That was so traumatic! So why are we laughing? 7 comedy stars share why comedy hurts

Anthony Carrigan (“Barry”) joins Phil Dunster (“Ted Lasso”), Janelle James (“Abbott Elementary”), Delroy Lindo (“Unprisoned”), Adam Scott (“Party Down”), Molly Shannon (“The Other Two”) and Jessica Williams (“Shrinking”) on the Los Angeles Times’ Envelope Comedy Roundtable.


Today’s top comedy series also happen to be some of the best dramas on television. Such shows as “Barry,” “Shrinking” and “UnPrisoned” mine humor in the dark corners of intense subjects — PTSD, grief and incarceration. “Abbott Elementary” turns the depressing realities of a broken public school system into a gold mine of laughs. Dashed dreams and losing streaks are the lifeblood of “Party Down,” “The Other Two” and “Ted Lasso.”

“My favorite kind of comedy is trauma drama,” says Adam Scott, who plays an out-of-work actor turned part-time bartender in the returning Starz series “Party Down.” “Me too, it’s trauma drama,” replies Jessica Williams of Apple TV+’s “Shrinking.” “Everything is so sad all the time. Even laughing can be sad. Any time something really traumatic is happening, there’s also something really funny. There’s somebody’s crying over the casket. Or there’s a really intense breakup scene, and [the Spin Doctors’ upbeat love song] ‘Two Princes’ is playing in the restaurant.”

“With ‘Ted Lasso’ we never get to a point when it becomes too heavy,” adds Phil Dunster, who portrays the egotistical soccer star Jamie Tartt in the hit Apple TV+ series. “We had a mission: We’re still going to address all of these really huge, horrible issues, but we’re going to do it with a twinkle in the eye. With a tongue in the cheek.”


These actors, along with Janelle James of ABC’s mockumentary “Abbott Elementary,” Anthony Carrigan of HBO’s “Barry,” Delroy Lindo of Hulu’s “UnPrisoned” and Molly Shannon of HBO’s “The Other Two” came together in late April for The Envelope Comedy Roundtable, where they discussed what it takes to turn tears into laughter, fan expectations and lovely man calves. Their conversation can be seen on Spectrum News 1 on June 9.

The characters on HBO’s brilliant comedy-drama never stopped evolving. As the show wraps its four-season run, the main cast sits down to reminisce.

May 24, 2023

These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Janelle James: “Abbott” is about an underfunded elementary school, with children [and teachers] who don’t have the resources that they need, or much of anything. So I think that’s why it’s amazing that our show is so funny. And that’s why my character pretty much exists. I’m a joke machine to get people out of the seriousness of what we’re trying to tackle.

Delroy Lindo: That’s interesting, but you don’t lead with the thought that this is a really serious subject matter, right?

James: I don’t think Quinta [Brunson], the creator, ever would categorize it as a comedy, or as a dramedy, or straddling the line, but that is what the show is about. On its face, it’s a very serious topic, but we’ve managed to make it super funny.

Jessica Williams: I learned that after I was on “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart’s philosophy was “This is like veggies, but people think it’s dessert.” You know, it doesn’t need to be too serious. People will get the message, even if you’re moving around it, without getting it too on the nose.


Jessica Williams
“People will get the message” Jessica Williams says of comedy series — like her show “Shrinking” — not having to be too on the nose with their issues.

Molly Shannon: Or getting too heavy-handed.

Lindo: I’m thinking about Richard Pryor. That was his genius. To tackle really profound issues and make it hilarious.

Phil Dunster: When things are being packaged as a drama, as something that is supposed to be a far more serious way of telling the story, I still feel there has to be some lacing of humor. You’ve got to bring them into it … and you have to find different ways to do that.

Adam Scott: It gets claustrophobic if it’s just all serious… Whether it’s comedy or drama, I really lean on the writer. In any comedy, I find the funniest stuff is when it is the most serious moment of the [character’s] life. And if it’s written correctly, you don’t have to vary that much how you’re playing it. It’s the surroundings and the writing that guide whether it’s funny or not.

