Remote Controlled: John Lithgow of ‘Trial and Error,’ ‘Superstore’s’ America Ferrera and Ben Feldman on Finding Laughs

America Ferrera Ben Feldman John Lithgow
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Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front and behind the camera.

In this week’s episode, Variety’s executive editor of TV Debra Birnbaum and TV critic Sonia Saraiya talk with the stars of NBC’s hilarious sitcom lineup: John Lithgow, of “Trial and Error,” and America Ferrera and Ben Feldman, of NBC’s “Superstore.”

In the first half of the podcast, Lithgow, who also starred in Netflix’s “The Crown” as Winston Churchill, discusses why he signed on for “Trial and Error” which he describes as parody of a true crime series — specifically, Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.”

Lithgow didn’t go looking for a sitcom. In his words: “This was the least looked-for job I ever took!” But the offer came while he was in the last stretch of his eight-month shooting schedule for “The Crown.” He took the call from “these two nutball writers” [Jeff Astrof and Matthew Miller] while groggy from the time difference.

“All their choices are so bizarre,” he joked about the two creators. “It’ll be a smash hit or a career-ender. … Everything about this show is off-the-wall.” “Jeff is a great comedy writer, Matt is a great procedural writer. Matt helped construct the unfolding suspense story, the crime story. And it works — on those terms, it completely works.”

His star status does mean he knows what happens at the end of “Trial and Error” — and no one else does. “I extracted that from them. I said, you have to tell me, otherwise I’m not going to consider this. Am I a murderer or aren’t I?”

He got privileged information back when he was shooting “Dexter,” too. “When they want you, they don’t keep any secrets,” he quipped.

Working on a single-cam mockuseries has really thrown into relief how different things are now than they were when Lithgow was the lead of the smash hit sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun.” Multi-camera, he reminisces, is “so easy.”

“This is — as fun as it was, it was the drudgery of movie making,” he said. “Courtroom scenes at that, which are famously tedious.”

He’s enjoying the opportunity, in “Trial and Error’s” parody, to take a little dig at reality television — “a kind of devilish pleasure,” he admitted. “Of course, they’re very skillfully done. I got into ‘The Jinx.’”

But in general, “I’m not into them. I can’t help it. While we were doing ‘3rd Rock’ feeling like we were the bees’ knees — those were six years in which reality TV kicked in. And I felt the ground shake under my feet. Scripted television is in real trouble. And sure enough — to me it’s sort of swamped network TV. So I like getting back at them.”

The lead role of “Trial and Error” couldn’t be more different from his turn as Britain’s most well-known prime minister. When asked how that range happened in just one year, Lithgow joked: “You have less choice than you’d imagine.”

“When good things come along, you end up saying yes to them. Because they’re rare.”

Lithgow also spoke about “The Crown” — especially that central Winston Churchill episode, “Assassins,” about the infamous portrait the prime minister was so angered by that it was later destroyed.

“In reading all about Churchhill — he had a white hot temper, an irrational temper. He could be very violent. What better way to finally expose it than an old man raging — fueled by his own vanity and his own fear of growing old. That’s when you finally saw him rage. And it was Lear-like. It was just, so moving. And the fact that he was screaming like that at a man [Graham Sutherland, played by Stephen Dillane] who had become his good friend. Extremely poignant.”

Lithgow got to know Churchill intimately — his marriage, his relationship to royalty, and of course, his work with the Queen. “He was an old Victorian. The Empire was more important to him than anybody else. He knew how important it was to have a strong sovereign, a commanding sovereign. He took that on.”

Playing Churchill required the costume — a fat suit, artificial cheeks and jowls, and even cotton stuffed up his nose. That last was Lithgow’s idea, which he developed after hearing the famous prime minister’s incredibly nasal voice.

“Off the record,” Lithgow tells us that Season 2 of “The Crown” — which he is sad he won’t be a part of — will have an entire episode devoted to the young Prince Charles in public school.

“What a brilliant idea,” he enthused. “It’s a testament to Peter Morgan’s ingenuity. It’s a deeply researched series, but he just looked at the history and just waited until some little moment captured his imagination. And he did that 10 times.”

In the second half of the episode, Ferrera and Feldman buzz with energy talking about their characters Jonah and Amy and their will-they/won’t-they relationship on “Superstore.” The dynamic between the costars is similar to their on-screen dynamic. Feldman, apparently, has a lot in common with his “obnoxious,” nerdy character Jonah — including a love of documentaries. (He insists that everyone else is just as annoying in real life as he is; Ferrera disagrees wholeheartedly.)

“Justin [Spitzer, showrunner] has always genuinely maintained that he doesn’t know what the fate of this relationship is,” said Ferrera, who’s also a producer on the show. “Which is so much more fun, as an actor, to play!”

“I feel like romance and chemistry is fun to play kind of as a layer, as an element — but I have much more fun as Amy playing on all the other levels, as well. The irritation at [Jonah], the amusement of him, the pure joy of him.”

“I’ve been on things where my one note is ah, I love her, she’s so beautiful,” Feldman added. “It’s gotta be boring to watch. And it’s boring to play.”

Amy and Jonah, Ferrera said, “really are from very different walks of life … we had very different options in life and choices in life.”

“As much as they like each other, they are very different,” she added. “That class dynamic is really key, always, to what this show is doing.”

As “Superstore” has matured, taking on sociopolitical issues — like class — has become central to the show’s identity. Ferrera, as a producer, takes that element of the show very seriously. “Superstore,” she said, “reminds me of the Norman Lear shows, where there was room for more than one opinion at the table.”

“What’s exciting to me about the show is that it leaves room for many people’s voices and opinions,” she added, noting that most of the characters on the show “couldn’t be from more different kinds of backgrounds.”

Additionally, Ferrera and Feldman share what it’s like for them to interact with retail workers now that so many of them watch and love their show. Feldman has been waylaid by fervent employees insisting that the show has captured what it is like for them. And Ferrera goes to Walmart with her sister’s family with her phone out, looking for material. It’s especially helpful for the show’s interstitials.

“This past Halloween we were in the big box store. There was a girl — her dad was like, buying a pillow. And the girl was lying in the cart, just like asleep. And I took a picture and sent it to Justin — he’s like, it is an interstitial! You can’t even write that!”

You can listen to this week’s podcast here:

New episodes of Remote Controlled are available every Friday.