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Neil Flynn on 'The Middle,' 'Scrubs' and Why He Never Wants His Own Show

by Piet Levy, posted Jun 20th 2010 12:00PM
Neil Flynn"Hey this is Neil," Neil Flynn's answering machine said. "Leave me a message and I'll call you back in two days."

Fortunately for a writer on deadline, this was a lie, and Flynn called back in less than five minutes. It's also a joke, a pretty simple and silly one on paper. But thanks to Flynn's delicious, deadpan delivery, it made me laugh out loud.

Flynn tells a lot of jokes, makes a living of it, as Mike Heck on 'The Middle,' ABC's popular 'Malcolm in the Middle'-esque comedy about a sweet-natured, blue collar family living in small town Indiana that was picked up for a second season. Flynn's character's the quiet patriarch, a blue collar dad who works as a manager of a quarry, and often the straight man to wife Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and three misfit kids. It's a step up to a bigger role for the 49-year-old actor who first found a national audience playing the sarcastic, nameless janitor on 'Scrubs' for eight seasons.

Flynn's off from 'The Middle' until August, but that doesn't mean he's sitting around not returning phone calls. On June 16, Flynn returns to Chicago, about an hour's drive south of his native Waukegan, Ill., to perform with Beer Shark Mice, an acclaimed, 10-year-old five-man improv troupe boasting another famous face in David Koechner from 'The Office' and 'Anchorman,' at the TBS-sponsored Just for Laughs comedy festival. (Tickets are available at JustforLaughsChicago.com.)

Over the course of an hour, Flynn talked to TV Squad about why he never wants to be the main star of a show, his aversion to white tablecloths, his thoughts on 'The Middle''s future and his feelings about the end of 'Scrubs.'

Congratulations on getting picked up for a second season and for the success you've had so far. What are your thoughts on how the first season went, as far as the cast and story lines, and where we should expect things to go for season 2?

I'm delighted with how season one went. I felt the pilot was good. We had a good cast and the challenge then was for the writers to come up with 24 more episodes, and I think they did a great job. In the first season, they did an excellent job developing relationships between the family members. You'd notice one week, this is the one where Sue [played by Eden Sher] and Brick [played by Atticus Shaffer] share a story line, and this is one where my character Mike and Axl [played by Charlie McDermott] share a story line]. So they did a good job building relationships within the family and at the same time keeping it authentic and believable.

As far as next year, I trust they're going to be able to deliver more of the same. I have no particular hopes as far as the arc of the show or the characters. I trust the creator of the shows and the writing staff know what they're doing and will handle the progress well. ... Season 1 ended with Sue finally winning something, even though it was only making it on to the "no cut" cross country team, so I imagine that will be a plot line for her as she competes in cross country. Other than that, I have no idea, and I like being surprised each week when I get the scripts, whether its who the guest stars are this week or what the plot lines are for each episode. I don't feel any need to know in advance.

MiddleOn 'Scrubs' you fit in comfortably with the ensemble. Here, there's maybe more weight on your shoulders. Was that nerve wracking at all to elevate to that point for this show, on top of working with a whole new cast on a whole new show?

'Scrubs' was such a fantastic experience and I'll be forever grateful for my time there. I was a secondary character on that show, and lucky to be one. But I felt I was ready to handle a little more responsibility. And make no mistake, this is Patricia's show. She's the star, so I don't have that sort of responsibility on my shoulders. I'm just sort of second in command. And I enjoy it. One of the things I like so much about it are the kids are really good actors, and believable characters. So I really feel no pressure at all or that I'm over my head. That would be rough to feel that way going in to work everyday. I really enjoy it. I don't think I ever want to be the star of any show, but just having a solid position beneath number one is fine by me.Well I guess I shouldn't rule anything out, but I don't ever imagine that happening. Let me put it this way: I never want my name in the title on any show. You won't be seeing 'The Neil Flynn Show,' or 'It's Neil,' or 'Ask Neil What He Thinks.'

So if somebody came up to you and said, "Neil, we have a great idea for a show. It's called 'Ask Neil What He Thinks,'" you would turn them down?

