In his three hit sitcoms, Ted Danson lent a listening ear as a bartender (Cheers), a doctor (Becker), and now a psychotherapist in his new series, Help Me Help You. We sat in on a conference call with this veteran TV comedy star to find out, among other things, whether he's everyone's confidant in real life.
Why do you think you're often cast as the guy people turn to with their problems?
I think I give good appearance. I look like I should be together. I think the funny comes from how un-together I am, and I think that’s pretty true in life. I remember on the Cheers set, whenever I decided to give, like, a directorial note, everyone pretty much knew to do the exact opposite.
Which of the characters in the Help Me Help You therapy group do you most identify with?
All of them! (Laughter) Which is the fun part of playing Bill Hoffman. He is as angry and confused as all of his patients. I’m probably closer to Bill Hoffman than my patients. I’m constantly thinking I’m on top of my game and quite full of myself, only to turn around and step in the proverbial pile of poo. I’m always being cut down to size. I feel that Bill Hoffman is the perfect character for me to be playing now in life.
Like Cheers before it, Help Me Help You got off to a slow start in the ratings. Given the quick hook network programmers give struggling shows these days, do you think Cheers would survive a similar start today?
One week in that first year [of Cheers], we were dead last. I think we were in the 70s at the very end. Clearly, I bring this up because at the moment, Help Me Help You is the Little Engine That Could. Each week, we seem to be increasing our audience in little bites, which is a great thing. One hopes that there is the patience to let it grow. So I don’t know. I don’t know whether it would.
Why do you think shows today take longer to develop an audience, and seem to have a harder time catching on?
I really don’t know. I can give an opinion. A friend of mine once said, “The longer you’re on television, the longer you’re on television.” As a viewer, even I sit there and go, “I heard this one’s not going to last. I hear they’re thinking about canceling it, so I won’t invest my time.” Everything is so fast. I think that when a show comes back for a second year, if you haven’t already become its audience… you tend to be more willing to invest your time as an audience member.
So, with things being so speedy and fast with the ability of doing a reality show and not having to pay huge sums of money to do it, I imagine the temptation — if you’re kind of a bottom-line-dollar exec — is to go with the least expensive, fastest results. I think things go in cycles. It wasn’t until we came in behind Cosby that Cheers really took off. It took us three years. If networks allowed shows to nurture, there’s a better chance that they will develop the big hits. Seinfeld was the same way. It was not a big hit [at first].
Which sitcoms have you enjoyed watching in recent years?
Friends — you know, each one of those people was just so much fun to watch. That was a great show. [Everybody Loves] Raymond, that was a great deal of fun. I enjoyed doing Becker. Right now, I’m really enjoying [My Name Is] Earl. [Ugly] Betty looks like it’s really fun. You know, that’s interesting. I wonder whether half-hours are going to start to go into hours. Because, when you try and tell a half-hour story, you really have, on the networks, 21 minutes to do it. With one-camera comedies, I wonder whether they’re going to start moving into an hour format.