Rob Lowe on The Grinder, Why Network Comedies Can Compete With Cable, and the Objectification of Men

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Rob Lowe’s new Fox show The Grinder has nothing to do with gay dating or eating. But if you want to laugh, ask him what he makes of the funny-sounding title. You probably won’t even get your whole question out. “Oh, this is my favorite thing!” Lowe told Vulture, lowering his voice a few octaves to take on his critics: “Oh my God, was nobody minding the store there? I mean, how did that happen? Did they not realize that The Grinder is a gay dating app? Or a sandwich? I mean, God, that’s so stupid. Uh, no kidding! It’s a comedy,” he continued. “News flash: We’re being funny on purpose. You can all rest easy. I also want to say, in a world of a show called The Leftovers, in a world of a show called Numb Threers [Numb Threers is CBS’s Numb3rs, whatever the hell that show is called, do you really want to tell me The Grinder is the worst title you’ve ever heard? Really, you wanna go there? 'Cause I will go there!  Numb Threers. The Leftovers. No one wants leftovers! I love the people at HBO, and I love Justin Theroux. Terrible, horrible title! Cold leftovers! They wanna get in my face with Grinder?”

If Lowe is hilariously defending The Grinder, it’s because he’s not just the star — he’s producing it. Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, an actor who starred as a lawyer on a TV show (also called The Grinder). Now unemployed, Dean begins fake-lawyering with his brother (Fred Savage). Lowe took time out of filming scenes with Jason Alexander, who is guest-starring in the sixth episode, to talk nipples and celebratory lunges with Vulture.

How do you keep this premise of Dean pretending to be a real lawyer vital?
I understand where it comes from, but it does make me laugh — the chattering class goes on and on about the lack of original concepts. But then when they are faced with an original concept, they fret over how to sustain it. So you really can’t win. Should it be more banal and generic so you don’t worry about where we go? We can do that if you want.

That’s fair, but how do you make us feel better?
You clearly can’t go to the well of him being a fake lawyer every week. What you have are really finely drawn characters from day one. You have archetypal relationships that everyone relates to. You have fish-out-of-water, sibling rivalry, family comedy. And we have the legal parody and the show-business parody.

We did a whole sequence of why he left The Grinder. And the reason he left is he felt objectified. People go on and on about the objectification of women, and rightly so. But what about the objectification of men? When was the last time you saw Grey’s Anatomy? So what I love about this show is these wry, insightful looks at contemporary culture in entertainment as seen through the eyes of a regular Idaho family because they have a conduit to it in my character.

Was the fact that the show does all these different parodies the attraction for you?
It was. It’s something I hadn’t seen before in this arena. On a big network flagship sitcom, I had never seen this type of subversive, weird, interesting tone. I really believe the networks can compete — if they have the stomach for it — with cable. Not in drama, I don’t think. But in comedy I think they can. Maybe I’m spoiled because I come from Parks and Rec. And I’m coming from a very specific world of comedy. The goal is to have people stop you in the street and say they’ve seen it, and not just New York or L.A. It’s a very tough needle to thread, admittedly. But I believe this does it.

Is the fact that you’re producing making the experience of making a show different for you?
It makes the long hours better. If I’m engaged and inspired and learning something and contributing above and beyond just standing on a mark and wearing makeup, I can do that forever. The creative firepower behind this show, whether it’s Jake Kasdan from New Girl and Freaks and Geeks, or Nick Stoller, who did Neighbors and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, who created the show — these guys are so bright and so funny, and what I love is they don’t give a shit. Nobody’s playing by the rules, and that’s what’s really rare in this world.

Are you going to have to worry about ratings in a way you didn’t have to worry about on Parks?
On Parks, the good news is we didn’t have to worry about ratings because we never got any ratings. So it was perfect. Which is interesting because my anecdotal experience of Parks was everyone watched it and everyone loved it. But then, when you looked at the numbers, and no one watches it and no one loves it. If I walked on a college campus you would think Justin Bieber showed up, because they loved Parks and Recreation. Look, I’m told by the Fox people that they get that, and it’s a brave new world, and they will have patience. It’s more about what the ratings are over a week to up to a month. So we’ll see if they live up to their word.

You and Fred Savage have great chemistry. Had you met him before?
I am the one person in Hollywood that didn’t have a preexisting relationship with Fred Savage. Honestly, everyone knows Fred Savage. They went to school with Fred Savage, their kids play with his kids, or they go to the same dentist. Unbelievable. Me? No relationship. But chemistry is one of those weird things. It’s unpredictable. You can’t force it. In spite of not knowing him, the minute I met him we had palpable chemistry together. I knew I was with an actor that I could really go to town with. And that doesn’t happen with every actor. It doesn’t even happen with every actor you’re good with, or every actor’s who famous or successful. At the end of the day, that’s why the show is taking on a life of its own. Fred and I have something, and I don’t know what to attribute it to.

As funny as the pilot was, it actually had its little moving moments, like your line, “You hurt me right to my face.”
The writers do such a good job of this. We’ve all seen the character of the spoiled Hollywood star. That’s a great person to make fun of and run the comedy through. And we certainly do that. But what I like about these guys is that they’re so much smarter, and nuanced as storytellers. We make that guy not only likable, but you actually empathize with him. Usually that guy’s such a douche. Maybe you like him sometimes, but most of the time you’re just rolling your eyes at him. That’s not what The Grinder is. And that’s really a testament to the writing.

Do you have a favorite scene from the pilot?
The argument that inspired the show in the first place. If you were having a heart attack in a restaurant, wouldn’t you rather be having the heart attack next to Noah Wylie? Who played a doctor on television for 15 years, than some idiot who’s not a doctor and never played a doctor? I think it’s pretty clear you’d want to have a heart attack next to Noah Wylie. That’s the predicate of the show. Wouldn’t you rather have me giving you unsolicited free legal advice as a TV lawyer than someone who hasn’t won 700 cases on national television? The argument is so stupid, and yet you’re like, Well, wait a minute, maybe there’s something to that? I just love comedy that is like that. I love comedy that in its face ridiculous, but that underneath is kind of smart.

Is there anything you wouldn’t do for a laugh?
No! Believe me, after the scene we did last night, I know I’ve left all my dignity at the altar of comedy. We did a scene where Jason Alexander, as the creator of the show within the show, wants me to take my shirt off one too many times. And I’m like, "I took my shirt off in the church sequence, I took my shirt off in the jury-deliberation sequence, do you think maybe we can do this Thanksgiving scene without me taking my shirt off?" He’s like, "Man, you’re the Grinder. You’re the sex symbol. Don’t overthink this. Give the people what they want." And I very slowly and shamefully unbutton my shirt. And then he looks at me and I realize what he wants to see is nipple. It’s a parody of that great Irene Cara scene in Fame, which I’ve never forgotten. There’s nothing funnier than a sad, shameful stripper — when played by a man.

You gave us literally” in the pilot. Did you do that for Parks fans?
Yes I did! It’s hard to get through the English language for a full day without using that particular word. Now that it’s become my signature from Parks and Rec, I’m not sure they realized what they’d written when they wrote it. Then, of course, when I did it and half of the crew went crazy—we were like, oh my God, oh shit, what do we do? Ah, let’s leave it in.

Does that mean there’s hope for celebratory lunges?
Oh my gosh, celebratory lunges need to make a comeback for sure! And some crazy dancing. If I could bring anything back, though, it would be the air banjo.  That would absolutely be my favorite.