Martin Mull talks Dads, Lenny Bruce, and opening for The Pointer Sisters

Martin Mull talks Dads, Lenny Bruce, and opening for The Pointer Sisters

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Before he got his start as an actor, Martin Mull was a painter (he holds a master of fine arts from the Rhode Island Institute Of Design) and a musician (he recorded a bunch of albums during the 1970s, even earning a hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with the single “Dueling Tubas”), but after securing the role of Garth Gimble on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Mull quickly became a near-ubiquitous presence on TV and in film. In addition to roles in such movies as Mr. Mom and Clue, Mull also had regular roles on such series as Fernwood 2 Night and Roseanne while creating and hosting the critically acclaimed HBO series, The History Of White People In America. Currently, Mull can be found on the other side of the critical opinion poll as one of the stars of Fox’s Dads

Family Guy (2000)—“Mr. Harris”
American Dad! (2005-2011)—“Father Donovan”
Dads (2013-present)—“Crawford Whittemore”
Martin Mull: Before Dads, I had been in what I would call almost-retirement. I told my agent, “Don’t dial the phone, answer it. If somebody wants me to hold up a tube of toothpaste for a hundred grand, I’ll do it, but I’m not looking for work. I’m a painter. I’m having fun painting.” And then this script came across, and I knew it was Seth MacFarlane, I knew the other people in it, and I said, “Oh, my God, this is hilarious.” And I had to do it. It was a labor of love, which has turned into just that: a labor of love.

AV Club: You’d worked with Seth MacFarlane before, on some of his animated series.

MM: I had done the voice of Father Donovan on American Dad! And I think they even had a Martin Mull Elementary School in Family Guy. [Laughs.] 

AVC: So who is Crawford Whittemore?

MM: He’s basically a failed businessman who refuses to see failure. He thinks he has brilliant ideas all the time. He’s a freeloader living off his son and his wife. And he’s a meddler. And a bit of a dolt. 

AVC: Did they have the character pretty well established before you signed on?

MM: Yeah, they kind of did. I think one of the writers—I will be diplomatic and not say which—said he was roughly designed after his father, but certainly a lot more bumbling and oafish. But the ironic thing was that, when I met the man I was supposedly modeled after, we had on almost the same clothes. [Laughs.] And I was in wardrobe at the time, so they did a pretty good job of nailing it.

AVC: Your son is played by Giovanni Ribisi. Did you guys find your chemistry pretty quickly?

MM: Almost immediately. It was unbelievable. I’ve had such luck with this entire cast. We were saying last night—we just shot one last night—it feels like we’re in season five. The chemistry is astounding between all of us, and I’ve only ever had that happen once before, really, and that was when I met Fred Willard on the first day of shooting on a show I did called Fernwood 2 Night. That chemistry was like magic. And now here it is happening again. It’s extraordinary. And I think it’s because between Giovanni, Peter Riegert, Seth Green, and myself… Those two boys started when they were in single digits. And Peter and I have been in this business 40 years. So between the four of us, we’ve got the better part of 160 years worth of experience, and we kind of put the idiocy behind us and just do the job. There’s a lot of track record there. 

AVC: So how stunnedor notwere you when the critics came out in force against Dads during the Television Critics Association press tour? 

MM: Well, we live in litigious times, and I think everyone is looking for anything to get their nose out of joint. My basic feeling is that if human beings are capable of it, then we should be able to make fun of it. Period, end of sentence. And I was a little bit amazed that they were as vocal as they were, especially when these people, I guarantee you, if you asked them, “What do you think of Lenny Bruce?” they’d say, “Well, he was a genius.” And, of course, back in 1950, they were ready to lock him up. And the same thing with George Carlin, and so forth and so on. Time is an ally, I guess, to the maverick. But I think time will be our ally, too. I think the bottom line is, “Is it funny?” Let’s start there. 

AVC: Of course, you realize that the big takeaway from the preceding quote will be “Martin Mull compares Dads to Lenny Bruce.”

MM: Yes, of course. “Martin Mull says Dads crew should be in prison.” [Laughs.] 

AVC: With that said, though, when you first read the script, was there anything at all that gave you pause? Or was it just, “Oh well, it’s a comedy, and it’s all in good fun”?

