Portraying a young upcoming politician is tricky enough, but in the world of MELISSA & JOEY, Melissa Burke must also employ her best negotiation and strategy tactics to raising her teenage niece and nephew with the aid of a charming live-in nanny. In a recent press conference call, star Melissa Joan Hart shared what sorts of fun and adventures lie ahead for her character Mel Burke. Will there be love in the air for Mel and Joe, or does romance take a backseat to parental responsibilities as Lennox and Ryder continue to test their teenage boundaries?
What kind of fun surprises we can look forward to this summer?
MELISSA: There are some surprises. I don’t know how far I’m allowed to say. Last season, season one, ended with a bathtub falling through the roof. So the beginning of the show starts off with a few episodes about the construction and the family living on top of each other. Mel has a little fling with the cabinetmaker, played by Bren Foster, but then there is some stuff that happens at the end where Joey falls in love with a Russian colleague and there’s quite a little romance that goes on there, and that’s an arc. We have that for a few episodes. So Mel has to put up with this Russian chick in her house. But in between that, there are really just a lot of fun, standalone story lines that happen and some great guest stars. This season it was really about keeping it light. Not having that very special episode. We don’t like to do those. We just want to make people laugh.
Could you tease some of the other guest stars we’ll be seeing this season?
MELISSA: Yes. Bren Foster, I think he’s Australian and he’s in one of the episodes; one of the first few episodes, one of the one’s that will air next week. Who else do we have? All the 45 episodes we’ve done kind of run together. So I’m having trouble remembering what people have seen and what they haven’t. Who else do we have? Christine Lakin comes back for a really funny episode. She played my friend in one of the episodes last season. This season she is looking for a sperm donor and happens to want some of Joey’s stuff. That’s one of my favorite episodes; that is my favorite episode of this season coming up, the sperm donor episode. But yes, that’s all I can think of right now. But Debi Mazar plays a great character. She’s like my—I’m thinking about reelection and she is my coach, my reelection campaign manager. So she is—it’s an episode called “The Knockout” and it’s pretty funny. There’s a guy in a movie theater who starts picking a fight with Ryder, my nephew, and I stand up to him after telling Joey not to. I knock him out and it gets on video and it goes viral. And then the whole campaign is around whether or not I should be promoting the fact that I knock him out kind of thing, whether or not that’s a good example for the kids. It’s a really fun episode, and Debi Mazar does a great job in it. And she and I met on the set of DANCING WITH THE STARS. I really like bringing in a lot of these people that I’ve worked with before. That’s one of the fun parts about being Executive Producer is finding talented people all over the place and being able to work with them.
What challenges will Mel be facing with the kids this season?
MELISSA: Well, they’re getting older. There’s an episode where Taylor tries to befriend the new girl that she sees at school because she was the new girl last year. So she’s trying to be the good person by bringing this girl into her circle and trying to befriend her, but realizes that not everybody wants to be popular or liked or taken under someone’s wing. There are a few episodes about relationships. Nick has a little girlfriend who we adore on the show. She’s been back and forth a little bit, Holly. She pretty much tortures him. So there are a few episodes with her involved. And Taylor has a few episodes where she’s got a romantic guy with her. The one I directed with her and—what was the actor’s name? Anyway we’ve got these great little teen actors on the show and one of them plays her boyfriend for—for a few episodes—and there’s a nice little story line that happens with her and that relationship and us giving her relationship advice and stuff like that. So the typical teen stuff, but they are getting older and they’re starting to teach us a few things as well.
What do you admire most about Mel?
MELISSA: She’s really determined. She sets her heart to something. She thinks she’s got the—when she thinks she’s on the right path or she thinks there’s a mission to accomplish she will get to it. She will finish that mission. She is one of those women that is determined and has her convictions and sees things through, but she does it in a really silly, funny way.
Is there an aspect or a quality about your character on this show that you enjoy playing the most?
MELISSA: I love that she’s a mess. She’s a big hot mess and I love that because every other show I’ve played the characters have sort of been really put together and, you know, they’ve been careful with their choices and sort of always been the grounded centered ones of the show. And this one I like that my character gets to be an absolute disaster and has to get her way out of—It’s kind of like I LOVE LUCY. She’s constantly getting herself in a mess and having to figure it out, and I love that. I love being able to be selfish and silly and just a little exaggerated. I love being able to wear really high heels and not be able to walk in them very well and use physical humor as well as the words on the page to make people laugh.
