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Though David Denman has guest-starred on TV series like Gary Unmarried, Grey’s Anatomy, and Bones, most TV viewers would likely know him best from his role as Roy, the former fiancé of The Office’s Pam, and the main impediment to Pam getting together with lovelorn Jim on that show. Denman’s creation of Roy as a jock gone to seed, trying desperately to hold on to the few good things left in his life, became so vital to the show’s central love triangle that the writers kept him around as a viable love interest for Pam a whole season after the two characters had broken up. But Denman was eventually written out of the show, then bounced around the TV program grid, turning up in show after show as a guest star, until he landed a lead role on Fox’s new, often improvised comedy Traffic Light, airing Tuesdays at 9:30 Eastern, beginning Feb. 8. As Mike, the often overzealous married guy who tries to offer advice to his unmarried friends, Denman has created a character who has little in common with Roy but still manages to find laughs in situations as seemingly worn-out as caring for a baby and fending off the advances of a single woman. Denman talked to The A.V. Club about the process of improvising on Traffic Light, what’s fun about being a frequent guest star, and his recently filmed return to The Office.
The A.V. Club: There’s a sense that all five of you cast members are fairly comfortable with each other. It seems like that developed really quickly.
David Denman: It did develop really quickly, and we got really lucky about that. None of us had ever met before, but Nelson [Franklin] and I had gotten cast a little earlier than the rest, and we kept reading, trying to find the third Musketeer, if you will. And immediately, when we met Kris [Marshall], we had a connection, and the three of us genuinely became friends immediately and hung out outside of work. We did spend a lot of time trying to hang out, because we knew how important it was to have that camaraderie, that history that it’s hard to manufacture if you don’t spend a little bit of time with people. And we just got lucky. It kinda hit right away. And the same thing with Liza [Lapira] and I. I had read with a bunch of different actresses to play my wife, and Liza came in, and immediately we were improv-ing. I think we improv-ed through the whole test audition in front of the network executives and just immediately had chemistry there. That’s what they’re always looking for. Hopefully other people will see that and like it.
AVC: A lot of sitcoms are built around husbands and wives that don’t like each other. Your TV wife and you are very fond of each other in this. Did that attract you to the project?
DD: It did, actually. That was one of the things that [producers] Bob [Fisher] and Dave [Hemingson]—both happily married—wanted: to show a happy couple and not in a fake way, like in a real way. So often in sitcoms, it’s like, “Oh, that husband of mine. He just screwed up again.” They just have to tolerate each other. It’s not the most fun to play from my perspective. But by the same token, you can’t be like, “We’re just like Romeo and Juliet, always in love.”
For me, it’s not a sitcom, but the relationship between the couple on Friday Night Lights—Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton—it seems so real and so genuine, and I remember watching that and having been a fan of that show for years, and I’m like, “That is like a real-life couple on television, and I would so love to try to recreate something like that.” And I think when I got the script, that’s how it read to me, and I was delighted to find out that that’s exactly what Bob and Dave wanted.
AVC: Almost every network has a show about couples at three different stages of life right now, shows like Better With You and Perfect Couples. What do you think sets Traffic Light apart?
DD: I haven’t seen the others. I will say that I did read some of them. As actors, we all go through pilot season at the same time together. I don’t know what was in the water that everybody was trying to do relationship comedy again this year. But for me, this one just rang the most true and was less snarky.
So often, I think, in these relationship comedies, they don’t necessarily reflect the people that I know. They don’t reflect myself. You’re constantly looking for something that you can relate to and connect with and say, “Yeah, that’s my friends. That’s my family. Those are people I hang out with, and I know them.” I think when you’re able to create that and find that, you, I think, end up having the most potential for some success, and at least from my perspective, that’s what I was looking for. And immediately when I read the script, I immediately was like, “Yeah, I know these guys. This is my world and these are the people that I hang out with, and I would watch this show.”
AVC: It seems like you’ve guest-starred on seemingly every television show on the air. After that, does being with one character this long get a little tiring?
DD: It’s a lot better. It is fun to do the one-off guest stars on stuff. And having done numerous years on The Office with Roy, a character where there was a lot of leeway in that he doesn’t have a lot to play every week, that at a certain point got a little bit tiring, and I was really grateful that [Office executive producer] Greg Daniels allowed there to be a character shift, where all of a sudden, he wasn’t just a complete idiot but felt bad for being a bad boyfriend and wanted to try to get the girl back. It’s so rare to have that on a television show, because so often everyone wants you to be the same character every week. It was quite refreshing creatively to get to do that.
AVC: Speaking of The Office, did you feel good about how you left that show? The character didn’t leave on the greatest note.
DD: I did. It was inevitable that Romeo and Juliet had to get together. Paris had to leave. The third triangle eventually has to leave that situation. Otherwise, it gets kind of tiring and old. I think it was the appropriate time, and I had such a great experience working with all those guys, and Greg Daniels, the executive producer, was very adamant that, “This is nothing to do with you, clearly. I just need to progress this storyline to the next stage, and I think the best way for me to do that is to pull you out of the picture.”
And they had me come back in season five, and they’re constantly trying to have me come back and do something. I did an episode last week, where it’s like a flashback. Michael Scott has written a script that they read in season two, where it was like an action movie, and he’s finally finished the movie after 11 years. And he ends up having a bunch of characters from the past come back, and they’re characters in his movie. They had a bunch of people from throughout the history of The Office. Rashida Jones and a bunch of other people who have all gone on to do other things, but we all came back and did this episode, so it was really fun to come back and hang out with everybody.
AVC: What’s it like to go back on a show like that that you haven’t been on for a while and see all these people you used to work with regularly?
DD: It’s a bit surreal. It’s not so much seeing the people, because I’ve stayed in contact with a bunch of them since the show, so that wasn’t as strange. But being, like, in the warehouse, wearing the uniform of Roy again. All that is, like, “What? This is a crazy flashback from years ago!” So it’s surreal, but it was a lot of fun.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of guest spots on dramas. Are you drawn more to comedy naturally?
DD: I genuinely do both. I went to acting school, and I went to the Juilliard School Of The Arts and basically studied classical theater, and we did a little bit of everything. We did comedy and drama and improv as well, so my background is pretty fluent in both sides. It’s funny, because before I did The Office, most of the stuff I’d done on television were drama guest stars, and most of the movies I’d done had been comedies. I like doing comedy, and I’m comfortable with it, but I also have a lot of fun doing dramas, and I had debated this last pilot season if I was going to possibly do a drama. I had done a few pilots over the last couple of years, and this comedy came along, and I just really thought it was really funny and really genuine, so I decided to jump on board and give this one a go.