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8 Apr 2023
By Mary Elizabeth Williams Senior Writer

NextImg:Max Greenfield on why "The Neighborhood" endures and how Schmidt helped "New Girl" break rules

Max Greenfield is exactly where he wants to be. Although he's best known for his seven seasons as the quotable Schmidt on "New Girl," his career bucket list always also included something a little more like "Seinfeld" or "Cheers." 

"I really wanted to do a traditional multi-cam," the actor and children's book author told me recently on "Salon Talks." "I used to joke when we were on 'New Girl,' 'Just knock down a wall and put it in a live studio audience, and then we'll be making a real show.'" Now, he's got his wish. His CBS comedy "The Neighborhood" is celebrating its 100th episode, and Greenfield has no intention of slowing down. "It'd be nice," he says, "to do 100 more."

Greenfield also talked to us about writing books about not wanting to read books, working with Cedric the Entertainer, answering Ryan Murphy's phone call and why he says, "I can't believe how well it's worked out." Watch Max Greenfield on "Salon Talks" here or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

    This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

    You're coming up on a really big milestone on "The Neighborhood." To celebrate 100 episodes, you have a special episode directed by your co-star, Cedric the Entertainer. Tell me about what you wanted as a cast and a crew to celebrate with this milestone episode.

    You can be on a show and as confident as you could ever be in that show, and with the content and the people involved in it, to get past a pilot and then 13 episodes and then get a full season and then a second season, you just know that there's so many hurdles in front of you and so much of it's not in your control or has nothing to do with whatever quality of the show it is.

    So to get to 100 episodes is such a surreal feeling, and for me in particular, and with other people on our show as well, who've experienced this, this is twice now for both myself and Cedric, Tichina [Arnold], Beth [Behrs]. All of us collectively just have this tremendous amount of gratitude. But it really is not so much just about us as a cast, but it's more about everybody who works on the show, and especially in a multi-cam like that, where you have so many people that are on stage and you're with them on a daily basis. It's a much more intimate environment, and I think we just all celebrated it together quietly and happily and gratefully, and with the feeling that it'd be nice to do 100 more.

    You've got some special guests coming in.

    "You fall in love with a character. You don't necessarily want to see them change."

    It was really fun to have Cedric direct the episode. Obviously this is his show. He not only is the lead of the show, but he also is so instrumental in setting the tone and the stories of the show. So to have him direct it felt very fitting. It was his idea to have a fun crossover with another CBS show. We have the people from "The Talk" on. Jerry O'Connell, who's a longtime friend of mine, he comes on the show and we go over to their show and it was a lot of fun. It was good. It mixes it up.

    Has your character Dave changed much over the 100 episodes? 

    I don't know. I think this is such a traditional sitcom in that the change in the characters is really slow and gradual. You don't want to see him change that much because the audience started watching the show and liked it from the beginning a certain way, and you fall in love with a character, and you don't necessarily want to see them change. That's part of what's so interesting about really traditional episodic television.

    "New Girl" was very different, but I was in a very different position on that show. I think that character changed a lot while Zooey [Deschanel], who was the lead of that show, and Jake [Johnson]'s character gradually moved forward. They experienced a lot of their change through the events of things that were happening to my character. It was a very much different, very non-traditional way of doing it. 

    I don't know that Dave has changed that much as a character, and that's one of the things I respect a lot about the show is that they've really stayed true to who he is and where he comes from. I think he's learned a lot and he has learned a lot in this new environment that they've moved into, but I think the change has been very gradual and slow.

    I read somewhere that you were concerned that your character on "New Girl" was, and I'm quoting, a little too douchey. What was different about that? 

    I don't know that he was too anything. I just knew that I didn't want him to be one note. One of the wonderful things that we did on that show was very early on, they had set up this relationship with Hannah Simone's character, and she was so wonderful on that show too, and we were able to build this relationship early that opened up a much different [side to mine]. I mean, that character typically is just running around and with all of these different women who would come on as stars every week. But instead, Hannah's character was established as the love of this guy's life very early on and he never really wavered from that.

    You were talking before about "The Neighborhood" being a traditional sitcom. It feels like almost a unicorn to have a show that you can sit down and watch with the whole family. Is there an episode or a moment that you feel particularly proud of in the last five years looking back now?

    What I think the show does really beautifully is it doesn't provide answers. It just allows these characters to communicate and live next to each other. More times than not in a really fun way, which I think is, to me, is the really great part about the show is that it doesn't ever get too heavy.

    Were there shows that influenced you or impacted you when you were coming up as a young actor?

    All the traditional multi-cam shows, whether it be "Cheers," or "Taxi" was a big one for me. I really love "Taxi." I love the acting on "Taxi," but "Cheers," "Taxi," "Seinfeld" was a huge one. I used to joke when we were on "New Girl," I'd be like, "Just knock down a wall and put it in a live studio audience, and then we'll be making a real show." And it was funny, but I'm not joking, I would say that all the time. 

    I really wanted to do a traditional multi-cam. And when "New Girl" ended, they're tough to find because you got to do it right. There's a lot of times you walk into a situational comedy and you're like, "Well, this is a fun situation for an episode, but I don't know that it lends itself to 100 episodes," which is where you want to get. I felt so fortunate that this sort of showed up and it happened in a wild kind of way, but I can't believe how well it's worked out.

    Did you feel the chemistry right away with the cast?

    "What I think the show does really beautifully is it doesn't provide answers."

