It’s no surprise that when you get seven funny people together you’re going to have some laughs. But when that septet comprises some of the freshest faces in comedy mixed with some of the legends of the form, you also get thoughtful insight on everything from improvising on set to the best way to fake cry.
The Envelope invited Ted Danson of “The Good Place,” William H. Macy of “Shameless,” Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley,” Issa Rae of HBO’s “Insecure,” Tracee Ellis Ross of black-ish,” Timothy Simons of “Veep” and Lily Tomlin of “Grace & Frankie” into our offices to talk vibrators, “Shark Tank” and finding the dramatic balance in comedy.
First, let’s talk about chemistry because I think you all are blessed by the casting gods with your TV families, your coworkers, your friends, your afterlife patrons. You all have these incredible casts that you work with and chemistry is so important. Lily, I’m imagining that with Jane Fonda you had a shared vocabulary already from working together and being friends in real life, did you sort of fall back into a similar chemistry or did you start a new one for this show?
Tomlin: Oh, I think it had to be new because we were doing new characters, and the show was a totally new idea, and we had the guys, Sam [Waterston] and Martin [Sheen], with us, and it just seemed sort of blessed from the beginning, you know?
I think you know when it isn’t there, right? Issa and Molly’s relationship, was that there right away?
Rae: I think so, yeah. Obviously, we auditioned several Mollys and did chemistry reads with different women, and Yvonne [Orji] and I just had — she’s one of those people where you meet her and you want to be her friend immediately, so that helped. People usually think I’m trash when they meet me, so she just really helped to elevate me.
Danson: Where is she? Is she around now, by any chance?
Rae: No, she’s not paying me for this at all.
Are you ever surprised when you were having an off day, that the show actually ends up just killing? It’s much funnier than it felt in the moment that you were doing it?
Middleditch: You lost me at have you ever doubted …? And then I was like, no, I don’t, no.
Ross: A bad day, that’s not your thing either.
Middleditch: Yeah, no, I don’t know what that is.
Macy: It’s a lesson to learn though when you read a script and you think, this is not funny, this is not going to work, and then you see it and you couldn’t have been more wrong — it does work.
Middleditch: And you also have the times where you read the script and you’re like, ‘This is so hilarious,’ and then after you’re like, ‘What a pile of ...’
And then you wonder — did I make it the pile of ...?
Middleditch: Yeah, am I the critical component? Damn.
Danson: I think chemistry is really good writing and two adequate actors. Really, it’s the writing. I mean, I do think you can have wonderful actors and the material sucks, you’re not going to talk about their chemistry, most likely.
You talk about the writing, you’re all on single-cam shows, is there room for improvisation?
Middleditch: With a single-cam, you can try alts and then slide in whatever you like in the edit. So I would say there’s a lot more opportunity in single-cams.
Danson: Sure, you’re on HBO.
Tomlin: I don’t feel like there’s that much improv room for us on our show because our shows are tightly scripted. Within a certain expression, you might be able to improvise, and especially my character, because frequently I’m going to sing to somebody or I’m going to try and make it, you know, wacky. So I can improvise those things, but we don’t try to do too much.
Ross: Anthony [Anderson] and I do a lot, mostly in the scenes with us. With the kids, we don’t. Things can derail very quickly if you do that. But yeah, Anthony and I do a lot and with new directors we ask them to not say, “Cut,” because that’s when Anthony and I kind of start to trail off. And that’s some of our best stuff, in the pilot especially, that was how a lot of the juice of our relationship kind of got established.
Simons: I think it also depends on how far behind production is. “That was a really funny joke. You cost us $20,000.”
In the first season, I remember that Armando Iannucci, when he was still showrunning, we would have 12- and 15-page scenes, and we would do it, and we would get all of it, and then he would say, “Just hit the major beats. We’re going to do the entire scene. Don’t use the words. Just hit the major beats.” And it really was an amazing experience to go in — and we weren’t looking for funny jokes. We were just trying to look for something that made the scene a little bit more natural, just, like, a little moment here or there that would add that sort of level of naturalism to it. You were essentially improvising, like, a 15-minute play.