MM: Yeah, nothing gave me pause. I don’t know if I’m terribly thick-skinned, but it didn’t bother me at all. Last night we did one that is dealing with racism very, very seriously, but it’s also trying to defuse some of these issues. Because some of these issues are really kind of rotting us away and taking up our precious time when we could be doing some good works. And I think we’re doing it with at least a modicum of taste. Not enough taste to make it unfunny, but we’re trying to deal with it as thinking beings. And amongst my friends who are not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants from Ohio like myself, I see no problems whatsoever. They’re all laughing their asses off. 

The 51st State (1970)—composer, theme song
Jump (1971)—music producer
AVC: Your first credits aren’t for acting. You composed the theme song for the show The 51st State, and then you were the music producer on the film Jump

MM: Oh, my God, you’ve reminded me of things I haven’t even thought of! But you’re absolutely right. I had a manager that I shared with a gentleman named Jonathan Edwards, who had a song called “Sunshine,” and they used that song as a track on Jump, and they asked me to do the rest of the music. It was essentially a bluegrass-y kind of thing, and back then I was at least adept enough to find good players—as opposed to being one myself—and I did that, yeah. And then for The 51st State, I did a bunch of things. That was my first thing. With Don Mischer, who was the producer on that, he of Oscar fame now. 

AVC: So how did you find your way into acting? It seems that you started out as a painter and then moved into music, and only after that did you become an actor. 

MM: And it’s still painting. I’ve been painting all along. All of this has been a way to try to put paint on my table. [Laughs.] You know, every painter I know has a day job. They’re either teaching art at some college or driving a cab or whatever. And I just happened to luck into a day job that’s extraordinary and a lot of fun and buys a lot of paint. But how did I start out to do that? 

As far as the acting thing goes, I had a musical career on the road for about 17 years or so, I had bands and so forth, and it boiled down to just my wife and I playing big rooms in Vegas, and you couldn’t ask for more than that. There were limousines and suites and the whole thing. But I got sick of it. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing for television. And I had an “in” to have an interview with Norman Lear, and I was a huge fan of Mary Hartman. I went in and talked to him for, oh, I would say a good hour. We had a great chat. And afterward he said, “We don’t need any writers. It’s been nice meeting you. I’ll see you.” And then six months later I got a call to come in and read for a part. I had never acted in anything except my draft physical. [Laughs.] And I went in, and, lo and behold, I got the thing. And that’s what started it. 

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977)—“Garth Gimble” 
MM: Garth, the wife abuser. That was a bit of an icy bath, too. In touring my live music act for all those years, I thought—or hoped—that I’d been funny, and I thought Mary Hartman was quite funny, and I thought, “Oh, boy, I don’t know shit about acting, but at least I know a little bit about being funny, so I can do this!” And then I got the character who was a wife abuser and realized that there’s, uh, really nothing funny about that. There’s nothing funny about a man verbally or physically brutalizing his wife. And it was pretty scary to try to do that. I actually had to learn how to act a bit. It’s interesting: I was on the road once promoting the show, and I got a call—I think it was in Louisiana—at the radio station where I was promo-ing, saying, “Mr. Mull, you’re the only person on TV who knows how to handle women. I wish you’d come and talk to our men’s club.” And you get chills when you hear things like that. [Laughs.] But I muddled through somehow. 

And then Norman… I was only on contract for Mary Hartman for four months, because I was under a development deal for NBC, and they said, “We’ll let you have him for four months.” And, of course, they had to kill me. And they killed me with a Christmas tree right through the thorax, as should’ve happened to this guy, too! But, of course, the very day that they put me to rest, NBC said, “Yeah, we’re not going to go forward.” And I went to Norman, and I said, “My God, does anybody ever ask to come back as their twin brother?” And he looked at me and said, “Everyone asks to come back as their twin brother.” [Laughs.] But he actually did bring me back! 

Fernwood 2 Night (1977) / America 2-Night (1978)—“Barth Gimble”
AVC: So how did the creation of Barth Gimble evolve into you and Fred Willard doing Fernwood?

MM: Well, that was something that Norman had toyed with: “What if this small town in Ohio had its own talk show?” He had that in his craw, and he wanted to do it. As I was saying, I hadn’t met Fred until the first day we shot. It was just one of those absolute windfalls of chemistry. I would sign the papers on him tomorrow, because he’s completely nuts. [Laughs.] And wonderful. Just the best person to work with.

AVC: What was the process of doing the show? It seems completely ad-libbed at times, yet that’s often just an illusion.

