Max Greenfield and Damon Wayans Jr.’s careers are running parallel to each other.
The former “New Girl” stars are not only each appearing in a new CBS sitcom this fall, but both of their shows loosely based on the lives of their executive producers — and both feature white characters coming in to shake up the lives of African-American characters.
In Jim Reynolds’ “The Neighborhood,” Greenfield plays Dave Johnson, a man who moves his family into a predominantly black community and tries desperately to bond with his neighbor (played by Cedric the Entertainer). Meanwhile, Wayans’ accountant character, Jake, in “Happy Together” allows his pop star client (Felix Mallard) to move in with him and his wife (Amber Stevens-West), just like series executive producer Ben Winston did with Harry Styles years ago.
Ahead of the series premieres, Greenfield and Wayans sat down with Variety to discuss the draw of multi-cams, what playing characters based on real people add to their processes, and if they’d bring a mini-“New Girl” reunion to either of their new shows.
What drew you to these new sitcoms?
Max Greenfield: Damon said yes first, and I got really jealous. We had always talked about multi-cams, and CBS is really the only place to do it — the only place that’s been successful doing it. Damon made the jump, and I had just finished “New Girl” so coming off a show was really fresh for me, and I got really jealous when I saw him say yes to “Happy Together.” So when it came back around — when the recast was offered to me — the idea of joining a show that was right next to Damon’s definitely played a part in me saying yes.
Damon Wayans Jr.: Schedule, money, proximity — and also the creative. I wouldn’t do a show that I didn’t like. I enjoy the writers, the fact that this is loosely inspired by actual events that I thought were bizarre but kind of cool.
What about the multi-cam format appealed to you?
Greenfield: “New Girl” was a wonderful experience but for seven years we were shooting single-cam that is not handheld, that is traditionally shot, and they’re asking you to improv, and you’re on location. It’s a real grind. And on a comedy where you have to be fresh, you’re often walking onto set going, “I don’t even know what we’re shooting today.” … Just to rehearse in general is such a nice change of pace. To work on a scene that, if you’re lucky, somewhat stays the same all week and you can really play on nuanced beats and really focus in on stuff and then tape it in front of a live studio audience where you’re getting that juice and that energy from them —
Wayans: That’s my favorite part.
Greenfield: Yeah, it’s really rewarding. … After you finish on tape night, you really feel like you’ve accomplished something. You’re revved up, and then also tired, but you’re like, “This was a really wonderful acting experience.” … Each week you’re really walking away from it feeling like you’re creating something, as opposed to each week wondering how they’re going to chop this up, and then you watch an episode and you’re like, “I don’t remember having done any of this.”
Damon, as an executive producer on the show, are you able to guide the traits of your character, or do you defer more to Ben Winston since the character is based on him?
Wayans: I trust the writers, and they’ve been doing a great job. My character is really not anywhere near Ben Winston. Ben is a decorated director, and my guy is an accountant. But it’s cool to have him around supervising and giving us ideas of what could potentially be funny for the characters. He loves pace — “Got to keep the pace!” I love him, and it’s a very collaborative place. They’re not married to the writing unless it moves the story, and I just think the best joke wins — I don’t care about whose joke it is.
Similarly, Max, how much input do you want to assert over the story and the character?
Greenfield: We have a lot of conversations that deal with race on the show, and a lot of those conversations, especially from the African-American point of view, I don’t have a point of view. So I am trying to do my best to be led in the most responsible direction, and I feel really taken care of in that regard. I think Cedric has a really, really good grasp on where he wants the show to go — and he’s done a show like this before and was a tremendous leader over there. So I’m not really looking to improv. The jokes, to me, are not the important part of the show. Because we’re sort of the fish out of water on our show, I’m looking to ground it as much as I can, especially in these beginning few episodes. You don’t want to be bouncing off of walls, especially when Cedric and Tichina [Arnold] are playing it so real.
Damon, do you want “Happy Together” to touch on topical discussions the way “The Neighborhood” is?
Wayans: I just like to goof off and have fun, and I’m not sure I could handle being that show.
Do you feel like you’re bringing more of the comedy and Felix is the straight man?
Wayans: That’s the way they were writing it as the way in, but we’re on episode 8, and now everyone’s getting into their own rhythms and everyone has jokes, and I really pushed for that because comedy shows like this that aren’t really about a specific thing, like “Friends” — everybody was funny, you just had to find what’s funny about your character. I’ve been really pushing for that and they’ve been listening and adjusting.
Max, how is “The Neighborhood” evolving from the pilot?
Greenfield: When you start off a show, there are certain ways these networks have done it in the past and it’s been successful and they try to stick to the same methodologies. The “in” for our show, for instance is me and Cedric, so the first few episodes are going to be very heavy with the two of us. Now, to piggyback on what Damon was saying, what I’d like to see for the show, and where I think we’re going, is really expanding it. The rest of the cast is wonderful — between Tichina and Beth [Behrs], they are so incredible. And you have Marcel Spears and Sheaun McKinney who are lights-out funny and honestly part of the reason when I saw the original pilot I was like, “Oh my god.” Because I know how hard it is to find those supporting characters. That’s what we had on “New Girl” and you saw how successful it was because people don’t instantly attach themselves to the lead all of the time. They’re like, “Oh Rainn Wilson is who I’m laughing at [on ‘The Office’], I’ll catch up to the love story later.” So what I’m hoping is what we get to over time — and it’s just going to be a matter of CBS giving us more episodes — is letting the show expand into a true ensemble.
What was the most important aspect of playing off of your on-screen spouses on these shows?
Wayans: I think it comes from the person off-camera. Amber is just a great person. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like her. So it’s easy to talk with her and get along with her, and that kind of just bleeds onto the camera once we’re there. There’s no vanity in her comedy — she’s never too good to do something — and when you’re working with somebody who’s always just down to make the best product possible, it just makes your life so much easier, and that’s what you see on the show. The chemistry between us is genuine.
Greenfield: Amber had done an episode of “New Girl,” and Beth and I had worked together before on “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” so I feel like we’re both really lucky to be in these situations because there’s nothing worse than when you see these people supposed to be playing married couples on TV and they’re [so stiff] you’re like, “You’re not really married!” And Amber and Beth are both very similar actors in that they just both jump in and commit fully on take one. It’s certainly good for me because where I like the rehearsal and I like to figure it out, Beth bring so much immediately, that you’re just reacting and you’re in this and you cut out all of the 17 lunches you might have had to have otherwise — “I’m thinking what our first date would have been…”
Are there plans to see any of your “New Girl” cast mates pop up on either one of your new shows?
Wayans: I’ve talked to Jake [Johnson] about it. He was like, “I could come on there and see how it is. I could be really good or I could just tank and half-way through the episode be like, ‘This isn’t for me’ and just walk off.”
Greenfield: I would love, specifically, to have Lamorne [Morris] come on. It would be the best.
Wayans: He would kill that.
Greenfield: He would kill it. I’ve thought about it since day one. When they announce the show is going to end at some point, I’m going to be like, “Just write the guy in.”
“The Neighborhood” and “Happy Together” premiere Oct. 1 on CBS.