Panelists: Even in comedies, the actors should seem real
Times writer Yvonne Villarreal talks with actors, Megan Mullally (“You, Me and the Apocalypse”), Don Cheadle (“House of Lies”), Kristen Schaal (“The Last Man on Earth”), Jerrod Carmichael (“The Carmichael Show”), Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat”),
What do you get when you invite seven comic actors to get together and chat as The Envelope recently did? You get a lot of laughs mixed with some thoughtful conversation. We gathered Tituss Burgess (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), Jerrod Carmichael (“The Carmichael Show”), Don Cheadle (“House of Lies”), America Ferrera (“Superstore”), Megan Mullally (the recently canceled “You, Me and the Apocalypse”), Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat”) and Kristen Schaal (“Last Man on Earth”) for a conversation that included diversity onscreen, firing guns and finding the right comic tone to Donald Trump as entertainment. Here are excerpts from that April conversation.
Was there anything unexpected or unusual that you found yourself doing on your show. I mean, you ate crickets.
Kristen Schaal: Mmmm.
Don Cheadle: She does that. That’s her thing.
Schaal: Yeah, that’s my thing.
Megan Mullally: I had a swastika tattooed on my forehead.
Actors Megan Mullally (“You, Me and the Apocalypse”), Jerrod Carmichael (“The Carmichael Show”), America Ferrera (“Superstore”) and Tituss Burgess (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) talk about the most unexpected thing they did on their shows.
Mullally: On this show called “You, Me and the Apocalypse.” And as if that weren’t bad enough, I also had to wield and fire a gun, and to say that I hate guns is, like, not even touching it, so…
America Ferrera: I also had to fire guns in this season, and I was sweating the whole time. I hated it.
Mullally: I almost started crying on the first day, because I’d never even held one, and it was really — like, it affected me emotionally.
Ferrera: Yeah, me too. Super-intense. And the camera was right in front, and just, like, a glass pane, and you just had to shoot the blank. And I thought, there’s a person back there.
Mullally: I had to shoot real bullets and really kill people. No, I’m kidding.
Schaal: It’s a snuff sitcom.
Cheadle: You’re not very recognizable on your show.
Mullally: I had, like, teeth and a wig, and the whole thing, yeah.
Schaal: That must be nice.
Mullally: It was so fun. I enjoyed, in as much as, you know, the character was reprehensible, I enjoyed wondering what that casting process must have been like, where they were like, “I know who should play this bad-ass white supremacist — the woman from “Will & Grace.”
Tituss Burgess: I played a geisha.
Mullally: And a beautiful one, at that.
Burgess: Well, thanks. I never thought I’d be doing that, but my show, I guess its entire success is on all the things that I never thought I would be doing, so…
You did a werewolf. And obviously the next step —
Burgess: Who knows what Season 3 holds?
What was that like? When you read that part in the script, that Titus thought in a past life he was a geisha.
Burgess: Well, I mean, I’m a little conditioned now to not be surprised when I read anything that Tina Fey or Robert Carlock write.
Tituss Burgess: I didn’t want to do it, but just because I didn’t want to put on all that stuff. I have so little patience to sit and be costumed but it seems like the more I resist it, the more it happens. You know, last season there was a lot of flak, I guess, from us pushing boundaries or whatever. Doing what they do. And so I thought this is absolutely appropriate and perfect that we are just attacking it head on, and not sort of being governed by the Internet.
Cheadle: Wait, how flak, though? What was the…?
Burgess: There was a little backlash at the … I’m convinced it was from people who didn’t complete the season — but it was racial insensitivity, so to speak. But you know, on what show do you see a white woman choosing the Asian American man?
Jerrod Carmichael: Also, racial insensitivity is kind of funny sometimes.
Burgess: It is funny.
Cheadle: Look at the whole Trump campaign.
Burgess: You’re absolutely right about that. His entire campaign is all about that, and it is comical.
Carmichael: And it’s the most entertaining —
Burgess: It’s horrifying but it’s comical.
Carmichael: I want to send Donald Trump $19 a month and just cancel my Hulu subscription.
Carmichael: We did the Trump episode, we taped it last night. It’s fun to discuss and try and dissect. And, you know, trying to avoid just being talking heads on the issue, but, you know, people really support him and that’s interesting. It’s not right or wrong, it’s interesting.
Cheadle: Oh, it’s wrong.
Your show tackles a lot of controversial issues. This season we saw an episode about the morning-after pill, depression and the Bill Cosby episode. Is NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt terrified of what you’re going to say you want to do next?
