Ted Danson on the most absurd L.A. issue that Mr. Mayor will tackle
There's a new mayor in town, but he's more than familiar to you. Cheers and The Good Place alum Ted Danson has elected to return to NBC to promote an agenda of laughter. In the Tina Fey-and-Robert Carlock-created comedy Mr. Mayor (which premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. ET/PT), Danson, 73, stars as Neil Bremer, a retired businessman who has no business lording over Los Angeles, but when he runs for the city's top political seat in a bid to impress his teenage daughter, Orly (Kyla Kenedy), he winds up winning the darned thing. The uniquely unqualified Neil will spend the first 100 days in office (and beyond, surely) trying to understand the lay of this bizarre land and attempting to win over activist Councilwoman-turned-Deputy Mayor Arpi (Holly Hunter), who is far from a fan of his. Here, Danson delves into his transition from demon squid to politician, the weirdest L.A.-centric issue that the show will mine for comedy, and the mayoral decree that he would issue in real life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You didn't waste any time getting back on an NBC comedy. How is construction on the Ted Danson Wing on the NBC-Universal executive building coming along?
TED DANSON: The way those buildings work is, you wait to see whether that the ratings are good. And if the ratings are good, then they do come through. If they promise you a wing, you get a wing.
Besides getting to work with Tina and Robert, what made you interested in political comedy at a time when that arena has become so ugly and divisive? Was it the chance to explore the lighter side of it?
Interesting. First I would have to say it's not a political comedy.
It’s a workplace comedy.
It's a family comedy that takes place in the workplace and in my home with my daughter, who's 15, 16. Robert Carlock and Tina Fey are so bright and so good at this — the fast comedy where they gallop through the story line and you don't even notice that they pulled out their guns and are taking pot shots at genuine political, social things that should have pot shots taken at them. But it's not like that is the focus of the show. But oh my goodness! I have to read the scripts two or three times before I go, “Oh, dear Lord. I didn't even see that!” They're so fast.
You were last seen on TV playing a demon squid who becomes human. What is it like to shed that skin and slide into the role of something almost equally unsympathetic in theory, a billionaire-businessman-turned politician?
First off, it was a little shocking to hear myself being described as a demon squid. I forgot about the squid part! [Laughs] Oh my god! Mike Schur [creator of The Good Place]! Another astounding brain! Aren’t I lucky? Here’s a similarity between the two characters. They're both in way, way over their head and have the ego and blinders on that they have no idea how out of their depth they are.... Neil Bremer throws his hat in the ring for a special election. And he wins something like 68 percent of the vote, but as it's pointed out later on, only 12 percent of Los Angeles votes on off-presidential years for the mayor’s office. This is true, by the way. So, very few people voted a way-too-old, way-too-white, way-too-rich man into political office — and he's surrounded by people who think he's a total idiot. He's a bit of an innocent, his heart's in the right place, but he is so out of touch that it's very funny.
Mr. Mayor references such issues as birth control for the coyote population, avocado shortages, and a robot police force. What’s the most absurd L.A. issue that the show will have fun with?
Neil realizes that the city spends $50 million a year to take care of the palm trees on public property. And he's trying very hard to raise money to have bus lanes. [There’s an] uproar — the special interests of everybody who depends on palm trees to make a living, whether it's a restaurant or business that has "palm" in the name. Palm trees are so important to the economy of L.A., yet they don't belong here. They were brought in for the '30s Olympics to make people think, “Wow, what a cool place L.A. is. It's not just the desert that belongs to scorpions.”
A lot of the stuff you're going to be looking at is: How do you deal with a teenage daughter? How do you deal with dating in Los Angeles at my age? How do you deal with getting the city to do what you want? How do you deal with reporters? How do you deal with Holly Hunter? Let's talk about Holly Hunter for a second. Holly Hunter plays Arpi Meskimen, who is a councilwoman who had tried to run for mayor and hadn't gotten enough signatures. So she hates me and is just waiting for me to mess up. I'm smart enough to make her my deputy mayor so that I can keep her close to me and keep an eye on her.
You are a noted fierce advocate of the environment. I don't want this to turn to political, Ted, but for the record, are you pro-palm tree or anti-palm tree?
I have to say: I love palm trees. They’re so romantic. It makes me feel, "Oh, look it's 1940s L.A. — it just feels so wonderfully L.A." So, yeah, I’m probably on the wrong side of that one, but I love palm trees.
Using only political jargon, how would you sum up your chemistry with Holly Hunter?
Ferocious combatants with begrudging respect.
This is her first sitcom gig. You have a little experience in this department. Did she ask you for any guidance? And if so, did you offer any?
I did nothing of the sort. Nor would I. She is a wonderful actor and has been so good in so many things. The one thing she says that she noticed was how relaxed Bobby and I appeared to be within the comedic structure. And I think that allowed her to kind of relax and, I don't know, perhaps be a little more playful. But oh my God, she's so good. I mean, I just watch her and I'm in awe of what she pulls off.
In the original pilot, the outgoing mayor of L.A. was corrupt. In this version, the mayor leaves because he was defeated by the hellscape that was 2020. How much does the show touch on political issues as shaped by the pandemic — or just life in the pandemic?
We went back and reshot certain scenes of the pilot to say that this is recently post[-pandemic]. No one's wearing masks, but it is in the rear-view mirror. We do acknowledge it, and there are references periodically about quarantines and masks and all of that, but it's as if it were in the past.
What are the chances that we'll see one of your Good Place costars pop up in a guest role?
I don't know who would come through, but I'm sure we will. We get people because of Tina and Robert's reputation. And so far we've gotten some of the most wonderful actors. Because it takes place in Hollywood, you get to have people like Andie MacDowell come play Andie MacDowell, and totally make fun of her entitledness. I mean, the stunt casting is so easy for this.
You, Ted Danson, are suddenly elected mayor in real life. What’s the first decree you would issue — after, of course, saving the environment?
I would decree a “Meet Your Neighbor Barbecue” every two weeks, where you would have a barbecue with somebody who doesn’t look or think like you do. And it would be enforced. With penalty of law. It'd be a crime not to.
By the end of Neil’s journey, do you think that he will end up in the Good Place, Bad Place, or Medium Place?
I think he has aspirations for the Medium Place. By the end of The Good Place, we realized that the point system doesn't work because in this day and age, there are too many unintended consequences. But Neil Bremer is one huge, walking, unintended consequence. [Laughs]