TV actors are laughing as sit-coms spring back into vogue
Stars of hit shows, including mainland smash The Big Bang Theory, relish the limelight and the chance to diversify their skills, not to mention the steady work
They say that dying is easy, comedy hard. You couldn’t prove that by the sitcoms that manage to plumb laughter week after week. With hits like Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory and The Real O’Neals, the humour just keeps coming.
How and why do they do manage that? For Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory – a massive hit in China – it’s a matter of writing out the lines first. “I literally need to be able to see it in my head,” he says.
“And when I get stuck, nine times out of 10, I can tell you the word begins with a D-A something. It’s a little computeresque. It’s not funny until it’s in you. So you can come out and play everything under it that’s there from the lines. But it can be an arduous process to get there. It’s rewarding. I enjoy the work, so I’m lucky that it’s not painful for me. I like it, but a lot of headbanging goes on to get there.”
Many actors credit the writers for constructing the springboard from which they can dive deep into comedy. Many of the zany situations come from real life.
“We’re basically continually hoping for catastrophe in our writers’ lives,” says Ty Burrell, who plays Phil Dunphy on Modern Family. “We hope things continue to go really poorly at home… As the show got more successful, it relieved some guilt from me about the writers.
“They are in a real grind … Its three A-stories, essentially, are getting written every week for the show, and we [the actors] were going home at three or four every day. So with the press [responsibilities] and stuff – in a weird way – it kind of makes us feel like we’re pulling our weight. It’s kind of, like, equal now.”
“The great thing about our writers is they are so, so much smarter than us, and we’re just like these pawns,” says Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell Pritchett on Modern Family.
“They know. They’re five steps ahead of us. They already have, like, five [alternatives] for their lines they already know that may not work. We’re never put in the position where we might have to yuck it up. I’ve been in those shows, and that’s not fun to do.”
Burrell says that the silliness of his character is the reason he got into acting in the first place:“I ended up doing a lot of drama early on. Most of my parts were very dramatic parts. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy them, but since I started comedy, I’ve just felt more at home.
“I will continue to enjoy doing dramatic stuff, but I get so much joy out of this work that doesn’t need to be over-thought. It’s like playing baseball or gardening, or whatever you do naturally.”
Jason Segel, who played Marshall Eriksen for nine years on How I Met Your Mother, thinks that successful sitcoms can become part of our lives.
“We were told comedy was dead. We didn’t stand a chance. Sitcoms aren’t going to make it. And slowly people got tired of it, and they wanted to sit and laugh … I think about the 8 o’clock slot a lot, or the 8.30 slot, what’s going on during that period?
“People aren’t sitting there like they’re watching a film, attuned to every joke. You’re helping your kids with their homework, and you’re making dinner, and you’re puttering about your house. And there’s something nice about having something that’s just making you laugh in a very easy, calm way that, I think, people started to miss.”
For Martha Plimpton, the comedy in The Real O’Neals gives her the chance to diversify.
“Working in the theatre and working in New York and being able to do the things that I get to do out there means I have a taste for good writing, I have a hankering and a yearning for it,” she says. “The honest truth is, if I want to have that experience, the place to do it is either in New York in the theatre or on television right now.
“For a character actress TV is a goldmine. It’s not happening in films at all …”