    I came on to it much later, and so Cedric and Tichina, Marcel [Spears], Sheaun [McKinney], everybody was on there already. I got to see what they were doing and knew how special Tichina was. And obviously Cedric, Marcel and Sheaun looked like they had been doing this for 100 years. That dynamic that they created with the Butler family was so strong that I just thought, "Man, if we can somehow match what they're doing and level this out, it just felt like a show that had been on for a really long time and you just never had seen it before." You were like, "Oh, OK, cool." And I think that's really nice about having people who, especially with Cedric and Tichina, and it's like you know these people, this is just a different setting and if we can get this right, this feels like it could be seamless. And that's what it has been.

    Between other projects you've done like "American Horror Story" or "Promising Young Woman" or "The Valet," you seem to just have a gravitational pull towards ensembles. It's interesting seeing the way that then plays out in a horror or a thriller format. For somebody who's known mostly for comedy, what do you think comedy brings to horror and thrillers?

    In terms of comedy and jumping into the other, I have no idea. But the idea of being a part of a lot of ensembles and just dipping into other things in general, and even this is what happened with "The Neighborhood" too, I like working with people. I like when cool people and interesting people and talented people seem to be a part of something and I have an opportunity to join them, that's always exciting to me. So when you talk about when Ryan Murphy calls you, obviously you show up and then when he calls again, it's like the most exciting moment of your life.

    "The Valet" was the same thing. I was such a huge fan of Eugenio [Derbez]. To get to be a part of that and watch him work and be on set with him was really exciting. When I got to see Cedric and Tichina again, it was blast to be a part of this. So looking at those people, I said, "We can figure this out." You know, I don't necessarily think too much about the character and this and that. My brain doesn't work that way. I'm like, "They seem really good, they seem really talented. Let's match what they're doing and then we'll figure it out from there."

    In your past two TV shows you have played a dad, and you're very public about being a father as well. What do your kids think about your performance as a dad on TV? 

    My son is just starting to realize that I'm an actor, but I don't think he really knows what an actor is. He's seen "The Neighborhood" a couple times. I think he's really intrigued by the laugh track, so now he keeps trying to get laughs.

    At home?

    Oh yeah, at home, any setting, which is really good for me because it keeps me entertained. And he is genuinely funny. He's got to work on some of his material, but his delivery is outstanding. And then my daughter goes back and forth with it. She's 13, and it's not ideal. Actually, I don't know. I would assume this is something that will work out eventually in therapy much later on in her life. But Schmidt is her dad, and all her friends are watching that show. It's available to anybody, and it's weird. It's a weird thing. I don't know what to make of it. I'm still sort of processing it all right now. I'll let you know in seven years how bad it was.

    You are so immersed in your kids' lives. You've written a couple of books, not just for them, but for all of us. How did that come about? 

    It was during the pandemic, and I was stuck at home with my daughter. We'd just finished the show. I think we had one or two days left before everything shut down. So I was preparing myself to be at home for a little bit. And then everything went down, and we were at home, and my daughter was at home, and they sent a curriculum and I said, "Whoa, this is not good for either one of us." And we started doing these fun videos to break up the day and we put it on Instagram and they got this incredible response. There was responses from teachers who were saying, "Gosh, we miss our students, and these videos are so great or reminds me of being in class." And so we felt pressure to do more. And then first responders were reaching out to us and like, "Oh my God, these videos are great" and we felt more pressure.

    "When Ryan Murphy calls you, obviously you show up and then when he calls again, it's like the most exciting moment of your life."

    We got this tremendous response from doing them. And in the middle of that, a wonderful agent of mine who I'd never met, Albert, had called me and said, "Hey, would you ever do a book?" And I thought, "Well like a full length book because that's not going to happen." And he goes, "Well what about a picture book?" And I thought, "Well it's interesting." And I thought, "Well, if I was ever going to do a picture book, it'd be all the reasons why you don't want to read a book, and by the end of the book you've read a book." Because my kids don't like to read, and I argue with them every night about reading.

    He was like, "Great, can I go pitch that?" And I go, "Yeah, sure." And I thought, "It's actually a really good idea. It's a shame nothing think will ever happen with that." And then he called me three days later and was like, "Penguin wants to do it." And I had so much fun writing, and it couldn't have turned out any better. I had such a great time with Penguin and Mike Lowry who illustrated it. 

    We felt like there was more to say, so we had the opportunity to do a second book, which is "This Book Is Not a Present." It's just a lot of the ideas from not wanting to read a book that's sort of mixed up in what it's like for a kid who doesn't like to read to get a book as a present and what that experience feels like. And then we have another one coming out later on this year. I guess I can talk about it, called, "I Don't Want to Read This Book Aloud," which is for kids who don't like to read out loud.

    Because there's a lot of kids who aren't traditional learners or readers. I love that. I think that's really cool that it's speaking to the non-readers and giving them a place at the table too.

    Yeah. I've read the book before for people and some of them are like, "It seems like you don't want kids to read." And I was like, "Well it's also a book." I'm like, "If I was throwing these ideas around in a YouTube video it may be problematic, but it is formatted as a book, sir." I've done readings and have had a couple people going like this. "Well, I don't get. It doesn't seem like you don't like reading at all." Oh, OK, man.

    Schmidt is so memeable and quotable. I want to know when you are out in the world or you are on social media, what is the Schmidt quote that you hear the most? 

    Oh, I get a lot of "29." I get a lot of "all day." Those are probably the two big ones. I get some though that I don't remember having said on the show, and then it's a really disappointing moment for everyone. Because they'll say it and they get very excited, and then I make a face like what are you talking about? And then they have to explain the line to me and then I think I'm losing my mind because a lot of the time I'm like, "I don't know what you're talking about." And I'm also not going to go back and watch it.

    Watch more

    "Salon Talks" about new TV