James Roday on Taking Psych to Twin Peaks

On Psych‘s first season DVD set, showrunner Steve Franks identifies star James Roday as the biggest Twin Peaks fan he knows in the commentary track for the pilot. It’s relevant, because one of the guest stars in the Psych pilot is Don S. Davis, who played Major Briggs on David Lynch’s quirky mystery show.

This week, in recognition of Twin Peaks‘ twentieth anniversary and Roday’s fandom, Shawn and Gus finally head out to the Cinnamon Festival in “Dual Spires”, a small town with a strange cast of characters and some dark secrets. Featuring not one, not two, but seven former Twin Peaks cast members (six in their Psych debuts), the show has been one of the most heavily-promoted in Psych‘s history, and Roday has been doing a full-court press, doing dozens of interviews about “Dual Spires,” an episode he championed, co-wrote and says is the Psych episode he’s most proud of. Recently, the star spoke to ComicBook.com about the tribute show.

[Note: The “Dual Spires” episode of Psych airs tonight at 10 p.m. on USA. The episode itself will be about seven minutes longer than the usual episode of Psych, and that time will come out of the back end, so be sure to set your DVRs to account for the extra time if you cannot watch the episode live. The extra seven minutes, including a final minute-thirty that Roday promises will be very memorable, will not air when the show goes into reruns.]

The Cinnamon Festival is actually mentioned in the Pilot. Was there always an intention to set an episode there, or was that originally just a throwaway line?

We knew we had it. We had tried to write stories in the past that were driven by Shawn and Gus going to a Cinnamon Festival somewhere, that never panned out—so then we needed a reason to get them to this tiny little town and it was fortuitous that we’d never used it. It just felt like the right time to drop it in.

Rumor has it that the Twin Peaks tribute is principally your doing. How much of the pop culture stuff is you guys versus the writers’ room? That seems to have become more and more dominant the last couple of years.

Well, everybody’s in on that now. Those scripts come loaded with pop culture and obscure references and everybody’s in on the fun now. I think in the very beginning it was us doing that stuff in the moment and a lot of improvisation and then once we sort of realized “Oh, my God, this can be our niche,” everybody sort of jumped on board so now there’s more of a balance.

Yeah—it’s funny that you should mention your niche. I’ve noticed that it’s territory that Community is very comfortable walking in, too, and between the two of you, you’ve had almost all of The Breakfast Club on your shows.

Yeah, we sort of had a wish list of people that we want to have on the show that we’ve been checking names off of for the last four years. Getting the entire Breakfast Club is, I think, un-doable, but it’s still up there as one of the goals. I think that having Molly on is probably going to happen; I think with a little finesse and arm-twisting we can probably get Anthony Michael Hall to do something fun. But I think getting Emilio is going to be what keeps it from happening. He just doesn’t really act much anymore. I think he’s going to be the one that got away.

Well, you can just—on the commentary tracks—claim that Estevez is the one running around in the Yin suit in these episodes.

[Laughs] We may have to do that.

Speaking of The Breakfast Club, I felt like the John Hughes episode was a real turning point in terms of the pop culture stuff. “Dual Spires” notwithstanding, because I’ve seen a lot of interviews already where you say this is your favoritePsych episode ever, what’s your favorite theme episode that you’ve done? A lot of those have been really strong and I know that a lot of them you’ve had a hand in writing or directing.

True. Just for pure silliness and fun quotient, I think…back in season two we riffed on the world of the Spanish telenovela. I just had a blast on that episode and I was being silly in two languages and I’ll always look back on that experience very fondly. As far as my own, I directed two episodes that were sort of theme episodes. One was our slasher episode that was sort of a love letter to the Friday the 13th franchise, and then we did a Hitchcock homage, also. Just because I spent so much time with both of those and invested so much into both of those, I guess I would list them to round out a top three.

At what point did it start to dawn on you guys that all of this was a strong point of the show? It seems like the floodgates have really opened since the John Hughes episode.

