Emmys 2012: Drunk Fans, Axed Spinoffs and Awkward Auditions at the Comedy Actors Roundtable

TV's Funnymen
Joe Pugliese

"I think comedies on cable paved the way for us to be a little more ambitious with network television," says Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson. "We thought, 'Well, why can’t we do this?' Maybe fewer 'F' words and then, boom, it’s network comedy."

Who got cornered by Spielberg at a party? Who starred in the failed "Golden Girls" followup? Who is harassed regularly by belligerent viewers? Six of TV's funniest men come clean.

Having an innmate sense of humor is a TV actor's best friend, especially if that actor is expected to work 14 hours a day, be cordial to unruly fans and kill it every single time the camera rolls. The Emmy front-runners who gathered inside the Spare Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on April 16 to talk shop -- Ty Burrell (Modern Family), 44, Don Cheadle (House of Lies), 47, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family), 36, Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory), 37, Max Greenfield (New Girl), 31, and Ed Helms (The Office), 38 -- share all of these qualities (and more, it turns out) as The Hollywood Reporter engaged the performers in a candid discussion about the “head game” of fame, why it’s never a good idea to Google yourself, when it’s OK to say no to lucrative endorsement deals and how learning to enjoy the moment is paramount.

The Hollywood Reporter: What’s the most disturbing trend in television right now?

Ed Helms: Let’s all bite the hand that feeds us.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson: You want to say reality TV, but we need to break it into segments. Maybe it’s the children with their mothers, like Dance Moms?

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Johnny Galecki: That’s horrifying.

Ferguson: But I don’t want it to be canceled. It’s horrifying, and that’s why I love it. (Laughter.) CNN’s pretty horrifying, too.

THR: Why do you think network comedies have had such a huge resurgence?

Ferguson: I think comedies on cable paved the way for us to be a little more ambitious with network television. We thought, “Well, why can’t we do this?” Maybe fewer “F” words and then, boom, it’s network comedy. (Laughter.)

Don Cheadle: [To Galecki] Your show is one of the raciest. I mean, you guys must get the censors every week.

Galecki: Do you think it is?

Cheadle: You guys tread a line. When I’m watching with my kids, there’s explaining that has to be done.

Helms: I had to take a stand on The Office about nudity. (Laughter.)

Ty Burrel: Did you say more? (Laughter.)

Helms: Yes. It has to be more! My naked body is funny.

TRH: Don, how did you decide to transition from movies to a cable comedy?

Cheadle: My background was in theater. I went to CalArts. I came out of school with the idea that, “Oh, I hope I have an opportunity to do everything!” And then you kind of quickly see the business says where it wants you to be. Then you find yourself elbowing and trying to push and pull and get into different things. I was really glad for the opportunity of this TV show. Comedy’s something I’ve loved for a long time.

Galecki: I also came from theater, and that’s what drew me to TV both as an audience member and as an actor. We approach our show as theater. It’s 300 people in the audience, and there just happens to be four cameras between us and them. The TV part pays better than the regional theater, but it’s very, very similar. (Laughter.) You just get to eat better.

THR: How difficult was it for you to transition from being seen as a “kid actor” on Roseanne to adult roles?

Galecki: I was ages 16 to 21 on Roseanne, and I was able to work through that transitional time and come out as a young adult on the other end of it. I started doing indie films after that.

Cheadle: And what a show to be on, too. Wow. You got to dizzying heights right away.

Galecki: It was No. 1 when I started. And No. 1 back then … we were disappointed if we were under 30 million viewers.

Ferguson: Oh, my God.

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Burrel: That’s insane.

Helms: That’s like Super Bowl numbers.

Galecki: I was really just in shock the whole time. I was a massive fan of the show. Roseanne and I had worked together before, and — as she did with many actors, writers and stand-ups — she’d bring us into the writers room and say, “I want him to do one more.” One episode turned into four, and that turned into five years. The writers had to kind of come up with reasons to keep me there because she’d asked for me to be there! I was this terrified little rabbit in the corner of the stage, watching all of these people; it was my college in many ways. And working with John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf and Rosie, and they’ve all worked so differently … it was fantastic.

