If you're judging a book by its cover, CBS's new "We Are Men" is a tired, bro-centric romp full of Speedos, dirty jokes, and misogyny. Open it up, though, and you find a show that takes care to balance its excesses with sentiment and — gasp — character growth. Yahoo TV sat down with the cast on set recently to talk about the show, which premieres Monday, Sept. 30.
"We Are Men" centers around four men living at a short-term rental complex in Tarzana, California: Zen-like Frank Russo (Tony Shalhoub), womanizing Stuart Strickland (Jerry O'Connell), guilt-ridden Gil Bartis (Kal Penn), and Carter Thomas (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who was recently left at the altar.
[Related: Jerry O'Connell: A Man of Many Speedos]
The quartet represent four phases of creator Rob Greenberg's own divorce — from Carter's shell-shocked naiveté to Gil's denial as he struggles to reclaim his fairy-tale marriage to Stuart's anger and, finally, to Frank's acceptance. According to Smith, "On the set, Rob does say things where I'll say, 'Oh, that was a very Gil thing to say' or 'That's a very Frank thing to say.'"
Carter's awkwardness comes from a very real place. "Carter is charming in how green he is to being single," said Smith, who has to go back at least 10 years to remember his own days of partying unattached. "But when I was single, oh boy, did I put my foot in my mouth. Quite a bit. Quite a bit."
What do all real men need to know how to do? Smith clues us in:
Though Smith may not relish remembering those days, O'Connell welcomes it. "We have all these people who worked on 'Entourage' who get all the hot background and clubgoers to come in. I feel like I'm going out on the scene in Hollywood." After six years of marriage and 5-year-old twins, Smith said, "it's really fun to live vicariously through my character. Now mind you, when they all do go out, everything ends up horribly wrong because they're all bad at being single."
Of course, not everybody sowed his wild oats in quite the same way. Shalhoub's reckless encounters in his youth involved "plunging into really, really cold water at the wrong time of the year. That sort of skinny-dipping-in-the-middle-of-mountain-stream madness. Flirting with hypothermia." Don't be surprised if that makes an appearance in the show some day.
Shalhoub's words of wisdom:
But also, don't look for too much autobiography in Frank. "My life is really totally separate from this," said Shalhoub. "This is entertainment." Which is how he likes it. "I love the fact that this guy is really positive — much more positive than I tend to be in my own life — and tries to impart that kind of vibe to these other guys."
Gil Bartis is also a character who's pretty far afield from the actor playing him, though Penn reveals, in the fourth or fifth episode, a common link: They both like to eat. "This morning, I may or may not — that means I did — send Chris Smith here a photo of [8-month-old] Eggo waffles that I was eating for breakfast."
Penn's manly advice:
Penn, who has no children, was nevertheless drawn to the character of Gil in large part because "I loved that Gil has a 9-year-old daughter, and so this guy is flawed. He had the world's worst affair, but his No. 1 priority is not to go out and meet a new woman, it's to take care of his daughter and get back together with his wife. I thought that was a really fun, interesting angle." Now that he's got a few episodes of fatherhood under his belt, he identifies more with his college buddies who have already settled down.
O'Connell drew on the divorce experience of a close friend to help ground his character's antics in reality. "I was actually amazed at how devastating it was. I thought when you got a divorce, it was sort of a relief, like you got out of there, and it's not. Even when you do want to get out of there, you feel like you've failed at something; you feel like you're a failure. I think this is sort of how a group of men cope with that emotion."
So what is the show? Is it a lighthearted meditation on divorce? Is it a bunch of man-children behaving badly? A bit of both? Will audiences discover those elements of the former when the ads are only promoting the latter? "It reminded me a lot of 'How I Met Your Mother,'" said Penn of the script. "There were all these raunchy jokes through the majority of the episode, and then it ended really sweetly with a lot of heart, and I really liked that."
Shalhoub likes the show's ambiguity as expressed in its name. "The title is sort of versatile. It can be interpreted in a number of ways. 'We Are Men' could, on the one hand, come from a place of pride and bravado. On the other hand, 'We Are Men' could be an apology. We can't help ourselves, we're men. Or it's an excuse. We're idiots! We're men! What do you want from us? This is the best we can come up with. I hope that it will come to be that people will realize that the title is not just a narrow field; it really is all-purpose."
Or maybe it's not about any of that. Smith, who spent years on New York stages doing a weekly sketch comedy show, felt very comfortable on set because creator Greenberg makes a similarly collaborative atmosphere. Between the writers, directors, actors, and Greenberg himself, all on set at the same time, "there's a lot of ideas, and it's such a great environment for testing out ideas and really trying to get the scene in the best way that it can be off the page." Maybe it's just a story about people getting together to work things out.
Watch a preview:
"We Are Men" premieres Sunday, Sept. 30 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.