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Five actors from wildly different TV comedies compare notes

Five comedy series actor have a serious talk

Quality dramas, armed with conflicted antiheroes and complex storylines, grab much of the headlines when it comes to the current hubbub surrounding TV fare. But comedies during the last few years have had bold breakthroughs of their own, with traditional sitcoms giving way to edgy sketches, brash, sometimes unsympathetic characters and unconventional plots.

This year's Envelope Emmy Round Table for comedy gathered a diverse group of performers and writers whose shows have all won acclaim for their innovative approach to humor. Though the panelists — Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”), Tony Hale (“Veep”), Wendi McLendon-Covey (“The Goldbergs”), Taylor Schilling (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Eric Stonestreet (“Modern Family”) — are from wildly different series, they found plenty of common ground when discussing the importance of chemistry, audience expectations and why they draw the line at snarkiness.

Here are excerpts from that April 30 conversation, edited for length.

Do you feel with the sort of adulation of drama going on now, that comedy has gotten short shrift?

Eric Stonestreet: No, I don't think so, I think the dramas get a lot of attention because sometimes they’re so unbelievably farfetched from what normal life can actually be, that it’s sort of escapism at its best, and I think with comedy, people tune in to laugh and to sort of reflect a little bit on their days. Dramas are sometimes more fun to talk about because of the craziness that happens on those shows.

But do people respect comedy as much?

Stonestreet: They better.

Wendi McLendon-Covey: I think a lot of people think comedy’s easier; it’s not. It’s not at all. But I think maybe there’s that misperception that, you know, we’re all going and coasting through our day. And yeah, sure, we probably laugh a lot during the day but it’s not easier.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, I think when something feels relatable, it seems easier to people. If they look at these characters, or these situations, and they think, “that’s me” or “that's my friend,” there’s something about it that seems sort of pedestrian because it comments on daily life — as opposed to drama, you know, which is very heightened.

Tony Hale: I think there’s been a shift because it used to be where people just kind of liked to sit in front of comedies and kind of medicate and not have to think, whereas now, I mean, you look at a show like Portlandia, it sticks a mirror to society, and you have to really pay attention. And storylines are now serialized with comedy, so it’s not always standalones — so where it used to be you just kind of numb yourself, now you really have to kind of focus on the jokes and there’s a lot more depth.

Taylor, your show really straddles that line, it’s called a comedy but you’re doing a lot of dramatic things.

Taylor Schilling: It seems so much about the story; the story can veer into a place that’s like, you know, laughing at a funeral territory, and I think that’s really zingy. I’m really curious about humans when they're in that moment, it’s interesting.

Hale: But you look at your show too and there’s some really crazy characters. If you look at something like “Breaking Bad,” the circumstances are nuts, but you look at any comedy show, and you're like these circumstances are just as crazy, people are nuts and out of control, but we’re kind of making fun of it, and finding the humor in it where [dramas] are like, this is really sad, and then they're crying, and it’s getting darker. So they both have crazy, nutty circumstances.

Schilling: They’re both heightened realities, whether you’re looking at a drama or whether you’re looking at a comedy — it’s just sort of a matter of what flavor you're responding to, what kind of humanness you’re responding to it with.

What would you say is the greatest growth with your character Cam from the first season to now?

Stonestreet: Well, I think it’s not exclusive to Cam, I think it’s the arc that Mitchell and Cam are on together. You know, we just finished this season with a two-part wedding episode where Mitch and Cam get married, and it’s phenomenal that I've gotten to be part of shepherding this character the last five years on this journey that now has led to me getting married — my character is beating my real life in that department, you know, so my character has had more of a full arc than I have.

How much of your performance is helped also by the chemistry of those around you?

Hale: Especially with comedy, when you throw the ball, you trust that they're going to throw the ball back to you. And nothing is more fun than riding that comic wave with somebody, when you can just feel the chemistry is there and you're jelling and you're both getting it.


McLendon-Covey: If you know that you have the support of your costars, or you know that you can easily get into a groove with them, you find it, you can get on track even if you've been in traffic on the 405 for two hours, and you don’t have time to light your incense and chant and do all your process-y things. The chemistry, thank god, on our show — I feel like Jeff Garlin is my husband, and he probably feels like I'm his wife.

Did you know any of them before this?

McLendon-Covey: I had met Jeff a couple times socially, but no. And we did not have any time to get to know each other, so our first day of shooting was the first time we all met, all together. So luckily it worked.

Stonestreet: Jesse [Tyler Ferguson] had the job of Mitchell before me, he loves telling everyone that, but when I finally got my part of Cam, he texted me and said, “Congratulations, we should go have coffee or something.” I'm like, “Yeah, absolutely,” so we make a date for Monday or whatever it was, and we go to a café in Silver Lake, and we look around and there’s a lot of couples, and we realized our first meeting was on Valentine’s Day in a café. So that’s where Mitch and Cam started, I guess.

