Sherri Shepherd credits her hometown with giving her a leg up in the comedy business. “I think Chicago just breeds funny,” said the actress and TV personality, calling from Los Angeles the other day.
“There simply has to be something in that Lake Michigan water! Everyone in my family is hysterical, but I’m the only one who gets paid for it,” joked Shepherd, adding, “Frankly, everybody I meet in Chicago is like that too. Everyone has some nugget of humor in them. Chicago definitely is THE place for humor.”
Yet, when Shepherd thinks about returning to Chicago, where some of her family still lives, “I have to admit that Chicago food is the first thing that comes to mind. The last time I was back, I did get to go to Portillo’s and have a little taste of my favorite Oreo cookie shake … and made sure I got to Giordano’s. Plus, my dad had my Garrett’s Popcorn waiting for me when I got off the plane!”
There’s an unusual aspect to the character she plays on the new NBC sitcom/mockumentary, “Trial & Error” (debuting at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WMAQ-Channel 5). Anne Flatch is the sweet, if clueless, legal secretary assisting a young New York lawyer hired to come down to a rural Southern town — to defend John Lithgow’s character, who has been indicted for the murder of his wife.
“What’s so funny about Anne is that you first discover she is dyslexic” when she writes “Trail,” instead of “Trial,” on the white board in the office the offbeat legal team shares with the local taxidermist.
“Of course, that’s no big deal, because a lot of people are dyslexic,” said Shepherd. “But they keep revealing Anne has some really crazy disorders. It was funny. Every time they gave me a new disorder, I would say, ‘Is this for real? Does this really exist’ And sure enough, the crazy thing was those disorders do actually exist.
“I think the writers had the most fun working on this series, finding the wildest, actual disorders for my character to experience. By the time we finished taping the initial eight episodes, they even came up with something called ‘alien hand syndrome.’ It’s a real neurological disorder where your hand moves with its own volition. Like it can kill you! Your hand can move across the desk or grab your throat, without you wanting it to do so. You can’t stop it! I thought you only saw stuff like that in horror movies,” said the actress with a big laugh.
One of the disorders came to really bug Shepherd. Their director, Jeff Blitz, “believes the way you are at the beginning of a scene is not the way you’ll end up. So he shoots over and over and over again. For the scenes where I showcase my Stendhal Syndrome [where she faints every time she sees a beautiful painting], I really didn’t think my character would evolve that much, simply falling down. But I had to do those fainting and falling scenes over and over. I was covered with a lot of bruises from those moments. But if it was funny, I don’t care.”
In the “Trial & Error” pilot episode, Shepherd’s Anne exhibits her facial amnesia syndrome — a malady where the individual simply does not see people’s true facial characteristics. As a result, she’ll say, “Nice to meet you,” to someone she’s known well for years.
In that scene, Shepherd got to utter one of the episode’s more memorable lines. Explaining that she doesn’t even remember what her own husband looks like, Shepherd’s Anne Flatch blurts out, “But I do recognize penises!”
While Shepherd admitted that “it was a little bit scary” leaving her long tenure as a co-host on “The View” talk show, “I did really want to get back to my acting. … I like to make people smile by doing a funny character. So, this job on ‘Trial & Error’ was really a dream come true for me.”
It also allows Shepherd to tap into her once real experience of working as a legal secretary in Chicago, prior to becoming a stand-up comic. “After all, I can type 100 words a minute, but sometimes on this show I would take my job as the legal secretary a wee bit too seriously!
“I’d be sitting at my desk in that wacky office typing away so vigorously that I would forget my line. Jeff Blitz would go, ‘Sherri! you’re only PLAYING a legal secretary, you’re not a actually a legal secretary! You’ve got to listen and be present in the scene. You do not have to look up law cases for real!”