Helms: And now you get to intimidate and terrorize children on your set.

Galecki: Yes, the guest stars. I do my best! They’ve had it too easy already.

THR: Max, you’re on one of the biggest new shows this year and shirtless most of the time. How has your life changed?

Max Greenfield: I have the opposite problem from Ed. I go, and I say: “Please, we should tone this [nudity] down. I can’t maintain this. I’d like to eat at some point!” (Laughter.) Our hours are crazy.

Burrel: What are they?

Greenfield: Just bad. (Laughter.) A good day is 12. And then we’re looking at 13s and 14s. We are trapped on the set the whole time and have been for the better part of a year. But now that we’ve wrapped, I’m starting to go out, and it’s nice to see that the show is really resonating with people.

THR: What’s the funniest thing someone has said to you when you’re out in the world as a regular guy?

Cheadle: “Hey, take your shirt off!” (Laughter.)

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Greenfield: Yeah. I get a lot of that.

Burrel: People don’t recognize him because he’s got his shirt on.

Greenfield: We were at this party yesterday, and there was a 15-year-old girl there. She turned the corner and ran into me. It was this insane, “You’re on that show!” kind of moment.

Helms: Were you in a towel?

Greenfield: She was like, “You know Zooey Deschanel!” It wasn’t because of me at all.

Cheadle: You’re the guy who knows Zooey.

Ferguson: We were cornered by Steven Spielberg at a party once. He’s an uber-fan of Modern Family.

Galecki: Wow.

Ferguson: He watches our show with a director’s eye, of course, so he was sort of dissecting it … (Ferguson’s iPhone goes off.)


Galecki: Is that Steven right now? (Laughter.)

Ferguson: That’s probably Steve.

Cheadle: Go ahead, you should take that.

Ferguson: It was sort of like we were being held hostage by him a little bit. We’re like, “OK, we got to go!” But it’s also, “This is the man who directed E.T.,” which was the movie that changed my life. Anytime anyone famous comes up to us, we’re just like, “You’re kidding us, right?”

Burrel: I did this zombie movie once, Dawn of the Dead, a while ago. And we were shooting Modern Family, and one of the security guards was like, “Hey, I really love Dawn of the Dead.” I was like, “Oh, thanks a lot.” And she said, “I really loved that one scene.” “Oh, what scene was that?” And she was like (makes sex motion), and I was like, “OK!” (Laughs.)
Johnny, you must have a lot of crazy fan interactions at Comic-Con.

Galecki: It’s insanity. I feel like Mick Jagger. I thought that going there was a really bad idea initially because we’re not a sci-fi show. I thought, “They’re going to run us out of town!” I explained this to Chuck Lorre on the train on the way to San Diego. I was like, “This is a horrible idea.” (Laughter.) We looked at the schedule, and Battlestar Galactica had a panel at the same time. I told Chuck: “Nobody’s going to show up for ours. We’re not a sci-fi show.” He’s like, “You’re right.” He gets on the phone and tries to get us into a smaller theater and can’t. So we’re in this 3,000-seat theater, and I think 1,700 people had been turned away. It was completely sold out! That was year two and one of the first times that we felt, this is really striking a chord, and we’ve gone back every year since.

THR: Ed, do you get Hangover or Office when people stop you?

Helms: It’s funny: I get a lot of both, but they’re very different. Usually, Hangover fans will be like “What’s up!” and they just start punching you and want to get me trashed. They want me to relive that whole movie with them.

Greenfield: That’s funny and terrifying.

Helms: But then Office fans are like: “Hello. How are you? I love your show.” It’s a very different vibe.

THR: How much pressure did you feel this past season essentially filling Steve Carell’s shoes?

Ferguson: “Don’t make me cry!”

Helms: That’s right. No, I was really excited because everybody was very supportive. But there also was a giant question
about what form it would take. There wasn’t a lot of discussion before it happened, and I only found out a month or so before we started shooting. Of course, we all missed Steve and his comic gift, but we were right back in the grind and having
fun at it again. I’ve had a hell of a good time this season, especially with James Spader there … I didn’t feel like it was
all on me.

