent the Johnny Carson show, but really Letterman was the show that made me think, “Okay, he does jokes like I want to do jokes.” Comics like Richard Pryor, George Carlin. I became a standup comic in the eighties—I started in the eighties, but mostly through the nineties–based on my just great love of comedy. I just vacuumed up anything comedic, basically sitcoms, sketches. I just loved it so much.
Reel Mama: And then how did you get into doing work behind the camera as a writer and producer?
Mike: Well, part of the great love of comedy came from me. I had a couple of very good friends who were also similar in terms of what we loved. We would make films. We made super-eight films in the backyard. Half the time they’re not exposed correctly. You can barely see them. I transferred them all, digitized them all. By this time, even with a lot of color correction, you can barely see what’s going on.
We just started making stuff, because we thought it was cool. We also used to make tapes together, record ourselves impersonating, basically ripping off sketches and doing riffs on what were already sketches on Saturday Night Live. They used to make fun of Tom Snyder who was on after Johnny Carson, and we basically imitated Saturday Night Live imitating him.
So I got in the mode of making stuff right away. And then I also discovered musicals in high school and became a performer. So those two things kind of merged once I got to college. I went to college for cinema, to be a filmmaker, at Ithaca College, and then I also did some performing. Once I left school, then I decided to just go whole “stand-up comedian,” because that was sort of my secret dream.
Reel Mama: Do you feel like that was really a good training ground for you, for your future career in television?
Mike: Yes, I always tell people it’s not essential, because there are many great television writers, probably the majority, who were never stand-up comics who write amazing comedy. But for me it was great, because what is good about it is you learn how jokes get said instead of seeing them dryly put it on the page. I think it helps with finding the voices of characters and stuff.
Then when you actually get to say the line, which is what you’re doing as a stand-up comic, you have a little more empathy for what you’re putting on the page for someone else to say. And you also just have a better sense of how it sounds, what makes it funny. So I needed to learn that, because I had no idea. I think it feels a little bit like muscle memory as a performer, so then I could then sort of translate that as a writer a little better.
Reel Mama: That must be such an incredible skill to have. I can imagine you developed such a keen sense of how the audience was going to react. You’re trying out jokes right on the spot, and the audience is either going to react or not, and you probably got that sense of immediacy with comic timing as well as regarding what would play well.
Mike: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
Reel Mama: Would you mind discussing your creative journey with Everybody Loves Raymond? I’m curious how you got started and then how your career progressed from there once you were involved.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, that was definitely my big break, as they say. I was friends with Ray [Romano] as a comic. He actually got me an audition and got me into one of the first comedy clubs that I was then allowed to play at, because we just happened to do a week together at Catch a Rising Star and hit it off. So he already was my great comic benefactor. My whole career wouldn’t really be here if it weren’t for Ray at the very beginning and then later in television. As the years went by, he was always a way more experienced comic and way more successful than me. But we were friends. He got his show, went off to Los Angeles. We kind of lost touch for a couple of years. He was becoming famous, and I was not. I was staying back in New York still doing comedy.
I used to MC a lot of shows. So I was the host at the Comedy Cellar for the entire night, which means that I would stay there for what is a five-hour show and see all the comedians. You then get to know everybody’s act so well. And Ray was always pretty much my favorite comedian, certainly one of the greats in New York at that time. And I just knew his act really well.
So what happened was, a couple of years later, once he was doing the show [Everybody Loves Raymond] for a couple seasons, he went out on tour. He let people from his past come open for him as a nice gesture and to throw a little work our way. He gave me a few opening gigs, and while we were together he told me he was writing this book of his standup, basically translating his standup into a book.
And he had me look at some of the pages, since I knew his act so well. I think I had a knack for how the book could be written well. He was looking for additional material, so I started just giving him material. That transformed into me faxing him a bunch of stuff. And that transformed into him and me being holed up in his office, doing the final version of the book for two months, during one of the seasons of Everybody Love Raymond. And then that transformed into, once there was an opening on Everybody Loves Raymond, me getting a job on the show, just because he liked what I was doing.
We had just had a baby, and my whole family had to move out to LA. I came out kicking and screaming, but it was good job.
Reel Mama: Wow. So from that point you started writing episodes and then ultimately became executive producer of the show as time went on.
