Joey Lawrence has enjoyed a career as a television actor for nearly thirty years, getting his big break on the sitcom Gimme a Break before landing the definitive role of Joey Russo on Blossom. After stints on dramas like CSI: New York and coming in third on Dancing with the Stars, Lawrence is back as a sitcom star, playing opposite Melissa Joan Hart on the hugely successful ABC Family comedy Melissa & Joey, the second season of which premieres on Wednesday, May 30 at 8:00pm. Lawrence also heads his own production company, as his early start has allowed him, at 36, to have a keen understanding of the Hollywood system. I spoke with Lawrence over the phone about his show, how the half-hour comedy has evolved over the last decade, and which former sitcom actor has shaped his own career trajectory.
You and Melissa Joan Hart both reached fame as child actors. Did you have a bond based on your similar history?
Not on the show, no. We did My Fake Fiancé for ABC Family, which was the first time we’d ever worked together. It was the highest-rated TV movie of the year, and the network came to us to see if we’d be interested in developing a TV show. We found some good writers and came up with characters each of us felt comfortable portraying. The pilot was the highest-rated premiere ABC Family ever had, so they picked us up for 30 episodes. We’ve shot 45 episodes now.
Did you know each other before the film?
We had know each other, yeah, we had known each other for years. Both of us started in New York together.
And you also directed an episode this season?
Is that something you’ve been eager to move into?
You know, I went to USC film school. I directed several episodes of Brotherly Love back in the late ’90s. It just makes sense, man. I’ve done 500 episodes of TV, you know, and it’s just something I should be able to be fairly confident at. It’s a lot of work when you have an on-camera load like I do on the series because you’re in every scene and you’re directing. It’s easier when you come in for four or five scenes and you can focus more on the directing and less on the acting stuff. I’ll do some more in the third season.
You’ve been doing sitcoms for a long time and they’ve all been multi-camera shows. It’s interesting how American TV has embraced single-camera shows like Parks and Recreation, The Office, 30 Rock in the last few years. But it seems like multi-camera, studio-audience element is coming back.
I’ve never done a single-camera TV show, I mean obviously in movies and stuff. I don’t know, sometimes that works and a lot of times it doesn’t work. I think that the geniuses, 65 years back, when they created television—I’m talking about The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy and those shows—really the half-hour comedy was taking theater and putting it in a box. They wanted to capture the energy of live performance that everyone could see in their homes. That’s why an audience is a whole other character. Depending on how big they laugh, that changes the dynamic of the rhythm of the scene instantly. I think it’s very integral to the half-hour comedy, The industry has been pushing the single-camera thing. It definitely makes for a much more honest form of acting—you don’t have to project as much, which I appreciate. That sort of helped the multi-camera sitcoms, because now people are coming back and bringing that same sort of realism to it instead of the broad comedy where hijinks ensues. I appreciate it because I came back to it and they’re not asking me to mug, and there are none of these goofy moments. I think a lot of that has to do with the quality of acting in the single cameras.
It’s sort of interesting when you talk about playing to an audience, is that something that’s more difficult because you are on camera and have to be aware of not being super dramatic in that way?
Yeah, it’s one of the hardest parts, the performance part of it. I mean, the hours that you work are not as hard as a drama or a single-camera show. The cast of Modern Family will shoot two or three scenes a day and there’s no pressure because you can tweak it and go back and redo scenes. For us, each episode is 55 pages, and Melissa and I are pretty much on every page. You have to know the entire piece; this is like a play, and if you don’t know it, it’s just not going to work. If we do a scene in front of a live audience and it doesn’t work, they rewrite the scene and within minutes we’re doing a scene that is 80 percent new lines that we haven’t done before. But I love that, I love that for this medium. There is something exhilarating about it, and you get that rush when your audience is screaming and yelling when you nail a joke. It’s like theater.
You kind of forget about that—there’s the extra layer of playing to the audience as well as a camera.
