Picks to Snicker

Rich Man, Poor Man, Funny Man, Stephen Root

If they handed out awards for comedic contributions to specific nights of network television (hey, there's a snappy category to add to the People's Choice Awards), it's a cinch that actor Stephen Root would snag this year's MVP honors for Tuesday. That's the night he's been scoring comedic goals week after week on not one, but two TV comedies: NBC's NewsRadio, on which he's been playing filthy rich and wildly capricious station owner Jimmy James for the past four years; and FOX's King of the Hill, on which he provides voices for all sorts of citizens in the hamlet of Arlen, Texas, from Bill Dauterive to Brother Timmy. It was chance that led fidgety programming execs at two networks to relocate both of these smarter-than-the-average-sitcom comedies to Tuesdays this season (and chance that kept them from being scheduled opposite each other), but the happy result for viewers in the know has been a chance to relish what one Web wag calls "the Stephen Root Hour." It's our chance to enjoy this accomplished comic actor gleefully creating a gallery of some of the most appealing eccentrics on the tube today. He's like some comedic equivalent of hometown Heisman hero Ricky Williams -- give him a line or comic bit and you can count on him to charge ahead with all the talent at his disposal and make the score.

And as with Williams, the past year has been exceptional for Root, with more and more folks taking notice of the actor and, consequently, more and more work for him. In addition to the two prime-time series, Root managed to squeeze in some feature film work, playing the browbeaten cubicle hermit Milton in Mike Judge's live-action feature debut Office Space, and a bit of cable action in Tom Hanks' epic ode to the space race, From the Earth to the Moon. Asked if this is the busiest year in his career, the actor offers an unqualified, "Absolutely. I got totally inundated there for a while." If the projects weren't back-to-back, they were overlapping, and for most of the past year, he says, "I've had time to sleep and go to work and come home and sleep again, and that's about it." He expresses relief at having enough time now to turn his trip to Austin for BS4's King of the Hill love-fest into a road trip that will allow him and his son to mosey across the South, visiting relatives.

Not that he's complaining about the work, you understand. It doesn't take any more than a few minutes of conversation with Stephen Root to realize he prizes his current career situation, no matter how little free time it leaves him. He praises the quality of the writing on both series with which he's involved. He speaks enthusiastically about the creative visions driving both shows, the pleasure of the work, and especially the dream of performing with two groups of gifted actors. "I'm so blessed to be in two ensemble casts. To get that kind of opportunity, you just luck into it."

As he talks about the open atmosphere on the NewsRadio set, a touch of amazement creeps into his voice, almost as if he still finds it hard to believe how good he has it. "An ensemble of that high a caliber ... the creative freedom to have input on the scripts. We rewrite about 30% of the scripts on the floor." There's a pause. "And you don't do that." It's clear that the his experience with this underrated gem in the peacock's nest -- for which every season has been a test for its audience to find it on the schedule and for which every season renewal has been a battle -- will stand as something special. "Whether or not NewsRadio gets picked up next year," he states emphatically, "I'll be proud of what we did."

If he takes any less pride in the animated series on which he's featured, it's almost impossible to tell. He describes the recording sessions for King of the Hill as being every bit the creative workout and thrill that performing in a live-action series is. "We still stand there and act it out," he insists, and it leads him to discuss the recent shift in the way cartoons are recorded. "Before The Simpsons, almost all the work on cartoons was voice work. Now we have real acting on cartoons. The Simpsons caused a great change and I'm very happy about it. There are a lot of great voice actors, but there are a lot of great actors, too, who can do that acting on cartoons."

Though our conversation is brief, Root shares two stories, both about readings, that contribute insight into his value as an actor. Story One: When Root read for the NewsRadio pilot, the character of Jimmy James was little like the quirky figure we know now; he was much closer to the mainstream station owner of sitcoms past. "But I didn't want to do Mr. Carlson on WKRP," says Root. "I didn't want to do Lou Grant. I wanted to do something drier, hipper, because that's the kind of humor I like." He went to the reading, tried his dry, hip variation, and was told by series creator Paul Simms, "That was about 180 degrees from what I wanted, but let's go with it." He was hired, and he, Simms, and James Burrows shared the character into our Jimmy James. Story Two: When Mike Judge had a reading of the Office Space script for executives at Fox, Root was invited to do a part. "I looked at the psychiatrist and a couple of the Bobs," he says. "So we went up to Fox and about five minutes before we were gonna read, he says, 'You know, Root, you want to read Milton.'" And Judge showed Root a one-minute reel of animation in which this bespectacled victim of the office wars first appeared. Root connected with the character instantly, and when filming began, it was Root behind Milton's Coke-bottle lenses. What these tales tell us is that Stephen Root is an actor with terrific instincts and the kind of comic skill that inspires great trust in directors. They cast him knowing that he will deliver.