We know last season ended when Mel kissed Joe when she left his apartment and then it wasn’t really addressed through the rest of the episode and then he moved back in. Is that going to be something that is addresses this season since both are going to have different love interests?
MELISSA: No, once we moved back in together I think the whole idea was that we realized we can’t have a working relationship and—I think the idea behind that was that when we were thinking about living separate lives we could maybe date, but the fact that we’re under the same roof kind of trying to raise these kids together, again, doesn’t leave much room for romance. So that got left behind in season one. So season two will pick up sort of the same way season one did, which is just that constant, “Is he the right guy for me?” “Is she the right girl for me?” “Am I missing the person that’s right under my nose,” and then that whole, “No, I don’t want to be with that person.” So it’s that cat and dog, that constant flirting but never really getting together MOONLIGHTING kind of thing.
It’s a fun story line to watch. So I hope it kind of continues to weave in and out.
MELISSA: We both believe, and I think the network and the writers are behind us on it, we’re fine with hinting at it once in a while and winking at the audience a little bit like we know we should be together but it’s not going to happen. But we don’t think that that relationship, unless we can come up with a really interesting new twist, the Ross/Rachel sort of thing. When you get these characters together a lot of time it sort of kills the drive of the show. It kills the funny. And part of the funny part of this show is that they’re idiots that they’re not getting together, but at the same time it works for them. So I think that maybe we’ll do a season finale at some point or do a show finale where they get together, but I don’t think—I’d rather them have a baby together than get together. Have like a one-night fling kind of thing. I think that would cause a lot more—you want that sexual tension, I think. It really drives the show.
Is there a particular scene that you had with Joey, as you think back over the past few episodes that really stand out as one of your favorite highlights since working on the show?
MELISSA: There have been a few. I mean the season ender in season one was pretty great. There’s a scene in his apartment and we’re eating Chinese food and there’s that moment where we could kiss. We might not kiss. We’re sharing Chinese. It’s dark. There was that—that was a nice moment. But the ones we really like are the ones where we’re just bickering endlessly, and it’s that fast paced, quick, cutting humor. There are a few scenes I can remember in the kitchen around the island, in the season coming up, where it’s just—I think one of the ones I’m thinking of is the sperm donor episode where we just are tearing into each other. I’m picking on him. He realizes he was wrong or vice versa a lot of the time, where one of us is just kind of poking at the other one. And it’s that fun, fast comedy that you don’t really see that often anymore. You see a lot of it in old movies like “His Girl Friday,” where it’s that fast paced humor going on, and we like to do that. Those are the ones when we have a hard time not cracking up at each other. But one of the more sentimental moments was definitely the end of season one. Another episode that our listeners at the radio station really love is the interaction between you and your kids, and one of them would be you going out with Lennox to a concert and getting kicked out of the club.
How much of those particular episodes or how many of those moments do you actually get input on? Is any of that based on true to life experiences of Melissa or Joey?
MELISSA: The structure of it’s always there from the writers, but then we like to tweak it within itself, like the episode with climbing out the window and stuff like that. I like to constantly remind the writers, not that they need a lot of reminding, that I don’t know what I’m doing here, that I don’t want to know what I’m doing. I want to make mistakes, as a parent. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from, and that’s true to life, I think, too. We’ve been thrown these teenagers. It’s not like we raised them from scratch. There’s a lot of room for error. What I really like to do is go look at my natural parenting instincts and do the opposite. So a lot of the time if I feel like there’s something that can be the opposite or there’s an episode where we’re kind of lecturing the kids too much we’ll go sit down with the writers and say, “We think it’d be really funny if the kids actually lectured us on this,” or if Lennox and I are both sneaking into the house late at night and have to shush each other because we don’t want to wake up Joey. Both of us don’t want to get in trouble or exhibit inappropriate behavior as adults really.
What would your dream casting be for Mel’s very infamous sister and brother-in-law? Have you ever thought about that? Who you’d like to play them?
