Jason Segel: 'Shrinking is wish fulfilment - people want to be told what to do'
The How I Met Your Mother star talks exclusively with RadioTimes.com about his comedy influences and working with Harrison Ford on his new Apple TV+ show Shrinking.
My first interaction with Jason Segel, he asks me if I'm wearing a robe.
We're talking over Zoom and I lift up my camera to show him I am in fact wearing a cardigan. I understand his confusion (it's got a shawl collar), but want to immediately disavow him of any notion that we Brits are quite that pompous.
We're here to talk about Segel's new Apple TV+ show Shrinking, and this initial interaction sets the tone for an inquisitive, funny and frank discussion about a series with far more on its mind than most 30-minute sitcoms.
I decide it's best to start from the top. How did the project first come together?
"I was very lucky," he says. "[Co-creator] Bill Lawrence reached out to me a couple of years ago and said that he wanted to try and find a show together. And after going through a couple of options he and Brett [Goldstein, co-creator] pitched me this show, and it felt like it was exactly my wheelhouse."
That wheelhouse? "Trying to find humour through somebody really, really struggling."
Segel explains: "It's kind of the only version of comedy that I really respond to, or at least think that I'd be good at. There's this other school of comedy when you're a really distinct character like Austin Powers or Ace Ventura, you know what I mean? But I don't think that's really my strength.
"I think the type of humour - which I guess I would call surrogate comedy, where I represent you going through some really hard thing - that to me has always been the most interesting."
Segel cites "'80s and James Brooks movies" as his "seminal influences", particularly referencing 1983's Terms of Endearment and 1987's Broadcast News.
"Broadcast News, for example - one of those characters should end up being bad in a lesser movie," he says. "But none of them are, they're all just complicated and all doing their best and isn't that what life is like? There's no clear heroes, there's no clear villains, it's just sloppy and funny."
So how does that translate to Segel's new show Shrinking? Well, there are certainly no villains here. Instead, it follows Jimmy, a therapist who is grieving the death of his wife Tia, the mother to his daughter Alice.
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As he becomes hopeless and self-destructive, its starts to infect his work life, where he takes the decision to start telling his patients what he really thinks - with ramifications for all involved. It may seem like a somewhat complex set-up but the series has a surprisingly simply message.
"You're watching somebody scramble to dig themselves out of a hole that has no lights and no footholds and no clear path, and slowly realising that there's a bunch of us all in this hole together trying to pull ourselves out," Segel explains. "And it'll be teamwork and it'll be love and compassion that gets us all out of there together."
The series picks up with Jimmy some time after his wife's passing. We don't meet him as an optimistic, professionally minded therapist and watch him spiral, but instead witness the opposite, seeing him start to regain some semblance of normalcy in his life and his personal relationships.
I ask whether the writing team discussed Jimmy's previous life much - what his attitude was, how he would have behaved in different scenarios, what he was like with his patients?
Segel says: "Yeah, because we talked a lot about what he was trying to get back to. But at the same time, you're forever changed by losing a spouse. We will, as the season goes on, have some flashbacks, and you will find out some backstory to these characters and what they were like before she passed on."
He continues: "But I do think that the show is to some extent about new beginnings - that when you reach a rock bottom you're kind of forced to rebuild from scratch. It's about this guy rebuilding a new surrogate family that involves his daughter and involves the people who were there before, but it's going to have to be its own new thing."
We find out early in the series that Jimmy has been neglecting his daughter Alice since her mother's death, and is struggling to connect with her, or at times even talk to her.
Segel says this is because Alice is "a constant reminder" to Jimmy "that he has lost his family unit", but also that because he knows he is in such "disarray", it means there is "some shame in the idea of parenting. Who am I to tell you what to do when I am drinking and using drugs and all these other things that we find out Jimmy is doing?"
Alice is played by Lukita Maxwell, who Segel says is "the best". "I'm like in awe of this young woman's acting," he says. "I learned a lot working with Lukita, she's brilliant and smart and just really f**king intrepid."
However, this does hit upon a somewhat surreal aspect of the series for the actor, who first came to prominence in Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's 1999 high school series Freaks and Geeks.
He says: "It's weird, man. I've arrived at an age... I feel like your age (20s), but I'm now the age where I have a full-grown daughter in a TV show.
"I remember feeling like I was a representative of a generation and now I feel like the people who I look at and think are my peers call me Sir, or Mr Segel. It's really, really weird."
We move on to the therapy of it all. Plenty of shows and films have tackled therapy as a subject matter before - it's an easy gateway to explore characters' emotional vulnerabilities and understand their own view of themselves.
Here, it's used slightly differently. "I think this show in particular is wish fulfilment that people just want to be told what to do," Segel explains. "You know, you have these problems that are circling and circling and circling in your brain and you're just finally like… God, what a dream it would be to tell someone your problem and they say, ‘Oh, that's easy, just do this’."
Is it necessarily such a bad idea? Shrinking certainly doesn't offer it up as an easy answer, but nor does it appear to completely decry it as an unworkable model.
