Inside 'Red Oaks': An Eighties TV Show That's Not Ironic

How the Amazon show's cast and creators pulled off a coming-of-age comedy without the snark

Oliver Cooper, Craig Roberts, co-creatorJoe Gangemi, and Richard Kind hang out on the set of Amazon's Eighties-set comedy 'Red Oaks.' Credit: Devin Yalkin

"The Eighties were good to me," says Jennifer Grey, and considering she's best known for having the time of her life with Patrick Swayze in 1987's Dirty Dancing, that would make sense. "You know those people who rock that hairdo from the moment they got laid the most in their life? The Eighties are a bit like that for me."

Grey, who also appeared in Red Dawn and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, isn't quite ready to leave the age of Rubik's cubes and Max Headroom behind — she currently appears as the mother of a country-club employee in Red Oaks, a new Amazon comedy series that's set in 1985. The actress looks relaxed sitting comfortably in a fetal position on a couch in a Manhattan hotel room next to her Red Oaks costar Paul Reiser, who had his own Eighties successes with Diner, Beverly Hills Cop and Aliens. She gets so excited about discussing the decade that made her that she stands up and lifts her blouse just enough to show she still has the vintage "high-waisted" ripped jeans she wore 30 years ago. "Everything I wear is high-waisted," Reiser quips.

Although Grey, 55, and Reiser, 58, like to tease each other about revisiting the Regan era, Red Oaks' appeal is not its nostalgia factor. By most of the cast's account, the thing that makes the show work is that it's a coming-of-age story that just happens to be set in that particular time period, without the chintzy, "Look, we're in the Eighties" self-awareness of a show like The Goldbergs. It may have all of the signposts of maudlin schmaltz – all-over spandex, hair-sprayed coiffure, Billy Ocean songs – but that's simply because, as Grey can attest, that's what the decade really looked, smelled and sounded like.

The show – which premieres on Amazon in full on Friday – focuses on David Meyers, an NYU accounting student played by 24-year-old Craig Roberts (Submarine, 22 Jump Street) who's working as an assistant tennis pro at Red Oaks Country Club for the summer. He's at a crossroads in life: His girlfriend, Karen, wants to settle down, his boss (Reiser playing the mononymous club president Getty) is a jerk and there's another young woman at the club — with hair like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club — who makes him question everything. His parents are on the verge of divorce and cranky ("A C is a Jewish F," dad Sam, character actor Richard Kind, admonishes young David in the pilot), and his best friend may be getting too deep into dealing drugs. With each character facing his or her own Big Life Changes, it's the sort of show that would be a melodrama if it weren't filled with shenanigans like parents on MDMA, club members' sex videos and a Freaky Friday body-swap incident. But it's never patronizing.

"There are a lot of laughs, but they're all coming out of the characters themselves," Reiser says. "It's mature in the best sense of 'mature' adult comedy."

It's a tricky balance to strike, but somehow two of its executive producers, Magic Mike XXL director Gregory Jacobs and novelist-screenwriter Joe Gangemi made it work. The pair had intended to make a coming-of-age movie until Steven Soderbergh, who's worked with Jacobs for decades – most recently on the gory medical TV drama The Knick – suggested they make Red Oaks as a TV show; he subsequently signed on as executive producer while the group enlisted fellow producer David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) to direct its pilot. With the team complete, Jacobs and Gangemi were able to tackle the character's bigger issues, some of which mirrored their own life experiences.

"Greg and I have been swapping stories of our adolescent misadventures for years as we stood around on various films sets," Gangemi says. "He regaled me with tales of teaching tennis at clubs in and around the New York metro area, while I shared my own misfit tribulations working in restaurant kitchens and video stores in suburban Philadelphia. But Red Oaks is only superficially autobiographical. The simple fact is that my life hasn't been nearly as interesting or eventful as our protagonist's."

"Most coming-of-age stuff tends to be high school," Jacobs says. "I think a lot of the movies we like, the John Hughes classics and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, were in high school. We just thought it would be more interesting to do something coming of age more college-aged. The big thing for us, thematically, was that everybody's going through something."

"Where I did borrow from my own experience was in the emotional subtext of scenes: What it feels like to be 20 and confused about the future," Gangemi says. "What it's like to be in a relationship that's outlasted its sell-by date."

It's a sweltering, July day in Pearl River, New York, where the thing everybody's going through is sweating. The cast of Red Oaks is wrapping up some of their final scenes together an interminably hot office, and Kind is huddled up to a portable air-conditioning unit. "Is this thing on?" he bellows at passing crew members. "Nothing's coming out of it now." The central air is out, so the actors have to rely on the makeshift wind machine, which shuts off completely every time the cameras roll. Roberts, and his onscreen buddy, Oliver Cooper – the curly-haired actor who appeared in Californication's final season as the mouthy Levon – are sticking close to shadier parts of the set.

