On TV Land’s RETIRED AT 35, now in its second season Wednesdays at 11 PM, Johnathan McClain plays the title character, David Robbins, who quits his awful job and returns to his hometown, only to be caught up in quarrels between his strong-willed parents, played by George Segal and Jessica Walter.
McClain is a native of South Carolina whose TV resume includes 24, MEDIUM and CSI. This interview was conducted over the phone. McClain sets the stage at his end of the line while he’s on vacation in Italy.
JOHNATHAN McCLAIN: I’m sitting here, staring at the Arno River from the balcony of my hotel room, so my life is infinitely awesome.
AX: Do you feel that RETIRED AT 35 harks back to any particular era of TV comedy?
McCLAIN: Absolutely. I think in the first season, we definitely felt much more like an early Eighties sitcom, in the vein of whatever was on just before THE COSBY SHOW, because that kind of changed things. This season, we feel a little bit more like a late Eighties/early Nineties sitcom. We picked up a whole bunch of new writers in the second season, a lot of whom are pedigreed from that era. Notably, a bunch of them came from ROSEANNE. The influence of those writers from that period and that kind of comedy I think are very evident in what we’re doing. It’s not particularly wry or arch, it’s much more grounded and family-based. There are scenes in each episode this season that really aren’t about wacky laughs and pratfalls and are actually about, “You hurt my feelings, and this is how I feel because of what you did to me” and the other character responding to that and having a genuine scene and then at the end somebody falls down [laughs]. But there’s a lot more sincerity to it and I feel like that ROSEANNE era is what it feels like we’re doing now. Which is something I think is kind of great.
AX: Were you particularly aware of TV Land as a network before you got involved with RETIRED AT 35?
McCLAIN: In the sense that I’m a fairly substantial TV junkie. But ours was a fairly early show [in terms of TV Land] branching out into original programming, and so like everybody else, I had absolutely no idea what that was going to look like or what to expect. It’s interesting to get into it on the ground floor. The conventional thought on this is that HOT IN CLEVELAND was their first show. Actually, RETIRED AT 35 was their first show. We were the first pilot they cast – HOT IN CLEVELAND shot its pilot after RETIRED AT 35. I think they saw what they had with CLEVELAND, which was obviously gangbusters, and led with their strongest opening move, but we were actually the very first thing, so we were all kind of flying blind. And then it’s three years later, and I’m still talking about it. So that’s a nice surprise.
AX: Were you offered the role or did you audition?
McCLAIN: No, I don’t get offered things [laughs]. I still audition for mostly everything. So my agent said, “I have an audition for you” and I read this script – I think it must have been about three years ago now, probably August of 2009 – and frankly, at the time, I had done a couple of failed pilots and series that didn’t make it and I had done some guest star stuff, and I was on the verge of just packing up and moving back to New York to do theatre and write plays and stuff like that, and so I passed on it the first couple of times. And then they were having trouble finding what they were looking for, and I said, “Okay, I’ll just go in and see what happens.” And I went in and it worked out okay. By the time that they had cast George Segal and they brought me, along with a few other guys, to read with George, that was when my fortunes really turned. George and I clicked pretty well. And I also got really excited, because he’s freaking George Segal. So that was when the energy really ramped up. Eventually, I was brought in for all the executives and everybody with two or three other guys. And it wound up working out. You never know how these things are going to go. Who could have foretold?
AX: How has your character David evolved over the series, or does he get to evolve very much in dealing with his parents? Is the point of the show that they are interfering with his evolution?
McCLAIN: I think in the first season, the case was very much that you had this guy who was initially going to do this soul-searching and take this opportunity to figure out what the second act of his life was going to be like, and at the same time, you have his parents figuring out what their second or maybe third act is going to look like. And those were going to be the parallels. And then because of the construct of the first season, you had this dude ping-ponging back and forth between his parents, who were in conflict. And so the show itself has evolved, and as a consequence of that, the character has been allowed to evolve in the second season. The parents reconcile fairly quickly – they do so in the first episode of the second season.
And we reintroduce the character of the sister, who we had in the pilot, who was played by Casey Wilson. She went off and got another job, and so we were absent that. So reintroducing the sister character in the form of Marissa Jaret Winokur allows for what I think the show is at its heart, a genuine family sitcom to emerge. I’ve said often comedies work best where there’s an ensemble – FRIENDS was an ensemble of friends, and in a family comedy, the family is the ensemble. So now you can see where everybody’s journey is taking them a little more clearly.
