Greg Garcia thought he was just entertaining a couple of unidentified strangers when he started leaving weird short stories in the guest books of cabin resorts around the country.
“I was amusing myself,” says Garcia. “Then over time I started to envision that these stories could come together.”
Welcome to Guest Book, a 10-episode comedy anthology that debuts Thursday at 10 p.m. on TBS.
This is not, however, comedy exactly in the vein of Garcia’s past TV creations, which include My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope.
Guest Book is a little more, well, sometimes, twisted. Like the episode in which an idealistic medical researcher played by Jenna Fischer restores an aging dementia patient (Orson Bean) to much of his old life, only to find that old life was appalling and really needed to stay forgotten.
In one story not yet adapted for a TV episode, Garcia says, “Two guys who work together end up in a fight where a fork gets stuck in a guy’s eye.”
All the episodes don’t have that intensity, but we’re clearly not on a broadcast network any more, Toto.
“I didn’t know where any of these stories were going when I started writing them,” says Garcia. “If I was writing and bad stuff happened, I’d go with it.”
As much fun as it was to let his imagination go free-range, the decision to adapt the stories for TV did mandate a few modifications.
“You then have to ask,” he says, “will the audience believe this enough to keep watching?”
Each Guest Book episode takes place in the same cabin resorts, in the rural town of Mount Trace. The location and a standing cast of quirky locals provide continuity for the stories, which change each week as a new guest cast comes in.
Several of the locals, including Tickles the plus-size showgirl, work at Chubby’s, the lowest-rent strip club imaginable. Other regulars include local police officer Kimberly Leahy (Kellie Martin), the cabin’s desk clerk Wilfrid (Charlie Robinson) and long-term resident Andrew Brown (Garret Dillahunt), who happens to be a doctor.
“I thought having regular characters would give people a chance to become invested,” says Garcia.
The first season includes seven stories that were part of Garcia’s original short-story drops and three that weren’t.
The dementia episode, for instance, has not yet been left in a cabin. But it will be, Garcia says, “after I write a note explaining to the local police that this isn’t a story written by an actual guest.”
Episodes like that one tackle issues Garcia admits could have been approached from a serious perspective.
“I could have written all of them as dramas,” he says. “But I gravitate to funny, so I wrote them that way.”
That puts Guest Book into a semi-new TV category Garcia calls “half-hour dramas.” They’re nominally comedies, but they tackle genuine dark issues as well, in the style of the late Nurse Jackie.
Drama and comedy have just generally crossed over more frequently in recent years, Garcia suggests: “The Sopranos was funnier than a lot of half-hour sitcoms.”
While The Guest Book isn’t quite as graphic as Tony Soprano’s bunch, it does include language that’s more explicit and subject matter gets more raw than you’ll find on broadcast sitcoms.
“It’s a cable show,” says Garcia. “And the freedom is very tempting. It’s fun to push the envelope. But you don’t want to just run free.
“What I was told, from the beginning, is that you can can say anything you want except the F-word and the C-word. If you use them, they will be bleeped. I don’t like bleeps, because as a viewer they take me out of it. So I don’t use those words.
“They also said if we had frontal nudity, it would be blurred. I don’t like blurred, either. So if we use it, it’s soft in the background, where there’s no need to blur it. The filming does the work for you.”
Like other creators and producers, Garcia says today’s expanded TV universe makes it easier to get a show like Guest Book produced.
“There are so many different places that need content,” he says. “The days of three networks, with airtime being at an absolute premium, are over. The question now is how you get eyeballs, because no one can watch everything.
“There’s an Amazon show, Patriot, that’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I’m sure most people don’t know about it. I have a list of 10 shows that people I trust have told me are fantastic, and I just haven’t had time to watch them. To give you an idea where I am, I just watched episode 6 in season 1 of Mad Men.”
So the way you get an audience, he says, is your basic ground game. “You go on Facebook, you get people to sample it, you hope they go to work and tell someone about it.”
If enough of that happens with Guest Book and it gets a second season, Garcia already has a head start.
“I wrote 15 stories originally and I’ve only used seven of them,” he says. “So I’ve already started to adapt some that could be used in a second season.”
Since a number of actors have expressed interest in doing a spot on the show, he’s thinking about parts he could write for them. He might also write an episode adapted from an idea he’s had for a TV series about purgatory.
If you see that one in the next mountain cabin you rent, it might make an interesting companion to the Gideon Bible.