Mike: That’s right. My first writing job was on an MTV show [Apartment 2F] that was fairly short lived, but I got a taste for writing, and I liked it. When the opportunity came along for Raymond, I had at least been trying to be a writer for a couple of years.
Reel Mama: I wanted to ask you about how Everybody Loves Raymond really struck such a chord with audiences. What was it about that show that was so special?
The old mantra is, ‘Write what you know’…’If it’s happening in your house, it’s probably happening in a lot of houses.’Mike Royce
Mike: The old mantra is, “Write what you know.” Phil Rosenthal created and ran the show. His guiding creative thought was, “If it’s happening in your house, it’s probably happening in a lot of houses. So come in with a fight that you had with your spouse, come in with the thing that’s driving you crazy, come in with stories that happen with your kids.”
And we would talk about all of that, and that was how the stories got created. They were almost always based on something that really happened between husband and wife or family. And Phil’s family had similarities to Ray’s family, but they also were very different. But the show is kind of a combination of their two families mashed up in a way. I think it was very relatable to people. People saw themselves in various ways on TV, regardless of whether they were an Italian family or not. You know, they just saw the very familiar dynamics. So many people would say, “That’s my mom. That’s my husband. That reminds me of that thing that happened to me.” That’s where a lot of the best comedy comes from, I think.
Reel Mama: That universality is a great segue into some of my other questions, and I wondered if you could just touch on the series you did prior to One Day at a Time, Men of a Certain Age, which was another collaboration with Ray Romano. What was the concept of Men of a Certain Age?
Mike: Well, it was born because Ray and I started meeting. I had done another show. Ray hadn’t done anything for a little while. He thought, “Well, you know, I did nine years of Everybody Love Raymond, I’m really going to enjoy having some time to myself. I’m going to play golf a lot.” He said that lasted about three months, and then he was going crazy. At the same time, he wasn’t really sure how to [move forward] from this giant hit. [He said,] “I don’t want to go back and do another sitcom. I’m never going to be able to top that. So I want to do something that’s very different.”
We were having our own version of a mid-life…I’m not going to say ‘crisis’…big life thoughts is the way I’m going to put it.Mike Royce
And we just started talking. I think we were intending to write a movie at first. But we were both mid-forties. He was late forties, I was early forties, basically. We were having our own version of a mid-life…I’m not going to say “crisis”…big life thoughts is the way I’m going to put it.
We were doing a lot of, “Have we been to the mountain top, and is it all downhill from here?” You have those thoughts at that age, where you start to look around and go, “I guess this is as good as it gets. I’m only getting older now.” These are just the thoughts that creep into your head. It wasn’t even necessarily depressive thoughts, although there’s some of that too. It was just really questioning everything and wondering about your place in the world. And your kids are getting older. All the stuff you built or achieved is starting to go away. And then there’s the other side of it, which is like, “What about all the stuff I haven’t achieved? Is that just never going to happen now?”
So all these discussions manifested in three different characters in three different forms of that thought process: a divorced fellow, a married guy with kids, and then a guy who was never married. We either were or knew many of these people.
So again, all the stories came from stuff that we either experienced, or knew people who had experienced it.
Reel Mama: Thank you for sharing that. It really sounds like one of the big secrets of your success is writing what you know, really exploring elements in your own life and that of your friends, and then sharing that. It strikes a chord with the audience because it resonates as something that they’re going through as well.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, I would say that…I don’t know if the word is “corollary.” Writing what you know can also be how you limit yourself, and it can also be an excuse to not discover anything new. I did a show called Enlisted after Men of a Certain Age, and that was a whole world that I did not know. I had to research, and I had to meet a lot of people and work with a lot of people who did know that world. And it gave me not just the confidence but the joy of discovering and helping to lift up that world. And at the same time that it’s relatable to people, and I get it, it’s not my world. So how can I help those voices get out there?
And that’s where I think my role on One Day at a Time comes in. Some of this stuff does come from my family, as it does all the writers’ families. This was not my family growing up. Obviously, I’m not Latino, but at the same time there are so many universal things about that family that everybody can relate to that it becomes that kind of process.
Reel Mama: Absolutely. I’m excited that you segued into talking about One Day at a Time. It started out as a sitcom from the 1970s and 1980s. I remember the original as a kid. Maybe not every member of your audience does remember it, but it’s about a single mom. Where did the idea for doing a reboot come from?
