These days, while the train wrecks of celebrity life may be intriguing and a form of entertainment, what if we were privy to the celebrity's therapy sessions to find what makes them tick? Now in its third season, Starz's sitcom "Head Case" takes that notion and runs with it featuring therapists who are just as loony as their star-studded clientele. Starring Alexandra Wentworth and Steve Landesberg as therapists to the stars, "Head Case" is unique in that each episode is unscripted and there is a parade of celebrities (Janeane Garafalo, Jeff Goldblum, Tori Spelling, Macy Gray) that wind up on the couch to poke fun at themselves and their fame. Landesberg recently talked with our Jim Halterman about improvisation in the series, why he thinks comedy will never die and his thoughts on if sitcoms have changed since his days on the classic sitcom "Barney Miller."
Jim Halterman: How did you become a part of the craziness on that show?
Steve Landesberg: I was asked to do it and originally, if I remember, it was a presentation for VH1 or something like that and maybe it was 10 minutes and they passed and then Starz bought it and that's it. As you know, it's all improvised. There are story outlines, there are premises and there are places to go but no script. It's a lot of fun. No homework.
JH: Have celebrities been lining up to appear on the show? You have some great people who show up to sit on the couch.
SL: I'm sure the more people watch ["Head Case"] the more people will want to do it because it's funny. Unless there are people who would never do anything without a script. You have to want to improvise and not be afraid of it. I get a lot of non-celebrities this season, which was fun. I had a lot of good people to work with. But when you're improvising, like anything else, you're as good as the people you work with.
JH: Therapy is a great area to mine humor from. How do you approach playing Myron?
SL: I just pay attention. I listen and I play.
JH: I love some of the details of his character such as being married so many times and the fact that all his patients are throwing themselves off the Tapan Zee Bridge.
SL: [Laughs.] Yeah, a couple patients have threatened but he thought they were bluffing but lo and behold they lost their life.
JH: Can you talk about the unscripted process on the show? Is that something you're used to as a comedian?
SL: I've always improvised ever since I started acting improvisation in New York. Working on my stand-up, the best time you have is when you ad-lib something, which is improvising, and that, again, is due to the audience turning you on. The better the audience, the more free you are, the more creative you are, which is the same process we were just talking about. When you work with an actor and you're improvising, the better that actor or actress is, the better you're going to be. I did stand-up and there are people that had come from Second City and late at night we would get up and improvise. Peter Boyle was among them and then there was Richard Pryor, who was between careers. He had thrown away his first career and he was back and about to become bigger in his second career and he would get up late and improvise. But, again, when you're doing it with an audience, you have to have the courage to fail. When you're up there doing funny, the tendency for some people is to go for the laugh but what you have to do basically is play the reality and if it's funny, it's funny and if it's not, then the flames surround you.
JH: Going back "Head Case," do you think celebrities need therapy more than a regular person?
SL: Well, there are a lot of people in this world so I tend to doubt it. As much as we know about wacky celebrities, there are a lot of whack jobs out there and there are people who just need therapy; they just need some help. Some people end up talking to their bartender. Some people end up talking to their friends or their spouses and some people talk to their therapist.
JH: What's coming up for Myron this season besides divorcing Lola in the season premiere?
SL: A lot of going to New York and getting kidnapped because they think I'm the celebrity shrink. He's still estranged from his daughter; he has an unhealthy relationship with his daughter. Getting involved with a sleep clinic while Dr. Goode is out of town. A whole of things. Again, a lot of good people. The non-celebrities I work with are terrific.
JH: Do people still recognize you from "Barney Miller" and, at the time, did that show take your career to a new level?
SL: Absolutely. The proverbial map got bigger. Up until that point, I had been on television doing talk shows. I ran the gamut. I did every talk show in existence. I did the Dean Martin show and I did a couple of flops. Then I did a show called "Friends and Lovers with Paul Sands," which is what got me "Barney Miller."
JH: How do you think the sitcom has changed in the last 30-odd years since Barney Miller?
SL: I don't think in those terms. I just think about how funny something is. When you're talking about sitcom, you're talking about comedy. "Seinfeld" is one of my favorite shows of all time and... it's hard to write funny. That's the reality of it. When Cosby had the mega hit, he had pitched the show and he was at one of the networks and the guy told him that sitcoms were dead because at that point there weren't a lot of comedies on the air. Comedy is never dead. People always want to laugh more so now than ever. What's more fun than laughing? So if a great comedy comes along, people will watch it. Right now, I'm not watching anything... I tend to watch "Seinfeld" reruns and sports. But I've caught a lot of funny shows in reruns. I never watched "Everybody Loves Raymond" when it was on the air but my wife turned me onto it and I think it's a very funny show. We watch "Frasier" reruns. It's hilarious. "Monk" is funny. So there are funny shows out there but I go back to George Burns's line, "Whatever makes you laugh is funny." I can't say what's different or not different. If it's funny, it's funny.
"Head Case" returns to Starz on Friday at 10:00/9:00c with multiple airings throughout the week.