"I can't decide whether or not the Eighties were any good," Kind quips in his trademark authoritatively stentorian boom, wiping his brow. "I can't remember."

The scene at hand is a short but pivotal one. After episode-upon-episode of Kind's character encouraging Roberts to go into accounting like him, the son has relented and has donned a shirt and tie. Without giving too much of the plot away, the disgraced younger Meyers has resigned himself to his fate, answering phones at his dad's accounting office, as Kind ad-libs accounting terms in the background at the behest of director Green. When his best friend Wheeler calls, the director focuses the camera on Roberts and tells him just to mouth his words.

"He's crazy and so peculiar in his direction," the soft-spoken and affable Roberts says in his native Welsh accent. "You'll be doing your lines and [David will] go up to you and be like, 'Say your lines with your eyes shut.' It's just very strange stuff that feels totally alien, and he does it for the moments in between the action. It's all about getting interesting moments and character nuances."

Outside, one of Green's peculiar predilections has manifested itself in the form of half a dozen or so Abraham Lincoln impersonators. Because the crew was not able to control the environment outside in Pearl River in the same way they did in the New Jersey country club where they shot, he needed to block modern-looking cars parked on the streets. "There was no way to get around it, so David was like, 'OK, then I want six Abraham Lincolns to cover it," Roberts says. Although the Lincolns are not readily apparent in the episode – titled "Labor Day Luau" – you can still see them in the background of the final shot, in the distance behind the cherry-red Corvette Wheeler's driving.

For Cooper, who plays Wheeler, the show's college-dropout stoner with the heart of gold who works at the club – the show was a chance to indulge all the tropes he'd seen in the Eighties teen comedies he loves. "Smoking joints and sitting in nice, old cars, it's always fun to feel 'cool,'" he says. "I got to swim with my costar Alexandra Turshen – she's beautiful – in a pool in my underwear. Stuff like that is fun. I love smoking on camera. It always looks cool."

Outside, Roberts and Cooper are leaning against the sports car belonging to Paul Reiser's character. When Wheeler asks Meyers how it feels to work for his dad, the would-be accountant likens it to "that scene in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen loses his shit in a Saigon hotel," and Green asks them to improvise. Roberts says he's not familiar with the scene; his costar spitballs how wild he'd heard it was making it. At another juncture, Cooper offers up some choice words for the elderly receptionist character inside the office, played by an extra, and her ability for oral sex without teeth. None of the extra repartee makes the final cut.

As the temperature hovers around the 95-degree mark, and moments of air conditioning are fleeting, the cast is simply grateful that nobody has to shoot tennis scenes. "Our next tennis scene is Friday night," Kind says. "It will be hot. It's going to be terrible."

What makes the show unique is how every character, no matter what station of life they're at, seems to be coming of age. David Meyers needs to decide what he'll be when he grows up. Wheeler must come to terms with whether or not he should go back to college and quit dealing drugs. Meyers' tennis foil Nash — played by Ennis Esmer like some hilarious, displaced Wes Anderson character — is in a state of arrested development. Getty comes off as deviously evil but simply wants respect and love from his daughter. David's parents are on the verge of divorce after Kind's character suffers a heart attack and tells his son he thinks his wife is a lesbian. (Also, he's more into Asian women.) Everyone is finding themselves.

"This was the decade, I think, when married couples started separating and divorcing," Kind says, on-set. "It really started in the late Seventies, because I think they saw what was happening in the Sixties but were a little too old and didn't get a taste of that sexual freedom – or any sort of freedom. If you want to talk coming of age, I think that's where it hits them. Ironically, it hit my parents; they split in 1979, 1980. Everyone was realizing that life is more than just what their parents told them to do in the Eisenhower era."

For Grey, her role also echoed her own parents – actor Joel Grey, who originated the M.C. role in Cabaret, and Jo Wilder, an actress-turned-housewife – who separated after 24 years together in 1982. Although the obvious comparison between Grey's character to her parents would be to her father, who came out as gay at age 82 earlier this year, she says the role is more a reflection of both of them.

"When I was growing up, I never for a second thought that they would ever get divorced," she says, back in the New York City hotel room. "They seemed very madly in love and almost enmeshed. So the idea that they were both suppressing their truths came up. My mother left my dad to be able to figure out who she is. I really believe, if we're lucky, before we die we get to have some period of time where we can fully follow whatever it is that is our bliss, without judgment, shame, or self-loathing. That's what I wish for everybody."