Ferguson: Let’s be honest … Steve was weighing it down, though. (Laughter.)

Helms: I’m glad you said it.

Ferguson: We were all thinking it.

THR: Did he give you any advice?

Helms: Steve’s not an advice giver. He’s someone who you can learn a lot from because of the way he carries himself on set. He never complains, never, ever disrupts what’s happening, and we all took it for granted. When he left, all of a sudden I’m standing at the front of that conference room running a scene — I have to memorize three pages of dialogue! — whereas before I’d have only a few lines. Suddenly I realized, this takes 10 times more concentration, more preparation and more focus. I was like … I want to complain. (Laughter.) I have some problems here. That light’s too bright. This is uncomfortable!

THR: A lot of you have been on shows that didn’t last more than a season. For example, Don, the 1992 Golden Girls spinoff …

Cheadle: I can’t believe it didn’t last more than a season. That was a travesty … Golden Palace. (Laughter.)

Ferguson: Golden Palace?

Helms: Hold on. What is this show Golden Palace?

Cheadle: It paved the way for a lot of you guys. I slipped right into Bea Arthur’s spot, and that was it.

Greenfield: That’s incredible.

THR: Do you know when a show isn’t working?

Ferguson: I did two series before Modern Family that were canceled; one after about 19 episodes, the other after two. There’s nothing worse than coming in every day and really needing to see those ratings. When I was doing The Class, which aired on a Monday night, at our Tuesday table reads, there’d be printed out copies of the prelim numbers, and I’m like, “Why are you doing that to us?” The ratings were highlighted with an arrow and a sad face. (Laughter.) And now we’re going to try and create comedy for the week? And then, the show I did after that, actually Max’s wife [Fox senior vp casting Tess Sanchez] cast me in, Do Not Disturb, was one of those shows doomed from the beginning.

Greenfield: The Class was a good show.

Ferguson: It was great. But I’m kind of glad that it was canceled because I can’t imagine not being on Modern Family. But with Do Not Disturb, nothing’s worse than feeling like you need it to end, and it just keeps going. Take it out to pasture, please, God! But you feel bad for the crew because everyone just really needs that work. It’s a horrible feeling.

THR: How much pressure are you all feeling to maintain your shows’ levels of excellence?

Greenfield: I try not to think about it. I was on a show once where the creator would come to the set and expose everybody else to his stress. It was gross … not at all conducive to what we do. Between what the network puts in and the studio puts in, you realize your place as an actor very quickly, which is right down here. (Motions low.) There’s nothing that I can do about our ratings. It seems to be a really destructive process.

Cheadle: Well, we have them right here! (Laughter.)

Galecki: You never know where that bad news might be coming from. You can’t prepare for it, so you just keep on going. I know of a showrunner who learned that his own show was canceled because he was driving onto the studio lot, and he was at the guard gate, in the entrance, and in the exit, his living room set was on the back of a flatbed. (Laughter.)

Greenfield: Yeah. She’d just gotten hired and was like, “Please don’t do a Fox show!”

Helms: Did she cast you?

Greenfield: No. She was taken out of the process. The studio found out that I was the choice for the role, and then a call came to the network: “You’ve got to take Tess out of the room and out of the process,” because they know how brutal it can be.

Cheadle: Especially when you go in there and blow it. (Laughter.)

Greenfield: You never know who’s going to go, “I mean, he’s very Jewish.” (Laughter.) And then, all of a sudden, Tess is sweating: “He’s not as Jewish as you think.”

Ferguson: “We just need to feed our baby!”

Greenfield: Needless to say, it was not a stressless week in the Greenfield/Sanchez house. But it was one of those amazing experiences where it all worked out.

Burrel: Are you on the lot together?

Greenfield: Yeah. Sometimes we get to go to lunch. And our kid is in the day care there. So it’s like …

Ferguson: Oh, it’s a Fox family!


THR: What’s the hardest part about fame for all of you?

Cheadle: I don’t get enough recognition at home. (Laughter.)

Greenfield: Thank you, Don.

Cheadle: I’m expecting [a big announcement]: “Now coming home … it’s Don!”

