Fred Willard is the comedic acting equivalent of sprinkles. He simply makes things that are already good even better. His bloviating, bench-pressing dog-show TV commentator in Christopher Guest’s Best in Show might be his most indelible character, but the four-time Emmy nominee has injected his unique brand of humor into episodes of some of the greatest sitcoms of the last 40 years, from Get Smart to Roseanne to Modern Family. (Of course he was Phil Dunphy’s dad.)
Tonight, the man who once supervised Ron Burgundy’s Channel 4 News team will preside over another three-ring circus as the host of ABC’s Trust Us With Your Life. Part talk-show and part Who’s Line is it Anyway?, Trust invites celebrities like David Hasselhoff, Ricky Gervais, and Serena Williams to reveal memorable or potentially embarrassing moments of their lives. As host, Willard waits for a juicy anecdote, and then tasks Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie, and a team of improv experts to re-enact it. “These guys jump up, take just one thing from the actor’s life and in one minute — bang, bang, bang — just do impressions, do voices,” says Willard. “Improv has just evolved into such a sharp point now. It was just phenomenal.”
Willard doesn’t himself join the improv fun; he’s too invested in playing Merv Griffin. “I’m the one who seems to be very smart,” jokes Willard, who admits that he got so fascinated by his guests’ responses that he sometimes forget to pivot to the improv games. But just because he stayed seated doesn’t mean his guests had to. “Ricky Gervais was the one performer you almost had to restrain from getting up on to the stage,” says Willard. “In fact, I think he did jump on to the stage at one point. He kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this. I’ve never done a show like this. Everything I do has to be planned.’ So they actually brought him up and put him into one of the improvs. He was like a dog on a leash who sees a piece of meat.”
Trust Us With Your Life premieres tonight with two back-to-back episodes beginning at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. Serena Williams and Jack & Kelly Osbourne are the first night’s guests. Check out a surreal sketch where the improv actors are comically handicapped in their performances by lying on the floor opposite a camera that makes them seem upright. (It makes sense when you see it.)
The 72-year-old Willard would love to see the program renewed, but per normal, he’s sprinkled atop some other recent and upcoming projects. He pops up as another colorful mayor (see: Roxanne) in The Magic of Belle Isle, the Morgan Freeman film that opened on Friday. As far as that Anchorman sequel, Willard is still waiting to hear if he’ll be invited back (“I certainly would love to do it. I had a great deal of fun working with Will Ferrell on that.); and he’s equally hopeful he’ll be back on Modern Family sometime soon. As for the Guest Gang, who reunited for a Wizard of Oz focus-group parody at the Oscars, Willard hears rumors that Guest and Jim Piddock — his Mayflower straight man from Best in Show — are working on a television series. “So I’m hoping I can send in an eight-by-ten and a resume to them when it comes time for casting,” he says.