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How to make comedy ‘in a world where your weird racist uncle is literally everywhere’

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The Emmys Roundtable: Comedy
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Stores and restaurants (and hair salons!) have opened up again with movie theaters right behind them. And as of last Friday, film and television productions have received the green light in Los Angeles. But for the group of actors The Envelope spoke with last month, the thought of returning to a set was unimaginable.

“I’ve always felt like part of the job as the lead of a show is to be a host to the crew. It’s not phony. It’s genuine,” said Ted Danson at the Envelope’s Comedy Roundtable in mid-May. “So there’s an embracing of all the people, the 120 people you work with and your job is to keep the energy up. I hope I don’t bring fear and distancing [to the next set] and a ‘Don’t get too close to me.’ It’s going to be so jarring, I think.”

Annie Murphy.
Annie Murphy stars in “Schitt’s Creek.”
(Antoine Yared)

Danson’s “The Good Place” costar, William Jackson Harper, had a more personal concern about working and socializing again. “I’m honestly a little worried about my ability to relate to people going forward, because I’ve been spending a lot of time sort of quiet and just blankly staring into nothing,” Harper said, weeks before Black Lives Matter protests began sweeping the globe.

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Harper and Danson, along with Linda Cardellini from Netflix’s “Dead to Me,” Nicholas Hoult from Hulu’s “The Great,” Jane Lynch from Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and Annie Murphy of the just-ended “Schitt’s Creek” chatted with L.A. Times culture columnist L.Z. Granderson in a video conference for an engaging conversation that somehow included exploding bodily functions, returning to work and eating all of a production’s prop sushi.

Their conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Five seasoned entertainment journalists predict the shows and performances the Television Academy will nominate for Emmys.

Ted, William and Annie, you had shows in which you had characters that went from being insufferable to becoming likable, decent human beings by the end. Why do you think audiences were so ready for that?

Ted Danson: Having also shot last year “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I think I agree with you. I’m not so sure, but I think it’s good writing. If the writing is good and you’re funny, I think it doesn’t really matter which lane you take, but for us, [“Good Place” showrunner] Mike Schur was writing about how to lead a purposeful life, how to be ethical. And they wrapped it in a 9-year-old’s fart sense of humor and added visual magic. It caught people, especially young people’s attention.

Ted Danson.
Ted Danson has an upcoming project with Tina Fey.
(Mary Steenburgen)

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Annie Murphy: For “Schitt’s Creek,” it kind of came along at a time where the world caught fire a little bit more than usual in a negative way. And people were looking for a place where love and inclusivity and kindness was celebrated. “Schitt’s Creek” provided that place.

Nicholas Hoult: I would testify to that. I’ve been watching.

Two Emmy-nominated series — Schitt’s Creek and ‘The Good Place’ — left the air this season, but their themes of kindness will not be forgotten.

William Jackson Harper: I feel like we live in a world now where your weird racist uncle is literally everywhere. You get on Twitter, you get on Instagram, you just see a bunch of craziness all over the place and it gets ... I mean, even if it doesn’t make you sad or make you upset, it’s really annoying and it sort of wears you down. And I think that seeing something that is about really exploring what it is to be good and what it is to be kind is a real release. And I think we all need that, especially right now.

William Jackson Harper.
William Jackson Harper stars in “The Good Place.”
(Ali Ahn)

Nicholas, your character, Peter III, the Emperor of Russia who marries the future Catherine the Great, is not very kind, what drew you to that?

Hoult: That all comes from Tony McNamara, the creator and screenwriter. He’s just amazing at making a very irreverent tone that’s funny and is underpinned with great dramatic moments and a story line that’s engaging, but at the same time he just has very sharp, witty dialogue, which takes you away from being kind of a period drama piece, which, a lot of the time I find those a little bit dull to watch if I’m perfectly honest. He also isn’t too worried about staying true to historic facts. So it’s whatever’s best for the story that we’re telling.

Was it challenging to be sort of despicable in the role?

Hoult: No, it’s really fun because you know with Tony’s scenes that the scene works. And then you can just have fun and play within them and push the characters to their limits and see what you can get away with in a sense. That’s the thing about Peter. He starts off being a very horrible unlikable character, then gradually you start to kind of get a glimpse of why he is the way he is, his parents and the position he’s in, which causes him to behave like an idiot sometimes.

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For Jane Lynch, playing the brash but insecure Sophie Lennon is “delicious.”

