The Light from the TV Shows: Jack McBrayer gives thanks for ‘The Middle’ and other post-”30 Rock” roles

It’s been a few years since Bullz-Eye last chatted with Jack McBrayer…and by a few years, we mean more than half a decade: the previous occasion was when both the second season of “30 Rock” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” – both of which featured McBrayer, in case you’ve forgotten – were making their DVD debut. Since then, “30 Rock” has taken its final bow, leaving McBrayer without a full-time TV gig, but lord knows the man hasn’t been lounging around doing nothing. In addition to a very high-profile role in last year’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” either his voice or his actual physical being have turned up on Adult Swim’s “Childrens Hospital” and “NTSF:SD:SUV,” Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” and, to bring this intro in for a landing, ABC’s “The Middle,” where, as part of his recurring role as the dentist for whom Frankie Heck works, he’ll be turning up for the annual Thanksgiving-themed episode, airing on Wednesday at 8 p.m.

JMcB-Dentist

Bullz-Eye: Well, I was able to watch the Thanksgiving episode of “The Middle” this morning, thanks to the kind folks at Warner Brothers, and I’m happy to say that it lives up to the high standards the series has set for its holiday episodes.

Jack McBrayer: Oh, good! I haven’t even seen it! [Laughs.]

BE: So how did you find your way onto “The Middle” in the first place, coming off of “30 Rock” as you were?

JMcB: Well, I had been a fan of the show from way back. I’m friends with Neil Flynn, who plays Mike Heck. I’ve been a friend of his from way, way back. From Chicago days. He was in Second City. We were at Second City at the same time: he was performing, I was in classes. And, of course, Patricia Heaton we’ve all known for years and years. And the show in general just kind of struck a chord with me, growing up in Georgia, in a small town, with parents who were overextended and always tired, and, you know, we’d eat cereal for dinner and…it all hit home to me! And, also, I happen to know a couple of the writers. Robin Shorr is a writer over there. So I think when they knew “30 Rock” was over and that some of the cast members would be available, they were, like, “Oh! What can we do?” [Laughs.] So I was happy to say, “Yes!”

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The Light from the TV Shows: TGS: 30 Great Shows (That Don’t Actually Exist)

With “30 Rock” departing the airwaves after a not-unrespectable seven seasons – a particularly incredible achievement when you consider what an incredibly off-the-wall, insider-y sort of sitcom it was throughout its run – it seemed only appropriate to offer up some sort of tribute to the show in this week’s column. Unfortunately, since everyone else seems to have swiped all of the good angles that are 100% show-specific (indeed, I actually wrote a piece on the 30 best “30 Rock” guest stars for the “Today” blog, The Clicker), I had to think a little bit outside the box, but since a key aspect of the series was its show within a show, “TGS with Tracy Jordan,” it seemed like a perfectly reasonable concept to spotlight 30 of TV’s great fictional TV series. Lord knows these aren’t all of them, of course. Hell, even limiting myself to a one-fake-TV-series-per-real-TV-series rule…with the only exception being “30 Rock,” which seemed only fair, given the reason for the list in the first place…there are still thousands of omissions, so feel free to offer up your personal favorites that didn’t make the cut, “Family Guy” fans. (There’ve been so many on that show, I didn’t even know where to start.)

1. TGS with Tracy Jordan (“30 Rock”)

For those who can remember back to the pilot of “30 Rock,” Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) was originally in charge of a not-terribly-great sketch comedy series called “The Girlie Show,” but when GE’s new Head of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming, Jack Donaghy made an executive decision to add the completely unpredictable Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to the show, the comedian’s ego necessitated a change in the show’s title to feature his name more prominently. 136 episodes later, we’ve scarcely seen a single “TGS” sketch in its entirety, and what bits we have seen have rarely been funny (at least not intentionally), but the shenanigans surrounding the series have been consistently hysterical.

