'Mr. Mayor's Cast & EPs on Tackling Privilege & Making Politics Funny
At best, politics makes strange bedfellows. At worst, it makes the polarizing climate of 2020. But in Mr. Mayor, NBC's new comedy starring Ted Danson as Los Angeles' unlikeliest civil servant, it barely even makes an appearance.
"Neither of us had a desire to write about politics," series cocreator Tina Fey told TV Guide Magazine during a December Zoom call with fellow executive producer Robert Carlock. Just as the pair's previous NBC hit, 30 Rock, was a workplace comedy that happened to take place in the world of television, Mr. Mayor is a workplace comedy with government as a backdrop. That's where Danson's affable Neil Bremer comes in. He's a wealthy retired businessman in L.A. who rashly runs for office — and unexpectedly wins — after the current mayor, as Fey puts it, "is broken by 2020."
The premise scratched a particular itch for the longtime writing partners. "We liked the idea of someone of white privilege at this [later] stage in his life," Carlock says with a laugh. "What do those guys go and do?" A few years ago, the duo had bounced around a bunch of ideas (owning a baseball team, for one) before ending up in the realm of local government. At that time, he notes, "We thought, 'It can't get worse and weirder, can it?' And then it did."
Mayor isn't campaigning to indict anyone on either side of the aisle. Episodes do include gags about animal-control issues, sanitation department cuts, and plastic straw bans, but the joke is mostly on Bremer: The independent has delusional hopes of pulling off a second act in this unfamiliar arena. At least he's surrounded by a seasoned team. Among them: his less than supportive chief of staff (Vella Lovell) and chief strategist (Mike Cabellon), his predecessor's simple-minded interim communications director (a hilarious Bobby Moynihan) and Holly Hunter's Arpi Meskimen, the combative liberal councilwoman who becomes Bremer's (way more qualified) deputy mayor. Also in the mix: Bremer's woke teen daughter (Kyla Kenedy).
The nonromantic pairing of Bremer and Meskimen — more akin to 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon than Cheers' Sam and Diane — plays to Emmy winner Danson's charms as a befuddled but well-meaning man in over his depth with a much smarter woman. "As my wife [Mary Steenburgen] loves to say, I represent silly men everywhere," Danson jokes.
He's a bit surprised to be headlining his own sitcom so soon after wrapping NBC's The Good Place, on which he played repentant demon and Bad Place architect Michael. "This came out of the blue for me," the actor says. "And I was thrilled. My philosophy nowadays is, 'Wait until some amazing writer does some amazing script and then ask very nicely if you can be part of it.'"
But in this case, Danson didn't have to do any asking. As part of their development deal with NBCUniversal, Fey and Carlock work and rework various concepts, and this is no different. During the pair's 30 Rock days, a similar concept was briefly floated as a spinoff for Alec Baldwin's bombastic character. Then the creators' focus shifted to getting Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt up and running at Netflix. As that wound down in 2019, they presented a draft of the Mayor pilot to the studio. The powers-that-be "were all in as soon as the show was pitched," Universal Television president Erin Underhill says.
With a green light, the scribes then sought out a star to play Bremer. Carlock explains, "He's an older white guy trying to figure out how he fits into a changed world. We needed one of the three or four A-plus male television stars, so it was a short list." It included Danson, and before long, he had their script, and better yet, an interest.
"Well, I loved it," Danson enthuses. "It was fascinating to go, 'Oh, this is how they do comedy,' you know?" He was just as excited to challenge himself with the pair's rapid-fire joke style as well as what he calls the "perfectness" of the role: "At almost 73, to be playing some old white guy who shouldn't still be up to bat, who is in slightly over his head? That's me!"
With Danson on board, the pair began looking for an ensemble that "could hold their own with Ted," says Fey. "Then someone said Holly was willing to meet with us, and we were like, 'Really? OK!' That's another dream get."
Hunter was thrilled too. "I have been offered sitcoms over the years, but in a way, Tina and Robert have created their own genre," says the Oscar winner, who's previously led such TV dramas as TNT's Saving Grace and Sundance's Top of the Lake. And though she has tapped into her lighter side onstage and in movies, Hunter hails her costars for showing her the network comedy ropes. "I feel like Ted is mentoring me. Bobby Moynihan too. I watch them…and every time I come to the set, I'm learning something new."
Danson says Hunter doesn't need his help: "Holly is so nimble that it just feels like we've been doing this for a long time together." In a way, they have. Shooting began around a year ago, but five episodes in, COVID shut down production until recently. (It paused again in December after some people working on the show tested positive.) The initial break allowed the L.A.-based cast to bond virtually while New Yorkers Fey and Carlock figured out how to produce from home, enact protocols to keep the cast safe and rework the pilot.
True to the show's optimistic spirit, they opted to add only a few tweaks to address the pandemic. So don't expect to see masked faces or socially distanced fundraisers once this mayor takes office. "Our show takes place in a postvaccine world," says Fey. "In this universe, we are on the other side."
They have our vote on that!
Mr. Mayor, Series Premiere, Thursday, January 7, 8/7c, NBC