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Wayne Knight on His New Sitcom The Exes, Being a ‘Tertiary’ Celebrity, and His Defense of the Laugh Track

Wayne Knight.

As freshly divorced couch potato Haskell Bing on TV Land’s The Exes, Wayne Knight proves yet again that he can do annoying like few other sitcom staples can: He can do annoying in the key of Newman. The Exes reteams Knight with his old 3rd Rock From the Sun flame Kristen Johnston (Johnston plays his combination divorce attorney-landlord). Knight talked to Vulture ahead of tonight’s premiere about the rumors that come with being a “tertiary” celebrity, what Steven Spielberg saw in him, and his defense of the laugh track.

Your character on The Exes has an eBay addiction.
Well, he does on the first couple of episodes.

So does it go away?
No, these things never go away. They rise like stamps. The thought is that Haskell will come across some piece of crap that the world will want. His eBay addiction is about turning feldspar into gold.

Is he identifying with these unwanted objects? Is that what’s going on, Wayne?
I’ve been in Los Angeles for a while and the kind of psychological connection that one makes to people, it just doesn’t happen out here. You cut right to the quick of it. That’s what I like about New York. So, um … maybe? Maybe he considers himself to be life’s flotsam. That’s perhaps possibly true.

As far as life’s flotsam, he does seem like a nerdy, antisocial guy. Are you that nerdy? But you were the mascot of the Georgia football team?
I don’t know where that … that’s one of those interesting things that live on, an IMDb moment from somewhere. I was never the mascot of the Georgia football team.

Really? It made sense to me.
I also said to someone at one point, “I’m taking classes in fixed wing aircraft.” Just to see what would happen — on some NBC interview about eighteen years ago — and it still shows up like it’s solid gold fact. There is no fact-checking on tertiary celebrities. You can say whatever you’d like and it will just rise up again. No, I was never the mascot. The mascot of the University of Georgia is the bulldog. An actual dog. So those who believe it was me in disguise, it’s rather insulting.

We have you seen you in this type of role before: You seem very comfortable, since Newman, with being an unlikable dude in a sitcom.
I don’t think it’s a matter of comfort. I think that much as people who are given gristle to eat find a way of making a delicacy out of it, I’ve found a way of becoming comfortable with the impact of a character that’s kind of hard to get out from under. So you find a way. Whatever road you’ve been given, enjoy that road.

You’re so good at wringing laughs out of your unlikability, though. The most gratifying moment in Jurassic Park is when your character gets eaten by a spitting dinosaur.
Yes. Well, yes. In fact, I felt like I deserved it as well. The only thing that bothered me was that it was off-camera. Whereas in the book, it was much more gory. His head got popped off like a can.

Did Spielberg cast you in that because you seemed so perfectly unlikeable?
No, he didn’t see me as unlikable; I think that he saw me sweating profusely while looking at Sharon Stone [in Basic Instinct]. And he thought, Now, what if instead of this being a woman crossing and uncrossing her legs, it was a dinosaur?

So was Newman the first time you were typecast as the unlikable prick?
Actually, Newman evolved. When Newman began, he was the building snitch. He teamed with Kramer and that kind of team-up morphed into me becoming Jerry’s nemesis. And once becoming the nemesis, comments about Newman when he wasn’t around began to make him more and more unlikable. Or make you think that he was unlikable. I don’t know. What’s fun is playing parts of yourself that you yourself don’t like, and then I can magnify that and find the humor in it. But at any given place, the things that are funny are true. So you find that if you have a strain of cowardice in you, you magnify it; if you have any avarice in you, you magnify it, and it becomes funny, as long as it’s truthful.

You’re in a couple of different TV Land sitcoms, including Hot in Cleveland, so do you think that people have this much nostalgia for the laugh track?
There are people being born every day who actually have no idea that there aren’t real people laughing. You know, there’s a whole new crop of young people who really need a laugh track. You cynically put down the laugh track, but there are people who have no laughs in their lives unless they’re false laughs. God bless them.

Do you enjoy the laugh track?
I have a laugh track at home in my bathroom, which I use frequently. It makes me comfortable. I like to punch up moments in my life that I feel are just a little thin, you know?

That’s amazing.
I don’t think it’s the laugh track per se that we’re celebrating. We’re not trying to bring back the laugh track. Or sets that look like they did in 1976. The idea is that the multi-camera form was beginning to go away. We were finding that network shows were either reality shows or police procedurals and there weren’t any half-hour shows. And the question then becomes, well is the half-hour vaudeville?

So I’ll let you answer that: Is the four-camera sitcom vaudeville?
No, I don’t think so. We’re on the brink of anarchy, and we’re in the economic crapper. It seems to me that the combination of those things would mean that a form that didn’t have a lot of meaning but did bring laughs would still have relevance. And I think that people would like a place to go that doesn’t make them learn a new skill or think too hard. To just have a bit of a laugh. It’s only 22 minutes out of a half-hour. It’s not too taxing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Wayne Knight on His New Sitcom The Exes, Being a ‘Tertiary’ Celebrity, and His Defense of the Laugh Track