MM: Well, here’s what happened. Norman knew that people such as Merv Griffin would sometimes do two talk shows a day, and, of course, they’re not scripted. So he said, “We’re going to do 10 a week,” and he brought in a staff of writers, and… writing 10 scripted half-hours a week is just unheard of. You can’t do that to writers. So what happened, as I recall—and this may be apocryphal, but I pretty much remember a lot of things still—is that we were two minutes short one day, and Norman said, “Is there anything you and Fred can just talk about? It doesn’t have to be hilarious. Just talk in character.” And we said, “Yeah, we can do that for two minutes. No big deal.” And we went to finish up the show, and I think we ended up about 19 minutes over. [Laughs.] And they liked what we did enough that, from then on, first of all we cut back to six a week, still doing two a day, but a lot of it was bullet-point scripts. Say, if you were the guest, they’d tell you, “Okay, you’ve been on a spaceship, you were abducted last night, there was sexual content, and you’re going to talk to the guys about it.” And that’s all we’d know. So those actors who could ad-lib and do improv loved the show. And Fred and I loved it that way. Some people were a little off-put without having actual hard words in front of them. But not many.

AVC: Of all the guests you guys had, certainly one of the most memorable was Tom Waits. 

MM: Ah, Tom. He and I had toured together a little bit prior to that whole thing. It wasn’t our first meeting. But that was the occasion where he came up with the classic thing, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” [Laughs.] I remember that segment. Not only do you have Tom Waits sitting there, drinking Jack Daniel’s from the bottle on a talk show, but Kenneth Mars, who’d been the previous guest, had actually fallen asleep on the couch. It was just, like, the nadir of talk shows. 

FM (1978)—“Eric Swan”
MM: My very first movie job! And, again, I was terrified. [Laughs.] The hardest part about that was having my hair bleached blonde, and sitting around a salon with tinfoil in my hair. But it was a great experience, and I got some decent enough reviews out of that that it actually gave me kind of a leg up in what has been a small, very humble movie career.

AVC: How much interaction did you have with the musicians who were part of the film?

MM: I didn’t get to hang with them very much. They would shoot those things separately. Although I knew a lot of these people from the road and being a musician myself, so it was great to even have my name connected with some of these guys. Irving Azoff was a big music producer, and I thought something would come out of that for me, but what came out of it was a movie career, and really nothing to do with the music I was doing at the time. 

My Bodyguard (1980)—“Mr. Peache”
MM: I was just talking about that with people last night on the set, actually. That was an extraordinary experience because it was the first time for so many people. It was Matt Dillon’s first movie, I think Jennifer Beals’ first movie, Joan Cusack’s first movie, Tony Bill’s first directing, and here I am, this absolute neophyte, in the company of Ruth Gordon and John Houseman, which is… I mean, again, wow. And I’ll never forget an incident that was very funny, when they were talking to Ruthie about her deal. The producers were sitting down in some cafeteria or something, talking about how the thing was going to be structured, and they were saying, “Now, Ruthie, we’re gonna give you this much in front, and it’s kind of a back-end deal.” And she reached across the table, grabbed him by his necktie, pulled him forward, and she said, “Look, young man: I am 84 years old. My back end could be Friday.” [Laughs.] She said, “You pay me everything now.” That really stands out in my mind. I loved her. 

Jingle All The Way (1996)—“D.J.”
MM: That was a situation. This is amazing, you’re making me think of all these things. It was a one- or two-day shoot, and they said, “We’re going to just bring you in, shoot you out, it’ll be easy and simple, we just have to do it on a rainy day.” And this is Minneapolis in April, so I figured, “Well, if ever there’s going to be a rain situation…” And I said to my wife, “I’ll be home by the weekend!” When I went up there? Drought. I sat in a hotel room for two and a half weeks waiting for a rain day, and then they finally came to me and said, “We can’t do this to you anymore, just making you wait for a rain day, so we’re going to send you home. This is just ridiculous.” And then, of course, on that day it poured. [Laughs.] But I worked with Ah-nuld. He took me into his trailer, made me espresso, and gave me a Havana cigar. He couldn’t have been nicer.