What kind of misconceptions do people have about you based on the characters you play? Anthony, let’s start with NoHo Hank of “Barry.”


Anthony Carrigan: The biggest misconception is that I’m a Chechen mobster. Truly, people are baffled as soon as I start speaking in my normal voice. They look at me and they’re like, “You’re not Russian, you’re not Chechen?!” They’re mildly disappointed to learn that I’m from Massachusetts. So then they’re like, “OK, do it. Yeah, do the voice, do the voice.” And I always do because I’m a people pleaser. That’s something I have in common with NoHo Hank. But I’m not a criminal, and I do not run a criminal enterprise. Just saying it now: no family ties.

Jessica Williams: OK. I was pretty stressed when I met him.

Janelle James
Janelle James says she’s much less “on” than her “Abbott Elementary” character.

Janelle, Ava Coleman is the fame-seeking principal of “Abbott Elementary.” She’s an MVP of one-liners. Do people expect you to be like her?

James: I am not always on like she is. I am mostly off, so her insatiable quest for fame and social-media savvy and all of those things [are not me]. I don’t like taking pictures or selfies or any of those things, and I’m pretty introverted. She is not. She’s, like, this big ringmaster-type of character. That’s what people want when they meet me. But that’s why it’s fun to play her. It’s like putting on a whole new personality.

And Phil, Jamie Tartt is a soccer superstar with a deep Mancunian accent.


Dunster: They expect me to be really good at football, which is terrible, because when people pick me for their side, they’re like, “You suck.”

Scott: Are you legitimately bad?

Dunster: I’m OK. They edit around it. But mostly, people are disappointed in my football ability. And the accent, which is a lovely thing. People are like, “Oh, I believed you.”

Adam, for “Party Down,” did you have to prove you could mix a drink before you landed the role?

Adam Scott
Adam Scott gives a tip of the hat to Ted Danson and “Cheers” for some of his work on the comedy “Party Down.”

Scott: I had to prove I could hand someone a canapé. Honestly, when we made the original show back in, like, 2009, 2008, I knew that Henry, my character, was the bartender of the catering group. So I just rewatched a bunch of “Cheers.” I don’t know how to really make drinks, but also I didn’t know how bartenders fill the time. So I watched Ted Danson. First of all, he’s just incredible on that show. But then also, the way he fills his time.... He’s always doing something on that show, like, cutting up a lemon, throwing a cherry in his mouth, throwing a napkin into the garbage. So if you watch “Party Down,” keep that in mind that I’m always cutting up stuff or arranging napkins just because Ted Danson did.


Shannon: That’s great. I worked with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. They loved activities on “Mad About You,” if you notice. I’m not good at that at all. I’m always impressed with somebody that will add, like, putting on a watch in a scene. Taking a sip of water. It gives me the giggles. So when I do activities, it’s “Helen Hunt activities.” I always say that on set, that I’m being like Helen Hunt.

“Barry” and “Ted Lasso” just ended amazing runs. How hard is it to let go of characters you’ve inhabited for so long?

Anthony Carrigan
Anthony Carrigan thanked his NoHo Hank “Barry” character at the series’ end.

Carrigan: I don’t know about all of you, but whenever there’s a character that you really love playing, you love expressing this part of you or identifying with this human being, it really does take up a certain space in your spirit. And when you have to put that down, it’s sad. I did like a little ritual afterwards, where I hung up my costume and I was like, “Thank you, Hank.”

Dunster: Did you like pretend to shake the sleeve’s hand?

Carrigan: Yeah, it got really intense [laughs]. Things don’t last forever, but you kind of want them to. But because it has a shelf life; that’s what makes it special. That’s what you do appreciate about it. So, yeah, I’m very sad about it. But at the same time, I’m excited for what’s next.


Shannon: People used to say that to me when I got “Saturday Night Live,” “Oh, that must be a great steppingstone.” And I was like, “A steppingstone?!”

Williams: Yeah, same with “The Daily Show.”

Molly Shannon
Molly Shannon of “The Other Two” never saw her time on “Saturday Night Live” as a stepping stone to other work.

