Yes, dropping an animated egocentric barbarian from a violent otherworldly fantasy realm who sounds just like Jason Sudeikis into our contemporary society to deal with office cubicles and absentee parenting is a great way to start swinging the sword of funny, but putting him up against everyday characters played by comedy super-pros Cheryl Hines and Tim Meadows is where the real slaying comes in.
On Fox’s new sitcom “Son of Zorn,” produced by the brilliantly wackadoo Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The LEGO Movie,” “21 Jump Street,” “Last Man on Earth“), Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Suburgatory“) plays Zorn’s ex, Edie, a one-time party girl who dumped Zorn and returned to Orange County to responsibly and level-headedly raise their son, Alan, while Meadows (“Saturday Night Live,” “Grown Ups“) plays her steady, even-tempered college professor fiancé who’s surprisingly tolerant and sympathetic when it comes to Zorn’s intrusion into their lives.
Moviefone sat down with the two comedic MVPs to talk about pitting their skills against a cartoon warrior to be inserted later, why they were drawn to comedy early on, and where they’ll be turning up on TV next.
Moviefone: So, when a new television project comes your way, I imagine that the first thing you have to ask yourself — especially when you have great TV experiences under your belt — is “Do I really want to be in a series again?”
Tim Meadows: The answer is “Yes.”
What was the thing here that started to prompt the “yes,” made you want to say, “Yes, this sounds like my kind of show”?
Meadows: Well, really, Lord and Miller. Having those guys involved in it definitely made it something I would read and consider. Then, once I read it, I thought it was really funny. We were told it was just going to be a presentation [to the network], so we were gonna film it. So it was not a weight on us to, like, “We’re going to shoot this whole show and produce it, and then it might get picked up.” It was just like, “We’re going to do this thing so they can see what it looks like.”
Cheryl Hines: Yeah. Something innovative and really funny. The script was really well-written, and very edgy.
Meadows: Yeah, it was. It was weird. It was just weird. When reading it, it was like, it’s just weird, but it’s kind of cool.
The Lord and Miller of it all makes it something more offbeat on network television.Did you guys, from the get-go, get to add to the mix? Did you get to bring a little of your own comedy improv background to your characters? Or did you wait until it was time to fill it out?
Hines: Well, I think when you’re acting with nobody, when there’s nobody else there, you kind of have to use improv skills a little I think, because you have to use your imagination, imagine how that person would act, and where they would be sitting, and how they would be moving their body, and react to it. So I don’t know, it seems like you kind of have to use those skills from the get-go.
Meadows: Yeah. We did add — we don’t know exactly what things that we’ve added or improvised will end up being on the show. It was nice that they let us do it, and they would encourage it, actually. But the other thing is that the scripts, the way they came in, were already good. So it really wasn’t us adding anything to the show, as much as making the characters seem like it was something that we were thinking or saying for the first time. So it made it fresh for us.
You had a real-life stand-in Zorn, I understand, complete with fake muscles and everything to play off on set in place of the animation. How did that help — or maybe occasionally distract — from what you were trying to do?
Meadows: It helped!
Hines: Yeah, it was never distracting. Dan [Lippert] is an amazing improviser.
That’s what I was told.
Hines: Yeah, and he’s, I’m sure, a great actor. I haven’t seen him full-on in something, but I’m looking forward to it. It really helped give a place to Zorn on the set, because without him, we would just have somebody off-camera reading lines. But Dan’s a real actor, and he has great comedy instincts. So he was part of the ensemble.
Meadows: What we would do is we would rehearse the scene with Dan on the set, and then we would shoot the scene without him on the set, and we use our eye line, we set our eye lines wherever he would move. There were times where Dan would be off-set, and we would get the giggles because we’re imagining Zorn being there, but it’s Dan’s voice though.
And Dan was funny in his own right. But there were a lot of times where you can just imagine Zorn being there and saying those words. It was the funniest thing ever. Dan is great. He’s a really funny guy.
Were you familiar at all with the “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” sort of sphere that the show is spinning off of?
Hines: I wasn’t.
Meadows: No — I mean, I remember that animation. I wasn’t like a big follower of that particular cartoon. But I knew the genre, and Zorn is different. Zorn is much more of a barbarian, not really a hero.
Hines: Not a nice guy.
Meadows: Yeah. So it’s a big difference.
Cheryl, you have to have certain chemistry with Zorn, and I’m curious where you start with that. And has hearing what Jason’s doing with the voice given you a little bit more to grasp on to as you go forward?
Hines: Yes, it definitely helps to hear Jason’s voice. The table reads are key for me, just because you get to hear Zorn, and you get to hear how it all fits together. It’s a whole process. It’s interesting, trying to have chemistry with someone who doesn’t exist.
Meadows: Yeah, and imagining what that person is going to sound like, or —
Hines: — How they’re going to look at you.