Carmichael: Yeah, they’re a little cautious. I think we’ve earned a certain amount of leeway with them and they kind of trust where we’re going to go with the episode. Bob and I, we’ve talked about it and why I think it’s important, and I think he understands. And if not, then we’ll just — we just won’t do the show.
How was he with the Donald? Because I would imagine the Bill Cosby episode would cause some pause for them, but was Donald even more of a discussion?
Carmichael: It was the finale of the season, so at this point, I mean, after Cosby, Plan B, other things, we did a Black Lives Matter episode last season. He’s like, “Yeah, Donald Trump, why not?”
Actors Megan Mullally (“You, Me and the Apocalypse”), Jerrod Carmichael (“The Carmichael Show”), America Ferrera (“Superstore”) and Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat”) talk about how TV has changed because of social media and splintered audiences.
How do you guys feel when people weigh in on social media, how instant the feedback is?
Mullally: I didn’t understand why more people weren’t up in arms about me having a swastika on my face.
Cheadle: I go in on social media. I’m a Twitter monster a little bit. And when people write in and, you know —
Schaal: You’re the Twitter monster?
Mullally: “Twitter Monster Revealed.”
Cheadle: When people write in and they love the show and they think it’s great and they think the cast is great and they think it’s funny, they’re right, so I just — I love to support that, you know, and get behind that. And when they’re wrong, I just don’t respond. I block them immediately.
Ferrera: I felt very hesitant engaging with the audience at first. I mean, the last time I was on a TV show, Twitter wasn’t a thing. In a way, it makes them even more avid fans of the show. Because they do feel that direct connection to you. So I feel like I’m struggling in general with the importance social media has taken in our industry. And realizing that it’s a thing that you can’t ignore anymore. But also, I feel like I’ve always thought of myself as very separate from my work, and that line is getting blurred. And I feel like I’m still trying to figure it out.
Megan, other than social media, how would you say TV has changed from the last shows you guys did?
Mullally: Oh my God, it’s completely different. First of all, I just started on social media to promote “You, Me and the Apocalypse.” And then I started on Instagram, like, two months ago. I mean, I’m late to the party, but , because of the — what we were saying, that now it’s just, like, an inescapable fact that you have to do it. But OK, so I was almost 40 when I got “Will & Grace,” so I’d been knocking around this burg for quite some time and —
Carmichael: Oh my God, you look amazing.
Mullally: Oh, thanks, I’ll take it. I’m 57. I haven’t had any work done, and I don’t — I think that it’s starting to come back around. That’s a whole other topic, but I think it’s starting to come back around that people are —
Cheadle: Want real — to see real human beings.
Mullally: They want to see real faces, yeah, because, like, all the really good shows that we watch, like, I don’t know, I’m just going to say “Transparent,” just picking a show out of the air, there are women on that show who have wrinkles and jowls and things are falling. Just like the guys, you know? And they’re great, and they’re the great actors. And I feel like it’s starting to be a trend, that it’s a little bit cooler to not do it. So that’s a nice development. But when I was pre-”Will & Grace,” you couldn’t change one word of the script. And, of course, now, if you aren’t a great improviser, they’re like, “Mm, next.”
Mullally: It’s like having another writing staff, if you have actors who are funny, who can pitch other jokes in the moment, great. And that doesn’t mean that all those improvisations are going to be used, but it’s welcomed now.
Randall Park: And also there’s, like, over 400 scripted shows now, which is crazy. But it’s good in that you can take risks. Like Jerrod’s show probably wouldn’t have gotten on the air, what, even 10 years ago maybe? Because it was too risky, you know?
Park: An Asian family on TV, that’s, like, crazy.
Ferrera: [To Schaal] Well, I was so shocked to learn that your show was on broadcast. To me, the fact that broadcast would take a chance on a show about one man left on Earth.
Park: I think all of our shows, to a degree —
Carmichael: They had no choice but to adapt, you know, like you were saying, it’s so much and it’s so many shows and people have options that feel more real. And to even incorporate what you’re saying, I mean, even looking at the history of it, like, people want something that feels authentic. The success from “All in the Family” to “Roseanne” to, you know all these shows where people seemed honest and real.
Park: Yeah, yeah.
Carmichael: And I think that, you know, our shows kind of hit that nerve.
Randall, you bring up an interesting thing. When we spoke ahead of the first season of “Fresh Off the Boat,” you said something, and I want to see how you feel now, like how it’s sort of settled with you.
