Mel Gibson leans forward, scrutinizing a monitor showing a rehearsal for his latest project.
He’s not directing a sweeping battle a la his Oscar-winning “Braveheart.” It’s not a scene with the transcendent suffering of his “The Passion of the Christ.”
In this run-through for “Complete Savages,” the conflict is between five brothers and the cantankerous neighbor (Betty White) who’s holding hostage a prized family basketball.
They beg and plead. She assaults them with her cane.
“Comedy,” Gibson murmurs with satisfaction.
Yes, it’s comedy and small-screen comedy, to boot — “Complete Savages” is a freshman sitcom for ABC (8:30 p.m. ET Friday). Keith Carradine stars as a single father trying to keep order among his teenage boys.
Many roles for GibsonGibson is giving the show everything he’s got as executive producer and, for several episodes, as director.
He’s even pulling triple duty in this week’s episode with a cameo. When one of the boys decides to get a motorcycle, dad Nick Savage forces him to endure a highway-safety video with Gibson playing it tongue-in-cheek as Officer Cox.
On Stage 41 at NBC Universal Studios, Gibson is a multitasker. He chuckles at punch lines, then jumps up to gently prod an actor into crisper delivery. He redesigns the props (“Could we have a cane that’s smaller?”). And he sets an easygoing tone.
Chatting with a crew member between takes, Gibson jokingly describes his low-carb lunch entree: “I had the double bacon-and-amphetamine burger.”
“Don’t hurt each other,” Gibson warns the young actors playing the Savage kids during a backyard scene in which they’re slapping a ball around with garden rakes.
“OK, now you can hurt each other,” he tells them when the rehearsal stops.
Carradine describes Gibson as a sitcom novice but a natural. While dark violence has imbued his dramatic films, Gibson has effectively played for laughs in “Maverick” and “What Women Want” and even on “Saturday Night Live.”
“He has an incredible comedic sense. His brain for comedy seems to be wired halfway between the Three Stooges and Chuck Jones,” Carradine said, referring to the late animator behind Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and other cartoon classics.
Julie Thacker-Scully and Mike Scully, who were producers on “The Simpsons,” created “Complete Savages” and serve as executive producers with Gibson and his partner, Bruce Davey. The husband-and-wife team say Gibson is delighting in the work.
(Doing everything for his sitcom but drumming up publicity, Gibson has declined interviews, an ABC spokeswoman said.)
“I think this is a lot of fun for him. He comes here and he knows he’s going to have some laughs, guaranteed laughs all week long,” said Thacker-Scully.
After the intense debate over “The Passion of the Christ,” the sitcom represents “a no-controversy zone,” she said. “It’s family here. We have a good time.”
Adds Mike Scully: “He’s a great collaborator. He doesn’t walk around with a beret and riding crop and saying, ’Do it my way.”’
A jeans and T-shirt are Gibson’s garb on the set, similar to the outfit he wears as the cover boy for Entertainment Weekly’s annual Hollywood power issue. No business suit is needed to advertise his clout.
Gibson, who scored an unexpected blockbuster with the self-financed “Passion,” which some observers called anti-Semitic, reportedly earned $400 million-plus from its theatrical release and DVDs.
The film’s success quashed speculation that Gibson was risking his career. He was honored as producer of the year this week at the Hollywood Film Awards and, as one studio executive told Entertainment Weekly: “He’s an entity now — a (Steven) Spielberg, a (Jerry) Bruckheimer.”
Gibson’s focus for the moment is on television. His Icon Productions company is behind the new dramas “Clubhouse” on CBS and “Kevin Hill” on UPN as well as “Complete Savages.”
Winning year for ABCOf the two major network series, neither is burning up the Nielsen ratings. “Complete Savages” drew 5.3 million viewers last week while “Clubhouse” had an audience of 8.4 million — compared to 18 million for top-ranked comedy “Everybody Loves Raymond” on CBS and 20.9 million for the new hit ABC drama “Desperate Housewives.”
In the Scullys’ view, the success of “Desperate Housewives” and another new ABC drama, “Lost,” is part of the reason their show is struggling. The two hourlong shows received heavy promotion; “Complete Savages” got relatively little.
Asked how he feels about his sitcom’s performance, Scully plays it droll: “Is it out? I’ve been so busy watching ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Lost’ I didn’t notice.”
“The lack of focus on comedy right now for ABC has been disappointing to us,” he continued, “but we understand their need to launch a hit drama this year. Now that they’ve done it so successfully we’re ...”
“Ready to ride their coattails,” said Thacker-Scully, finishing the sentence.
A better time slot and more compatible shows — “8 Simple Rules” and “Hope and Faith,” which bracket “Complete Savages,” are more female-oriented — would be ideal, said the Scullys.
“I feel like we’re a thong in grandma’s underwear drawer right now,” is how Thacker-Scully puts it.
The couple became friendly with Gibson while working on a fund-raiser for Malibu High School (Scully and Gibson children were enrolled there). They share a familiarity with big broods like the one in “Complete Savages”: The Scullys have five kids, Gibson and his wife, Robyn, have seven.
Whether Gibson’s heavyweight status can help the series relocate, or survive, is unclear. Other Hollywood top dogs have seen their low-rated TV shows unceremoniously dumped, including “Titanic” director James Cameron (“Dark Angel”) and Bruckheimer (“Skin”).
Uncertainty aside, the project that was intended to be fun for all has lived up to the goal, the Scullys said. Gibson would seem to agree.
“I see blue skies,” he croons during rehearsal, a smile on his face.