Comedy can be a fickle beast and knowing how to play the beats plus moving in rhythm with your fellow actors is essential. Whether attacking single camera on “Cougar Town” and “Felicity” or multi-cam with “The Drew Carey Show”, Ian Gomez has an inherent intention for getting it right. After conducting a panel with his fellow actors at the CBS TCA Press Day for the new series: “Living Biblically”, he spoke exclusively with The Inside Reel about process, texture of character and the sometimes trickiness of tone.
Being on the set of ”Cougar Town”, I still remember there was so much energy. Could you talk about sort of the approach with this kind of material? Because it’s very tonal.
Ian Gomez: It’s a fine line that the writers had to walk because ultimately, it has to be a funny show, and it’s about religion. So they didn’t want to make fun of religion, nor did they want to be preachy. So it’s how do you do that, make it funny, make it watchable, and make the characters likable? That’s a really hard thing to do as opposed to on Cougar town, where they’ll be drinking and jokes about dating and kids and stuff like that. So the task here is much harder.
As Father Gene, you’re sort of the interpreter of rules in this one. That’s what sort of defines how you play on set.
IG: Right. Yeah. So my role on the show is kind of the voice of reason. But yet I have to be funny and yet not be too preachy. The biggest hurdle I found was having to put out all of these religious beliefs and be funny and have a backbone and be a real person. So not just a talking Bible…this is right, that’s wrong. And it’s not written that way. [It is how] to find a place where the character can live, where he’s a real person…a very religious person, with a strong faith but also with a great sense of humor. And not dark, but he can be sarcastic, like a regular person. He’s in a bar. Most of the scenes I’m in takes place in a bar so…
That sounds like Drew Carey’s show a little.
IG: Yes, it is. (laughing)
Is this the first time you’ve done a multi-cam show since Drew?
IG: No. I was on “The Norm Show”, with Norm MacDonald.
Can you talk how the format has sort of translated? Because now everything’s like, everybody wants these little bits.
IG: Right. There’s no room for building anything. It seems like a lot of sitcoms are set-up, punch, set-up, punch, set-up, punch. On this show, there’s a lot of jokes but not a lot of exposition where you’re setting up the joke or setting up the backstory. It seems more of an old-school kind of sitcom where the characters grow. You get to learn the characters, then the humor comes from character humor. Based on how, if this person says it, it’s funny. If another character says it, it wouldn’t be funny because these characters are different. It seems like, on a lot of sitcoms, it’s like, “Here are a bunch of jokes, and you pick them.” Just like, everybody gets five, and it doesn’t matter which ones.
How much research did you want to have in the back of your mind for this? I mean, obviously, you’ve had experiences with different religions over the course of your life and career.
IG: Yeah. I didn’t trail a priest or anything like that. I felt that I knew enough about what people thought of priests and rabbis and religion, and the fear that maybe keeps some people away from them. Some people would not just go up to a religious leader and have a conversation for fear of being judged or something like that. I wanted to be a relateable priest. I wanted to be someone that people would say like, “Oh, I wish my priest was like that.” I wanted to be someone who you could sit down and talk to. And there was a difference there. There are some scenes that would take place in church and some scenes that take place in the bar for me. In the confessional scenes, it’s more priestly. But in the bar — so there’s a separation between those two times. Not that he loses his sense of humor in the confessional.
Is there a difference in truth in the two space or how he looks at truth?
IG: No, no, no. But when you’re in the house of God, there’s a certain amount of respect in how you hold and behave yourself within that, but within those boundaries, still be yourself and be a human, and you’re there for other people to help them. I also found that it was being able to help the lead character Chip, who’s going through this thing in the pilot. My character thinks this is the craziest thing he’s ever heard.
The God Squad aspect?
IG: No. Just the trying to live by the Bible, the way it’s written, literally. It’s insane and also dangerous. [So my character] tries to convince them to just use it as a guideline. Like one line in the show is that “BIBLE” stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. So it’s like be a good person, golden rule kind of stuff, love God, love your neighbors, and anything like that, but you don’t have to go [like] stone adulterers and do all those other stuff. So being practical yet religious in the modern day.
There’s a very specific look to Father Gene. Could you talk about physicality informing the character?
IG: Well, I wanted the kind of — you see the old movies where the priest is a little old bald man, with glasses, spectacles, and kind of a thing? I was thinking of that. So the little old Irish priest. I kind of wanted to have that look. If I had hair, it would be the long-haired, hippie priest. I wanted to be the priest you might recognize. And I’m from New York.
So you probably saw a lot of this kind of guys growing up?
IG: Yeah. But I was terrified of priests as a child. My mom’s Jewish. My father was a Fundamentalist. His mom is a Fundamentalist. He wasn’t, but I always considered, whenever I saw someone in a religious wear, I was almost afraid of them. There was this I didn’t know how to handle, how to approach, how to talk to somebody like that, and what do I say and how respectful and all those other stuff. So I wanted to play a more approachable person.
And my last question to you is, with comedy, it’s easier on single camera. Can you talk about technique versus instinct and how that works? Not to give away your process, but about the balance between those two, especially in comedy.
IG: Right. Well, working on a multi-cam, you rehearse all week, not in front of an audience, and then you get the audience there. And they laugh in different places, and that kind of throws you off. And the wonderful thing about this is that you know it is TV, so you can do multiple takes, as opposed to the theater that says, “Oh, that, okay,” and then you just have to go with the flow.
But you guys always did multiple takes on Cougar Town. Do you find that made it better, or did it take away the spontaniety?
IG: But you don’t know how it’s going. You don’t know. Although you’re doing different takes and everything, you don’t know what the reactions are going to be. With multi-cam, you kind of get it right away like, “Oh, that worked there. That didn’t work.” And then you get into the rhythm of it more. Working on single cam, you’re kind of working in the vacuum. You really don’t know. And then it’s up to the editor to put all that stuff together, the different takes and cameras and camera angles and the sizes. So it’s more reactive right now with the actors to see what they’re doing.
By Tim Wassberg