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Rob Lowe on ‘The Grinder,’ Breaking Into the Cool Comedian Cliques and Why He Literally Won’t Say ‘Literally’

Rob Lowe on 'The Grinder,' Breaking Into the Cool Comedian Cliques and Why He Literally Won't Say 'Literally'

Rob Lowe is cold. It’s a sweltering 90-plus degrees outside The Beverly Hilton hotel, but the maintenance men at the home of the Golden Globes have chosen to keep their meeting rooms at near-arctic levels. In a black t-shirt and light khaki pants, Lowe has survived a good eight hours at the Hilton already, but he’s not done yet. 

After breaking out as a part of the Brat Pack in the early ’80s, the California-native transitioned seamlessly from film to TV when it wasn’t cool to do so. From there, his career has only grown to the point where the 51-year-old actor now calls the small screen his “bread and butter.” But despite being a major player during the medium’s most creative transition ever — or perhaps because of it — Lowe has found his biggest critical and commercial success on broadcast TV shows, finding great roles on the major networks when many other actors fled to cable. Between iconic parts on “The West Wing” and “Parks and Recreation,” Lowe has still dipped his toes in the cable pool, including award-winning HBO films like “Behind the Candelabra” and stealing scenes as a guest star on “Californication” (with a few short-lived drama series and comedy pilots along the way).

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Now he’s back with his first starring role in a comedy series. “The Grinder” finds Lowe playing a famous television actor who just wrapped a hit crime procedural where he played a charismatic lawyer called The Grinder. So Dean “Grinder” Sanderson returns to his small town home to find a new purpose in life. That purpose (and the show’s) is coming to terms with the differences between TV law and actual law. “The Grinder” does it via vicious satire, calling out Hollywood for its lack of authenticity at every turn, and the ex-Grinder does it by helping his brother learn to be a more confident and commanding presence in the courtroom.

Lowe sat down — without complaint or any indication of the chills he must have been feeling — with Indiewire at this year’s TCAs, taking up more time than was allotted to discuss why real lawyers should love “The Grinder,” how he broke into the cool “cliques” in comedy, and why broadcast networks keep making great sitcoms — but can’t do drama. 

How’ve you been today?

It’s been a great day and a long day.
I believe it. You guys had the early panel, and you’re still doing interviews at 6pm.
I know. But, you know I’ve been doing TCAs for a long, long time. This is as enthusiastic a reception as I’ve seen in a long time, so it makes it really easy and fun. 
The first thing that I want to talk to you about was a bit of a personal aside. You mentioned how your dad was an attorney earlier on the panel. My dad was also an attorney, and he goes to movies all the time, he watches TV all the time and he will not watch anything about attorneys because the inaccuracies bug him so much.
Right, that’s funny, right.
So, can I tell him this isn’t going to be one of those shows? 
Oh, he’s going to love this show. Everything that drives him crazy — justifiably — is what this show is predicated on: that every case has a “gotcha” moment, an “aha” moment; snatching victory from the jaws of defeat at the eleventh hour; all of those great tropes — which we love. That’s why we love courtroom dramas, but that’s not what courtrooms are like. So, to see that juxtaposition is just really funny. 
Was there anything — since you’ve got a little bit of background in law — was there anything you were looking forward to skewering? Any kind of traditional things that just bugged you when you saw it or you thought were just very ripe for a comedic take?
Yes, on two fronts. One is not so much law shows, but the state of contemporary network dramas. Nighttime soaps. Just every year, it’s like an arms race of “O-M-G” moments, and I think it is the perfect time to do a satire on that, where any character is capable of anything at anytime in order to give the plot a boost. So, our show will certainly do that within the legal realm. And then, of course, the thing that’s fun to do is to lampoon actors. I mean, that’s great. Like I said in the panel, I’ve been waiting forever to have a proper excuse to wear a beanie in the summertime — and the chain that leads to nothing. It comes [to] here and I’m not sure — I still haven’t figured it out yet. But all of those things, like all kinds of bangles that take forever to put on — does somebody put those on those actors? Or is it, every morning, they brush their teeth, put on their deodorant, and then [accessorize]? Do they sleep in them? Because otherwise, it’s a 20-minute process, easily. The bandanas and all that stuff, I love to have fun with. And to be able to do it in a way that is not an insider Hollywood show, that’s in a traditional family show — it reminded me of “Modern Family,” in that here was another family show, but with a twist that we’ve never seen before. 

Yeah, and I liked that moment in the pilot, it was somewhat unexpected, but it fit in so well with how the episode was paced where you had a moment with your nephew in the show, and talked to him about, “Well okay, this is the advice I’m going to give you and this is what I want you to do.”
And there’s going to be more. I mean, that’s really where the show’s going to live. It won’t be a case-a-week show. We will have plenty of cases a week, but that’s not the predicate. I think ultimately, it’s much more interesting seeing Dean in the family, trying to reconcile what it means to be in each other’s lives. In the next episode — in the first episode after the pilot — one of the minor little things that Dean is just obsessed with [is] the lives that normal people lead. So, he’s obsessed with carpooling. He cannot get enough of it. He’s like, “Wait a minute. So like, Stewart, you drive the kids every morning. But then, other mornings, you don’t drive, but she does? But how do you, like, figure out who’s going to do it?” He’s obsessed with shit like that, and it’s so sweet. He’s like the Starman who’s fallen from a foreign planet into Earth.