Shannon: I was like, “I’ve been hustling my whole life to get to this point.” This is the break of a lifetime. I looked at it as an island that I wanted to live on forever. I never saw it as a steppingstone.

James: It’s probably naive of me, but when I read this pilot of “Abbott,” I knew it was gonna go. Whether I’m there or not, this is going to go. I knew immediately. It was so well written, I could see it in my head as I was reading it. It was hilarious on paper. That’s hard to write something that makes you laugh out loud.

Scott: You know, I watched that pilot again … and it is one of those great pilots. Because they really do put the flag in the ground, like, “We’re going to confront this public school issue.” And that’s a really moving story.


How do you flesh out complex characters? Like Edwin of “UnPrisoned” — he’s just out of prison after many years, and he’s trying to re-acclimate into society and mend issues with his adult daughter. The show is based on creator Tracy McMillan’s own story.

Lindo: The first thing I did was I met with Tracy’s father. And this character is inspired by Tracy’s dad. So he and I hung out. He was very generous in terms of what he shared with me about his life. Then I connected with a few organizations whose clients are formerly incarcerated people … I was educating myself about that world, and then I began the process of bringing Edwin to life.

Delroy Lindo
Delroy Lindo met with the man his “UnPrisoned” character is based on.

James: I don’t remember any school principals at all. I was really just like, “Oh, what would I be if I was somebody that wanted to be on camera?” It’s not a new phenomenon of people wanting to be famous, but there is a new phenomenon of regular people who aren’t in the business. We see them on social media.

Scott: And the job of being a principal is almost, like ...

James: ... secondary. A thing that people forget, as the show goes on, is the reason [the school] is being filmed is because she wants to be famous. It has nothing to do with the students or anything; she brought these cameras in. That’s why she’s so on, because she knows the cameras are there and this is her show. And I think it’s just so funny and brilliant, because she is now famous.


What about the colorful criminal NoHo Hank?

Carrigan: He was just described as a very polite gangster. Like, a gracious host. … When I started to mess around with him, I pulled things from random places. So Jean-Claude Van Damme and some ‘80s action were a huge inspiration. The coolness factor. Hands on the hips and trying to be so suave. It just kind of started to take on a life of its own.

Dunster: People ask me if [Jamie’s] inspired by this [footballer] Jack Grealish, who is very similar in tone. Jack Grealish is the most handsome, and he’s the best. He has lovely calves. He’s kind of like an ostentatious character. If he plays for your team, you love him. If he plays against them, you jeer him and hate him. I took the parts of someone like Jack Grealish … and in the same way with Hank for “Barry,” you take the thing that is on the surface, like a gangster, and then you undermine it.

Phil Dunster
Phil Dunster admits he’s not much of a soccer player. “They edit around it” on “Ted Lasso,” he says.

Carrigan: Right. You subvert expectations.

Williams: With Gaby, I really wanted to be a therapist that people wanted to find, and then I also wanted someone who lives externally. If something’s happening, you can just see it. There’s kind of like a childlike expression with her. Oh, and annoying Harrison Ford. That became a big part of Gaby. How annoying can she possibly be to this older man? She’s more of a lighter character. She needed to balance out Harrison Ford’s character, who has Parkinson’s, and Jason Segel’s character, who is grieving the loss of his wife.


Adam, you play an out of work actor in “Party Down.” Was that, erm, hard to channel?

Scott: When we started the show, back when it was originally on, like, in 2009, we were on this network that wasn’t quite known for making shows, and we were their only show, and people didn’t really know about it. That didn’t happen until it was canceled. So, while we were making it, we were like, “No one is watching this, we couldn’t even get it reviewed.” But we loved it.

Williams: It’s funny, it’s such an iconic show. I remember when I was in high school and I watched it. And it was so good, but it was one of those cool shows that all the cool kids watched. They watched “Arrested Development” and “Party Down.”

Scott: When people discovered it, they discovered it themselves. And so there is, like, some ownership over it. It made people feel connected to it, which is great. That’s why we ended up being able to make more 13 years later, is because people dug it up and discovered it and liked it.