In the case of David, he’s finally getting a chance to really do some of the things that he set out to do in the first season – explore his own interests, try and find where he fits in the world a little more, trying to find where he fits in the world relative to where he fits in his own family, which is of course something that I think is pretty relatable. He gets to have a relationship for a few episodes this season – Danneel Ackles came in to play my girlfriend, but as opposed to a quote-unquote “girlfriend,” she’s an adult with a child, a single mom with her kid, and so David has to confront, “Well, I like this girl, but how exactly do I tell her that I am kind of a child myself?” [laughs] So there are no sort of transcendental ideas being explored that we hope to solve in this sitcom, but they’re a little more filled with gravity, I think, than the first season, and probably a little more earnest, and for me, that’s been great, just because it gives me something a little richer to hook into in terms of how to play David and figure out where he’s going.
Doing a series from week to week, I think, inevitably pieces of your own character and your own personality try and creep in. I’m trying to keep that from happening as much as possible, so that he remains a distinct character, but certainly I’m sure that my world view probably weasels its way in and so I think he evolves naturally, the way we probably all evolve as people.
AX: As an actor, can you relate to wanting to be retired at 35? Most people in show business aim to continue as long as possible.
McCLAIN: Yeah, I’m working with several of them. [laughs] George and Jessica and most of the guest stars are well into their what would otherwise be [in the non-show business world] traditional retirement years. They’re probably going as strong as they ever have. I can certainly relate to the idea that David quit doing the stuff that was making him miserable. I mean, there was a point when I was in my late twenties when I was still going from doing a play here, a play there and then going to do a temp job or whatever, and finally, I just jumped and said, “The hell with this, I’m not going to work in an office any more, I’m just going to do the thing that I love to do, and we’ll see what happens.” Knock wood, it’s worked out okay.
But that’s essentially what the mission of David’s character is, that he wants to do things that he loves and that he actually cares about. In the pilot, it’s established – it’s a corny sitcom gag, but it’s funny – David works for a company that manufactures wood products for chopsticks and ‘food-related wood products.” I think that the conceit is to try to find the most absurd, soul-desiccating career to put him in, so that anybody could understand how he’d want to get out of it. But as far as retire myself goes – hell, no, of course not. I’m forced into retirement every time a job ends until the next job begins. Jessica Walter has famously said, as an actor, you spend half your life unemployed, so why would you pursue unemployment? I agree with that.
AX: Are you working on anything else right now?
McCLAIN: Yeah, for sure. The show is the show, so it limits what kinds of things I can do, but I went away to Florida for a little while and I did a guest episode on A&E’s THE GLADES. That was great, because I played a killer. On RETIRED AT 35, I get to kill almost nobody [laughs]. So that was fun; to get to go play a murderer was cool. And I narrated an audio book, which was a lot of fun, by this guy Lincoln Child, who has written a bunch of novels. And this book is called THE THIRD GATE. That was awesome, to get to sit in a dark room and read for ten hours and basically just tell a story all by myself.
The thing that I’m doing most just to keep myself busy is friends of mine and I have started doing political satire comedy short videos for FunnyorDie.com that we’ll keep doing probably through the election season, which is fun in the worst of cases, but when your friends that you get to hang out with are like John Ross Bowie from THE BIG BANG THEORY or Michael Emerson from PERSON OF INTEREST, who just did one with us, that’s pretty awesome. I get to play with my friends and those friends happen to be geniuses. So that’s a delight. And I also write, so I’ve been writing a screenplay with my writing partner, and with any luck, that will turn into something.
AX: You had been a regular on something called THE BAD GIRLS GUIDE …
McCLAIN: Dear God, I was [laughs]. Being on THE BAD GIRLS GUIDE was cool in the sense that I loved my cast mates – loved them, loved them, loved them. I really liked Jenny McCarthy a lot. She’s awesome. And it was fun to go do [the show]. It lasted for six episodes and they burned us off over the summer and I’d done other pilots, but it was the first one that I had that made it to air. To have it be sort of as battered as it was and then quickly canceled, it was a kick in the ribs, a little bit.
AX: Did it help you at least get into the mindset of, “Okay, this is what it’s like to be an actor on a TV series”?
McCLAIN: Yeah, in the sense that it was one of my favorite things in the world to get to go to a job every day and be on a set and sign in on the call sheet. The thing about being on RETIRED AT 35 is that I’m working with George Segal and Jessica Walter every day and they’re no joke, and Marissa Jaret Winokur is a Tony winner. I’ve really got very impressive company that I get to keep, and also, I’m slightly higher up on the call sheet this time.
I will say that the sense of responsibility certainly that I feel for the show is far greater than anything I’ve ever done. For the audience that wants to watch this show, I care very much about trying to give them the kind of show that they would want to watch. And I feel a little bit like the quarterback. Maybe I’m not the star of the team – maybe George is the running back, the star of the team, but I do feel like it’s my responsibility to try and move the show along. A sitcom schedule is notoriously the easiest shooting schedule in television and still, at the end of a week, I’m exhausted. But I think that’s a good thing, because I think that suggests that I’ve given it my all.
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Article: Exclusive Interview with RETIRED AT 35 star Johnathan McClain