Ross: Now that sounds exciting.
Tomlin: Yeah, that sounds good.
Simons: Honestly, it really was an amazing experience.
Macy: We don’t improvise and it’s sort of verboten to do that. It’s a real writers-heavy thing. I don’t know, a lot of you have written, but I’m always amazed — it’s happened to me a couple of times — where I’ve written this script and I’m in the scene and some actor or actress will just take off. And I want to say, “You are aware I wrote this, right? Because I’m aware you think you’re funnier than me. And everyone’s aware that you’re not.” I didn’t say it, but I wish I’d said it just like that.
One of the reasons that I love your shows is that they are uproariously funny, but can have heartbreaking, dramatic moments as well. How important is that to you as actors to be able to have that range of stuff to play, even on a comedy?
Macy: I think it’s an old Mike Nichols rule, if you want to make people cry, get them laughing first. If you want to make them laugh, do it in a sad scene.
Tomlin: It’s very important, for the whole show. [In one scene], Martin had to come out to his mother, his aging, elderly mother and she died shortly afterward and never did forgive him or embrace him in any way. So many moments like that, they just come up in life. And if you’re really exploring that part of the continuum of time, a lot of that comes up.
Ross: The dramatic stuff, that’s one of the places that the writing just really comes in, finding that beautiful balance of how to tell the real story and the funny at the same time. I feel like, especially on “black-ish,” the way they write that special little tone, you know, and as an actor you get to lean on that.
Tomlin: It makes me think, everyone talking about the writers, is that somewhere in the younger generation, more writers developed because we couldn’t possibly have enough writers to furnish all these shows that are on the air. There are so many more networks and purveyors of product that these kids have just been more expanded in some way. It’s like they’re from outer space.
Ross: Issa came from outer space.
Rae: The Internet and outer space are kind of the same thing.
You are part of a wave of people that decided “I want to do this” and you went out and you did it, and you got a show on HBO, you really did it.
Rae: I made three Internet shows in the process, but it was just more about not seeing the good television shows that I grew up with. I wanted to see more “Girlfriends” and I wanted to see more “Martins” and “Living Singles” and it felt like that just wasn’t the case anymore. I feel like the playing field has been leveled just in terms of being able to create something, and put it out there, and actually have people see it and like it, and spread the word about it. And that’s what kind of led to the show with HBO. But I think that’s where people are coming from … having been influenced by a lot of the television culture and feeling like there is something that they’re not seeing that they want to contribute to the space. So many agents and managers won’t even represent writers if they don’t have something online now, where before you had to have a spec script or, you know, an original pilot, now it’s like, “Where can I see your work online before I decide to represent you?”
Middleditch: As Lily said, there’s a lot of avenues for content now. And what that garners is, yes, a lot of saturation where you’re like, “I have no idea what show to watch,” but also there’s just room for more risk. You’re seeing a lot more exploration and people who are either off-kilter or from left field are now being considered both in front of and behind the camera. I don’t think I would have had a career 30 years ago, you know? It’s like, [motions to himself] not this, not this.
I don’t think “Grace and Frankie” would exist. It really gives lie to the idea that we are not interested in stories about people in the later years of their life. Did that surprise you that there was so much interest in it?
Tomlin: From the first year, we heard from so many people, young people, old people, just across the board people were responding to the show. You know, daughters would take their mothers to the show and mothers would bring their daughters to the show and stuff like that. And a lot of men like the show.
So will there ever be a real-world application for that vibrator and this lube invented on the show? I feel like this is a marketing opportunity you guys need to take.
Tomlin: If those vibrators really worked, Jane and I could have made a fortune. We could’ve sold them so easily.
And Ted, your show is so —
Danson: No vibrators. Oh, actually we do. Sorry.
There is one, she goes home and falls asleep on her vibrator.
