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Envelope Emmy Round Table: Comedy stars on TV’s serious role in humor

When you gather five comedic actors to discuss their work, the conversation naturally turns to, well, pain. And anguish. And desperation.

But thankfully, when the performers are as thoughtful as Laura Dern (who plays Amy, an aggressively well-meaning woman on HBO’s “Enlightened”), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (who as Mitchell is raising a daughter with his partner on ABC’s “Modern Family”), Ed Helms (the under-appreciated Andy on NBC’s “The Office”), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who as Vice President Selina Meyer finds her ambitions thwarted on HBO’s “Veep”) and Nick Offerman (the anti-bureaucracy bureaucrat on NBC’s"Parks and Recreation”), a healthy dose of wit and optimism is thrown into the mix.

Here are edited excerpts of their conversation with Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara last month.

VIDEO: Watch the video version here.

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Mary McNamara: What do you feel that comedy can do now that drama can’t, if anything? With “Enlightened,” that’s one of those shows where it’s dealing with so many serious topics but in a way that is both painful to watch and hilarious to watch. It’s one of those shows that could be considered a drama but it’s just so funny that it’s a comedy. And you were involved in the creation of that.

Laura Dern: I think we lied. [Co-creator] Mike White and I went into HBO and said, How can we get them to do a subversive show about a whistleblower who blows up American corporations, who deals with addictions, rehab, rage? We’ll tell them it’s a comedy. We’ll do it as a half-hour. And they were like, “Oh, that sounds hilarious.” So I think we somehow got away with it. It’s pretty sad and dark.

MM: So you don’t think of “Enlightened” as a comedy?

LD: I do, but I feel like I grew up doing movies that I thought were hysterically funny, like David Lynch movies. My kind of comedy has always been a little odd. So I think it’s funny, but I don’t know that it’s deemed traditional in any way. But I think that’s what all of these shows have in common, is that they’re hilarious in their deep sadness and longing. And we’re all very flawed people, and that’s what’s kind of beautiful about it.

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MM: And so is that something that comedy can get to in a way that drama can’t? That pain …

LD: Very much so. And the world is so absurd right now, I don’t think that we’re allowed to talk about it, ‘cause we’re so off the deep end, unless it’s done in a comedic way. Which is why, you know, perhaps in film as well, there’s more opportunity to do it with irreverence than to do it as a traditional drama, so that’s cool, to me.

MM: Do you feel that too with “Veep”? That’s a political comedy. You’re dealing very much with sort of the insanity of very serious subjects.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Yeah. And I think that’s why we keep it nonpartisan. You’ll never know what party anybody’s in, in the show. You just know that they’re .... You know, I play a character who’s in one party and then there’s the opposition. And it somehow levels the playing field and invites everybody in for a good laugh, I think. And then the area is so funny. You know, I mean just the office of the vice presidency is [laughs], is funny.

Ed Helms: What is it exactly? We don’t really know. But Joe Biden is watching your show like, “What am I supposed to do? These guys have it right. I’m just going to watch this show.”

But just to build on that and a little bit what Laura was saying, I think that there is so much hypocrisy, and especially in the political process and in the media coverage, and in just all around us all the time, and in our own lives and with our own relationships and the demons that we each face as people. And “Veep” is an example, like"The Daily Show"or something, that calls out a very public form of silliness or hypocrisy. But then a lot of these shows that touch on more dramatic personal stories can also just help us laugh at painful realities. And, yeah, like you said, sad things. And I think that that has been part of the trend of comedies for the last few years, is a real sort of digging into trouble areas.

JLD: But isn’t that sort of, too, the nature of comedy? I mean, trouble and conflict is funny.

EH: Yeah, absolutely. And I watch a show like"It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which I love, and you can see in the episode what the writers’ room was doing that day. It’s like: What’s the most offensive thing we haven’t gotten into? Child molestation. Great! Whole episode about that. That’s the gauntlet we’re throwing down. And it’s painful, weird, disconcerting subject matter, but it’s so… All that tension makes it so funny and engaging.

