Wayne Knight’s legacy is sealed, thanks to two major contributions to 1990s culture: Newman on “Seinfeld” and greedy Dennis Nedry in “Jurassic Park.” Knight returns to sitcom work with TV Land’s “The Exes,” now starting its third season, which also reunites him with his “Third Rock From the Sun” co-star Kristen Johnston. But like many old workhorses, there’s more to him, including films, shows and Broadway work. For instance, did you know he was on a 1980s sketch comedy show with Emma Thompson?
What’s it like returning to sitcoms?
Basically the nature of the job is equivalent to stealing. Once you’ve learned how to pilfer, you remember how to do it, it’s highly profitable, and it takes little effort.
You’ve said one thing you like about your “Exes” character is he’s a bit opaque, and you can play him in different ways.
This season we get to see a bit more variance. We peel away revelations about what his marriage was like. There’s depth to him that doesn’t show all the time. There’s broadness at times. There’s cynicism. It just depends on where he is in the plot.
Do you consciously try to avoid some of the darker tones of Newman or Dennis Nedry?
It’s more in the public’s eye than mine. I don’t know if I’m as versatile as I’d like to pretend. [Laughs] The thing is if you play two iconic characters who are evil guys, if you do it well, then that’s what people want to see you do. I spent 19 years trying to change that, but after awhile you just go, “Oh, whatever.”
The trend on sitcoms today is away from live audiences and laugh tracks. “The Exes” is kind of retro in that respect.
I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s not like a live audience in a theater, where if you screw up you can’t go back. It’s just people witnessing you doing a TV show. It’s like theater in the sense that the audience informs you when you get things wrong. It’s an interesting process. An audience tells you how long to hold, how big a laugh is. Sometimes you have two laughs, one on top of another, and you have to pause for that. You just learn little thing when you’re playing to an audience.
Do you have a strong rapport with your castmates?
Everyone assumes that when you’re doing a show with people, you’re intimate and you’re going to go over to their house and you go out on a boat together. That’s not necessarily the case. Oftentimes you’ll have the wolf and the sheepdog thing — “Hi, Ralph,” “Hi, Fred.” Then you go home. I find that everything on this set gets along, we have great respect for each other. The great thing that TV Land does is it hires veterans. So you put together everybody knows what they’re doing. It’s a Dream Team situation. You just feel relaxed.
You started as a serious stage actor.
I came to New York at 23, and was on Broadway for this play “Gemini,” which was a comedy. I honed my chops over three years of doing that play. What was fascinating to me in learning how an audience works. You just learn these things about comic timing. And that grandfathers as you go, from one job to another job to another job.
Some of your earlier shows, including the 1985 British-American sketch comedy “Assaulted Nuts,” with you and Emma Thompson, are now online.
In the era of YouTube, you can find a 1975 colonoscopy of yours. You have no idea what’s out there.
What was the experience of that show?
It was an interesting thing, partly because Emma Thompson was in it. This was before she became Dame Emma. We’re still friends, because I just think when you find somebody like that you try not to let them go. It was three British actors and three Americans and it was airing simultaneously on Cinemax and Channel 4 in Britain. It sunk in the middle of the ocean, because you’re trying to combine British and American sensibilities. I don’t know if it worked, but it was fun to do. The British are very silly, and they’re very clever. They enjoy wordplay. Americans are broader and more coarse. We don’t like to belabor things. Like, shop sketches don’t necessarily play as well to us as they do the Brits. You know, the classic Monty Python, coming into a shop and having an odd conversation about a duck. That would play really well in Britain, and not well in Beaufort, Alabama.
Your other sketch show, “The Edge,” from the early 1990s, has a bit of a cult following.
That was an interesting show. It had Jennifer Aniston just before she took off. When we first started doing it, it was during the riots in Los Angeles. We’re shooting the pilot, and the city was burning down. So there was a curfew, and the producers said, “We’re going to shoot up until the curfew. Then we’ll let you go home.” So we’re shooting this sketch comedy, smoke is rising over the hill. I drove home to Los Feliz and Vermont Avenue was burning like a fuse up my ass. It was the perfect way to do comedy.
As far as films, you were in two separate Oliver Stone movies: “Born on the Fourth of July” and “JFK.”
I had very little to do in “Born on the Fourth of July.” I had to push Tom Cruise into the Democratic Convention with John C. McGinley. We did this improv as we were shoving him through. I think Oliver was impressed I kept up with John C. He’s just a verbal gymnast.
What was Stone like?
It’s kind of like if you drank a bottle of booze and woke up from a fetid, sweaty dream, and there was somebody in the room. That would be Oliver Stone. [Laughs] You respect him and are frightened of him.
You’re also integral to the famous leg crossing scene in “Basic Instinct.” What was director Paul Verhoeven like?
Verhoeven is one of these people who when you walk in the door, he’s got a camera on you. He was like, [does spot-on impersonation of the Dutch Verhoeven] “Sit down. You’re looking at her. And you’re thinking, ‘I want to f— her.’ And maybe you do a little lick with your tongue. Maybe you do another lick. And maybe you do another lick. No, that’s too many licks.” By being in the trailer of “Basic Instinct,” I was probably more visible there than in anything I had done previous. I’m associated with that scene. They see me, they think of her.
You’ve done your share of Broadway, too. You got strong notices some years back for “Art,” written by Yesmina Reza, of “God of Carnage.”
“Art” was perhaps my favorite experience on stage. It was very challenging. The script was coming from the French through the British to America. It’s almost like you’re translating an alien script. And I had a big scene where I had to find a way to break down every night emotionally. The great thing about the play is it’s 90 minutes, a concentrated 90 minutes, without an act break. Her plays are incredibly great acting exercises. They’re just trampolines that you can bounce on as high as you can go. I couldn’t recommend anything better to do.