Mike: It came from Norman [Lear] and his producing partner, Brent Miller, who were doing some research about underrepresented groups, and they found Latinos are and certainly were, even more so, super underrepresented. They were also looking to do stuff with Norman’s catalog, and how can they reimagine some of these old titles? And so they thought [One Day at a Time] set with a Latino family might be something that people would like, and I think they were right.
Reel Mama: Definitely. Norman Lear is really a pioneer in TV. How were you and your producing partner, Gloria Calderón Kellett, approached to be involved at that point?
Mike: They approached me and Gloria separately. They approached me, and we had the meeting, and I said, “This all sounds great.” But it was three white guys talking to each other. I’m like, “It’s not just to be us, right?” Of course they were also reading lots of Latinx writers. And so Gloria and I read each other’s stuff. She’s a playwright, and I loved her play, and they basically put us in a room. We met on the first day. We agreed to it without meeting each other, because that’s just sort of the way sometimes things work in Hollywood.
I guess if we had hated each other, we would have been able to get out of it. But we met June 3, 2015, if I have my dates correctly, with Norman, and we started talking about what the show could be. We already had some ideas. We were just immediately enamored each other’s creative ideas.
Weirdly enough, she has [also] an older daughter, younger son, and they’re almost exactly 10 years younger than mine. So we both wanted to make it a daughter and a son as opposed to the old show, which was two daughters. And Gloria started talking about her mom. And I started talking about my kids. The show is, in a rough way, a little bit of a mash up. It’s mostly obviously centering on her family. My kids are teenagers, and the kids [on One Day at a Time] reflect certain things about my kids. My daughter is gay and my son has a bit of a…I don’t know if he’s a fashionista, but you know, certainly known to look in the mirror a little too long sometimes.
He and Marcel [Ruiz, who portrays Alex on One Day at a Time] get along very well, actually. And they have a lot of the same interests. They love sneakers. They’re big sneaker heads. Marcel has really gotten into fashion now. Musically, I think they like all the same stuff. There are a lot of parallels there.
Reel Mama: It sounds like the parenting aspect really connected you and Gloria and was a rich source of stories, for instance, with your son and his interest in fashion. That’s one of the central conflicts in an episode, when Alex orders too many sneakers, to have a different one for each day of the week.
Mike: That exact thing didn’t happen at my house, but it certainly could have.
Reel Mama: It sounds like also, Norman Lear probably doesn’t get many no’s for an answer when he approaches his friends about doing shows.
Mike: That’s right.
Reel Mama: What were some of the elements that, once you and Gloria got to talking, that you decided to update for One Day at a Time? One of my biggest questions would be, how did you decide to focus on a Cuban-American family and really put that in the spotlight?
Mike: Well, Gloria is Cuban American, and her parents immigrated with Pedro Pan in the sixties. So Gloria was born here and grew up speaking Spanish in that household. Along the lines of “write what you know,” we wanted to make sure it was coming from an authentic place. Shows always need to be authentic on some level, but it’s even more important for this underrepresented swath of people who don’t see themselves on television.
We didn’t want to be coming from a place that neither of us knew, like if it was about a Mexican family, or an Argentinian family, or something like that. It more than made sense. The only thing that we could do was make it come from this experience that Gloria has had and really mine that for all that we could.
It’s a dichotomy. Latinos are not all the same. There are universal things shared among the different cultures, and a lot of things are different. So it was a way to make it specific and therefore authentic.
Reel Mama: Absolutely. And that really shows in many of the authentic details that are portrayed in the show. In terms of the original One Day at a Time, is there anything else that’s very different on the new Netflix version other than the race of the characters?
Mike: Well, let’s see. The old show did not have a grandmother character. Actually, I think they did later, but in our case, that’s obviously a big part of the show. And the old show did have two daughters. We have a daughter and a son. And of course the old show did have a Schneider, a much different Schneider. The similarity is this guy who barges in all the time. We had a real fun long process reinventing Schneider for 2017, because the previous version of Schneider was first of all, a super iconic character. So ours had to be different, just because there’s no competing with what Pat Harrington [the original Schneider] did. It was just really, really funny and classic.
And in our world, there’s gentrification to consider. What’s the role that our Schneider plays in being a part of their world since they’re Latino? It quickly came together that he would probably be well off. It’s a good contrast to their working-class family that he’s a white privileged guy who has a big heart but also gets in his own way. He had a super dysfunctional rich family, and he looks to [the Cuban-American Alvarez family] for all kinds of love that he did not get from his own family, even though he had all the money in the world.