Burrel: “Ladies and gentlemen!”

Helms: You get in a fight with your wife, and you’re like, “But I’m Don Cheadle!” (Laughter.)

Cheadle: Doesn’t work on the kids, either.

THR: Speaking of kids, Ty, you adopted two children in the past couple of years. It’s impressive how privately you were able to do it.

Helms: So tell us all about it! (Laughter.)

Cheadle: Pictures!

Burrel: It’s been intense, but the bulk of fan feedback is really positive. Luckily, I’m on a show where I’m not playing a serial killer, so I don’t get that energy back from people on the street. I think the biggest adjustment for me is the lack of control. When you go out, your situation isn’t controllable; other people are controlling your experience. That was a real shock, especially with kids. It’s this weird kind of back-and-forth.

Galecki: You’ve done a great job of it. You have your own parameters, and you don’t lay a welcome mat down for the press and for people to ask questions that you’re not comfortable answering. You also don’t march your family down a red carpet and then complain about your lack of personal privacy.

Helms: It’s funny because we’re all familiar with being fans of other people. For me as a kid, it was Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Mike Myers. And now, it’s this weird brain contortion to get that energy from strangers. It’s important to recognize that’s pretty wonderful. I derived so much joy from Phil Hartman and people like him, and so it’s exciting to think that I might play that role for some kid out there who’s a comedy nerd. Fame has baggage, but it’s forced me to evaluate what I really care about. Like, if I walk into a public place and I’m spotted and pictures start happening, do I really care?

Burrel: It’s an interesting head game, isn’t it?

Helms: Like you said, it’s the loss of control that causes fear and anxiety and frustration.

Cheadle: Well, it’s really human to be around people you don’t know, who are strangers coming up to you, and feeling that way. But we are antithetical to normal. You guys are on TV at least 24 times a year. You’re in people’s bedrooms.

Helms: Tell me about it.

Greenfield: This is where it gets bad: When somebody comes up, and you prepare yourself for them to tell you how much they love the show, and they’re like, “We have your car.”

Ferguson: I was walking in Greenwich Village, and this girl goes, “Would you please take a picture?” and I was like, “Absolutely!” And she’s like, “No, of me in front of the Sex and the City brownstone.” Humiliated. (Laughter.)

THR: Eric Stonestreet has talked about the added element of gay people coming up to him and saying how much the show means to them. But there was some negative feedback, too. Do you get that as well?

Ferguson: The negative feedback I get is, “You need to be nicer to Cam!” And I’ll be like, “OK, I’ll pass that on to the people who tell me what to say.” I honestly don’t hear a lot of the negative. Maybe at the beginning, some people were worried that Cam’s character was maybe a little too flamboyant?

Cheadle: Too campy.

Ferguson: Campy, right, and my argument was: “We’re representing a specific gay couple. It’s not representing every gay couple in the world.” Let’s be happy with what we have here, and on another show, we’ll tackle the other ones. I mean, 99 percent of it is really positive feedback from kids who are able to come out to their parents because they sort of have a pop culture touchstone to point to. Their families enjoy Modern Family, so it’s safe to say, “I’m like Cameron,” or, “I’m like Mitchell.” At the same time, we’re just making a comedy. We’re not changing the world.

THR: Modern Family is going through big salary renegotiations. Is this something you ever talk about on set?

Ferguson: No.

Galecki: I find it odd that this is one of the few, if not only, industries where it just seems OK to talk about salaries openly. People just go ahead and ask, or put it in print, and often it’s incorrect. But it’s information that should be private. I have family members I’d rather not know. (Laughter.)

Cheadle: “Hey, just saw about the renegotiation. What’s up?!”

Helms: “Congratulations!”

Galecki: It’s inappropriate to ask the dentist what he makes every year.

Cheadle: It’s entertainment … like sports.

Helms: It forces you to ask yourself, “Can I just roll with this?” It’s been this lesson in Zenning out. We’re in the public eye, but it’s ultimately not the end of the world.

Galecki: But then, when I feel that way, I’m worried that that’s when I’m going to make a huge mistake because I let my guard down. Like, “Oh, these pictures will never show up online.”