Arrested Development (2004-2013)—“Gene Parmesan”
MM: That is amazing to me, because I consider myself kind of inconsequential, given the huge cast and how little I really did appear, but it seems like there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t walk down the street somewhere and have someone holler out, “Gene Parmesan!” It’s amazing the following that show has. And I’d worked with Mitch Hurwitz on The Ellen Show—he was the head of that show at one point—and we became friends, so when he called, I think he’s hilarious, and I pounced at the chance. And I did some more in the latest run. It’s one of the fastest projects I’ve ever been in. You would literally get out of the makeup chair with the Kleenex still in your collar and be handed scripts to learn for the first time while a cameraman was putting tape marks on the floor where you’re standing and shooting you. It was that fast. It was unbelievable. 

AVC: Are you referring to the latest episodes?

MM: No, those were the early ones, actually. The last ones were slightly more relaxed. But they were still just jamming it in. It’s amazing. But it’s so enervating to work at that pace. I don’t like to rehearse. I think that there’s a quality to a virgin run on any line that has a freshness and an energy that you don’t get ever again, so I love working that way.

The Ellen Show (2001-2002)—“Mr. Munn”
AVC: Since you brought it up, how was working on The Ellen Show? It didn’t last terribly long—not that Ellen didn’t land on her feet—but it at least gave her an opportunity to do a sitcom where her sexuality was established from the get-go.

MM: I had a great time. You know, people talk about these different issues—“Oh, we had troubles, we had this, we had that”—but my wife calls me Little Big Man. I just kind of float, dancing between the raindrops, and I just had a great time with Jim Gaffigan and Kerri Kenney and Ellen and everybody! So when somebody says, “Oh, they pulled the plug,” I go, “Why would you do that? I don’t understand!” I’m still just this idiot from Ohio. [Laughs.]

Sabrina, The Teenage Witch (1997-2000)—“Principal Willard Kraft”
MM: The main reason I was anxious to do that was that my daughter was 10 or 11 at the time, and there was no bigger show with 10- or 11-year-old girls in the world than Sabrina. So I thought, “My God, I can also curry favor with my daughter,” who was about to enter into those teenage years where you’re nothing but just a bag of crap if you’re a father. [Laughs.] You just have no idea. You’re dated, you’re dumb. So I got a few months out of that. But that was great fun, too. And it’s so funny that last night, the director on the episode of Dads that we did was David Trainer, who used to do a bunch of Sabrinas. So it’s a very small town. 

Cher (1976)—himself
Mr. Mom (1982)—“Ron Richardson”
MM: Ah, Mr. Mom! That also was fabulous, because Teri Garr has been a dear friend of mine for my entire life. But I think my very first non-talk-show television thing was on the Cher show—this would be about 250 years ago—and Teri was part of the repertory company there, and we became fast friends. I can’t even tell you when that was, but it was in the ’70s, and the rep company was Teri, myself, a guy named Jack Riley, Steve Martin… But Teri and I became great friends, and to work with her again on Mr. Mom, that was wonderful. And the line that seems to come back, that everyone remembers, is when I say to Michael Keaton, “Are you going to wire this thing yourself?” He says, “Yeah.” I say, “You gonna go 220?” He says, “220, 221, whatever it takes.” [Laughs.] That was a little ad-lib that we just threw in, but every carpenter or construction person I’ve ever worked with, they’re always quoting that line from Mr. Mom.

Rock Concert (1973)—host
AVC: As long as you’re going back 250 years, what do you remember about hosting Rock Concert?

MM: Um… did I? [Laughs.]

AVC: Reportedly. If it’ll ring any bells, the guests were The Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie…

MM: Oh, yeah! I got signed to the same label as The Allman Brothers, which was Capricorn Records, and we did a Rock Concert out of the Opera House in Macon, Georgia. And why they ever signed me along with people like The Allman Brothers and The Marshall Tucker Band… I don’t see the common chord myself. [Laughs.] I felt completely odd. But I was grateful for it, believe me!

AVC: This seems like as good a time to delve into your musical career. How did you find your way into a record deal? You said you played on the road for quite awhile, but did you actively go looking for a deal, or did someone reach out to you?

MM: This fella Jonathan Edwards, I think he also had a deal with Capricorn Records, so my manager had an “in” with them, and he set up an audition in New York for my band to play for the heads of Capricorn. And we set something up in a little club, and afterwards they said, “This is the worst thing we’ve ever seen. Ever. Don’t bother with us at all ever again.” But in the meantime we’d gone into the studio and made a tape, and we sent that as well, and that had already been in the mail. And they said, “Now this is more like it!” And my manager had to say, “It’s the same people!” And they said, “Well, we couldn’t hear a word of what he was saying!” Apparently, the strength of my stuff, I guess, was my lyrics, and they couldn’t hear anything at the nightclub thing that we did, so they passed on us, completely and utterly. But once they heard the tape, they signed us. 