Reel Mama: I am so fascinated with his character, because he seems like the perfect foil for some of the meatier discussion discussions of race that happened in the show. He’s shown questioning his own identity and coming to some realizations. It’s kind of exciting to see so many different aspects of race discussed and explored in that way. His character and the presence of it really allows for that.
Mike: He provides a very necessary angle. In many ways he’s the voice of people who are privileged, who sometimes just can’t see outside of that. He’s struggling to see, which is great, but he doesn’t always do it, which is also fun to portray, and kind of a necessary thing.
Obviously myself, we have similarities too. I didn’t grow up rich, but I did grow up white in a mostly white neighborhood, and it’s all ways of seeing. It’s important to discover worlds outside of your own and get out of your own bubble. And I think that that’s a little bit what he represents.
Reel Mama: Absolutely. I definitely could relate to that. Obviously having married into a Cuban family, I’m white, and like Schneider, I learned Spanish. I’d watch novellas with my mother-in-law, and I took a Spanish class kind of like Schneider, and then everyone was impressed after that. So I love this character.
Mike: Thank you.
Reel Mama: But it’s terrific that you’ve added him. You’re so brave in exploring a lot of these topics. I wanted to talk to you about honoring Norman Lear’s legacy, and perhaps you can shed some light on how his approach has enabled you to explore some topics that other sitcoms might be afraid to explore.
Mike: Well, it’s interesting, because I think we’re living in a day and age where there are shows that explore [current issues], I mean Blackish immediately comes to mind, the Carmichael Show when it was on did a great job. Fresh Off the Boat occasionally gets into issues.
I’m leaving out a bunch of shows, but there are shows that do explore issues and go there. However, what we’re able to do is draft behind Norman, who is so known for that stuff. Kenya Barris, whose show is Blackish, credits Norman with the reason he wants to be in television, and that’s us as well. We’re able to do this show because we can explain to people that we’re doing a Norman Lear show. And then it’s like a shorthand, and people know what you’re going for.
If he weren’t behind the show, it would be so much harder to explain to people, oh, we want to do a show about immigration and someone whose family is undocumented. We want to do a show about homophobia, and we want to explore within Latin culture different attitudes about homosexuality. It all sounds very serious when you’re just saying it without the benefit of knowing, oh, you’re doing a Norman Lear show. Oh, now I get it. It’s going to be funny and hopefully deep. So he provides us with the very opportunity to even just try to do it. If he weren’t here, we’d never be able to do any of this stuff.
Reel Mama: What the show is doing is very similar to All in the Family in its time. It’s the show that strikes me as the one that’s the most similar to capturing that moment in time and exploring those elements, with so much humanity and heart to it, and then also exploring these issues. That’s such a tight rope to walk and so challenging.
Mike: Well, yeah, thank you. I mean we, we definitely try. I think we sort of occupy our own space on the Norman spectrum because Norman Lear did so many shows. All in the Family was always super political and hard hitting. And Archie was obviously this sort of this unreconstructed guy with very old views and a big heart, but also had deep suspicion and anger about people and obviously bigotry and sometimes learning his lesson about that.
And when Norman Lear did the old One Day at a Time, that was not really political. It was very emotional. It had sometimes issues, but mainly it was about a single mom and the personal things that come up with her two teenagers having a lot of trouble. That was written into the show quite a bit.
We really like to try and make people laugh and make people cry, because we want people to feel deeply for these characters.Mike Royce, Producer, One Day at a Time
So we’re in between somewhere in terms of [how] we sometimes tackle issues. We always try to make it relevant, whether it’s an issue that’s ripped from the headlines or not. But also I think where we like to come from is, you try to make it as funny and emotional as possible, but we really like to try and make people laugh and make people cry, because we want people to feel deeply for these characters. And that can come from just relating to them and not necessarily from a societal issue that we’re trying to solve. But sometimes that is what we’re talking about, because it relates to this family.
Reel Mama: Definitely. It definitely does capture its own personality, if that’s the right word. It did remind me of All in the Family in how effectively it explores some of the issues of race and other things that, like you said, that have been addressed on other shows, but there’s just a special way that you guys are doing it. It’s neat to see that Norman Lear tradition honored and updated it in this way.
