Monkey business reigns on the set of NBC’s ‘Animal Practice’

HOLLYWOOD – For new network TV shows, August is a period of exploration. Actors and producers get together for the first time since the pilot and try to establish a creative rapport. 
There’s a lot of sniffing around and marking territory. 
For one new NBC show, that process is being taken to an extreme. On a hot August day on a frantic stage on the Paramount Lot, the actors are jumping through hoops to impress the producers, they’re being reassured at how cute they are by total strangers, they’re sniffing the butts of their new co-stars and, in case anybody gets too excited, there are conveniently located hydrants and waste receptacles.
This might be hard to imagine, but in a city where a Charlie Sheen sitcom is currently in production, no set in town is a bigger zoo than the one housing NBC’s “Animal Practice.”
On this August morning, there are no fewer than three or four dogs loitering to all sides of the shoot, each accompanied by a trainer and each attracting waves of fans coming over to greet them in high-pitched voices. None of them are actually on-camera. They’re just around. Within the scene itself, there are more dogs, a cage of rats — sedentary for the moment, but allegedly quite frisky earlier in the day — a couple birds and, on a gurney, a stuffed tiger. 
“What is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise?” asks co-star Tyler Labine. 
On some sets, this question would be random or rhetorical, but on the “Animal Practice” set, it just means that there’s a tortoise in the other room, getting ready to pass through the shot in an unmentioned cameo and raising new and scurrilous questions simply by poking its head from its shell.
“I always want to know how they have sex,” laughs JoAnna Garcia Swisher. “I’m like, ‘When do they do it? What time of year? And how do they do it? Especially with the shell…’ But I know now. Just in case you’re wondering.”
She doesn’t expound, however, on the ins and outs of tortoise sex.
She continues to the small room of reporters, “I’m learning so much! My husband always says that I’m like the nerd at the museum with the tour guide, I’m always asking questions. I’m living up to my reputation here. But all of our trainers are really knowledgeable and Tom [Gunderson], our head-trainer, he’s used to it by now. He doesn’t even wait for my questions to come. I just go for it. He tells me everything I need to know. Mostly about how they have sex.”
The tortoise isn’t the focus of the shot and the stuffed tiger is, somewhat disappointingly, only a stand-in and not even a stand-in for an actual tiger — the “Animal Practice” pilot, airing after the Olympics Closing on Sunday (August 12) night features a Bengal Tiger, criticized by many in the cast for “spraying” everywhere. No, the stuffed tiger is just filling space for a rather large dog, who will be pushed into the clinic with complaints of intestinal difficulties. The dog is overweight and furry and adorable, but lest you think that “Animal Practice” is endorsing pet obesity, when the shot is finished, the dog moves to a corner and, with the help of a handler, steps out of a doggie fat suit, stuffed with wadded cotton and, for comfort, ice packs. A dog in a fat suit? Yes, kids. Only in Hollywood. 
The star of “Animal Practice” isn’t even in the shot.
Well, Justin Kirk is in the shot and he’s certainly the human star of “Animal Practice,” playing misanthropic vet George Jackson, who loves animals, but hates people.
[Told that we were impressed by the doggie fat suit, Kirk is relieved and notes, “Thank God! My concern is that it looked like a dog with another dog growing out of it.”]
But more than a few people, not just the reporters in my set visit group, are asking about the whereabouts of Crystal the Monkey, co-star of last year’s “We Bought a Zoo” and beloved in some circles as Annie’s Boobs from “Community.” 
Crystal is nowhere to be seen. That doesn’t mean, though, that the actors can avoid talking about her.
“She’s just a pretty well-adjusted monkey,” Garcia Swisher says, only two weeks after a Television Critics Association press tour panel that became a long discussion of what it’s like to work with Crystal. “She’s pretty used to being adored and worshipped.”
It’s great chatting with the “Animal Practice” stars now, because they aren’t tired of talking about Crystal yet. I imagine this is the way the cast of “Family Matters” used to discuss Urkel when he was an amusing supporting character and before he hijacked the show. But already, the “Animal Practice” cast has begun to come up with set joke responses to verbally spank the monkey. Labine, for example, immediately transitions from a reference to Crystal into a joke about meth, while Kirk is working on a more complicated routine.
“I’m working on this joke… wait. This is my new joke where I go on about something and I say, ‘Oh, you meant Crystal the Monkey? I was talking about a stripper that I know,'” Kirk says, still in the “premise” phase of the joke, rather than the “testing” phase.
Garcia Swisher adds, “Once it kills, you’ll be like, ‘I saw it from the beginning.'”
Crystal, who’s a spritely 18-and-a-half-years-old, shows up a little later and with Gunderson coaching and inspiring her with yogurt, she goes through a string of tricks, jumping from reporter to reporter and dispensing licks and thudding slaps to the head, smiling for pictures with a studied rictus grin closer to “vicious” than “welcoming.”
