Even ‘The Bear’ Co-Showrunner Joanna Calo Was Tempted to Have Carmy and Sydney Hook Up

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Though The Bear returned for its widely praised second season earlier this summer, it’s the show’s first (and similarly lauded) eight-episode foray that was recently nominated for 13 Emmys, including one for outstanding comedy. Joanna Calo, who writes, runs and directs the culinary series alongside creator Christopher Storer, insists she was never particularly interested in adhering to whatever preconceived notions one may have about what a comedy entails, just as she wasn’t eager to follow a more traditional narrative structure with the FX half-hour.

Joanna Calo

Joanna Calo

Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

“Chris and I both felt that if we were going to add another show to the content heap, it needed to be different enough to be worth the internet space,” she says via Zoom in early August. The shared philosophy yielded results: The Bear is arguably the show of the summer for its second consecutive year. Calo, who says she’ll return to plotting a third season whenever the WGA strike concludes, spoke candidly about the show’s origins and impact in a wide-ranging conversation with THR.

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You came aboard The Bear after reading some early scripts by Christopher Storer. What did you think you could bring to it?

Without taking away from what was already there, because there was this magical energy, I knew I could help from a structure perspective. I’d learned a lot, especially at BoJack [Horseman], about character arcs and season arcs. The other specific thing that I immediately felt was something very special between Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) and Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and I really wanted to prioritize that relationship and the Sydney character.

Did the internet’s obsession with the two getting together surprise you?

It really surprised me. And I will say, at one point, very early on, I was like, “Maybe they do hook up.” And Chris was like, “No!” (Laughs.) And he was totally right, but I think what I was getting at was that these relationships are complicated. I’ve heard people use the term “work wife” ­— there are relationships in our lives that have all different meanings, and we sometimes really rush to characterize everything very cleanly and there’s something beautiful about acknowledging how messy our lives really are and just how enmeshed so many of our relationships are.

You ultimately learn a lot about the characters as season one unspools, but it starts by throwing the viewer right into the chaos of the kitchen. It’s powerful and unsettling. Did it make anyone there or at FX nervous?

It did not scare us [in the room]. It was what the show was and that is such a testament to Chris and his writing, but also his understanding of what these kitchens are really like. I think it’s an amazing pilot because you’re thrown into the world. You don’t need to be spoon-fed the information, because you’re actually experiencing what the world feels like. And if this is Sydney’s first day, it’s your first day too and you’re always a hundred steps behind. If we were trying to tell that story, but then explaining everything, you wouldn’t actually feel what she feels. But yes, others were certainly a little nervous about it at first. (Laughs.)

How much of the show had you arced out from the start? Did you know, for instance, how Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) would evolve, or that you’d move out of the kitchen?

There were a lot of ideas that Chris had from his original source material that were spread over the season, and then we filled it in with really specific stories we heard from chefs that we wanted to bring to life. We’d originally wanted to leave the kitchen in the first season but didn’t have the space. And the funny thing about Richie is that we saw Richie for who he became in season two from the first episode. We wanted to make sure other people could experience that at some point, but he was always that guy and he very much reminds us of real people we know.

Did a half-hour feel limiting by season two?

I always feel like the limit is nice, it ends up making you feel creative. One of the things we really wanted to play with second season was quiet, because we’d played so much with noise in the first. Knowing it’s only half an hour, you can say, “It’s OK to have Marcus be quiet because for bakers, early in the morning, it’s quiet,” and we could really do that and not have people be like, “Oh, is it still going on?”

The Bear is a comedy, yes, but it’s selectively devastating. And even though labels are silly, you are making a comedy, so what kind of levity guardrails did you establish early on?

We didn’t do that. Maybe we should have? (Laughs) I guess we just didn’t overthink it, and I think we knew that there was space for both. Again, if it’s really going to be grounded and real, it’s a really hard business full of lots of sad people and lots of happy people and lots of angry people, but there were always these ribbons of comedy running through, which felt more realistic to life. So, I would say our guardrail was making things real and that guided us to both. You would use comedy to deflect, right? I’m not using comedy to make you laugh, I’m using comedy to not have to say that the sad thing that I don’t wanna say.

What did you learn from season one that you applied to season two?

We definitely learned how fascinating the true stories from chefs are. That was the real jumping-off point [for us understanding] how terrible opening a restaurant was and that that would create a lot of not just drama, but also interesting stories. And then, gosh, you just saw how good these actors were. Like Lionel [Boyce], who plays Marcus, you saw how wonderful he was and you wanted to watch him more. And obviously Ebon is at the top of that list as well, which is why we wanted to give him his own episode and a real chance to shine.

Season two, and “Fishes” in particular, featured a ton of A-list guest stars. Were there conversations about the pros and cons of that level of stunt casting?

We 100 percent had those conversations and debated the different sides of that. To some extent, I think our actors are so good that we needed to have people that could hold their own — and that’s not about fame, that’s about just energy and passion. We knew we wanted someone iconic for the mom, but Jamie Lee Curtis is so much better than we could have asked for. And sometimes you need a face that you recognize in order to give the impact in these flashbacks that everyone knows this person.

How many of those cameos were the result of incoming calls versus outgoing?

It was a mix, but there was a lot of, “Who we do know that are nice and would be good?” And Chris knows a lot of people.

For the season two finale, I’m curious what the discussions were around having Carmy locked away in the freezer?

We actually had played with that idea a little bit. There were different versions of when he should go away and it was really funny because Chris and I were talking one day and I was like, “Should he cut his hand open? We need to get rid of him.” And Chris was like, “I was thinking we could put him in a freezer.” So we both had this idea that we needed to get rid of him, for his own misery and this idea of being punished for the joy that he experienced but also because we really wanted to give Sydney a chance to rise into power.

Speaking of Sydney, I need to know: Did you try the omelet she makes that the internet can’t seem to shut up about?

You know what’s weird? I didn’t. I ate a lot of other things, but I didn’t eat the omelet. But I should. And I will!

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Even ‘The Bear’ Co-Showrunner Joanna Calo Was Tempted to Have Carmy and Sydney Hook Up

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