I think that probably was some kind of benchmark. We sort of streamlined, and made what we do a little less obtuse. We realized that we’ve become such a strange little hybrid, cult show that we can get away with paying tribute to movies that we love and genres that we love and I think that probably did sort of come together around the time that we did that John Hughes episode. I think before that, the only thing we’d done that you could say was in that arena was our American Idol sort-of send-up. But then since the Hughes episode, we’ve done several so I’d say you’re probably right on the money with that.

In terms of the upcoming Twin Peaks episode, I understand that you asked for Michael Ontkean and for Madchen Amick and the two of them just couldn’t get the schedules to work. That said, there was a certain actor in the second season of Twin Peaks that could have brought a real—how do I say this?–Billy Zanian quality to Psych. Did you ever consider him?

[Laughs] Yeah, we did. We just have the worst luck with Billy. He actually knows what big fans we are and I’ve actually become friendly with Billy in the course of our many attempts to get him up to Vancouver. We just can’t seem to work out an episode with him being free. He would love to do the show and we would love to have him. We just can’t seem to work out the schedule but luckily there’s another whole season, so…fingers crossed.

Is this next upcoming season slated to be your last or is it just all you’re guaranteed?

It’s all we’re guaranteed. It could be the last, or not, I suspect we won’t know that for a little while.

In spite of some really stellar reviews, the only thing I heard people complaining about with last year’s finale was that it was so dark, and it lost a lot of the humor that you associate with Psych. Is that something that you have to factor in, particularly when you’re writing an episode?

It’s not for me, because we have a sixteen-episode season and chances are fourteen of them are going to be down-the-middle, Psych wheelhouse kind of episodes.

I believe that after four years, five years, we’ve kind of earned the right to go outside the box once or twice a season and I think our fans have shown a real appreciation for when we do it, or at least an understanding that while they may not be their favorite episodes, we’re still Psych and they still love us. They understand that it helps us reboot and charge our batteries to do something different. I feel like we’ve reached a point now where people who have watched the show and love the show know what it is. They know what we do, and they know that once or twice a season they’re going to get something that’s a little different, feels a little foreign and may not go down as smooth as the other ones.

If we were doing it every week, obviously that would be a problem and that would be a different story because that’s not what people tune in for, but I think while some of those darker episodes may be a little lighter on humor, they’ve also turned out to be some of our best episodes—just because they’re different and because we manage, and have learned how to execute them. I think they’re just little event episodes that offer their own isolated treat.

I would never sit someone down who didn’t know what Psych was and put the Hitchcock episode in front of them because I think it would be creating false expectations, but it is something that I would say, “Look, a couple of times this season, you definitely get this.” And that’s all the more reason, I think, to tune in because I don’t know how many other shows right now are doing things like paying tribute to Twin Peaks but my guess is not many.

Well, working from home I am a great watcher of TV, and I can tell you that it’s pretty much just you and Community, and those are the only two shows I can think of on mainstream American television who are doing this kind of stuff.

Well, that’s the best possible compliment that we could ever get.

Everyone knows you’re a great fan of The Mentalist, but other than that, what are you watching these days? Obviously most of the references on the show have to be ten or more years older in order to be iconic enough to be recognized.

This is true. We shoot in Vancouver so for six and a half months out of the year it’s almost like we’re out of water. We don’t have all the shows and we don’t have DVR up there and even if I wanted to I wouldn’t have the time. So it’s hard for me to invest in anything because my schedule is so off.

That being said, I am an ESPN-aholic. I can watch SportsCenter on a loop like five times in a row until my girlfriend is like, “Seriously? It’s the same highlights!” It just brings me peace, I think. Any kind of game—college basketball, college football, obviously anything pro. Late night coverage of tennis tournaments in Asia. I’m a sick sportsaholic and that’s generally what’s on my TV.

