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'My Name Is Earl': A Winning Loser Comedy


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Huge bets go down in TV land in the coming days, the new season, and NBC has a lot of money on a show that a few months ago, the network wasn't sure it wanted. The lead character, Earl--he's not someone you'd take home to Mom. Well, not if she were sober.

(Soundbite of "My Name Is Earl")

Mr. JASON LEE: (As Earl) You know that guy you see going into the convenience store when you stop off in that little town on the way to Grandma's house, sort of shifty-looking fellow who buys a pack of smokes, a couple lotto scratchers and a tallboy at 10 in the morning? Well, that guy is me. My name is Earl. And if you took the time to really get to know me, find out what kind of person I truly am instead of just stereotyping me because of the way I look, well, you'd be wasting your time because I'm exactly who you think I am. Hell, I'll pretty much steal anything that isn't nailed down.

CHADWICK: The actor Jason Lee plays Earl, a thief, a drinker, a no-account who one day wins $100,000 in the lottery and discovers karma.

(Soundbite of "My Name Is Earl")

Mr. LEE: (As Earl) Do good things and good things happen to you. Do bad things and it'll come back to haunt you.

Unidentified Man #1: That's deep, Earl.

CHADWICK: Earl makes a list of all his past misdeeds throughout life and sets about making amends. That's the basic premise of the show, but the dialogue is genuinely funny, and it's played out with a style that looks pretty daring for a network sitcom, right down to detail. The minor character of an aged hooker, for instance, is introduced as she's working a school bus stop. One day last month, we watched the actors at a local athletic field. Earl's trying to make up for once getting his brother Randy to throw a high school football game.

(Soundbite of filming of "My Name Is Earl")

Unidentified Man #2: And action. Ball goes up. Look, Ethan, look up, look up, and catch it, and go.

CHADWICK: The show sounds different and looks different, too, than other half-hour sitcoms. It's on film. The colors glow. They use special effects. It's like a small movie. Director Marc Buckland is shooting and reshooting a key scene.

I don't want to bother you when you're busy, but I notice there's no ball up here.

Mr. MARC BUCKLAND (Director): Yeah. We're putting it in digitally. We're doing a digital effect. We're going to put the ball in, going straight towards camera, and then coming down into his arms. You could never make that happen for real.

(Soundbite of voices)

CHADWICK: "Earl" is the creation of TV writer Greg Garcia, maybe a little Earlish himself. One TV person told me no one expected a show this fresh and funny from him. But here it is. And, hey, here he is, out with the crew after a writing session in a trailer across the way. He's young, probably not yet 40, and this big, rich TV network is trying to make his show the hit of the season.

Mr. GREG GARCIA (Creator of "My Name Is Earl"): And I had a meeting with NBC about possibly developing something for them this season, and they had read "My Name Is Earl" just as a sample script that I'd written, and they said that they really liked it, and because they liked it, they wanted me to do something for them this year. And I said, `Let's just do that, because it's hard to write these things and come up with ideas. This one's done already and I like it and you seem to like it,' and they kind of looked at each other and they're like, `Well, we're going to go bounce that around back at the network.' And, you know, we had some conversations. We talked about a few little adjustments, nothing big, and next thing I know, it's a cast contingent pickup, and then we get Jason Lee and then we're rolling.

CHADWICK: Are they a little anxious?--'cause this show opens up with this guy describing himself as this kind of lowlife who's hanging around convenience stores, burglaring cars every chance he gets, and he's married to some cheating woman who's got two different kids, and neither one of them is his.

Mr. GARCIA: Yeah. And I think if it just stayed in that world, it wouldn't be worth doing, you know. It's just--it would be a sketch or, you know, it would be silly and it could get cartoony. But I think the fact that this guy, you know, early in the first act has an epiphany and turns his life around and is on the road to redemption, I think that's what really makes it worthwhile, you know, for me.

CHADWICK: He's on the road to redemption, but he's not on, like, the superhighway to redemption.

Mr. GARCIA: No, not at all, and we want him to be very sl--it's a very slow process. We're not looking to change the character overnight. I mean, then we'd be done. I think, you know, little by little, he's going to learn a lot of things about the world that he doesn't know, but he's still going to be the same guy that got into all this trouble.

(Soundbite of "My Name Is Earl")

Mr. LEE: (As Earl) Some people might think getting so drunk you accidentally marry a woman that's six months pregnant is a good reason to stop drinking. Personally, I think it's a good reason to keep drinking.

CHADWICK: The guy is actor Jason Lee, also with a little Earl in him, except that everything he does seems to work out better than you'd expect. He quit high school to be a pro skateboarder. He founded his own skateboard company. Then movie director Kevin Smith used his easy banter to create memorable characters in films like "Mallrats" and "Chasing Amy." Now Jason is playing Earl as a guy who might wake up wearing yesterday's clothes and maybe not bother changing into something else. He hasn't shaved. He's got a droopy mustache, and some kind of authenticity that doesn't feel Hollywood.

Mr. LEE: Get the wardrobe on, you get your hair going, look in the mirror, you see your 'stache, and, you know, it makes you start to walk a certain way and...

CHADWICK: We were talking in a rental trailer parked near the football field. It wasn't as glamorous as I'd expected, more like the office rig at a construction site, but maybe it fit the Earl style.

Mr. LEE: If the approach is to put the person first and let the comedy happen, then you get a little bit more humanity than you do in something that's trying to be a lot broader, and it's human, you know, as much as it can be in this world.

(Soundbite of filming of "My Name Is Earl")

Mr. LEE: (As Earl) Keep your chin up, Randy! We can do this! I need you to score, buddy.

Unidentified Man #3: That's great. Do one more. Just tighten it up a little bit, Jas, OK?

CHADWICK: NBC thought hard about going with "Earl," but the network now appears utterly committed to the show. There are ad campaigns, billboards, TV spots, short bits in movie theaters, all featuring Jason Lee's Everyman face animating his odd karma crusade character Earl.

It looks to me like NBC is betting on this.

Mr. LEE: Yeah, I think they are betting on it, you know. And I think appropriately so, because it's a potentially big show for them. And not just that, in terms of ratings, but it's a smart show, you know, and I think if we maintain what we achieved with the pilot, then that--you know, that could only make any network look good. And, you know, I think they're very proud of the show.

Unidentified Man #4: We've gotta reload.

Unidentified Man #5: Cut. Looking to Jason...

Mr. LEE: That was good for me, Buckland.

(Soundbite of voices)

Mr. LEE: I don't think you're going to get a better performance than that.

Unidentified Man #6: That was a good one. I'm afraid that's the truth.

CHADWICK: Actor Jason Lee, debuting tomorrow night on NBC in the new comedy "My Name Is Earl" from writer and producer Greg Garcia.

(Soundbite from "My Name Is Earl")

Unidentified Man #7: Number 23, peed in the back of a cop car.

Mr. LEE: (As Earl) I'm no longer proud of that.

Unidentified Man #7: Number 41, snatched a kid's Halloween candy when he came to my trailer to trick-or-treat.

Mr. LEE: (As Earl) That was wrong and I know that now.

Unidentified Man #7: Number 102...

CHADWICK: And coming tomorrow on this show, something else to watch, but you're not going to find it on network TV anytime soon. There's a new film documentary called "Real Paradise." It's the true story of movie fan and movie guru John Pierson, who moved his family to a remote Pacific island in a kind of social movie experiment. Could he run a movie theater there for a year, and what might happen if he did? What happens when you try to live your dreams? The story tomorrow, "Real Paradise."

I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.