AVC: Looking at the list of people Wikipedia says that you played with over the years—if even some of them are true, it’s pretty amazing: Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen…

MM: Yeah! Well, not Springsteen. I never played with him. But Zappa and I did a show together, Randy Newman and I used to do shows together. Liza Minnelli and I did shows together! The Pointer Sisters, Manhattan Transfer, Melissa Manchester… everybody!

AVC: Is there one pairing that you felt was particularly ridiculous?

MM: Particularly ridiculous? Spooky Tooth in Philly? That was kind of ridiculous. But, no, the most ridiculous I remember was opening for The Pointer Sisters in Washington, D.C., for a midnight show. And, uh, that was not my crowd. And I went out there, and I realized it within 40 seconds! But, you know, there’s a contractual obligation, so I gave them at least 20 minutes, at which point I said something to the effect of “good night and thank you,” walked to the wings, and there was tumultuous applause when I left. And the promoter’s telling me, “You’ve got to get back out there! Hear that? Hear that? They love you! Get back out there!” I said, “No, no, you don’t understand. This is my exit they’re applauding.” And he talked me into going back, I went back out there… I had my easy chair onstage as part of my set decoration, and I heard a lady in the front row say, “I told you not to clap so loud.” At which point I pretended to be looking for loose change in the cushions of my chair. I said, “I thought I left something here. I didn’t. Good night, everybody!” And I left for good. [Laughs.] That was a pretty bad evening.

AVC: As far as your recorded work, are either of the best-of collections a good representation of your music, or is there a particular studio album that’s a better one?

MM: I prefer the studio albums, because most of the time I didn’t carry a band, so when I went into the studio to actually produce something, I had my pick of some of the best jazz and rock ’n’ roll players in the world. I had Ray Brown playing bass for me, Richard Davis and Ron Carter, people like that. That was always a treat, to have really great players come in and try to make my music sound like something. 

AVC: By the way, did you really coin the expression “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” as has been suggested on occasion?

MM: You know, I believe I had heard that as an apocryphal story, that “talking about art is like dancing about architecture.” Apparently, it had happened at a lecture at Pratt Institute, in New York. I always preface it by saying, “I understand that this happened, but I’m not sure it did.” [Laughs.]

Clue (1985)—“Colonel Mustard”
Psych (2013)—“Highway Harry”
MM: It’s amazing the resurgence that this thing has had. It’s starting to take on the coloration of a cult film, almost like Rocky Horror or something. There’s parties now, I just got an invitation that some high school here’s doing a big fund raiser with a Clue theme, and I’m supposed to call Lesley Ann Warren and see if she and I can do a walkthrough. And I did an episode of this show called Psych, and that was a spoof of Clue. It won’t go away. It’s amazing. And that was a lot of fun, but in all honesty, it was a lot funnier off camera than it was on. The stuff when you’re dealing with Michael McKean and Madeline Kahn and all the other people who were in this thing… It was hilarious. But then we had to tone it down for the camera! [Laughs.]

Get A Life (1991)—“Sandy Connors”
MM: I just got done doing a little pilot thing with Chris [Elliott] this past year, actually, so I saw him fairly recently. It was the only time I’ve been in bed with another man on a show. [Laughs.] But not only did I want to do it because I thought it was a hilarious show, and it was great fun, but I had been for all my life just a diehard fan of Bob And Ray. If anyone ever asks, “Who was your inspiration?” it would be Bob And Ray, no question, hands down. And here was Bob Elliott actually on the show. So I got to meet my hero. And that was extraordinary. 

AVC: So did Robert Altman give you the job on The Player as an apology for O.C. And Stiggs?

MM: You know, that’s as good an explanation as I’ve ever heard. [Laughs.] Actually, Bob and I became friends on O.C. And Stiggs—I miss him dearly—and I think he was just throwing me a bone at that point. 

AVC: Jon Cryer said that he loved working with Altman, but he clearly regretted that the experience had to be on O.C. And Stiggs

MM: I agree, but you know, I wish I could’ve worked with Altman on all of his films. Bob was an amazing filmmaker and an amazing paternal figure. He was the most avuncular of anybody I’ve ever met in a directorial capacity, and it was an amazing experience. But just hanging with him is fun. In fact, I presented an award to him about a year before he died, and I knew he’d had a heart transplant, so I said something in the award thing about how “Bob just got the heart of a 38-year-old woman, which was not the part he was after.” [Laughs.] And he just laughs at stuff like that.

