On his new sitcom, “Superior Donuts,” Judd Hirsch plays the owner of a Chicago doughnut shop who, after a half-century in business, warily hires a young go-getter bent on freshening the bill of fare.
“I’m going to help you bring this place into the 20th century,” says Franco, the eager new assistant played by co-star Jermaine Fowler.
“You mean the 21st,” replies Arthur, his leery new boss.
“No,” says Franco flatly. “I don’t.”
Arthur’s doughnuts can’t be beat. His specialty, maple creams, look scrumptious. But certain market forces must be addressed in the modern world. Like the public’s demand for the muffins, cronuts and free Wi-Fi that Arthur doesn’t offer. And the bustling Starbucks right across the street in this gentrifying neighborhood.
“Superior Donuts” shakes out as a sitcom dialectic pitting experience, wisdom and mulishness against unbridled energy, initiative and being too impulsive.
All the while, Arthur’s shop relies on a sprinkling of regulars played by David Koechner, Maz Jobrani, Anna Baryshnikov, Darien Sills-Evans and Rell Battle, as well as Katey Sagal as a Chicago cop who’s been coming to Superior Donuts since childhood.
CBS serves up a sample at 8:30 p.m. Thursday before delivering the series at 9 p.m. Mondays.
But now, to get one issue out of the way: “I don’t eat doughnuts,” Hirsch confides. “I can’t eat sweets. I do. But I can’t.”
He clearly doesn’t need the sugar rush. In March, he turns 82. Yet, over a recent salad in Manhattan, he radiates the vigor and volubility of a youngster. Appearance, too: Apart from grayer hair and the paunch he proudly sports, he looks little different than he did decades ago as cabbie Alex Reiger on the sitcom classic “Taxi.”
“ ‘Taxi’ was good because it came down to loving everybody,” Hirsch recalls fondly. “It always resolved itself that way: finding a solution to a problem — doing the best you can. Not the best IMAGINABLE. The best you CAN. Big difference. If you put that goodwill inside all the jokes, the audience will feel it. THAT’S the magic of situation comedy.
“That’s the only thing I know,” he declares.
Not quite. Since landing his first professional role — The Telephone Man in the 1960s Broadway smash “Barefoot in the Park” — this Bronx, New York, native with an engineering degree has gathered know-how and acclaim in theater (two Tonys), film (including an Oscar-nominated performance in the Mary Tyler Moore drama “Ordinary People”) and on a string of TV series, picking up a pair of Emmys for “Taxi.”
But the everyman quality he has brought to his sitcoms, especially “Taxi” and now “Superior Donuts,” is what he’s best known for. And he knows plenty about such comic ventures.
“There are two things that make comedy great,” he says, launching into a punchy exposition. “One is the surprise element: You never thought it would happen, but it does. Or you wouldn’t think that anybody would do that, but they do. Or you wouldn’t think it could be solved, but it will be. You know what I mean?”
But then the second thing, whatever it might be, is lost in a flurry of other observations: The excess sugar in children’s diets … “those schmucks in Washington” who deny climate change … people who knock actors as ill-suited to speak out on the issues: “We had a PRESIDENT who was an actor!”
Not that Hirsch dwells on this negative stuff, he insists.
“I ain’t got long to live. Nobody does! And I know if I go out worrying about anything, I’ve been wasting my time here. No! I want to go out laughing,” Hirsch declares.
Which calls forth another sitcom keep-’em-laughing list.
“Three things have to happen in a successful sitcom,” Hirsch states. “The writers have to write for every single member of the ensemble.
“You’ve got to have a situation that rings a bell: The viewer has to wonder, what’s gonna happen here? What’s gonna happen next?
“And the third thing is, all the characters have to try to come out of it together. Nothing hateful is left over, no matter how much they may disagree along the way.”
Of course, fans of the funny-but-acerbic “Louie,” “Arrested Development” or “Seinfeld” might dispute that point. On the other hand, with its “no learning, no hugs” policy, “Seinfeld” flourished precisely by playing against Hirsch’s sitcom creed.
“You succeed when you stick to story,” he then adds to the list. “You fail when you just go for jokes.”
A bonus rule from a comedy master? Call it icing on the, um, doughnut.
Premiere at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, 9 p.m. Mondays
CBS (Channel 62)
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