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Tom Lennon talks 'Sean Saves the World' and 'the mustache discount'
How does the 'Reno 911' alum benefit from his facial hair?
NBC’s “Sean Saves the World” (it debuts tonight at 9) is pretty much what you would expect it to be: a very loud (in both the performances and the laugh track) multi-cam sitcom in which Sean Hayes gets to do Sean Hayes things as a single dad who works for an online retail company.
The one part of the show that’s unexpected — and that I enjoyed the most — is Tom Lennon’s performance as Hayes’ evil, peculiar, mustachioed boss. At press tour, I spoke with the “Reno 911” alum and veteran screenwriter (he and frequent collaborator Ben Garant recently teamed up to co-direct “Hell Baby,” which Drew liked a lot) about being an acting gun for hire, his fondness for playing weirdoes and (with some input from his wife Jenny) the advantages of regrowing the old Lt. Dangle ‘stache.
Were you looking to do a pilot this year?
Tom Lennon: No. That's an interesting distinction about the show, which is I have really zero interest in any TV that wasn't something that Ben Garant and I created. It was just not something I was pursuing; it wasn't on my to-do list. And then I woke up one morning and I got an e-mail from Sean Hayes who I had never met and did not know, and he said, "Will you please, please, please play my boss on the show that I'm doing?" Which at the time was called Happiness, which there's an independent film called that too, which is not an up-beat film at all. But I read it, I was flabbergasted by how funny I thought it was, and more importantly how juicy the character was and the character's really – have you seen the show?
Tom Lennon: I get to be a real icky little weirdo. I know a lot of people would be like, “Oh, I don't want to play that.” That's where those people and me part ways; that's exactly what I want to play. I really only want to play something interesting, something that's like worth thinking about and 'cause there's something to sink my teeth into. It's a really strange little character. I kind of wasn't kidding when I said I feel like this is my Emmy at some point.
It feels like when you pop up on “How I Met Your Mother” or “New Girl” or wherever as a guest, you're doing something really weird. You’re not just doing a generic guest spot. We remember you.
Tom Lennon: I try not to, yeah. I mean, that's my thing is like why – it's the same reason as an actor like I won't do two takes that are exactly the same 'cause honestly, why? Like life's too short; you should try something and be weird and be bold. I will say, you know, I do think this show is very old fashioned. It's very not reinventing the wheel and every aspect of that I mean in a good way. It feels like – to me, it feels like a sitcom from like 15 years ago. And I kind of love that. Down to the James Burrows direction of it down to me as whatever I am.
You’ve done sketches in “The State” where it was on a stage in front of an audience, but have you done much actual traditional multi-cam sitcomery before this?
Tom Lennon: Very little. And every one I've done that was mine has been an epic failure. We did a multi-cam sitcom actually that Bob Greenblatt produced right after "Viva Variety" called "Hey Neighbor." And it was a little bit like a combination of "Little Britain" meets a multi-cam sitcom. It was six actors and we played every character you met in this small town.It was Michael Ian Black, me, Kerri Kenney, Jack Plotnick, Ben Garant, and it was a really cool show. It was not a primetime Fox show. It was more of an Indie culty thing, which has been in fairness mostly what we've done.
It's interesting to compare – you've created a lot of things that have been indie/culty, but you and Ben have also written these big, splashy, very mainstream sort of movies. Where do these two different sides of you as the creative type come from?
Tom Lennon: Right. What's interesting is I don't really feel that those are that different. I mean, I feel like our sense of humor on Reno and our sense of humor on Viva and like the same spirit behind like eating Muppets and porcupine racetrack, that's very much in Night at the Museum to a certain extent. I mean, some times you'll see more of it; some times you'll see less of it. If you see Hell Baby, which is out right now OnDemand; you can watch it anywhere on iTunes or Amazon or Vudu. I think you'll see like, oh, that's exactly the same sense of humor. It just, you know, there's a lot of nudity in Hell Baby. And a lot of weird stuff.