Meadows: Yeah, you do gather a lot from the read-though, when we do it the first time. You get a good overall sense of like, “Oh, this happens in this scene.”
Hines: Which leads to that.
Meadows: Yeah, “Zorn is going to have this –“
Hines: — Meltdown.
Meadows: Yes, or attitude or whatever. So, you sort of know what you’re playing against.
Are you guys feeling like we’re on the brink of a real sitcom renaissance, similar to what happened in the ’80s, when everyone said the sitcom was dead, and all of a sudden “Cheers” and “Family Ties” and “The Cosby Show” kind of brought the sitcom back and there was a ton of great sitcoms? Because I feel like we’ve been in a little bit of a fallow place — with a few standouts — but I feel like there’s more of an appetite growing.
Meadows: I was just saying how much I love “The Office,” and “Parks and Rec,” and shows like that that have been on recently. So when people say, is it a resurgence of sitcoms, or comedy, or whatever on television, I don’t know if —
Hines: Did they ever leave?
Meadows: Yeah, did it ever go? There’s so much stuff out there, you just have to find it. You know what I mean? So I don’t know how to answer that.
What are you guys watching in the comedy realm? What’s got you excited?
Hines: I like “[Last Week Tonight with] John Oliver.” He’s very funny. Not a sitcom.
Meadows: “[Unbreakable] Kimmy Schmidt” I like.
Hines: It’s funny, because I watch a lot of the drama.
Meadows: I don’t watch a lot of comedy!
Do you guys also have other gigs on TV that you may be going back to? Something we’ve seen you on before? Say, Cheryl, “Curb”?
Has there been any communication other than what everybody in America knows?
Hines: No, there hasn’t been. I keep hearing through the grapevine of people that are starting to work on the production, so I mean, so it feels like it’s going to happen.
What excites you, especially given how much time has passed? What excites you about going back and revisiting it?
Hines: I think just being with Larry and seeing what he’s created in the last few years I think will be really fun to see. Because I know Larry really well, and I know that he’s been gathering stories and ideas. It’s always surprising and funny to see what he comes up with.
Tim, do you have some things locked down for any of your other TV gigs? Will we see you recur here and there?
Meadows: Well, small world: the link is actually “The Goldbergs,” which Jeff Garlin‘s also on that. I’m going back to do another season of that — intermittent episodes. I’m going to do two in a couple weeks. Then, yeah, “Bob’s Burgers.” I’m still doing voices on that.
Hines: That’s a lot!
Meadows: There’s some other stuff, too. Now let somebody else take some work.
When it’s an election year, Tim, do you miss “SNL”? Is that the time where you’re like, “We could really go crazy on this topic”?
Meadows: This year, yes. It would have been nice. But no, I don’t. I don’t know. I did a thing for Robert Smigel who does the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, I did his political special. And I got to do Ben Carson. It was the first time in years where somebody said, “Can you learn an impression and do it really quick?” So when I was doing that, that made me miss working “SNL,” because I was like, “Oh yeah. I used to love sitting in a room watching a video tape of somebody and trying to nail an impression.” I haven’t done that in a while.
What drew you guys to comedy? What attracted you to that genre of entertainment? Early on, what was the thing that made you say, “That’s the direction I want to move in”?
Meadows: That’s a good question.
Hines: Well, for me, it was watching Carol Burnett when I was young. She is so good at physical comedy. I remember watching her show and just laughing out loud. I don’t know — it definitely struck something in me.
Meadows: Yeah. I mean, I would say probably between Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, when I was younger, were were big influences. And there was a point where I started doing improv, and then I saw this movie — I told my kids about this the other day: I saw “Stop Making Sense” by the Talking Heads. It was a point, I was thinking about, there was a point where David Byrne said, “I’m going to either be a designer, or I’m going to be a musician — and I’m going to be a musician.” But there was a point where he made that decision.
And when I was in college I said, “I’ve got to do that. I’ve got to make a decision. Either I’m going to do this, or I’m not going to do it.” I just decided to do it. But I was just like, “I’m going to learn how to act, and then if I can do funny stuff, be a comedian, then I’ll do it.” I just wanted to be an artist.
Do you guys each still have that aspiration of like, “Maybe I’ll get that one drama where I can show them what I can do”?
Hines: I mean, I don’t have that instinct that I can’t wait to show them what I can do.
Meadows: Life is dramatic enough.
Hines: I mean, I like drama. I’m very drawn to drama. I watch more drama than comedy.
Meadows: It was funny, though, talking to our crew: our crew does a lot of dramatic shows, and they love working on our show. Because they were like, “We get to laugh all day and watch you guys do stuff. And usually it’s just dramatic acting. It can be kind of tiring.”
“Son of Zorn” premieres Sunday, September 25th, on FOX.