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'Mom' actors must balance comic moments with serious issues

'Mom' actors must balance comic moments with serious issues
Allison Janney and Anna Faris must balance serious issues with comedy on "Mom." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The only show with a larger female ensemble than CBS' poignant and hilarious "Mom" is Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black." And once "Mom" stars Allison Janney and Anna Faris realized that, an idea was born: A crossover episode!

Or perhaps a multiple crossover episode. Imagine the actresses' mother/daughter characters Bonnie and Christy on a road trip with someone from "Game of Thrones," suggests Janney. Surely, trouble would follow and they'd get arrested, winding up in Litchfield prison with the "Orange" ensemble. Hilarity would ensue.

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No one loves their show more deeply and truly than Janney and Faris, who stopped by The Envelope recently for a chat about their series and its third season, which took their characters deeper into their shared (and occasionally competitive) sobriety.

This season has been very serious in a lot of ways — your relationship as mother and daughter has matured, and just as I'm thinking, wow, they're really getting along, then they're back to their old hijinks.

Janney: Yeah, I think we will always continue to go away and toward each other -- as you do with your mom. There are times when we're both working together against a common foe, and then butting heads with each other. And it's just, conflict is funny.

Faris: I like to think that the reason why the conflict works well is because Allison and I are dear, close friends, and so we — hopefully the audience feels that there's a lot of love there. But like any complicated relationship, there's a lot of strain.

Did you guys know each other before you started the show?

Faris: No, but we had a couple mutual friends that told us that we would really like each other.

Janney: Yeah.

Faris: Lance Bass was one.

Janney: Lance Bass, yeah. The first time I saw her was in [series creator] Chuck Lorre's office. I was going to read with her for the part of Bonnie, and I looked out of his window, and I saw her pull up in her little Mini Cooper, and she was furiously going through the script and that's when I knew I would love her because she was, like, panicking.

Faris: You're like, "Ill-prepared. Early, but ill-prepared."

How has that maturing been in terms of playing the comedy? How do you balance that?

Janney: I think that the writers do that beautifully and when things happen to Bonnie and Christy, things that aren't funny, things that happen to people who are in real life in recovery, like with Emily... Emily's character overdoses, and that's not something that just happens and we let it happen. We have the seriousness and the emotion of something like that impact our characters, and then we have the lighter moments too. The writers do a brilliant job of weaving through that, and we kind of ride that wave.

Faris: Sometimes it does feel like a puzzle though. On Monday, we start to work on the script and figure out our blocking — and then the dialogue will change throughout the week. And it really does feel like, especially with the delicacy of this show, it does sometimes feel like how do make sure we respect these really important issues and still be a comedic show? How do we honor the people who face these daily struggles, while at the same time being a funny show?

Allison Janney and Anna Faris, stars of CBS' "Mom," discuss their favorite moments and crossovers with other TV series.

I can't think of another — I mean, "All in the Family" or "Maude" — we're going back to that era where you're dealing with these very serious, kind of …

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Janney: Dealing with issues and topics that you wouldn't think would be a traditional multi-cam comedy. It has been done before, but we're coming back to that. And I think it's just the issue of recovery and addiction is something that everyone — everybody knows somebody who is in recovery, everybody. And it's an important topic to talk about in our in society today. And it's important what "Mom" does is show that it's not the end of the world to be in recovery. It's the beginning of something amazing and lots of laughter and hope and fun.

Faris: I feel really proud that we are a cast of women that are unbelievably supportive toward each other — on camera and off camera. The typical Hollywood story is a lot of women working together, there's maybe a lot of cattiness. But I feel really proud that Allison and, hopefully, I, and the rest of our team have been able to create a really strong female family which just feels rare. Because when do six, seven women get to work together? I guess in prison with "Orange Is the New Black."

You could do a crossover —

Janney:  I guess in prison.

Or you could have one of the characters from "Orange" come to your meeting.

Janney: That's the way television's going to go. You're going to be able to pick your favorite characters from — like, I want to see somebody from "Game of Thrones" and Christy and Bonnie go on a road trip to — and then get arrested and end up in "Orange Is the New Black."

I talked to Chuck Lorre a little bit about the benefit of having the live audience, it's like a live theater performance, and that the audience is very much a participant in the room. Do you feel that? Have you had instances where you've known a joke's not landing or where your performance has been kind of … modified?

Faris: Bad?

Janney: Oh my God, yes. It's modified every time, every time we have a run-through — on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, for the writers, and things change every single time. And when we're doing the live performances, if something doesn't get a laugh, all the writers are back around the monitors and they're all trying to think of what else to make us say that will be funny. And that's when we sit there and go, "Oh, please let it be Anna," I'm like, "Please let it be Anna," and she's like, "Please let it be Allison."

So the death that you talked about earlier, did you know that was coming? You guys have dealt with serious topics, but this was a young woman and then she overdoses. Did you guys know that that's where that story line was heading when she was introduced?

Faris: I think we were told a couple weeks before. And that's strategic and very wise because we don't normally get told until Friday evening after we've done the show, then we get handed the script for next week, which is a process that I'm still adjusting to. It's crazy to not know what's going on. But I also think that it really is important to not know — because that's, as Chuck explained it to me, he's like, "This is how life works. You really don't know what's going to happen."

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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