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Was there a time when you thought you’d made it big but maybe you hadn’t actually quite yet?


Williams: Well, I just find that I get mistaken for every other Black actress that’s ever existed. “Shrinking” had just come out, and people were like, “We love you on ‘The Bear.’” And I’m just like, “Oh, my God, that’s not me.” Or when I was on “The Daily Show,” people would think I was my friend Sasheer [Zamata], who is also on “SNL.”

Shannon: Can I say one thing about [making it big]? I think so much of the drive to be in show business is there’s some hole or you’re trying to prove yourself. My mom died when I was little, when I was 4, in a car accident. That gave me the drive to, like, make it and maybe make my mom come back from the dead. I was like, maybe my mom died when I was 4 because she was like, “This little baby, meh.” I want to get over that.

Lindo: It does make sense. But you know, I found good work consistently enough no matter what people think [of me]. ... You know what? F— you.

James: That’s the freedom.

Lindo: It’s in the work. It’s in the work, man, it’s in the work.

Carrigan: As soon as you start to buy into that other stuff of expectations of where you are ...

Delroy: You can’t buy into that s—.

Carrigan: Where you should be, what is expected of you to do next? That next thing?

Lindo: That’s right, it’s a trap.

When inhabiting potentially hard to love characters, how do you ingratiate them to an audience? Molly, your “The Other Two” character, Pat Dubeck, is a Hollywood mom, and she can be a lot.

Shannon: The writing is so good. Chris [Kelly] and Sarah [Schneider] are really good at writing for me, so I really relate to the character. Pat cares so much about her family, and she’s ambitious. She’s an Ohio mom coming to New York City with big dreams for her son to be the next pop superstar and her two other children. But at the end of the day, she cares so much about her family and wanting to be with her kids, so it has so much heart.


 Jessica Williams, Adam Scott, Phil Dunster, Janelle James, Molly Shannon, Anthony Carrigan and Delroy Lindo.
Clockwise from left, Jessica Williams, Phil Dunster, Molly Shannon, Delroy Lindo, Anthony Carrigan, Janelle James and Adam Scott comprised the 2023 Envelope Comedy Roundtable, which premieres on Spectrum News 1 on June 9.
(Shiho Fukada)

Lindo: We all keep coming back to the writing. We keep coming back to the depth of the writing, the acuity of the writing, the accuracy of the writing. How that resonates for all of us as actors and how on some level it makes our job not easier per se, but it certainly makes the process that much more doable.... The writing, the writing, the writing.

Carrigan: And you feel it, too. You’re reading it, but you understand it like you’re watching it. You’re living it and you’re laughing at it in the moment.

Lindo: I remember years ago, I was working on a not very good TV show.

Dunster: Go on, name it. Go on, say who it is.

Lindo: I will not. But one of the actors who came to do a guest-starring role was somebody who had worked for many years on another TV show. And I said, “Man, how was that?” He had done six or seven or eight seasons, and he said, “Man, we were always fighting the writing.” … Maybe this is indeed a golden age of television, in how the writing is supporting the actors. We’re not having to fight against them.

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Strong writing also lends a spontaneity, especially in comedy. That said, how much improv takes place on your respective shows?


Shannon: Oh, when I was shooting [“The White Lotus”] with [creator, writer, director] Mike White, there was one night where they wanted all the actors to go to the Upright Citizens Brigade to improvise. I said, “I don’t really do that.” And they were like, “Oh, you can do it.” So I tried it and I was terrible. Mike was in the audience ...

Williams: Oh, no. That’s a totally different skill set.

Shannon: It was all, like, miming, opening refrigerators, taking a drink. Aprons being tied. Tablecloths being pulled. I was frozen in fear. I was terrible. I was so bad that Mike put his cap over his head to hide.

Scott: I would so love to watch you do that, Molly, I love it so much.

James: It’s hard to fail that big in front of people.

Shannon: When I was on stage, I was, like, trying to think of other careers. Like, “I’m so bad at this.” Maybe I’ll be a teacher, I could go back to temping ...

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