When I spoke with Craig Robinson on Wednesday afternoon, he was wrapping up his lunch break during final rehearsals for Spamalot. Robinson is playing King Arthur, the role Tim Curry originated in the 2005 Broadway musical, and he and the rest of the cast are about to perform three back-to-back shows at the Hollywood Bowl. In the meantime, he’s promoting his new show, Mr. Robinson, which premieres next Wednesday on NBC.
Before Robinson enrolled in his first acting class at Chicago’s Second City, he worked as an elementary school music teacher in Illinois and Indiana. He also played in a band. Hence the premise for Mr. Robinson, a sitcom based on the comedian’s pre-Hollywood life that he’s been working on ever since he made the trek west. I talked to Robinson about finally bringing the long-gestating show to life, working with television royalty, and getting his band The Nasty Delicious in on the gig.
How’s Spamalot going?
Oh man, it’s so much fun, bro. It’s definitely silly. Eric Idle is here, so he definitely approves of everything. It’s an honor to be in this. I never saw the musical, but I saw the movie, and it’s awesome.
You’ve done live stand-up and musical performances before, but is this the first time you’ve ever given a Broadway musical a shot?
Not too nerve-racking, is it?
Oh man, are you kidding? It’s super nerve-racking! But I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be, and I was wondering why I wasn’t freaking out because there’s a lot to do. Well, my mother would get us ready for concerts and all that — Handel’s “Messiah,” church music and whatever else — and I thought, “Oh, that’s right! I’m used to preparing, repetition and getting things right.” I’m looking forward to it.
You taught general music in elementary school before doing stand-up. In Mr. Robinson, the kids are noticeably older. Why the change?
It made sense for the show. Really, the biggest similarity between my life and the show is that I was a music teacher, I had a band and I’m a playa with the ladies!
One year, I taught at a few mixed schools in Indiana, but for the next few years, I taught at an all-black school. The writers created the world of the show, and I like the job they did. I didn’t really weigh in on that. I told them, “This is what happened.” They said, “This is how we see it.” So, this is a collaboration.
When did the idea for Mr. Robinson, a show that essentially merges your experiences as a teacher and an actor, first come about?
I pitched the idea when I first went to Hollywood and got a deal, but it never went anywhere. As my career did what it did, I found myself in a position where I could pitch this idea again. The Office was winding down, so that’s when I started working with Greg Daniels and some of the writers on a pilot. We did the original pilot as a single-camera show, and it wasn’t picked up, but that was cool. We decided to re-tool it, but Greg had to step away, and that’s when Mark and Robb Cullen stepped in. The Cullen brothers were actually the first people who ever cast me in a regular role, which was on their show Lucky back in ’01. So, if it couldn’t be Greg Daniels, then God yes, let it be the Cullen brothers! They made it multi-cam, which I was honestly against at first, but now that I’ve done it, I’m addicted to it.
Based on the footage, it looks like the multi-cam format gave everyone more freedom to work.
It’s definitely an easier schedule, but the energy that the audience brings is like an added bonus. You’ve got fun lines and fun performers, but the audience is where it’s at. Don’t get me wrong — I love doing the single-camera and letting the audience figure out where the laughs are at, but there’s just something I thrive off of when the live audience comes in.
What was it like working with the Cullen brothers again?
They’re great. They’re like family. I used to hang out with their dad, God rest his soul. I know these guys from way back. They’ve supported me and been to all my shows. So, it’s really like coming home and working with family.
You’ve had a few guest-starring roles on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Kroll Show, but most of your output lately as been on film. How does it feel to come back to TV?
It’s hard to say I left, but it’s always fun. Especially with Brooklyn and those cats. We have a ball! With Mr. Robinson, and this cast around, everybody’s excited to get the show off the ground and get it going. We’re all proud of it. We all have fun working together. And Peri Gilpin? Hello! To see a different side of her, and meeting all of these people for the first time and getting to know them — yeah, I’m excited to be back.
There’s all kinds of TV royalty on this show, both behind and in front of the camera.
Yeah there’s Peri, and then Spencer Grammer is on the show. She’s Kelsey Grammer’s daughter, so there’s that connection. Brandon T. Jackson and I are both comedians, and we know each other. I got my band on the show. So, it’s these different connections, and the way everyone on the show is connected to one another, that gives it a wholesome family we-got-each-other’s-back kind of thing.
Your band Nasty Delicious has worked with you before on numerous film soundtracks and cameo appearances. How do they feel about being regulars on Mr. Robinson?
They are over the moon. They’re excited. They continue to make me proud, you know? Band of brothers.
Literally, your brother Chris Rob is in it.
That’s right. I know with him by my side, I’m all good. We grew up with each other, so I know that if something’s not cool or whatever, I’ve got people there I trust.
“Mr. Robinson” premieres Wednesday, August 5 at 9 p.m. EST on NBC. Here’s a preview below.