The former Sabrina, the Teenage Witch star returns with an all-new ABC Family series
Melissa Joan Hart was thrust into the national spotlight with her hit 1990s series Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. She returns to the small screen with the brand new ABC Family series Melissa & Joey, which she stars in alongside Joey Lawrence, with new episodes airing on Tuesday nights at 8 PM ET. Melissa Joan Hart recently held a conference call to discuss the new series and here's what she had to say:
You and Joey have been friends for quite some time and you appeared onscreen before. How do you guys continue to maintain the chemistry between each other?
Melissa Joan Hart:Joey and I have a great relationship. We've known each other, like you said, for a really long time and we grew up in a very similar sort of environment, working since we were four years old, and we have very strong mothers that have helped us facilitate our careers, we dragged them along through our careers. We both wanted to do this and be in show biz and our moms came with us, came along for the ride. We have a very strong relationship with our siblings and now we have great marriages and children, but we both have this incredible work ethic that I think comes from when we were younger just knowing that we wanted to be in the business and instead of shooting for the stars, instead of just like "I want to be famous, I want to be rich," like a lot of I think kids do these days, we were more "I want to work. I want longevity. I want to do this." I think we both have this work ethic where we feel so blessed to have work and we love making people laugh and we just have this great timing. I think our personalities in one way are really similar and in another way are totally opposite, and it just works for us.
Well, the two of you have young kids, so what's it like playing the "parent" or older adult to teenagers or young adults?
Melissa Joan Hart: It's funny, because they're not our children and we're kind of all of a sudden thrown into parenthood and we don't know the right thing to do and we're floundering around trying to find the right answers for these teenagers and trying to do right by them, and we constantly have to check each other and say, you know, that's not a good parent thing to say. It happens in almost every episode now where we just have to say that's not something that a parent would say, so it's different. Being the parent of teenagers we don't have to have all the answers because they're not our kids, so that's what lends the comedy is that we're fish out of water, we're just totally trying to find our way through raising these teenagers.
So what is it about Melissa & Joey that made you want to come back to doing a series?
Melissa Joan Hart: It was a long road for me. When I finished Sabrina I spent the next year pretty much just planning a wedding and getting married and getting settled into married life. And then I actually did a pilot for Fox for a comedy. I'd actually done a play here in L.A., and the pilot was a workshop and it was supposed to be for Fox and we were supposed to be doing these plays to see if they would be good pilot presentations. And I kept telling my friend who wrote it, "I love this play. I'll do the play but I'm not going to do the series." But then when the series got picked up and the pilot I couldn't help myself, I loved the role so much and I decided to do this one pilot. And that didn't go, which was very heartbreaking for me, but it turns out I was pregnant anyway. So I spent the next year just having a baby and getting used to being a mommy. And then the first thing I did the day my baby turned one I went off to Calgary and did a TV movie with Mario López for ABC Family. And I enjoyed it so much just being a mom and being able to be funny and have a great time and work with some fabulous people; I worked with Markie Post on it and just some amazing TV comedy actors that made it so nice to go back to work. There's a shorthand between people in television, and especially people in sitcoms, that's so nice that you just fit and you know how to make it work and it's fun to go to work every day when you have people that are so professional like that and it made me go, you know what, maybe I really want to be doing sitcoms since I had all these little brush-ins with it again. I thought I was against it. I thought I wanted to do episodic because it seemed like the only thing missing from my career was a movie element, a feature film element, and I realized a lot of people that do episodics get that chance and a lot of people that do comedy don't and I thought I wanted to go that route. But after guest starring on a few dramas I was like, this is not fun. This isn't fun to me. So I realized that if I was going to have kids and have a career that the best possible job I could have again would be to go back to sitcoms. With working with Joey in Atlanta on My Fake Fiance, I realized that we had something really special, we had a lot in common, we've known each other forever, we had this great onscreen chemistry and that we should try to make a go of this. ABC Family agreed and we're all happy.
It's nice to watch a sitcom that's actually funny. Were you involved in choosing the writers?
