Lamorne Morris

Fox's highly anticipated Zooey Deschanel comedy New Girl has finally solved its Damon Wayans, Jr. problem.

Newcomer Lamorne Morris has joined the cast as Winston, a former basketball player who returns to town — and to the apartment that bears his name on the lease. Winston kicks out Wayans' character, Coach, who had been subletting the room.

Morris is stepping in to fill the void left by Wayans, who had to drop out of New Girl because he was already starring in ABC's Happy Endings, which received a surprise second season renewal.

Executive producer Liz Meriwether admits that she had cast Wayans under the assumption (held by most) that Happy Endings was about to receive a not-so-happy ending. "There was a definite moment of, I don't want to say 'panic,' but panic," she says. "Damon was such a great addition the cast."

Wayans plays a huge role in the New Girl pilot and has been front and center in all of the show's early promos. That's partly why Meriwether and 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the show, opted to keep the pilot as is. To take out Wayans, "we would end up having to reshoot about 80 percent of it," Meriwether says.

Meriwether and the studio didn't want to risk ruining what has been considered one of the year's top pilots. "It felt thematically that it made sense to have people move in and out of the apartment," she says. "In your 20s, things are transient anyway. You're surfing Craigslist for a new roommate. It kind of worked to have Damon be subletting and then move out. And that freed us up to focus on moving forward, as opposed to going back and creating everything. That would have been a tough way to start."

In episode two of New Girl, viewers will meet Winston, a mediocre basketball player who had been playing professionally for a team in Croatia. "He was never going to go to the pros here," Meriwether says. "So he gets an offer to play basketball for the Croatia National Basketball League, and then runs into shady circumstances. When he comes back to the loft, he realizes he has to give up his dream and start over."

That mirrors the state of affairs for Deschanel's character, Jess, who moves in with three guys (including Coach) in the pilot after her boyfriend cheats on her. "All of these characters are kind of damaged a little bit and trying to figure out their lives," Meriwether adds.

Wayans will only be seen in flashbacks in Episode Two, as Jess gets emotional about Coach's departure — even though they've only known each other a few days.

"We're planning a montage of all her moments with Coach," Meriwether says. "We can only use clips from the pilot, so you'll see a lot from that. It will be this great dramatic montage of a lot of shots of her just standing next to him. The guys won't see it as that big of a deal at all — Coach was subletting, and his sublet is over. But to her, it's another sign that everyone is leaving her."

Meriwether and the show's producers started casting to fill Wayans' exit soon after learning that Happy Endings was taking him back. Morris had been auditioning for the past month when he got the greenlight on Thursday night. "Every time he came in, he blew us away more and more," Meriwether says. "I love his rhythms. He's a young Eddie Murphy. He has this kind of great manic comedic energy. And he has amazing improv skills. I love that about our cast, all of our actors can think on their feet."

Morris' background includes hosting specials for BET, as well as the Cartoon Network game show Brain Rush.

Production on New Girl starts August 8. The show premieres Tuesday, September 20 at 9/8c, behind Glee.

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