Schilling: That’s such a good story.

Hale: [To Brownstein] Speaking of trust, you look at you and [“Portlandia” co-creator Fred Armisen], I mean you guys are in every single thing together, that has to be a serious trust.

Brownstein: Yeah, Fred and I were friends before we started the show and that has to stay intact, we’re very protective of our dynamic and we will, like, text each other before bed after I've just seen him for 14 hours. I will drive home, 15 minutes later we’re texting again. [The relationship] has to have this constant dialogue, basically, because it’s reliant on all these forms of communication that have to take on the shape and permutations of different people [in the show]. So it’s like we have to figure out all these different ways of communicating, that at the root of all those is love and affection. And we do work with lovely people and guest stars, but it always comes back to this kind of centrality that we can’t erode in any way.

What happens if one of you thinks something is funny and the other isn't quite so sure?

Brownstein: That’s pretty rare, but I think that there’s room for that tension in the scenes too. Sometimes — because it’s highly improvised — I can feel Fred pulling in a direction that I find really obnoxious, and he’s a very tangential performer, and he’s brilliant, but he will take the center of a scene and just decide no, we’re going left, and then we’re going left, and then right, and I'm just trying to follow him. And I keep thinking, but wait, the core of the scene was back here, and then we create a dynamic that I think has more verisimilitude than, you know, if we were just like, “Oh, OK, I'll go with you.” That disagreement has room because we’re always portraying couples, and we’re portraying people that have a real relationship, so that disagreement helps it feel more authentic, so we just go with it. And sometimes we work out those disagreements in the scene and one of us wins.

Taylor, both you and Wendi play real-life characters. I wanted to get what your experience has been with the real Piper?

Schilling: Piper Kerman is such a cool woman, and I was kind of nervous about knowing her and talking to her, and I felt this sense of responsibility. The way Jenji Kohan, who wrote the show, kind of contextualized it for me, is that we have our own world and she’s creating her own land of Litchfield prison that has nothing to do with Piper Kerman, and Piper Chapman is a character that has nothing to do with Piper Kerman. So I felt, as soon as we set that up, I felt this tremendous amount of freedom to sort of do whatever I wanted to do, and sort of let it kind of percolate through me however it would, without imposing any form on it. But, that said, I've gotten to know Piper quite well and she is very open, and she’s really interested in being of service in any way that she can. And that relationship is really a pleasure now.

So there are essentially two Pipers now, so there’s no real intersection?

Schilling: Yeah, I mean, it was funny because the more freedom I gave myself, the more she started to come into the performance in a strange way. So yeah, it’s definitely inspired by Piper Kerman, but it’s two very different creatures.

Wendi, what about you and the mother, or rather, I guess you call the “smother,” what was it like meeting her?

McLendon-Covey: Well, I didn’t meet her until we’d done about 10 episodes, so that could have gone to an ugly place if she didn't like it, she could have made me cry right there on set, you know? Let me backtrack a little bit. They first came to me and said, “Oh, you know, here’s a character, we think you can do it but it’s a real person, and it’s my mom, and here’s some video footage of our family.” I watched the clip package and I thought, “Oh, I can do this, I understand this woman, I understand this nutty woman.”

Because when you’re writing something, there’s always going to be someone who says, “Oh, that character is way too broad,” but we’re all broad characters. And when you sit around your Thanksgiving dinner table, there are nothing but broad characters and people that you kind of can't believe, and this whole family, if you met them, you would not believe. But the footage is there to prove that they are insane, and my feeling was if we stay true to that, the show could last a while.

Is it true that she actually sent you clothes to wear?

McLendon-Covey: She sent boxes and boxes of beautiful sweaters that I wear all the time [on the show]. Yeah, she wants them back too, when the show is over she wants them back. Bev has given me her seal of approval, so I feel good. I just didn't want people to not like her because even though she’s a [tough cookie] it’s just because she loves you, you know? We don't all speak like Hallmark cards, sometimes we have to yell.

Hale: But I think something we were talking about before is you really see your vulnerability when you start losing control of those boys, and you have those talks with your dad, and it’s like, you see that humanness of this has been my identity, these boys, and they're walking away from me, and that’s terrifying, you know? I think that’s really sweet.

As funny and crazy as “Modern Family” is, it always seems to have so much heart in it, which is sort of surprising in a comedy.

