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.

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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: The Cast of “The Middle”and Their 10 Favorite Episodes

When it comes to this column, I don’t tend to do a lot of cross-promotional tie-in pieces, but I’m going to make an exception this time because it’s for a show that I have vowed to do as much to promote and to help raise its profile as I possibly can: ABC’s “The Middle.”

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Given that the sitcom was just renewed for its fifth season, it’s hard to call it anything other than a success, and yet I’m still reminded of something Mark Harmon said about “NCIS” back in 2011: “If it’s possible for a No. 1 show to be still be under the radar, then we’re still under the radar.” That’s kind of where “The Middle” stands, if you ask me…or if you ask just about anyone who who’s involved with the show, for that matter: they know they’re doing good work, the viewers know they’re doing good work, the critics definitely know they’re doing good work, and yet as of this writing “The Middle” has only received one Emmy nod to date (for makeup, of all things). That’s just ridiculous…and that’s why, over at the Onion AV Club, I pulled together a TV Club 10 list of the 10 episodes of “The Middle” which best represent the series and reveal what makes it such a pleasure to watch week after week.

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Then, in conjunction with that piece, I thought it might also be interesting to reach out to the cast of the series and see which 10 episodes were their favorites. Not everyone was readily available to contribute, unfortunately, but three out of five ain’t bad, so don’t be afraid to express your gratitude to Patricia Heaton (Frankie Heck), Neil Flynn (Mike Heck), and Eden Sher (Sue Heck) in the comments for offering up their picks.

In closing, I’d just like to say – and I think you’ll probably agree – that there is something so incredibly right about the fact that Eden Sher described the opportunity to select her top-10 episodes as “way too much fun” and then proved it by writing a full paragraph about each one. No actor wants to be told that they’re “just like their character,” but there’s just enough Sue Heck in Eden Sher to make her one of the sweetest and most contagiously enthusiastic young actresses on network TV…but, then, if you read my interview with her a few months ago, then you already know that.

And, now, on with the lists!

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Patricia Heaton (“The Christmas Heart,” “The Middle”)

Although it’s not unreasonable to suggest that just about everyone knows Patricia Heaton best for her work in front of the camera, but she’s been known to step into the role of producer on occasion, including the 2006 film “Amazing Grace.” Her most recent procedural credit, however, can be seen throughout the month of December on the Hallmark Channel, and as is only appropriate for a holiday film, it’s a family affair: not only did Heaton co-produce the film with her husband, David Hunt, but it’s written by her brother, Michael Heaton. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Ms. Heaton during the summer TCA tour, and although “The Christmas Heart” was the reason for our conversation, I was able to split our time evenly between the film and her current full-time gig: playing Frankie Heck on “The Middle.” By the way, “Middle” fans, please note that, given the date of our conversation, I had no way of knowing that my theory about Frankie departing from her job at the car dealership really was in the cards. I’m like freaking Nostradamus over here!

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Bullz-Eye: As someone who has a sister myself, how weird is it to work with your brother on a project like this?

Patricia Heaton: Not as weird as working with my husband on it. [Laughs.] Too many relatives spoil the soup! No, it was great. You know, my brother and I have… Once he stopped torturing me and pinning me down and spitting on me and things like that when we were younger, we both lived and struggled in New York together at the same time. At one point we were both working at People Magazine: he was writing and I was a copy clerk. So we’ve been down the road together, and…he’s a great story guy. He has tons of stories, partly because he’s a journalist himself and he talks to people all day long, every day, and it just generates these stories in his mind. So this movie, “The Christmas Heart,” he had in his head for many years, and we’ve been trying to get it made. We’re so grateful that Hallmark gave it a home.

It’s an unusual Christmas movie, in that it’s very dramatic and there’s very serious themes in it. So it’s a little bit unusual, but I think that’s what’s going to be great about it. You’ll want to have popcorn on one hand and a box of tissues on the other. But it was great to have my brother having written it and my husband (David Hunt) and I producing it, and seeing the whole thing come off the page…we spent hours and hours and hours on the script, so when you start watching the dailies and you see it come alive, it’s so thrilling. And that’s what makes it addictive, ’cause it’s really one of the hardest things you can do, to take something from an idea to the screen. It’s a lot of hard work, but when you see it… It’s the kind of thing that really sort of lives forever.

