Greg Daniels on Space Force: 'My comedy doesn't mock conservatives – it's accurate, not hostile'

Chris Bennion
Steve Carrell in Space Force - Netflix

If it’s American, on TV and made you laugh in the past 25 years, the chances are Greg Daniels had something to do with it. The US sitcom supremo cut his teeth writing for Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld and The Simpsons, before going on to co-create King of the Hill (with Mike Judge) and Parks and Recreation (with Mike Schur), as well as developing the all-conquering US version of The Office. Fittingly, the man who is making lockdown bearable – The US Office and Parks & Rec have become the comfort-watch choice for millions self-isolating on either side of the Atlantic – has two new sitcoms this month. One takes on Big Tech, the other takes on Donald Trump. 

If the first, Upload, sounds a little derivative – the Amazon series is another in a long line of afterlife comedies, though more on that later – Space Force, which launches on Netflix on Friday, couldn’t be fresher. It stars Steve Carell, who co-created the show, as General Mark R Naird, a three-star general and former ace pilot, who dreams of leading the US Air Force. Instead he gets the promotion nobody wanted and winds up heading the Space Force, Donald Trump’s much-mocked “Star Wars” division. Naird’s president wants military boots on the Moon by 2024. He must deliver.

Does this represent Daniels’s first steps into overtly political comedy? “We’re set in a very political time,” he says, speaking down the line from locked-down New York. “But our intention is that everyone can watch the show, we don’t want to make it divisive. It’s similar to King of the Hill [about the staunchly Republican patriarch Hank Hill], which got good comedy from controversial subjects, but always presented the conservative characters from a position of trying to be accurate, not hostile.

"Naird is motivated by patriotism, but he’s trapped between the politicians, who are pushing for one thing, and the scientists, who are the voice of reality. I think that some people may feel that it is not as much mockery as they were expecting. But it’s making a political point in a different way.” It is, refreshingly, a world away from Saturday Night Live’s on-the-nose playground satire.

Indeed, Space Force’s satirical blows land all the harder for taking a sideways look at Trump. If the man himself is beyond satire, his institutions are not. Naird’s orders mean he often has to go with his gut instinct over the science, something which has a familiar bleach-tinged flavour to it. “The whole series was written before the pandemic,” says Daniels, “but ignoring the science is one of the issues in the show and is a big problem in the world. I’m in favour of science, I think most people are. What is science other than the acknowledgement of reality? If you really want to solve problems, you have to acknowledge reality.” 

A comedy about people in power refusing to acknowledge reality and risking lives as a result? What could be more timely? “We never mention Trump’s name in the show. He’s just an example of a lot of nationalistic politicians that are all over the world. Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines. So the issue of taking something so wonderful and noble as exploring space for all mankind, and turning it into a colonial power grab on the part of all these big countries is enough of a satire [without mentioning Trump]. So you outline the issue and if the shoe fits… People can draw their own conclusions.”

In fact it is a love of space, rather than any feelings about Trump, that drew Daniels to Space Force. “The exploration of space was, I think, the United States’s finest hour in recent history,” says Daniels, who has been helped with research on his project by Elon Musks’s SpaceX – people at the space facility are “privately supporting” the comedy.

President Donald Trump unveils the Space Force flag earlier this month - Reuters

“Neil Armstrong made the point, even though there was competition from the Soviet Union, that it was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. It was an achievement for everybody,"says Daniels. "It’s a shame to turn that into a nationalistic military thing, but other countries around the world are pursuing in that way too. It’s a shame but it’s a larger shame than just the US Space Force. So we’re trying to make that point. But, you know, it’s a comedy.”

Daniels was six years old at the time of the Moon Landing, but does not recall watching it. His childhood space memories amount to an action figure of Johnny Rockets, the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie and once meeting Alan Shepard, the first American in Space, because his second grade teacher was dating him.

Nonetheless, like many of his era, Daniels got the space bug. As much as Space Force satirises oafish bureaucracy and birdbrained leaders, it is a joyful celebration of mankind’s mission to the stars. In Musk’s SpaceX, he says, he can see the original, pioneering days of the Space Race.