Melissa Joan Hart: Yes. My mother, that was a big thing; my mother is executive producer along with me and Joey, and we did Sabrina also with our company Hartbreak Films. And that was her big thing on Sabrina was picking the writers and she's involved with the casting and the editing and the wardrobe and everything like that. But yes, in the beginning of the show the big thing was can we find the right writers for this. And ABC Family knew they wanted to do a show about a nanny and we knew that Joey and I were going to be doing this, so Joey and I were very particular about what kind of characters we wanted to play, especially if we were going to have to do the show with the concept that ABC Family had, that we wanted the writing to be a certain way. So we sat down and met with a few writers, and Kendall and Young were the two that ABC Family liked the best. My mother liked them; my mother was feeling really confident about them. I sat down with them and told them what I wanted from the character and Joey did the same, and when we got the pages my mother would actually call me and say, oh, you should see these pages. It's coming together really well. We were just happy that these smart, funny guys stepped in, and they're really great with my voice. From day one they just have my voice stuck in their head. I don't know how they do it, but they've managed to write perfectly for me the last nine episodes. And we now have a writers' room full of great people. One person, if you heard me earlier I said that I did a pilot called Dirtbags for Fox and the creator of that show is actually writing now on Melissa & Joey, so we were able to bring him over here, and he's hilarious and he knows my voice so well. He's been a friend of mine since college and written a pilot for me before. So it's great. It's nice to have a writers' room in there where you feel safe, you know that they know you, they know what you're capable of, and the more we work together the more they see that I'm comfortable with physical comedy. They're now making me very Lucy-esque, they're adding a lot more of that silliness for me.
With you and Joey being executive producers, does that make it more challenging with more work to do or easier by having more control?
Melissa Joan Hart: A little bit of both. Sometimes we have to troubleshoot. We had some problems in the beginning with some crew members quitting for whatever reason and we had a whole department kind of fall out and we had to troubleshoot that as an executive producer, but also because I had hired them but then they decided not to be there anymore, and we've had a little bit of that going on. We're just trying to find our rhythm here. But a lot of the time, we had one episode so far out of our eight that we've shot that was not up to par, not so great, and Joey and I would rehearse it and we'd go to them and we'd sit down with them and say, you know, it's not working out, you guys. You've got to come see this. We dragged them down to the set and they'd watch us do a few scenes and then they'd go try to fix them and we'd try to tell them how we think they could fix it, so it's great to be able to have that sort of, that we go to them and they actually listen. Because I've had it before where I go to them and I'm like what about ..., and they're like yes, yes, yes. So it's really nice to be able to not just be an actor for hire, to actually have a little say in who surrounds you too. When you've been in the business 30 years you kind of want, you know, I have certain hair and makeup people or wardrobe people or crew members, script supervisors, that stuff's really important to me. And the fact that I actually get to hire the crew and just surround myself with people that I trust and love just makes it nice to go to work.
After only a couple of episodes it seems like Joey is starting to grow on you. So what can you tell us about what we have to look forward to in upcoming episodes?
Melissa Joan Hart: It only gets better. From what you saw in the pilot and the first episode it really only gets better. The writers have done an amazing job of finding our voices and finding where this show lives. We've had some great guest stars that you'll see in the next few weeks that have been on tons of sitcoms and they've given us such great compliments by being on the set and telling us, and of course Joey and I know this just from past experience, that when you're on a show like this it's about the middle of the second season that everything starts to click. Even if you watch early episodes of Friends, any of those shows, they struggle to figure out where these characters live, who are they, what's this going to be like. And we've been really, really blessed that we have writers and Joey and I have a chemistry where we've found that halfway through the first season already -we're not even halfway, we're like halfway through the first chunk of the season, so it's really only a quarter of the way through, but we've found this great chemistry and we've figured out where these characters live and where the show lives. And as you watch it grow, like the next few episodes you'll really see us find our groove and a little bit of our rhythm and it only gets better because they banter off each other so well and it gets funnier. The first two were setting up so much stuff that it was hard to just go for it, but now we can just go for it. So I think it's going to get better. I think you guys will enjoy it more as it goes on.
How is working on Melissa & Joey a different experience than the other shows that you've worked on and why?
