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Josh Gad sees farcical space comedy ‘Avenue 5' unintentionally play out in real life

Josh Gad
Josh Gad’s phone is blowing up as he has four projects in the ether at the same time: HBO’s “Avenue 5,” Apple+ TV’s “Central Park,” Disney+'s “Artemis Fowl” and his YouTube fundraising series, “Reunited Apart.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Think you’re busy? Josh Gad has amassed more than 70 film and TV credits since 2007 and has four projects out now: the film adaptation “Artemis Fowl,” the HBO series “Avenue 5,” the animated “Central Park” and his YouTube series “Reunited Apart.”

“Launching a project during a pandemic and a time of social unrest is … it’s tricky,” he says over video chat. “How do you sell something when your heart is breaking for so many people? How do you go out and smile and say, ‘Hey, I got this new movie about elves and fairies’ while at the same time, so many people are suffering and so many people are angry and so many people are broken?

“I began quarantine from the very frustrating position of feeling useless. I’m not a doctor; I’m not a first responder. I’m clearly nonessential. But I could entertain.”

 Josh Gad interviews the makers of the 1983 "Ghostbusters" for the YouTube fundraising series "Reunited Apart."
Reunited and it feels so good: Josh Gad interviews the makers of the 1983 “Ghostbusters” for the YouTube fundraising series “Reunited Apart,” clockwise from top left: Gad; Jason Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman); Annie Potts; Ernie Hudson; Dan Aykroyd; Bill Murray; Ivan Reitman. Center: Sigourney Weaver.
(YouTube screen capture)
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‘Reunited’ and it feels so good

“What’s been giving me joy over these 100 days or so is revisiting my favorite movies and introducing them to my kids. I thought, I get so much joy out of these Zooms where I reunite with people I haven’t spoken to in a while; what if there was a way to utilize that model to reunite creative teams from some of our favorite films?”

Thus was born “Reunited Apart,” a YouTube series of fundraising video chats with the makers of some of Gad’s favorite movies. The loose, chummy episodes have featured “Ghostbusters,” “Back to the Future,” “The Goonies” and others. A massive “Lord of the Rings” installment has more than 4.8 million views. The series has raised more than $200,000 for causes including Project Hope, Dig Deep and the Equal Justice Initiative, with corporate partners such as Cheerios and Barefoot Wine also kicking in large contributions.

“I thought this would be a great way to give people some joy in the most joyless period I’ve lived through,” Gad says with a rueful chuckle, “and to raise money for amazing causes, too many to mention, but like No Kid Hungry, which we’ve raised $150,000 for off our ‘Lord of the Rings’ episode.”

Josh Gad as Herman Judd in "Avenue 5."
He can do what he wants on the fifth “Avenue”: Played by Josh Gad, “Avenue 5" zillionaire Herman Judd’s eccentric look was influenced by Richard Branson, “Back to the Future 2,” Donald Trump Jr. and the Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland.
(Alex Bailey / HBO)

How to be a zillionaire

Meanwhile, on HBO, Gad plays “visionary” zillionaire Herman Judd on “Avenue 5,” the tourists-stranded-in-space comedy from “Veep” auteur Armando Iannucci.

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“What’s so funny is [Inannucci] seems to be the Nostradamus of our time,” says Gad. “It started as a satire and in the year since we shot it, has turned into a documentary. I can’t tell you how many people have reached out about the airlock episode.”

Without spoilers, that episode depicts the sometimes suicidal determination of some people to disbelieve facts when in crisis.

“Herman Judd is a representation of so-called experts who are all bluster but know nothing,” says Gad. “We have so many people who have put in a lot of thought as to how to sell something but haven’t actually put thought into creating the perfect thing to sell. We find that in the political arena as well, people who are all bluster but aren’t strong on policy.

“I was really fascinated by Elizabeth Holmes. I was listening to the podcast about her, ‘The Dropout.’ She was selling this ‘miracle’ blood test that would solve everything and the way she convinced people was by dressing the part. She had the same mock turtlenecks as Steve Jobs tailored to herself so she could convince people she was the heir apparent to Jobs.

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“So Herman Judd would literally dress the part of Richard Branson, have his hair, would look up to people like Elon Musk. He would try to be all of those people without actually having the skill set to be any of those people. What he’s selling is a shell. It starts with him writing on a yellow sticky pad, ‘Space Travel’ with a question mark. That’s what inspires this grand vision, but it’s all a shell because he doesn’t have the skill set to execute it. So it’s all about the packaging.”

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Stanley Tucci voices Bitsy Brandenham on Apple TV+'s animated musical series “Central Park,” cocreated by and costarring Josh Gad.

Singing in the park

All these projects boast galaxies of talent, perhaps none more dense than the animated musical Gad cocreated with Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith (of “Bob’s Burgers”) for Apple TV+: “Central Park.”

“I keep saying this jokingly but not jokingly — it’s the ‘Avengers’ of musical theater,” Gad says. “I’m always really hard on musical projects that don’t cast people who can sing. I couldn’t create a musical and Auto-Tune my entire cast. So I called my college classmate, Leslie Odom Jr. — we went to Carnegie-Mellon Drama together: ‘Sorry it took you winning a Tony for me to call and offer you a job that doesn’t pay very much.’”

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Besides Gad and Odom, the cast includes Daveed Diggs, Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci, Kathryn Hahn and Tituss Burgess. Composers begin with the in-house set of Kate Anderson, Elyssa Samsel and Brent Knopf, and add guests such as Sara Bareilles, Anthony Hamilton, Alan Menken, Aimee Mann, Cyndi Lauper and Darren Criss.

“The thing that is so gratifying to me is, we set out two years ago to create a love letter to New York City, to rising up in the face of adversity and seizing the moment. I didn’t realize how important that message and that joyful delivery would be right now,” Gad said.

Josh Gad multitasking
The room where it happens: Josh Gad multitasks in his YouTube studio setup.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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In for a landing


To these, add “Artemis Fowl,” the Disney+ film adapted from the popular children’s books, which Gad was not familiar with. “I just took a leap of faith on it because [director] Ken Branagh is such a genius: ‘Do you want to make this Irish fairy tale movie with me — alongside Judi Dench?’ It’s kind of an easy yes.”

And there may be evidence that Gad’s labors are landing.

“I did a social-distancing get-together with my girls and a pocket of their friends, and the kids, out of nowhere, all started singing ‘Own It’ [from ‘Central Park’]. And I started to tear up a little bit, as anyone who knows me would say is often the case. I’d done things like ‘Frozen’ but I’d never created something that has had that sort of influence. The world is a nonstop cycle of awful, awful, awfulness. Seeing that was pretty moving.”

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