Less so in “Herbie Fully Loaded.”
Tom Lennon: And in the first cut of “Herbie,” there was a little more jiggle than I'm sure Disney was okay with 'cause I know I saw that cut and it was pretty weird. But our sensibility is very much the same, you know. I mean, the nice thing about “Sean Saves the World” is I don't write it so it's very refreshing and fun for me to do.
And when you're a hired gun you can just turn off that part of your brain?
Tom Lennon: It's very fun to just see, “How weird will they let me be and what will they let me say?” It's honestly been a really joyful experience so far, especially 'cause Sean's such an unbelievably likeable person. He's magnetic and supremely charismatic. It's the best part-time job pretty much in the world I would say.
And doing this with the schedule, you and Ben can keep writing around that.
Tom Lennon: It has almost no effect on my real schedule at all. A multi-cam sitcom is the schedule everyone dreams about as an actor. It's the opposite of making one-hours and features and things. It's very contained.
So the last thing I have to talk about is the 'stache. Your wife was saying that you had grown it for a movie audition?
Tom Lennon: For a movie, but I did ask – I vetted it with Sean and (creator Victor Fresco), and I said, "Guys, what do you think about the mustache, 'cause I certainly both sillier and more sinister with it?” And they immediately were like, “Please, please, please make sure you have the mustache.” And now this could be how I look for a long, long time.
As Dangle, at first you were using a prop, and then you had to grow it for real when the show went hi-def.
Tom Lennon: Yep.
Is there a part of you that's thinking maybe this was not the best choice?
Tom Lennon: Well, you know what, here's what's weird about the mustache is it's like the beginning of a superhero movie, which is like you're not sure if you're supposed to have like – you have it at first and you're like this is weird, this is weird, and then one day you look at it and you're like, no. Now I'm complete. This is what I was always supposed to look like. That's the part of the mustache to be dangerous about. When you know that – it's like when Sweeney Todd gets his razors back.
So if this is a success, you've committed to this mustache for a while.
Tom Lennon: It does feel like it, yes. And yet I had it for a while with Dangle and it's usually when people see me with the mustache they just go, "Dangle!" which is nice, especially if you're committing a misdemeanor or something like that.
(Jenny Lennon, who’s been standing with us, interjects.)
Jenny Lennon: Just go ahead and say what we refer to it as.
Tom Lennon: “Mustache discount.” When I have the mustache, I look like Lieutenant Dangle.
Jenny Lennon: And he looks like a character that people recognize, and so we'll be at IHOP or something and they're like, "Have another plate of pancakes. You were thinking about this flavor, so we'll just give it to you."
Tom Lennon: They just give you stuff for free. We call it the mustache discount.
Jenny Lennon: I mean, not huge stuff.
Tom Lennon: I'm talking about, like, an extra order of pancakes. One more glass of ripple or whatever. It's not the biggest stuff. People aren't giving you Teslas. They're just giving you a waffle.
But does the extra plate of pancakes make it worth it for you, Jenny?
Jenny Lennon: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Because without the mustache, sometimes you're in a situation, you're like, "Honey, I don’t think we're gonna make it on this tour, walking tour that looked really crowded. Oh, come up and sprinkle a little star dust,” but I don't have to say sprinkle the stardust when he's got the mustache.
Tom Lennon: Well the other thing is, in fairness, people probably don't recognize me. They just think I'm an actual police officer. In their mind, they can't place me 'cause I'm not particularly famous. But I'm in their subconscious. Which is even a better place to be. So they just look over and they think, "Oh, my God, a cop. Everybody be cool. Be cool. Be cool. This guy could shut this down.”
Jenny Lennon: And then it works out.
Tom Lennon: And then it works out.
Jenny Lennon: And they're like, you know what, we do have a slot for two more on this tour.
Nice. So it's a power.
Tom Lennon: On this walking tour. This mustache has the power to get you on a walking tour of Nova Scotia, bitch.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com