Melissa Joan Hart: Well, Clarissa Explains It All was honestly just so much work and I never got to leave the set except for Saturdays, when I was just so tired I stayed in bed. Because of school and because of how many monologues I had to memorize and the amount of workload I had on that show it was humongous, so that was a lot of pressure, even though it was a lot of fun. Then Sabrina was great, but I was a single woman and I didn't have a family to rush home to, so afterwards the whole crew we'd be like want to go shoot some pool? Want to go bowling? Literally for the first two years we went bowling every Friday and after that we just had to go shoot pool, and who wants to go to the gym at 4:00 in the morning before we go to work, and who wants to go to lunch, and we'd have book club meetings, once a month we'd have pizza out by my trailer, we carved pumpkins for Halloween, every weekend I just never left those peoples' sides. They were my dearest friends. And we had such an amazing crew. The whole crew was together for seven years, very few people left the show, and if they did they came back. So we were really lucky. We traveled all over the world together, the crew, we did Sabrina movies. We went to Australia together. We all shot an episode in Florida, and ABC flew us all to Florida. We went to Italy together. We went to Canada together. We went to Mexico together. We went everywhere together and had a blast. I was single and it was fine, and now it's been a little tricky the first few weeks of this show trying to, like I was trying to get that back. I tried to surround myself with the people that I loved from Sabrina and really kind of get that back where I had such a blast at work. And I am having a great time at work and we have a great crew around us, but I realize that now that I have a husband and boys it's not the same. I have to do my work and I have to go home. So it's been tricky for me to balance that a little bit, to just get it in my head that it's not the same as Sabrina. This is a different segment of my life and I have to figure out what this is for me, and that lunchtimes are going to be spent with my little - even though I'm exhausted and I want to just chill at lunch and have a conversation with an adult, I am going to chase around my kids and play with them because that's the only time I'm going to get that afternoon. So I've been trying to learn that kind of thing. So they're all very different, but this one Joey and I are on the same page where we want to work, we want to make work fun, and that we want to go home to our families.
I wanted to talk about the character of Mel. You said that you had a lot of input into what the writers would create, but what made you decide or what made the writers decide to make Mel a local politician?
Melissa Joan Hart: You know I'm really not sure about the local politician thing. There were a few ideas that were thrown around about what she could be, but they were pretty clear that this is what they thought would work best for the character. My thing with her was not so much what she did or that kind of thing, it was that I didn't want to be the straight man anymore. I didn't want to be the one trying to fix everything. I wanted to be a little bit of a loose cannon; a little silly. She's self-centered and she's domestically challenged. And for the first time in my life to play a silly girl, but not that she's dumb or ridiculous, but that she's a little over the top, a little dramatic, whether it's good or bad she's got high emotions, but that I can also play all those levels on a real note that people can relate to my character no matter what crazy situation I'm in. So I had to play that balance, but the writers were great about making me crazy Aunt Mel. I get to be funny Aunt Mel. For the first time, all these years I've played children that were very adult-like and now I'm finally getting to play an adult that's very child-like, so it's really fun.
I also wanted to talk about you directed episodes of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and you're producing and you're acting, so what do you like the best of the business?
Melissa Joan Hart: I like to mix it up. Producing just goes hand-in-hand, for me at least, whether I'm acting or I'm directing, so that's great. But if I'm doing one or the other producing is also in there. Directing for me is a really great creative outlet. Your brain, it's so amazing to be able to use your brain in that way and you imagine something visually when you read, like when you read the script or when you read a book you picture something in your head and it's amazing as a director to make that come alive. Sometimes you amaze yourself too with the way it actually comes out, you're like, that's not what I meant but that was great. I love that. I love the visual part of directing. With acting I love just making people laugh and being silly, and there's nothing better than when we're rehearsing and the crew can't stop giggling because of something I'm doing. Like there's an episode coming up where we did a Dancing with the Stars episode, and everybody, we just couldn't keep it together because there was such ridiculous stuff happening that was so funny, that no matter how many times they saw it they still laughed. So that to me is such a rewarding feeling, but directing to me is so much more creative.
I was wondering, Melissa & Joey is being compared a lot to a '90s sitcom. I was wondering how you felt about this comparison and if this is anything that you guys considered going into the series.
Melissa Joan Hart: It's a little frustrating when people compare the show, but then again that's the way you describe things, so we totally get it. In the beginning we didn't have any thoughts of any shows going into it. We were just creating our own. It was just the elements of a nanny show, a man that was going to come in and help run the house, that my character was going to be kooky crazy and need some help, that it was not going to be our own kids, that was a big thing, it wasn't going to be our kids it was going to be someone else's kids that we're raising, that they're going to be teenagers. At first I thought that they should be younger, but then the network wanted them to be teenagers. Then once we had the show put together, we got the first script and we were working on the pilot then we sort of went, okay, how do you describe the show? And to me one of the first things that popped in my head was The New Adventures of Old Christine, that my character was a little bit like Old Christine, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus' character in Old Christine, and I loved that because I think she's fabulous. I think that that show is so funny. My first thought was that about my character, and then when I started to think about how to describe the show to other people of course Who's the Boss? popped into my head and I went, oh, Who's the Boss?, interesting. But that's not how we designed the show at all. Actually before anything started we talked about how Joey and I, we wanted the relationship to be very much like Moonlighting, and it actually started with Moonlighting, truth be told, if anything. Honestly, the Who's the Boss? reference kind of came in after we were done with the pilot and we were like what is this like, and then we went oh, this is like - so that's where it all came about. Look, they all had great long lives on television and if we're half that lucky we'll feel really blessed. But it's funny because I don't think it is Who's the Boss?, and Joey definitely doesn't either. I think they're really different shows. I think the only similarity is the setup, that a man comes in to domestically run the house while the woman's working. But in their cases they each had kids and it was very different. I think it's more centered around the kids in that show. I feel a lot more was centered around them, the kids getting in trouble and doing stuff than we have going on right now. And we might get there, but right now it's a lot more about Joey and I and how we handle the situation, whether it's living with each other or whether it's the kids. I think it's really different. But it's not terrible to be compared to anything. Of course people want to hear stuff like that because hey, look, Who's The Boss was a huge success, so we have no problem being compared to something like that.
