Fox's new workplace sitcom "Do Not Disturb" opens for business tonight after some retooling from the original pilot this spring. One constant in the project, however, is comic Niecy Nash, who the show was built around. Nash talked to our Jim Halterman about bringing her improv skills to a scripted series, her surprise with casting Jerry O'Connell and how she turned tragedy to humor.
Nash started out by saying how much she loved working with "Do Not Disturb" creator Abraham Higginbotham, who is credited with bringing laughs to such sitcoms as "Will and Grace" and "Arrested Development." When asked how this sitcom came to be, Nash shared that "Abraham and I met in a coffee shop and what ended up happening as a result of that meeting is he got the essence of the truth of my personality, wrapped it around the character Rhonda Peete, married that to his experience in a hotel, and created a show for me called 'Do Not Disturb.' Then, we filled in all the pieces with all the players after that."
Having that close relationship with Higginbotham made it easy for Nash to give her input on the series. In fact, she said, "I may call and say I have an idea for this or that and sometimes the ideas that come are birthed out of my real life stories." She further stated that she and Higginbotham are more than strictly actor and producer/writer/creator. "We talk every day. At this stage of the game, he's not only the creator of my show but I could [call on] him as a friend."
After much success on Comedy Central's "Reno: 911" and hosting the Style Channel's "Clean House" for five years, Nash found the differences between unscripted and scripted series to be quite jarring. "I show up to work," Nash quipped, "and I have a lot of words to memorize. I was saying, Wait a minute! You need me to say all of this? It's different for me in that respect but I still believe it's funny, just like I thought 'Reno: 911' was funny. I just think I'm a funny girl. I'm thinking wherever I go, I'm going to do my best to bring that."
With her vast experience in improvisational comedy, was she able to bring any of those skills to the scripts of "Do Not Disturb?" "A little bit," she said. "There's a little bit where I can play, but writers love their words and when you have a staff of writers, they want you to be present to that. They give me a little bit of wiggle room, though, and I take it every chance I get."
Nash's Rhonda Peete is quite notably a departure from her "Reno: 911" character, Raineesha. When thinking about Rhonda, Nash shared the insight that, "Rhonda loves very hard. She is the mother hen to everyone who works at the hotel. She doesn't have any children; she's not married, so these kids are her family. In her mind, mother knows best." And though a certain famous Disney character doesn't initially come to mind when watching "Do Not Disturb," that doesn't stop Nash from making a slightly skewed comparison. "I describe [Rhonda] as an educated, ghetto-fabulous, truth-telling Mary Poppins." Also, she adds, "Rhonda purposes to walk in the truth; she's almost honest to a fault. If she gets caught in something, she always confesses and always ends up putting the truth out there. Whereas, I think, Raineesha [on 'Reno: 911'] could live a lie for as long as it takes."
As for Jerry O'Connell being cast as her foil and co-worker in the series, Nash admits that her first thought about O'Connell in the role was not the most positive. Nash recounts, "I tested with a lot of the people that came in to audition. A lot of guys came in to audition for the role of Neal [but] Jerry actually was the one person that I did not test with and he was the one that an offer went out to. I thought 'Oh my God, I haven't tested with him!' But, any fears she may have had were quickly extinguished. Jerry, "came through the door and I thought 'I love him.'"
As evident from the comedic chemistry the two characters have in the pilot, Nash said that she, "absolutely loves" working with O'Connell. And, showing some of her razor sharp sense of humor, she offered up that, "a lot of people don't know this but Jerry O'Connell is really black. He is like my brother from the same mother... he's funny, he's warm and he's just genuinely supportive if you want to try something." She gives a particular instance when filming a scene recently. "The scene called for me to slap [Jerry's character Neal] and we were just rehearsing and, 'Baby,' he said, 'Go for it, go for it!' I said, 'You're going to be beat up when you get home. But, then again, it's probably what you're used to. Come here! Let me slap you some more!'"
Comedy in general, she said, often comes from a darker place. "I think all comedians have suffered and were tortured in some sort of a way and you find your way to the funny. My comedy was birthed out of nursing my mother back to some sort of good emotional health after my brother was killed. He was killed in '93 and she went into a depression. I started doing stand-up at the foot of the bed and here we are."
And proving, perhaps, that laughter is the best medicine, Nash's mother, "went from laying down in the bed to sitting up in the bed. One day I came to her house and she wasn't in bed at all and I said, 'Momma, where are you?' and she said, 'We're in here...' I went across the street and got the neighbors." Nash admitted that this happening sparked her desire to make a go as a professional comic. "I said to myself, Niecy, don't be a selfish heifer. Go outside and spread this around because there are some other people that might need it, too."
Which brings Nash to "Do Not Disturb," which will face some tough competition in its timeslot. Though it follows the returning sitcom hit "'Til Death," the show also airs against ABC's "Private Practice" and CBS's "Criminal Minds." Nash doesn't seem worried though when she said, "I think it's a mood choice. We're in a comedy block and there are no other comedies on at that time so I think if you want to laugh, we would definitely be a fantastic choice for that."
Finally, she made a point of saying that she has also found a sense of pride with this new series. "I'm very grateful to be in this place seeing as how there were no pilots picked up with African-Americans as leads this pilot season other than me. I'm in a happy place."
Nash can be seen ruling the roost and stirring up laughter starting tonight when "Do Not Disturb" premieres on Fox at 9:30/8:30c.