When Dan Fogelman’s late mother moved to a gated townhouse community in New Jersey 16 years ago, he’d often stay with her in the shrine of a bedroom she kept for him, complete with his bar mitzvah guest book on display. “You’d see all these neighbors who never seemed to talk to each other rolling out their garbage cans and watering their lawns in almost synchronized form,” said Fogelman, 36, the screenwriter behind “Cars,” “Tangled” and “Crazy Stupid Love,” who’s created the sitcom, “The Neighbors,” which premieres on ABC on Sept. 26. “But my mother never spoke to any of them, and they never spoke to her. And one day I wondered, what if my sweet mother was living among aliens and didn’t know it? And then I took it one step further and said, ‘What if my sweet mother, but of my youth, had moved inside a community of aliens?’ ”
These thoughts turned into the jumping-off point for “The Neighbors,” which begins as the human Weaver family moves into a townhouse community colonized by spacemen, all named after famous athletes, who turn out to be as befuddled by the human’s ways as vice versa. The aliens look lizard-like, but publicly appear in human form, yet they are horrified by the concept of kids’ meals — “are they really made out of kids?” And they’re perplexed when they see human dads “spending 12 hours a day in the office, because the most important thing in your life is your family, but you have no time to be with them because you spend all that time in the office,” as Fogelman put it. “It’s turning a lens on the crazy human experience through the eyes of the aliens, who serve as a kind of tabula rasa, looking at us.”
“The show is also about my dysfunctional Jewish family,” the boyishly charming Fogelman added, with a laugh. “We were endearingly dysfunctional — just enough that everyone’s in therapy, but otherwise OK. Jewish people in my opinion have the same kind of full-core family dynamics as everyone else, but ours are sometimes just a little bit funnier.”
Fogelman described how his relatives adored lox but grew up too poor to eat much of the Jewish delicacy. By the time Dan was a boy, everyone was comfortably middle-class, but old habits died hard. “There was always this kind of pandemonium when the lox would hit the table; you could see everyone’s eyes turn into slits and start feeling the tension in the room,” he said.
Recently, Fogelman sat down to a meeting with Dustin Hoffman, where a Lucullian spread of smoked salmon graced a table. “But even two generations removed, I still couldn’t take my eyes off the lox,” he said.
Just as in Fogelman’s childhood mishpachah, the human mother in “The Neighbors” (Jami Gertz) wears the pants in the family, while the father, Marty (Lenny Venito), named after Fogelman’s own dad, “is kind of this puppy dog who doesn’t quite understand all the jokes his wife is making, but knows exactly how to push her buttons and fight back,” he said.
The Herculean spats between Gertz’s character and her onscreen daughter, played by Clara Mamet (see main story), recall the times Fogelman and his father would cower in the basement, waiting for the yelling to stop between his mother and his sister. Mamet’s character of Amber Weaver is “this kind of holy terror of a teenaged daughter that really existed in a funny way in our house — a whirling dervish of energy and neurosis and sexuality,” he said. “Nobody was really scared of my sister,” he added. “Well, maybe a little.”
Fogelman is a science fiction fan, and, he noted, other than “Alf” and “30 Rock” (and “Mork & Mindy”) , sitcoms have rarely veered into alien territory. He and his team spent days discussing how to make the creatures fun, but not too scary. “We’d literally be two hours into a meeting talking about how black to make their eyes,” said Fogelman, whose next project is a film, “The Guilt Trip,” starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand, based on a road trip he took with his mother from her home in New Jersey to Las Vegas some years ago. “And I would say, ‘I’m so glad I skipped law school for this.’ ”
While he hopes the alien-human mix in “The Neighbors” will prove universal, Fogelman says, “The characters could be Jews and non-Jews living next door, or an American and an English family.
“I think people will recognize themselves, no matter who they are.”