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The TV series ‘Schmigadoon!’ offers lessons for everyone — even its creators

Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio worked together on “Despicable Me,” “The Secret Life of Pets” and, most recently, “Schmigadoon!”

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Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in “Schmigadoon!” now streaming now on Apple TV+

Photo provided by Apple TV+

Cinco Paul hatched the idea for “Schmigadoon!” some 25 years ago. Inspired by the show’s namesake, the 1947 musical “Brigadoon,” and “An American Werewolf in London,” the basic idea was to have two guys go for a hike and end up in a town that is itself a musical. He discussed it over the decades with his longtime writing partner Ken Daurio, and after 20 years of waiting, the duo refined the idea and finally got their shot to make it happen. Finally, they could pursue this new adventure — together. 

Part parody, part love letter to golden-age musicals like “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music,” the show follows two lovestruck but struggling New York physicians, Melissa (played by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key of sketch show “Key & Peele”), as they try to save their relationship by going on a backpacking trip. Instead they end up in the town of Schmigadoon, “where the sun shines bright from July to June.” They’re trapped there until they find “true love.” It’s dazzling and plastic and happy — but also very grown-up, which marks a departure from Paul and Daurio’s past successes. 

Perhaps most famous for the 2010 smash hit “Despicable Me,” Paul and Daurio, who both live near LA, also co-wrote “The Secret Life of Pets,” two Dr. Seuss adaptations and “The Santa Clause 2.” They’ve worked together since the late 1990s, after they met on the set of a musical penned by Paul and starred in by Daurio to commemorate the 150th birthday of the Latter-day Saint pioneers’ arrival in Utah in 1847.

Both devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they’ve turned to their faith and its values for inspiration time and time again. “It’s all there,” Daurio says. “You have to look sometimes, but it’s all there.” In “Schmigadoon!,” that fact was hidden in plain sight. 

Wrapped in a veil of double-entendres and inside jokes for theater lovers, the show has earned praise from NPR’s Fresh Air, New York Magazine and RogerEbert.com, among others. It holds an 88% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic scored it at 73.

But the show’s greatest power isn’t in its charming homage to musical theater tropes. It’s found instead in what it has to say about love, about honesty and about openness to growth and change. 

“Schmigadoon!” reaches its climax when its residents gather in the town square for a mayoral election. Dressed in colorful early 20th-century garb, they’ve come to vote for the smarmy, stubborn town puppet master played by Kristin Chenoweth. Her platform is a straightforward rebuke of Melissa, Josh and their “sinful” city-folk ways. “Strife and tribulation, people!” Chenoweth’s character reminds the town. “Strife and tribulation!”

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Cecily Strong, Keegan-Michael Key, Kristin Chenoweth, Ann Harada, Alan Cumming and Fred Armisen in “Schmigadoon!” now streaming on Apple TV+

Photo provided by Apple TV+

But in a touching twist, the town turns on her.

“No! Why are you cheering for these sinful city folk! Have you forgotten what they’ve done to this town?” Chenoweth’s character asks.

“I haven’t forgotten, and I hope I never will. I hope none of us ever will. They’ve made Schmigadoon better,” answers the town schoolmarm before alluding to the show’s gay mayor and his decision to live openly. “Maybe it’s time we start following the mayor’s example and be more honest about who we really are.”

The message — for the town, and for Josh and Melissa’s relationship — is clear: Growth requires honesty, a willingness to change and the courage to act on those feelings; it requires making difficult choices. It’s reminiscent of the climax of “Despicable Me,” when Gru faces a choice between his longtime career of villainy and the prospect of fatherhood and family — it’s a Paul and Daurio signature.

And indeed, their names are all over the “Schmigadoon!” credits: created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio; written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio; original songs by Cinco Paul; consulting producer Ken Daurio. Like “Despicable Me” before it, the show appeared to be a coming out party for the longtime duo. 

Except that Daurio left the show long before it aired in July 2021.

With a potential second season on the horizon, the duo is a duo no more. Now they both live in the shadow of their collective past achievements, without the other to lean on after over two decades together. 