AVC: One thing in particular Cryer mentioned about the experience of making O.C. And Stiggs was the memory of Robert Altman having to show the special effects guys the proper way to fling bird poop on the cast.

MM: [Laughs.] That’s right! The other thing I remember about him was that, when he first hired me for O.C. And Stiggs, I’d never met the man, but he walked up the steps of my house when I was living in the Hollywood Hills, and he literally throws a script at me from a distance of about six or eight feet. He says, “Mull, you’re my second choice!” I said, “Really.” He said, “Yeah. I wanted to get Walter Cronkite, but the son of a bitch won’t get off his boat.” So I thought, “What on Earth part could be right for both me in my 30s and Walter Cronkite in his 60s?” And I said, “What part is it?” He said, “An Italian dress designer.” That’s when I knew he was certifiably nuts. 

As I say, he threw the script at me, and he said, “Here’s the script. But don’t read it. We’ll never shoot it.” So I knew at that point in time that this was going to be an adventure. And it truly was. Because he’d mike everyone, no matter what, and… On a film of his, you will either be in the scene, starring in it, or you’ll be asked to go pick somebody up at the airport, and the guy who works behind the lunch counter at the hotel where you’re staying will be the star of the scene because Bob decided to do so. It was amazing. It was the most egalitarian situation I’ve ever been in. There’s no one above the line or below. It’s all just one line. 

Wonder Woman (1977)—“Hamlin Rule”
MM: [Bursts out laughing.] You are a son of a bitch! Oh, my God. I think that was one of my first, shall we say, dramatic performances. First of all, no man should ever be forced to wear a jumpsuit, including Elvis. And, yeah, I played a crazed flautist, and I ended up being lassoed by the bullet-breasted Lynda Carter in her little outfit. It was insane. And I remember the script was written by somebody who was somewhere between 90 and death, and in it I was supposed to be this young, with-it kind of musician, and the word “hep” was in there. That’s “h-e-p.” I pointed out to the director, “This is a typo, of course. He wouldn’t say that. He would say ‘hip.’” And he looked at me, and he said [Growling.] “You read it as written.” So I actually used the word “hep.” It’s amazing the things you’re making me recall. At least I realize I’m not dealing with insipient Alzheimer’s here. I’m 70, and I can actually remember some of this shit. 

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1989-1990)—himself 
The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1993)—himself 
AVC: How long have you known Garry Shandling? Because not only were you on The Larry Sanders Show, but you were also on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show

MM
: I’ve kind of lost touch with him of late. I haven’t seen him in a couple of years. But we were very tight there for about 10 years or so, and he and his girlfriend at the time, Linda Doucett, and my wife and I were kind of a happy foursome, doing a lot of stuff together. I think he’s absolutely hilarious. There are a lot of comics that you see onstage, and once they hit the microphone, they’re funny, no question. But there are a lot of comics that, offstage, are about as funny as your accountant going over an audit. And Garry is the same man both on and off. He is hilarious. There are a few people like that. Albert Brooks is that way. He’s hilarious. My pal Steve Martin still makes me laugh all the time. We’ve known each other for 40 years and still hang out all the time. Same with Eugene Levy. He’s a very dear friend, and he’s funny as hell. But there are a number that aren’t. 

Teamo Supremo (2002)—“Governor Kevin”
Danny Phantom (2004-2007)—“Vlad Masters / Vlad Plasmus”
AVC: You’ve done some animated work, but beyond the Seth MacFarlane stuff we talked about earlier, it looks like the most substantial gigs you’ve had were on Teamo Supremo and Danny Phantom

MM: Yep, I did those. What’s nice about doing cartoon work is you didn’t have to shave, or even shower. It’s just your voice. And you get multiple attacks at it, and you don’t have to learn it. You can actually have a piece of paper in front of you, and you can read it. It’s as close to stealing as I know. 

Domestic Life (1984)—“Martin Crane”
MM: Steve Martin was the executive producer on that. We did, I think, six of those. A couple of salient things about that… For one, unless I’m really wrong here, I believe we were voted by Time as one of the top 10 shows of the year on the same day CBS canceled us. And the other thing that sticks in my mind, other than just having a ball doing it, because it was my first starring role, was that Tom Hanks was our warm-up man. He would warm up the audience for us. I don’t know whatever happened to that kid, but he was very good at that. 

