Starting a series is hard. Just ask the producers of "Made in Jersey." So it helps to have an indelible character to keep viewers entertained long enough to get them invested in stories they don't know and actors they've often never seen.
The most memorable scene stealers in this fall's new series largely carry on the noble tradition of Kramer ("Seinfeld"), Carla ("Cheers") or, more currently, Schmidt ("New Girl"), Ron Swanson ("Parks and Recreation") and Roger Sterling ("Mad Men") -- firing off the best lines from the side while the leads carry the story forward. The screen time may be limited, but it comes with the "freedom to just go in and do my job as an actor," said Sara Rue, who appears on the new "Malibu Country" and knows what it's like to be the lead from her time on the mid-2000s sitcom "Less Than Perfect."
This time around "I get to just show up, wear my fake nails and my fake eyelashes, flounce around and say my funny lines and go home," she said. "It's kind of great."
'Go On' (NBC)
Role: Mr. K, one of the group therapy patients who charm and torment Matthew Perry's Ryan King.
Defining Quality: Slack-jawed oddness.
Specialties: Non sequiturs; dead-eyed stares; beard fondling.
You Might Have Seen Him: As Chris Elliott's sidekick in "Eagleheart."
"Go On" has dizzying quirks per capita even without Mr. K, a man Gelman describes as "a positive Hannibal Lecter." But the character's peculiarity stands out even from the other goofballs. The Lecter comparison stems from Mr. K's intense observation of his surroundings, Gelman said, as he hovers -- watching, always watching -- on the fringe of group activities. When Mr. K does act out, he's equally likely to share a convincing Gene Kelly impersonation, a savantlike understanding of real estate law or an enthusiasm for streaking.
"He doesn't have a knowledge of how people operate socially," said Gelman, a longtime Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe regular, "but he loves people." He credits the show's writers, but the Gelman oeuvre -- including his Gelmania podcast and Funny or Die videos -- suggests a flair for the bizarre. "I commit hard to the weirdness every time," he said.
'The Neighbors' (ABC)
Role: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, first lady of a colony of aliens, all named after athletes, in New Jersey.
Defining Quality: Aspirational anxiety with a dash of intraspecies condescension.
Specialty: Perky mutability.
You Might Have Seen Her: In guest spots on "Law & Order" and "Ugly Betty" or off-Broadway.
In a show full of offbeat performances, Olagundoye stands out for being charmingly game for just about anything. She's showed off a flair for accents, pratfalls and mimicry, at times simultaneously. One episode found Jackie channeling a reckless Real Housewife of New Jersey for a night out with normal housewives.
"She really wants to get it right, but she hardly ever does," Olagundoye said. "I get to do so many strange, strange things."
She rolled her eyes when she heard the series' subdivision-full-of-aliens concept. But Olagundoye, who was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, was impressed by the show's cleverness and could relate to her character's outsider perspective. Perhaps most alluring: The show allowed her to indulge a natural tendency to mug for the camera. "It's nice to finally have a role in which it comes in handy and people are like, 'Oh, good,' " she said, "instead of: 'No, less, less. What are you doing?' "
'Ben and Kate' (Fox)
Role: BJ, a co-worker and sidekick to the titular Kate.
Defining Quality: A Gervaisian mix of cluelessness and self-regard.
Specialties: Brassy quips; bad decisions.
You Might Have Seen Her: Cuckolding Anthony Hopkins in "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," antagonizing Cameron Diaz in "Bad Teacher," licking Steve Carell in "Dinner for Schmucks."
In this sitcom about mismatched but loving siblings sharing a roof, BJ is a saucy conniver who keeps the show's sweetness in check. "She's coming from somewhere darker and corrupt," said Punch.
Early episodes found her helping Ben steal a tree from an ex-girlfriend's backyard and faking her own death to get out of a relationship. Punch finds laughs in the gap between reality and her character's oblivious ego.
"I kind of like characters who are blindly confident and deeply selfish," she said. "She's bad, but she doesn't realize it."
Punch, who grew up in London but now lives in Los Angeles, didn't set out to become a comic actress. But it's a niche she embraces, at times unintentionally. Early dramatic auditions found her striving for wrenching emotion but inspiring something else.
"I thought I was giving some really intense, moving performance, and instead I moved everyone to tears of laughter," she said. "I don't know if that's natural humor or my atrocious acting."
'Malibu Country' (ABC)
Role: Kim, nosy neighbor to a fish-out-of-water Tennessee family headed by Reba (Reba McEntire) and her mother, Lillie Mae (Lily Tomlin).
Defining Quality: California shallow.
Specialty: Personal space violations.
You Might Have Seen Her: In "Less Than Perfect" or in recurring roles on "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory" and "Rules of Engagement."
Actorly insecurity almost prevented Rue from joining "Malibu Country." She rejected early overtures from the producers because "I just felt like they weren't going to give me the job," Rue said, laughing. "I wrote myself off."
Her reluctance was because Kim, an oversharing socialite with verve, runs counter to Rue's typical "uncomfortable-in-my-own-skin awkward girl" roles. But she found a secret weapon in her cable box. "I've watched a lot of 'Real Housewives of Orange County' and 'Beverly Hills,' " she said. "Both of those shows really inform the character."
After starring in "Less Than Perfect," which ran from 2002 to 2006, she is happy to cede "the pressure of carrying the show" to McEntire. "She has such a huge fan base and such a huge following," Rue said. "It's kind of a relief to just be like, 'Oh my gosh, you handle this part.' "
Role: Watty White, a country music guru.
Defining Quality: Grizzled wisdom.
Specialty: Sage, plot-goosing ideas.
You Might Have Seen Him: Acting in "Thirtysomething," performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center, partying with the Eagles at the Troubadour in the '70s.
A Nashville Yoda who, as one character notes, has "discovered half the people in this town," Watty White links the various subplots and frames the big-picture narrative about a town full of flawed strivers (like Connie Britton's Rayna Jaymes). "He kind of shows up occasionally and provides some perspective and some clarity," said Souther.
Souther's easy authenticity as a seen-it-all music business Zelig probably springs from his having seen plenty himself. A fixture in the Los Angeles country-rock scene in the 1970s, he was a writer of several of the Eagles' hits ("Heartache Tonight," "New Kid in Town") and performed with (and dated) Linda Ronstadt. Other hits followed, but he dropped out of the recording business in the mid-'80s, after the rise of MTV. "People I knew were thinking about the videos while they were writing the songs, and it didn't appeal to me," he said.
Souther, who moved to Nashville a decade ago, continued writing songs for Bonnie Raitt and the Dixie Chicks, among others; when he started putting out his own records again in 2008, they were jazzier affairs (including "Midnight in Tokyo," released in October). He even contributed a song to "Nashville," though he's not sure viewers will ever hear it.
"There are a lot of songs in the hopper right now," he said, "because everybody in town wants a song on this show."