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Nick Offerman: It’s cathartic to admit that we as a society have that among us. And to do it in comedy is much safer than … you know, it’s a much more painful thing to watch a gripping drama about child molestation. You’re going to have a harder time having a good time.

JLD: Having a good laugh?

NO: Yeah.

MM: When you’re, you know, thinking about your role or when you’re actually performing, how do you balance getting the laugh versus the creation of a real person? All of you play people whom we would recognize as real, except for that you’re much funnier than the rest of us, the characters.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson: I do think that there’s something really great to be said about shows that don’t work too hard for laughs, that just let the situations speak for themselves. And I think all the shows that you have represented on this panel certainly do that very, very well. I find comedy scary just because, what you said, you know, you have to make people laugh. Especially like, for example, like doing comedy and theater, like if you’re not hearing that response back, you know you’re failing.

JLD: You can’t fake it.

JTF: You can’t fake it. And I don’t think it’s something you can learn either. I think really good comedians, I think they’re kind of born with that innate quality.

MM: Is it hard to do it without an audience? I mean, some of the shows you’ve been on have had an audience. Is it harder to do without hearing them?

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JLD: Well, that’s a hard thing to give up, that laugh, I will say. I really love getting that laugh. And so, I … whenever we’re done, my eyes dart around to see the crew’s faces. You’re trying to make somebody laugh in the room, aren’t you?

EH: Exactly. You’re never totally devoid of an audience. We’re not, you know, doing this to webcams in our rooms at homes. There is a crew. There are writers on the set. And you can, even if there’s not like peals of laughter, you can tell …

JLD: You sense it.

EH: … the vibe. You can tell if it’s going well. And you have your cast mates too. And that’s probably the biggest payoff, is when cast mates are breaking on camera.

JLD: The challenge for me doing this show, and it’s a fun challenge, is to just make it smaller and smaller and smaller. So it’s trying to make it as real, real, real as possible. And not highlight what you think is the joke. It’s a trick. It’s a tricky thing. It’s fun, though, but it’s different.

MM: A lot of your shows sort of use that mockumentary, when you were saying the realness of it, you know, that mockumentary kind of feel? Yours, it’s not really a mockumentary, but there is that sort of feel that you’re in the corner of the room while it’s happening.

JLD: Seeing something you shouldn’t be seeing, sort of.

MM: And obviously “The Office” brought that to American television. How is that as a performer when the camera is actually part of the procedure?

NO: I find that it definitely makes you spoiled because then you go work on a film and they want you to hit a mark. And you finish a sequence of a scene and they say, “OK. Now we’re going to turn around and do it again from the other direction.” And you say, “What the hell are you talking about? That’s not how it’s done.”

[Laughter]

NO: I find it really comforting that frequently the cameras aren’t even in the room with us. They’re shooting through windows. And so, on one hand it can make you spoiled and lazy, but on the other hand it helps achieve that sense of comfort and reality, because it’s just you and me talking …

EH: There’s something really sort of fun too about shows like ours and “Modern Family,” where the crew exists in the world of the show, so that you have a little of a relationship with the audience.

MM: Right.

EH: And with the lens, which in a way is kind of like everybody is vying for the approval of the audience in a way. So we get this fun little release valve, where if a scene is weird, or if we’re having a weird interaction, we get to kind of appeal to the camera and be like, “You’re on my side, right?” That’s sort of the impetus for those little glances. And I love that. My character on “The Office” doesn’t do that very often. But I love it when it feels right, ‘cause it’s kind of like you just have this …

JLD: Other universe.

EH: Yeah, this like enigmatic third party that you can kind of be like, “Right?”

MM: All of your characters are very singular in their physical comedy and how they hold themselves and the gestures that they have. Is there something about the physical nature that you find in the character? A gesture or a look, or a way of talking that helps you nail the character down?

