Robin Williams cried when he found out that his new show, “The Crazy Ones,” which premiered this fall on CBS, got picked up for a second season. At least that’s the way his co-star Sarah Michelle Gellar tells it.
Sitting in her trailer late last year behind the 20th Century Fox Studio soundstage where the half-hour-long comedy films, Gellar scrolls through her smartphone to find a picture of her co-star.
FOR THE RECORD:
“The Crazy Ones”: A Jan. 2 Calendar article and headline about the new Robin Williams TV show, “The Crazy Ones,” said the show had been picked up by CBS for a second season. It has not. The show was picked up for a full first-season order.
“It was the greatest thing because they called us all on set to tell us, and Robin picked that moment, poor bastard, to go to the bathroom,” she says while two makeup artists wipe her face clean, massage her head and brush her hair. “So we’re all standing there in a row, and we started chanting ‘Robin, Robin,’ and he came in and he broke down.”
Williams has not starred in a television series in 32 years, since he played a wacky alien on ABC’s “Mork & Mindy.” He says he chose to return to the small screen for two reasons: that the show was created by TV wunderkind David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “Boston Legal”), and because of television’s ongoing renaissance.
“When I started off there were only three networks, now there are hundreds, everybody has their own network,” says Williams on a break from shooting. “With regular television — not cable — it’s interesting to see what you’re up against and what you have to do to find an audience.”
That audience came in droves in the beginning. “The Crazy Ones” premiered to more than 15 million viewers, making it the highest-watched premiere of a new show this fall. Its numbers have fallen off since then, with new episodes hovering around 8 million viewers.
The show, which returns Thursday with a new episode, takes place at a high-powered Chicago advertising agency. Williams stars as Simon Roberts, the unorthodox head of the agency, which he runs with his disciplined, devoted daughter Sydney, played by Gellar.
The ensemble cast is rounded out by James Wolk, who plays a charismatic young copywriter named Zach Cropper; Hamish Linklater, who plays a neurotic art director named Andrew Keanelly; and a ditsy but secretly smart assistant named Lauren Slotsky, played by Amanda Setton.
Each episode generally revolves around an ad campaign that goes awry. Fixing it is the goal, and the source of the comedy. The father-daughter dynamic between Robins and Gellar also drives the show, with Gellar acting as Williams’ caretaker and voice of reason.
In person, Williams is humble and soft spoken, except when he breaks out in spastic moments of comedy and tosses around non sequiturs in his trademark baritone voice. At nearly every turn, the 62-year-old star emphasizes the program is not the Robin Williams show.
On this particular day he has paid to have a Kogi taco truck park beside the soundstage and he makes sure everyone, cast and crew alike, know to go outside to get their share of the truck’s famous Korean BBQ tacos.
“I didn’t know how messy it was!” he exclaims after a member of the crew thanks him for the tacos. “Mongolian tacos, that’s a great combination!”
It’s not too surprising given Williams’ presence that the show is marked by a high level of improvisational play. During a recent shoot, executive producer Jason Winer, who was also directing, gets more than he bargained for from Williams.
At first, the idea is to basically follow the episode’s script, which deals with addiction — Gellar’s character is hooked on video games and Linklater’s character is worried about his mother’s chocolate obsession.
“Holidays ruined — it seemed she’d do anything for a Whatchamacallit,” Linklater says, staring out the window with somber concentration.
“A fix?” asks Williams.
“No, a candy bar, similar to a Crunch bar, made by Hershey’s,” Linklater deadpans in reply.
After filming the scene straight a few more times, Winer tells Williams to let loose and laugh when Linklater talks about his mother’s sweet demon. Williams tells him that he might regret that request.
But Winer insists. For the next half hour Williams can’t stop laughing — along with much of the cast and crew.
“I’ve never seen him like this,” says Winer, and turns to Williams and adds: “I feel like we’ve made a horrible mistake inviting you to laugh.”
“I warned you not to uncork me,” Williams replies.
Such moments can become fodder for the show’s blooper reel, which runs at the conclusion of the broadcast. The cast is frequently asked, after banking a couple straight takes, to experiment and let loose on a scene.
“Sometimes we go way too far,” says Gellar. “You couldn’t even make an R-rated version out of it.”
“People have gotten on tables,” adds Setton, laughing. “I’m pretty sure Sarah and I kissed once.”
Later, in an unused conference room, Linklater talks about what it feels like to improvise with Williams.
“It’s like all the bad kids at the back of the class got huge contracts on network television,” he says. “And now they’re encouraging us to throw spit balls at each other.”
‘The Crazy Ones’
When: 9:01 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)