Fred Willard is a comedy legend at this point. His work in Christopher Guest films alone is enough to warrant that distinction, and in particular, his role as the bumbling dog show announcer in Best in Show is, for my money, one of the single funniest performances in recent cinematic history. He plays a similar role on the new FOX sitcom Back to You, as local sports anchor Marsh McGinley.
BuddyTV got the chance to sit face-to-face with Fred Willard and discuss his role on Back to You, his affinity for baseball, his views on what makes something funny, and the joys of working with Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. Below you will find the transcript as well as the mp3 audio file of the interview.
Hi, this is John from Buddy TV, and I’m talking to Fred Willard from the FOX show Back to You. How you doing, Fred?
I’m doing great, thank you.
Outstanding. Now, you’re predominantly known for your film roles. What made the decision to come and star on a TV show?
I think most actors are predominantly known for wanting to do something. If you’re not, if it’s a stage thing. The funny thing about an actor, you’ll get an offer to do a film, they’re gonna pay you through the week, $50,000. “Oh, I want more than that, make it $60,000.” Then now the movie will come along, they’re only gonna pay scale, $1,700. “Oh OK, I’ll do.” A stage play, $170 a week. “Great, I’ll take it.”
You know, it depends on the project. When I heard that Kelsey [Grammer] and Patricia Heaton were starring in this, I was so thrilled that they thought of me. It wasn’t a show that I had to go and audition for, because frankly, I never get things I audition for. It’s funny, I don’t know what it is. I know I do a good audition, in fact I’m one of the few actors I think who enjoys auditioning. I love to go in, and I come out and say, “Jeez, that was good.”
But there’s always someone else. A lot of time in the business, they’ll go with someone who they worked with before, and you can’t blame them for that. They know the guy’s not gonna show up drunk, hes not gonna, as someone once put it, they’re not gonna tell the director to go f*** themselves. Someone said that to me once, how funny, because I’m sure there are some actors who would do that. So I can understand why they would do that. I think I would do that if I was a producer. I’d first go to people I’ve worked with, but when they called and said, “Steve Levitan created this role for you.” I said “OK, what is it? I’m not playing Patty’s dad or something?” “No, you’re the sportscaster,” and I said, “Oh God, yes. I must do that.
Are you a sports fan?
I’m a big sports fan and I knew the guy, and said they described the character as a guy who got hit one too many times in the head. So he’s a little politically incorrect, he’s kind of old school, says what he thinks. He’s not a particularly sensitive guy. In this episode I have to recite “Casey at the Bat” to a group of school children, and I have trouble getting through it without crying. And to explain, I have a scene where I explain why I cry during the thing. It has to do with he had a stutter when he was a young boy, and how his dad bought him a baseball glove and played catch with him and slowly taught him to recite it. It’s really a nice little moment with a funny punch at the end, a funny flip. So he’s not too sensitive, he’s sensitive about that, and starts to cry. Within a minute it’s all over and he’s like, “OK, now who won the game today?”
And are you inspired by any, do you follow local news sports? Or any sportscasters that you’re kind of inspired by for this role?
Not particularly. I kind of like, I mean Vin Scully is the Dodgers guy and he’s such an establishment, such a wonderful guy, that I couldn’t use him as a role model. I’m fascinated by Sports Center, and you know who I like? The guy George Michael, I don’t know if he’s on. He would come on and he had a clipboard with a pencil, and he was always looked at the clipboard, writing, checking something always. I said, “What the hell is he checking off there?”
But I think if I was not an actor, and they said “What do you want to do?” I would say, “I’d like to be a sportscaster.” Particularly baseball. I’d go out and cover the games, talk to the players. Interviewers, they don’t talk to the players about things that would interest me. Anyway, I think I’d make a great sports announcer, sportscaster.
And a lot of the press for this show is saying it’s sort of a throwback to the old-fashioned kind of a sitcom?
