'Free Agents' Is the Anti-Romantic Comedy, Says Hank Azaria

Kathryn Hahn, executive producer John Enbom and company touted NBC’s upcoming ensemble workplace comedy at TCA.
Hank Azaria at TCA

NBC's fall comedy Free Agents isn't like Mad About You, at least according to Hank Azaria.

Free Agents, which centers on two public relations execs -- played by Azaria (Alex) and Kathryn Hahn (Helen) -- who are struggling in their personal lives. "It was the last time there was a romantic comedy featuring two actors in the middle of that on TV that was successful," Azaria told reporters on Monday during Television Critics Assoc. press tour. "This will be much more of an ensemble workplace comedy." 

Azaria tried to explain how his upcoming half-hour sitcom differentiates itself. Mad About You "kept trying to expand out and it never happened and this show certainly will," he continued. "Mad About You was a very good romantic comedy. What if Paul and Jamie didn't work out ... then what do they do?"

Executive producer John Enbom said that though the characters work in a PR firm, the show will not rip stories from the headlines. "We imagined the workplace as the environment they're stuck in" more than the situations they have to deal with, he explained, adding that they will not hold up a satirical mirror up to society. "It's not CSI, where that's the show."

With more and more new shows premiering this fall with the guys showing more vulnerability and the women seemingly taking charge, Azaria believed that it was about time that side of life was shown. "I think it might be reflecting society," he said. "Men are allowed to show their vulnerability."

Hahn, who usually plays the unenviable roles in movies and television was happy to finally be "glammed up." "I'm usually the girl with the long armpit hair so it's really fun to dress up," she said. "Her armor is so polished, she's so together. It is her armor. Underneath, she's just a mess, can't quite reconcile, in total denial about losing her fiance. That kind of push-pull is fun to play against."

Anthony Head, who also starred in the original British series of the same name that lasted only six episodes, shared that his character ("inappropriate," as he describes him) will be different from the one he played in the U.K. "It was originally set in a management office and now it's PR. PR is a different world," he said. "It's great playing comedy like this. ... It's got a great soul and a great heart to it."

"They also offered him money," Azaria joked.

Enbom noted that the characters on Free Agents are smart and articulate. "The challenge of doing comedy often comes at the expense of morons," Enbom said. "I saw it first and put it in the mind of '40s screwball comedy ... make it very smart and adult and very funny." 

Executive producer-director Todd Holland also shared that about 10 minutes was cut from the pilot, "so it really flies." He added, "There's nothing interesting about perfect people. ... On some level, it's just a gold mine to write to."

But as the British series ended without having true closure, how do the producers plan on maintaining that romantic tension in reverse? "She's trying to help him as a friend as much as a lover. It makes perfect sense," Head says. "There isn't an obvious conclusion.

Azaria agreed, calling it the "anti-romantic comedy in that these two people lived through the romantic comedy and it didn't go so nicely for them."

Bob Greenblatt, who worked with Azaria years ago on the Showtime series Huff, received good words from the comedian-actor. "I think it bodes well for NBC," Azaria said of Greenblatt's move to NBC. "It's a reason I came along here."

He added: "His ideas and notes are valuable. ... He's a great guy."

Citing one of Joel McHale’s earlier remarks, actor Joe Lo Truglio joked: “For my first Comic-Con, you guys look amazing.”

Free Agents debuts Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 10:30 p.m. before moving to its regular time slot at 8:30 p.m. the following week.

Email: philiana.ng@thr.com