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SYFY WIRE Features

Josh Gad's Avenue 5 character is a mix of Richard Branson and Fyre Festival

By Phil Pirrello
Hugh Laurie, Josh Gad, Suzy Nakamura in Avenue 5 HBO

Avenue 5 is unlike any sitcom you've ever seen before.

While HBO's new comedy, co-created by Veep's Armando Iannucci, is the first sci-fi series of this type (and scale — seriously, the sets and budget for this thing are massive), it's similar to other entries in the sci-fi genre in that it uses the future as a way to reflect and comment on issues and figures in our present. Set aboard a space-based cruise ship for the rich, Avenue 5 centers on the confident and likable Captain (in name only) Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) as he struggles to get his whiny and entitled passengers back to Earth after a mini-The Poseidon Adventure-style accident in space.

Along the way, the show satirizes everything from class systems to high-end consumer space travel. The latter is the target of most of Avenue 5's sharp and clever commentary, especially in the form of billionaire Herman Judd (Josh Gad), the man-child tech giant who owns the company responsible for the titular galactic cruiseliner.

SYFY WIRE recently sat down to talk with Gad about how the founders of Space X and Virgin Galactic (Elon Musk and Richard Branson, respectively) helped shape the show's brash, breakout character.

"The hair was all me," Gad reveals. "It is definitely [based on] a young Richard Branson. 100 percent."

While Gad came up with the haircut, the rest of the character's personality and wardrobe was a collaboration between the actor and Iannucci — with the showrunner affording his star considerable leeway to interpret Judd using notable real-life inspirations other than Branson.

"When I was kind of getting into the character, and defining who I wanted him to be, I started watching and reading a lot about the '21st-century entrepreneur that fails up,'" Gad says. "So, think Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes and Billy McFarland, the guy behind Fyre Festival. Judd is cut from the same cloth. I [learned] that Holmes, she hired the same designer who made Steve Jobs' turtlenecks and wore those.

"So with Judd, I thought it would be funny if he literally decided to have the exact same style as Branson," he continues. "Why? Because he's obsessed with those that have come before him, and doesn't know what legacy he wants to leave behind."

Gad went on to say that the fictional Judd, like Branson, succeeded at doing one thing very well: starting his company. But, unlike Branson, "That's the only thing Judd did well, so because he's used to it, he thinks he can just literally throw money at the problem and that will fix it. When in fact, it either does nothing or makes it worse — in a really funny way."

To help his showrunner get on board with his take, Gad introduced Iannucci to Hulu's Fyre Festival documentary, Fyre Fraud, and made the writer listen to The Drop Out, the podcast about Elizabeth Holmes. From there, Gad and his showrunner "sort of started to say, 'Wouldn't it be great if Judd not only looks up to people like Elon Musk and Branson, but he also wants to look like them to a certain extent?'"

In fact, Judd's idol worship of Branson manifests in future episodes, as Gad explained that Judd will reference Branson's "horrible, untimely fate" in an upcoming installment.

Another inspiration? Sadly, the president of the United States.

"Yeah, all that gaudiness, the gold," Gad says with a laugh. "Judd's basically a nicer version of Back to the Future Part II's Future Biff, but in space."

That sentence alone makes the show worth checking out.

Avenue 5 airs Sunday, Jan. 19, on HBO.