Segel says: "I think that Jimmy is stuck in this cycle of therapy where the goal is actually secretly not for you to get better. It's more like it's viewed as a safe space for you to talk. And finally, Jimmy realises that everyone, including himself is stuck in this holding pattern and what if we shake things up and actually try to move forward?"
I ask about the fundamental dichotomy in the series, that Jimmy is distinctly aware of damaging patterns of behaviour in other people, yet continues to act in ways which are destructive to himself and those around him.
Segel isn't too sure this is a wilful decision on Jimmy's part, and opines that "the person we can see the least is ourselves".
He continues: "It’s who we have the least clarity on. And so that's part of where Harrison comes in. Harrison serves as the biggest mirror for Jimmy about his own behaviour, because Harrison is playing sort of my mentor and therapist himself."
Ah, Harrison. How have we gotten to this point without mentioning that Harrison 'Indiana Jones', 'Han Solo' Ford is in this show, playing a pivotal supporting role as Paul, Jimmy's fellow therapist and boss.
Segel notes that while Ford's character starts out as "what you would expect, which is just the mentor character, the old wise sage to my kind of young, intrepid hero", we slowly find out more about him.
Paul is dealing with the early stages of Parkinson's disease, a storyline reflective of co-creator Brett Goldstein's father, who has been diagnosed with the degenerative disorder.
Paul also has his own estranged daughter, and Segel says this season of the show is about Paul "reckoning with his declining health and trying to reconcile with his daughter, while at the same time watching me potentially destroy his therapy practice".
So what does Segel make of starring alongside such a legend of the big screen? "It’s crazy, man, I still can't believe it's happening," he says. "We kind of offered it to him, like at the beginning of a process usually you take one big stab knowing that it's going to be a no, just so you can say you tried it.
"And you could have this week where you say, ‘Hey, we're out to Harrison Ford’ and everyone gets excited. But it's largely a performative offer. And he said yes. And we're all like, ‘Oh... I guess Harrison Ford's in this now’. It's still crazy to me."
As a fellow actor, Segel has nothing but positive words for the star's work ethic. He admits that he was "prepared to be in awe and be deferential" to him on set, but says that Ford really "came there to learn".
He explains: "He was like, ‘I haven't done comedy like this before, I want you guys to help me’. And then he comes out like a super confident comedic pro. So we lucked out."
Shrinking started filming in April 2022, and for Segel's part, it was an "exciting" shoot.
He says: "I think that comedy is a really particular and exciting set because… well, this is my approach to comedy, but you've got an amazing script, amazing writing, amazing jokes, and I love a great written joke. To me also though, what's interesting about life is the in between - this humour that you're finding about just existing.
"And so you arrive to set each day with this crackling sense of mischievous excitement, like, ‘Ooo, what are we going to find in there today when they say action?’ You have to be really alive for it to feel alive."
The season is made up of 10 episodes, telling one clear story - it doesn't have a particularly episodic structure as seen in Segel's How I Met Your Mother or even Lawrence's Ted Lasso, both of which have a central long-running narrative through individual, one-off stories.
Segel says this season has been designed to be watched as "one whole story", following what he calls the "new model of television". However, he stops himself from saying the phrase TV writers and fans dread.
"You really do have to approach it… they always say 'like a movie', but just like a story. There needs to be a beginning and an end and this is the arc through."
To Segel, who clearly has a keen interest in the craft of storytelling, this is representative of a larger point about narrative structure.
"I always think that's the most interesting thing about writing," he says. "It’s why there's people with half-finished screenplays in coffee shops all throughout the world.
"Because you know New York and you know London, and you're gonna get from one to the other and in the middle is just the Atlantic. How are you going to get there? What are the icebergs going to be, and what are you avoiding, and what are you going towards?
"That's what the middle bulk of the thing is, but I think hopefully you always kind of know what New York is and what London is when you're telling a story."
As referenced above, Shrinking has been co-created by Brett Goldstein, one of Lawrence's co-writers on Ted Lasso, in which he also stars as Roy Kent. While there are lots of differences between the two shows, Segel says the big aspect of Lasso they tried to emulate was its "hopeful" nature, noting that he had forgotten how nice it was to see something with that energy.
Segel had never met Goldstein before his initial meetings with him for Shrinking, but says in doing so he has met a "soulmate". I ask whether there was ever a question of Goldstein playing a character in Shrinking.
"Well, he's busy doing Lasso," Segel responds, "but my dream would be that he comes through as one of the characters, a patient or something like that, because I would love to act with Brett."
With season 1 having long finished up, that must mean there is talk of a second instalment of Shrinking on the cards.
"Yeah, I think that's the hope and goal," says Segel. "One of the things Bill said to me when I signed on was, 'We'll do this for as long as we're having fun'. Which sounds like a great way to go into a project."
Based on Segel's evident excitement for the project, and his passion for both this character and the world he inhabits, it would seem we may be seeing more from Shrinking for a long time to come.
Shrinking is streaming now on Apple TV+ – you can sign up to Apple TV Plus here. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide, or Streaming Guide, or visit our Comedy hub for more news and features.
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