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How Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham's real-life friendship inspired 'Playing House'

How Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham's real-life friendship inspired 'Playing House'
Real-life best friends Lennon Parham, left, and Jessica St. Clair play best friends on USA Network's "Playing House." (Robin Von Swank / USA Network)

Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair have made a career out of being best friends -- onscreen and off.

The comedic duo first brought (a thinly-veiled version of) their friendship to television with the short-lived NBC sitcom "Best Friends Forever," about a woman (St. Clair) who gets dumped by her husband and moves in with her best friend (Parham).

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The USA Network sitcom "Playing House," now in its second season, switches up the formula ever so slightly: This time, Emma (St. Clair) returns to her hometown to live with her best friend (Parham), who is both pregnant and going through a divorce.

As with so many comedies these days, "Playing House" has not seen positive critical reception translate into ratings, but USA is trying a experiment in which new episodes are available on demand a week ahead of their broadcast premiere in the hopes of maximizing viewership.

The Los Angeles Times recently caught up with the funny ladies to talk about their partnership, their creative process and, of course, their love for the Property Brothers.

You both came up at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, and the show is scripted but seems to have that loose but specific style that you get from improvisation. What's your creative process like? 

St. Clair: To be honest with you, we have a serious anxiety about staring at a blank screen. We were like, how can we best capture our voice? Because we're real-life best friends and real-life best friends have a language that is all their own. And so the only way we could think of doing that is to break the story in the writers' room to make sure it's actually funny. So then we go into our office with whoever's writing the script and we act out all the scenes and play all the parts.

Parham: We record it on my Macbook and then that gets transcribed and then that sort of becomes raw source material for the writers so they can draw on the weird way we said things. Improvising really gets you out of your own way because you don't have time to judge yourself. As you're performing, you're just really connected and in the moment, so, hopefully, we find interesting ways to get into things.

St. Clair: Then we improvise another level from there. We write all our parts with people in mind. When they come on set, we know that we have a funny script that is based on improv already, but then we put another layer on it where people can say whatever they want. For a lot of the people we write roles for, we've been playing that dynamic on stage since we were literally 22 years old. Rob Riggle [who guest stars this season as a woodworking lothario] is a good example. He's been insulting us, both physically and emotionally, since we were 22. ... The set is really fun. The crew is laughing because everything's happening in the moment.

Tell me about the fantasy sequence starring the Property Brothers. What inspired that? Are you big HGTV fans?

Parham: Humongous. I'm obsessed. When they were on set, I was like, "So what's up with that guy from 'Brother vs. Brother,' now he's working as a contractor with Hilary on 'Love It or List It?'" They were like, "Whoa. You really do watch the show." I was like, "Yeah, what do you think you're doing here? This is literally a dream come true."

The core of the idea came because there is a time after you have a baby where you have that first spark of oh, right, oh, I'm also still a sexual woman, and you tiptoe back into that because it's a little scary to get back into that because you've felt like just a milk machine and you've disconnected yourself from that for biological reasons, as well as emotional. So there are little clues that your body starts to give you and one of them is you could start to have these sexual dreams. It just made sense to us that that dream would be about the Property Brothers. We wrote to them to see if they would be interested in coming into our dream state.

St. Clair: We tweeted at them. That felt weird, casting somebody by tweeting at them. Hey, want to come have sex with your brother with Lennon? They were like, yeah sure, that sounds great.

Parham: They were 100% down for it. They were into making it as funny as possible and as real as possible. They had on the tightest white jeans I have ever seen.

St. Clair: They're standing there at craft service, munching on nuts. We had specified that we wanted them in white jeans two sizes too small. We were like, this is the best moment of our lives. When they started to do the makeout, which looked like a Stevie Nicks video, I was like it needs to be a little more hot and heavy. Then I hear over the microphone, I hear Drew say to Lennon, "Do you mind if I lick your neck?" We hit comedy gold!

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Parham: They were very gentlemanly and also going for the gold, which for us is what this season is about.

The show is so much about your friendship. How do you separate the show from real life? 

St. Clair: We met at the UCB when we were 23. We became comedians together. We really grew up together in this world -- that's our first connection. Then on top of that, we were definitely lovers in another generation, in another life. We feel like we've known each other forever. Because the work always came first -- if it's funny we do it -- we rarely ever have issues like that.

Parham: We reestablish the boundaries once in a while. ... I think whatever we explore on the show is always connected to some real thing that either the two of us have gone through or someone else in the writers room has gone through. We make sure that we don't do anything that would feel false to the characters.

St. Clair: The way that UCB taught us to improvise, you always start from an inspiration from your life, something that's happened to you or a friend. And then you put a comic game onto it. It always starts from a place of reality, of truth.

Is there any truth to [their characters' redneck alter-egos], Bosephus and Jandana?

St. Clair: I'll tell you what. Bosephus is Lennon's alter-ego, and she is so rude to me when she is in that outfit. No joke, the only fights we have are when she's in that outfit. She's so dismissive of me. 

Parham: It's nice to have the power shift. Usually Jess is the one doing the most of the talking. She's a step ahead of me. So every once in a while, it's nice to have that dynamic shift and make her feel a little uncomfortable.

St. Clair: Bosephus, you can't control him. He's all id.

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It seems like there are a lot of shows right now that portray female friendships in a positive way -- as opposed to catfights and backstabbing. 

St. Clair: When we grew up, the reruns that were on before dinner, which was when we would cram in as much TV as we could within an hour and a half, were like "Laverne & Shirley," Lucy and Ethel, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." They had a humongous impact on us. They were real friendships. Even though Laverne and Shirley were always like submitting themselves for medical testing and falling asleep on a date or whatever, they always had each others' back. And then there was this shift, you had shows like "Ally McBeal," where it's one woman's solitary journey -- I love that show, but it went away from the best friend model. I feel like it's returned and I'm like so delighted.

"Broad City," someone said, feels like they're our little sisters. I feel like Maggie and Emma would visit them in the city and be like, guys, you have to smoke less pot and why are there so many dildos spread around this apartment? But at the end of the day, those girls totally have each other's back, which is how real girls are.

Parham: To be honest, I don't think we set out to do anything except for tell a story that we wanted to tell. But it does feel like this is the time for it, and maybe the way was paved for us, and we're so thankful for that.

Twitter: @MeredithBlake

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