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Jane, your character, comedian Sophie Lennon, is fascinating. When we’re first introduced to her, she exudes competence and power, but then we begin to see some vulnerabilities. Was that something you pushed for?

Jane Lynch: Oh, no. That was in the first script. The character I play is a comic in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s who wears a fat suit. She’s the housewife from Queens, and she’s tough and she’s a broad. But deep down, the actress herself, she’s extremely insecure and has the thinnest skin in the world and feels victimized and is very threatened by [Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge Maisel], who was basically just being herself as a comic.

She’s threatened and territorial about Midge coming into the business because Midge is following a whole different set of rules that are very free, probably no rules at all. And that really threatened Sophie. It kind of pulls the rug out from underneath the entire way she operates. She’s extremely insecure in this girl’s presence. So of course she does her best to make her feel as small as possible.

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Linda Cardellini’s “Dead to Me” role means “masking reality with buoyancy”

Linda, your Judy is similar to Sophie in the sense that you have so much turmoil going on inside while trying not so show it. Tell us about that.

Linda Cardellini: It is every single scene because the thing about the show is it’s very tragic, but what it says about life is if you don’t have a sense of humor in the face of all that tragedy, you’re really lost. So Judy survived on sort of masking reality with this buoyancy. It’s really fun to play because no matter how terrible things get, the terrible things that I do or accidentally do are well-intended. She sort of has to find the silver lining in everything in order to survive. It’s really fun because I’m playing both things all the time.

Linda Cardellini
Linda Cardellini stars in “Dead to Me.”
(Linda Cardellini)

Did you have a source of inspiration?

Cardellini: A few people that I’ve known that seemed to just carry a party no matter where they go, but there also are the people who end up damaging the things at the party. The person that you lend your car to but then they leave it in the red and it gets towed away. Then also the person who has never been truly loved, who’s just searching to connect with anybody possible. A lot of times, Judy will just say whatever it is that she can to make the person next to her feel better. For that minute, she gets that connection and she holds onto that.

How has diversity changed or influenced the content that’s being produced today?

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Lynch: I think people are getting their say now — even in terms of trans and sexualities and ethnicities because streaming is so big. We can tell all of these stories. I do believe that’s really the only way you can change hearts and minds is by a story. We’re so responsive to story as a human species. In spite of ourselves, we grow and we change.

Jane Lynch
Jane Lynch stars in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
(Jane Lynch)

What would be the hardest part about starting up on a production again?

Lynch: Touching each other. Crews and the amount of people it takes to do this.

Cardellini: In an enclosed room. In a dark closed soundstage. Not a lot of air.

Murphy: No more smooching.

Danson: No smooching is fine with me. Quick story: A friend of mine had friends that went to prison for 11 years. They thought it was a great idea to bring marijuana back from Mexico in the ’70s. They described time like being on a boat and you were just leaving the harbor in the beginning. Around the fifth or sixth year, they were just in the middle of the ocean and you still can’t see the shore coming up. I think we’re really there. I cannot imagine how I’m going to trust that we will [go back]. If somebody said we’re going back to work in a month, I think it would scare the crap out of me. I wouldn’t know how to react.

You’re working actors, you’re going to have to touch, maybe kiss and have a moment of intimacy for a series?

Lynch: I don’t know that we’ll be doing that for some time. Like Ted said, we’re in the middle of the ocean. We can’t visualize what it is going to be on the other side.

Cardellini: Green screen?

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Annie, were you involved in scripting the lyrics to “A Little Bit Alexis”?

Murphy: I sure was. I wrote most of the lyrics to that song and then two of my best buds are, luckily for me, musicians. So we posted up in a studio for a couple of days with a bunch of beer and pizza and then came out bleary-eyed with “A Little Bit Alexis.”

Did showrunner Dan Levy approach you about it?

Murphy: No, no, no. I forced this on Dan in a very big way. We did the table read and it said Alexis performs “A Little Bit Alexis.” I think I was kind of inspired/potentially jealous of Noah Reid who, the previous season, did a beautiful cover of “Simply the Best.” And he arranged it himself and it was just so gorgeous. So I was like, “I can do that.” Forgetting that Noah is in fact a musician and I am very much not. So I went up to Dan and I was like, “I’m going to write ‘A Little Bit Alexis.’” Shockingly, he agreed to give me a stab at it. That’s when I had to rope in the actual professionals to help me out. But I’m very pleased with the result.

And the choreography?

