“I am speaking to you from my dressing room in Wyndham’s Theatre, and that interruption just now was the stage management calling the half an hour,” cautions Patrick Stewart during a phone call with Uproxx. “In 30 minutes, I have to be on stage in front of a full house, so I’m afraid I am going to have to end this. Oh by the way, while we’re talking about influence…”
This is what speaking with the 76-year-old veteran actor is like: a complex, coherent rush of information sparked by a single question, a stage manager’s warning about a forthcoming live performance, and stories about how comedy shaped his career in theater, television and film. One would think that, since this career includes pop cultural behemoths like Star Trek: The Next Generation and X-Men, Stewart wouldn’t be inclined to speak so freely while doing press. Yet here he is, about to join frequent collaborator Ian McKellen onstage, but unable to stop talking about an unlikely array of British and American comic legends whose work paved the way for his titular character in Blunt Talk, British newscaster Walter Blunt.
“There have been comedy influences my entire life. When I was very young, I was obsessed with Laurel and Hardy. They were my heroes, and they were great influences,” Stewart tells us. “I have to say as comedy actors, there is an element of comedy communication in so many American actors, even in dramatic actors. It seems to be more present here than in British actors, and so there have been many influences. For instance, another influence in my life was Danny Kaye. My brother and I worshiped Danny Kaye, whose work was a little bit more sophisticated than the Laurel and Hardy routine. And Lucille Ball, which may surprise you, was a heroine to me as a comedienne. I adored her work, as I did Joan Rivers, who was also brilliant.”
Created by Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death) and executive produced by Seth MacFarlane (Family Guys, American Dad), Blunt Talk follows its chief protagonist as he navigates the ins and outs of the cable news industry while battling alcoholism, rampant sexual behavior, and post traumatic stress disorder. Stewart arrived on the project long before Ames entered the picture, as it began with MacFarlane’s desire to put the actor in a live-action, half-hour comedy series. “Of course, since I think he’s well known,” Stewart reminds us, “it is only because of Seth MacFarlane that Blunt Talk exists.”
The resulting first season was decidedly mixed. As Mike Hale wrote in his New York Times review, Blunt Talk was principally “an amusing showcase” for Stewart “as we haven’t seen him before.” Yet this is MacFarlane we’re talking about, so the show’s reliance on shock humor should never have — and didn’t really — come as a surprise to anyone. Even when viewers were doing double-takes after watching Blunt do lines of cocaine with his valet, Harry Chandler (Adrian Scarborough), or asking a prostitute if he could “nuzzle” her breasts.
Blunt Talk isn’t all shock. Scarborough and the rest of the supporting cast, along with a mix of hilarious recurring and one-time guest stars, bolster the show significantly. Especially in season two, which features the likes of Documentary Now!‘s Fred Armisen, Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre alums Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel, and countless others. As Stewart puts it, “day after day on the set is, for me, a masterclass in playing comedy.”
“We have a variety of guests who are all immensely experienced,” he continues. “I have come quite late to the world of humor and comedy, and it has given me enormous satisfaction. I never thought that I would wind up in a half-hour comedy show, but it is giving me so much pleasure. A lot of that pleasure derives from the people that I am working with. Our regulars of course are all brilliantly funny and talented and gifted people.”
Anyone who watched season one can attest to this, but like all good comedies, the occasional one-offs are sure to stir things up. Like Armisen’s Larry Simon, a water expert with a cold sore whom Blunt invites onto the program and — despite his staff’s hilarious protests — shares a drink of recycled water with. Or, as Stewart and Ames both mentioned in separate conversations with us, the great Stacey Keach’s two-episode role as the head of Blunt’s network.
“We were blessed in having Stacey Keach make a guest appearance,” says Stewart. “A long scene, a two-hander between myself and Stacey, at either end of a massive conference table, where 95 percent of the talking was done by Stacey. And as a lifelong fan of his work, it was so exciting for me to be in front of a camera with such an extraordinary talent and delightful individual.”
“That scene that they do is very much an homage to the conference room scene in Network where Howard Beale [Peter Finch’s character] is kind of, you know, chewed out by Ned Beatty [who played Arthur Jensen],” adds Ames. “We even very much recreated the long conference room table from that scene.”
All the good Keach, Armisen and the other guest and regular cast members do for and with Stewart notwithstanding, the many comedy influences that inform his performance are worth remembering. Besides, the “this guy has never really done this before” mantra repeated by critics and viewers alike during season one doesn’t pan out once you realize how and where Stewart got his comedic start. That and, aside from his penchant for watching classics like Laurel and Hardy, Kaye, Ball and Rivers, Stewart’s introduction to the sitcom form via his 2003 appearance on Frasier.
“My first taste of half-hour comedy was when I guested on Kelsey Grammer’s show Frasier, and that was a great thrill for me,” Stewart recalls. “I studied and watched Grammer on that program, particularly when we began work on Blunt Talk.” Titled “The Doctor Is Out,” the third episode of Frasier‘s 11th and final season featured Stewart as Alistair Burke, the director of the Seattle Opera and an openly gay man. Through a series of miscommunications enacted by Grammer’s Dr. Frasier Crane, the flamboyant Alistair mistakenly believes his new friend is attracted to him. Especially since, as Stewart hilariously demonstrates on several occasions, he is incredibly attracted to the good doctor.
The episode is rife with verbal and physical innuendos engineered to make the audience guffaw as loud as Frasier’s brother Niles, and thanks to Stewart’s wonderful performance, this happens quite often throughout their concluding dance. As longtime Star Trek and X-Men fans undoubtedly know, their favorite British thespian’s ability to modulate his iconic voice given a particular scene is uncanny. Instead of raging against the omnipotent alien Q or calmly playing chess with the villainous Magneto, however, Stewart’s turn in Frasier proved he could adapt these skills to comedy just as easily as drama.
Two years later he followed Frasier with two of the best professional decisions he ever made: appearing in an episode of Ricky Gervais’ HBO comedy Extras, and more regularly on MacFarlane’s Family Guy and American Dad! animated programs on Fox. The former seems obvious a decade on, as Stewart’s scene with Gervais discussing the sexually charged ins and outs of screenwriting has become the stuff of comic legend. Then again so does the latter, as MacFarlane’s animated empire (and otherwise) has endured, and for over a decade Stewart has been a part of it. “I’ve worked with Seth now for almost 12 years on American Dad! and, occasionally, Family Guy,” says Stewart. “Seth has been a big influence on me.”
In fact, Stewart has appeared in almost everything MacFarlane has done since then — be it as Ted and Ted 2‘s disembodied narrator, or an uncredited “dream voice” in A Million Ways to Die in the West. Yet MacFarlane must have suspected cartoons and the occasional recording gig wouldn’t suffice the comedy bug that first bit Stewart on Frasier. Hence why, aside from Blunt Talk‘s two-season run, comedy has dominated Stewart’s recent work. Duds like 2015’s Christmas Eve; the forthcoming (and more promising-looking) Something’s Gotta Give-like adult ensemble titled Wilde Wedding with Glenn Close and John Malkovich; and ongoing theater work with partner in crime, McKellen, block his schedule whenever Blunt Talk isn’t filming.
“It’s been one of the great joys for me,” Stewart concludes before rushing off for a final touch of makeup. “Working with all these funny people that I’ve wanted to work with and get to know for so long.”
Blunt Talk season two premieres Sunday, October 2 at 8:30 p.m. ET on Starz. Until then, here’s a preview.