Roseanne (1991-1997)—“Leon Karp”
MM: Well, here’s the situation. Tom [Arnold] and Roseanne used to live about three doors from us, and I’d met Rosie a few times and knew Tom just tangentially, and we’re out walking one day, and Tom says, “Oh, by the way, we want to put you on the show.” And at that time, they were number one, and I was absolutely delighted. So I said, “Absolutely!” And he said, “You’re going to play Roseanne’s boss,” and I said okay. And he said, “I gotta tell ya, though: You’re gay.” And there was a brief pause, but immediately in my brain I said, “No one actually believed that Eddie Murphy was Gumby.” So I said, “Sure!” 

But my real concern was not that I would be playing gay, but that I would catch some flack in the Hollywood community because there were innumerable gay actors who could’ve played the thing and be offered the part, and here I was, a straight guy coming in to play it, and I thought there’d be some umbrage there. I said, “The main thing that I want to make sure about is that, beyond anything, whether he’s gay or straight, the most important thing is that he’s an asshole.” [Laughs.] Because that’s what I love to play. And they said, “Absolutely! There’s going to be no limp-wristed mincing or lisping or anything like that.” I said, “Good. Then I’ll just play him as I am.” And we ended up actually getting some awards to that effect, and some thank yous. It worked out really well. 

AVC: So whose idea was it to eventually have you marry Fred Willard on the show, yours or the producers?

MM: I think it was the producers’ idea. And it wasn’t a bad one. [Laughs.] It was wonderful. I’ll never forget the first time we see the two of us together in a scene, there was a little ad lib. He was sitting at the lunch counter at the loose-meat place, with his back to me, and I walk in the door, and I said, “Oh, Scott! I’d know the back of that head anywhere.” And no one in Standards And Practices got the joke until Friday night, when it got a huge laugh. That’s when they finally realized and went, “Oh, my God,” and they completely pulled the plug on the line.

One of my biggest memories from then is when I’m just getting ready to marry Fred, and I’m questioning my sexuality with Roseanne in a scene. I’m basically asking her, “Well, what if I’m not gay?” And I grab her, and there’s a long kiss between Roseanne and I, as close to passionate as I could manage. And I pulled back away from her, and I said, “Oh, yuck. I’m gay.” And that was probably the biggest applause I’ve ever gotten anywhere. [Laughs.] 

The History Of White People In America (1985-1986)—himself
MM: Very proud of it. Extremely proud of it. I think it was ahead of its time. I don’t think you could make it today, in our current climate. What was nice about it, though, was that I got free Mexican food from a place. They said, “Oh, man, you do that show that makes fun of white people! Here, it’s on us!” [Laughs.] I just thought we had a great cast, it was a joy to write, and we won the Writers Guild Award for it and a Cable ACE back when they gave those out. 

And I’ll never forget, I was actually driving out of the Paramount parking lot one night after dark, and I saw this kind of large, looming figure coming toward my car, this African-American man, and he raps on my window. And I roll down my window—and it’s Mike Tyson. And he says, “You Martin Mull?” You know that voice of his. And I said, “Yeah?” He said, “You do The History Of White People In America?” I said, “Yeah?” And he sticks out his hand, and he says, “Really fucking funny, man!” [Laughs.] And he shakes my hand with a hand that looks like a first baseman’s mitt. I’ve never seen a bigger hand in my life. And I thought, “Okay, I had my card punched. Good.” 

Two And A Half Men (2008-2013)—“Russell”
MM: Okay, here’s what age will do to you. There was this scene where, in very short order, I’m supposed to be Charlie’s mother’s date. They want to fix me up with Charlie’s mother, and instead I show up at the house with my own date, this 22-year-old beautiful, beautiful young fashion model. A Miss Sweden kind of gal. And when the door opens, we’re supposed to be in this deep kiss and embrace, and she said, “Go for it,” and I said, “Okay!” And I’m feeling really good about myself, feeling, “Hey, I’m still young enough to do this, I can still be the leading man.” I wear hearing aids, and these hearing aids have little pre-recorded messages every now and then for you. Just as our lips meet, I hear in one ear—in a female voice, no less—the words, “Battery low!” [Laughs.] And no one else heard it, but to hear that message just as your lips are about to meet those of a beautiful young girl? It lets you know that, you know, you may have been too long at the fair.