LD: The thing that I loved — for whatever reason, as painful as this experience of comedy is, and I think probably a lot of you share this — I loved, growing up, the people who made us so uncomfortable in our skin watching them, like Lucy, which we talked about the other day. I mean, she was in so much pain. She wanted the job. She was horribly jealous of every woman Ricky worked with. And it was, you know, the late ‘50s, and nobody talked about it, but she didn’t care. She wanted to be a mother, but she wanted to be a working woman, like she had all of this stuff going on. So she was constantly in drama, reactive, at times vicious. And it was a half-hour comedy in 1958. It’s incredible to me. And she was so extraordinary in her physical comedy. And her physical comedy was being just, you know, overwhelming in everything, throwing her body everywhere to kind of achieve her goal.

And so what I’ve loved before getting to do this, to play this part, is the comedy I’ve been lucky to do, is being just a completely miserable human being and trying to play those scenes as authentically as possible, and no one’s laughing on the set. And it’s seemingly horrific and sad. Everybody is like, “Oh, that was so emotional. God, I felt her pain.” But when you watch it, somehow feeling that person’s pain is so uncomfortable you have to laugh because it’s just so awkward. And the physical aspect of it, to me, especially with Amy, is just that you throw yourself into the misery and the anxiety and the neurosis of the person with every part of you. And somehow … I don’t know why that becomes funny, perhaps because many of us relate to those feelings.

MM: When you watch it, all of the things that you said are absolutely true, but there is an air of optimism to the show. There is an air of hope to the show, and it’s that tension between her thinking she’s really going to figure it out and being a complete and utter mess that creates that comedy. I think on all of your shows, this overall sense of optimism … especially “Parks and Recreation” is a very optimistic show. But within that there is all this weird craziness. Is that just the nature of comedy, or is that something about where we are now that we need that hope?

EH: We’re in a time, it seems, where a character, like my character, Andy, is relentlessly optimistic and also just so angry [laughs] and sort of troubled. And part of why I love playing Andy is that optimism. And I love movies that share that, movies or TV shows that sort of share that feeling that, “God, we’re a bunch of idiots, but there’s hope.” You know? And there is like intrinsic goodness in some of these characters. I think Will Ferrell does that beautifully, these dumb, kind of bumbling characters that mean well. When you mix into the soup all that sadness and pathos and there’s heartbreak in these shows, there really is some heavy stuff. There’s loss. There’s death. There’s, you know, social anxiety going on. But if you just sort of keep this little undercurrent of hope and optimism, that is what audiences kind of grab on to, and then you can actually enjoy a lot of the pain and still chuckle about it.

LD: I also love, and I find with your character and I think this character, Amy, too, that they all seem like people who believe that their goodwill and their efforts are about to change things — tomorrow. It may not be happening today. I love having watched Andy over the last few years, like no matter what heartbreak comes your way, you know tomorrow you’re going to find love. Like I see your certainty that perhaps these other people are misguided about it and they’ve made wrong choices. And Amy is about to change the world. Maybe it’s the other people who are crazy.

JLD: It’s sort of like Charlie Brown and the football, isn’t it really? This time it will be different.

NO: Hope springs eternal. I think on our show we also — and this appeals to my personal philosophy — we feel that in this sort of Information Age, where the more facile you are with devices and the social networking, the cooler you are, and it leads to a very cynical social point of view, where people are too cool to take chances or be vulnerable.... And so, I think, Mike Schur, our creator, definitely likes to keep a sense of optimism and cheer in this time when everybody is sort of making fun of everything and sort of putting themselves above optimism. It allows you to still make jackasses of ourselves but with a sense of hope and love. So we all are lucky enough to end up making comedy that also can make you cry sometimes because it’s touching. Not me personally.

[Laughter]

MM: But your character has gone from being like this very, you know, kind of intimidating guy and now you’re like the sweetheart of the show.

