Speaking With ... Mark Roberts 04.19.13
By MIRIAM DI NUNZIO Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org April 17, 2013 3:08PM
Mark Roberts | ©2011 Warner Bros. Television
SPECIAL GUEST: MARK ROBERTS
♦ April 19-20
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Updated: May 20, 2013 6:16AM
You may not immediately know his name, but his words have been making us laugh for years.
Especially fans of television series such as “Two and a Half Men” and “Mike & Molly,” which owe much of their funniest lines to actor/comedian/sitcom writer/television producer/playwright (and Urbana native) Mark Roberts.
Roberts, who began his comedy career working Chicago’s stand-up clubs in the early 1980s through the mid-’90s, eventually moved to Los Angeles and to television, landing regular spots on “The Tonight Show” and guest-starring roles on “Friends,” “The Naked Truth,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” among others. In between all that, he was busy writing plays, including the cult hit “Couples Counseling Killed Katie” and the dark comedy “Rantoul and Die,” which was staged here several years ago to mixed reviews (including those of the writer who says he “was a bit disappointed” with the Chicago production). “Rantoul” debuts Off-Broadway later this summer, directed by Roberts.
For now, he has returned to stand-up comedy, doing special appearances as his schedule alllows.
Roberts, 52, talked to the Sun-Times about comedy (he’s in town for a set at Zanies) and keeping the funny in television.
Question: Is writing your first love?
Mark Roberts: That’s tough to say. The writing encompasses everything. You get to act and direct and do everything while you’re in front of your computer. When you take it out of your computer — that’s when the trouble starts.
Q. Did stand-up lay the ground work for you as a sitcom writer?
MR: There’s pluses and minuses to writing stand-up. It got to a point where it became a little constrictive. There’s a mind-set in stand-up that to be really good at it you have to find humor in everything and I don’t always find everything funny. The thing I found most helpful from stand-up when I began writing sitcoms was it’s all about hitting your mark and delivering your joke.
Q. What are you finding out about stand-up after being away from it for so long, and how did you get back in the groove?
MR: I just opened for Billy Gardell [who stars as officer Mike Biggs on “Mike & Molly”] and his comedy showcase in Las Vegas for about 1,000 people and I got really excited about it again. [Laughs] There’s something really fun about it when you’re not doing it for a living. But the persona I had perfected on stage to deliver the material, it sort of came back to me but with more . . . my different type of writing experience [with sitcoms] allowed me to have a less-constrictive view of the approach. It’s really different when you’re standing on stage now and thinking, well if this doesn’t go well, I’m still gonna have a career. There’s something to be said for that. But I got out my old “Tonight Show” sets and started reviewing the game tapes.
Q. We have to talk about “Two and a Half Men.” What was that experience like?
MR: I started writing for “Men” in 2003. I punched up the pilot before it went to Charlie Sheen. [With a series] you’re writing about 10 months out of the year. On my hiatus I would go and produce these plays I’d written. I had a really good time with Charlie and Jon [Cryer]. They’re archetypal characters: the sleazy playboy and the idiot. I saw it very much like [Dean] Martin and [Jerry] Lewis. Charlie was the guy we all wanted to be. John was the guy we all are. I had a great time writing for both of those guys.
Q. Which of your sitcoms is the closest to your heart?
MR: Right now “Mike & Molly” is the closest because it’s the one I created. The other ones were somebody else’s shows where at the end of the day the show runners have the final say. On “Mike & Molly” I have the final say. It’s a big difference when you’re sitting in a room and you say something like “I want them sitting on a roof in this scene” and they’re out there building a roof. There are a few other things in the pipeline that are even closer to me than “Mike & Molly,” but I can’t talk about those right now.
Q. “Mike and Molly” is set in Chicago. Why not film the series in Chicago?
MR: I’d love to film a series in Chicago. It’s absolutely my favorite city on the planet. But it’s very difficult to do something there because the powers that be at the networks are all out [in L.A.] and they don’t like being that far away. The networks and studios have to come out for the run-throughs and none of them are located out there. The farther away they are, they have less chances of ruining it. I also think it’s more expensive to do a multi-camera sitcom out there. I’m not even sure there’s a studio set up in Chicago for a multi-camera sitcom shoot. Maybe Harpo? You can do films out there because that’s more of a transient sort of thing,
Q. Who were/are your comic idols?
MR: George Carlin was the guy I’d listen to all the time. And Richard Pryor. Now Louis C.K. and Chris Rock have replaced both of them.