Greenfield: And then your wife comes over, and you’re like, “I Googled myself.” (Laughing.)

Cheadle: That’s the worst. Don’t ever do that.

Greenfield: I really took a hard line on it when the show started. “I’m not looking at anything,” and it’s been the best move.

Helms: I don’t Google myself, but my mom does.

Burrel: You hear it from everybody anyway!

Galecki: I Google each of your salaries. (Laughter.)

Greenfield: My mom only sends me the positive, though.

Ferguson: You’re so lucky. My mother tells me everything: “I can’t believe that article said … And I just don’t agree with that.” (Laughter.) She thinks that I have absorbed everything that’s happened to me; she wants to alleviate that pain.

Greenfield: The good stuff is as harmful as the bad stuff.

Burrel: That’s true.

Cheadle: You have to look at all of it. You know what I mean?

Helms: It’s all toxic.

Greenfield: Someone will send me the bad stuff, and I’ll go, “This is what they really think?” And then you get to work,
and you go, “Well, how can I make it better?” and then you’re pushing, and then you’re doing weird stuff, and then
you realize that was just one person who’s probably …… a blogger in his living room.

Cheadle: Yeah. I’ve made the mistake of reading it all, and I came to the same conclusion. What does it mean? It’s such a nebulous job. That’s why I like to wash dishes and sweep. Because if those dishes were dirty … now they’re clean! I did
that! But you walk off the set some days, and you’re like, “I don’t know what I did today.”

Galecki: There’s something about the publicly written word that’s that much more scarring. When you do theater, you never make 100 percent of the people in the room happy — you don’t expect to — and if you do, you’re probably doing something safe. But when you see the written word … it’s pretty traumatic.

Burrel: One of our showrunners, Chris Lloyd, calls it a game show titled More! It’s a Google game show, where there will be a story on Modern Family, and you read it, and he’s like, “Do you want more?” (The whole group says, “More!” in unison.) And it’s all still pretty positive. “Do you want more?” And then there’s something from one guy who’s like, “This is the shittiest show that ever existed.” And you lose everything. (Laughter.)

THR: Ty, you’ve been endorsing orange juice.

Burrel: Thank you very much. (Laughter.) I should have brought some.

THR: What are some of the nuttiest endorsement deals the rest of you have been offered?

Helms: I got an offer from BMW for a commercial. I read the script, and it was this crazy Andy Bernard/Stu from The Hangover mashed up into the broadest, worst pigeonhole imaginable. I was like, “I can’t.”

Cheadle: When’s it coming out? (Laughter.)

Helms: It was a bummer because I thought,“Oh, this’d be cool,” and then the script was just, “Ew.”

THR: Was it hard to turn down? It was probably good cash.

Helms: Yes and no. I try to be pretty disciplined.

Ferguson: The price that you pay is more … it hurts. It scars.

Cheadle: Johnny does a ton of commercials overseas.

Galecki: Billboards in China, just billboards of me everywhere! No, because of Big Bang, I get invited to speak more often at benefits, but it all requires me to be as intelligent as my character, and that’s the mistake that they’re making. So I don’t attend because it would only mean horrible disappointment.

THR: What is the best or worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

Greenfield: I had a guy once tell me, “Don’t take it personally.”

Cheadle: That was the worst advice you got. (Laughter.)

Greenfield: As naive as it was, it got me through a lot of disappointment.

Helms: “You only get parts you’re right for.” You can be mad you didn’t get it, but you’re wrong. You weren’t right for it.

Galecki: I almost got dropped by an agency because I suggested another actor for a part. “You know who’d be good in this?”
And they’re like, “It took us a week and a half to get you in that room, and you pitched an actor and he’s not with our agency!”

Ferguson: Thank you, by the way! (Laughter.) It’s such important advice to just enjoy where we are at right now. We are always looking for the next job. I have learned to just relax and really take it in. For Ty and me specifically, we were very lucky the last few seasons with Emmy Awards, but we are not expecting that again this year or next year. We try to just accept that this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. If it happens again, that’s great.