Cheadle: Why would they ever put an Asian family on TV?
Carmichael: I really hope the first word is “Jews.”
Cheadle: No, he said, “The Jews.”
You said (speaking about Park), “I never imagined I could play a version of the all-American dad on a sitcom. I’m used to playing the coworker, the neighbor, the police officer.” How does that feel now to sort of settle into that role, and to realize it’s still there?
Park: It’s a nightmare — no.
Park: No, it still blows my mind a little bit, you know? It’s still amazing to me. I was in college when Margaret Cho’s show “All-American Girl” was on the air, and that was a big deal. That was ’94. That was a big deal to me, you know? I would watch it every week, just to see people that looked like me on a sitcom. And then it ended and another one didn’t come back for the next 20-something years.
Cheadle: That’s insane.
Randall Park: On network TV. And so the fact that now there are some other shows too, Ken Jeong’s show. And it’s still mind-blowing to me. And the thing is, it shouldn’t be but it is, you know?
America Ferrera (“Superstore”) and Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat”) talk about the pressure to represent a culture in their shows and how characters have to be idiosyncratic to be funny.
Yeah, and it’s also still not enough, right?
Park: Yeah, yeah. Again, 400 shows.
Schaal: But you’re so good as a dad though. I loved that episode where you thought you were too boring for your kids. You’re so endearing and sweet and funny and great on the show.
Park: Thank you so much.
Schaal: I just knew you wouldn’t say that so I said it.
Park: But anyway, the Jews...
Mullally: That happened with “Will & Grace,” because Billy Crystal played a gay character on “Soap,” which was sometime in the ‘70s. And then there wasn’t another gay character until Ellen came out on her show, and then that all got so politicized. And then “Will & Grace,” and now there’s, you know, every show —
Burgess: They’re everywhere.
Ferrera: And when you’re the only show on television, like, with the Asian family, or the only show with the Latino family, there’s so much pressure —
Park: Oh my God, yeah.
Ferrera: — to represent everyone and everything. And you don’t get the freedom to do comedy that isn’t going to please everyone. Or to try things that are going to be representative of just one person’s point of view versus we have to represent every single Latino and make sure every Asian person feels represented. And so that’s what’s helpful when you’re not the only one on TV.
Carmichael: You can’t develop with the intention of diversity and expect to get a quality program.
Cheadle: Yeah, no, it’s got to be about people— mostly their idiosyncratic nature — mostly the things that make them not like everybody else that makes us want to watch it.
And everybody’s competing, in a way, against cable to see how far you can push something.
Schaal: And there’s a big division between what you can do on — at least for our show — what you can do on a comedy versus what you can do on a drama for network. I had acupuncture one episode and it was like, “Well, we can’t show too much blood because it’s a comedy.” I’m like, “I know, but then ‘Bones’ is on and they’re, like, ripping up bodies.
Don, a lot of these shows toe the line between drama and comedy, and you really pushed for this season for more elements of comedy.
Cheadle: Well, our show does straddle that a bit, and tonally it can shift pretty dramatically during an episode. But I think our show is the best when it’s firing on all cylinders, when we’re all just, like, a troupe. And we kind of just wanted to get back to that playfulness — and improv gets into our scripts a lot — and just wanted to have that energy back, and still do the weighty stuff.
America, talk about “Superstore,” it seems like it’s this, you know, hunky-dory, funny world, but you also tackle some serious issues.
Ferrera: What was so enticing about “Superstore” is this very notion of the Norman Lear school of comedy, where we get to see real people — you know, I feel like TV and film has moved so far in the direction of aspirational that we’ve lost seeing regular people on television. I grew up watching the “Roseannes” and all the friends on “Cheers,” and loving those shows, and loving what it felt like to feel like you don’t have to be a superhero or an FBI agent for your life to be worthy. And, I mean, Norman, talk about pushing the envelope, Norman Lear put an abortion on television in —
Carmichael: A two-parter, mind you.
Ferrera: — the ‘70s or something. What’s so awesome about comedy is it’s entertaining but it also really makes an impact, and is able to move the dial. And so, for me, “Superstore” starts out like it’s this light, fun, whatever comedy. And the first season ends with these people going on strike because the pregnant teenager can’t get a day off with her new child. And it’s all funny and you’re laughing through the whole thing, but in the end, there is this gut punch of, “Oh, this is what it feels like to be a real person alive today in this country.”
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