'Raising Hope' and the bar for sitcoms
Cloris Leachman, Garret Dillahunt, Lucas Neff, Shannon Woodward and Martha Plimpton (from left) star in "Raising Hope," premiering Tuesday on Fox.
Perhaps all aren't comedic requirements, but they give Fox's "Raising Hope," Tuesday, Sept. 21, a wacky and hilarious premiere. The premise -- four generations living a hardscrabble life under one roof -- may have the ring of a reality show, but it's perfect fodder for a half-hour comedy because of creator Greg Garcia ("My Name Is Earl") and actors Leachman, Martha Plimpton, Garret Dillahunt, Shannon Woodward and Lucas Neff.
At 84, Leachman, still beautiful and zany, is far more elegant in person than her Maw Maw character. Wearing a green flowing top and layers of green stone necklaces, she sits in the corner of the Beverly Hills Hotel bar and chats about her life in front of an audience for 63 years.
Did wearing only a bra (and a pretty hideous one at that) give her pause?
"You don't care," she says. "You can't. If it's fun I'll do it. I'll do anything."
In the pilot, 23-year-old slacker Jimmy (Neff) runs out to get his great-grandmother (Leachman) her pink bubblegum ice cream. Along the way, he meets a woman (guest star Bijou Phillips) who seems a little wild, but that only makes the sex that much better. The family is pleasant enough to her the next morning. Luckily, they have on the news and discover she's a serial killer.
Mom Virginia (Plimpton) makes short work of her, and soon the serial killer is in prison, but her capital punishment is delayed because she's pregnant. As soon as possible, the state carries out its sentence, leaving Jimmy with his baby daughter, Princess Beyonce.
Virginia wants Jimmy to deposit "it" at the fire station. Having been a teenage mom, working as a maid and living in her grandmother's cramped house, Virginia knows how hard it is to be a young parent. Yet, she and her husband, Burt (Dillahunt), stayed together. As easy as it will be for everyone to call them dysfunctional, they function just fine -- albeit a little closer to the edge than comfortable.
"I love the show, I love the people in it, I love that it's character driven," Plimpton says. She's in another part of the Beverly Hills Hotel lobby and about to take a sip of wine when Leachman wanders over to tell her (not exactly in a whisper) how awful her hair looks up.
"The show is about knowing that life in itself is hilarious," Plimpton says.
Any new parent, confronted with the toxic remains in a diaper for the first time, can relate to Jimmy vomiting on the baby. At least they change the baby's name from Princess Beyonce (what do you expect from a serial killer?) to Hope.
Creator Garcia initially considered "Keep Hope Alive" as the show's title.
"I thought it was a funny play on words in the sense that they just needed to keep this baby alive because they didn't know what they were doing," Garcia says. "I think there was some concern that Jesse Jackson may feel that he owns those three words, so we went down another path so we didn't have to deal with that. And, we came up with 'Raising Hope,' which we all like."
Jimmy is about as prepared to raise a baby as most young dads, except he has even less experience -- on and off screen.
"I do have a younger brother," Neff says at a press conference. "He's currently in college, so I don't spend much time feeding him. I had cats as a child. I have nephews and cousins and nieces, but I'm currently not a father. So I don't play with strangers' babies often."
He's learning about babies, and so far knows, he says, "You don't want to poke them or insult them or anger them. Just make sure they eat regularly and don't sit in their own foods for too long."
Jimmy doesn't have a baby bottle, so he feeds her through a rubber glove. One hilarious scene has Virginia demonstrating why babies must ride in car seats and why car seats must be strapped in. A prop baby was used for this scene, Garcia says.
Other very funny scenes have Maw Maw convinced the baby is a dog, and Maw Maw wandering outside without even the bra -- yes, Leachman goes topless in the pilot. The scene is shot from the back.
It wouldn't be shocking if Alzheimer's groups pressured the network to change her character because some jokes have Maw Maw's dementia as the punch line.
Leachman, however, expects no problems.
"You kind of have to go where she lives in the moment," she says. "I took care of my mother-in-law for three years when she had Alzheimer's."
"If anything, it should be good," Leachman says of portraying a woman with dementia. "It puts it in the foreground."
Along with a family we'll all be rooting for, and a former Princess now named Hope.