First and foremost: creator John Enbom, who shared creator credit on 'Party Down' with Paul Rudd, Dan Etheridge and Rob Thomas, whom Enbom first teamed up with after working in the writers room on Thomas' other other cult favorite series 'Veronica Mars.'
But possibly even more important than pedigree here is set-up. Much like the Casey-Henry 'Party Down' romance rollercoaster, 'Free Agents' PR execs Alex (Hank Azaria) and Helen (Kathryn Hahn) get the wham-bam-thank you ma'am out of the way really early on. It's the "what now?" that drives their relationship -- at work and in the bedroom -- as opposed to the more popular "will they/won't they" dilemma. They did already, and as Enbom, Azaria and Hahn all promise, they will again and again.
And thirdly, well, let's just say they'd welcome any 'Party Down' alums to stop by for a guest spot.
For now, there's a big ensemble cast to get to know, including Anthony Head as their childish and impulsive boss Stephen; Natasha Leggero as Emma, the nosy, manipulative, sharp-tongued executive assistant; Al Madrigal as married Gregg and Mo Mandel as ladies man Dan, two guys who always seem to be there with moral support and a good punchline; and Joe Lo Truglio as Walter, the office security guard.
I visited the set of 'Free Agents' (previews Wed., Sept. 14, 10:30PM ET on NBC) to find out more about the affair between those two heartbroken coworkers and how it affects their working relationship and the rest of the office. "I love that these people are PR agents, and their business is spin and damage control," Hahn said, "and yet they cannot get a handle on their personal lives at all ... they're messes."
Check out some highlights from my chats with Azaria, Hahn, Head, Leggero, Madrigal and Enbom to learn more about what makes this new show tick.
I liked the balance, the sex to workplace ratio, in the pilot.
Azaria: It remains high, I can report that, at least through the first four episodes.
Enbom: That was fine-tuned ... we figured out the exact right ratio of sex to workplace. It's like 4:2. Or something. Maybe 3:7. [Laughs] We're ironing it out.
Hahn: I think it's pretty even. Those lines are really, really blurry. I think it happens a lot when people work that hard and that close together for those long hours. I understand why it happens. Even here, we had to do this big legal sexual harassment thing that all shows have to do before they start shooting, and the lawyer was saying, "We understand that workplace romances happen. Just tell your superiors!" People understand that it's gonna happen ... it's just how to minimize the fallout after it falls apart.
Well, and the nice thing with Alex and Helen is that they've already done it and gotten it over with!
Enbom: Yes! [Laughs] That's our theme. We did that in 'Party Down,' too ... how long can you keep that going? So we just decided that relationships become more interesting once people have gotten past that. We've been calling this the anti-romantic comedy because it's been stripped of the romance of the "will they or won't they." That's, perhaps, a touch more old fashioned. Now we have the people who have already been through that and it all fell apart, and now they're doing the opposite side of it. Like what it's like when all those happier illusions have kind of been stripped away?
Hahn: You meet Helen and Alex and it's not like "will they or won't they," they've done it. In the first scene! And now what? That's what's so brilliant. Now it's like seeing their relationship twist and turn in so many different ways. It's inevitable ... they're really special to each other, but they're gonna date other people, they're gonna get jealous, they're gonna be friends and they're gonna hate each other, which I'm so excited for.
Azaria: It's always lurking even when it's not happening. If you saw 'Party Down,' John is really good at sort of stringing a very believable relationship along, and he usually starts with people like, "Well we slept together. Now what?" As opposed to "When are we... ?" It's like OK, we've gotten that out of the way, but it's always sort of going on, almost off-handedly. It's not the focus of what's going on.
Are you anything like your character in real life?
Azaria: He is a lot like me in real life, actually. You know, when I was going through a divorce I had a similar sad aura about me for quite a while, so I relate to that. I maybe didn't cry in public quite as much as he does, but close. I think I was actually in worse shape because I was more miserable than he was and I wasn't able to actually express it. Back then, we weren't so worried about TMZ though. That has cleaned up a lot of bad behavior, knowing, "Well this might be on TMZ, I better just take it easy."
Leggero: She's saucy, but surprisingly clueless when it comes to men. She's just a little ineffectual, which I can kind of relate to. She doesn't know how to flirt. She's just looking at it in a very measured, intellectual, critical way. She's just very driven in terms of what she wants. Hopefully we'll be able to see her softer side eventually.
Head: There is an innocence about him ... he says the first thing that comes to his head, however appropriate or inappropriate that might be. I think having the ability to switch off the governing can make people creatively genius. There is that thing about genius ... like some of those genius chess players are actually loose cannons when it comes to their lives. But I'm not saying Stephen is necessarily like a chess player! [Laughs] Nor am I!