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Well that, even what you just did, speaks to how you’ve been able to do some really great character work in comedy. And it was after — in TV at least — you really broke out as a dramatic actor, like “The West Wing” and “Brothers and Sisters,” and it seems like, looking back, it was probably easier for you to get dramatic roles. But you really pushed and got some great characters in comedies. So, a two-part question: What makes you want to go after roles like Dean Sanderson and Chris Traeger and even Eddie–
Eddie Nero. Love Eddie.
–on “Californication,” yeah, he must have been fun to play. So, what makes you want to go after that, and then, was it hard to break in and grab those roles?
It’s my observation, having come from drama initially, that the kind of comedy that I’m drawn to, and have been drawn to since the days of “Saturday Night Live” when I was 13 years old, is very cliquey. And it’s sort of the cool kids that make it. And there’s plenty of comedy being made, but the comedy I like is very cliquey, and I’ve been really blessed to have been in the various cliques at the various times where the cliques were cool. Whether it’s Mike [Myers] and Dana [Carvey] in “Wayne’s World,” whether it was Chris Farley and [David] Spade in “Tommy Boy,” whether it was Ricky Gervais post-“The Office,” whether it’s the Jason Reitman’s and the “Thank You For Smoking’s,” whether it’s Mike again in “Austin Powers” or the Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, [Chris] Pratt group in “Parks and Rec.” Every few years, there’s that group. And to have been accepted time and time again by those groups of very different people, by the way, is really gratifying. I think it’s one of the reasons why I am where I am — coming into “The Grinder” and being able to build on audience’s experiencing those shows along with me.

And you’ve been able to do that on broadcast television a lot more than I think a lot of actors have been able to do. A lot of people have transitioned over into premium cable and then the streaming networks and kind of found, especially with comedy, a more open environment there. But you’ve had such a great streak doing broadcast TV. What is it that appeals to you about broadcast TV, and then how do you go about selecting your shows?
I’ve thought a lot about this, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is TV is my bread and butter. It’s I think where things are the most interesting in terms of [the idea that] everybody wants to be on television. Everybody. So, where it’s going is important to me. I, at this moment, don’t really have much of an interest to do a drama on a network. I don’t think you can compete with what you can do on cable. I just don’t think it’s possible, just in terms of the stories you’re allowed to tell, the freedom of stories that they give you. It’s a really unfair advantage. I mean, it’s time to bring back the CableACE Awards because it really is. You have to do 22 of them, you have to write to commercials, you have standards and practices, you have language restrictions, you have content restrictions. On cable, if it’s dramatic, you can do it. That’s an unfair fight. Now comedy I actually think is the only place that the networks are as strong or stronger. I would make a case that, pound for pound, comedies are funnier on [broadcast]. I mean, look, there are shows I love on cable — I love “Silicon Valley” — that are funny. But, listen, I’ll watch “Modern Family” over “Nurse Jackie” any day.
Why do you think it’s been able to stack up like that? Obviously, the comedies on network still have to make, usually, more episodes than cable. I mean, “Silicon Valley” is a great example. They only do eight episodes a season, and you have to make a lot more than that. But you’re right. You’ve got “Parks and Recreation.” Coming off that, you’ve got “Modern Family,” which has won five in a row now at the Emmys. Why do you think that the comedy is easier to survive on network than the dramas? 
I think because comedy maybe isn’t predicated in today’s culture — or necessarily predicated on being edgy and in your face, and that’s harder and harder to do when the bar gets raised. And it’s not as predicated on production value. I mean, look, “Game of Thrones” is nothing if not an exercise in gigantic production value, and “Parks and Rec” was an exercise in looking as bad as it can look and as cheap as it can look. So, they’re just such different animals, and I think at this moment, the climate is right for a renaissance and a continue of [strong] network comedies, hopefully.

I mean, “Last Man on Earth?” That show is great, and edgy, and weird, and funny, and I think broadcast television — the word “broad” meaning writ large — there will always be stuff that’s not for everybody. It’s not niche programming. There’s plenty of popular shows on broadcast that aren’t for me. But there are plenty, a surprising amount of them that are, and they’re in the comedy world. I loved “30 Rock.” I loved “The Office.” I love “Modern Family.” I love “Fresh Off the Boat.” “The Goldbergs.” And there’s a lot of fun, there’s a lot of good stuff out there.

Toward the end of the pilot of “The Grinder,” he says the word “literally,” and you gave it a little bit of that Chris Traeger flavor. Was that a conscious nod to your old character, or just kind of a circumstantial —
I had nothing to do with that being in the script, and the word does exist [laughs] but — now, it’s one of those words when, in real life, when I come up, I kind of find ways to not say it, but it’s such a great word. And so, for those who pay attention — you being one of them — I gave it just enough throttle, I thought, that people would have fun with it.
I agree. And it’s one of those words that, like you said, it’s a great word to use, but it’s also become overused, so it doesn’t actually have that meaning anymore. People use it figuratively.
In fact, they changed the definition.
Right, right.
And then, the article where they announced it, they mentioned Chris Traeger in “Parks and Recreation.” It’s like my greatest accomplishment is I helped ruin the English language. [laughs]

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