LOS ANGELES – A few minutes before rehearsal for “The Millers,” the season’s No. 1 new comedy, Will Arnett was spotted taking a smoke break with the episode’s special guest star: Tommy Chong.
A 1970s staple best known for stoner bits may seem like an odd intruder on a mainstream sitcom with characters whose idea of cutting loose is having a second glass of white zinfandel after a meatloaf dinner. But, in many ways, his appearance fits snugly into the show’s formula, which appears to be that there is no formula.
The series, which revolves around a recently separated couple (Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale) who move in with different adult children (Arnett and Jayma Mays), has an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink philosophy, which means that the dialogue transitions from smart zingers to bathroom humor at the drop of a whoopie cushion.
The approach threatens to give viewers a severe case of whiplash, but if you find yourself groaning over a 60-something mother unable to control her flatulence, you can be pretty certain you’ll be chuckling a few minutes later at her clever ability to manipulate her son/roommate.
“There’s a lot of serious stuff going on these days, and we’re kind of silly,” said Bridges, heaping praise on show creator Greg Garcia and resident director James Burrows, the Steven Spielberg of the sitcom world. “They know how to do their jobs. There’s lots of confidence all around.”
But knowledge of craft isn’t why “The Millers” is a hit. The main reason for their success? Time slot, time slot, time slot.
The new sitcom has the good fortune of immediately following “The Big Bang Theory,” a show that benefited from debuting between “How I Met Your Mother” and “Two and a Half Men” before establishing itself as TV’s most popular sitcom.
“ ‘Big Bang’ has been a huge help to us, because they’ve gotten people to sample us,” Garcia said. “I’d love it if the network keeps us behind them for five or six years before letting us fly out on our own.”
Garcia knows all too well about the perils of leaving the nest too soon. His NBC series “My Name Is Earl” premiered in 2005 on Thursdays, the same night as “Will & Grace,” “The Office” and “ER.” The next year, it was put in the leadoff position – and almost immediately began to lose viewers. It was canceled after four seasons.
“Raising Hope,” which he also created, debuted after “Glee” in 2010, when that show was a pop-culture phenomenon for Fox. The very next season, “Hope” was forced to lead off Wednesday night programming, a position it clearly wasn’t ready to handle. It’s still on the air, but on Friday nights, otherwise known in the business as the “graveyard shift.”
Garcia sounded confident that CBS would keep his latest offering “protected” for longer, especially since the network owns the show.
“Look, I trust them very much. I’ve never been happier with a studio or a network,” he said. “But I understand people have to move things around. I’m absolutely fine with whatever they think is best.”
For now, J.B. Smoove, who plays the wisecracking best friend to Arnett’s character, is just relishing the moment.
“We got dealt a great hand,” said Smoove, previously best known for his work on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “They’ve set us up real nice. All you’ve got to do now is hit the ball.”