Interview: Ten Year Old Tom Creator Steve Dildarian Talks HBO Max Comedy

By | September 29, 2021

HBO Max’s latest adult animated comedy series debuts September 30. Created by The Life & Times of Tim creator Steve Dildarian, the show is a hilarious look at youth in modern-day America.

Ten Year Old Tom follows the misadventures of an average kid as he contends with questionable guidance from the well-meaning grownups around him,” says the official synopsis. “Being a kid is hard enough for Tom, but when bad influences seem to lurk around every corner – from litigious parents and drug dealing bus drivers to school administrators who want to sleep with his mom – it’s downright impossible. While the adults in Tom’s life certainly mean well, they just can’t manage to lead by example.”

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Ten Year Old Tom creator, and the voice of Tom, Steve Dildarian about the comedy, working with great actors, and his creative process.

Tyler Treese I was really curious about the development of this series. I know you did The Life & Times of Tim, but when did you really have this idea for Ten Year Old Tom?

Steve Dildarian: This was kind of percolating ever since I did Tim in different ways really. Because the starting point wasn’t what it would typically be. It was really just from the headlines of a lot of the Trump stuff together with the college admission scandal more recently and every time you turn the TV on with all the pillars of society kind of failing the world. At some point, I was trying to write that in different ways. I had like three different shows I was working on. Then when I finally had the idea through the eyes of a kid, I’m like, oh, that’s the show, and it started to click and work. So it was really these past five years, when I’ve been trying get my next thing off the ground, it was just finding the right vehicle for it. Then this ended up being it. My ideas tend to slowly kind of percolate. I don’t have the idea right [away], then make it. I’m not quite that deliberate with my process.

It reminds me of some of my favorite animated series. I love Moral Orel, and Home Movies where it’s a good kid that just gets over his head and he is listening to the wrong advice. Can you talk about that mechanic and why it just works so well for this type of comedy?

Yeah. I tend to write that quite a bit. Maybe that’s just my worldview or my point of view in life, but I’ve always written underdogs. I’ve always written normal characters caught up in kind of crazy worlds. I don’t know much other than that. With things that I write, I try to find things that just flow. I’m not a real grinder. Some writers really grind it out and trying to make the plot work and figure things out. I tend to try to make my life easy. Find an idea that I find funny, a premise that I find funny, and then just let it flow. Sometimes it takes a while to land at that. But yeah, this character, and I’m sure you see similarities in the normal character at the center of the chaos, but I I’ve been writing that. That’s just what I write. So I almost don’t don’t even acknowlede the similarity. That’s just my writing.

One of the first episodes I saw was with the ice cream driver. I thought that was so funny. David Duchovny just does such a great job with that character and his sort of disdain for the life that his choices led him to. How was it like working with him?

That was amazing. That was one of the best surprises because first I was excited and surprised that he wanted to do it. Then when he got on, I just didn’t know what to expect. I loved the guy and I grew up watching X-Files. So he was one of those guys you kind of put on a pedestal and then when he got on, he was just so into it. So just game for anything and totally just wanted to keep doing takes and play with it. He is as effortlessly funny. He’s just very in control of his device. There’s not much difference him talking off screen as there is when we hit record. So there was just a real flow to it and sometimes these characters just work, that one worked. It was the right guy for the right character.

It was similar to [John] Malkovich in that way. Obviously it was amazing to get him. It was another situation where I didn’t know what to expect and we got on and I was just so pleasantly surprised by how fun and engaged he was. Both of those were early in the season that we got them and it kind of set the tone for a lot of things. I’m like, “Oh wow, we’re getting some good legit actors here and getting good comedy out of it.”

You mentioned John Malkovich. I thought he was so great as Mr. B and he has some great moments throughout the series. It’s such an inspired casting choice. How did you get him on board?

It was one of those things where, as you can imagine, we said this character is a John Malkovich-type. Let’s look at a list of actors like him. Then the casting people, Ruth and Robert, they just said, “Why don’t we just send it to him?” My honest response was, I don’t wanna waste two weeks or sit around waiting for a no. It’s gonna be a buzzkill. Then they came back two weeks later and they said, “It sounds like he’s intrigued.” So that was enough to keep us afloat for a while. A week later they said he’s in, and then I had to sit around being nervous for a couple weeks. I’m not usually nervous getting on into these sessions, but I was genuinely like, I don’t know what’s about to happen [laughs]. I dunno, he’s gonna yell at me or how it’s gonna go, but it was just so much fun. The whole thing I could tell after one minute of talking to the guy that it was just gonna be a great, fun working relationship.

