As Mork, E.T., ALF, and the squawking, green, bubble-brained creatures from Mars Attacks! have proved, human behavior — always a knee-slapper — is never funnier than when being studied by aliens who don’t have a clue about table manners. And these days there are no funnier, less inhibited extraterrestrials patrolling the airwaves than the crew from 3rd Rock From the Sun. When mission leader Dick Solomon (John Lithgow) and his team touched down on NBC’s earth last January, assuming human forms and coagulating into a nuclear — if nutjob — family unit, the network had a breakout hit on its hands; four months into its second season, 3rd Rock ranks 11th in the Nielsens.
But who knew such a broad, high-concept comedy would fly in an era of garrulous, urban-based sitcoms — an era where funny stuff is usually defined as that which sophisticated friends say to each other while sitting on a couch? Well, Lithgow, for one. ”It seemed like an absolute natural from the first time I heard about it,” says the actor, who is surely not the first stage and film professional to have sworn never to do a sitcom — and who picked up an Emmy for his efforts in September. ”I had said I didn’t want to be pigeonholed by a role. That’s what’s happened. And I’m very proud!” As high commander of this ensemble lunacy, the very tall Lithgow gets to pretzel himself into very strange situations, many involving his romance with earthling Dr. Mary Albright (the wonderful Jane Curtin, back where she belongs). But his contortions are no stranger than those foisted upon Amazonian first assistant Sally (Kristen Johnston); scientist-turned-teen Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); and universal oddball Harry (French Stewart), a squinty-eyed clown who’d probably be out of place on any planet. As Stewart puts it, ”I’m perfectly willing to go dork nuts — you know, throw dork fuel to feed the dork fire.”
If you think about it, brainy yet clueless aliens make the perfect laboratory for studying human customs: Like when Dick, feeling bereft of a heritage, shops around and decides he’s a Jew. Like when Sally picks up a hunk at a bar (too bad it’s a gay bar, and her quarry thinks she’s a man in drag). Like when the Solomons tackle this strange custom called Thanksgiving, during which Harry engages in a food-as-sex scene out of Tom Jones with guest star Jan Hooks that is so dork nuts, the actor cracks up.
The giddiness and fizz that aerate the laugh-out-loud humor of 3rd Rock (overseen, not surprisingly, by Wayne’s World scripters and ex-Saturday Night Live writers Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner) make the show look improvised. Yet every move is carefully worked out by a cast that has no problem making total fools of themselves. ”It’s an open dare,” says Lithgow. ”I’ve thrown down my gauntlet to the writers: Use me!” ”I love to be devastatingly stupid,” agrees Stewart. It’s a dork’s universe on 3rd Rock — and it feels like home.