2. The Alan Brady Show (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”)

Dick Van Dyke has discussed on many occasions how many TV writers have come up to him over the years and told him that the biggest reasons they decided to break into the business in the first place was because Rob Petrie and his cronies on Alan Brady’s variety show made it look like one of the most entertaining occupations in the world. Strangely, he hasn’t spoken nearly as much about how many of those writers finished their comments by yelling, “Thanks for nothing, you big liar!” I’m betting it’s about 50/50.

By the way, although “The Alan Brady Show” wasn’t real, the folks at MeTV talked Carl Reiner into doing a promo for the addition of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to their line-up where he reprised the character. Funny stuff.

3. Invitation to Love (“Twin Peaks”)

If you’re not a David Lynch obsessive, you may not remember this soap opera, but those with keen eyes will recall that it turned up at least once in each of the first seven episodes of “Twin Peaks.” It’s also worth noting that “Invitation to Love” pointedly features identical-twin characters played by the same actress, which – in no way coincidentally – was more or less what Sheryl Lee did as Laura Palmer and Maddy Ferguson.

4. The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (“Spongebob Squarepants”)

The best bit about this cartoon-with-a-cartoon was the fact that the “Spongebob” show runners reunited former “McHale’s Navy” co-stars Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway to prove the characters’ respective voices. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

5. The Terrence and Phillip Show (“South Park”)

Disproving a longstanding theory that Canadians can’t be funny while cementing the not-really-in-question suspicion that farts are always funny, it need only be said that Terrence and Phillip are a stone-cold gas. Sadly, this clip is from their movie, “Asses of Fire,” rather than their series, but it’s basically the same thing. Y’know, except filthier. Much, much filthier.

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Weekly Web Series Review: Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

There may have never been a more self-explanatory title for a web series than Jerry Seinfeld‘s latest project, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” The format is simplicity itself: for each episode, Seinfeld picks a different car, picks up a different comedian friend, and they go and get coffee and, often, a meal. Throughout the drive and the meal, they talk about various things, all improvised and frequently very funny. The main charm of the series, though, is watching the comedians make each other laugh. At best, it is almost like actually hanging out with a couple of very talented people for a little while. At worst, it is rather lazy and inconsequential, and Seinfeld sometimes seems to be exaggerating his reactions to the jokes told by his guests.

The series begins with Seinfeld’s most obvious guest, Larry David, with whom he co-created one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, “Seinfeld.” There seems to be some effort on Seinfeld’s part to pick a car that reflects his guest’s personality, as in this first episode, in which he chooses a 1952 VW bug as a symbol of David’s humble, unassuming nature. David, along with his other dietary idiosyncrasies, slightly messes up the premise right off the bat by ordering tea, but he offers one of the series more interesting insights. Discussing the difference between cigars and cigarettes, he suggests that a cigar imbues the smoker with an air of wisdom because of the time it takes to smoke, which lends itself to a “contemplative” posture.

Another very intelligent guest is “Mystery Science Theater 3000” creator Joel Hodgson in episode 5, who offers some interesting insights about nostalgia and economics. On the former, he says that the reason people love to look back at the past is that “You know what you’re going to say … you know what to say about the past, and you don’t know what to say about the future.” When Seinfeld brings up the mysterious economics of a restaurant, Hodgson offers a musical analogy: “The guy who sells the guitars makes the money, and not the guy in the band … How many guitars have you bought over the years … I’ve bought … six, and I don’t play the guitar.”

One of the series’ most enjoyable episodes is the third, in which Seinfeld’s guest is the great stand-up comic Brian Regan. The reason it works so well is that their conversation throughout feels like a joke-writing session, as if the two comedians are co-writing a sitcom or a stand-up set, often finishing each other’s sentences and collectively brainstorming jokes on each topic that comes up. Another especially good one features Alec Baldwin, whose overall attitude toward Seinfeld is playfully hostile, though he shows great humility when he credits the cast and writers of “30 Rock” for teaching him how to be funny. His story of a Rip Torn bar fight is not be missed, and this is where “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” excels: it presents very funny, interesting people just being naturally funny and interesting.

