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With no big plotline hooks or over-the-top craziness, ABC's freshman series "The Middle" has respectfully held its own while being in the shadow of that other first season ABC sitcom hit ("Modern Family") which follows it on Wednesday nights. With a second season renewal already in the bag, the cast and creative team showed up at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills tonight to be honored and our Jim Halterman was there for the play-by-play.
7:12 PM - Everyone's favorite Paley guru Craig Hitchcock calls "The Middle" both "genuine and hilarious with a gifted ensemble cast" before introducing TV Guide Magazine Executive Editor Craig Tomashoff, who will moderate the evening.
7:14 PM - Craig says that he has never seen a group of people more festive backstage than "The Middle" cast. In his intro, Craig explains that he had tried to write his intro all day but small events with his kids constantly thwarted his efforts and realized what happened was exactly what happens in "The Middle."
7:16 PM - Craig ushers up Co-Creator/Executive Producer Eileen Heisler to the podium who introduces the season one finale episode "Average Rules," which airs on May 19. Hilarious episode and, while there are many big laughs, the biggest comes from legendary guest star Betty White. (Does the woman ever take a break?!)
7:38 PM - Post-episode airing, Craig returns to the stage and introduces the panel for "The Middle." Chris Kattan! Atticus Shaffer! DeAnn Heline! Eileen Heisner! Neil Flynn! Eden Sher! Patricia Heaton!
7:40 PM - Craig asks what kind of feedback the cast/creators have gotten from the show since it premiered. DeAnn says, "The thing we hear the most is how relatable it is. You look on the blogs and all that and people say 'I think they have a camera in my living room or kitchen.'" Patricia adds that she's surprised that "so many women that come up to me are clearly sort of wealthy, Beverly Hills types that are stopping me and saying how much they love the show because we're very specifically Midwestern and lower middle class and struggling."
7:43 PM - Was it a deliberate goal that the show be relatable to everyone? Eileen says, "I look back at my own experiences and I think the more specific that you write then the more general so we never intended that this would be a show that just the middle of the country would say, 'Yeah!'"
7:45 PM - The stories are pulled directly from the cast and crew. DeAnn explains, "In the siblings episode, [writer] Rob Ulin wrote it and came in and said, 'God, I really want my kids to be closer. I really wish they got along.' It's things that come from the real truth."
7:47 PM - DeAnn says that the story in the season finale where Sue (Eden Sher) gets hit by a deer is not fiction but instead something she heard from a friend in the Midwest whose brother was out running and got hit by a deer. "Even the things that are a little crazy or a little more broad come from real life."
7:49 PM - Patricia recounts a story of having a foreign exchange student staying with her real family and how it was not the best experience and she'd come into work everyday with more stories. Of course, it may just show up as a story in season two, the creators tease.
7:52 PM - In regards to real life being pulled into the show, Eden jokes that she's not too much like her loser character Sue. "I don't fail at anything ever!"
7:54 PM - Art has influenced life, says Atticus, who explains that he now repeats things out loud and under his breath much like the physical trademark of his seven-year old character.
7:56 PM - How did the show come to be in the first place? DeAnn remembers, "At the time there really wasn't any family shows, which we always love, and there wasn't anything about the Midwest and just average people... these people are heroes and they deserve their own show and so we kind of combined those two things."
7:58 PM - Eileen says that her real-life son Justin inspires many of the stories that they use for Brick (Atticus Sheffer's character).
8:00 PM - "I was impressed from the beginning," says Neil about the quality of the show from the first episode. DeAnn adds, "It felt really solid. So many pilots go through 'We have to recast this role' and there are so many changes and for us it was what it was. The first couple episodes didn't feel like it was new; it felt like we'd been working together a long time."
8:04 PM - It's obvious there's much love amongst this jovial cast and crew but Patricia says everyone gets along... except one and everyone looks at Atticus. Patricia jokes, "His trailer is right next to mine and the cigar smoke...!"
8:06 PM - Neil says he went back and watched the second episode of the series, which is the only one thus far where his character kisses his wife (Heaton). "I saw it again and it looks like two strangers kissing." Patricia explains, "Neil, you haven't been married for 20 years. That's exactly what it's like!"