Difficult choices, indeed. 

Not that church musical

In 1997, the Church of Jesus Christ’s leaders in Newbury Park, California, asked Paul to oversee their play to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Saints’ arrival in the Great Salt Lake Valley. He said no. He was already making a living as a screenwriter, but he hadn’t done anything big yet. He had, however, written a few road shows and youth presentations for church conferences, which is perhaps why leaders wouldn’t take no for an answer. When they asked him to at least write it, he agreed.

Daurio, meanwhile, auditioned at the behest of his wife. They’d both performed and done choir in high school, and she thought it sounded like a fun time. She ended up backing out, while Daurio, who was 26 at the time, got a part — much to his annoyance. “I was bitter,” he says. “I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And I was cranky all through rehearsals.” But then he met Paul, and his tune started to change. 

They talked, and they stayed behind after rehearsal to sing Beatles songs. “My heart started to change,” Daurio says.

The actual plot of the musical followed a pioneer girl and her modern great-great-great-granddaughter switching places. “It was very high-concept comedy, which you don’t see a lot of in the church,” Paul says. “So I think it caught people by surprise.”

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“Schmigadoon!” cast members

Photo provided by Apple TV+

They both had plenty of history to draw on for inspiration. Both of them grew up in mixed-faith homes. Paul’s father was Catholic, and his mother was a Latter-day Saint. He went to church with her growing up, but he wasn’t baptized until right before he left his hometown of Phoenix for college at Yale and four years before his eventual mission to Tokyo in 1986. Staring down the uncertainty of adulthood, he started to seriously think about what he believed and who he wanted to be, and he decided it was time. The baptism took place in a swimming pool. “I don’t think that would be allowed today,” he admits. “I don’t think it was allowed that much back then! But the bishop was just so freaking happy that I was getting baptized.”

Daurio’s father was also Catholic, and his mother was Baptist. He didn’t grow up going to church much with either of them, but he did always have some kind of belief and he always felt different. “I was sort of a white sheep in a family of black sheep,” he explains. He was very trouble-averse; the kid who followed all the rules. “And high school was really where I found my group of friends who ended up being all the good kids who didn’t go party,” he says, “and they were the Mormon kids.”

After graduation, most of those friends left town — except for Daurio and one young woman, whom he started dating. She soon became her local congregation’s Relief Society president and told Daurio that if he wanted to hang out with her on Sundays, he’d have to hang out at church. He had no problem with that, but “I was always waiting for the weird thing,” he says. “They’re clearly weirdos, and there’s some culty thing happening here, and they’re going to reveal it, and I’m going to run out of here. But the weird thing never came.” He chose to be baptized, and he and his then-girlfriend were married in the temple. 

Paul and Daurio’s first venture together wasn’t writing, but music. From their sessions signing “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be,” they formed a band — The Otter Pops — that released two albums sold almost exclusively to their 40 or so fans and played many a wedding and outdoor mall. Outside their hobby, Paul had begun a career in scriptwriting, while Daurio was making a living directing music videos including Blink-182’s early work. He was also a writer in his spare time, however, and his wife persuaded him to share a script he’d been working on with Paul. Paul thought it was fun — and more importantly, he thought it would be fun to work on something with Daurio. 

The duo’s first script, called “Special,”  follows a man who pretends to have a disability to secure an autographed football for his girlfriend’s son. He ends up having to pretend much longer than anticipated, and the story explores how one small lie ballooned into something much bigger. They sold it to MGM in 1999, and it created “a lot of buzz around town.” Based on that success they pitched a story called “Bubble Boy” that became a Disney movie in 2001. “Not a great movie,” Paul says. “It totally bombed. But you cannot deny the fact that it was a movie.”

Their process involved writing in separate rooms and meeting to discuss their ideas. They’d break for some Halo at lunch, and they’d chat, but at the end of the day, they’d read aloud what they’d written, and they’d help each other fill in jokes or plot holes or fix whatever else needed fixing. “And ultimately, it was about who won the day,” Paul jokes. “And who won most of the days?”