MELISSA: We’ve actually already seen the brother-in-law in a Halloween episode last year. This season you meet her mom. And Chris Rich plays my dad in a few episodes, which he’s fantastic, so much fun. We love having him on. He’s just kooky funny. He fits right in with us. We have not seen my sister yet though. But it’s funny. I don’t know. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I just don’t know. It would be so tricky because she has to be a little bit older than me. She has to look like the family. She has to look like the kids because they’re her kids. So it would be really tricky. We have actually thought of someone that we thought looked like Taylor older, but now I can’t think of who it was. But there are so many phenomenal actors out there. I think it would be fantastic to even go out and to a casting and find a new talent. Not just stunt cast it, but to find someone really funny who could really fit in and become a part of the continuing guest cast and come back and do a recurring possibly. But I don’t know. I’ll have to give that more thought. Sorry I can’t give you a name right now.
Have you guys ever shot a scene where you couldn’t stop laughing? Like you just kept doing bloopers?
MELISSA: Yes. We’ve had a few of those. There have been a few. We use iPhones on the set and sometimes we snap pictures with the iPhones. And then other times we have to be pretending we’re looking at the phone and kind of turning it to each other and saying, “See look. See the message,” or whatever, but there’ll be a stupid picture on the phone and it just makes us giggle and it’s always hard to pull it back. I think there was an episode coming up where Nick had to eat a lot of junk food, junk food from the vending machines at school as a school project for Taylor to write about in her blog. There were snowballs and all this stuff on the set. He was trying to eat but he was just so disgusted by all the food he had to eat. There was a lot spit takes in that one.
It seems like there are a lot of chances for improvisational on set with your cast.
MELISSA: We do. That’s what’s great about doing the live show too. We shoot live on Friday nights, which I’ve never really done before, but it does really help because you get to try out different jokes in front of the audience. You do three or four takes and you try out a few different jokes and see which one gets the biggest laugh and then hopefully the editor will use that one. It’s fun to be able to sort of improve that stuff. And sometimes one thing will happen that’s totally authentic and natural and they’ll use it in the episode, which is wonderful.
In addition to being the star of the show, your Heartbreak Films also produces MELISSA & JOEY. Could you tell us about your creative vision for this season?
MELISSA: That’s up to the writers. We have a writing team, the executive producers/show runners, which is Bob and David, David Kendall and Bob Young, and they are, along with a team of really great writers, they sort of plot out the season along with the network. This second season, it was just—you know what was nice about it—I think we started off really strong. I think our first season, which consisted of 30 episodes, but I think our first few even just out of the gate were great. I think that we had a really great crew. We had really great writing staff. We had a great cast. It was able to all gel really well together, and I think that’s kind of rare. If you watch a lot of shows, it takes a while to get the ball rolling. But that being said, I think we came out of the gate pretty strong. But at the same time the second season just gets better, and I think that happens with every show. As the oil in the machine starts to really warm up, you just get the ball rolling and you get these stronger episodes. So in the second season we just have funnier, more solid episodes.
Both you and Joey Lawrence are directing this season. How does that affect the way you prepare for the episode?
MELISSA: It’s just a lot more work. It’s a lot of work. I’m trying to remember what my episode was even about. I’m having such a hard time with this season; getting it so confused with the other season. It’s just so much prep because you’re involved in every step of it along the way, even more so than just being an executive producer. You have the production meeting with the entire crew where you decide what prop will get used for this scene and what effect might be used for this scene or what camera might be used for this scene. And then you’re working with the camera coordinator or DP on lightening and this and that staging. And then you’ve got to get the actors to listen to you, which in this case is really difficult. We all help each other out all the time anyways. It’s a very collaborative effort always, but when you’re the director you get so nervous. It’s like, “What if Joey doesn’t want to listen to me? What if Taylor won’t go where I tell her to? What if they don’t like my ideas? What if they think I’m terrible? What if I annoy them? What if I don’t say enough?” So it’s always hard being an actor and talking to other actors, but I think that other actors kind of respect an actor’s director more so than a camera director because you’ll get help with your acting. You’ll get attention paid to your actual performance as opposed to just, “Go here. Go there. Stay in your light. Get on camera,” because you have different kinds of directors. You have ones that just care about the camera and the lighting and then you have ones that also care about the performance. As an actor I’ve seen that, and it’s difficult sometimes to not have someone paying attention to your performance when you really want that guidance. So luckily we all take great notes and we adjust and we’re very collaborative. So it’s a really fun process, but you just get nervous like, “What if they don’t like my ideas.” So it’s a lot of work. And then you’ve got to do the editing once that episode is done. When you’re acting, it’s Monday to Friday. When you’re directing it’s like a three to four week process.
