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Getting Real with Downward Dog’s Allison Tolman & Samm Hodges

Downward Dog - Allison Tolman & Samm Hodges

While in LA recently, I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak at ABC’s new show, Downward Dog. I have two dogs myself (a pug and puggle) and am a HUGE dog lover so I was really excited to see this show. I honestly had no idea how hard it would hit me. Within minutes I was feeling guilty for flying to LA and leaving my pups behind. I instantly thought of all the moments I didn’t take them for a walk when I should have or when I pet them when I should have. Don’t get me wrong, it is a comedy first, I was laughing so hard I had tears forming at a few points. A special sneak peak of Downward Dog airs tonight, May 16th, at 9:30pm, don’t miss it!

Unique Show

After watching the episodes, we sat down with Allison Tolman, who plays Nan, and Samm Hodges, who not only voices Martin the dog, he is also the co-creator and executive producer. I was looking forward to picking their brains about this show because it was unlike any show I had ever seen before.

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DOWNWARD DOG – ABC’s “Downward Dog” stars Barry Rothbart as Kevin, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Jenn, Ned as Martin, Allison Tolman as Nan and Lucas Neff as Jason. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

Allison let us know what hooked her on taking the role as Nan. “I don’t know if you guys have seen the shorts. They’re online. You can watch them. They’re beautiful. They’re what sold me on the project. When I read the script I was like there sure is a talking dog in this. But then I saw the shorts and I was like, oh, I get it. It’s sweet and down to earth and kind of indie. And then I was really into it. So, that’s kind of how it came about.  And then they wrote this great script and they had these awesome shorts to back it.

Samm gave us a little more insight in to how the show came from the online shorts. “In the shorts it was about a dog’s view of his own life. Then we realized a dog has such an intimate view of the life of the owner, so it became much more about the character of Nan and him as an angle on her life. He sees all these moments that no one else was there and he’s there for her in these moments. That was a shift.

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(ABC/Kelsey McNeal)

About Martin

Get ready for Martin (whose real name is Ned) to capture your hearts, guys! He is adorable, funny, and I totally love him. A pretty awesome fact about Ned is that he is a rescue dog! Allison explained “In the pilot he had just been rescued and had just started being trained. He had rescue dog anxiety.”

Samm added in, “That was always important for us in the dog – to have him not be this showy pure bred. And also for his character. He thinks he’s the most important being in the world, but it’s important for us that he’s just a regular old dog.

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DOWNWARD DOG – ABC’s “Downward Dog” stars Ned as Martin and Allison Tolman as Nan. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

The Lesson Behind Downward Dog

Clearly animal lovers and pet owners are going to connect with the show, so we asked Samm and Allison what they hope viewers get out of the show. Allison answered first. “This is a really special show because I don’t feel like there’s a lot of, if any, TV shows that really focus on this relationship. The relationship with a pet is significant. For me, it’s like the most significant relationship in my life. I’ve had my cat for 17 years. She’s the longest standing relationship of my entire life; I grew up with her.”

“The transformative power of loving an animal and being in charge of this little life truly has affected the person that I am. I think that’s what really special about it – it’s a love story that is universal for a lot of people, because a lot of people are pet owners and love their animals but it’s not something that we really focus on. We focus on romantic love or familial love, but nobody really talks about what a profound thing it is to love an animal.

A Regular Dog

Samm followed up with, “To choose a focus in this very small thing about here’s a girl who lives alone [with] her dog in Pittsburg. And she’s not a movie star. Martin’s always asking if he matters. Like do I matter. It’s about how these little characters, outside of where we usually put the spotlight, and how much our lives do matter. There’s so much comedy and reality to that. But he’s always a character to me. He’s a mutt in the backyard of Pittsburg asking do I matter. And if he matters, then we all kind of matter. You know, that’s something I like.

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DOWNWARD DOG – ABC’s “Downward Dog” stars Allison Tolman as Nan. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

How Downward Dog Came About

Samm explained to us how the idea of Downward Dog came about. “Michael Killen and I, we’re co-creators of the show. We were both commercial directors working in Pittsburg and we created this web series, like four years ago now. We started working on the web series just for fun. Michael had done a lot of stuff with talking animals [like] the Taco Bell Chihuahua. I was a very unlikely collaborator with him because my writing has always been way more – I kinda looked down on the talking dog thing. I had a darker tone.”

