Actress Rhea Perlman

The four-time Emmy winner and one of television’s most loved comic actresses outlines her character in the TV Land comedy, Kirstie.

Best known for her 11 years as tough-talking barmaid Carla Tortelli in the iconic sitcom, Cheers—for which she received 10 Emmy nominations and four statuettes—Rhea Perlman has made a career of playing strong-willed characters. She's appeared in numerous family-oriented TV movies and features and earned rave reviews from both critics and fans for her work on stage. She made her TV debut in the telefilm, Stalk the Wild Child, but her breakthrough role came in the sitcom, Taxi. She's a passionate supporter of children's charities and author of the successful illustrated children's book series, Otto Undercover. Perlman can be seen on the TV Land comedy series, Kirstie.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Rhea Perlman has made dozens of guest starring appearances in television series and movies. But the role that comes immediately to mind for most of us is her Emmy-winning turn as the sharp-tongued waitress, Carla, on the long-running series, “Cheers.”

She’s now bringing her comic talents to bear in a new sitcom, this one titled “Kirstie” which, of course, stars her “Cheers’ cohort, Kirstie Alley. This TV Land series concludes its first season next week. Let’s take a look at a scene from “Kirstie.”

[Clip]

Tavis: You must really, really, really be picky about the roles that you play because it took a long time for you to come back to a sitcom.

Rhea Perlman: Well, you know, yeah, I did a couple little things in between. I did one called “Pearl” for a year that I thought was really cool, but it just didn’t work out for longer than that. But, yeah, you know, there for a long time, they weren’t even doing multi cam shows. And now it’s kind of back in the vogue and it’s the best job ever. And here I am working with the best people.

Really, really, I mean, like working with Kirstie Alley, you know, she’s just such a nut job [laughs] which is my favorite thing. I mean, she is. If you’ve seen her on anything, she is just like she is. You know, she’s a wonderful person.

Tavis: When you said it’s the best job ever, I got the sense you were talking not just about the show, but about the format. Why for you is it the best situation ever?

Perlman: Well, first of all, you’re doing a show in front of an audience every week. So you’re rehearsing five days and then you put it on at night and you got an audience getting that immediate satisfaction like you’re doing a show in a theater, which you basically are. But you get do-overs ’cause you screw up a line, you know [laughs], it’s okay…

Tavis: I can’t imagine you ever do that.

Perlman: This is just a cam – what?

Tavis: I can’t imagine you ever do that.

Perlman: Oh, never. No, not me. I mean the other people [laughs].

Tavis: So how did this reunion with you and Kirstie sort of happen?

Perlman: Well, you know, we’ve always wanted to work together again. We were pretty close during “Cheers.” And then, you know, you drift away and all this stuff. But that connection, that “Cheers” connection with everybody, it’s so tight. It’s like you grew up together, you know. We all have families together, all that stuff.

And then it was weird because a couple of years ago this writer, Marco Pennette, who also wrote this, asked her to do a part in this show that he wrote and he asked me to do a part in this show that he wrote completely independent of even thinking about that we worked together before.

It was a really funny show kind of about his life growing up and we did it for a different network. It was a pilot. It was a ton of fun. Didn’t go, but we all liked working together a lot. And she knew that TV Land which is what our show is on, the network we’re on now, was interested in doing something with her.

And she said, “Come on, let’s get Marco to write a show. I’m gonna get him to write a show for us for TV Land.” I said, “Okay. I know you can get him to write a show for you, but I really want to be in it.”

So this where it came from and she kind of designed this show around a character that she wanted to play, you know, which is that Broadway diva. And she always saw me as her assistant/best friend. She always saw me that way. I don’t know why. I’m not the diva. She is the diva. I’m the lackey, you know, which I love being.

Tavis: But you’re getting paid for it.

Perlman: I love it. It’s very Lucy-Ethyl, which is cool, you know.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that. It is Lucy-Ethyl.

Perlman: Yeah, it is, it is. We do antics and she’s, you know, this character that always has a scheme. Maybe she’s a little Sergeant Bilko too except that she’s not always trying to make money, you know. She just always has a scheme which is one ridiculous thing after another and I have to go along with it, you know. We all have to go along with it.

Tavis: After all these years, have you figured out where comedy’s concerned what the trick is? What works, what doesn’t work? And I ask that because you had wild success and, to this conversation, you’ve had a couple things that didn’t necessarily fly.

Perlman: Yeah.

Tavis: Have you figured out or are you still like as lost as the rest of us about what an audience is really going to appreciate or gravitate to?

Perlman: It is pretty mysterious, I have to say. But it’s also – there’s one thing about TV that I really think is true. If you find the right cast and the right writers and you got some chemistry going, even if a show is taking a little while to find an audience, if you keep it there, that audience will find it.

Because that’s what happened with “Cheers.” Nobody was watching us for almost two years, but they kept it on. It was on NBC with – you know, Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff were in charge at that time, and they loved the show. Okay, we’re just gonna keep it on. We don’t care. And there it was.

