Steve Dildarian on the weird, oddball universe of ‘Ten Year Old Tom’

Steve Dildarian said that growing up in Central New Jersey helped to shape the pessimistic, wry worldview of his animated alter-ego, “Ten Year Old Tom.”

“There are some themes and threads throughout anything I’ve written — whether it’s a ‘me against them’ mentality or kind of peeking over the fence at a different, better life,” said Dildarian, 53, who voices Tom in the series. “Maybe some of that is growing up in New Jersey and looking over the river into New York City and always, to some degree, not quite participating in the success and fun that the rest of the world seems to be having.

“I’ve been told I’ve got a natural skepticism of things … whatever it is, it’s an underdog quality and an outsider mentality that I think is consistent,” he said. “I don’t think about it when I’m writing — it just comes out.”

That’s undeniably evident in “Ten Year Old Tom,” back for Season 2 (June 29 on Max) with its titular elementary school student protagonist who’s 10 going on 40 — and who finds himself in bizarre, surreal situations in a world peopled by oddball and weirdo adults.

Scene from the animated series "10 Year Old Tom." Tom is sitting outside on a chair holding a bassoon beside a sign that reads "Will play bassoon for cash." There are three characters looking at him: his friend Dakota and her parents (played by Jennifer Coolidge and Mark Proksch).
Tom (Steve Dildarian) with his friend Dakota, her obnoxious mother (played by Jennifer Coolidge) and Dakota’s dad (Mark Proksch).
Courtesy of Max

(Each episode consists of two 12-minute vignettes unfolding in the minimalist animation style of Dildarian’s previous series, “The Life and Times of Tim,” which aired on HBO from 2008-2012.)

In the season opener, a shady consulting firm buys the naming rights to Tom’s school and chooses Tom as its mascot (he slicks his hair back and dons a suit and tie) before it all goes off the rails. “And yeah, we helped orchestrate numerous political assassinations but we’re not about murdering people for political gain, we’re about communities,” its smarmy public relations chief tells a school assembly (he also mentions “strong ties to the 9-11 attackers …as consultants“).

In the episode’s second half, Tom and his tattooed, hard-drinking mom (Edi Patterson) install a hot tub on their front lawn — leading to Tom pretending to own a neighbor’s luxury yacht and taking his pals out for a ride (it’s piloted by his slovenly, bare-chested, beer-bellied uncle).

Like that.

Photo of Tom and his friends on a neighbor's yacht (Tom is pretending that it's his boat). He's sitting in a lounge chair wearing sunglasses and holding a cup with a straw, with a sweater tied around his shoulders.
Tom takes his pals out for a spin on his neighbor’s luxury yacht, which is being driven by his beer-swilling uncle. It does not end well.
Courtesy of Max

“My writing style is very spontaneous, simple and linear — how to get from A to B with as many crazy left turns as possible,” Dildarian said. “I don’t plot [the episodes] out and rack my brain on where it can go. A lot of times I sit down and start writing and I’m as surprised as the viewer. I’m hearing dialogue and feeling it and when I write, when it works, I’m making myself laugh.

“That goes back to the very beginning of me doing TV and doing animation and even my background before that, which was advertising,” he said. “I had a long career doing a lot of Budweiser commercials [the classic Budweiser Lizard ads] and 30-second snippets of comedy. I’ve written no shortage of half-hour scripts and the only prior show I got on the air was ‘The Life and Times of Tim.’ At the time, HBO said, ‘Hey, we liked your short films — let’s not change it too much, let’s not put our TV hat on and make it a show now.’

“One of the producers on the old show said to me that the way my show plays out it feels like a bunch of 60-second commercials strung together, where each scene is a little over a minute with a strong beginning, middle and end and feels like its own mini-story. I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

“I write each scene like what’s the most conflict-ridden person Tom can interact with and just let that build and blow up — and then it’s onto the next scene.”

Series creator Steve Dildarian. He's posing in a blue, open-neck polo shirt and wearing a black baseball cap.
Series creator Steve Dildarian, who also created the cult HBO hit “The Life and Times of Tim,” which aired from 2008-2012.
Getty Images for Netflix

As he did in “The Life and Times of Tim,” Dildarian has also corralled a bevy of celebrity voices for “Ten Year Old Tom” including Jennifer Coolidge (the mother of Dakota, played by Gillian Jacobs), John Malkovich (Mr. B) and David Duchovny (Ice Cream Man).

“From Day One, even on the old show, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised and a little shocked at the number of people that say ‘yes,’ he said. “Sometimes when you reach out it seems like a longshot, like ‘Why are we wasting everyone’s time? John Malkovich isn’t going to do this show.’ The casting agents are always a little more confident than I am and they’re like, ‘Let’s just ask.’ Not to pat myself on the back, [the celebs] just respond to the writing — the script is funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny — and it is, to some degree, tailored to them.

“I don’t randomly reach out to these people; usually it’s like I know they’re going to respond … there’s something [in the script] I think they’re going to latch on to and have some fun with.”

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