Sidekick: Tom Poston

Photo: NBC and Courtesy Everett Collection

At first glance, the new NBC sitcom Committed, about an obsessive-compulsive New York genius and his stridently upbeat girlfriend, looks like a pastiche of familiar elements—as though Ross Geller moved into Will and Grace’s building, then fell in love with Dharma from Dharma & Greg. But the show has surprising charm, thanks to offbeat touches and inspired casting, most notably a role for the deadpan Tom Poston as “Clown,” a dying clown who lives in a walk-in closet. Adam Sternbergh spoke to Poston, who’s 83, about TV comedy in two different centuries.

You play an unusual role on this show.
Did they tell you that it’s based on real life? [The show’s creators] Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline are old friends from college. Back then, they visited a friend in the Village—it was in the building where The Fantasticks was playing—and they were chatting and so forth, and suddenly this guy comes out in his bathrobe and slippers from a closet and goes to the kitchen and makes some tea. And their friend said, “Pay no attention to him. He’s just a dying clown.”

How did you wind up with the part?
My agent said, “Go read for something.” And I said, “Okay.” I was glad to do it, because I was looking for something to do.

I understand you started in show business as an acrobat, in the thirties, at age 9.
Tumbling, we used to call it.

You went on to an amazing career in television—from The Steve Allen Show in 1956 to this sitcom.
When I started out, I was sorry I’d missed vaudeville. I was sorry I’d missed silent movies. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I was participating in the beginnings of television. TV was a weird option, because of the advertising. When it first started, I said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with promoting beer and cigarettes and cars. I don’t want to peddle snake oil.” I had studied to be a classicist.

So how have you thrived in TV comedy for so long?
Have you ever read Faust? I’ve been very lucky. But I put my work in at the foundation. I’m not like a Johnny-come-lately.

What’s it like to watch the younger actors on Committed? I have a feeling it’s going to work out very well for all of us. I’m really curious to see how they’ll respond to the pressure of a TV show that’s on the air and successful. So far, I don’t see any signs of “I can’t do this anymore, my career awaits. There’s so many movies I need to do.”

Have you seen that derail a successful show before? May I put it this way? I was on Grace Under Fire. Pressures are pressures. They can be irresistible.

If the show does become a hit, can you help regulate those pressures? Yes. Daddy will kick ass.

Premieres January 4, 9:30 P.M.

Sidekick: Tom Poston