"I was just in my own practically orgasmic state of heightened arousal." – Jennifer Grey

Of course, finding yourself can be funny, too, which Grey and Kind's characters learn in Red Oaks when, at the advice of a marriage counselor, when they experiment with MDMA. After David returns home, he finds his parents in their underwear, rolling. And Grey's character is immediately attracted to her son's girlfriend. "I couldn't wait to get my hands on that girl," Grey says with a laugh. "I was just in my own practically orgasmic state of heightened arousal, and there was just, like this yummy Himalayan kitten walking in, all fuzzy and warm and smelling like powder."

"I'm the opposite," Reiser interjects. "I might have said, 'I can't wait to get my hands on Richard.' See, everybody's different."

"I'm friends with the actress," Grey says of Gage Golightly, who plays the girlfriend. "I said, 'Listen I don't know what I'm going to do. Just let me know if I go too far.' And all of a sudden I was like ... " she pauses and makes a gurgling noise. "I was so worried about not being properly high that I think I psyched myself into literally being in an altered state."

In another episode — "Body Swap" — parenthood and young adulthood cross over in a loving tribute to movies like Freaky Friday, Big and Vice-Versa (the last of which Richard Kind appeared in). The idea came from Soderbergh; the team recruited director Amy Heckerling, who helmed Fast Times at Ridgemont High, National Lampoon's European Vacation and Look Who's Talking in the Eighties, to call the shots. For Kind and Roberts, it meant taking on each other's affectations.

"My posture is so bad and Craig's is so good that, because we had to copy each other, by the end of the week, our backs were killing us," Kind says. "But it was a lot of fun. He is everything I am not. He is very understated. His movements are small. I'm the opposite."

"It was good to be Richard Kind and scream every time I spoke," Roberts says with a laugh.

"Craig had an easier task, because Richard is so easy to imitate," offers Reiser, who worked with Kind on Mad About You. "We were enjoying watching this young guy from Wales suddenly try and become Richard Kind, hunched over, open mouth. Richard has this enormous mouth and Craig has this tiny little sparrow mouth, so it was easier to see that impression."

As for Reiser, he simply enjoyed playing a prick. "I bring that with me naturally," he says, grinning. "I was working on a project with a friend, and he said, 'Everybody thinks you are this nice guy, but you're not that nice.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I know.' That's the fun. But I liked that my character was written on the surface as being a jerk, but when he's peeled back slowly you see he cared for his family."

Another thing Reiser liked about working on the show was correcting Eighties anachronisms. "It was a great experience being attuned to all those things that were 'period' and the things that were not 'period,' like certain phrases and gestures that weren't there" he says. "Someone would give you a fist bump, but we didn't have that. That was invented in 2003."

The actor also points out that there were no cell phones in 1985, as he strokes the back of his own the couch. "The first pleasant surprise was how consistent and how successfully they created the time with the wardrobe, cars and props," he offers. Then Grey rejoins with "the music."

"The music really gives it a thing," Reiser says. "I thought it informed it so much."

One of the show's music supervisors, Devoe Yates, painstakingly dedicated himself to finding lost gems from the era that would evoke the early Eighties without relying too heavily on warhorse VH1 I Love the 80's staples. "I signed onto Billboard and went week by week through all the charts," he says. "I've been downloading all these soundtracks from the Eighties – Mannequin, Real Genius, Three O'Clock High. Some of them are hard to find."

"The props, the cars, the hair — none of that's a punch line." – Producer Gregory Jacobs

Some of Yates' favorite discoveries included Roger Hodgson's "Had a Dream (Sleeping With the Enemy)," Sweet's "Love Is Like Oxygen" and a funky, synth-driven song by M, "Woman Make Man," that the tune's publisher told Yates had never been licensed for a TV or movie show before. "They were like, 'Really? This song? We gotta dig it up?'" he says. "It's always fun." The music supervisor especially enjoyed working with Heckerling and director Hal Hartley (Trust, Henry Fool), both of whom would "be like, 'What about this song or that song?' Everybody gets excited about going back to this music."

But the music never seems gratuitous in the show's Eighties-ness, and the whole thing never feels tongue in cheek. "David [Gordon Green] and us all talked about that in the beginning," Jacobs says. "He wanted it to feel like we were making an indie movie in the 1980s. The props, the cars, the hair — none of that's a punch line. It just exists. You're not cutting to somebody walking around with a gigantic brick phone or playing with a Rubik's cube."

"What's sweet about this show is it's a comedy, but it's never trying for laughs," Reiser says. "There are no jokes in this. It's not a sitcom. The sensibility is really different. The things that make me laugh are a lot of subtle things, but it's cast with funny people."

One of the most subtle things is the inclusion of Grey – once the dance star of Kellerman's Mountain House – who sets foot in the Red Oaks Country Club only once. "It's nice to circle back," she says, with regard to her country club–member character in Dirty Dancing, but also with a sentiment that frames Red Oaks as a whole perfectly. "It almost feels like an inside joke, and it makes sense. It feels to me like nostalgia...[but] with a wink."