'The best job in showbusiness'
Best known for playing Harry Solomon for six years on Third Rock From the Sun, US comedian French Stewart is back in prime time playing a nasty chef on new sitcom Mom. He tells James Croot why he think he has the best job in showbusiness.
More funny, more heart - that's the key to sitcom success, believes veteran funnyman French Stewart.
An Albuquerque-born actor with a distinctive squint, who spent six years playing Harry Solomon on Third Rock From the Sun, his latest role is as a scene-stealing mean chef on new sitcom Mom (which begins screening tonight on TV2).
Starring Anna Faris and Alison Janney it follows the adventures of a single mother and recovering alcoholic (Faris) who decides to restart her life by working as a waitress in California's wine country.
Speaking during a break in rehearsals at the show's Warner Bros-based soundstage, Stewart says the key to making the show work is not only making it funny but also something recognisable to people watching it at home. "It sounds simple but you've only got 22-minutes each week so you have to be really economical and get to a story week. No one is coming to a sitcom for some big storyline, just a simple parable every week."
He says he was drawn to Mom mainly because he really wanted to work with the show's producer Chuck Lorre. "Nobody is better at knowing how to get a show up on air and keep it there," he says of the man who is also behind hit sitcoms like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
"However, I also loved the script and liked the danger of a woman and her mother who were both trying to stay sober in a house full of kids and having to go to work with horrible people like Rudy who are not sober. I felt there was a series there where you can do show after show."
But does he think, because of its "edgy" content, this is a show that could have been five or 10 years ago? "It's funny - I think it could have been made in the 1970s but not anytime after that until now. Look at shows like All in the Family or Soap, before the likes of The Cosby Show became the template."
He cites animated series such as Family Guy and The Simpsons as helping bring back "the edge" to US mainstream comedy. "They obviously can get away with a bit more because they are animated - you can't have a human saying some of those things."
Not that Rudy pulls any punches. Stewart says while he knew he was a jerk "from the get go", he's been delighted that each week the writers have given him "one or two zippy one-liners that have helped inform the character". "So both the audience and I have now discovered that he sleeps with the women on his staff, sleeps with the men on his staff, he does drugs at work and might steal your wallet or food. You put it together and I've worked out 'okay, he just has no moral compass whatsoever'.
Stewart says he enjoys only finding out what's in store for his character when the writers release the script. "Rudy recently had a date with Alison's character which predictably goes horrible - they didn't tell me anything beforehand which I really liked. I get a script and I feel like I'm unwrapping this present."
He says making a sitcom hasn't changed all that much since he started making Third Rock almost two decades ago. "Shockingly no. I guess we now have the ability to do certain things that you only used to be able to do in films or outside, but apart from that it's still the same four-camera concept Desi Arnaz started with I Love Lucy.
"It's the best kind of job in showbusiness - good hours and you get to play in front of a live studio audience. It's just summer stock with a different show each week. "Having a live audience brings back the excitement of a script's first table read, even if you've read it more than 4000 times during the week and have forgotten that it's any good. There's immediacy and a shock of energy that's really fun and you just have to remember that most of them are from out of town and are just happy to be there."
Enjoying himself immensely, Stewart says he would love to keep doing more Mom. "To me there's nothing better than being long-term on a sitcom, especially since I can come out in front a live studio audience, deliver a couple of well-designed zingers and then go home to my wife (Vanessa, his second) and baby (seven-month-old Helen). I'll finish this season and then go straight into the Pasadena Playhouse doing Buster Keaton on stage in a show written by my wife and then hopefully come back and do this again.
"I turn 50 this month and it's nice just to have a job in showbusiness. When it's going well I really realise how lucky I am - if you had told me in seventh grade this is what I would be doing, my head would have just blown off my shoulders and I still feel that way."
Mom 7.30pm, Wednesdays, TV2