“I think it’s clear who won most of the days,” Daurio answers, laughing (both thought they won the day most of the time).

Their big break came while writing another script for Disney in 2003. It happened to find its way in front of Chris Meledandri, then the president of 20th Century Fox Animation and executive producer of the “Ice Age” franchise. He loved the script and — with plans to make an adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who!” — he offered the job of writing it to Paul and Daurio.

“Horton Hears a Who!” happened to be Daurio’s favorite book, so he was elated. It was their first foray into a very public, yet still subtle display of their values in Hollywood films. After all, “Horton Hears a Who!” is about believing in something unseen that no one else believes is real. Similar themes appeared in their later 2012 Dr. Seuss adaptation, “The Lorax,” where respect for the planet and faith in the goodness of others predominate. Or in “Despicable Me,” where a villain is changed by his love for three orphan girls. “Those are all the kinds of things that I want to put out in the world, to help people feel and see,” Daurio says. 

Speaking of “Despicable Me,” both of them still revere it as their greatest achievement. It was one of those rare times where they felt uninhibited by the politics of corporate bureaucracy or pressure from layer after layer of stakeholders, allowing them to have true fun at work.

Meledandri, they explain, left Fox to start his own animation studio, Illumination. He had enjoyed working with them, so he invited them to write all of Illumination’s movies around the time “Horton Hears a Who!” was released in 2008. Paul and Daurio spent the next 12 years at Illumination, starting with “Despicable Me.” Because the company was new, nobody was really paying attention. “We didn’t have to answer to anybody, and it just was so free and fun,” Daurio says. “We got to do anything we wanted. Expectations were low.” Those expectations got ratcheted up when “Despicable Me” became an instant hit, spawning two sequels and a spinoff film. 

They then entered the uncharted territory of the grown-up world. 

The ‘Schmigadoon’ story

Paul wanted to go back. He wanted to return to the familiar, in more ways than one. Foremost, he wanted to reembrace the sorts of stories he and Daurio had written before striking it big in kids entertainment. For him, “Schmigadoon!” was a return to the realm of risque stories like “Special.” “That sort of live-action comedy,” Paul explains, “which I had missed.”

He got his chance in September 2017 after a meeting with production house Broadway Video, an outfit founded by “Saturday Night Live” co-creator Lorne Michaels. Its executives mentioned an interest in musicals. Paul had held onto his musical idea for over 20 years, but he didn’t mention it right away. Instead, he drove home to Agoura Hills, soaked in his jacuzzi and thought — really thought — about what it might look like.

Originally, he and Daurio loved the idea of two guys stuck in a lavish musical. But soaking in that hot tub, Paul had three revelations: First, it’s a couple. Second, they’re stuck in the musical until they find true love. And third, the show would be called “Schmigadoon!”

He quickly emailed his list to Daurio. The first of those three revelations was particularly impactful. Rather than a mere idea, that gave the story a narrative arc — one that both Paul and Daurio felt was underrepresented in popular culture.

“There are too few romantic comedies about a couple that’s already together and the difficulties of making that work,” Paul says. “So many of them are about, at the end of the movie, a couple finding each other, and now it’s a happy ending because they found each other. This is saying there’s no happy ending. It’s always work.”

“The show is about the fact that true love isn’t something you find,” adds Daurio. “It’s something that you believe in and work on, every single day.” Needless to say, he was sold on Paul’s email. 

The timing felt right for such a project, too. The TV landscape, Paul explains, had changed significantly from when he first had his kernel of an idea. By his own admission, the concept of “Schmigadoon!” is “out there,” and network executives would have been unlikely to greenlight such a risky project. But with the advent of streaming and increasingly niche TV, Apple was willing. And the product Paul and Daurio delivered was certainly niche.

