Matthew Perry will always be Chandler Bing, no matter how many other roles he plays. Yet it was his experience starring on Aaron Sorkin’s short lived drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” that influenced his new comedy “Mr. Sunshine,” which premieres Wednesday (9:30/8:30c) on ABC. Perry stars as Ben, a self-involved stadium manager in the throes of a mid-life crisis. He has also taken on a leading role behind the camera, serving as one of the show’s writers and executive producers.
In a conference call, Perry explained that Sorkin inspired him to become a writer. “When you work with Aaron Sorkin, you’re certainly working with the best. So if I’m trying to sort of face the page and do anything as a writer, he’s certainly someone to aspire to. So, I got the – I had the pleasure of playing a comedy writer on an Aaron Sorkin show, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I decided I might want to actually try this myself because it seemed like a really fun world. Working with Aaron is great, and it’s also terrible, because you’ll probably never be able to work with anybody better, writer-wise. And, I say that to you as the writer of this show,” he said.
Perry’s first decision as a producer was hiring Tommy Schlamme, the Emmy-winning director of numerous episodes of “Studio 60,” “The West Wing” and “Sports Night” to helm the pilot. “There’s just a huge comfort level that comes with him. So, you – you know when you are working with him, you know that the quality of the show is going to be high, and you know the show’s going to look good.”
Schlamme was instrumental in the casting of another Sorkin alumna, Allison Janney, whose character C.J. on “The West Wing” is every bit as iconic as Chandler. Said Perry, “One of the things I’m most grateful for is it was a conversation with Tommy and I. Out of that conversation came the let’s have our first move be to offer the part of Crystal to Allison Janney. Which ended up being the best move we could’ve possibly made.”
Preview “Mr. Sunshine”:
Janney was equally thrilled to reunite with Schlamme. ” He’s one of my favorite people, and I love him as a person, as a director. And when he you know, was involved at the beginning, when Matthew asked me to come on board, I didn’t hesitate because I loved to work with Tommy, so he’s fabulous. I know this is a little sillier for me, but Tommy appreciates a – the silly – my inner silliness.”
She also was excited to work with Perry again, who she met when he guest-starred on “The West Wing.” “I wanted to come back and do a comedy. I was looking for something and then I got a call from Matthew, who asked me to come and play with him,” she said. “And, I had been a big fan of his even before I knew him, just watching him on “friends”, and then he came to play with me on ‘The West Wing.’ I love him as an actor and as a person too. I just like being around him, so I thought he’d be fun to do a comedy with.”
Perry took pains to immediately establish that Crystal was nothing like Jed Bartlett’s Press Secretary. “We were very aware obviously of the C.J. character from West Wing,” she said. “So, the moment you see Allison in this show, you know that it’s a completely different person. It’s a completely different performance. But also when you meet her, she’s on her knees crawling around her floor looking for some kind of pill.”
Janney was equally excited to play a character who is nothing like C.J. “I’m very excited about because of how far I get to go with Crystal. I’ve been asked to do things that I actually am nervous about, and think, “I don’t know if this – is this okay? Is this right?’ It’s the furthest I’ve gone with a character so far in my career, and I hope I get to – the chance to go further and further as the series goes on and on.” Janney detailed Crystal’s other memorable moments from the pilot. “Throwing small children. Using them as a shield. Saying some things that could be misconstrued as very racist, but really, they ended up not being at all but you think they are because you make assumptions about a character, but they’re actually wrong.”
Perry admits that following in Sorkin’s footsteps was intimidating. “The idea of being a show runner kind of scared me… I’ve been fortunate enough to be an actor in some good things and also in some bad things,” he said. “But, I wanted to see if my mind worked in the kind of way that could sort of be in charge and could face the page as a writer… I was living a pretty stagnant life. I was playing the same video game for about two years in a row and figured I should maybe try to challenge myself creatively.”