Tonight’s The Leftovers (which I reviewed here) featured a very special surprise guest star, whom I interviewed about his appearance, coming up just as soon as I buy a trampoline…
“Don’t Be Ridiculous” — named after the catchphrase of Balki on Perfect Strangers — brought Cousin Larry himself, Mark Linn-Baker, back to The Leftovers. The series’ second episode ever set up a running gag about how all four Perfect Strangers leads vanished in the Sudden Departure, rekindling interest in the popular buddy sitcom, which ran on ABC from 1986-93, and in season two, Linn-Baker cameoed in a scene revealing that he had faked his own Departure and was hiding out in Mexico(*). With “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” the joke turned deadly serious, as Linn-Baker invited Carrie Coon’s Nora to participate in an experiment that Swiss physicists claim can send people to wherever it was the Suddenly Departed went.
(*) This was actually the second time Linn-Baker was asked to appear on the show. Due to a series of crossed wires between the show’s writers and the New York casting team, Linn-Baker was invited to audition to play Nora’s boss at the Department of Sudden Departures in season one. And though his reading was excellent, it came as a surprise to Damon Lindelof, since he had written Linn-Baker out of the Leftovers universe’s existence earlier in that season. “So, I was informed, after auditioning,” Linn-Baker explains, “that it would be too odd to cast the REAL world Mark Linn-Baker as another character since the LEFTOVER world Mark Linn-Baker had departed. Fortunately that freed me up to be considered to play myself when they were casting the LEFTOVER world Mark Linn-Baker. Very Meta!”
I recently spoke with Linn-Baker — who is so tickled by this experience that you can just assume he laughed after every question I asked, and you’d be about right — about his unusual Leftovers experience, what it’s like to play “Mark Linn-Baker,” and why ‘80s and ‘90s sitcoms seem to be referenced so often in contemporary TV.
When and how did you become aware that there was this running gag on The Leftovers about what had happened to the cast of Perfect Strangers?
Well, I’m an HBO fan. They do wonderful stuff, so I was aware of the program. I received a request through my agent for them to use clips from Perfect Strangers. I gave consent. They used clips from the show. I knew it was going to be in there. I didn’t know what it was going to be used for. As I watched the show, and Justin Theroux visited his father in the insane asylum, there he was watching Perfect Strangers.
What was your reaction to this idea that the four of you had vanished into the ether?
“That makes sense to me.”
There were a few references to that in the first season. Then, early on in the second season, there you are. When Damon (Lindelof) reached out to about the idea of doing a cameo as yourself, what was your response?
Again, I thought it was very funny. I think I handle all the comedy on The Leftovers.
Are you suggesting it’s a sad show? Because I’m not sure I’ve heard that before.
There’s a tone that makes it surprising for me to make an appearance on it.
When you did that cameo, was there any talk that you might come back again, or you just assumed, “I’m going to fly to Austin, spend a couple days and go home and that’s the end of it for me.”
Well, I was happy to do the single appearance, but it just seemed to be a running gag. I was hopeful that there might be a recurrence, and indeed there was. Now, have you seen the episode?
I’ve seen the episode. It’s extraordinary.
I have not seen it. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Has Damon told you what they do at the start of the episode?
They play The Leftovers main title sequence, but it is accompanied by the Perfect Strangers theme song.
Oh my God.
The whole song plays over the credits. It’s amazing.
That’s wild. That’s wild. There seems to be this resurgence of 80’s nostalgia because a lot of the shows that I was on, the Miller/Boyett shows, coming back, having reboots and cultural references. I think it’s because the people who are producing TV now, Damon among them, grew up watching TV at the time my show was on.
Have you noticed a resurgence in recognition when you’re out and about in public as a result of that, or it’s just about the same it’s been for say 10, 15, 20 years?