NO: Oh, shut up.

[Laughter]

MM: You are. It’s like whenever there has to be a moment of illumination, we all turn and say, “Where is Ron?”

NO: No.

MM: “Is he going to come set whoever this … person … set him straight?” When you started, you were sort of the downer, you know. Here’s Amy Poehler bubbling away, and here’s Ron Swanson keeping everybody down.

NO: I think when any show is created you start with, “This person will be the protagonist; this person will throw rocks at the protagonist.” And eventually, as you flesh the characters out, you find out that the person throwing the rocks is also a person and has feelings. And I think we found that it was really enjoyable to, you know, to pit Ron’s sort of working philosophy, his hatred of government, against his strong personal loyalty to his friends. They get a lot of mileage out of that he wants to shut down the program, but he wants to support the people that are creating the program because he admires them. But I would appreciate it if you would continue to consider me a downer …

MM: I’ll try to do that. Is it important for you guys to love your characters? How do you connect?

JTF: I do think it’s very important to care about who you play. I mean, with my character, he’s very much a part of me. I’m a lot like Mitchell in many ways. I think I have a little bit more of a sense of humor than he does. He’s way smarter than I am. I think that there is a lot of truth within that character.

EH: I really envy Andy in a lot of ways, because he’s so passionate and expressive, and he does wear his heart on his sleeve, and he makes bold sort of statements of love. He puts himself out there. And I am a much more reserved kind of protected person. And even the anger that Andy struggles with and sometimes bursts out of, I am a little bit more repressive with some of my own anxieties, and so forth. So I sort of love that. He’s cathartic for me in certain ways. I think he in some ways exists in a more honest way than I do in the real world.

JLD: [Selina] is highly ambitious and, given this sort of so-called powerful position, finding herself being quite powerless. I think we can probably all relate to this to a certain extent. I certainly can. The idea of being ambitious. And there are a lot of parallels to being in show business and being in politics — a lot. And you can certainly draw down from that area. And the other thing is, is that ambition is also a slippery slope and it can get in your way. And it does for her. And I understand why. You know, I get it. But that’s really fun to play too.

EH: And desperation.

JLD: Desperation …

 

EH: That’s like the fuel of this town but also D.C. in so many ways. I don’t think comedy people, or comedic actors, or actors in general, are necessarily more or less anxious, depressed, psychotic, whatever you want to call it, or neurotic, than the general public. But I do think that we sort of like dealing with it and thinking about it and…

JLD: Tapping it?

EH: … and, yeah, and sort of fighting with it a little bit.

JTF: I will say the greatest roles that I’ve enjoyed playing have always been parts that I’m scared of. You know, I do think that coming at something … I just said “the greatest roles I’ve ever played.” Did everyone hear that?

[Laughter]

MM: When you did Lear?

JLD: You’re falling apart, man.

JTF: I’m falling apart. No one’s recording this, right?

JLD: No, no, no, no. This is just us.

NO: Would you include your role on your current program?

JTF: I was very nervous to play that at first, yes, absolutely. I was terrified.

MM: Why?

JTF: Gay? No …

MM: Where will I find it?

JTF: No, I mean, I actually was scared to play Mitchell just because I felt that there was a responsibility behind it. I thought, we’re portraying these two men who are raising a baby, and it’s going to be on network television. Please, God, let me do this with as much care and sensitivity as I possibly can. You know, because there’s only so far the … the writing is obviously the base of what we’re doing. But, you know, you have to bring a whole other level of sensitivity to it. So I was actually very nervous. And, you know, now I’ve relaxed a little bit … a little bit. But I do think that, not coming from a place of fear but being certainly scared of certain roles is always a good sign to me that it’s going to be something that’s going to be validating and rewarding.

MM: So you try to harness it.

EH: Fear is a good indicator that maybe you should explore that thing.

elena.howe@latimes.com


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