While television history is dotted with military comedies — from “McHale’s Navy” to “M.A.S.H.” to “Major Dad” — when soldiers’ stories have been told in the last 20 or so years, during the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, they have generally, understandably, been serious affairs. There have been epic historical “The Pacific” and “Band of Brothers,” crime procedurals like “JAG” and “NCIS,” grittier contemporary fare like “Over There,” or the nighttime soap “Army Wives.”
Kevin Biegel, creator of the new Fox comedy “Enlisted,” premiering Friday at 9:30 p.m., is hoping that people are ready to put comedy and soldiers together again.
“People ask, ‘How do you do a comedy with all the heavy stuff happening [overseas]?’ I think that’s the exact reason you do a comedy right now, because it gives you something real underneath the jokes,” says Biegel, a Boston College graduate and previously a producer on the shows “Scrubs” and “Cougar Town.”
“Enlisted” centers on three brothers at an Army post in Florida. The eldest brother, Staff Sergeant Pete Hill, has returned from Afghanistan. While the troop has its share of misfits, in the vein of predecessors like “Stripes,” Biegel and his co-producers, cast, and crew are sensitive to striking a respectful balance between celebrating those who serve while poking fun at the quirks of their workplace.
“It’s super personal for me,” says Biegel, who comes from a military family and had always wanted to write about his relationship with his two younger brothers. “The people I love the most in the world did this job so we’ve had to work hard to kill this perception that we’re doing a show that’s mocking the military. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re doing a show that holds these people in incredibly high regard, but it’s a workplace comedy so we’re trying to find the funny in the characters. And sometimes,” he adds, “We go to some fairly heavy spots.” Those spots include Hill coping with PTSD and the brothers’ father being killed in action.
“It’s important to all of us to get it right,” says actor Geoff Stults, who plays Sergeant Hill. “It’s my giant head out in front on the poster so it’s important to me that military people don’t think that I’m making fun of them.” Stults, who notes he’s gotten positive feedback from his best friend, who is a major in Marine Corps, adds however, “It’s also important to me to make these guys laugh.”
In the interest of getting it right, the producers reached out to Musa Military Entertainment Consulting Inc. after making some mistakes in the pilot episode.
“When you’re in the military and you watch a show, if things aren’t right, it immediately takes you out the show,” says Musa partner Lieutenant Colonel US Army (retired) Greg Bishop. “And [the pilot] did that for us and we immediately knew we could help them, but we weren’t sure if we wanted to be a part of it because we knew what the military community reaction would be, because it was the same reaction that we had. But, we also knew that the story was good.”
From improper haircuts to disheveled uniforms to a lack of hats on soldiers working outside, Bishop says he and his crew went to work to correct things that a civilian might not notice but would jar a soldier. Musa offers input on everything from costumes to props to “Army atmospherics.”
(There were enough errors in the pilot that Biegel and his producers decided to run a “spot the snafus” contest, which impressed Bishop. “I can’t think of anyone in this town who’s done something like that.”)
“I feel awful that we got some stuff wrong in the pilot. We thought we did our due diligence but there are some things we missed and we shouldn’t have missed them so we got squared away after that,” says Biegel, who in addition to hiring Musa, tapped several vets to work as extras. “That was hugely important to me, not just because it’s a good thing to hire veterans, but also because they can help us get squared away out of respect for the men and women who do this job.”
Biegel was so concerned about the military response that he launched something of a charm offensive by reaching out to skeptical military bloggers and Tweeters who judged the promos as troubling, which he says he understands since it stitches together the wackiest elements of the series.
“If I ever see anyone on Twitter who says they think it looks offensive, I’ll single them out and contact them and I’ll send them episodes,” says Biegel, who contacted hundreds of people. “Every single time I’ve done it, they’ve all come back and said, ‘This show is not what I thought it was.’ Some people who initially were naysayers have become supporters, which means the world to me.”
Brookline native Scott Rutherford, a Milton Academy grad who writes for the show, is excited to be working on something that hasn’t been seen for a while.
“I love to feel like I can’t look in eight other directions and see this already out there,” says Rutherford. “Just the fact that it hasn’t been done in such a long time makes you wonder, once you’re working on it, ‘Oh yeah, why not? This world is so rich.’ ”
It is also politically delicate, and that is an arena that doesn’t interest Biegel. “That’s not our job,” he says. “Our job is to make people laugh and tell interesting stories.”
“The country has a large and diverse population; we’re not going to make everybody happy,” says Musa’s Bishop. “But anybody who has ever spent time in the military or around troops knows that while the mission is very serious, soldiers are really very funny people and they need to find the humor in things in order to deal with the seriousness.”