Roundtable: Neil Parick Harris, Ed Helms, Aziz Ansari, Jim Parsons debate who's the funniest
"There's too much deconstruction and analysis of comedy," Ed
Helms noted toward the end of our annual gathering of Emmy-worthy
comedic actors (held in a bar though, sadly, nobody was drinking).
"Yeah," agreed Ty Burrell. "Like if you got together at a
roundtable just to talk about comedy ..."
The Hollywood Reporter: Who is the funniest man alive?
Ted Danson: Chris Rock.
Neil Patrick Harris: Really? His stand-up?
Danson: He cuts real close to the bone. The scary stuff. The
stuff that you shouldn't be able to say, but somehow he can.
Ty Burrell: (For his) sensibility, Bill Murray. He's not
necessarily doing his own material, but I can't think of anybody
Danson: I'm gonna switch. I like Bill Murray!
Ed Helms: When I started doing stand-up, there was a
comedian that I was kind of obsessed with, Brian Regan. He could
just always make me cry with laughter.
Harris: Ty Burrell. There, I said it. (Laughs.)
Aziz Ansari: Whenever I think about stand-up I feel Louis CK
is so far ahead of everyone.
Harris: How does your stand-up translate into a TV show? Is
it a good skill or is it awkward?
Ansari: In past TV shows, you'd see someone like Tim Allen,
who had a stand-up act and then that stand-up act would be the
basis of a sitcom. Now, my stand-up doesn't translate at all to the
work I do on "Parks and Recreation." They're totally different
THR: Roseanne, Ray Romano, Jerry Seinfeld -- a lot of
comedians turned their acts into big TV series. Why not now?
Helms: I remember when I was doing stand-up, comedians were
tailoring their acts to be "show ready." And now there's a
different trend in stand-up, this very personal,
Ansari: Comedians would get pilots, but the show wouldn't
get picked up, and I think people just started realizing that's not
a game that works. It's a huge gamble to put (a show) all on one
guy that people don't know.
Burrell: And a lot of the shows that seem to be doing well
don't come from one point of view.
Ansari: Yeah, yeah. It's transformed into more of an
Harris: An "ensemedy."
THR: So showrunners are the new stand-ups?
Jim Parsons: That would be my feeling. ("The Big Bang
Theory" co-creator Chuck Lorre is) the gatekeeper of what's going
to make it and what's not. There's a lot of other voices,
obviously, a whole team of writers, but he has a very present
feeling on the set. That said, he helps shape what's being shaped
organically by the team -- not just the writers, but what the
performer does with it, too. It's never a stifling hand, I feel.
It's more of a safety.
THR: What's the hardest thing about doing comedy on
Harris: If you get an actual audience, you can get like a
slow burn (of laughter). But we have four cameras and no audience,
no one's laughing. If you do the slow burn, that's pretty bold.
(Laughs.) I think I'm going to start waiting for entrance applause.
(Laughs.) And we do like 65-, 70 scenes per show. Which, for a
half-hour, is a lot of scenes. So if an audience were there, they'd
be kind of bored. Multicamera is a little more heightened and it's
a little "schtickier" than a "Parks and Recreation" or even a
"Modern Family." I feel like I'm having to over-act (because
there's) no response.
Helms: One of the toughest parts is having to be funny at 6
in the morning, day after day. Our schedule on "The Office" is very
intense. Everybody keeps it lively and fun but it can be hard to
bring it on a Friday morning at 6:30 after all full week of 10-,
12-hour days. I'm definitely not complaining, I'm just
Ansari: "Ed Helms, the complainer!" (Laughs.) You gotta get
up early. It's so hard to act in the morning!
Helms: I'd imagine it (would) be hard for anyone, like an
accountant, to be on their game at 6:30 in the morning. And you
know me, I'm out at the clubs until 4 every night.
Burrell: They bring the club to the set. (Laughs.)
Helms: I go from the club in an ambulance. Yeah, a little
adrenaline and I'm fine.
Danson: The idea of standing up and being funny to an
audience right now is too much for my nervous system. I swear to
God, give me really funny writing and I'll get up at 6 and I'll do
that. But the idea of standing up and having to do a joke for an
audience -- even without an audience, if I know it's a joke and
it's constructed like a joke, my heart starts to pound.
THR: Why? You taped "Cheers" in front of an audience for
Danson: I can bury myself in a character in a funny
situation and have a ball. But after so many years of having to be
funny when it's written "this is funny," it scares the crap out of
Burrell: Were you getting tired of that (on "Cheers")?