(Laughs.) Yeah, I would have to turn that down. I would just suggest [calling it], 'What's With the Tall Guy?,' something like that. ... Something I've learned about myself since the last 10 years have passed, I've reached a point that an actor is lucky to reach, to be on a show regularly, and I've just realized that's enough for me. I'm not interested in becoming more famous or more recognizable or to make millions and millions of dollars a year. It just doesn't interest me. I've realized I'm lucky to be where I am. It's just as if I were climbing Mount Everest, I'd stop two-thirds of the way and say, "The view is great from here. It's far enough. The top looks scary."

Going back to 'The Middle,' there are so many comedies that come and go, and so many are dead on arrival. But 'The Middle' has been able to find that audience. Why do you think that is?

The main thing 'The Middle' offers is a relatability. I think anyone watching can very easily feel like they know these people or still live next door to people like them. And there's a very middle America feel to the show, which I think middle Americans probably enjoy, and maybe people on the coasts can enjoy as well, to see how the other half lives. For understandable reasons a lot of shows are set in Los Angeles and oftentimes New York, and I've watched many of those shows and enjoyed them. It's nice to see a specific setting on the show [that's different]. The Midwest is practically a character on 'The Middle.' These people live in a humble house. They don't have nice belongings. They don't have a good car. And you'll see them wearing the same clothes in more than one episode because they don't have any extra money.

I think people can relate to that. It's possible that the economic state of the country in the past year helped this show seemed relatable, to have people on television for whom money is a problem. So I'm guess I'm saying this show will continue to succeed if the country continues to fail. (Laughs.) That's a bleak outlook. Let's change that to the show will rise and fall ... Oh, I've dug us into a hole here. (Laughs.) I think that it has been supported well by ABC. And we did well last year without having any sort of a lead-in.

Right, because the lead-in, 'Hank', was canceled and replaced with reruns of 'Modern Family'.

Right. So we were basically serving as our own lead-in and providing some respectable numbers nevertheless. Next year I think its good for us that we'll be stating the night. We'll be the 8 o'clock [Eastern] show, there'll be a new comedy ['Better Together'] after us, and then 'Modern Family.' I've always enjoyed watching a night of television on a single channel. Back when I was a kid, that was the way it often happened -- you'd watch your block of comedies, and ABC is trying to do that, and I think doing it pretty well. And it's great to be part of that. It will be great to be able to stay on the air five years or so. I don't know if that will happen again. Then I will really have beaten the odds as an actor for being on two different shows that have actually stayed on the air. I'm sure it's been done a number of times but not compared to the number of people who would have liked it to happen.

Neil Flynn the JanitorWhat's interesting about your character on 'The Middle' is that he's very blue collar, just like the janitor on 'Scrubs' was very blue collar. Is that a coincidence, or is there something there where you feel a connection to that blue collar type of role?

Let me think about that. I think most of it has to do with how my appearance. The image I project I think seems to be of a blue collar person as opposed to someone who is more successful. (Laughs.) I'll remind you additionally for 'Scrubs' I auditioned to be one of the doctors and ended up with a mop and a bucket. I never thought that I was going to be playing doctors and lawyers. I just don't seem like that type of person. I'm not. I definitely relate more to blue collar people than I do with rich people. I, for instance, don't like eating in a restaurant that has tablecloths. If I see white table clothes on restaurant tables, I'll choose to eat somewhere else. It makes me uncomfortable. ... It's not like a phobia. I just don't much like those settings. I'm comfortable in very modest surroundings. And that includes the roles I play.

There have been shows and movies in the past about small town life or blue collar characters, and sometimes they can be almost offensive because the characters are treated so simply. Can you tell me a little bit in your role as an actor and working with writers, how you try to find that balance between being funny and self-deprecating, but not to come off like you're looking down at the janitor's life on 'Scrubs' or life in a tiny Indiana town?

Yeah, I think there's something to that. The janitor was probably the least educated characters [on 'Scrubs'], but he still had his pride. If people made fun of him for any reason, including being a janitor, they paid for it in one way or another. One thing I think we're doing well on 'The Middle' is these people are not being presented as the butt of these jokes. They have as much dignity as they can muster. They're just regular people living life. And the jokes on the show aren't at their expense. They're not hillbillies or something. The humor comes out of the situations they're in, and I think many people find themselves in, whether you're fighting with your husband or wife, or your kids get bad grades.