Mike: Yeah. He’s basically our north star, and we just are always trying to achieve, we’re never going to get to everything that he’s done, but we can just keep trying and hopefully be a part of it.
Reel Mama: Well, I know you’ve put a lot of yourself into this show, and I wondered if you wouldn’t mind sharing a little bit more about that, particularly the element about your children. I’ve been doing a little research and found out that that was something that was really important for you in terms of Elena’s journey. Would you mind discussing that a little bit?
Mike: Well, I’m not sure whether it was a chicken or egg, situation because very early on, we talked about having Elena come out, and then as we were writing the first season, my daughter was coming out. So I am positive that we were talking about this before this was happening, but it was so concurrent that I don’t know if subconsciously I knew. It was extremely personal in terms of writing that arc with the other writers, because of what was going on at my house. Everything that happened to Elena wasn’t stuff that was happening to me. We have other writers, especially, we have writers who are lesbian who contributed mightily from their personal lives to everything that we wrote for Elena. We’re drafting behind them and making sure that [Elena’s] experience is authentic.
I could more add to the parental the experience [when a child comes out], wanting to do the best but not quite knowing what to do and trying to be there for them. One of our writers came out, and her father came out at the same time. She found herself a little conflicted about her father coming out, even though she had just come out.
So everybody talks about that parental thing: no matter how open and absolutely fine with it you are, it’s a perspective adjustment, and you really have to explore that. And we did that on the show. And I’m really happy that I sort of got talked into making that a whole separate episode as opposed to maybe Elena coming out and then dealing with Penelope’s attitude in the same episode. I’m really happy that we separated those two things out, because I feel like it made for two much deeper episodes and a better perspective on everybody’s viewpoint.
Reel Mama: I’m so happy to hear that. It sounds like there’s so much meaningful discussion going on in the writer’s room, and it’s not just making stuff up. These are real events that have happened to real people, and you’re weaving them into the story. That’s very powerful.
Mike: My daughter continues to do things that we take from. At the same time, other writers talk about their lives. There are plenty of coming-out experiences and being a gay teenager, experiences from their lives that we continue to take from. So yes, that is absolutely what we strive for. If it was at least someone’s experience, then we know it happened, and there’s authenticity to it. And that we can talk about, are we doing it with tropes, and how do we deal with that? It’s all a big discussion.
Reel Mama: If you don’t mind, I’d like to close with some of the exciting story elements that we might be able to look forward to in season three.
Mike: I’ll give you some general topics. This season there’s a show where we talk about, for lack of a better term—well, maybe this isn’t the term–but everybody is calling it the “Me Too” episode. That is an issue that’s covered.
We talk about marijuana legalization and how it impacts parenting and try to show a lot of sides of that. We delve into gentrification in a way that we have never done it before. We have a lot to talk about addiction. We deal again with anxiety in a different way than we did last year. I’m going to say the overall theme for this year, one of them anyway, is redemption.
Reel Mama: What will we be able to look forward to the season four? Is that not determined yet?
Mike: God, I hope so. I mean, every year is kind of a soap opera cause we’ve never known right away, and last year we were very worried. So I don’t know how else to say except it’s really important that everybody who wants to see season four needs to watch season three sooner rather than later. Because the good thing about Netflix is you kind of get to vote. With broadcast television, unless you’re a Nielsen family, you don’t really get a vote. But with Netflix you get a vote, you watch, and if you’ve watched again and again and again, all those votes are counted. We had been told this many times, so if you’re a fan, a don’t leave it, don’t say, “Oh, I’ll watch it six months from now.” Because that unfortunately means maybe that there’s not another season to see, because they want to see people are drawn to it, you know?
Reel Mama: Well, I’ll definitely be watching myself, and I’m going to share it with my readers as well and highly encourage them to binge watch this right away. I’ve watched the trailer for your show, and every single comment was positive. That was just so heartwarming to see.
Mike: It is very nice. We’ve been extremely fortunate to have a great, amazing enthusiastic fan base that I think is hopefully expanding. 99.9% of the comments I see are nice, which I can tell you in my now long experience has not always been the case.
Reel Mama: I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and congratulations on a very wonderful, meaningful show.
Mike: Thank you so much I really appreciate you writing about it and, and it was great to talk to you.