June 06--Comedy is hard, in large part because it's supposed to look easy. Carefully crafted sentences must be delivered with both precision timing and a sense of spontaneity; a double-take that looks rehearsed is just embarrassing. The performers who joined The Envelope's comedy panel this year represent the ever-widening range of the genre -- from the indestructible "Two and a Half Men" to the darkly R-rated "House of Lies" -- but all are masters of comedic effortlessness.
When many were mourning the death of the sitcom, Jon Cryer, and his character Alan Harper, helped keep CBS' "Two and a Half Men" in the top spot even while former costar Charlie Sheen imploded and threatened to take the show with him (mercifully, he didn't.) Matt LeBlanc, who rose to fame in "Friends," which generated audiences so large the numbers now seem mythic, has, for two seasons going on three, played a version of himself on "Episodes," Showtime's delightful comedy about...making a television comedy. Mindy Kaling, formerly on "The Office," struck out on her own this year, both writing and starring in "The Mindy Project" (Fox), which dares to hope the rom-com is not dead. Jake Johnson is one of three men who have helped turn "New Girl" from a star vehicle for Zooey Deschanel into a strong and hilarious ensemble comedy; as Nick, he also may wind up eventually getting the Girl. And Oscar nominee and Iron Man compatriot Don Cheadle recently migrated to the small screen as the mendacious and sexy management consultant Marty Kaan on Showtime's "House of Lies;" last year, he won a Golden Globe for his performance.
Of course, whenever you put a bunch of comedians together, there's always a risk -- things could turn into a smart-mouth smack-down or they could just sit there, staring at each other, daring someone to expect them to be funny. Fortunately, these five were funny and generous, insightful and just plain smart about topics ranging from the importance of Twitter to the embarrassment of shower scenes.
Here is the transcript of that May 1 conversation with L.A. Times television critic Mary McNamara; it has been edited for length:
It is very hard for a comedy, even harder than a drama, to survive. What do people come to get from your particular shows?
Don Cheadle: I know why I enjoy it, and I know what I get out of the show. It's the kind of thing that I haven't seen before on TV and explores a world that I knew nothing about -- management consulting. And I've since met a lot of them who say, "Your show is nothing like [what we do]" ... [Laughter.]
I certainly hope not. Why did you choose to go comedy and television?
Cheadle: I never had a demarcation line between the things that I would and wouldn't do. I just responded to the script; I thought it was really funny; I couldn't anticipate where it was going. The network was really kind to me and allowed my production company to come on and be a part of it. So it was a no brainer, really.
Jake Johnson: Our show works really because of Liz Meriwether. She's our writer and creator and she's got a very clear voice with everything. And having Zooey start it off, Fox really launched it on her shoulders. They put those "adorkable" photos everywhere. They were everywhere.
That was a mixed blessing, "adorkable".
Johnson: You know, it was. For all the downside you could say about "adorkable" people knew it. It's like people tuned in to watch and to see what the hell "adorkable" was.
Jon Cryer: And she's it.
The show kind of shifted, became more of an ensemble. Was that the plan or did it just happen?
Johnson: You know, signing up to do a show called "New Girl" you're hoping it's an ensemble. [Laughter.] Honestly the writing changed pretty early. Max Greenfield, who plays Schmidt, really kind of blew it out, so we all kind of knew like, "well, everyone's gonna get a shot on this."
Mindy Kaling: Well, I think if you watch the show, you're probably someone who--I mean I love romantic comedies...
Really? You should discuss that more on your show. [Laughter.] Because that's a really good motif.
Kaling: Almost ad nauseam, I would even say now that the season's over. But so many romantic comedies are just so bad. And so I thought it would be great if it was just funny, you know? I liked that in "The Office" there was like a central love story but it was a comedy show. I think that's why people like ["Mindy"], and the cast is awesome. Like ["Mindy" costar] Chris Messina I think is not someone who people would've thought necessarily would be really funny. I feel like I turn on the TV and I see him getting tortured in Syria. [Laughter.] And I was like, "No, this guy, this guy's hilarious." We've gotten really fun guest stars. But, you know, this is a first-year show and we are not a hit show, we're like wannabe, so I'm still learning.
Cryer: Are you running the show? I mean you're running the show?
Kaling: I co-run...
Cryer: And you write.
Kaling: And so it is a lot to try to not let one thing suffer. I'm still learning.
Matt, what about "Episodes"? Of course, we all want to know how close it is to the truth about being on a TV show...