Murphy: Oh, that was all me, baby. About 20 minutes before we shot, I was in my trailer by myself, swooping around, and I called Sarah Levy in to show her and ask her what she thought. She was like, “That was really, really bad.” And I was like, “Perfect. Good.”

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William Jackson Harper on landing his role in “The Good Place”

William, I came across a story that said you were prepared to quit acting before landing “The Good Place.”

Harper: Yeah. I think a lot of actors have that conversation with themselves, at least once a year, if not more, where you’re just like, “What am I doing? Is this going to ever work out?” It’s not that I wasn’t working at all. It was just there was no stability and it got to a point where I was beginning to question whether or not I was actually happy. So yeah, “The Good Place” came along at exactly the right time. It was going to be my last pilot season.

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Annie Murphy on the distinctive humor of “Schitt’s Creek”

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Annie, Linda, Jane, the three of you are engaged in a lot of physical comedy, but it never takes away from the writing. How do you gauge that balance?

Lynch: It’s kind of inherent in the character that I play. The stand-up comic, she’s huge. Everything she does is huge, and she literally has the audience talking back to her, “How fat are you?” I just kind of started from a really big place. Then what’s so lovely about the other side of her personality, the actress herself, she has like minimal movement. She sees herself as regal and every gesture is almost preordained. She sees herself almost as divine. So that’s kind of nice to play that dichotomy.

Murphy: I feel like the physical comedy you’re referencing for me is this [makes a face and puts her hands out]. That was obviously a ridiculous amount of fun to play, but I think where we all got it from, [showrunner and costar Dan Levy] started doing some insane things with his face. We just all started snatching little bits and pieces of physicality from one another, because family has similar mannerisms and similar inflection and that kind of thing.

Lynch: That’s what I love about it is that you and your brother have almost the exact same gestures as each other. You’re almost mirroring each other, and it always made me laugh so hard.

Murphy: Oh, thank you. I watched an episode from Season 1 a little while ago, and to see the physical journey that we went on, we just ran with it. By the end, we’re just these ridiculous Muppets, but it was so much fun to play.

Danson: Can we geek out for a minute? Annie, man, I think I embarrassed your entire cast by trampling over other people to get to you to ooh and ah, but it’s the [show] that we go to at night when we just can’t bear CNN anymore and you bring us so much joy and so much laughter. It’s really, really amazing.

Murphy: Ted Danson! Thank you.

Linda, the physical humor after killing somebody?

Cardellini: My character always wants to tell and she’s got so much to tell. So there’s a certain physicality of that always bubbling up in her. Then I’m really lucky because Christina [Applegate] and I have such an incredible working relationship and also just our characters as a partnership is so much fun. So wherever she is, I’m always sort of finding the counterbalance to that. It really works itself out because she’s pretty grounded and strong and fierce. And my character then tends to be able to spin out around her.

Nicholas Hoult
Nicholas Hoult stars in “The Great.”
(Nicholas Hoult)

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Speaking of physical, Nicholas, you have three bodily functions all explode at the same time in “The Great.” How on earth do you prepare for that?

Hoult: Yeah, it was disgusting. I don’t know if that’s the first time that someone’s had to vomit, defecate and ejaculate at the same time onscreen. I’m hoping it is. There was no Method acting in that one. It was just someone would run in with a little — it was meant to be borscht that I’d been poisoned by — so they’d run over with the borscht. I’d take that in my mouth, continue [having sex] and then explode from every orifice. I know a lot of the crew felt pretty sick watching that one.

William, have you gotten something where you just said, “How am I going to pull this off?”

Harper: There’s a couple of them. The first one was there’s the scene where I get tortured with needles and the producers sent me to an actual acupuncture studio where they actually stabbed me with 50 different needles in the face and took little pictures and sent them back. I was worried that I was going to actually have to go in the makeup trailer in the morning and get 50 needles put in my face. We wound up not doing that because 50 needles didn’t look gruesome enough. There was also a time with the trolley problem where I got shot in the face with a blood cannon a couple of times. Yeah, Ted was there for that. He came out of that one clean.

How important is comedy to a healthy relationship?

Danson: Oh yeah. I mean, sex is great, but if I can make Mary laugh, I walk around so chuffed as a man that I made Mary laugh. It’s just music to my ears.

Murphy: It’s crucial. That’s the whole answer. It’s imperative and crucial.