It’s loaded with inside jokes for musical theater lovers, like Josh’s meta commentary on his relationship with the underaged, tokenized farmer’s daughter character. It also explores many other issues absent from children’s programming (the bread and butter of Paul and Daurio up to that point), like one-night stands with the tokenized town rapscallion, having children out of wedlock and, in a particularly memorable song called “He’s a Queer One, That Man o’ Mine,” the tokenized woman who doesn’t seem to realize her perfect husband — the town’s mayor — is a closeted gay man.

The mayor, named Aloysius Menlove, eventually finds romance with the town’s minister, who also turns out to be gay. “I love to tell people who’ve seen ‘Schmigadoon!’ ‘A sweet Mormon man wrote this. Can you believe it?’” Strong told New York Magazine about the tone of the show. “It’s not corny, but it’s also not mean.”

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Kristin Chenoweth, Fred Armisen, Alan Cumming and Ann Harada in “Schmigadoon!” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Photo provided by Apple TV+

The show was Paul’s first opportunity to be a showrunner. The pressure of knowing the show’s success or failure rested largely upon him was a new challenge — especially while filming in relative isolation during the pandemic. “This was like a $40 million company that I was running with no experience,” he says. “That kept me awake at night.”

He’s quick to credit his helpful and creative team for making his life easy; they’d often come to him with proposals asking for his yes or no, and their experience and expertise meant Paul didn’t have to think much about his answers. He did have to make some tough decisions, like squeezing in time to refilm a song that turned out to be too slow. All of it without Daurio. 

Because while Paul was chasing a return to his roots, Daurio desired a return of his own. 

That’s all, folks

Daurio needed to talk. For days, for months, for years, a feeling had built up inside him. He’d squashed it down, figuring he’d be able to accept his new reality eventually. But the further he ventured into the world of grown-up entertainment, the more he longed for the comfort of his past; for the PG.

“We had been in family world for so long, and we left family world to do some more grown-up things,” he explains. “I quickly realized I’m a family guy.”

His feeling burned more intensely the more the show crystallized. He agonized over the fact that his name was all over it. “Gosh,” he told himself, “there’s some things in there that I’m super uncomfortable with.”

For example, pretty much any sexual humor. “Anything that pushed beyond the PG,” he says. He’d always been the one to rein in Paul’s edgier ideas, but this show demanded edginess in a new way that couldn’t stop at PG. Finally, after a long, sleepless night, he knew it was time to talk. Not that he wanted to. 

At work, he recalls, everything felt fine. Despite Daurio’s misgivings, his relationship with Paul had remained largely unaffected. But he feared this conversation had the potential to change that. Again, his name was all over the project, and disentangling himself could jeopardize the whole thing. On paper, he knew he’d messed up. The proper time to back out had long passed.

“I could only see scenarios where it was all bad,” he says. And though he knew it had to happen, he hated the idea of losing his writing partner. “Only a marriage is more a marriage than we were,” Daurio says. “We were together for 20-plus years, every single day. So not only was I losing my writing partner; I also wasn’t going to be hanging out with my buddy every day.”

Beneath that anxiety, another question simmered: “Once this is done, what am I going to do?” He pressed on anyway. He told Paul he’d decided to leave. 

Paul was stunned. He knew some of the content might push his longtime friend’s buttons, but he had no idea Daurio wanted out completely. He’s sure his facial expression revealed his surprise. At the same time, he knew he had to stay composed. He didn’t want Daurio to feel like he was heartbroken — though, he now admits, he was. “I just didn’t want him to feel like I was,” Paul says.

He apparently did a good job. Daurio recalls nothing but Paul’s concern, which put to rest all the bad scenarios he’d conjured up. “He was worried about me,” Daurio says. “That’s why the transition could work.” 

Daurio had already spent the summer of 2019 in the show’s writer’s room, but he was gone by the time it went into production. He left Paul with instructions that he recalls, with a chuckle, as “Go make your filthy show, you heathen.” A tad harsh, he now admits, but he remains steadfast in his discomfort with some of the show’s content.

Still, his moral clarity never made leaving easier. “It was really tough for me, because there’s so much of the show that I love,” he says. “I just had to find that line where I asked myself, ‘Am I moving forward, or am I not?’”

