As Carla Tortelli on “Cheers,” Rhea Perlman spent 11 seasons openly antagonizing the patrons and some of the staff of a Boston bar. On “Kirstie,” her first regular sitcom gig in ages, she’s only somewhat antagonistic, including to fellow “Cheers” alum Kirstie Alley. Perlman plays the best friend/assistant of Alley’s Broadway diva, who reconnects with a son (Eric Petersen) she’d given up for adoption. (Another sitcom vet, Michael Richards, plays her chauffeur.)
For the record, in person she’s not remotely antagonistic.
What was it that made you want to come back to full-time sitcom work?
I love my sitcom days. It’s the coolest job in acting. It’s live, which is very rare and fabulous. You get to rehearse for four days then do it in front of an audience. It’s a mixture of being on stage and being on film.
Apart from reuniting with Kirstie Alley here, you’ve often popped up on shows by other “Cheers” castmates. How easy is it to slip back into that rapport?
It’s like seeing your old friends from college. With people you haven’t seen in a long time but you were really close with, you just go right back. I do keep up with some of them.
Your character’s relationship with Alley is a lot less antagonistic than it was on “Cheers.”
This one I really care about her. [Laughs] On “Cheers,” Carla, she was fine with her, and she was better with her than with Diane. But she didn’t care about her. Carla cared about Sam and about her kids. But I wouldn’t say she really cared about the other people in the bar.
You’ve only done a handful of episodes so far. How easy is it finding the show’s voice so early on?
I feel like as with any show, in its first year, you start finding it, and the writers start finding it, and the actors start finding it. If we’re lucky enough to have another season, it will continue to be found. I love the medium because there’s no beginning, middle or end. You just get to continue developing the character, to find where she’s from and where she can go.
It’s a lot like TV dramas in that sense.
I’ve never been in one of those dramas, which I love to watch, like “Breaking Bad,” where you just don’t know how it’s going to end. Will I get killed? We don’t usually worry if we’re going to get killed in comedy.
How does it affect you not knowing the end of a show?
I don’t think you’re ever really safe in acting, ever. Even if you’re doing the same show every night, it’s never the same. You don’t know what you’re going to do, what the audience is going to do. It’s not like you’re doing a math problem, where you know there’s a solution at the end and you get it right or you get it wrong.
Eric Petersen has done stage but this is his first TV show. How did he fit in with three vets?
He just really jumped right in. I was impressed, because I think people would be intimidated by us — not that we’re intimidating people, because we’re not. He’s comfortable with himself and he’s comfortable being on stage.
So you didn’t have to teach him things?
We never had to teach him things! I was ready to teach him things. He didn’t ask, the sonofab—. [Laughs]
“Kirstie”’s station, TV Land, has a reputation of really supporting its shows and its actors.
I feel like they like the show. That’s a great feeling. The legend with “Cheers” is, our first two years, we were at the bottom of the ratings. Like 67 out of 68 or whatever it was. But the network, they loved the show, and we knew they loved the show. And we were so blissfully unaware that we might be in jeopardy. I don’t think any of the actors ever thought about that. We just felt like these people like us, so we’ll keep doing this show. It was very comfortable. I really think it’s a great way for networks to be. They should put their weight behind a show, because they picked it to begin with. They chose to do that pilot and they chose to pick it up, then they have to choose to nurture it. [TV Land is] very nurturing.
Are you aware these days of how well a show is doing?
These days you have to be a little bit aware. In the old days you wouldn’t have any idea. I wasn’t paying any attention to ratings or whether people liked the show till we were a hit. Now I’m sure once it starts airing, I’m going to be aware of how it’s doing. They’ll be telling us, it will be written up, it will be hard to avoid knowing how it’s doing.
Do you watch your shows?
I’ll watch a show once because I want to see how it comes out. But I really don’t like watching myself at all. Hate it. I don’t mind watching the older stuff. Now I can watch the old “Cheers”es. But it’s hard for me to watch whatever I’m doing at the moment.
“Cheers” is a show I used to watch as a kid, long before I ever stepped foot in a bar. I was a bit disappointed to see they weren’t as big or as friendly.
I wish they were like that, too. We’re all looking for that bar.