Emmy Roundtable: Comedy actors

Emmy-worthy comedy actors find the humor in playing it straight

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Contrary to published reports, scripted television comedy is not an endangered species. The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond and Matthew Belloni recently gathered six of TV's most gut-busting comic performers -- Jon Cryer (CBS' "Two and a Half Men"); Brad Garrett (Fox's " 'Til Death"); John Krasinski (NBC's "The Office"); Kevin Nealon (Showtime's "Weeds"); Jeremy Piven (HBO's "Entourage"); and Tony Shalhoub (USA Network's "Monk") -- for a semi-serious discussion of what is funny, how to Twitter and the dangers of eating too much fish.

The Hollywood Reporter: Present company excluded, who is the funniest person on TV?

Jeremy Piven: Someone like Ricky Gervais.

Brad Garrett: "The Real Housewives of New York." That's funny. That's comedy. I'd actually like to start "The Real Housewives of Fairfax, Virginia."

Jon Cryer: I am a huge Steve Carell fan. His relationship with Amy Ryan's character on "The Office" was the one on TV that I loved the most this year. So I guess we're just hitting "The Office" people here. Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell. Nobody else is funny.

John Krasinski: I'm going to have to go away from human soil and go into animation. I think "Family Guy" is still an incredibly funny show, if you're talking about just gutteral laughs.

Kevin Nealon: "Flight of the Conchords" on HBO. Any show with accents I love.

Tony Shalhoub: I'm not doing a sitcom now, but when I did do one ("Wings"), in the 1990s, there was so much pressure placed on that word "funny." Just asking the question today kind of makes my skin crawl. The word "funny" was thrown out there so much it became like saying "fuck" all the time, excuse me. It wound up losing all of its value and any meaning.

Cryer: Well yeah, because without context, there is no funny. One thing that's interesting about doing a sitcom in front of a live audience is you've got sitcom expectations. People watch it and expect jokes here and jokes there, and you've got to decide if you're going to try to subvert that or completely play into it. When you're an artist you think, "Oh, what a luxury it would be in a single-camera show. But now on single-camera, it feels like, "Wow, it sure would be nice to have an audience that laughed."

Piven: I'll be totally honest with you: I did not know my show was a comedy until the third season. Seriously. Because it isn't as if I can look to a group of guys behind the scenes to see if they're laughing. You're just in a very contained microcosm doing your thing. It would be great to have more immediate gratification, for sure.

THR: Multicamera comedy has been presumed dead despite successes like "Two and a Half Men." But now the nets seem to be rediscovering it.

Garrett: It's never really been about sitcoms being dead, of course. It's just about being able to hit it right. No matter what the medium or number of cameras, a very funny show is still a very funny show. It's still just about finding the right chemistry, which always is the elusive element.

THR: What do you think about NBC handing over the 10 p.m. hour to Jay Leno five nights a week?

Cryer: I think it's a weird thing, actually. It says NBC is admitting it's having huge trouble programming stuff. So they're basically becoming what the Fox network started out as. NBC is basically saying, "We're now Fox without 'American Idol.' " So good luck, NBC.

THR: Jeremy, would "Entourage" still be funny on a broadcast network?

Piven: There was a show called "Action" and it was originally written for HBO, about the backstage life of Hollywood. But it didn't work because it wound up on Fox. For the same reason, I don't think "Entourage" would work as well if you had limitations of language. I actually don't know if I can do anything without saying "fuck" anymore.

Garrett: I think the best shows on TV are -- most of the time, whether comedy or drama -- on cable.

THR: Well, that's certainly going to get Fox to renew " 'Til Death."

Garrett: I'm actually saying most of the time that's true. I think it's because they have a tendency to leave (the show) a little more alone, for some reason, on cable. It's just a lot less micro-management.

Cryer: I think a lot of people are going to disagree with you, Brad, because a lot of viewers don't like cable due to the language and prefer a show like "30 Rock" or "The Office."

Garrett: But look at a show like "The Larry Sanders Show." It's one of the most brilliant shows ever. But the reason for that is because it ran on HBO. I doubt a broadcast network would have given it the time it needed and groomed it in a way it needed to be.

Cryer: Well, that's probably true. I was on a CBS show 20 years ago called "The Famous Teddy Z" that was this behind-the-scenes slice of Hollywood. But America didn't want to watch it and it disappeared. At the time, it had only 19 million viewers, which in 1989 made it a huge flop. Today, it would be top 5. Then when "Larry Sanders" came out, it was like, "Yes! That's the show we wanted to do!"

THR: Jeremy, did you see President Obama said "Entourage" is his favorite show?

Piven: I did see that. I'm from Chicago and was lucky enough to be introduced to both he and (first lady) Michelle, and the president told me he and his wife both watched. To be honest with you, I thought he was kidding. But apparently he wasn't. It's pretty fantastic.