Tavis: But that’s unheard of these days, Rhea.

Perlman: It’s very rare.

Tavis: You can’t get two weeks, much less two years.

Perlman: Very rare. But we did – you know, we’re on a cable station now, so there’s a little bit more heart and a little bit more leeway and I feel like, you know, they really want the show to succeed. You know, it feels a little less corporate. There is a corporate – I mean, TV Land is a part of the big Viacom, but, you know, it’s all independent little pieces.

So we’re hoping that, you know – it’s so weird. You can’t even count your ratings anymore [laugh] the way they are with the millions and billions of…

Tavis: And the online stuff.

Perlman: Competitive stuff that’s going on, yeah. So I don’t even know how we’re doing, but I think we’re doing pretty well and a little bit better each week.

Tavis: So to “Cheers” which we talked about earlier, you can turn on any channel any night, any day, it’s on somewhere.

Perlman: It’s pervasive [laughs].

Tavis: That’s a good thing to be, though.

Perlman: It is.

Tavis: What do you make – I’m trying to juxtapose the fact that you said a moment ago that it took a couple of years for this show initially to find its audience. And when it hit, it hit big and it’s still hitting big all these years later. So what do you make of why the show worked and still does, for that matter?

Perlman: People get drawn to characters, you know, and they just – all of a sudden, these characters were who they wanted to hang out with on Thursday nights. You know, they’re very universal characters, a lot of losers, a bunch of losers like my husband Danny’s show, “Taxi,” which was also a bunch of losers, you know. Everyone wanted to be doing something else.

Tavis: Which I watch on Me-TV at nights. You guys have reruns everywhere [laughs].

Perlman: In a way, we’re all a bunch of losers in the “Kirstie” show too, you know. We’re all trying hard to…

Tavis: You know, you’re being funny about that, but there is something about that quality that actually works. People connect – not that they’re losers, but they connect to the human frailty is what I’m trying to say.

Perlman: Exactly, exactly, yeah. If everybody’s just, you know…

Tavis: Perfect.

Perlman: Totally fine and they got no problems, that’s not so interesting, you know. It’s not so funny, yeah.

Tavis: Beyond the fact that people connect to the human frailty ’cause we’re all human and not human and divine, beyond that, what do you think it is about this Lucy-Ethyl quality that still works on a show like “Kirstie” all these years later, the relationship between these two women?

Perlman: Well, yeah, the two-women thing. Well, it’s big. I mean, look at all the women like “Bridesmaids.” I mean, a lot of women watch TV and then a lot of men like sit around and they’re watching it too, you know.

But it’s funny to see two women get into scrapes and escapades and falling off cliffs or whatever they’re gonna do. You know, I had to fly off a balcony. You know, it’s funny and it’s slapstick in a way.

Physical comedy is just amazing which is why Michael Richards, who’s on the show, who had the same situation in “Seinfeld” where nobody watched that show and all of a sudden the most popular show on TV, right? That took even more years, I think. But the physical comedy, it’s, you know, forever.

Tavis: It is always the case in this town that when we don’t see people every day – we see you every day on reruns, of course. But when we don’t see you on “Kirstie’, for example, it’s not like you’ve fallen off the earth somewhere. You’re always doing something.

And I want to just celebrate you because, more than anybody in this town or as much as anybody in this town, when we weren’t seeing you every night on a first-run sitcom, you been working on these children’s issues day and night. And I want to just celebrate you for that.

Perlman: I’m so glad you brought that up. Thank you, because it is the other thing in my life. I mean, there’s work, there’s family. Or maybe there’s family, there’s work. And there is – well, right now which is the one that I’ve worked on many children’s issues, but for the last number of years, I’ve been working on trying to find permanent homes for kids in foster care because there are just so many.

You know a lot about the system, I’m sure. You know, so many kids that age out of the system with no home, no connection, no person. They might even be doing well. You know, some of them are doing not well. Some of them are doing well.

It’s just the toughest – I mean, kids get born into this world and they all deserve a family of some kind, whether it’s one parent, two parents, a loving situation where they can say, oh, this is my safe spot. This is my safe spot. And that’s what we’re trying to find for these kids, you know.

Tavis: Well, you are a hero. Or shall I say a shero, to so many of these children in California. And I thank you for that.

Perlman: Thank you. And I’d like you to tell your audience – or I’ll tell them.

Tavis: Tell them. There’s your camera right there.

Perlman: Check out the childrensactionnetwork.org. They have a lot of videos online of kids who are looking for families and maybe that’ll just incite your imagination. A lot of people are getting turned on to it now.

Tavis: There you go. So that was your camera. I’m going to this camera over here with a message for TV Land. Could you pick up “Kirstie” for another season, please? We’d appreciate that. Those of us who are TV Land viewers would like to see this for another season. So you did your pitch, I did my pitch, and we’re out of here.

Perlman: Yeah, all right.

Tavis: There you go. Rhea Perlman on “Kirstie.” That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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

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Last modified: February 24, 2014 at 3:06 pm