For a network that has broken previous laffer droughts with proven, big-name comedy stars such as Bill Cosby, NBC found what seems like an unlikely sitcom savior in Jason Lee.
The former Orange County skateboarding prodigy had built a nice little career for himself in features, specializing in the “perpetually perturbed best friend” — at least, he was juxtaposed in that not-so-comedic way with Ben Affleck in Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy” a decade ago, and Cameron Crowe cast him in these types of roles alongside Billy Crudup in “Almost Famous” and with Tom Cruise in “Vanilla Sky.”
Certainly, even Lee seems a bit surprised to find himself starring in “My Name Is Earl,” the No. 2 comedy on network television in its first season, averaging 10.9 million viewers and a 4.9 rating/12 share in adults 18-49.
His reaction when his managers presented him with the script for Greg Garcia’s pilot?
“No, no, no, I don’t want to read it. I’m not interested in TV,” Lee recalls. “But to my shock and amazement, it read like the first 30 pages of a feature script. It was my kind of humor, and right away I was excited.”
There was also some skepticism. Was the Peacock really willing to put a show on the air that so bravely ventures into such potentially touchy issues as homosexuality, the disabled, infidelity, biracial marriage and illegal immigration — all in the pilot?
Lee understood the necessary underpinnings immediately. The skein could get away with these things if its underlying themes of redemption and humanity rang true.
Lee also knew that he had to play up Earl’s good nature for this to work.
“He’s like I was as a kid — a smart-ass who just got into a lot of trouble. And in that sense, Earl is just a grown-up kid going through later what people go through earlier in life.”
In informing the character, he trusts Garcia and his writing staff. “Most of the time, it’s perfect on the page,” Lee says.
He does, however, pull sway when it comes to getting fellow feature-film thesps on the show, which included such notables in season one as Beau Bridges (playing Earl’s dad) and Giovanni Ribisi (Earl’s ne’er-do-well partner in crime).
“I want to make it look like a movie as much as possible,” Lee notes. “I don’t want it to feel like mainstream television.”
Besides Earl’s sincerity and the big-name actor contacts, Lee brought something else to show.
“Greg targeted me early on, and I don’t know what they saw in me,” he says. “But when I brought them the mustache, I’m sure they were quite pleased.”
Favorite scene of last season?
He particularly liked episodes featuring Beau Bridges. “Greg (Garcia) was smart to cast him as my father and not have him live in a trailer somewhere.”
Not a big TV watcher.
Lee credits “Monk’s” Tony Shalhoub for helping pave the way for more film thesps to migrate to the tube. “It’s always my intention to blur the line between TV and feature film. We had some great actors in our first season, and we want to escalate that.”