  

A chat with Yvette Nicole Brown, Gillian Jacobs, Ken Jeong and creator Dan Harmon of “Community”

America loves an underdog; cult TV fans only love underdogs. So it’s no wonder that suddenly almost everyone seems to love “Community.”

TV’s backhanded salute to two-year colleges comes by its underdog status honestly. Seemingly cursed with underwhelming ratings despite wide acclaim, it was put on indefinite hiatus late last year after an outstanding musical episode gleefully spoofing “Glee.” Hollywood naysayers to the contrary, there was clearly plenty of life left in the highly imaginative, frequently surreal show set at Colorado’s fictional Greendale Community College, a sort of academic “Green Acres” where normal logic is permanently suspended.

The show, which airs Thursday at 8:00/7:00 central and is also viewable via Hulu and NBC.com, returned in mid-March to a surprise — extremely healthy Nielsen numbers (2.2/7 in the advertiser beloved 18-49 demo). The credit, the show’s makers agree, goes largely to the intense activist fan base.

“Community” stars comic Joel McHale (“The Soup”) and an outstanding ensemble cast with an ethnic makeup that, shockingly, actually resembles a typical suburban community college. Aside from the three cast members we spoke to, the show also features gifted former “3o Rock” writer and actor Donald Glover, Daniel Pudi, Alison Brie (aka Trudy Campbell of “Mad Men“), and some guy named Chevy Chase. Speaking of Mr. Chase, just as the original version of this piece was posted, the Bullz-Eye staffed noticed a burgeoning net-storm over what sure sounds like a pretty ugly altercation between Chase and executive producer Dan Harmon with possibly inevitable repercussions that we can only guess at.

Nevertheless, spirits were high one sunny Sunday afternoon in Anaheim just a couple of weeks back at the 2012 edition of WonderCon as a bunch of mostly fannish writers met with just a few of the very talented people behind “Community.” Yvette Nicole Brown plays the outspoken, devoutly religious, and disarmingly maternal Shirley Bennett; Gillian Jacobs is high-strung former anarchist Britta Perry; and “The Hangover” heavy and former real-life practicing M.D. Ken Jeong inhabits the role of Spanish teacher turned security guard Señor Ben Chang. Also present was affable seemingly affable creator and showrunner Dan Harmon. As befits a production that blends real intelligence with anything-for-a-laugh energy, everyone had something interesting to say to a table full of committed fans and this enthusiastic “Community” newbie.

Yvette Nicole Brown on the good ratings news.

2.2 is massive…for us that’s like the stratosphere. You could say, “Oh, we’re so fabulous.” No. The fans are fabulous. This is 100 percent flash mobs, black goatees, Subway sandwich buys. They really blanketed NBC and Twitter with their love for the show. I think it made people who had never heard of us go, “Huh. Let’s see what this is.” I’m praying they come back next week.

Creator Dan Harmon on the surprisingly good ratings for the show’s return episode.

I never thought our ratings made sense when they were as low as they were, but now I don’t think that these make sense. It was like a 50 percent increase or something. It was insane. I don’t know who got a Nielsen box or whose cat stepped on the remote. I hope that we can keep it up.

Ken Jeong on the show’s perceived near-cancellation.

The events that have transpired since December have only brought the show and the fans even closer. We have even more love out of it. In hindsight, this has all been such a blessing. You really get to feel the love right now.

Gillian Jacobs on the the role of improvisation on “Community.”

I would say that there’s a lot of goofing around. There’s not a lot of actual improv with the lines. Maybe two percent of what you see in the show is improv. It’s scripted; we try very hard to get it word perfect. It’s just a lot of us making up stupid songs. Stupid raps… We quote the show to each other and we become obsessed with certain lines and repeat them. Lines that probably nobody else cares or remembers, we repeat daily. It’s like jokes on joke on jokes on jokes and we can’t even remember the origin of them anymore.

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HS TV 101: 12 Great Shows Set In or Around High School

High school: it’s a rite of passage we all must endure. Some of us weep when it’s over, others can’t wait to say goodbye forever, but for better or worse, it’s an experience that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. The same goes for some of the many TV series that have been set in high school. Here at Bullz-Eye, we’ve polled our writers for their favorite shows within the genre, and the end result is, not unlike high school itself, a mixture of both comedy and drama.