Enbom: It's funny because, in a way, Kathryn and Hank are sort of playing opposite themselves, where Kathryn's character is supposed to be this more polished, professional character who keeps all her emotions in check. Whereas in reality, she's just all over the place. And Hank is the opposite. He's a much more buttoned-down guy who's playing this emotional mess of a character.
Hahn: I haven't been asked to be this polished in a long time! I've been like growing out my armpit hair for parts, wearing my white girl dreads. I feel kind of like a tranny, but I love it -- I'm having such a ball. "I'll do it for the part!" she says in her gorgeous Michael Kors shift and Prada shoes. [Laughs] I love it.
It's an extremely funny cast, even the non-comedians in the bunch.
Madrigal: NBC has really funny ensembles -- 'Community,' 'Parks and Recreation' and I'm not even going to 'The Office' well -- so if we come even close to what they've already done, we're in good shape.
Azaria: Most of them are stand-ups, and then Tony, Kathryn and I have done a lot of comedy, so yeah, everybody's really funny, and John's been great at writing to that. I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, and the more I do this, the more I feel like he's sort of a post-modern Woody Allen-ish character. He expresses a lot of angst and depression through sarcasm and observation. He expresses his emotions through his humor a lot in an attempt to feel better.
Head: I mean Hank and Kathryn, I have to take my hat off to them. They do ad-lib really beautifully. It's almost seamless. But Stephen ... one of the things that's sort of built into the show is he has these little epithets for everybody. He calls people pet names. So I do have two or three or four up my sleeve that I'll sort of throw in. I'm trying not to shock! [Laughs] The idea is they should sound like something extremely rude without actually being rude. I called Helen my little forklift. [Laughs]
Leggero: Kathryn and Hank are very, very funny people. Usually when you're around actors, you're just dying to get around a comedian. Like, please, please, somebody who understands my dark side. [Laughs] But not here. It's fun to have fun when you're working. I had the same experience on 'Last Comic Standing,' being able to sit between Greg Giraldo and Andy Kindler. It was just like belly laughs all day long, and so is this. You can't really want more than that from a job.
Hahn: I'm sad he's not here today, but we're so lucky to have Joe Lo Truglio. He is so incredible, and just to see him in that security guard outfit is so painful, and he just adds such a dark, twisted nugget to the storyline. He's so good.
Who's the funniest when the cameras stop rolling?
Azaria: That's tough on this set, because there are some genuine comedic minds running around. But in her own way, honestly, Kathryn, because she's so wacky in a very delightful way. Or maybe she's just the loudest. I also have a soft spot for Al's particular brand of humor. I find him really hilarious. It's a good marriage, this character and his sense of humor.
Madrigal: Kathryn Hahn is totally awesome. She is very funny -- I haven't met too many comedic actresses that are this funny, non-stop. She's hilarious.
Enbom: Kathryn is well known for her craziness. She recently poked herself in the eye with a doll toilet. [Laughs] It only got better!
Hahn: They're just all blowing smoke up it. That's ridiculous! I'm paying them very, very, very well. But for some reason, Anthony Head just absolutely kills me. And Al! There's something about his eyebrows, and he is so dropped into this character in the best way.
Head: I haven't done that many scenes with Mo or Al, Natasha or Joe, but really they are all hilarious.
Leggero: It is so fun to be working with Kathryn and Hank because, you know, they really are like professionals on a level that I don't think any of us have ever worked with. We're comedians. We're like the people who got Ds in high school, at least in conduct. It's good to be around people who are really at the top of their game.
Who are you dream guest stars?
Enbom: We don't have a small cast, so a lot of our work goes into keeping them employed, basically. But I hope to try to dig into the Rolodex at some point and haul all our 'Party Down' people in here. We shall see -- I would love to get that cast in here since they were so awesome to work with.
Hahn: Oh, they have to! They have to be on the show! And [Paul] Rudd would be such a ball to have on, and my friend Kerri Kenney, I just think she's such a genius. What can we do to get like Jennifer Aniston to do a guest spot? She would be amazing. She's so good.
Leggero: I want to try to get Chelsea Handler to come. Maybe she could play herself, have like a little PR crisis. [Laughs] And I want Martin Short to come in and battle for the assistant job with me. I just love him.
Azaria: Oliver Platt's a good friend of mine ... I definitely want to get him in here. And it'd be good to get Blythe Danner ... that'd be funny if my character was like a big 'Huff' fan. Always talking about it like, "Man, 'Huff' was good!" I think Judy Greer is coming in to do something -- I think she's going to play Helen's sister-in-law.
Madrigal: I would love Martin Short and I would love Rick Moranis. I have a picture ... the very little art that we have in our house, I have a picture of Rick Moranis with a colander on his head. 'I'm the gatekeeper! I'm the key master!' Also, Joe Flaherty ... all the SCTV guys, why not? If we're gonna have fake clients [on this show], let's fake client it up! Martin Short as the boss boss coming in would be fantastic.