Sean Hayes is back in a sitcom, and he’s bringing both a TV icon and a tried-and-true TV format with him.
The former “Will & Grace” star – who earned seven consecutive Emmy nominations for his portrayal of the antic Jack McFarland, grabbing the trophy his first time out – is coming back to long-familiar stopping grounds at NBC for “Sean Saves the World,” a throwback to the classic three-camera sitcom style that once defined the genre, from “I Love Lucy” through his own long-running series but currently in short supply on television (though the format’s still visible on a handful of hits like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men”).
“I think it’s all about timing, and who knows if this is the right time or not,” says Hayes, who plays a divorced gay man who’s determined to become the best father to his 14-year-old daughter when she comes to live with him full-time – despite a decidedly out-of-balance work life and “help” from his own hard-to-please mother, played by legendary sitcom star and renowned stage actress Linda Lavin (“Alice”).
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“Time will tell if this is a hit or if it fails or whatever – you never know,” Hayes admits. “But I was ready.”
After eight seasons on his groundbreaking series – which everyone from cultural studies experts to top-level politicians like Vice President Joe Biden has credited for positively affecting views on gay issues and relationships – Hayes acted frequently on film and television but concentrated his day-to-day efforts on his production company, which has produced hits like “Hot In Cleveland,” “Grimm” and “Hollywood Game Night,” each of which reveals, in their own way, his penchant for dusting off classic genres and material.
“I was waiting for myself to be okay with coming back to TV, and this is my favorite medium is multi-cam,” he says. “It makes me laugh still, and I still watch ‘Cheers’ and ‘Friends’ and ‘Will & Grace’ and ‘Frasier’ and ‘I Love Lucy’ and all of those. I think it’s missing on television. I think multi-cam is the new single-cam.”
The series was conceived by veteran writer-producer Victor Fresco, who’s worked in both multi-cam (“Mad About You,” “Evening Shade”) and single-came comedies (“My Name Is Earl,” “Better Off Ted”). “I have a 14‑year‑old daughter, and I guess as a father, I think that's an interesting time and an interesting relationship,” says Fresco, who also patterned Lavin’s character after his own mother’s strong persona. “It's kind of the “write what you know” kind of thing. We just want somebody who saw themselves as an expert on parenting, and that felt very much like a mother like Linda.”
“As soon as I met Sean and read the scenes out loud with him, and I knew we were a match made in heaven,” says Lavin, whose series “Alice” ran on CBS from 1976 to 1985. “He's extremely generous, and that means a lot. That he is the center of this show, and his generosity spreads to everybody's good will, means a lot.”
But it was the character that ultimately lured Lavin back to TV from the Broadway stage and her cabaret shows, she says. “I go where the material is the best – that's why I'm here. This is the best mother I've read in television in a very long time, because she's not a joke or the butt of the joke. She's not a simplification of a mother. She's a full‑blown human being, and I choose to do women who are looking for their own identity beyond being someone's mother: who they are and who she is, is evolving, opinionated, alive, lively, sensible, and attractive woman who wants to have a full life with her son, with her grandchild, and for herself.”
“I think she's extremely identifiable with this generation of women who have adult children and grandchildren and are saying to the world, 'I'm also somebody. Not just your mother, not just your grandmother,'” adds Lavin. “I get to be who I am now, and years ago I was, as Alice, who I was then. Hopefully, I've changed and grown, and so I can bring that me-ness to, the person I am, I can bring that to this mother.”
Another now often downplayed staple of television laugh-getters Hayes says he hopes to focus on is physical comedy, which he adores (the actor has previously played both Jerry Lewis and Three Stooges member Larry Fine).
“I think nowadays, with 8,000 channels and so many shows on the internet and all of these new networks popping up, you have to do things that are even more surprising and more engaging to an audience,” he explains. “And to me a lot of physical comedies are things you can tweet about, or Vine video about, or blog about quickly, or Facebook, whatever, more than witty dialogue."
Among all the retro talk, Hayes is also embracing of the forward-thinking legacy he was previously a part of: the way that “Will & Grace” led to greater acceptance and understanding of gay life, and plans for “Sean Saves the World” to do the same by pushing character over agenda.
“I took the job because I was an actor who needed a job – I had no idea the byproduct of that would be opening people’s minds and maybe educating them without them knowing about the normalcy of gay people – just like black people, Jewish people, anybody that people in small towns have the means to get to know. And I’m proud of the fact that ‘Will & Grace’ allowed for other shows, like ‘Modern Family’ and this show, and other gay characters to be allowed to be portrayed on television.”