Samm voices Martin in the show, and we were wondering how that happened. “One day he was like, just try to write these monologues. Then I wrote the monologues and we were trying to cast for the voice and I just did a read not for myself to do it but just to be like something like this. And then Michael ended up using that read as the dog, and so that’s how I kinda got shoehorned into that role.

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DOWNWARD DOG – ABC’s “Downward Dog” stars Allison Tolman as Nan and Ned as Martin. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

Working with a Dog on Set

We wanted to know if any plot points of scenes were created on accident, since working with an animal may not always go as planned. Samm quickly answered “in Episode 2 I remember they had the script changed. The dog doesn’t always do what you want him to do on set.”

Allison then let us in on some really funny details of working with Ned on set. “One of the most awesome side effects of having this dog who was not a well-trained dog when we started shooting is, he is very much his own man. It’s like being with like a natural talent. Like there’s a lot of Ned in Martin. And he improvises in a way. Even when I don’t have a human partner to work with, I have something to work with because he doesn’t do the same thing every time. He doesn’t do exactly what you want him to do every time. He jumps down off the chair that you put him in and you keep rolling and you see what happens. But we had some really fun stuff happen, because he’s his own dog.”

“[In episode 4] I was holding this hamburger and talking and he just went “houuuump.” and put his whole mouth around it. That made it into the show. ‘The funniest thing about working with animals is they’re not complicit in what you’re doing. They don’t know why you just made them do the same thing ten times in a row.  So he’s like I don’t know why you’ve been waving this hamburger in my face for three hours in the rain, but I’m gonna take a bit of it. It seems like you kind of want me to or you wouldn’t keep doing that.

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DOWNWARD DOG – ABC’s “Downward Dog” stars Ned as Martin and Allison Tolman as Nan. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

The Trainers

I loved hearing about the training company that they use for Downward Dog. I could tell by what Allison and Samm were saying that they truly love and care about the animals. Allison started off talking about them by saying “We have amazing trainers, first of all, who are awesome collaborators and I feel like scene partners for me in so many ways. [They] take great care of him – they would never put him in a position where they felt like he was doing something out of his depth.

The way that the trainers and their company,works is that all of their animals live with trainers within their company. [Ned has] three trainers that work with him on the regular, and then he has one trainer that’s where his home base is [and] where he lives. 

Dog and Cat Working Together?

One of the most interesting things that I learned was that Ned, and his cat costar, never actually film together. “That’s all trick photography whenever you see them together. ” Samm informed us. “You shoot it in two passes and put ‘em together.

Obviously the cat’s a really nice little cat. It’s just that Martin, in his head, he’s made it all up in his own brain. He’s always the one causing the problems really. It’s not like an actual evil cat.

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Credit: ABC/Image Group LA
Caption: SAMM HODGES (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, “DOWNWARD DOG”) also voices Martin the dog

Samm on Writing

We asked Samm how he gets in to a dog’s mindset, because the writing of the show is just great. I can truly imagine my dogs thinking some of the exact same things. “As a creator, you write a fair amount, but then we have a full writing staff. We had this rule that whatever joke we do it’s about what’s a dog’s experience and what’s a human experience. So it’s always drawn from our own lives as writers and saying basically that I’m a dog in a human experience. Dogs want the same things that we want in this very primal way. In doing this show I’ve started to think of humans as animals a lot. We just react to things and then later justify our actions. We’re not logical. And so, I think I started to really relate to that aspect. [Martin’s] big at self-justifying. I’ll look at how me and my wife had a fight that night and how I was being manipulative about it. Then I’ll figure out a way to put that into what a dog wants. It might be like a treat or food, but it’s very easy to get to that point in some ways.

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About Downward Dog

Martin is the lonely, philosophical type. Martin is also a dog. That doesn’t stop him from making observations on the life of his owner, struggling millennial, Nan, and the complexity of relationships in the 21st century. While both are waging their own battles concerning life in the modern age, a session at obedience school makes it clear to both of them that even at their lowest points, they might just be the best thing for each other. Executive producer Samm Hodges also provides the voice for Martin.

Downward Dog Airs Tuesdays at 8pm EST on ABC!

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