Elsewhere on the premises, Deschanel’s husband, Ben Gibbard, the lead singer of the band Death Cab for Cutie, is tending to her mother, actress Mary Jo Deschanel (Twin Peaks), a wisp of a woman with red Harry Potter glasses. (Deschanel’s cinematographer father, Caleb, is off working on Tom Cruise’s One Shot, and her sister, Emily, star of Bones, is eight months pregnant.) Other cast members working the room include Lamorne Morris, who arrives in episode two as a replacement for Damon Wayans Jr., who filmed the pilot as roommate Coach but is now starring in ABC’s Happy Endings. Then there’s John Mayer, who is apparently friends with Meriwether and who towers over everyone in a cream-colored rancher’s hat. Photographers insist that Deschanel take a photo with him. “I felt weird because I’ve never met him in my life,” she says afterward. “But he seemed nice.”
The lights dim and the guests quiet, including Mayer, who has just finished doling out some wisdom to the male cast on how to handle the attention of female fans while staying faithful to the women in their lives: “Sign tits. It’s okay to sign tits.” Moments later, he’s an afterthought, off behind a rubber tree doing some serious texting. All eyes shift back to Deschanel.
The inherent awkwardness of being watched while watching your show proves too much for Meriwether. She absconds when no one is looking. But Deschanel has nerves of steel. She also spends the entire screening clinging to her mother.
It’s going well—lots of laughs: Jess pulls the naked surprise on her boyfriend! While he’s with another girl! Then TMIs her roommate interview! Then five minutes in, the DVD freezes. They restart, and a few minutes later it freezes again. Each occasion is excruciatingly uncomfortable, hundreds of ice cubes clinking in the silence. Round one ends with Deschanel shouting, “Enjoy this moment, everybody! Don’t worry. If it doesn’t start again, we’ll do it live!” Round two ends with the most incredible, unladylike sound emerging from her lips, one that might be described as the joyous union of a bray, a bark, and a honk. Loud and obvious, it rolls through the stillness like a slow clap: “Huh-hah! Huh-huh-hah!” There’s only one response to a sound that ridiculous: laugh right back. Eventually the DVD plays. Deschanel stays at the party through the bitter end, giving good-bye hugs to guests she’d met minutes earlier. She and the show’s publicist briefly discuss a promotional trip. “Don’t worry,” says Deschanel. “I am going to go to New York, and I will sell this show.”
The show is an unusual sell for Fox, which is giving New Girl the most coveted time slot on its schedule, Tuesday nights following Glee. The network also released the pilot for free download on iTunes—a first for a broadcast network sitcom—two weeks in advance of its September 20 premiere as a way to build word of mouth. There have been plenty of comedies about single women in the city, but even Meriwether admits that Jess is the sort of character who’s always the friend of the lead. And neither Deschanel’s aesthetic nor her particular brand of creative expression seems like a ready fit for a major network sitcom, television’s equivalent of a pop song, far more Katy Perry than Zooey. Then again, USA Today just named it the best new show of the fall. And Kasdan says he’s never had a network get behind a show this way (though his perspective is pretty skewed, given that most of his experience was with Freaks and Geeks, a show that NBC “openly didn’t like. That wasn’t paranoia. They would tell us”). Rather than tone down Jess’s quirkiness, Meriwether says Fox president Kevin Reilly told her, “You have to keep this character as unique. You have to protect this character.”
Not to put too much stock in what focus groups think, but Meriwether tells me about the first one she attended: “It was a Friday night, and we had this group of just like sad, tired people from the Valley who came in and laughed the whole way through. That was an amazing feeling, when you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m getting through to a random assortment of people that you found on the street. It’s cool also that guys, at least so far, are finding it just as funny as women. They saw her as a little sister and just wanted to take care of her.”
In an ad hoc multiday survey of people who look like they’d have strong opinions about Zooey Deschanel, I found that men were less fraternal than lustful, really. “I like her eyes and her nose and her mouth and her skin and her hair and her voice and the way it all comes together,” said one. “She’s so hot!” said another. Why? “You mean besides her sapphire eyes and her amazing body?”