Cryer: What's interesting about that is "Entourage" is such a profane show. That a guy who is clearly so reserved and intellectual watches this randy show is quite something.

THR: Admit it, Kevin, you're a little jealous.

Nealon: Actually, the president has said he Tivo's "Weeds" but he hasn't had a chance to watch it yet. (Laughter)

THR: Jeremy, you had to drop out of "Speed the Plow" on Broadway in December because of mercury poisoning. Was the whole controversy mischaracterized in the media?

Piven: I don't really know exactly how it was characterized. But I was lucky enough to do theater my whole life, I grew up in Chicago, and when David Mamet comes and asks if you want to do his play, that's the gift of a lifetime. By the second week of doing the show, I was feeling the type of chronic fatigue I've never felt in my life and I was incredibly scared. I was holding on for dear life the entire run and ended up going to the hospital. I was told I had to leave the show, which was unbelievably difficult for me.

Cryer: But the big question is, can you still eat sushi?

Piven: The truth is that I've been eating, unfortunately, nothing but fish for 20 years, twice a day. It was way overkill on the mercury. My adrenals were shot. I haven't touched a piece of fish in months simply to get the mercury out of my system.

THR: Do you guys use Twitter and Facebook?

Nealon: "I've started Twittering. I find it a good tool."

Shalhoub: "Yeah, but you started doing it when you were just 11 or 12." (Laughter)

Garrett: "The Internet stuff is all frightening. There is right now someone out there on Twitter who claims they're me and who literally took my identity with pictures of me and my family."

Nealon: "That was actually Twatter."

Cryer: "It's a slightly different service."

Nealon: "The great thing about a Twitter or a Facebook is it can almost be used as a weapon against TMZ. You can control what information you give out and show what's true and not true. It's almost like a marketing tool."

THR: John, you just directed a film ("Brief Interviews With Hideous Men").
Is writing and directing something that others here aspire to as well?

Shalhoub: I've directed and started to produce some independent films. It's a little bit tricky. But I've been producing on "Monk" for seven years, and I've been learning so much sitting beside these other producers and picked up some really valuable tools. It's like learning to play a new instrument or a foreign language, but something I feel a need to evolve into.

Krasinski: It's nice to have more control, I think, when you're a director or a producer, because as an actor sometimes you feel like just a soldier. And if there's no war, you don't go.

THR: As comedy actors do you guys ever feel like you're competing as much against the reality genre as against other comedies?

Garrett: What reality has done is take the guy sitting on the couch at home at put him in the picture. I think as creative people it's the beginning of the end because reality takes the craft out of everything, whether we're talking writing or directing or acting.

Krasinski: The rise of reality is sort of justice in a weird way. I've seen reality shows like "Intervention" that I think are amazing. If you do it really well, it should, and hopefully will, succeed. The same is true of comedy. If it doesn't make it, maybe it's because it wasn't good enough to make it.

Garrett: A real reality show wouldn't be "The Biggest Loser" but one where people can't lose the weight. You don't want to see someone succeed at it.

Cryer: Isn't that what a lot of comedy is, too? You don't want the funny guy to succeed too much. You want him to be a little downtrodden and not really getting the girl so you can feel superior. And I mean, we always feel superior to you, Brad.

Garrett: Yes, I know. (Laughter)

THR: John, do you think the format of "The Office" would have been accepted by an audience if viewers weren't already primed via reality shows?

Krasinski: That's a good question. Probably right off the bat, I would say no. I think that if you're going from "All in the Family" and "Seinfeld" and "Friends" to "The Office," people would pretty much see it as a mistake or some sort of publicity stunt.

Garrett: It's all about the writing. It doesn't matter what it is. You can have an amazing cast, and it won't work if the writing isn't there.

THR: And if the ratings aren't there.

Piven: You could have a show with great writing and amazing execution, and the reality is if it's not hitting those numbers they have to pull you. The people who run the network tell you there's so much immediate pressure to come out of the gate and be huge. And yet that wasn't how it was with "Seinfeld." NBC kept at it and moved it around until it found the audience because they really believed in the show.

Garrett: Those were the old days. "Raymond" was one of the last shows that was not doing well and (CBS chief) Les Moonves stuck by us when we were getting killed. That kind of belief doesn't exist much anymore.

THR: Jeremy, you often poke fun at people in the industry on "Entourage." Has anyone ever hassled you afterward?

Piven: I was at a basketball game recently and Zac Efron came over to me and said that he's possibly going to do the show. What I do now is I apologize to people before they see the episode so they know that I don't indeed write it. Because in this one episode (next season) I say to my gay assistant Lloyd, "I want you to focus on this as if it's Zac Efron's ball sack." So I said that to Zac in front of his girlfriend to let them know I'm only saying what's written and to please not be mad at me. Sometimes I'll see someone and they'll snub me and I'll go, "Oh my God! That's right!"