Then there’s stuff that I know I should be watching and I’ll either buy the DVD or have it on TiVO here in the States, that I just need to motivate. I’ve got Boardwalk Empire waiting for me if I can just get around to doing it.

I did watch the pilot for The Walking Dead, which I thought showed enough promise that I’m TiVOing it. It’s not that big of an investment since it’s only six episodes, so I like my chances to make it through that one. Plus, I’m a big horror fan so that’s kind of a natural thing. I always feel like I’m not very impressive in interviews when I talk about what I watch on television.

That’s alright. Speaking as a comic fan, The Walking Dead is the big thing of our year. Plus, I really just asked so you could giggle at my Mentalist joke. I remember when my wife had me pick up the DVD set, I watched the whole thing kind of going, “Isn’t this the general premise of Psych?” So when you had the episode where you called that out in an episode, I loved it.

We had some fun with it. We actually made four or five jokes over the course of that season and hopefully they have a sense of humor about it. I think they should because they have about fifteen times the viewership that we do so they should be feeling good about life in general. I’ve never seen the show, but I’ve spoken to enough people now who say they’ve found their sea legs and they’re doing their own thing, and there’s certainly enough of a difference now. I think it was just the idea that the premise was so similar that it gave us the opening to take a few fun, spirited jabs.

So…Agent Cooper got clues from a bird in the first season of Twin Peaks, and on Psych you’ve been partners with a little boy cat, and got some clues from Ben the mouse. I was kind of wondering: What did happen to Ben after Mary died in last season’s finale? Are we going to see him in the third part of the Yin/Yang trilogy?

You know what? We talked about showing Ben in the Psych office just to let everybody know that Shawn and Gus are taking care of him. Then we realized it was weird to only do it for one episode for the purposes of the trilogy. That would mean we would have to commit to Ben always being in the Psych office and living there for season six. I guess it just seemed like too big of a commitment for certain people to make. So I would tell you that Ben is good, and he’s safe, and he’s probably in Shawn’s apartment.

I was thinking that would be an elegant solution, since we’ve only been there—what, like once in the whole series?

If we ever go back there, I think it’ll be an easier sell to throw a mouse in a cage. I like this. I like this idea—I’m stealing it from you, Russ.

Hey, like I said, it was in the back of my head, but you said it first. Now, you had said in an interview someplace else that there was a baseball episode coming up. I was wondering, then, if there would be any Corbin Bernsen-inspiredMajor League action going on there.

I think there has to be, doesn’t there? It would be criminal for us to do a baseball episode and not riff on the fact that we’ve got an icon of one of the great baseball movies of all time in our cast. Yeah, I think he’ll have to end up misplaying a grounder or getting hit by a pitch or something.

I think it’s much more in Shawn’s wheelhouse to squeal like a little girl with a skinned knee when he gets hit by the pitch. Henry is much more stoic and manly than Corbin was in Major League.

Yeah, I think we may have to twist it and figure out a way to make it happen that’s more organic than just sending up the old character, but we’ll come up with something, rest assured.

So that’s a season six episode that hasn’t been shot yet, or that’s coming down the pike later this year?

That’s on deck for next season; I think we’ve been talking about it long enough that we just need to dig our heels in and do it because we have several baseball fans on staff and if we were to find out that next year is our last season and didn’t do it, I think we would all regret that we never did the baseball episode. So it’ll happen, and Mel Damski will probably direct it because he’s a huge baseball fan and Steve [Franks] will probably write it, because he’s a huge baseball fan and Corbin will be in it and that’s pretty sweet already.

Speaking of—who is directing the “Dual Spires” episode? Is that one of yours or is one of the other directors taking that one?

The Twin Peaks episode was directed by Matt Shakman, who has done phenomenal work for us over the years. He directed said Spanish telenovela episode for us, he directed the “Nine Lives” episode with the little boy cat, he directed the Jaws episode that we did last season and he was the absolute right choice for this because it’s possible he is an even bigger Twin Peaks fanboy than I was, and I say that only because he actually purchased the actual Laura Palmer diary merchandise that was out for a bit. I did not have the Laura Palmer diary.

