On the verge of turning 70 years old, the weighty TV roles for Emmy winner Ted Danson keep coming. He’s currently having a ball playing an immortal demon on NBC’s The Good Place and a fictional version of himself on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, even if Larry David’s mockumentary left him having to explain the state of his marriage to actress Mary Steenburgen after his character’s divorce this season. Danson spoke to Vulture about the gift of playing a goofy villain on The Good Place, his views on the afterlife, the inspiration he found from meeting Jane Fonda, and why David is actually “the sweetest of the sweets.”
Working on The Good Place looks like a riot. Is it?
It is, it is fun. And very satisfying, deeply satisfying, because it’s that wonderful combination of incredibly bright writing that’s about something. It really is about ethics, it’s about what it is to be good or bad. Everybody’s actions roll out into the universe and create a certain amount of good or bad and you’re accountable. That’s fun. But then they wrap it in this 9-year-old sense of humor with the visual effects. It’s kind of brilliant, I think.
This season, they’ve unleashed Michael. Last season, you had to play it straighter because you were keeping a secret. But now Michael gets to be funny and goofy and dorky all at the same time. What are the differences in season one and two for you?
The first season, you wanted the audience to be surprised at the very end of episode 13. You wanted that twist. You could not show Michael in a private moment because if you saw him by himself, he would’ve been smirking or laughing or enjoying his torture. Your reactions to other people are your own private thoughts about something, juxtaposed to what you’re doing, and that can be funny. But you had no room to do that. I was playing it straight down the middle, so it was hard to find the funny for Michael. This year, it’s like all bets are off. It almost feels like carte blanche. You have some middle-management guy in the Bad Place trying to torture people, giving up, trying to join the team, ya know? He’s just all over the place and a big hot mess, which is fun to play.
What did you think of Michael joining their team? What does that tell you about him?
[Laughs.] A couple things: He’s not as smart as Eleanor, for sure. Eleanor is way smarter than he is. Down deep, he kind of loves humans, but really he’s just scrambling, he’s just trying to really save his own ass. And the truth is if they don’t help him save his ass, they’re all going down. So he’s right, but it does have a very self-serving, manipulative smack to it.
Michael Schur told you and Kristin Bell the twist from the beginning. Looking back, did that help you or would you rather not have known?
Yeah, I think it did. If you are going to torture them psychologically, it was easier to play up what needed to be played up to make them feel guilty. You know? Especially Eleanor. I think it was much better.
Have you ever had an existential crisis like Michael’s?
Oh, lord, yes, daily. Sure. I’ve definitely had my share. I think if you’re trying to live to some degree honestly, there is always an existential crisis around the corner.
Did yours involve an earring and a blonde woman?
[Laughs.] Oh, I see what you mean, my acting out? That was the middle-aged crisis, the big existential crisis. Sure, sure. I definitely had my adolescent period. I brought my poor parents to their knees when I was 45. So I’ve been there.
Do you have a hard time saying funny things like that the word “demon” is a little racist with a straight face?
The written word on this show is elevated. It’s not conversational, it’s very bright and very elevated and it’s not colloquial. So you have to work your ass off to get the lines down. My focus is so much on getting the words right so I can have fun in the scene, that no, I don’t break up that much.
What about your evil laugh from the finale? Did you practice it a lot? Did it just come to you? People really loved that.
I think it was about the third or fourth take on that scene. I think something came over us and I laughed and Mike said, “Yeah, let’s do that, that’s the way to go.” Yeah, that was great. That really felt very satisfying to the term, you know?
Do you think we’ll see it again?
Well, now, I don’t want to give away stuff.
Even that’s a spoiler?
Yes, it’s true. You don’t know where this Mike Schur is going. Didn’t you love Kristin Bell’s lines at the end?
At least part of being human is knowing that we’re gonna die and we’re all a little sad about that. I love that, ya know?
That’s terrific writing.
I love that kids are watching it. Seven, eight, nine, ten-year-olds … I love that it goes down that young for people enjoying the show.
Do you get a lot of fans stopping you about it?
More and more, yeah. This year it has definitely picked up.
Every episode is such a surprise. It’s almost become a workplace comedy, but then it’s about the afterlife and all these deeper, philosophical ideas.
I love that Mike Schur brought in an ethics professor for a whole day of talking with the writers. It’s just really smart. Mike Schur is one very bright dude and he has hired a lot of wonderful, bright writers. It’s a real pleasure. Instead of goofing off on the set, most of us are just trying to live up to the writing.