Wait. Not “tricks.”
“In the animal business we call them ‘behaviors’ and the distinction is ‘tricks’ are more reserved for ‘magic tricks,'” Gunderson clarifies. “I’m not offended, she’s not offended if you call them ‘tricks.’ I like magic.”
Twice in the past month, I’ve had Crystal perched on my shoulder and as a simian enthusiast I remain amused, but I can also understand co-star Betsy Sodaro when she says, “You do kinda get used to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still the coolest thing just watching her walk by you in little scrubs. You’re still constantly like, ‘Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it!’ But you do get kinda used to it and just like, ‘Oh, you hear chirping? That’s just Crystal talking.’ It’s cool.”
While Garcia Swisher insists, “The animals do a better job at hitting their mark than I do,” the cast isn’t all cooing voices and belly-rubs.
“Yes, it’s a perk, but it’s a huge detriment,” Labine says. “It’s great to be around all the animals. I love dogs. I love me some Bengal Tigers. They’re fun to hang out with, except for when you get sprayed with urine. That’s not fun… But it’s great. It’s fun. Any environment where you get to pet dogs all day is great, but when you start trying to get animals to hit marks, it can be a little bit trying. It’s still fun. We’re working out the kinks and hopefully we’ll get the best professional animal actors out there.”
Labine says that people have approached him about being on “The Monkey Show” and he cautions that’s not how he views “Animal Practice.” 
“If I didn’t know anything about the show and I saw these promos, I’d be like, ‘It just seems like they’re building a show around a monkey doctor.’ And hey… Whatever! Power to you! If that’s the idea that you have for a show, go with it, but that isn’t this show,” he swears. “When I first signed on to do this show, one of my major concerns, I said, ‘Look, this isn’t gonna be a gimmicky show about these animals and this monkey. What’s next? Are we gonna have a talking dog on the show, or whatever?’ And they were like, ‘No,’ they assured me, ‘No, no. That’s not what it’s about.’ And they’re really held true to that. Other than the marketing of the show, Crystal is just a perk, a bonus.”
One animal that may not have been a bonus is the python, who appears in the pilot only to terrorize Bobby Lee’s Dr. Yamamoto.
“So this boa constrictor’s on around my neck. It’s squeezing as hard as it can,” begins Lee, joining Labine to talk to reporters. 
Labine interjects, “It wasn’t as hard as it could, was it?”
“Well, I didn’t ASK him,” Lee responds. “Like, ‘Yo, dude. Is this your 10? Are you at a 10 or a 7?’ No. I don’t speak the language of the snake. But to me, it was hard. I almost died. And then, it was squeezing and then I go, ‘What’s that smell, right?’ And it smelled like just pure diarrhea. Pure-cut diarrhea out of its skin, but it was yellow, so why I say it’s pee. And it smelled… I don’t know what that smell was. Like the Killing Fields. That’s all I can think of…. I wasn’t at the Killing Fields, but that’s what it smelled like.”
He continues,” And then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t see really, because it was burning my eyes. And then you smelled it. But then I couldn’t breath anyway… And I broke out in these hives.”
Labine prefers, “Blood freckles.”
“I call it Snake AIDS,” Lee says.
The cure for Snake AIDS? Benadryl and rest. And despite the possibly near-death experience, Lee asked if he could reshoot the scene to give a different reaction. He was refused.
Unbowed, Lee promises to do anything with any animal this season. 
“I’ll wrestle meerkats,” he says. “I’ll have sex with elephants. I don’t care. I’m into it. Know what I mean? Wait. Erase that part. I would never do that. The second part, because that’s beastiality and that’s cruel.”
As Labine would want me to note, there’s a show to “Animal Practice” beyond the animal hijinks.
“They have stacked this cast up with a lot of people who are known for being funny actors or whatever, but they can’t have us all doing it at the same time, so they’re going to have to dole out storylines where we all get to sorta do our thing, but it’s really fun. It’s a neat exercise in restraint,” Labine says.
Observes Kirk, “Shows take a minute to find what they are and this one’s finding it really fast, I think. All the characters in this cast are really well-drawn, specific people and they’re already writing to our characters.”
And there’s sure to be the possibility of romance between Kirk’s George and Garcia Swisher’s Dorothy, George’s ex-girlfriend and, in time-honored sitcom style, his new boss.
“When I read the rewrites and we talked about it, I said, ‘There’s always that one person that gets under your skin, but in the most delicious way, like pushes all of the buttons. You know it’s not good for you, but it feels really good,'” Garcia Swisher says. “I think that we’re, at this point, sorta establishing that that’s what our dynamic is and whether we’re gonna go for it or not, it’s like we could be on the brink of having sex at any moment. At least that’s what I’m hoping.” 
Kirk interrupts, “Are we still talking about the show?”
Audiences will be able to talk about “Animal Practice” after it premieres on Sunday (August 12) at the unlikely time of 10:58 p.m.