Actor Michael McKean

The multi-talented performer discusses his role in the play, Yes, Minister, and reteaming with Christopher Guest for HBO’s Family Tree.

Well known for his role as Lenny on TV's 1970s series, Laverne and Shirley, Michael McKean is a multi-talented force. He's an actor, comedian, composer and musician, with credits that include TV's Saturday Night Live, L&O: SVU and HBO's Family Tree. He's also won awards for his work on Broadway. He co-wrote music for and starred in the classic rock comedy, This is Spinal Tap, and won an Oscar nod and a Grammy for a song from the film, A Mighty Wind. McKean was the first million dollar Celebrity Jeopardy champ and gave his winnings to the International Myeloma Foundation. He's currently co-starring in the play, Yes, Prime Minister, a satire based on a popular UK TV series.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Michael McKean has inhabited so many funny characters from the dim, but lovable Lenny on the long-running series, “Laverne and Shirley” to as many roles as part of Christopher Guest’s repertory company in movies like “This is Spinal Tap” and “A Mighty Wind.”

He’s now working once again with Guest on an HBO series called “Family Tree” and can be seen here in Los Angeles in a theatrical version of the long-running sitcom, “Yes, Prime Minister.” So now we’ll take a look at a scene from the play.

[Clip]

Tavis: Mr. Prime Minister, good to have you on the program [laugh].

Michael McKean: Hello, Tavis,

Tavis: How are you?

McKean: I’m good, thank you.

Tavis: You got so much going on, this and “Family Tree.” We will start with the play. So tell me about “Yes, Prime Minister.”

McKean: Yeah. “Yes, Prime Minister” is written by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. It’s based on a series they created that was on back in the 80s actually before I worked with Jonathan the first time in “Clue.” I was Mr. Green, as everyone knows, and I didn’t do it. I was the only one who didn’t do it in all the endings. So, you know, we’re gonna work together every 28 years. That’s the plan.

Tavis: This play takes place at the height of Thatcherism.

McKean: Well, no, not really. The series…

Tavis: The series. I mean, the series, exactly.

McKean: You know, we’re not a period show. We are happening right now. We’re all about the euro; we’re all about world trade questions and all kinds of backstabbing and all that stuff that makes politics and governance so interesting.

Tavis: Tell me what attracts you specifically to a role like this?

McKean: You know, I’m a little bit political. I’m I think wise enough to know that there’s…

Tavis: Is that like a little pregnant? How’s one a little political?

McKean: No, no, no. Well, it’s just a knowledge that there are fools on both sides of the aisle and geniuses as well. As my father once put it, you know, there are angels and a-holes everywhere and there are no other dividing lines. It’s just, you know. So I’m not fervently one way or another. I have a tendency to be kind of a lefty. But it’s really interesting for me to see this entirely different kind of structure that the Brits have. It’s a nice old democracy, but it’s a very interesting society.

And Jonathan is a very, very smart man. He directed the play as well. And he’s schooling us in how it’s done and how governance is done in the UK and, hence, in Europe because a lot of it’s about the euro. A lot of it’s about the world of Europe as a market.

Tavis: To your point, Michael, since you’re just a little bit political, are you political enough particularly doing the play to not have an opinion about what’s happening in Europe?

McKean: Well, you know, a play has a lot of different angles to it. Jonathan likes to quote Tom Stoppard, a great playwright, when he says that I write plays so that I can contradict myself. You know, you can view all sides as a writer.

Tavis: Sure.

McKean: And as an actor, you have to be able to take all sides as well. You have to at least be able to understand things. No bad guy looks in the mirror every morning and says, boy, I’m gonna be a real bad guy this morning. He goes after his own what he’s after, just like us good guys.

You know, you kind of have to take a stand and, a lot of times, you have to take the writer’s stand or the stand of the character this writer has created.

Tavis: We had on this program I guess a week or so ago some of the cast of “Downton Abbey,” the big success here on PBS.

McKean: Don’t tell me about the last two episodes. I still haven’t seen them.

Tavis: I’m not gonna tell you [laugh]. It’s a huge success.

McKean: Another one’s dead!

Tavis: It’s a huge success, as everybody knows. What do you make of – this is nothing new, but it just seems that the pendulum is really swinging of the successful stuff in the UK that we end up bringing this way. This play, of course, is set in the UK.

McKean: Well, I spent a month in London shooting Chris’s series, the HBO series, “Family Tree.” And I watched a lot of TV because I had some down time. Also, I had broken my leg a few months before, so I was – London’s a great walking town, but I wasn’t walking all over London like I ordinary do. So I watched a lot of British TV and we really do get the best stuff, you know.

There’s a lot of junk, no matter where you go. So don’t just run out and buy every property, you know. But “Downton Abbey,” really it’s kind of the child of “The Forsyte Saga” and “Upstairs Downstairs” too, to a lesser degree. I wasn’t a big fan of that show.

But “The Forsyte Saga” which showed on PBS in the early 70s is the same kind of thing, you know, phenomenal, kind of like serious drama about what people really go through in a certain period in British history. It’s just fascinating to us. It’s just far enough away from us that it seems like middle earth, but there are no hobbits and they’re all speaking, you know, English that we can pretty much understand.