Is there any sort of message that you're hoping your show is sending to families?
Melissa Joan Hart: Honestly, we just want to entertain people. We're not trying to be too serious here. We're not trying to teach a lesson. We're just in it to make people laugh. And if we can do that then we've done our job. I think that it's up to the writers and the network, and the network likes to find little moments to kind of send across a little message or be politically correct or be subtle about things, and the writers are really good about making the characters likeable while also making them funny, which is the trick, but once we get that script in our hands and the network approves stuff, then we just go crazy with it and we go, okay, how can we make this funny? How can we make people laugh? How can we make people enjoy this? That's all that we really care about.
I was actually just wondering what it's like to film in front of a live studio audience?
Melissa Joan Hart: It's kind of crazy. I did an episode of Just Shoot Me which I think was in front of an audience and then I did the pilot for FOX five years ago, and that was a little crazy for me. My adrenaline was going so much in that pilot that I could not calm myself down. I couldn't slow down to actually enjoy the moment. I was just so nervous. But I had just come off stage, in April I did Love, Loss and What I Wore on Broadway, and I think that that helped me in this case to get in front of an audience, although Dancing With The Stars did too, having to dance in front of the audience. Then as soon as we were done with the finale of Dancing With The Stars I came to the Valley and shot the pilot the next week, so to have come from that kind of audience and that kind of pressure to this kind of situation, the very first scene of the pilot I screwed up my very first line. I was so nervous that my heart was pounding and I couldn't calm myself down. I just kept saying, "You don't have to dance. You just have to act. You don't have to dance. You just have to act." And I couldn't get myself to calm down and then I screwed up my first line and I was fine. Then Joey screwed up his first line and he was fine. And I was like, oh, that's it? Oh, I can totally mess up my lines and the audience doesn't care. They're here with me. I started to talk to them and got more comfortable and now I get a little bit of a rush right before the show starts, but then I'm pretty good. I've really warmed up to them and I know how to handle it now. I know that they're there for us and that they're excited just to be in the audience no matter what we give them, no matter how many times we do a scene or whatnot, because sometimes I feel bad like oh, we're boring them, they've seen the scene three or four times. But then I've starting to get used to that and just go, all right, if they want to leave they can leave. So it's interesting. And there are so many different terms and whatnot in working with an audience that I'm learning all these new phrases and terms in the industry that I've worked in for 30 years. So it's exciting. It's fun.
About the sitcom, why did you decide to keep the original names for your characters on the show?
Melissa Joan Hart: That was an interesting decision. The show was originally called Annie's Manny, and Joey and I were both like that's not going to fly. We don't like that. Plus, I don't think it would have worked anyway because of the show Handy Manny. But when the pilot was being shot and we were tossing around ideas for the title Joey and I were trying to come up with something and we were like what about something like Melissa & Joey, and we said it sort of as a guideline. What we really meant was a Dharma & Greg or a Will & Grace, that kind of thing, but we didn't really pull out the names quickly enough so we just said what about Melissa & Joey and they went oh, we like that. And then about a week later we saw a lot of things that said Melissa & Joey, and we were like no, no, no we just meant like that, not that. And they were like, no, it's great. It's perfect. And I guess the marketing team did a lot of research and it turns out it tested high and in today's day when there are so many channels and shows to filter through, that it kind of cuts to the chase and people can find the show really easily, so in our day and age it just helps to find the show, to spot it quicker.
Do you have any plans to write or direct an episode of Melissa & Joey coming up in the future?
Melissa Joan Hart: I do plan to direct one if we're lucky enough to get to a second season. Both Joey and I would love to direct. And one of our executive producer writers is also a big time director and the network is very careful to give people only one job at a time, so we don't want anyone unfocused in their main career line, and I agree with that. I think it's a great decision to bring in different directors and let us get our feet under us before we all go switching up jobs.