About the only thing he may not be able to deliver is a derogatory comment. When given the chance to spill some career-crushing, humiliating dirt about his pal Judge -- even as an April Fool's gag -- Root balked. He couldn't think of a thing, even in jest. "He's like the nicest person in the world. The man is a genius. He's an incredible guitarist and keyboardist. He's a great voice actor. There's nothing bad you can say about him."

It's not a joke, but Stephen Root scores again.

Johnny Hardwick

The Coolest Guy Around ... He Thinks

by Marc Savlov

While you may not recognize the name immediately, Austinite Johnny Hardwick's nasal whine as the conspiracy theory-prone Dale Gribble on FOX's King of the Hill is unmistakable. Hardwick, who spent time in the trenches of the local Velveeta Room before hightailing it out to Los Angeles to work on the Mike Judge/Greg Daniels show three years ago, spoke to me over the phone from his office about the rise and apparent fall of King... and the hell that is the L.A. comedy scene.

Austin Chronicle: How did you latch on to the King of the Hill gig, anyway?

Johnny Hardwick: I was doing a comedy showcase out in L.A. and Greg Daniels happened to be there with his wife, who was a development person at WB at the time (now she's the president of that). So I happened to be on this stage talking about my dad in Texas, and Greg just sort of hired me as a writer. And then, after a series of incredibly lengthy auditions, I ended up with the part of Dale Gribble.

AC: Had you known Mike before that or was this just sort of a lucky coincidence?

JH: I had known of Mike, but we weren't really acquainted at the time even though he lived in Austin. Originally they offered the part to Daniel Stern -- I think he's Dilbert now, but he used to do the voiceover on The Wonder Years -- which I can't even imagine. Apparently, he wanted a whole bunch of money and they weren't willing to negotiate with him, so I ended up getting the part. And, you know, it's pretty much his loss since we've been able to renegotiate since then. I don't think he had the imagination to see what the show could be.

AC: Was the character of Dale pretty fleshed-out to begin with or did you have to do some major tweaking? He's such an odd guy. ...

JH: Well, at the point they dropped Stern, I had not really locked into the character myself. Then I had some kind of epiphany while listening to William S. Burroughs one night and I just got it. I knew what Dale looked like from the start, but that was all we had. I wasn't sure how he'd sound.

AC: And that attitude? Where'd that come from?

JH: I thought that in the pilot he was written to be pretty dumb -- he was mispronouncing things and all kinds of weird stuff. I ended up kind of basing his attitude on if he thought he was Jack Nicholson but he wasn't, or if he just thought he was the coolest guy around, like Matthew McConaughey's character in Dazed and Confused. The thing that they did have in Mike's original pilot was that he was a conspiracy person, which I thought was a great touch.

AC: Since the show's been reslotted to Tuesday night from Sunday, the ratings have really taken a beating. How are things looking from that angle?

JH: Well, over the past year it hasn't fared well at all -- it's the lowest-rated sitcom on television. We're 82nd in the ratings. The decision to make that schedule change [to Tuesday nights] was Peter Roth's, who was at the time the President of FOX. [Roth has since lost his job because of it.] It was the stupidest decision in the history of network television as far as I'm concerned. The only good thing about it in my mind is that at least we're on all the time now. When we were on Sundays after The Simpsons and before The X-Files, they were constantly pre-empting us to show their new shows, which were always horrible failures. They would bump us for weeks at a time right after we'd been on for a year and everybody loved us. FOX is so fixated on that time-slot.

AC: I know you started off doing stand-up at the Velveeta Room down on Sixth Street, right? Have you continued to do stand-up since moving to L.A. or are you too busy with the show these days?

JH: I don't necessarily like the stand-up scene in L.A. all that much. I saw a show recently that was really good because there was this kind of alternative comedy movement to it (which I didn't necessarily agree with, but it has gotten a lot better).

AC: Like what?

JH: It's more like what we used to do at the Velveeta Room -- and what still goes on at the Velveeta Room -- which is that the people are not trying to be real cool or anything, they're just up there doing really good comedy. I've always thought that the Velveeta Room was the funniest room in America. Out here a lot of the comics are trying to get development deals and sitcoms and that sort of thing and they're more aware of that kind of thing. It's a little cliquish out here, and also there's a tendency that when you do your act, all of the sudden your jokes start appearing on sitcoms. I don't know how, but somehow that happens.

AC: So how about when you're here for BS4? Can we look forward to any impromptu stand-up from you or is it strictly King-time?

JH: I haven't written any new stand-up jokes in a few years and I have absolutely no interest in going up and spouting off those same jokes that I've spouted off a hundred times before. Where I'm working now, I'm having to come up with new funny stuff all the time, non-stop, and it's always fresh, so that's probably what's pulled me away from stand-up temporarily. It's going to be pretty much King of the Hill, really.

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