Matt LeBlanc: I think that's part of the appeal. You know, the entertainment industry is just that, it's entertainment. It takes people's mind off their problems. So a look behind the curtain, is always interesting. And we've had a lot of fun making fun of people that we've all met and people that we know in the business and ramping up certain personalities. It's been a real treat. And purely fiction, not based on me at all.
What's it like to play a version of yourself for three seasons?
LeBlanc: Well, first of all, our seasons are pretty short. I remember the days of doing 24 episodes a year [with "Friends"]. We do nine. It's a lot different. We start again next week, so I'm like, "Oh, wow, I've got to get off the couch and go back to work -- OK, for a week."
I think maybe you could get him to guest star, Mindy.
LeBlanc: I've got lots of free time.
Kaling: One week in a single camera network show, it would be like "I've done that, not interested."
LeBlanc: But it's fun. I go way back with David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik; they're phenomenal writers. And they write all the episodes in advance, all nine of them -- not 10. [Laughs.] So I get to see the whole season in advance before we start, which is kind of a luxury.
Kaling: So you have all nine episodes, like a movie and then you shoot all the scenes in the locations?
LeBlanc: Yeah, so shoot out my house, shoot out the network offices, shoot out the Puck's stage and...
Cheadle: Across nine episodes?
LeBlanc: Yeah, in one day you could be, "OK, we're gonna start with the cliff hanger. And then we go back to the first episode and then we got one scene in [episode] five and then two in seven and then back to three. Got it?" "I guess." [Laughter.]
Is that easier for you as an actor to know the whole arc?
LeBlanc: Yeah. I can craft what I'm doing a little better. I really miss the half hour multi-cam in front of an audience format, though.
Kaling: Because of the feedback, the instant feedback from an audience?
LeBlanc: It's great. If a joke doesn't play, chances are they're gonna rewrite it for a second pass. You can just see all these people in the shadows just kind of come together [to rewrite].
Cryer: And then you hear "ha, ha, ha, ha, ha." And then you go, "OK, they got one. We're OK."
So let's talk about "Two and a Half Men." Through thick and thin they just keep coming back.
Cryer: I mean, we've all been there. We've all been a chiropractor with a womanizing brother who dies in Paris, getting run over by a train and then a billionaire tries to kill himself on the beach. I mean, who hasn't that happened to?
I think that's the appeal is just everything is so relatable. The show is really bawdy and funny and spares no opportunity to humiliate me. And it's worked. Chuck Lorre creates characters that he cares about, and then he doesn't let the situations get too far beyond them. Multi-camera is a great system to work in because you've got that amazing rapport with the audience. But we're always jealous of the single camera shows who get to go anywhere, you know, and get to...
LeBlanc: Scene in a car, actually driving.
Cryer: Driving, yes. Not a green screen with no wind. Inexplicably no wind. We open the window, there's no wind.
LeBlanc: Or the rain falls right down the window as you're driving.
Cryer: And there's no rear-view mirror.
Cheadle: Why do you need to see behind you?
Cryer: Who needs it, who needs a rear-view mirror?
Have there been days where you're just like, I can't do this anymore?
Cryer: No, it does feel new still. I just did an episode where I have to wrestle myself out of wearing full body Spanx. [Laughter.] And I have to say, I'm surprised it took them 10 seasons to get me there.
Kaling: Isn't that the great thing about being in a comedy show, you'll just open up a script and see "I can't put a suitcase in the overhead bin." And you're like, yes, that is my afternoon.
Was this your first Spanx encounter?
Cryer: This is my first Spanx encounter. I know it's hard to believe. But it was. Of course the women in the audience were like ha, ha... you know. I was trying to get it off and one of the costume people said, "You just have to break the suction." [Laughter.] Oh, OK, that's the secret to getting them off.
Cheadle: Powder up.
Cryer: In the end I could not do it. I had to be cut out of them.
It seems like physical comedy went away for a while and now it's back.
Kaling: Did it go away?
It seemed like it was very smart talking -- on "Seinfeld" there wasn't a lot of physical comedy except for...
Johnson: Kramer walking in the door.
Kaling: On "The Office," I thought the writing was very funny, witty. But nothing is funnier than when Meredith gets hit by Michael Scott. He's just driving and he hits her and she rolls off out of frame. Falling out of frame to me is the funniest thing anybody can do. [Laughter.] If we all just fell down right now out of our chairs it would work.