Oh yeah! If a shot doesn’t land right… It’s almost like live TV. We used to do that—when I was on Blossom and Gimme a Break, we did two live shows.
I don’t remember that!
Dude, you talk about a rush…and back 15 years ago, that’s when a lot of people are watching our shows. It’s not like today when they go, “Hey, five million people, wooo!” Because there’s so many different many channels, you know? Back then, in the Blossom/Fresh Prince era we were averaging 24 share, can you imagine that? That’s bigger than Idol, bigger than everything today. We did it live and knew that 23 million people were seeing it. I love that 30 Rock did that again.
That’s a really good point… It seems like the live kind of music competition shows and the reality shows have taken the focus from comedies and dramas, which is what was the focus on TV for so long.
Yeah! There are so many pieces to the pie now, and so many channels. And with DVR, we still do not yet have a proper rating system. We were the highest-rated premiere ever on ABC Family, and our show does very well for them. There’s a ratings point whatever it is like 2.44, which means that two million people are watching, right? But we were not on in the rest of the world—that was just North America. Yet I’m getting tweets from all over the world—from Spain, from Europe, Czechoslovakia, from Southeast Asia—from people who are watching the show online, whether they’re watching it legally or illegally. So in today’s world, who knows what the rating is; it could be tens of millions, but there’s no way to track it. I know we’re really pushing as an industry to try and get this Nielsen rating system readjusted because it’s such an antiquated system. Back in the day when there were 75 million TV sets in the country and there was a box on every third one, you could tell that two-thirds of Americans were watching a show? But today, who knows?
And the invention of DVD, too.
Yeah! Exactly. It’s ridiculous. So I think the numbers are much greater because there are many more eyeballs today, so I think millions and millions of people are watching these shows. Nielsen has been around from 55 years! Don’t you think it’s time to change the system?
It also prevents shows from getting the chance to develop into something.
Totally. Seinfeld would have never been Seinfeld. Nobody watched that first season.
There are so many shows I can think of where I completely skipped the first season.
You’re right, they really very rarely will give a show time to breathe. We would never had have hit shows like The Simpsons or Seinfeld. Married with Children? No one watched that first season, and the show was on for 12 years. A lot of these networks are run by marketing executives rather than creative people; all they care about is the numbers right now, and if they don’t get the numbers the first night, it’s over. We probably wouldn’t have some of our greatest shows if that’s how it was in the past.
What other projects are you working on?
Well, my production company is in full swing; we have a slate of shows we’re producing for other networks. We have a show on Nickelodeon coming out called Rock the House; it’s kind of like Grease meets Glee for 14-year-olds. Dude, it’s awesome. And we got two other shows we’re working on with MTV. Hopefully over the next few years we’ll have a nice blend of reality competition shows and scripted series. It’s exciting, and that’s part of what I need to do as a business man. I want to focus on more features in the next five years. I turned down a lot of the teen movies when I was in my twenties in order to bank on myself now. I just wanted to wait ’til I was older. I could have made a lot of money if I had done She’s All That and these kinds of things, but it would have been completely over-saturated what I was known for and that would be it. I wanted to have the career I always dreamed of, and for a lot of men that doesn’t happen until we’re 35. Look at someone like George Clooney. He didn’t get ER until he was in his thirties.
I think people forget that he was on those later seasons of The Facts of Life.
Exactly! The guy was basically playing a Joey Russo-type on The Facts of Life. Who would have thought that guy would now have an Oscar? Nobody. The guy is in his fifties now, and his career definitely changed when he was in his late thirties. That’s what excites me. Bruce Willis did the same thing; he did Die Hard when he was 33. Harrison Ford played Indiana Jones at 38. We’re lucky as guys that it really doesn’t get cookin’ ’til we’re in the our mid-thirties, and we can work until our late sixties. That’s what I banked on, because my dream would be to do something like Die Hard—I think that would be my dream role right now.
Photo courtesy of JSquared Photography