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Eden Sher (“The Middle”)

If there’s any question as to whether actress Eden Sher possesses any of the delightful awkwardness of Sue Heck, her character on “The Middle,” it was answered at the precise moment I picked up the phone when she called me for our interview. At first, there is silence, which is quickly followed by an odd muffled sound which can only be described as a high-pitched grunt. Then, a breathless Sher suddenly announces herself and explains apologetically that she’d taken a sip of water the moment before the call connected and was struggling to hurriedly swallow it without choking. (“I’m, like, ‘No, no, I’m not a mute!’”) With her throat no longer parched, Sher discussed the experience of playing one of TV’s geekiest, gawkiest teenagers, getting her big break on “Weeds,” and sharing a tender yet awkward moment with Ryan Hansen on “Party Down.”

Bullz-Eye: With your performance on “The Middle,” you’re quickly developing a reputation as one of the most fearless comediennes on television.

Eden Sher: Wow, thank you! I appreciate that. I’ll try to limit the growth of my head after a compliment like that. [Laughs.] When people say that, though, I’m not sure how to take it, because it doesn’t seem…I feel like if you’re not going big, if there’s any sort of fear in the way or if there’s any thought process that gets in the way of being funny, you’re not going to be funny. So I don’t really consider it to be a special thing. I’m just doing my job!

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BE: Well, you’re certainly not afraid to “Sue it up” as far as your appearance goes, but you also seem to be game for any and all physical comedy gags.

ES: Yes! Yes, I am, because I say the sweatier I am, the more bruised I am, the dirtier I get, the funnier it probably will be! [Laughs.] Because, I mean, you know the scene when I’m practicing to be the mascot, with the cardboard box on my head? I have realized this: falling or hitting something or physically hurting yourself is always funny. In real life or TV. Always is.

BE: So do you have any formal training as far as physical comedy goes?

ES: Uh, you mean aside from being clumsy and accidentally hurting myself? [Laughs.] No! I mean, I’ve taken acting classes forever, but I’ve actually never even taken a class that’s strictly comedy. I’ve taken improv classes before, but not a comedy class, per se. Do they offer physical comedy classes? Is that actually something they do?

BE: Not being an actor myself, let’s say, “Sure, they do!”

ES: [Laughs.] Well, either way, I’ve never actually taken one.

BE: DeAnn Heline has confirmed that it was actually you who went careening across the countertop in “The Test” last season, but did you do the swing set face-plant in this year’s season premiere (“The Last Whiff of Summer”)?

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ES: That was not. I tried to do it, and I just…it was too dangerous. But it did take awhile, because it’s actually the stunt girl you see walking to do it, too, and it was quite an ordeal having to help her master my walk. [Laughs.] I had to show her how to walk like Sue! But I will say, because this is something you don’t even see my face for, that the mascot face-plant…? That was me in the suit. That was actually me.

BE: Is that a regular occurrence? How much of what we see the mascot doing is you inside the suit?

ES: Anytime I’m doing anything physical other than standing, it’s me. All of the dancing stuff, that’s all me.

BE: Regarding to the physical transformation, what’s involved in the process of turning Eden Sher into Sue Heck?

ES: Well, first of all, I appreciate you noting that there is actually a transformation required! But it’s actually helped me to retain my anonymity a lot, because either people aren’t expecting it, or…I usually get, “You know, you look a lot like that girl on that show? Have you seen it?” It’s not actually that extensive of a process, because it’s mostly a case of coming in with dirty hair…oh, but I’m revealing too much. [Laughs.] Seriously, though, what happens is that I usually don’t wash my hair, because they have to flatten it out and make it a little stringy-ish. Or stringier than it usually is, anyway. And then they don’t put any makeup on me. They kind of fill in my eyebrows to make ‘em a little bushier. And then they just put the braces in, and that’s pretty much it.

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