Cheadle: You dancing to "Staying Alive" though was pretty funny too.
Kaling: That's very kind of you. It was supposed to be sexy, it wasn't supposed to be funny. [Laughter.]
Even on "House of Lies," you ended the season on the floor covered in cake. That's one of those shows where there's a blurring of drama and comedy; some comedies have gotten really dark.
Cheadle: Audiences are really sophisticated now and maybe all humans have just admitted that we can be ridiculously hilarious and morbidly serious. It is challenging sometimes when you read the script and you go, "Are [viewers] going to stay with us? And tonally are we going too far away from where we started?
LeBlanc: In television, because you have a much longer relationship as a show with the audience than a film does, you have room to have the tone shift and you can have episodes that are darker and ones that are broader and lighter.
Kaling: If you are blessed enough to get second season, third season, you can have episodes--we used to do this with "The Office" where Joss Whedon directed an episode and it was very "Joss Whedon-y" versus a Ken Kwapis episode. Remember on "The Sopranos" you'd see an episode and you were like, "This is really weird." [Laughter.] The way it was directed it was a Miguel Arteta one, and oh, that was a Terence Winter one...
Cryer: But like in "Sopranos," what was great about that constant changing of tone was it made me absolutely petrified every episode because you never knew what was gonna freakin' happen, you know? And so that's a gift.
Kaling: That was a funny, funny drama. That was a drama that was funnier than I would say 60% of comedies. I mean what a deep bench. I mean you would be like, Oh, Artie Bucco is hilarious. [Laughter.]
Johnson: I like that term, "a deep bench." Our show just finished Season 2, and I'm very new to doing TV but I've already noticed new characters who are starting to pop up more and more and I'm like, "Oh, yeah, that guy's part of our bench." The more the show goes, the deeper that bench is gonna get and if we're lucky and we get to do five or six seasons, you need a deep bench.
Well, when Chloe Sevigny showed up on "Mindy," that was really fun and astonishing
Kaling: She kind of can do anything. And she's very mysterious still. Like she projects that and the show has very--we don't have a lot of sexy mysterious people on our show so it's nice .. when she does scenes with Chris Messina and I'm, like, "This is my comedy show, Mom and Dad." You guys have that with Merritt when she's on your show
Johnson: Totally awesome. Merritt Wever comes on, plays a character named Elizabeth, and right from the beginning her tone was very different. And very quickly we were all like, "Great!" And she's gotten deeper, she's fantastic.
Kaling: You'll stretch a little for that person. Seth Rogen came on and I realized we can do long scenes where people are chatting. Because we got Seth to do it, who's a movie star, now they trust that we can do it with other people. Like Farina and you.
Johnson: It's unbelievable [Dennis] Farina did our show. He's so cool.
Kaling: They don't talk about dad's chemistry a lot, they talk usually about romantic chemistry, but you guys had great chemistry.
Johnson: Oh, thank you. I could not have looked like a bigger idiot around that man. [Laughter.] It gets so goofy [on the show] and we wanted to be so cool for Dennis Farina because he's Dennis Farina. But we also have to do our jobs and we're clowns. It was so hard to be like, oh, man, that's so amazing what you did. It's so cool. Like, yeah. I think cops are the best. And then...
Cheadle: (Sings silly tune)
Johnson: No! No, not in front of Farina. [Laughter.] I tried so hard.
All of the sudden you want them to make it a mob show.
Johnson: Totally, please. Don't write me in like braces crying. Give me a gun.
Do people get mad when they see you on the street?
Cryer: Well, people do get mad. Yeah, occasionally.
Kaling: This is the biggest load of crap I've ever heard. You're the most likable person in the world.
Cryer: Well, you know, some people are mad that Charlie's not on the show anymore.
Kaling: And they take it out on you?
Cryer: And they take it out on me...
Was it was your fault?
Cryer: I'm the locus. It is my fault apparently. Apparently, I was supposed to say, "No, no, no, I insist on working with him."
Cheadle: Hurry, step on the grenade.
Cryer: Exactly. "I don't care what he said. Yes, I don't care that he's in jail, I don't care." You know, I don't know what they expected. I am viewed as somehow disloyal even though I get along great with the guy.
LeBlanc: Did something happen with Charlie? [Laughter.]
Cheadle: It was in episode 10 so you probably...
LeBlanc: I was gone by then.