They hate that word. They told us, they said “Don’t say old-fashioned.” I don’t know why, I guess it sounds like it’s back in the, “Well, here we are at our station and it’s time for the news.” But it is, don’t tell them I said it, but it’s good comedy. It’s a situation comedy where funny things happen. You can have the hippest show today with the most cutting edge, where the cameras skew this way and that, and zoom in and out. If the stuff isn’t there, it’s not funny and you’re gonna lose the audience.
I as an audience, I want to hear funny things. I see a lot of three-camera shows with an audience laugh track, and I say, “I’ll watch it, I’ll sample it.” And I’ll say, “This isn’t getting to me.” I watch a lot of one-camera shows and I’ll say, “This isn’t getting to me.” I’ll watch one-camera shows that I love, 30 Rock I love, I don’t think there could be a show more cutting-edge. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m in the business, and I love that inside show business stuff, but I just love it. I watch a show called Mad Men, which is one camera. The acting is so good, and the situations, nothing is over-dramatized. It’s just very subtle things, the way they move. I think it’s something, this latest thing, that, “There’s an audience? How dare there be an audience.” But then you realize Jay Leno has an audience, David Letterman has an audience, the damn Comedy Central roasts have an audience. And the MTV Teen Awards has an audience and no one says, “Oh, there’s an audience.”
So anyway, why did I get off on this long rant? it’s just funny is funny. People often say to me, “You’ve been in comedy for years, how has comedy changed?” It’s gotten a little bluer. But a guy can be the bluest comic in the world, if he’s not funny, he’s not funny. You listen to an old Milton Berle routine, you laugh. Jackie Mason, it’s funny. I’ve watched tapes of old like, 1940s, 1930s vaudeville stuff. And I say, “Boy, this is gonna be bad,” and it’s funny. It’s funny stuff, funny is funny. Human nature, we love to laugh at our own foibles, and the key to comedy is seeing something and saying, “Oh my God, that’s just how that happened to me.” Or “That’s just the way I feel,” and that’s what makes life bearable, that we can laugh and say, “Oh, the world isn’t coming to an end. And even if it does, there’ll be something else that’ll make us laugh.”
And I guess finally, just working with, like you said the main reason was because you get to work with Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. In the last 10, 20 years, they’ve been huge figures in the world of sitcoms. And even though you’ve been in comedy for so long, is there anything just about making a television show, a traditional multi-camera sitcom that they’ve been able to teach you?
Kelsey and Patricia? I wish I had a very astute answer for that. Except that we, I’ll read the script the night before, and I say, of course you go through to see what you’ve got, then you read the whole thing, and say, “Funny lines, funny lines.” You go in and you see them get up on the floor when we’re blocking the scene, and Kelsey will give some spins on some lines, and I say, “God, why didn’t I,,,Will I ever be able to think…would I have done it that way?”
Suddenly he’ll be talking and throw away a line, or do a pause where you wouldn’t expect it, or look off and deliver a line. And Patty is so charming, she doesn’t have to be a laugh riot. She is, her character always gets a laugh, but she’s just so charming. I have a friend who called me and said, “You’re working with Patty Heaton?, I used to watch Everybody Loves Raymond just to see her. I wasn’t that crazy about the show, but I loved to see Patty.”
Another thing they taught me, Jim Burrows is the director, that you don’t have to spend eight, 10, 12 hours on the set. He knows exactly what he wants, he comes on, he blocks it and says, “Freddy, do this, now turn here. OK, don’t do that line, bring that line down. Bring it up. Bam, bam, bam. Let’s bring the producers down to look at it. Alright, everyone go home, we’ll see you tomorrow.” And you know it comes out, it cuts to the bone, they know what they’re doing, they’re pros. No one’s running around saying, “Oh, let’s try this.” That’s what they taught me, that’s what TV should be.
-Interview conducted by John Kubicek
(Image courtesy of FOX)