Oh, you know it changes over the years. When Perfect Strangers was on the air, it was a top 10 show. You couldn’t walk down the street. Over the years it’s gone from that to, “Oh, look. There’s Mark Linn-Baker. Look, there’s the guy from Perfect Strangers,” to “Oh, look. Balki,” to “Oh, I think I know that guy.” Finally, the young people who’ve never seen the show. Recognition over the years has changed.
You talked before about bringing some of the comedy to the show. The scene you play in this episode, though, is very dramatic. What’s it like to have to play yourself or a version of yourself in such a dramatic moment like that?
It changes how you research the character.
I can imagine.
It was nothing but fun. Certainly I know more about me than Damon knows, but Damon knows more about me in this alternate universe than I know. We both brought a lot of information to the table.
Did you have a conversation where he said, “This is what’s different about you in this world”? Or did you decide on your own how TV Mark Linn-Baker relates to actual Mark Linn-Baker?
You either had a feel for it or you don’t. Damon certainly knows who I am, has an idea of who I am and what is that on the show. I watch the show, so I understand the show. We just seem to be on the same page, I think.
You have experience with all kinds of acting on stage and screen, and now you’re in a scene where you’re playing yourself, talking about the idea that these people who you spent years with on that show have vanished and you don’t know what happened to them. What’s your method? What’s going through your head as you’re playing that scene?
Using the circumstances of that show, that show is about loss, and trying to find out where you fit into a world where some people seem to either have been chosen or not. The circumstances of his show are very clear. Where that puts each character specifically emotionally is what what they’ve investigated for three seasons. I just came in and did my little part of that.
I’m curious, though. The TV version of Mark, his response to all of this is, “I want to go where they went. I want to be chosen like they were. I want to take some control of my situation.” If somehow this had happened in our world, and the other three of them ad gone and you had stayed behind, how do you think you might have reacted?
It’s not relevant. The question is how would the alternate universe Mark Linn-Baker react. That’s in the script.
Have you been in contact with Bronson or any of the others about the show and what The Leftovers has been doing with it?
Yes. We talk. Bronson and I are in contact. We talk a few times a year. Melanie Wilson and Rebecca Arthur, we have all remained in contact over the years. They’re pretty solid friendships. Yes, we’ve all been amused and happy to be part of The Leftovers.
You’ve had a varied career, worked with Peter O’Toole and Woody Allen and Michael Caine, but as you said, Perfect Strangers was a huge show when it was on the air. It’s the thing that you are almost certainly best known for. Has the fame of that show ever in any way felt like a burden?
No. The more exposure you have, the more doors open I have said. I enjoyed a career spanning almost 40 years now and have been able to do television, film, a lot of theater. Perfect Strangers has done nothing but help that.
As you said before, there are a lot of revivals, reboots, things like that. Aziz Ansari has a Netflix show called Master of None. There’s an episode where he gets pitched on doing an Indian-American Perfect Strangers remake.
Yes, I saw that.
What was your reaction to that?
It’s great. I love having that translated into a modern situation. Listen, there’s a long tradition we go back to. We owe everything to Lucille Ball, the vaudeville part. There’s a lineage. I’m happy to see it continue and happy to be recognized as part of that.
Given all this talk of revivals, have you ever been approached or have you heard anybody talked about an actual new Perfect Strangers or a sequel or something?
I have not heard that.
Is that something you have any interest in, even as just a cameo in one episode or you feel like that-
Yeah, I’d say that’s how they do it. The old guys come in and appoints the new guys in their role.
Also, I don’t know if you caught it, but Jesse Frederick wrote the theme song to Perfect Strangers and a bunch of those Miller/Boyett shows. Are you a Mr. Robot fan?
I do like Mr. Robot, yes.
This last season, they did an episode where he was stuck in a 80’s sitcom. The music, as I was watching it — because I’m a fan of that show, as well — I thought, “Oh my god, this sounds exactly like what we did.” Jesse Frederick, who did the music for all those shows, did the music for that.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org