Cryer: It is a huge gift to be able to do something that takes people's minds off of things and it was not fun for me to be part of what became this huge drama, this insane -- I didn't ask to be a part of this, you know? But I'm glad it's mostly over and what was great was when Ashton came on the show. I said, "Yeah, there's a guy who knows how to stay out of the tabloids." [Laughter.]
You Tweet a lot, Mindy.
Kaling: It's a really comedy writers medium because it's very short, it's very disposable, and you can do it very quickly and still have a full time job or a couple full time jobs. And so I just started because it was fun and because "The Office" was only this amount of an outlet for my creativity. All you guys are on Twitter, right?
LeBlanc: I'm not, no.
Kaling: You're not on it? It's fun for the feedback for the show and it is really fun to feel -- because you can just ignore the stuff that you don't like and the feedback you get...
Cryer: It doesn't echo in your brain in the middle of the night?
Kaling: Twitter's ultimately a more positive place than like message boards. It's really a mean disturbed person who's going to sort of tweet at you something very hateful because you have to post under your name and stuff, and so it's not--or my skin is just so thick that I don't...
But as the show creator, how much attention do you pay to the audience reaction?
Kaling: It's such a slippery slope. Because on one side I'm a narcissistic actor that's like "What did you think? What did you think?" But the other side is like you can't create things and care about feedback. You cannot. Nobody wants to tune in to have someone try to please them. They want to see a voice. They want to see you do what you do.
Cheadle: It's funny to me that turnaround. If you respond to somebody who said something off, like "Oh, OK, well that's interesting. Why do you say that?" They're like, "Oh, wow, hey man, I really dig your work." And then they retweet "Cheadle just hit me up on Twitter." [They thought] I was an ... two tweets ago, what happened?
They don't think of you as a person. They view you as a name.
Cheadle: Exactly. You're an avatar and, actually, those are the people I want to engage, the ones who really have something critical to say because I really want to know what they think. "Wow, what did you see? What didn't you see?" Because I think you gotta take it all. If you're gonna take the [praise]... I want to hear it all.
Johnson: It's not the coolest thing to admit but the people on Twitter have affected my performance. There will be certain people who say things like," "Nick, it's funnier when you do this, it's not funny when you do that." And then you're on set and it's hour 11 and on our show we do improvise a lot and I'm like, all right, TigerGirl42, you got it. I'm trying that out. And when it makes it on TV I'm like, here you go, pal. Tweet at me. Best idea wins.
Cheadle: That's a good way to get a stalker.
What's the most embarrassing thing you've done on the show?
Johnson: They made me dance a lot. And I really don't like to, I'm not very good at it. It's, all jokes aside, 45 minutes. And the song's on repeat and the crew is like 50 deep of guys you're working with all the time. And you're trying to hold a little faith and then you're sweating and they're yelling and you're like, "I can't." It's humiliating.
Cheadle: I'm getting out of clothes it seems like all the time on that show.
That is true. It's a sexy show.
Cheadle: I didn't say that. It's uncomfortable. But it's an occupational hazard, so...
Kaling: One thing I've noticed in television, dramas and comedies, a lot more male nudity than there used to be, even like nine years ago.
Johnson: I remember Dennis Franz showed his butt. It was huge.
Kaling: Yes, that was headlines.
Kaling: I had to take a shower with my boyfriend [on the show]. And so we're naked and I'm with this guy, this guest star who did not sign up for this at all. And the water's hitting us and then he has to like bend over, he drops something. Tthat was pretty tough. Because you know, single cameras, you shoot it, it's on camera for 40 seconds but it's half your day. And the small talk you make between takes on something like that is, you want to kill yourself.
Cryer: And they don't want to use hot water because the steam will screw up the cameras and stuff like that so they'll use like warm water but you're sitting in the warm water and body makeup, by the way, so you're weirdly sticky and gross and if you lean on something you leave a streak.
Kaling: And you have to be like, "What was your major in college? Oh, that's really interesting."
Cryer: Yeah, in between takes. But you're so grateful when you have an actual rapport with somebody who you just met, and they turn out to be really cool and nice. Supposedly my character's this loser but he has bedded this succession of spectacular women you know -- Courtney Thorne-Smith and Jeri Ryan and all these beautiful ladies and it's still awkward and uncomfortable.
Kaling: My character's kind of a bit of a loser as well and in order to establish them as a loser, they need to be close enough with the attractive person so they can mess up in front of them. So [although] I've had like four boyfriends in my life, I've interacted with more men this season than I've ever met in my life.
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