Neil Flynn On Why He Left Scrubs and Life in The Middle
Before starring in one of ABC's most successful freshman family comedies this season, television audiences knew Neil Flynn from his eight-season run on Scrubs. As the enigmatic Janitor, Flynn's character clocked the most consistent batting average for laughs -- hitting solid singles each episode with his bizarrely detailed lies (about being a world class hurdler or claiming his siblings were also his parents) and occasionally stealing a base with an unexpectedly impressive song. Before Scrubs, the Illinois-native trained as a Second City performer and alternated between blockbuster leagues (The Fugitive, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and primetime roles (Seinfeld).
Two weeks ago, Movieline caught up with The Middle's leading actor to discuss that star-studded Second City 50th Anniversary reunion last month, Flynn's own improv experiences and the joys of working with that "trashy broad" Brooke Shields.
Second City celebrated its 50th anniversary last month with a reunion show. Were you able to go back to Chicago for it?
I was. I got Friday off from shooting and so I flew back. They chartered a flight to Chicago so there were more than a hundred of us alums on the flight. It was a great way to travel.
I imagine you were onstage with some of the same members from your original improv group?
Several of them were there. I did a scene with Miriam Tolan I had done with her back in '96 or so. It was great. We did a couple of shows and the first one was for charity and it was just all people doing sketches from back when they were on the stage. Fred Willard, David Steinberg, the SCTV people were there. It was really cool.
That must have been surreal.
It was. It was really a privilege to have worked there. It was really fun to be back and among those distinguished alums.
Coming from an improv background, what are your thoughts on this new form of comedy in television, based on the awkward situation. In The Office or Parks and Recreation, the actor's reactions or awkward silences are sometimes funnier than the lines themselves. Does that ever seem like cheating for an improv actor?
No, I don't think so. I like it. It did not really occur to me that it was based on awkward or discomfort until I read it somewhere and I agree with that. I guess that is true. I don't classify it as comedy based on awkwardness or anything. It's just a particular sense of humor. I like it though.
I read that a lot of your lines on Scrubs were improvised and at one point, the writers just started typing "Whatever Neil says" on the script next to your character's name. Is that accurate?
That happened just twice I think. Knowing that the scene was open-ended and being on the show as long as we had, they knew that we'd be able to come up with something on the set. Especially scenes I had with Zach Braff. Very early on, we were comfortable altering the dialogue a little bit. Bill Lawrence, the creator, was all for it. He joked that if it was funnier, he'd get the credit.
And Scrubs was famously supposed to end after its eighth season before ABC decided to order another season. Did the entire cast have the option of coming back or did producers know that they wanted to take it in a new direction immediately?
Well, they would have had everyone back if everyone was available. We aired a series finale so the show was done. No one was under contract or anything and so a few of us headed out and tried to get our next jobs. It turned out that ABC was going to do more with Scrubs so there's no hard feelings of any kind either way. It just so happened that I got a different job so they asked me to do the first episode of Scrubs [this season] to explain why my character would no longer be there. But they tell me that they're keeping a spot open for me should I ever feel like coming back and I'd love to.
Do you get as much room to improvise on The Middle?
No, it's a different set-up. On Scrubs, I played a very unusual character who pretty much was defined by saying and doing strange things so it was easy to improvise around that. This is much more of a based-in-reality show. It's just a different kind of comedy that does not really call for improvisation. The comedy is a little cleaner and it is intended for families to be able to watch together. While The Middle is still funny for adults to watch, there aren't sex jokes. And I'm fine with that. I like the idea that my nieces and nephews can watch it without their parents.
Brooke Shields is going to be on the show [on tonight's episode at 8:30 PM]. Do you have any other guest stars in the works or actors you'd like to see on the show?
I understand that there is a possibility, because the episode with Brooke went so well, that she could be back but I don't know any specifics. That was a lot of fun, the episode that Brooke did. She was great. She's a very friendly person, very smart and did an excellent job. I look forward to seeing that one. She plays a character completely against her type.
She plays your family's neighbor, right?
Yes, a trashy neighbor. The mother of a family of wild boys that terrorize the neighborhood, a really trashy broad. The scripts have been so good all along. So I'm confident that it's going to continue being a strong season.