From your experience with ABC Family thus far, what kind of character crossovers maybe from other ABC Family shows would you potentially like to see in some of the upcoming MELISSA & JOEY episodes?
MELISSA: The fact that they don’t really have any comedies it makes it tough for a crossover with our show. But last season we had a guy play my love interest for three episodes who was from GREEK. So that was fun. He had so many fans on the network of course that tuned in to see him on our show that we got new fans because of that. But hopefully they’ll bring—they have these new comedies coming out, and hopefully we’ll be able to get some really great actors to kind of come in and cross over a little bit, but as of right now we haven’t really had that discussion yet.
You were a child actress on Nickelodeon on the first series with a female lead, and back then the network had some doubts about whether teens would actually tune in. So now that you’re on a network kind of known for this genre is that something that attracted you to ABC Family?
MELISSA: ABC Family has been doing great things for years now. Well they had Sabrina on the air for many, many, many years and they also did my wedding as a reality show way back when, nine years ago. They’re just one of those networks that has gotten stronger over the years. They’re backed by Disney and Disney’s principals, but at the same time they’re much more grown up. They’re able to take more risks probably even than ABC proper just because it is cable. But, yes, it’s female driven and I think that they’ve realized that females are the consumers. Females are the ones that are watching more TV while the men are tuned into ESPN, yet another Disney channel. The women and girls are watching ABC Family. I love that they took a risk with this show, especially MELISSA & JOEY, just being that they don’t really have adult humor on the channel. They don’t really have comedy. So now they’re starting to build these comedy blocks and they’re realizing that they’re actually drawing in men with our show as well, I think. I noticed a lot of men, a lot of men, coming up to me and saying, “I love your show. My wife made me watch it and now I’m hooked.” And a lot more men are being drawn, I think, to the network now because of our show, which is great to hear. It’s just fun because I think it’s really a kind of comedy men can get behind. I think people these days, the audience is really searching for shows like this because there’s just not that much left on network. There are great shows on cable and whatnot, but I also think a lot of those are big time commitment. They’re these shows that are episodic. So if you miss one week you’ve missed a lot. I’ve missed the last few weeks of HOUSE. So I feel like I’m totally lost. But then with a comedy there’s not really that many like FRIENDS, like THE COSBY SHOW shows on the air. And that’s what we really wanted to do was put that back out there. I think they’re finding that it’s a real draw and that when people are finding it they’re really sticking with it.
You have been a successful teen/child actor with CLARRISA EXPLAINS IT ALL and SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH. And you made the transition to being an adult actress, which a lot of teen stars find difficult. What has been the secret to your success with that?
MELISSA: I’m actually in the process of possibly writing a book about that because I don’t really know what that recipe is. I think that a lot of the balance and success in my life comes from my family. It comes from my mom and my dad and my siblings growing up, and now from my husband and my children and putting that always as a priority. Having that as my balance, as my sort of gauge of where to go with my life. But as far as my career, I think it’s just been that at a young age growing up on the East Coast in this business I did a lot of auditioning. It was pretty cut throat. There was a lot of competition, and if you weren’t the best one for the job there was someone right behind you to do it. So you had to work really hard. You had to know your lines. You had to hit your mark. You had to have the biggest smile and think those Fruit Loops were the best thing ever. And I think that I learned that if I want longevity I’ve just got to stick it out. I’ve got to work hard, and that’s—I’ve never given up. No matter—this career, in this business you just go up and you go down. There’s no finding that soaring star to hitch onto and carry you off into the galaxy. It’s constant work to reinvent and figure out the next role and keep working upward. I’ve just learned that if I want to stick with it that’s what I’ve got to do. If I want a career in this business and I don’t want to transition and do something else, then I need to stick with it. Keep auditioning. Keep meeting people. Keep reinventing myself, finding great characters to play. And that’s where producing comes in as well. I started producing at the age of 17 because I wanted to have some control over the projects I was putting out there and the characters I was playing. So producing has definitely helped. And then also transitioning to directing because I got a little bit bored with the acting. I wanted to be more creative and found directing. So that’s been a great outlet for me as well just to keep me in the business. I just love being on a set. I don’t necessarily always need to act. I just love being on a set.