Also, really good acting in both of those cases. That really helps. It seems like, you know, I got kind of hooked on the English version of “Law and Order” mainly because all their supporting actors were so phenomenally good, you know. I’ve never seen her before. She’s awesome. Well, it’s a really high standard, you know.

Tavis: Before I swing back to “Family Tree,” without giving the play away, what is the takeaway from this play for an American audience like the audience at the Geffen in Westwood?

McKean: Yeah. It’s important to point out that they don’t need a lot of schooling. It’s the actual circumstance and the situation in which this particular Prime Minister finds himself is just damn funny. Not to him, it’s the worse night of his life easily. That’s what Jonathan Lynn says. He says farce is what happens on the worst day of your life and that’s really how it’s played.

It has to be played absolutely serious, but dire and big and scary, hopefully [laugh]. And it’s just a really, really funny play. So I think people take away from this, hopefully, the experience of having laughed for two and a half hours. That’s all I care about.

Tavis: I wonder if that is the antidote to the crisis that we face economically. There’s got to be more than just laughter, but I’m glad it’s funny.

McKean: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: But sometimes if you don’t laugh, then how else do you navigate your way through it?

McKean: Absolutely, absolutely.

Tavis: Tell me about – for those who haven’t seen “Family Tree” on HBO, tell me about “Family Tree.”

McKean: “Family Tree,” Chris O’Dowd plays a young man named Tom who suddenly finds himself with a lot of time on his hands and he also receives at the same time a chest full of oddities from his late Aunt Victoria. And he basically uses that as a navigation device to find out more about his family. His father, that’s me, never really talked about it much.

It’s a way of examining families from the outside through the eyes of a person who’s examining his own and it’s very funny. Chris has put together a lot of the usual maniacs, but also a couple of newbies that are just amazing.

Tavis: Since you referenced it earlier, what is the relationship that you have with Christopher that has kept you guys working together?

McKean: It’s mainly a physical relationship [laugh]. You know, we’re also able to work together, which I think is really good. It’s a big plus. Chris and I have known each other since 1967 when we were both kind of like a couple of 19-year-old guys who discover another B.B. King fan or Michael Bloomfield. We were all about guitars in those days, so we became really tight friends and we have been ever since. And he’s a remarkable guy and a great talent and a pain in the ass sometimes and just awesome.

You know, that’s our relationship, and he keeps finding ways to use me in films and on TV. I had such a great time doing this, working with Chris O’Dowd and Nina Conti who is the ventriloquist with the monkey. She’s a great talent and lovely girl, and Lisa Palfrey.

Tavis: How fortunate do you feel – and this might be an overstatement, so let me go there. You can pull me back.

McKean: Go there. Go there, Tavis.

Tavis: How fortunate do you feel to have a sort of muse in this business? By that, I mean, again, somebody that continues to like your work enough to bring you back time and time again?

McKean: I like to think of myself as Chris’s muse.

Tavis: As Chris’s muse, okay [laugh].

McKean: If he don’t mind.

Tavis: You can flip it, you can flip it, yeah. How’s it feel to be Chris’s muse?

McKean: You know what it is? I think if it’s anything special about the relationship, it’s just that we have that kind of shorthand. We have it with Harry Shearer too. I have it with David Lander who I’ve been working with on and off since the early 70s who was my partner on “Laverne and Shirley.”

Tavis: Sure, sure.

McKean: You know, those people that you know for a long time and that you love, they’re the easiest to talk to.

Tavis: When you see – because it’s always in rerun somewhere. I see it regularly. I love these TV Land channels and ME TV. I love this old stuff. I’m an old school guy.

McKean: Me too.

Tavis: When you see “Laverne and Shirley” these days, is it still funny to you? Do you still laugh?

McKean: Sometimes. There’s one hookup that shows them. I know they’re still showing them. I won’t tell you what they’re called…HUB.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

McKean: And they cut so much out of these shows so they can run not even commercials, but promos for their other terrible shows. And it’s like I watch this and I’ve seen me pick up a guitar to start a song and they cut to commercial. And chunks of scenes where the rest of it doesn’t make sense because of what they’ve chopped out.

Tavis: Well, I’m not a TV guy. I’m not an inside TV guy, but how can you do that? How do you cut chunks of a sitcom to make it…?

McKean: Because you have no soul [laugh]. That’s the easy answer, Tavis.

Tavis: You may have cut the good lines, the jokes.

McKean: Yes. They do, often. I saw one episode recently. I can’t watch it anymore. But I saw one episode where we actually saw the punch line of a joke that was not set up. So there were two scenes missing and then at the end, it’s like we’re paying off something that you don’t know. You know, with all the other terrible things going on in the world, it’s not much to complain about.

Tavis: Hub-a-dub-dub.

McKean: Screw ‘em. Excuse me. That’s not nice.

Tavis: Well, I let you say it already, though. Michael McKean, if you’re in the L.A. area, can be seen in “Yes, Prime Minister” at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. I love that facility.

McKean: It’s great, it’s great. Nice to work there too.

Tavis: I love The Geffen. And on HBO, “Family Tree.” So he’s a little bit everywhere these days. Good to have you back.

McKean: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for joining us. As always, I’ll see you back here tomorrow night. Until then, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: June 20, 2013 at 5:37 pm