Martin Mull is back on TV with Fox’s controversial “Dads”

With nearly 40 years of TV experience behind him, you might wonder if Martin Mull would still get excited about a new project. For every successful run he’s had — your Fernwood Tonight, Roseanne — he’s had other here-and-gone experiences (Domestic Life, His & Hers), enough that he could be forgiven for being ambivalent about the whole scene. But in talking with the 70-year-old actor about Dads, his new sitcom that debuts tonight on FOX, he sounds as upbeat and enthusiastic as a fresh-faced actor getting his first big break of pilot season.

Martin Mull Dads FOXDads centers around Warner and Eli (Giovanni Ribisi, Seth Green), two childhood friends who run a successful video-game business. But their lives are derailed when each of them is forced to take in their elderly, outrageous fathers, Crawford (Mull) and David (Peter Riegert). It comes from Seth MacFarlane and other Family Guy producers, and carries some of the same button-pushing humor. The pilot episode, in fact, became the subject of a heated press session this summer when some critics lobbed charges of racism against it for its depictions of Asian stereotypes. (Put more bluntly, seeing actress Brenda Song in a sexy anime-girl outfit.)

But Mull, who offscreen has a thriving career as a painter, defends the show, saying it’s all just a laugh, folks. He took the time to discuss his long career with us, and what keeps him coming back:

Channel Guide Magazine: You’ve been in TV a long time, had some successful shows, some not so successful. What’s this time like, right before a show premieres? Do you let yourselves get hopeful, or are you keeping your distance?

Martin Mull: There’s a part of me that is very sensible that says you don’t go out and buy a new house just based on how you feel. Despite that, and 40 years in the business, I don’t feel that way about this one. I’m so sanguine about this it’s unbelievable. I have never been in a situation quite like this where everything just absolutely seems to meld. The actors know each other’s rhythms already like we’ve been on the air for three years, and the wall that sometimes exists between production and writing and the actors is absolutely porous. It’s total give and take, it’s the same way with the studio and the network. It’s unbelievable. I’ve not had this before, and consequently I’m as eager and as rosy-eyed as a teenager at this point.

CGM: I saw that you said the script for this made you laugh out loud. What was it that tickled you so much?

MM: It wasn’t a specific line, just the patter of the whole thing, and just the rhythm of it, and the fact that it was stuff I didn’t expect coming. That makes me laugh out loud. Some things you know — oh, there’s going to be a joke here — and, I hate to say it about my medium, but television is, if nothing else, more often than not predictable. This wasn’t. That really tickled me. As a writer myself, I almost make it a professional decision never to laugh at someone else’s stuff, but I was forced to.

CGM: There has been quite a bit of criticism aimed at the pilot episode due to some of the perceived racial humor. Did you suspect it was going to rise to this level of controversy when you were shooting it?

MM: I’m not sure what level it’s come to, to be honest with you. I don’t know what’s considered controversial. To me, I watch the news and that seems like it’s filled with controversy. This is comedy. I’ve always been one to think that if human beings are capable of it, then it’s fair game. We shouldn’t live in a bubble where we pretend all the time and are p.c. all the time. You end up like an ostrich with your head in the sand. It doesn’t pay off anything. How are you going to understand this homeostasis, your presence on Earth, if you don’t look at the entire picture? The best way to look at the entire picture, as far as I’m concerned, is through humor.

CGM: Beneath all the controversial humor there is something here about fathers and sons. Your character and Peter Riegert’s characters are pretty lousy fathers, which is a really sad place to mine humor. How did you connect with that part of it?

MM: There’s something else about being a bad dad or a bad mom that I’ve come to realize, and that is that my own were not the best on the planet, I would have to say, but I can also say now in hindsight that they did the best they were capable of. I think that’s true of both Crawford and David in the show, that they are being the best person they can be. They may just have limited resources.

CGM: You and Peter Riegert look like you’re going to play off each other well.

MM: I love working with him. It’s a whole different rhythm with someone in my age group, and I think that’s going to be nice to have the age groups foiled against each other.

CGM: You did some work on Family Guy and American Dad! Is that how you got hooked up with Seth MacFarlane?

MM: I first met him there, and then we did a Craig Kilborn show together and we had some downtime in the green room prior to that and got to talking. We’re both alumni of the same place, which is the Rhode Island School of Design, so we had a lot to talk about and just seemed to hit it off rather famously. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, so again, not only did I pounce on this project when I read the script, but also knowing he was involved and the guys from Ted, that made a huge difference for me.

CGM: When you work with younger actors these days, how do they know your career? I imagine you get references from all parts of your career.

MM: A lot of these kids that I’m working with — by that I mean people in their late 30s or early 40s — weren’t around when Fernwood Tonight was on. But they’ve heard of it. What happens is you become a little bit venerated, a little bit legendary, and it’s not qualitative, it’s quantitative. Just how old you are. It’s not that these things were great milestones in media, but somehow with time all the bad parts go away and they just remember the good. It’s great. What I find amazing is that Giovanni and I are absolutely on the same page humor-wise and timing-wise and we’re 30 years apart. That’s astounding to me.

CGM: Do you generally have to read or audition for things these days, or do people seek you out?

MM: Because I’m 70 years old, I basically told my agent a couple of years ago, “We’re getting toward that feathered edge of retirement.” I said, “Let’s do this. Answer the phone, don’t dial it.” Don’t go looking for things, if somebody wants me to hold up a tube of toothpaste and give me several thousand dollars for it, I’ll do it. All of a sudden this show came along, he sent it over and all bets were off. I said, “I gotta go back to work.”

CGM: What are some of the differences between working on TV now and when you started?

MM: One thing notably would be the freedom to say certain things you might not have been able to say back in 1980. But what’s very interesting about this project is that it’s four-camera, so it harkens back to a golden age of television, sort of the All in the Family, and Maude, Roseanne and so forth and so on in form, yet in content it’s so difference. I find that very interesting.

CGM: Having been around for 40 years, do you look at your old stuff?

MM: I try to just keep going forward. I’m not much of an archivist. I don’t have things on tape, or disc. I try not to look back, because I have a feeling if I did a lot of that I’d start feeling old. And I don’t feel old. Especially when I’m in there with people as young as Giovanni or Seth and working at a fever pitch … so no, I don’t look back. Tomorrow’s the next day.

CGM: You got your start in the 1970s, which a lot of people view as a Golden Age of TV. Do you hold it in that same regard, having actually been through it?

MM: I don’t really put it on a pedestal and say that was the stuff. “Oh, The Honeymooners, we’re never going to come close to that again.’ It was extraordinarily enjoyable at the time. It may have broken ground at the time, and we tend to put it on a pedestal for that reason, but I think television is getting increasingly better and better. I think you can watch an old episode of The Untouchables from 1961 and then you watch Breaking Bad and you see how different television has gotten. It’s gotten a lot more sophisticated, certainly technically better, and I think the acting and the writing level has gotten better.

CGM: You have a lot of other interests. Painting, music … what keeps you wanting to go back into the TV grind?

MM: It’s fun. When it’s fun, there’s nothing more fun, and you try to use whatever wisdom you’ve gained over the years to ascertain from the get-go is this going to be fun or not. Maybe it’s a really good script, and it’s an hourlong drama, but I know it’s going to be 22 weeks in a small town in North Dakota, I’m going to say no. With this, the studio is close to home, I knew the cast, and I just thought this can’t not be fun. I don’t really want to not have fun at this age.

Dads premieres Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 8pm on FOX.

Photo: © 2013 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: Joseph Llanes/FOX