What’s the difference between working on an hourlong legal drama and a half-hour comedy? According to Jim Belushi, the differences come down to longer hours and fewer arguments.
Belushi is co-starring in ‘The Defenders’ on CBS (with Jerry O’Connell). The title’s taken from a 1960s series of the same name, but the similarities stop there. Belushi and O’Connell play colorful Las Vegas defense attorneys (based on a pair of real-life Vegas law partners) in the series, which has been handily winning its time period – Wednesdays at 10 p.m./9c. And like every other new series CBS introduced this season, ‘The Defenders’ has already gotten a full-season order.
For Belushi, the show represents a departure from his last gig – starring in ‘According to Jim’ on ABC for eight seasons. The sitcom was a huge success for him, and continues to play relentlessly in syndication (“It’s even running in Baghdad!” he notes excitedly). But in an interview with Fancast on the phone from L.A., Belushi revealed that he clashed often with the ‘Jim’ writers over their tendency to veer into “lewd” territory where Belushi didn’t want the show to go. The good news for him: He won.
In our interview, he talked about ‘The Defenders’ and ‘According to Jim,’ the differences between working for ABC and CBS, and the amazing physical fitness regimen that allows him to still do backflips at age 56.
You spent eight years on the half-hour comedy ‘According to Jim.’ Why did you now decide to take on a one-hour drama? That’s a very different kind of experience, isn’t it?
It is the opposite end. First of all, the practical differences are the hours. I mean, the last three years of ‘According to Jim,’ we basically worked three-and-a-half days. We knew the characters. We were only doing a 22-minute play – there are only so many moves you can make on that set. And it’s geared toward a Friday-night performance [the filming of the show]. And the hours we would work were basically four hours one day, five hours another, eight hours the next and eight hours after that. We’re talking about a 25-hour week, maybe. On [‘The Defenders’], I’ve worked a 70-hour week.
You play a pretty colorful character in the show, Nick Morelli.
A criminal defense attorney is a little more theatrical [than other lawyers] and I look at it as: The courtroom is Nick’s stage and his audience is the jury. And the jury’s the most important part in a court case. I remember doing one closing argument and I turned to the producer and I said, ‘You know, I can give it a little more’ and he goes, ‘Well, you know what? Don’t you think closing arguments are a little more theatrical? And I went, ‘Oh!’ He gave me the key to the character. And I went, ‘OK, I’m gonna perform these closing arguments’ – you know, make ’em a little bigger.
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How is it working with a different network?
I have to tell you that CBS is the number-one network and there’s a reason. They are the most professional outfit I’ve ever worked for. The thing about CBS is most the people at CBS have had their jobs for 10 years or more, so there’s a security that goes through all those jobs and with that it’s just pure professionalism. Everything is about the work and about winning. And at other networks, there are so many changes of hands and everybody’s frightened about losing their jobs. And so a lot of the decisions are based in fear. And that’s where you get into areas of politics – decisions are much more political in nature.
‘According to Jim’ was a pretty reliable performer for ABC. What do you think was the key to the show’s longevity?
I think it was charming and funny and I think people really liked the relationship and the chemistry that [co-star] Courtney [Thorne-Smith] and I had. And it was a show that a father could sit with his 9 year-old daughter and watch and neither of them would feel uncomfortable.
And that’s pretty rare.
You know what? I watched ‘Two and a Half Men’ the other night and there were more sex jokes than I’ve seen in 22 minutes in my life. I didn’t realize how dirty that show was. I remember getting in a fight with my writers [on ‘According to Jim’] saying, ‘Look, you wanna write these kinds of jokes?’ I said, ‘Go to “Two and a Half Men” or go to cable – that’s not what our show is. Our show is a family show and that’s what we’re doing.’ I said, ‘I can do sex jokes better than anybody, but I’m not doin’ ’em on this show because that’s not what this show is about.’
Was it difficult to hold the line on that?
Yes it was. These guys would turn in 15 sex jokes – lewd jokes, sex jokes, dumb jokes. And I had to monitor those things all the time and they didn’t like me half the time because of it. They got mad at me.
Why is there a tendency of TV writers to focus on that kind of comedy?
It’s easy. It’s an easier laugh, it’s an easier joke to write. The hardest joke to write is a relationship joke.
When you appeared with George Lopez on ‘Lopez Tonight’ recently, you did a demonstration of your physical fitness that was really impressive – undertaking several difficult yoga poses and then finishing with a backward somersault, all while clenching a cigar in your mouth. You’re 56! How are you able to do backflips?
I work out. I do yoga, I do boxing, I do core work, I do spinning, I don’t get to do a lot of it since ‘The Defenders’ started, but I still do it – like today, I boxed. I work with a boxer and we pound it out, man.
Do you find that your fitness helps you in your work?
It’s mandatory. The 14-hour days that we do? You have to be as strong as a bull.