Q&AA: Ted Danson is in his good place

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Credit: Illustration by Kirsten Ulve

Ted Danson has made a career out of being comfortable in his own skin. But a recent interview with Ad Age—ranging from his iconic role as Sam Malone on "Cheers" to his current work on "The Good Place" and a slate of new ads for Smirnoff—got him blushing.

"You just caught me watching one of the spots," he says, after picking up the phone. "It's always embarrassing when you're caught watching yourself."

In the vodka campaign he condenses his wit and charm into bite-sized chunks of six- and 15-second ads, sharing the stage with Jonathan Van Ness of Netflix's "Queer Eye" and actress and LGBT activist Laverne Cox, among others.

Now 70, Danson, who also plays a version of himself on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," reflects back on a career imbued with an effortless likability that has earned him 16 lifetime Emmy nominations, including his latest one for the NBC hit, "The Good Place."

You have great comedic timing. Have you had to work at it, or does it come naturally?

I certainly wasn't born with it. I don't think my parents found me all that funny. I grew up really on "Cheers" as far as practicing comedy every week, practicing really funny writing, working with Jimmy Burrows, who has directed so many half-hour situation comedies. He really is one of the masters. I'm still blessed to this day to be working with funny writers. You just get to practice it so much that I think it kind of becomes second nature.

Comedy is a little bit like, um—not a musical—but there is a metronome going. There is a real dance beat happening that you need to honor.

"Cheers" was appointment TV, drawing huge audiences. Network TV shows don't get that today. Do you miss that era?

No, I value it. Literally everything I'm doing, including talking to you, is a result of being cast in "Cheers," so I honor that time forever. It still makes me laugh when I go back and watch it. But television has changed, viewing habits have changed, cable came along, changed everything. And now you're more able to specifically target an audience without having to do broad strokes. And that's fun. There are benefits to having smaller viewership, believe it or not. You can be that network that does quirky, angry stuff, or funny stuff. You can target it like FX and HBO and Showtime.

I'm having so much fun it's hard for me to look back and miss anything. I hope that doesn't sound cocky. I really am having such a good time on "The Good Place."

You recently told Marc Maron on his podcast that "if you're lucky you find roles that are perfect for what you're going through in life." Are you in one now?

"The Good Place" is about decency. It's about, you know, your actions have an effect, have an impact out in the universe, out in the world. Your actions create a certain amount of good or certain amount of bad out there and you're accountable, you do have an impact. I guess you'd say at 70, I love being part of that message.

The character, Michael, that I'm playing, I don't know if it's so much me identifying with that character or that character going through something I'm going through as much as the message that ["Good Place" creator] Mike Schur is putting out in the world about decency. It's something that I care a great deal about, especially at this time.

It's hard to create a successful broadcast comedy these days. Does the short episode count play a role in the success of "The Good Place"?

It gives them the ability to write a 13-chapter story. You can do 13 episodes and have each episode build on the next one and you have a real arc, and you aren't padding it. You have a story to tell, and if you have 13 episodes, you can tell it, and each chapter is jam-packed with this wonderful action. If you have 22, every writer I know says around the 15th or 16th episode you're just padding it, you're making stuff up because you're burned, you're fried. And there's just no way to do a 22-episode arc. Whereas with 13 you can have it be that binge-watching story that's one chapter after the other.

You seem as passionate about your career as you probably were the day you started. What's the secret?

You have to be just shallow enough to pull it off. Sorry, I was trying to make a joke there. I actually asked myself the other day, "Here I am, I'm 70, is it OK for me to be having as much fun as I am?" It's almost like, "Should I be growing up and doing something serious at this point?" I love going to work. I love driving through the studio gates. I love the crews. You go to work and there are 120 people around you that are putting the show together, whether it's the electricians, or people who know everything about lighting, or carpenters, or actors, writers, directors. It's just this amazing kind of circus, a band of gypsies. And it still excites me to go to work and be around these people. I love make-believe. I love going to work. I love being an actor.

How much does the Sam Malone role in "Cheers" still influence your career?

It has enabled me to do other work because it was so popular. It enables me to do a character like Arthur Frobisher on "Damages" because people expect sweet-old-nice-funny Ted who made us laugh on "Cheers." And then all the sudden you use that audience expectation and you twist it and bend it and you make me somebody quite horrible.

I've seen you quoted saying your role on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" was a game-changing moment in your career. Why?

First off, I hate to acknowledge and compliment my friend Larry David, just because I love insulting him and making him laugh. But he really did give me quite a gift by including me in the show. I had felt like I had done one too many half-hour sitcoms, and I felt kind of burned out. And after "Becker," I tried one more that didn't quite work. So I was kind of down, in an other-people-are-funnier-I'm-getting-tired-of-myself kind of mood. And I thought, well, I'll just go back and do films, do small parts, whatever.

Then "Curb Your Enthusiasm" came along. And I knew Larry and he invited Mary [Steenburgen], my wife, and I to come play ourselves. And it just was such a playground. You show up, you don't have to learn lines because there are no lines. You just have situations that you have to be willing to improvise in and just have fun. I think it just lightened me up and made me laugh again while I was working. I think it just put a little bounce in my acting step again.

Are you going to be in more "Curb" episodes?

I think we're starting up at the end of October, but that is really literally all I know.

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