Ever wonder if your therapist’s life is secretly more hectic and depressing than yours? Chicago comedy heavyweight Tim Baltz explores that idea in his new streaming series, Shrink, which debuts on Thursday, March 16. Baltz stars in the series as David, a failed med school grad who can’t get a gig as a doctor. Swamped with debt, he’s forced to build up 1,920 clinical hours by offering free sessions. Not only is Baltz a Second City Mainstage alum and a Joliet native who has to tame his Chicago accent on camera—Shrink is set (and was even shot) in Chicago.
Shrink, created by Baltz and Ted Tremper, was originally birthed as a web series in fall 2011. After going through the Hollywood wringer and TV development machine, nearly six years later it’s been reincarnated—with a budget and a writers room and everything—on NBC’s streaming service, Seeso. We caught up with Baltz and talked Chicago, improv, his writing process and how to show “real Chicago” in comedies.
This was a few years back now, but where did the original idea for Shrink come from?
Ted had a friend who graduated from medical school and didn’t match with a university hospital. He just went back to live at home with his parents and didn’t tell anyone—he was half a million dollars in debt. That was the genesis for the idea. Defaulting to clinical therapy was a way to use improv one-on-one with great people. We put up a list of the best people in Chicago in the original web series…and Seeso was cool enough to let all of those people come back.
Casting is difficult because you have to get the perfect person for the part. And it just happened that a lot of people we knew from the Chicago improv community were the best actors for the job and the best improvisers for the job, too.
How’d you make the decision to shoot the series in Chicago?
We always felt that Chicago was a character in the show. There were times when big picture doesn’t always represent the Chicago we know, living neighborhood to neighborhood. They’ll show Navy Pier, they’ll show deep-dish pizza, gloss over the skyline, then boom: You’re on a network set. Chicago’s so diverse and unique—we wanted to show that. We always included that when we talked to people in development. Seeso was very open to that. We also talked about all the talent in Chicago, and the tone of the comedy and style of the improv I think influenced their decision to say yes.
Do you see yourself more as a writer or a performer or both?
Both. I loved iO, but when I started touring at Second City I realized that if I wanted to get on the stage I had to be a good writer. I had to show the producers that skill. If you want to show your voice, you have to be a good writer—that’s the coolest part about Second City. It’s the best way to showcase your own voice. And, if you want to stay busy in L.A., you have to keep a bunch of plates spinning. You always want to have things in the works.
Sure. And with Second City shows, even if you’re performing, you’re really putting your whole self out there. You can’t blame the writing, because you’re the writer, too. I imagine you feel a similar way about Shrink.
Yeah! I was a writer and an executive producer, so I was in there with Ted and Patrick overseeing everything step-by-step. It was my first time writing a full season of a show, and I’d never been an EP—I was familiar with some of the ins and outs, but not everything. And it’s a lot of work! But Abominable Pictures and Seeso were great at honoring the original vision we had for the show.
So yeah, it did feel similar to doing Second City. I wrote it and was in all the scenes, so if it didn’t feel like that, something was wrong. But I did, I really did. I’m a harsh critic of myself, but I was really able to see it as a character.
The original 2011 web series—was that mostly improvised?
Yeah. The original was completely improvised. Each webisode was two people sitting in front of each other: myself and a patient. We’d improvise for about an hour in a three-camera setup. Ted would then edit the episode into about 90 seconds or two minutes. When we made it into a pilot in spring 2012, we did the same thing.
And the Seeso series is all scripted?
It’s all scripted because we were so proud of our writers room. Production has so many obstacles to overcome—you can’t guarantee that you’re going to have as much time to improvise as you’d like. The best defense against that is having a great script and nailing the script. But Seeso was great about building in time to reflect the improv we knew we were going to get with patients. The truth is, we were very very proud of our script, and also built in sections where we knew we’d be improvising. We were also open to finding new stuff, time permitting, and usually did.
There’s this whole thing of comedians coming up in Chicago then moving to a coast. What do you think it’d take for comics to stick around Chicago? The obvious answer is that there’d have to be more shows that shoot in Chicago…
Of course. When we were first developing this in 2013, not that many shows shooting here. They’ve always had the production talent on the ground—and really, that’s what impressed us big-time, every department we worked with was A-plus. I think people will realize a) there’s already that much production talent on the ground, b) there’s that much acting talent here, and c) even a small show like ours can go back and take advantage of all that talent. Once it becomes clear that there’s that much production and acting talent, I think [studios] will be more comfortable coming and shooting here. In an ideal world, there would be a network based in Chicago—I’m not sure how far off that is.
Shrink premieres on Seeso on Thursday, March 16.
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