The thing I like about the show is Patty and I, our characters don't make jokes criticizing each other. There might be a spat or an argument, but it's not, 'You're such an idiot.' Not that there's anything wrong with that, but for decades a standard set up for a show is the husband is an overweight screw-up, and his wife is smarter and better looking than he is, and he tries to hide his screw-ups to avoid getting in trouble. That's worked for generations and it has its place. But in this case, even though the wife again is better looking than the husband, they're more of a team. There's a strong sense of these parents raising these kids together equally. We're presenting a half hour every week of what life is like for the common man.

So are you married or have a family?

I have a girlfriend and a cat. Those are my only commitments. [Laughs.]

The Middle castI was asking because I was wondering if it was challenging to play a dad at all?

Yeah, it might be easier if I had a wife and children. But it's something we've all observed whether we've actually been a father or a husband or not. I have the experience of being a kid with sisters and brothers and stuff, so maybe that's enough. And I don't model playing the role after anybody in particular. But I never thought it required too much imagination or work to pretend to be the father of these people. And I like the actors playing the kids a lot, it makes it easier. So in a way, it might have been easier if I wasn't wild about them. That way when [my character gets] mad at them I wouldn't have to fake it.

Do you relate to Mike more than the janitor? Do you see yourself personally being more like one character?

That's a good question. Hmm. It's kind of like two sides of the same coin, although I'm not like either one of them, so its maybe the janitor and Mike are two sides of a three-sided coin. I still have a third side left. I'm not very much like the Janitor. I don't know who he is. So I'm probably more like Mike because he's more like a human being. But the janitor was more verbal. Mike is kind of a laconic man who doesn't talk when it's not necessary. I have no problem being in either set of shoes. Speaking of shoes, I wore basically work boots for eight years as the janitor and the same clothes, which whatever they were made of didn't breathe. ... I suffered so America could laugh. It's the least I could do. ... So it's nice to wear more regular clothes and more comfortable shoes in the part I'm playing now.

Give me a sense of your thoughts as to how 'Scrubs' ended. It came to a natural ending for the season eight and then stayed around for an extra season, ultimately to be cancelled.

You could say it slowed down and stopped; the wheels just stopped turning. But no matter how you look at it, it was on the air for 8 and a half years, and that is a huge accomplishment. I was happy the whole time. It's so hard to get a pilot shot, let alone to stay on the air for eight years. I can't help but see anything but a silver lining. It's all a silver lining. And yeah, it was supposed to be over. We shot it as a season finale. Everybody went their separate ways, except suddenly they tried to get people back to start again. And it's not because people were afraid to move on or thought the show was better than ever or anything like that. Primarily it was because a lot of people's income was derived from the show being on the air. And it's a credit to Bill Lawrence, the show's creator, as a person, that even though he could have walked away long before that, he stuck around and kept guiding the show and kept it on the air partly because it meant a paycheck for a couple hundred people.

But it did come to what seemed like a natural, satisfying conclusion, but then it came back. From a story perspective, what was it like to see the show come to that conclusion, to see your character come to a conclusion, then to see the show come back and played out only to be cancelled?

There's really nothing to say there. It was a little bit of a different show, and it was. There were different characters and different lead characters even. But I think everybody knew it was a 50-50 proposition as to whether it would stay on the air. I don't think anyone was shocked when it was time to go. There was nothing sad about it. It lived far beyond any reasonable expectations. In the early years, the cast was surprised every time we were going to get to do another season. But by the time it got to season eight and nine, it was far too late to feel bad about anything. It had been a great success. Victory was already signed, sealed and delivered. The rest was just icing on the cake.

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Tony DIMeo

On June 16, Flynn returns to Chicago, about an hour's drive south of his native Waukegan, Ill., to perform with Beer Shark Mice, why would they mention a show that he did 4 days ago? unless they meant to write July

June 20 2010 at 2:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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