Hoult: I was going to add to what Ted was saying. One of the greatest joys I have in life is when I manage to make someone laugh when they’re taking a sip of a drink and it comes out their nose. I feel like that’s the ultimate goal for me most of the time. So if I manage to time that, and it happens, then I’m happy.

Danson: You’re a professional. That takes talent.

Hoult: It’s just pure luck on the timing. But if it works, that’s a good moment.

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Murphy: You seem to be very into expulsions.

Hoult: Which I wouldn’t recommend to happy relationships particularly, so that wasn’t really a good tip.

Ted, what’s next for you?

Danson: I’m doing something with Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and Holly Hunter’s in it. I play the mayor of L.A. We shot 3½ episodes and the next day, everything shut down. So I have trouble — even reading a script that Tina has written that is brilliant — I can’t picture myself there yet. It makes me anxious. I’m trying to do this moment.

Murphy: I kind of feel the opposite. I’m lucky enough to know for certain that I’m going to a new show as soon as this is over, whenever this is over. And we’ve been doing table reads. So I’m getting to know this cast that otherwise I would have just been thrown into the deep end with in March. Being able to build the relationships with these people, even though it’s weird, like this, I feel really confident that we’re now going to be able to hit the ground running in an even better way once we do get started.

Describe one of the worst days you’ve ever had on set.

Harper: I was shooting this indie movie in upstate New York in late fall, but it was supposed to be summertime. We started at like 6 in the morning. It was 30, 35 degrees — something just above freezing. I’m supposed to be waking up from this nightmare in a tank top, but I couldn’t fake being asleep. Everything was shaking, everything was chattering. I was the one making everything go longer than it needed to be. It was just this weird sort of nightmare loop that I was stuck in.

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Nicholas Hoult’s worst day on the set of “The Great”

Hoult: I shot this film, “True History of the Kelly Gang,” down in Australia. Before my first day shooting, I got attacked by a magpie while cycling and crashed face first into a tree. My face was just like, my lip was ripped up. Then in the first scene I get shot and the blank kind of went in my eyes. So I was back in hospital the next day. Then for my final scene, I was wearing just socks and garters, smoking a pipe, talking to George MacKay — we’re meant to be in kind of a brothel. Just before the first take, this Australian guy comes running in and he goes, “We’re going to have a Shetland pony in the room with you, but this pony has never been inside before, so if it comes at you, just scramble out of the way.”

I’m butt naked with a pipe. He lures in this Shetland pony with a carrot, and you think they’re little ponies, they’re not. When you’re close to a Shetland pony and naked, they’re bigger. I’m like, “Hang on. He’s trained this pony to come for carrots. I’m sitting here naked.” In the middle of the scene, it walks right up to me and looks directly at me. And I just crossed my legs in fear and completely froze, terrified. Luckily, the pony carried on its way and I survived without any more injuries.

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The day that “almost ruined” a young Ted Danson

Danson: When I was 25, I got on a soap opera, it was a small part, and I had my first full-on anxiety attack. I mean just nervous breakdown, whatever. And I called this guy who was kind of the Carnegie Mellon psychologist. I said, “I can’t go. I’m not going to ...” and he says, “Calm down, take a Valium. You’ll be fine.” Me and Valium do not get along. I didn’t realize it then. So I showed up and somebody recognized me from something and yelled my name and I panicked and ran. I got lost in the bowels of NBC, trying to run away from somebody who was no longer chasing me.

I finally got up to work and my job was to be a doctor [telling] this very sad couple that their daughter who had cancer wasn’t going to pull through. This is my first day in front of the camera and the Valium made me just [sweat] sheets, it was like “Broadcast News.” It was back when they held big cue cards. And one of the guys in the middle of my scene, and I’m just shaking, and he dropped the cue card and it wafted across in front of the cameras and landed in my lap. It was horrifying, a horrifying day.

Lynch: It was the first day of “Best in Show.” And it was really, probably my first movie. What I thought was craft service had all this sushi out there. And I anxiety-ate all of the sushi. [Turns out] the sushi was part of the scene that they were shooting, and the prop guy comes in and goes, “Where’s all the sushi?” And I was like [looks stricken]. They were so kind to me, they were just like, “Oh, I don’t know what happened to it.” And everybody knows I ate it because I was anxiety-eating. I ate it all!

Top TV stars such as Richard Madden, Milo Ventimiglia, Trevor Noah, Christina Hendricks and more drop by the Los Angeles Times video studio for Emmy Contender chats.