There’s definitely similarities to The Life & Times of Tim, which is certainly good news for fans, and they’re both underdog types, but what would you say is the biggest difference between this show and The Life & Times of Tim?

It’s probably just in the theme. Tim is a little more generic underdog, just a guy getting on by the world. This is at a little bit finer point on it of looking at the world. I had more of a premise to it when I pitched this show. We would go in and say, “Can a kid grow up these days without being corrupted by all the grownups around them?” That’s a point, that’s a hook. That’s the more to it. There’s a reason I’m writing the show that tracks through all the story ideas, all the characters. So it’s got a little bit more. Then on top of that, there’s just the relatability. You’ve got the nostalgia that anyone’s gonna have, which is a whole other layer on it.

We don’t lean too heavily into it, but it’s there. Once you’re telling a story about an ice cream truck, there’s an element of nostalgia. So between the kind of big picture stuff, I just feel like I’ve got more of a hook. More point to the writing beyond just an underdog. I think the nostalgia is such a big part of it. It makes me almost regard the show differently. I don’t know. I’m almost more protective of the characters and the world. Because you’re suddenly projecting yourself into it in a way that most people already don’t go that deep with Tim. Tim is amazing. I love everything about it, but I really separate the two as much as I know, people will draw countless similarities.

I found in the making of this, I found myself not even thinking about it. I was just wanting to breathe life into this world and these characters and hopefully I did that because to me you would never know it, but there’s a version of each of these characters in my childhood. Maybe a lot of people watching it will have a version of those people in their life. So I think it’s got a hint of poignancy. Not a lie. I don’t go deep into that. I don’t lean into that kind of angle too much. But I think the fact that it’s there just allows people to just connect with it just that much more. Hopefully that’s my intent at least.

I think at the heart of the show is Tom’s friends. Gillian Jacobs is so great and Byron Bowers as Nelson. I Nelson’s probably my favorite character. I thought he was hilarious throughout. Can you talk about having that main trio and did that core friend group kinda undergo any changes throughout development?

Byron Bowers and I, that’s just such a great duo. Just the energy difference. I wouldn’t really equate what he’s doing with that character to what Nick Kroll did with Stu and Tim, because what it ended up being is not what it was on paper. He breathed personality into it that I hadn’t necessarily written and that’s when things really work to me. I always love it when an actor just makes it their own, makes it something better than it was, and the key version of what he’s doing there is just playing it smarter. It’s easy to play a sidekick as the crazy character, the instigator. There’s a lot of ways to just let that serve a plot purpose. What he does with Nelson is just, he plays him smart. Byron is a smart guy. He’s got interesting takes on things, especially when you improv with an actor, it makes it fun and engaging to not quite know where he is gonna go. He is just a smart guy who’s quick. That’s all you can hope for with any comedian, someone who’s smart and quick. He’s really turned that into something that wasn’t on paper.

Then yeah, Gillian’s amazing. I was so lucky with all these. Todd Glass. The whole cast. An embarrassment of riches with funny people around me.

You mentioned Todd Glass. He’s so great as the principal. Can you talk about just coming up with that character and Todd just fits that role so perfectly.

With Todd, he’s just so much fun to act with because… It’s kind of similar to Byron in ways. He’s so unpredictable. It’s almost like you gotta kind of corral him. Once you allow someone like him to improv, you gotta be ready for him to run loose. Cause he is so funny and is so you can go off on tangents and make them funny. So, if you ever listen in on one of those sessions, they’re just a lot of fun. It doesn’t feel like you’re working. It doesn’t feel like you’re trying to record a TV show. It feels like it’s just a guy making everyone laugh.

The thing that I love about Todd just as he is as a human being, as a comedian he gives it so much heart. He’s such a warm guy. Even off camera in his work, he’s got such a sensitivity to him and a warmth that it buys back all the insanity that he does. All the insults he might say. All the weird corrupt stuff that his character has to do. Because his character is like the epitome of the corrupt grown up. It’s the head figure at the school. He kind of embodies all of it in a lot of ways. So I think he makes the whole show work in some ways by letting you actually like the guy doing the worst stuff.