Paul moved forward, jetting to Vancouver, where the show was shot, to keep the dream alive. Daurio, meanwhile, began searching for a way back to the world he once knew. While their writing relationship couldn’t be salvaged, they remained hopeful for their friendship. 

‘Just little things’

On a Tuesday afternoon in September, Cinco Paul joins a conference call from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Tall and lanky, with a face and smile reminiscent of a blue-eyed Bill Nye the Science Guy, he makes small talk until Ken Daurio enters the Zoom meeting a few minutes late, calling from Los Angeles.

“Hey guys, how’s it going?” he laughs. Shorter, stouter and with a cap covering his bald head, he looks just as jovial as his longtime writing partner. Above his left shoulder, the logo from their band’s bass drum decorates the wall. Before he can say much, a phone rings. “This is crazy,” Paul says. “I’m getting FaceTimed by Kristin Chenoweth.” “Really nice setup, Cinco,” Daurio chides. They talk like old friends. Because they are old friends. 

After their professional split, Daurio returned to Illumination, where he’s currently working under an exclusive contract on projects he’s unable to talk about yet. Paul continued working on “Schmigadoon!” though he’s unable to confirm or deny whether it’ll see a second season. He’s admitted that his original concept involved more than one season, but in a Twitter thread from mid-August, he noted “that’s all I can say for now.” When I asked if he knows the answer — whether yes or no — he hit me with a “big freakin’ no comment,” though he thought the question was funny, which seems to bode well for a second season.

They both seemed at peace with where they are and where they’re going, though both felt burdened by past success. “Everyone in the cast was so thrilled with how it turned out,” Paul says of “Schmigadoon!” “So following up something like that is always scary.” Especially without Daurio, though neither of them would change what happened. In that regard, the show’s ending proves instructive.

During the final song, titled “This Is How We Change,” Melissa tells Josh, “But you don’t have to stay that way. That’s what’s so great about change. There’s always the hope we can be something better than we are.” “Schmigadoon!” and its creators view love as a verb rather than a noun; an action rather than a feeling. It’s something you choose to do because you believe in something bigger than yourself.

It’s tempting to say they’ve forsaken that message by splitting up. But just because love is a choice doesn’t mean that sticking it out at all costs is the right one. Paul and Daurio instead realized that it was in their best interest to split up — an even harder decision than staying together. Indeed, they didn’t have to stay content. Like Josh and Melissa, they had to recognize their feelings, be open to growth and have the courage to act. 

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Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in “Schmigadoon!” now streaming on Apple TV+

Photo provided by Apple TV +

Making that choice didn’t save their writing relationship, but it did save their friendship. And Paul believes that’s worth celebrating amid an atmosphere of societywide division — especially within his own community.

“Very faithful members of the church can disagree on certain things,” Paul says. He and Daurio surely do. But he doesn’t view Daurio as a crazy fundamentalist just because he won’t do “Schmigadoon!” Nor does he believe Daurio views him as lesser because he continues to do it. Daurio nods in agreement.

“People have different levels, and people draw the lines in different places, and that’s totally fine,” Paul continues. “We can all — we should all — still be able to get together in harmony with an understanding that the most important things that bring us together will never change. These little things are just little things.”

In reflecting on his exit, Daurio once more admits that his timing was terrible. He feared what his decision would cost the show, and his friend. “But Cinco valued our friendship and me as a person more than that stuff,” he says toward the end of our conference call. “So thanks, Cinco.” 

They’re both still open to working together again. Daurio wanted to work on one of Paul’s recent projects, but he’s exclusive with Illumination for now. Still, listening to them talk about the possibility, their enthusiasm makes such a reality seem less theoretical and more inevitable. Because when they talk about it, what they miss most isn’t the success or the stress or the help from each other; it’s the moments in between. Like lunchtime Halo. “I really do miss that,” Daurio says. “That was the hardest thing, saying goodbye to our lunchtime Halo.”

Once more, the show’s final number proves instructive: “What the future holds, well we just don’t know. But there’s hope for all.”

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.