How do you view the afterlife? Do you think it’s as simple as a Good Place and a Bad Place?
That’s a very big question. I mean, that’s what faith is about. We don’t know. There’s no way to know, sitting where we’re sitting. I just can’t believe that this was happenstance. You know what’s most important? I think you need to live your life as if there were an afterlife, as if you are answerable for your actions. If you live your life from that point of view, and you have some faith that you’re not alone in this adventure, then I think it’ll all work out. You don’t have to know for a fact, because everybody seems to have their own their personal relationship to themselves and some higher power.
I’m falling on the side of there being something more than this, but that doesn’t let you off the hook. You still need to behave — pick your favorite — do unto others. And that makes my life right now certainly much more enjoyable and accountable and interesting than if I behaved like there isn’t. I remember watching my mother pass away, she came home and was with everybody for two weeks. Towards the end, I realized all of my spiritual, philosophical thoughts and theories and beliefs went flying out the window. I realized, “Wow, I have no idea.” Dying is so intensely real. When you watch that process, it’s very humbling because you realize you have no idea. My mother at that moment might have been having a glimpse, but I really had no idea. I walked away from that experience going, “You know what? Just try to do the right thing in every moment. That’ll keep you busy until you’re no longer here.” [Laughs.]
Do you hope it’s a place with fro-yo and awesome restaurant names?
[Laughs.] Well, the fro-yo we had to eat on the set was actually colored mashed potatoes because it melts if it’s real frozen yogurt. So I’m all right if there’s a bunch of mashed potatoes. I’m okay if there’s no frozen yogurt, but I’m all right with the mashed potatoes. That would be nice. I love mashed potatoes.
You’re also on the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David has said that turning 70 was a very unpleasant experience. You’re about to turn 70 yourself. How are you feeling about it? Any special plans?
I’m kinda looking forward to it. I think we may throw a bit of a party and have friends from throughout my life. Growing up definitely has its challenges, but I’ll tell ya, I’ve met some amazing people recently. I was lucky enough, my wife Mary Steenburgen, worked with this amazing group of women. She was with Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen and they made a film called Book Club. We had them over for dinner and I kinda got to know Jane Fonda a little bit. They are all remarkable women, but Jane just turned 80, and man, she is ferociously living her life and is a real inspiration. I think the trap is to think that when you reach a certain number, you’re supposed to be winding down. You may be winding down, but you’re not supposed to be behaving like that, ya know?
You’re working so much and you’ve had such great roles these past few years. It doesn’t seem like you’ve slowed down at all.
No, I’ve been very lucky. Very lucky. But I figure they need older people standing next to younger people so that people realize that those are younger people. So I’ll always have a job.
You mentioned your wife Mary Steenburgen. You just celebrated your 22nd wedding anniversary, but on Curb you’re getting divorced and some people have taken it very seriously.
No kidding! That lousy, no good, rotten Larry David. I think he secretly took pleasure in trying to disrupt our bliss.
Was it his idea? I know the show is improvised, so I didn’t know who threw that in there.
Yes, it was his idea, the rotten, no good, lousy person. [Laughs.]
What did you think?
I thought it was fun. I have to admit it, though, when the internet went nutty, I had a few friends call and it was like, “Well, this is a bit of a pain in the ass.” To have to be defensive and reassuring your relationship is intact and solid. But, no, it was fun. It was totally fun. And you know what? It’s such a great ride, working with Larry. Do what you may. Do your worst. I’m still in.
Did Larry also come up with Ted Danson dating Cheryl?
Oh, yeah, this was all him.
You mentioned earlier it can be difficult to memorize lines for The Good Place. You don’t have to learn any for Curb. How do you feel about that?
On a normal show, if you have to work the next morning, you go to bed early and learn your lines. When you’re doing Curb Your Enthusiasm, you can go out and party until the wee hours because who gives a damn? You just show up and play. Your job on that show is to push Larry David into a corner until he comes exploding out more Larry. So it’s just pure fun.
Everyone says he’s the first one to break character because he just loves people yelling at him.
Oh, he’s horrible! He ruins some great moments because he can’t stop laughing. But that actually shows you his heart a little bit, because a lot of stand-ups or comedians are not generous with their laughter. He is incredibly generous, laughing at you or if you’re funny or whatever. He likes to pretend otherwise, but he is the sweetest of the sweets.
This interview has been edited and condensed.