Stonestreet: Well I tip my hat again to Chris [Lloyd] and Steve [Levitan], and the staff there, for not being scared of that because I think comedy can get snarky and did get sort of mean spirited at times. The idea that something can be sweet and tug a little bit on people’s heart strings at the time that “Modern Family” came out — this sounds ridiculous — was somewhat courageous in the world of comedy, to risk that sappiness, if you will, at the end of our episodes sometimes.

But I think the sheer velocity of jokes in a scene that those guys have, and as many things that come as rapid fire, sort of make up for anyone that can say, “Oh, that show is just one thing, or that show is this.” I mean, it’s a fairly complex organism over there, which I still marvel at. Our Vegas episode that we did this year — Fred [Armisen] was on it — was pure farce. But I love that we’re sappy, I love that we’re sweet.

Snarkiness and mean-spiritedness have no place in “Portlandia” either.

Brownstein: We didn't want to make people targets. And I think there’s something that really keeps people, especially an audience, at a distance, you know, when you’re snarky or you’re sort of prescribing, like, this is what’s funny and this is what’s silly about these people. Instead, when we just embody who they are, or we know who they are because they're parts of us, you know, it kind of invites the audience in. It’s like the audience has something to discover if there’s sweetness and heart in a show, they can take a couple steps forward.

Was there hesitation or skepticism on the part of the Portland officials on how they would be portrayed?

Brownstein: Perhaps there was skepticism up top but, I mean, we filmed under the auspices of the city — we shoot in City Hall. And Fred always talks about the difference between shooting in New York or L.A. and shooting in Portland — when we go into City Hall, there’s one security guy that’s just like, “Uh-huh.” We go in, all the government files are there, we’re in the mayor’s office, no one’s there. His computer is on.

Stonestreet: I think the people of Portland are going to be very interested in this roundtable, they're like hmmmmm?!?

Brownstein: And then we shot one day at a skate park and we had a cop there — not to monitor what was happening with the skate park kids but because we were borrowing a cop car. So Fred and I are in the cop car…

Stonestreet: They lent you a cop car?

Brownstein: Got a gun, computer, the cop is like 30 feet away just hanging out with the skaters. So it was like, they've embraced us with open arms and I think because we have portrayed it in a light that is loving and affectionate, that continues to be a benefit to us, because we need to shoot there, and we shoot with a lot of local Portland people, non-actors, and our crew is from there.

Even though Piper’s the center line of “Orange Is the New Black,” she makes a lot of bad decisions. Is there a line between her edginess and keeping her likeable and vulnerable?

Schilling: I feel like an actor is embodying what’s going on, you can’t help but see all the shades of gray in who they are. People are so infinitely full of different things — we all are. But the more personal and honest a piece is, or like a character sort of becomes, the more universal it becomes. And in that process of identifying, you can then forgive a little bit, or have it be less this objective experience of this person’s right and this person’s wrong.

Hale: Don’t you think we do that in life too, like when you think about keeping our likeability during times. Whatever we’re going through, if we’re going through hard times, people are desperate to still be loved and longing to be loved and liked. And it’s like life throws us a lot of curveballs, but you still want to connect, you still want those relationships, so we’re all doing that in life.

I was reading an interview with Kristin Wiig where she was talking about this latest movie of hers which is largely dramatic, and playing this very poignant scene and an audience laughed at it at a screening, which had her thinking, “Did they just expect me to be funny?” Is that a concern?

Stonestreet: Yeah, in Season Two of “Modern Family” I did an episode of “American Horror Story” — that’s what I had done most of my career before “Modern Family,” I had done procedural dramas and killed people, and did awful things to people on TV shows. So I was happy to go over and play in a dark space a little bit. And after that, people would Tweet and be like, “Oh my god, Cam from ‘Modern Family’ is on ‘American Horror Story,’ ruined,” or things like that.

Now I think it just is a poor reflection upon them because I know for a fact that that was not Cam — I wasn't over there with my hands and cuffs going everywhere, you know what I mean? I was playing a different character. So the way I look at it is, and maybe I’m wrong to do this, they lack imagination and could potentially be stupid.

Schilling: There might be potential for stupidity.

Stonestreet: Yeah, I'm not committing to it. I'm just leaving the door open to stupid.

Hale: It does take time though. The characters I've played were pretty extreme, and I remember after “Arrested Development” ended, you know, it’s not like someone’s going to be casting a part of a lawyer and be like, “The guy that played Buster Bluth would be phenomenal.” It takes time to kind of put yourself out there and show what else you can do, and just keep auditioning, and hitting it, and hopefully that other stuff will come around.

McLendon-Covey: I’ve found that some people just want to remember you the way they first were introduced to you. So for some people I will always be a boozy, slutty cop [from “Reno 911”], and they don't want to see me do anything different.

Stonestreet: I know I don't.

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