In a way, Emily Spivey has been training for her new TV show “Bless the Harts” since she was a kid growing up in High Point, watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Spivey — who won an Emmy writing for “Saturday Night Live,” wrote for “King of the Hill” and “Parks & Recreation,” and created the NBC sitcom “Up All Night” — seems to have been imprinted by the funny but respectful portrayal of the people of Mayberry. It shows in her new animated sitcom, “Bless the Harts,” debuting on Fox on Sunday night, Sept. 29.
In an interview with The News & Observer, Spivey described the North Carolina-set “The Andy Griffith Show” as “a perfect mix of goofy characters with real, humane, gentle stories at its center — and it was hilarious.”
The same can be said of Spivey’s “Bless the Harts,” which follows three generations of strong Southern women, living together and barely getting by, but always bolstered by the love of family and friends. In promotional materials, the Hart family is often described as “broke, but not broken.”
Portraying Southerners in a funny but respectful way is important to Spivey, since the portrayal of Southerners in film and TV shows hasn’t always been kind or accurate. Based on years of watching shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” many people outside the South long believed anyone living in the South was basically either Ellie May Clampett or Jethro Bodine.
Those types of portrayals always bothered Spivey.
“Oh my God, I hated it. From the earliest days,” she said.
‘You have a TV?’
She described meeting a kid her age when she accompanied her parents on a business trip to New York City and being faced with the sort of backwoods stereotypes people outside the South embraced about those living there.
“I’ll never forget him,” she said. “We were talking about ‘The Cosby Show’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my favorite show.’ And hand to God, he said to me, ‘You have a TV?’ I will never forget it, I’ll never forget it. That was crazy.”
In addition to “The Andy Griffith Show,” Spivey was influenced by writer Flannery O’Connor and actress Jan Hooks, from Decatur, Georgia. Hooks, who died in 2014, was on “Saturday Night Live” from 1986 to 1991.
“I was obsessed with Jan Hooks,” Spivey said. “It was sort of a cool combo to see that Southerners can be funny without it having the ‘Hee-Haw’ or hillbilly factor. ... She would play these strong female Southern characters. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow you can be funny without putting on a “Mama’s Family” wig and you know, sitting on a bale of hay.’”
Around the same time Hooks started on “SNL,” the “Designing Women” sitcom premiered on CBS. The show, set in Atlanta, focused on a group of single Southern women from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, but all smart, strong and extraordinarily funny. Hooks, coincidentally, joined that show for Seasons 6 and 7.
Spivey was watching.
“Yes, a thousand percent ‘Designing Women,’” Spivey said. “That was such a brilliant show.”
All of that leads to the “Harts,” the show Spivey created, executive produces and runs.
“One of the things I wanted to do with (“Bless the Harts”) was to show real, authentic Southern people, and a sort of amalgam of people I grew up with and make it as authentic as possible — that’s my hope.”
But Spivey admits that it isn’t always easy walking the line between “funny” and “making fun of.”
“That’s really hard because it’s the easiest thing in the world to go to a real jangly, goofy place,” she said.
She brings up the “Bless the Harts” character of Wayne, voiced by Ike Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”). Wayne is the boyfriend of single mom Jenny, voiced by Kristen Wiig (“Saturday Night Live,” “Bridesmaids”).
“We have to be really careful not to emasculate him too much or make him too dumb,” she said. “I’m always having to pull the writers back a little bit on that, because it’s so easy to make dumb palooka jokes. But I really want to stress that he’s good at things and adores his family and is smart in his own way, he’s just a dreamer.”
About ‘Bless the Harts’
In addition to Jenny, the show is centered on Jenny’s mother Betty, voiced by Maya Rudolph (“Saturday Night Live”) and Jenny’s daughter, Violet, voiced by Jillian Bell (“Workaholics”).
The women, as we noted before, are always scrambling to make ends meet. In the first episode, Jenny tries to keep the water turned on by selling Betty’s large collection of Hug N’ Bugs, Beanie Baby-type collectibles that Betty believes will some day net her a fortune.
Meanwhile, Violet, a budding artist, yearns for a studio of her own, outside the home’s boiler room that doubles as her bedroom. Wayne, who Spivey describes as Violet’s “de facto father,” wants to build it for her.
All of this happens in the fictional town of Greenpoint, N.C.
Spivey says viewers — especially those in the Triad area — will see a lot of North Carolina things they’ll recognize.
“There are a billion-trillion things like that,” she said. “We talk about Highway 311 and there are references to Biscuit Town and Biscuitville. There’s a barbecue episode. We did a whole episode about the Jamestown hitchhiking ghost, which is an actual ghost story that originated here in Greensboro.” (When we spoke to Spivey she and her family were summering in Greensboro, and she joked she was there to do research for the show).
The characters of “Bless the Harts” also have roots in real-life North Carolina.
“They’re really just mixtures of people that I knew growing up and the personalities I observed growing up, and when I come back here,” Spivey said. “There’s the passive-aggressive Southern character and the real aggressive Southern lady who’s out to get them.”
A couple of the characters are more direct inspirations.
“The character of David is my best friend David growing up, that I knew from 5th grade,” she said. “He’s the only one I pulled from directly. Violet is my other two best friends that I grew up with, Kelly and April, who were actually twins but they were really dry and hysterical and wonderful artists. That’s where Violet comes from.”
Spivey is excited for everyone to see the new show, which has already been given a full-season order from Fox. But she’s especially eager for people from her home state to embrace it.
“I hope people from North Carolina will watch and enjoy seeing themselves reflected back in a fun way, and get a real sense of place,” she said. “That’s my hope for the show.”
Watch ‘Bless the Hearts’
“Bless the Harts” premieres at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29 on Fox. It will air all season in Fox’s Animation Domination lineup, between “The Simpsons” and “Bob’s Burgers.”