I actually had one, and someone recently borrowed it from me and it never came back! I tell you, this is really well-timed for me in that both Psych andTwin Peaks were shows that I recently sat down and just barrelled through the whole series in a short period of time, and so I’m a much bigger fan of both than I could ever have claimed to be two years ago.

Then nothing will be lost on you. If that stuff is relatively fresh in your head then you should have a good time because we’re just firing them out at every turn and it’s something where casual Twin Peaks fans will probably pick up about 60% of the references and people who don’t know the show very well probably will miss most of them. But die-hard fans or people who have recently watched episodes of the show, I think are in for the best time because they’re all over the place.

Going back to Shakman, I can’t say enough about what a fantastic job he did and how much care he put into shooting this properly and crafting it the way that they shot episodes on that show. It’s such a rarity when you do episodic television—at the speed that we have to move at—to have an experience like that where a guest director comes in and cares that much about this one episode he’s doing of the show, but Matt really did and I think it shows in a big way.

I think it’s interesting that you say that—as I said, it’s really you andCommunity who are doing the pop-culture stuff, but even Community is really just molding the pop culture stuff to fit into the tone of their show, where with the Hitchcock episode and from what I’ve seen of the Twin Peaks episode it appears as though you guys are going the other way and working out camera angles and cinematic styles and stuff to adapt to the content.

It was five years in the making. I knew I’ve wanted to do this since the pilot, since we found out we were going to become a series. So I had a lot of stuff jotted down. Shakman and I spoke a great deal and agreed there was only one way to do this and that was to absolutely blow it out of the box, and make it a huge part of our legacy as a show. A lot of people are going to see this—David Lynch at some point might see this, and we tried to keep that in mind while we were doing it. Obviously it helped that we had seven cast members from Twin Peaks around for the whole shoot that we could ask questions and lean on as well, to make sure we were doing it right.

Speaking for me, the most exciting part was that you had the Log Lady!

Yeah, we couldn’t do it without the Log Lady! She’s awesome. Catherine Coulson is her name and she still has the log. She even offered to bring the log with her, but as you’ll see in the episode everything is just a little bit off. We didn’t want to do anything that was a direct carbon copy of the show; we kind of wanted to put our own spin on just about everything. So we didn’t use the actual log, but we did use the Log Lady and I believe she’s credited as “The Woman With Wood.”

The other thing I should tell you before I forget is that this episode is airing about seven and a half minutes fatter than our usual episodes—but it’s only for the initial airing. I’m telling every interview that I do to blast that out there for people to either watch it when it airs or be sure to TiVO the initial airing because if you try to watch a rerun, it’s the normal, to-time cut, and it’s just painful and so much is gone and you don’t want to see that version—so watch the initial airing.

Do you know, for those of us with standard DVR instead of TiVO, whether it’s airing during the usual timeslot with fewer commercials or whether it’s going to run long and you’ll want to play with your DVR settings?

It’s going to go over, so you’re going to want to add additional time to it. People need to know that they will miss seven minutes. I’ll tease this by saying that the final minute and a half of the episode is pretty special, and you do not want to miss that. Make sure that you program your DVRs accordingly and as one last, special treat, there will be a sixteen minutes-over-time director’s cut on the season five DVD.

So for the big-time, die-hard Twin Peaks fans, that’s pretty good reason to get the DVD because there’s nine additional minutes ofTwin Peaks gold to be seen when that box comes out. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever really set out to really sell the DVDs. You’re going to want it—it’s genius, the director’s cut. We had to take nine minutes out of that to get it down to the seven-minutes-over version, which we’re thankful that USA is allowing us to have, but in a perfect world I would have thrown the director’s cut right on the screen and it would have been sixteen minutes longer and it just would have been perfect.