8:08 PM - Patricia admits that in the beginning she wasn't sure how to relate to the kids on the show since they're both peers and, she jokes, "they're 15 years younger than me." In fact, Patricia remembers that Charlie McDermott (who plays Axl and wasn't in attendance) didn't look her in the eye for the first 10 episodes. Eden reluctantly shares that Charlie didn't think Patricia liked him. Why was that? Read on...
8:11 PM - "You don't smoke pot, do you?" Patricia recounts is what she said to Charlie when they first started working together, which could explain why he was afraid to look her in the eye. Patricia feels terrible and can't shake knowing that Charlie thought she didn't like him and brings it up repeatedly the rest of the night.
8:14 PM - Asked about weird fan stuff and Eden says there was a Facebook group created to get a date with her! Eden does admit that Charlie has the whole fan-thing ten times worse than she does.
8:17 PM - Why do the boys in the Heck family have cool names like Brick and Axl and then Sue is just plain old Sue? DeAnn says that it had been explained in the pilot but it got cut. "The whole explanation for their names," DeAnn says, "was that Frankie read in People magazine that kids go farther in life if they have more interesting names... but Mike's grandmother said on her deathbed, 'You have to name your daughter Sue' so we say that Sue is living up to the curse of her average name."
8:19 PM - How does Patty feel about Frankie's hairstyle, including the bangs that aren't too flattering on her? "It's a love/hate relationship with the bangs...shoes and hair are real big character things and make a big difference for me."
8:22 PM - On how his part on "The Middle" is different from his "Saturday Night Live" days, Chris says, "I play more of a human character than Mango... it's easier for the actors because you don't have to stress about the writing and the creation of a character. You get to add a little something to the character every week and that's fun as opposed to coming up with a new character every week."
8:25 PM - While the co-creators don't have too much planned out yet for the second season, DeAnn says, "The great thing about coming back and knowing we're coming back is that you do, as a writer, see what really works great... and we know where to start from."
8:26 PM - Favorite one-liners on the show? Craig admits one is when Neil tells Axl, "Son, stuff those feelings way down." Patricia remembers when a relative dies on the show, Frankie compares her family's way of handing death than her husband's and says, "We do death really well. Your family throws them in a hole and drinks." Patricia admits her family is actually more like the latter example.
8:30 PM - Q&A time. Will Betty White return after her hilarious turn in the season finale as Brick's nemesis, the school librarian? DeAnn says they'd love to have her back but they know she's busy with another show (TV Land's upcoming "Hot In Cleveland").
8:31 PM - "They're like home movies for us," says DeAnn about the very tacky and very real Heck house set which is filled with random items and Indiana University memorabilia. (DeAnn and Eileen met while attending the Midwestern college.)
8:33 PM - A fan asks the co-creators to explain the decision to not make the dad character a moron like in some sitcoms. DeAnn explains, "We didn't want that doofus Dad. We wanted a strong dad. It was important to us that if the kids talked back to the parents that they were going to get a punishment."
8:35 PM - On the casting for the role of Mike, Eileen says, "One person who could play that part - Neil."
8:37 PM - Atticus admits that while he loves to read, he does not read as much as his onscreen persona.
8:38 PM - "I got one job offer a year and I always take it," Patricia joked about how she came to be a part of "The Middle."
8:40 PM - On Eden beating out other actresses for the role of Sue - DeAnn says "We saw a lot of people who came in and were just typical nerd/junior high girl but what Eden brought to it was this yearning and optimism... and made that even more of a part of who Sue is and that's why she's so lovable."
8:41 PM - Patricia explains that the first time she met Neil, she had only seen the pilot of "Scrubs" and mistakenly said, "What was it like to be on a show for eight years and never have a line?" Neil corrects her that his character had lines but he never was given a name.
8:43 PM - DeAnn says "I just want to say that we are very proud of the fact that what's wonderful is that parents are watching with their kids and all ages are really loving it and I don't think there are a lot of shows like that. The kids are watching The Disney Channel and the adults are watching their show and we're proud of the fact that everyone can watch this show and like it and that it's a true family show."
"The Middle" airs at 8:30/7:30c every Wednesday on ABC.