Greg Daniels is the comedy mastermind behind a host of US sitcoms - WireImage

“SpaceX is nearby Los Angeles, so we were able to arrange tours for the writers and designers. We noticed they had a public atrium and the launch room has a large glass wall, so that when a launch is happening all of the employees can gather in the atrium and watch. So we took that and a lot of other good ideas. The spirit over there is very inspiring. They’ve just gathered together a lot of brilliant engineers and you get optimistic about our ability to do things around that building. It was exciting.”

The seventh episode of Space Force centres on a billionaire entrepreneur who believes they can help the US Space Force. The character is modelled on Elizabeth Holmes, the entrepreneur at the heart of the Theranos scandal, but the episode raises the question of private money versus the government. A very Musk-esque issue? “It’s a very Parks & Rec issue,” says Daniels, “the idea that private industry is always going to be better at everything. And that’s just a myth.”

A recurring joke throughout Space Force is the eye-watering sums of money pumped into everything they do, however again Daniels takes a surprising angle. In a blistering scene, Naird defends to the Senate his decision to spend $10,000 on a single orange. “Yes, that’s his Frank Capra moment,” says Daniels. “When you look at the amount of money that’s available for various projects – Nasa has returned probably tenfold of all the money spent on research and development in the form of all the technological innovations that are driving so much of modern society.” You’ll never look at an orange in the same way again.

Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation - NBC

Earlier in the month, Amazon Prime launched Upload, which focuses on a man who uploads his consciousness to a digital afterlife, only to discover that this online existence is far from heavenly. Like any smartphone app, accessing anything enjoyable involves spending even more money, and only the wealthiest can enjoy it to the full.

We’ve digitised heaven and, of course, it’s hellish. Daniels thought of the concept many years ago and, during the 2015 writers’ strike, began writing it as a novel, but it took another five years for the comedy to come to screen, during which the world was treated to a slew of afterlife comedies and Big Tech satires.

“I didn’t think it was wonderful to see all those other projects come along, including Westworld, as well as Forever and Miracle Workers,” says Daniels. That’s without mentioning The Good Place, the hit afterlife comedy created by his friend Schur. “But it’s a genre,” says Daniels, “you can’t be too precious about it. People do a lot of police shows. If every time a new detective show came out the big rap on it was that there was a detective show last year…” 

Robbie Amell stars in the afterlife comedy Upload - Amazon

The sci-fi nerd inside Daniels is tickled by the fact that Upload has an apt title. “The idea of recording your consciousness and hosting it on a server is something that futurists are working on, and they are actually calling it “upload”. That's their term for it. I think it's a very plausible thing. And once you can get the audience to kind of believe that it might happen, then you can really do more comedy about how it would be executed and who you trust to do it.

"Would you trust Facebook to run a virtual world that you live in and give up all your rights to through the terms of service agreement? It also says something about how we're making our own society because we're choosing right now to live with a level of income inequality. And that's what I found very interesting is if we actually could programme our own Heaven, it wouldn't really be much like Heaven.”

Having pulled off one of the few success stories when it comes to the US remaking British comedies, with The Office, I ask if Daniels is a British comedy fan. The answer is resounding. “Nothing had a bigger impact on me than Monty Python. I was one of those kids in New York at the time and all we did was run around imitating Monty Python routines. So that was probably the most fundamental comedy thing for me. I've always loved British comedy. The Goon Show, Alan Partridge, Peter Sellers. Paul King has directed the first two episodes of Space Force.

"Netflix knew Paul from Paddington, but I was also a big fan of Come Fly With Me and The Mighty Boosh. And I was very excited to get Tom Marshall to do the second block of directing, because I love Chewing Gum [the Michael Coel comedy series]. And I tried to redo Friday Night Dinner a couple years ago, which is actually how I first met Kevin Bigley who plays Luke in Upload. I don't know why I just do, I love British comedy.”

Would the king of US sitcoms ever do a British comedy? “I talked about that with my wife. I think that would be super fun, I think that could be a great thing. The acting talent in Britain is amazing. And I think it would be really fun to live there for a while. I'd love to do it sometime.”

And what does Greg Daniels watch to keep himself sane in lockdown? “I’m actually watching Giri/Haji, that’s by your guy. I’m enjoying that. There's a show called Occupied, a Norwegian show. It's on Netflix in the US. It's kind of cool. In the same way that people are comfort-watching Friends and The Office at the moment, I'm going back and watching The Sopranos and Larry Sanders and some of the older comfort food television.”

Space Force will be on Netflix from May 29