12. Life As We Know It (ABC, 2004 – 2005): Lasting only 11 episodes before ABC unceremoniously yanked it from the air, “Life As We Know It” premiered during perhaps the most cancel-happy era in television. Developed by two of the producers of “Freaks and Geeks” (maybe the writing was already on the wall), the series may have ultimately been undone by poor ratings, but the Parents Television Council’s campaign against the show’s sexual themes certainly didn’t help. Then again, when you green light a series based on a controversial young-adult novel called “Doing It” that follows the exploits of a trio of best friends (Sean Faris, Jon Foster and Chris Lowell) navigating the highs and lows of adolescence, you can hardly pretend to be surprised when its characters discuss sex on a fairly regular basis.

Featuring a great cast of young up-and-comers that also included Missy Peregrym and Kelly Osbourne (yes, that Kelly Osbourne, who’s never been cuter than she was here), “Life As We Know It” certainly wasn’t perfect by any means, but it easily outshined similar shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and “The O.C.,” particularly in its handling of its adult characters. The series wasn’t without the usual high school clichés, but the writers never shied away from edgier material, either – like a student having a secret affair with his teacher or a star jock dealing with performance issues – resulting in a smart, sweet and incredibly honest look at how sex changes everything. – Jason Zingale

11. Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC, 1975 – 1979): Despite suffering through remedial classes and acting far more rebellious than was deemed socially acceptable, Gabe Kotter (played by the suspiciously similarly-named Gabe Kaplan) still somehow managed to graduate from James Buchanan High School, but who would have thought that the dreams that were his ticket out would lead him back there? (John Sebastian did, of course, but that’s not really relevant to this discussion.) With his teacher certification tucked into his back pocket, Kotter returns to his alma mater and takes on the challenge of trying to educate the new generation of remedial students. Oh, sure, their names have all changed since he hung around – now they’re called Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), and Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) – but they’re still “sweathogs” all the way.

Most would likely agree that “Welcome Back, Kotter” was at its best when it was still the original four Sweathogs, i.e. before Travolta slipped away from television, put on a white suit, and found big-screen success on the dance floor, but even at its funniest, few would probably describe it as the most realistic look into high school life.

“I don’t think anyone was trying to replicate the high school experience so much as they were trying to service those particular characters and write stories about them,” said Mark Evanier, who served as a story editor for the show. “If you could get a good joke out of it, great…though there were times I think we settled for a decent catch-phrase.”

While the words “up your nose with a rubber hose” lend credence to Evanier’s theory, the Marx-Brothers-inspired chemistry between the Sweathogs helps their slapstick shenanigans hold up nonetheless. And, besides, who needs realism when you’ve got Gabe Kaplan doing Groucho? – Will Harris

10. Glee (Fox, 2009 – present): Is it telling that one of the most popular current shows on TV came it at only the #10 spot? If nothing else, maybe it proves we here at Bullz-Eye aren’t prone to fads. Except that maybe we are, as “Glee” has made it onto our TV Power Rankings lists time and again since its debut. But this list isn’t about what entertains us in the broader sense; it’s about great high school shows. As entertaining as “Glee” can be, it has almost nothing real to say about the high school experience, and in fact most of the high school kids I know find it to be pretty nonsensical.

The one area that it seems to excel in as far as capturing the high school experience is in its ability to play romantic musical chairs with its cast of teenage characters. These kids are fickle, and the only guarantee that seems to come with a relationship on “Glee” is that sooner or later it’s going to end. Some props should probably also be given for their attempt to zero in on the bullying issue that so seems to afflict kids today, but “Glee” chose to unfortunately treat the topic with kid gloves rather than say something truly meaningful. None of this is to say that “Glee” isn’t one hell of an entertaining series, because it is, but anyone looking for something a little deeper would do best to dust off their old DVD of “The Breakfast Club.” – Ross Ruediger

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