Simons: Interesting segue, Ted actually has a branded vibrator. Oh, it’s still in test market? Sorry.
Danson: It didn’t work.
Middleditch: A lot of lawsuits.
Macy: That can happen to anyone, man.
Danson: It was from memory and I just blew it.
Middleditch: But it was a good “Shark Tank” episode when you got funded.
Tomlin: I would like to go on “Shark Tank.”
What would you sell?
Tomlin: I would have sold probably anything that I thought would sell. I would talk them into it. That’s my fantasy.
Simons: You’d be so intimidating there’s no way that they would say no. They’re like, “I’m not going to say no to Lily Tomlin.”
Tomlin: Oh, you’re hallucinating.
So, there’s something like 465 just-scripted shows on television. What are you guys watching and how do you decide to watch it?
Rae: I’m watching a lot of things. I watch so much because I can classify it as, like, research. But I find it interesting because nobody’s like, “Oh, there are too many books,” you know? I think there’s a place for everything. Literally so many people can find a show that speaks to them and I find something amazing in that. But I tend to watch what people tell me to watch, what I see conversations are happening about and I’m just excited to be immersed in their world. It’s so much harder for me to sit down and watch an entire film, but I will watch 12 hours of a TV show in one sitting.
That is a thing that I’ve heard from a lot of people, that for some reason they can’t commit to a movie, but they’ll binge all of “The Good Place” in one sitting.
Danson: It’s so strange that you can get OK ratings in the overnights, but then when you factor in cellphones and everything else, all of a sudden you’re this hit because a month later enough people have cobbled together watching your show.
Tomlin: Remember when there would be like three or four shows, maybe, max, that you wanted to be on? I mean, you know, like maybe even as recently as “The West Wing” or something. When “West Wing” came on, I said, “How come I’m not on this show?” I could not believe it.
And then you were.
Tomlin: Well, I lobbied to get on it. But I’m just saying there are so many shows that you’d like to be on and the range is just huge. I’d like to be on everything, just have one crack at every show.
Simons: You’re about to get a lot of emails.
Ross: With all of these shows, one of the things that has changed and one of the reasons I watch television so much is women’s stories are being told. Nuanced characters, women that are driving the stories, and it’s so different than it was and it’s exciting and it’s fun. I keep seeing different kinds of women on TV.
Danson: And movies helped television because the small, quiet movie, they still get made, but not as much as they used to, and now the writers and the actors that used to have that world open to them now have amazing television, whether it’s cable or a miniseries or limited runs. All of a sudden you have every actor, director, writer available to you, anybody will play that game, you know?
Rae: So many movies are built on specific archetypes, and then I think the advantage of having 465 shows or whatever is there’s so many different types of characters and so many different types of terrible people that you can say, “Oh, I find myself in this particular person,” or, “I’m compelled by this particular story, that I have no idea where it’s going to go.”
With you all playing some of those unique characters, how do you feel when the camera goes in for an extreme close-up?
Simons: Whenever they tell me they’re going to do that, you’re just like, “OK, I’ll act really natural,” and then it’s like, (stiffly) “Hello, sir, friend.” It’s terrible. I would rather they just not tell me. I’m a bad actor, I think is what I’m saying.
Danson: No, no, no. When you’re older you realize you just need to pose. It has nothing to do with acting. It’s just angle the head and pose and hold it just long enough —
Macy: And know when to close your eyes.
Danson: Michael Caine did a whole thing about looking people in the eye. If you look around, you lose your power. If you look them in the eye …
Simons: One of the best acting tips that I ever got was, look at the camera side-eye and only look at that one, that way your eyes don’t go like [all around]. And I was like, “Oh, my God, this person’s a genius.”
Macy: Geoffrey Rush says, “Crying on camera, it’s easy, you just say B-B-B-G-G-G,” and I said, “What?” and he said, “You just go [imitates crying] B-B-G-G.”
Ross: That’s fantastic!
Danson: All right, here’s the game. Everybody on each one of our shows has to do that at least once.