TCA Press Tour: A little TBS, a little TNT…

You might be skeptical about a sitcom starring a former participant in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, but, based on what we saw of “The Bill Engvall Show,” it looks at least a little bit better than the average family comedy, and you can thank the cast for that, I think. In addition to Engvall, you get Nancy Travis, Tim Meadows, and Steve Hytner.

Who’s Steve Hytner, you ask?

He looks familiar, but you can’t place him, right? Probably his most immortal role was that of Kenny Bania on “Seinfeld,” but he also had a really funny show called “Working,” where he co-starred along with Fred Savage. (I asked him if he’d heard anything about it coming out on DVD, but despite his excitement at the mere thought of such a thing happening, he admitted that, no, he hadn’t heard a thing.)

Anyway, the show comes across as a very sweet look at family life without getting too saccharine, mainstream without being too generic…and, hopefully, it’ll work better than, say, “The Jeff Foxworthy Show,” which its star doesn’t exactly remember with great fondness.

“I was on his show,” recalls Engvall, “and he would come to work, and I would say, ‘Oh, I can’t wait till I get my own show. I cannot wait.’ And he goes, ‘Why do you want this?’ And I go, ‘Because this is the ultimate achievement.’ And I think the reason he did not have a great experience is because that particular network didn’t get him. They didn’t know where to put him, what to do with him. And this is where I give TBS all of the credit in the world. They got me. They got what I do. And they’ve let me — they’ve put me in a vehicle that allows me to be Bill, and it’s — so for me, as bad as Jeff’s experience was, mine has been ten times the good way, you know, just from — our set — I wish you guys could all come down to the set, because one of my favorite things to hear is that people, like from guest stars to — it’s a fun set. We have a great time. We laugh. We cut up. And we do a great show. And I will give credit to James Widdoes for this, because he helps keep this — even when things got a little tense, he was there to not only make a great show, but to also — it was fun. You wanted to come to work. It was a great time. So I’m sorry that Jeff had a bad experience, but this has been just completely wicked!”

Despite the fact that he hasn’t really done a sitcom since his stint on Foxworthy’s show, Engvall had no problem getting back into the groove. “I’ve always wanted to do this. I’m still loving stand-up, but when TBS came to me and said, ‘We want to do this show,’ and then they surrounded me with this great cast, I mean, it’s amazing. It was so easy to slide back in. I mean, when you’re working opposite people like Tim Meadows and Steve Hytner and Nancy Travis, you better bring your A-game, because you’re going to get lost. It’s been great. It’s just been a blast.”

By the way, did you catch that name Bill Engvall dropped a few lines back? James Widdoes is one of the most successful (and prolific) sitcom directors out there, but you may actually remember him for his most famous acting roles: as the first dad on “Charles in Charge,” and, more notably, as Robert Hoover in “Animal House.” As a father himself, it’s no wonder that Widdoes steps so easily into family sitcoms. “I have three children who have been their ages. I, like Bill, agree that parenting is trial and error, and I have to go on my instincts, and I have to look at what comes out of a child’s mouth to their parents on the show and say ‘not in my house’ and we correct that. So basically, we have a lot of parents who are on the show who have to use their barometers. And obviously, we want to push the extent to which we can — we can push these kids comedically without crossing any of our own traditional parental lines.”

As far as the TNT stuff – Holly Hunter’s new series, “Saving Grace,” and the new Ridley and Tony Scott mini-series about the CIA (entitled “The Company”) – I hate to admit it, but I haven’t had a chance to check either of them out yet. Still, given the casts of each – Hunter co-stars with Laura San Giacomo and Bokeem Woodbine, while “The Company” features Michael Keaton, Chris O’Donnell, and Alfred Molina – I most certainly want to.

It’s funny that Holly Hunter has come to television, given that she freely admits that she never watches TV, but she couldn’t resist when she was offered “Saving Grace.” “As soon as I read the script, I went, wow, I really want to do this,” she says. ” But I said, ‘How come this can’t be a feature?’ Because that was my reference point. I was like, ‘Wow, how come this can’t be a movie?’ Because that’s what I’ve done, so I couldn’t imagine it, the leap of not knowing what would happen next, but signing on anyway is — but it was a leap of faith, but at the same time I didn’t have any real hesitations taking a leap because I liked the script so intensely that I just — I didn’t want anyone else to do it.”

Once she was on board, the producers of the show started sending her DVDs, so that she could help look for directors for the series, and she started falling in love with series like “The Shield.” “It was like a new world,” she says, “because it was so provocative and so personal. I mean, television suddenly felt very like a bunch of private lives instead of kind of homogenized lives, and that’s where I kind of left TV.”

Kenneth Johnson, late of “The Shield,” will also be part of “Saving Grace,” so you can well imagine that he’s pleased that Hunter digs his former series. “We got to work with Clark Johnson, D.J. Caruso, Guy Ferland, wonderful directors and obviously David Mamet. A lot of these guys came to our show because ‘The Shield’ was a different format. It definitely broke a lot of barriers in cable television, and I think, you know, like, somebody asked Mamet, “Why do you want to direct ‘The Shield’? It’s TV.” And he said, ‘No, it’s ‘The Shield.” It was kind of cool that he looked at it that way. He looked at it like it could be a film. You know, it wasn’t regular television. It wasn’t homogenized, like Holly said. I think “The Shield” was groundbreaking in a lot of areas, of sexuality of, you know, content, language, and what, you know, how deep it could go in what they were going after, and this show kind of jumps on board but in a very different way.”

“The Company,” meanwhile, is a limited series – a mini-series, if you will – but with the Scott boys helming it, you can bet that it’ll look like a feature film. It was filmed in Toronto, Budapest, and Puerto Rico, for the most part, although Keaton wasn’t involved in the latter two locations.

“They just — they dumped me after Toronto,” he jokes. “I wasn’t invited along, so I don’t know. I’m sure they had a — I will say this was a really good group of folks and actors and really talented and it was really fun to be around all these guys. It was a really fun experience.”

It was also a relatively new one for Keaton, who hadn’t done much TV. “It’s so fucking fast that you have no time — you just have to be ready to go at any moment, which is not the most pleasant experience and he had warned me about that because I was sitting having coffee and said, ‘Hey, I am Fred,’ and I go, ‘Hey, Fred. How are you doing?’ I said, ‘How is it going?’ He said, ‘Oh, boy. Get ready because you’ve got to be ready to go at any moment,’ and, you know, normally, you have a lot of preparation time and a lot of boring time sitting around a movie set and — but at least you get — you know, you get kind of a rhythm going. And then this thing, it was so difficult to keep that pace up, but I kind of like that. I kind of like the challenge of trying to see if I can figure it out and be ready to go, you know, massive amounts of pages and dialogue and so there probably wasn’t a whole lot of time to — you know, all these stories you hear about high jinks and stuff. For me frankly there wasn’t a real whole lot of time for that. Plus, like I say, I didn’t get invited to Europe.”

Too bad. According to O’Donnell and fellow co-star Alessandro Nivola, it was strip-clubs-a-go-go…


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