If you could create any new kind of TV show that you’ve wanted what would it be like?
MELISSA: You know it’s about reinventing the wheel, but I would like to just go back to old family comedy, kind of like what we’re doing. I miss shows like THE COSBY SHOW and FAMILY TIES. These shows that we grew up on that kind of gave us an outlet, a place to be entertained. A place to also feel like we were represented on television as far as kids or teenagers or seeing parents misbehave. Knowing that if Bill Cosby does that then my dad’s not so weird I guess. Comedy is just lacking on television right now, and I miss having shows to go to where you can just laugh and forget your troubles for a half an hour. And if you miss one you didn’t miss the—you can skip season to season and still be entertained. So that’s what I would want to see come back on—and I’ve been, myself, trying to develop a few different sitcoms as well to try and get something out there. But I’ve been working in the race world for a little while. I love race-car driving, and I’ve been out pitching an idea for a race-car driving sitcom that I think would be really funny. Kind of in the vein of TAXI as an adult comedy, but I don’t know. Everybody is so afraid of the racing world so I don’t know if it’s going to happen.
Having a background as a teen actor, do you think that’s given you a better insight into working with Taylor and Nick on the show?
MELISSA: It’s funny. Joey and I both—they both respect us a lot, which is really nice. Teenagers, you never know if they’re going to totally rebel or be willing to learn, and they’re both really willing to learn. They really want to be in this business for a long time and they see what we’ve been able to do and they have shown that they really respect us. So it’s nice because we feel free to be able to tell them, “When you do this or you do that be careful,” or, “Watch out on social networks.” They come to us sometimes with advice too, “What should we do with our career this way or that way?” And Taylor and I have become very, very close. She turns to me sometimes for boy advice and she baby-sits for me once in a while, which is really nice. So it is, it’s a great little working relationship. Joey and I are constantly rolling our eyes and having flashbacks to our own years on sitcoms when we had aunts and uncles and parents on the show, and now here we are basically the aunt and uncle of these teenagers. On Sabrina I had two aunts. So now I’m the aunt. It’s weird. I hear myself saying things that they would say to me like, “You need to wear a bra.” I hear myself say it and I go, “Gosh, I remember rolling my eyes at Caroline Rhea when she said that to me.” It’s funny; the tables have turned a bit. But we’re really lucky that we have good kids that are willing to listen, learn and be a part of the cast, really be an active part.
What is it about being a part of Twitter that really helps you with the promotion and connecting with people who are fans of the show?
MELISSA: Well, within two seconds I can correspond with 200,000 people, which is pretty incredible; across the world. And what I really like about it is just seeing the immediate response of things. Like the other night, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” the first movie, the Showtime movie was on. I don’t know what it was one, but it aired and my timeline was filled with people just talking about it. Being shocked that Ryan Reynolds was in that movie. It was just funny to see how many people were watching it. I think it was actually maybe airing in the U.K. or the U.K. just got Netflix. So they can now watch MELISSA & JOEY in the U.K., which they’re all very excited about because it’s not airing yet there on a network and they’re all mad at me about that. But it’s fun. It’s like that instant response to of like, you know, just driving people to try products that I like or to know a little something about my family or something that I find funny. I try to be careful not to over use it too much, but to also give everyone like a flavor of everything. Like what it’s like for me being a mom. What it’s like for me being an actress. What it’s like for me being a wife, you know. So like little tidbits of what my inside life is like. But of course it’s an amazing tool to use. To be able to reach fans and get the audience to move, whether it’s for a certain charity reason or to watch the show, that kind of thing. It’s really amazing too to see how many shows this season got picked up because there was a buzz even though the ratings weren’t there. So you know that it can be used to help push different projects through.
To see more of the comedic adventures of MELISSA & JOEY be sure to tune in for its second season premiere on Wednesday, May 30th at 8PM on ABC Family (ABC Spark in Canada).