Best known for starring in and co-creating comedy nerd favorites like The State and Reno 911!, Tom Lennon is acting on a different kind of show this season: a multi-cam network sitcom on primetime TV. He’s playing the villain on Sean Saves the World, NBC’s new Sean Hayes comedy, which just premiered last week. As Hayes’s dastardly mustachioed boss Hunter, he’s one of the most deliberately unlikable and evil characters on primetime TV.
I recently had the chance to talk to Tom Lennon about Sean Saves the World, playing an bad guy, and the Baywatch movie he’s writing with Ben Garant.
You’ve never done a network sitcom before. What made you take this part?
It wasn’t something I was pursuing. I got an email sent to me from Sean Hayes. I didn’t even know him, but I got an email from him saying would I play his crazy, crazy boss on his show? I thought, ‘Ah, I don’t know. A network TV show? That doesn’t seem like my cup of tea. If it’s at all funny, I’ll consider it.’ But I read it, thought it was hilarious. I especially love being the villain. I’m always the bad guy in the show, and it was just a super exciting change of pace for me.
Do you like playing villains?
You know, I’d never really done it before. But I gotta tell you, I really love that I’m not the guy that you’re supposed to cheer for when he comes in, but I’m the guy who you would almost kind of boo and hiss at. And I look kinda like Hitler, which more and more people are pointing out. But I just really love it. I don’t think I would be suited necessarily to being, like, the fun buddy, but I do feel like I’m pretty well-suited to be the foil. I’m basically the Snidely Whiplash of the show.
Did they have you grow the mustache for the role, or did you have that for a different part?
I had it on Reno, so, certainly, it’s an acting crutch. [Laughs] So yeah, two things. It’s an acting crutch and I did ask Sean, “Should I keep this Dangle mustache?” The answer was yes. It’s a weird decision because you’ve got to live with it day and night. I end up basically looking like some kind of narc all the time.
Yeah, you could end up looking like that for 10 years or something.
Hopefully. That would be really amazing. Although, in fairness, on Reno, it lasted for a very long time. I guess I’m just a guy who frequently has a mustache. It does make sense ‘cause I have almost no upper lip whatsoever.
In the pilot, we get to see a little bit of the sympathetic side to your character, but for the most part, it seems like you’re pretty much like, 100% Mr. Burns evil.
Yeah, pretty much. I’m pretty deliciously not nice. Whether he’s not nice or just mean or sinister, I’m taking it deadly seriously. I’m really truly trying to play the role as if, in my head, I’m in a drama — a rather intense drama.
Do you have techniques for doing that?
Um, not really. I’ve gotta say. It’s always been sort of my point of view on Reno: No matter how silly what you’re doing is, if you treat it like it’s life or death, to me that is always the funniest way to handle these things. In my mind, I’m treating it deadly seriously.
Was that something you just learned from doing a lot of acting, or did someone teach you to do that?
I don’t know. Sincerity is the thing that I find the funniest. Back in the State days, I wrote a sketch called “Sideways House Family” that was a sitcom about a family that lives in a crazy sideways house. You watch the scene, everything that happens to them is horrifying. I literally fall down the stairs. One of the kids dies ‘cause he slipped from the bathroom. Being painfully sincere, to me, has always been one of my go-to comedy techniques.
It seems like you play a lot of supporting roles as creeps and weirdos.
On occasion, I’ve had someone say to me — you know, somebody will recognize you — “Oh, you’re like a movie star, right?” I’m like, “No, no, no.” I’m not a movie star. I have the best job in the world, which is a movie actor. I act in stuff, but I don’t necessarily star in stuff. It really is a delight. I have so little pressure. I hardly have to work out. I have about three pages of lines to learn instead of 50. It’s a dream. Especially on a show like Sean Saves, where I get to come in and be so incredibly weird. The nice thing about it is I don’t think you can get sick of me as that character. I certainly hope you can’t just yet. This is sort of a small dose of this character, which is kinda nice.
Did you model your character off of any other existing characters or someone from your life?
My version of the character in my head is, in exact equal parts, Richard III and Pepé Le Pew.
Most of your scenes in the pilot are with Sean. Do you get to work with the rest of the ensemble more in future episodes?
I do a little bit. Most of my stuff is me and Sean, which is fun. I do feel like I’m a great rock for him to be caught against. He’s so effervescent and delightful, and it’s really fun to not be delightful in any way opposite him.
This is the first time you’ve been a series regular on a show with a studio audience. What’s that like?
I really love it. To me, it takes me closest back to the days of doing The State and Viva Variety. About half of The State was done in front of live audiences and all of Viva Variety. I actually feel now, at this stage in my life, the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in front of an audience. It’s fun. It’s like doing a play. It’s as close to what made me like acting in the first place, which was being in You Can’t Take It With You at Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1984. It does feel as close to that as you can get in a big popular format.
How does being a regular on a sitcom impact your writing and directing schedule?
Well, my directing schedule — I’m not really directing anything anyway. And writing-wise, this is a sitcom, so it’s sort of one of the dream schedules of television. If you’re writing a sitcom, it can be very, very intense, but I’m not the writer on it. It’s really a dream. Ben [Garant] and I are as busy on the movie front as we’ve ever really been.
What projects are you and Ben working on right now?
The one that I’m really, really psyched about right now is — I think Paramount is making our Baywatch movie, which is called Baywatch: Red Tide. That for me right now — I would really love to see that come together.
You guys are co-directing that, right?
No, we are not directing that. We just wrote it.
Sean Saves the World airs Thursday nights at 9 on NBC