Danson: No. It's a young man's game. "Funny" is being
delighted and surprised at what's coming next. I knew what was
coming next for me after 16-, 17 years and I can't imagine that
other people didn't. I found myself not finding myself amusing and
finding other people way funnier. So I'd much rather go in the
other direction. There, I said it.
Burrell: That's really cool.
THR: What's the biggest difference you've seen in TV comedy
Danson: Cable gives you the right to say and do anything,
which makes it closer to reality. You can say "f***" any time you
want. That makes it harder.
Harris: That quasi-improvised comedy is really exploding.
During the "Cheers" run, that was all scripted, set-up-punch-set-up
comedy. And now, I mean, that's a question I want to ask all of
you, your shows seem wildly improvised. Is it all strictly written
or are you free to change things?
Ansari: It's overestimated how much is improvised. Most of
what you see on our show is stuff that's on the page, but every now
and then there'll be a certain type of scene that lends itself to
improvisation. There's a scene where my character is wearing a
raccoon hat and I'm using it to hit on girls. Most of that was
Helms: Most entire episodes of "The Office" are improvised
top-to-bottom by me, and then it's transcribed. (Laughs.)
Burrell: That's incredibly generous of you.
Helms: No, people think we improvise a lot, but usually the
schedule precludes it. We don't have time because it takes three or
four takes to get it right, you know? There's so much camera
choreography and we're all trying to find the game of the scene.
But there are certain scenes where there's an obvious place to do
Burrell: We're definitely encouraged to contribute (on
"Modern Family") and it usually happens third or fourth take, once
we've gotten stuff down. Toward the end of the season, and toward
the end of some long days, it's tougher. I have tons of ideas early
Helms: I came on the show two seasons in, and in my head I
was like, "these guys improvise all the time!" But then I got there
and they were very cool and gracious about it, but I found over
time it was more practical to try to nail the jokes in the script,
because they're so great. Also, I got lazy, I guess.
Burrell: You pick your spots. You can tell if the crew is
supporting you or if they're like, "Really? You think this is so
Parsons: I never suggest anything. Partly because I haven't
thought of anything (laughs) but the other part is that the subject
matter -- especially the character I play -- is so scientifically
minded, I don't have anything to offer. That said, on tape night,
it's very common for them to rewrite in front of the audience. The
thing that's scary to me about the live audience is that you only
get one chance to deliver. I really love to feel as good about that
first take as possible, because they'll never get to hear it for
the first time again. And that drives me crazy. That's one of the
reasons I love it when they do rewrites, because you do get a
chance to go through the scene right, or pop something out.
Harris: You blow my mind with the stuff you have to do, the
page and a half of jargon that you have to spout out without even a
Helms: And you don't have cue cards, either.
Parsons: No, though I've threatened. We tape on Tuesday, so
I get the whole weekend to learn. And that's what I do around the
Helms: We shoot in such tiny chunks, I'm never stressed
about memorization. At most, I memorize, like, half a page at a
time. I did one multicamera pilot and the live audience thing is
intimidating and scary, in all the good ways.
Harris: It freaked me out. I didn't like it.
Parsons: But you do theater?
Harris: I love authenticity in comedy. I found that after
when it's fourth pass at the scene and you've got some guy with a
mic saying "All right, everybody, big laughs, you've never heard
this before! Whoever laughs the loudest, you're gonna hear it at
home and you're gonna get a T-shirt!" it makes me almost less
secure. And writers themselves are laughing loudly at their own
jokes, because they have a quasi-agenda and they're hoping their
stuff gets in. And at the end of the day you leave the show and
think, "Was that even funny at all?" In theater, you do it once to
people who have paid an exorbitant amount of money are sitting back
and going, "Impress me." So I feel, if I win them over it's really
Danson: The landscape has changed because of the Internet
and reality shows. My kids go online and it's hard to get them to
sit down and watch (even) a half-hour. They'll be doing their work
and go, "I need some funny" and they'll search for it and get a
30-second or two-minute blast and then go back to work.
THR: We've got three guys here whose shows are
mockumentary-style. Is that format here to stay?
Burrell: Yeah. It's a really effective way to tell a story.
It takes so much pressure off exposition, to have somebody talk to
the camera. You don't have to lay all that pipe in the scene
Danson: -- when you only have 22 minutes to do it.
Burrell: Right. That's tough dialogue and it often sounds
weird to have to try to lay tons of exposition. There's also the
interview thing, the confessional part, that gives you a whole
different look on a character.
Harris: You can behave one way, and then you can turn it
Helms: These shows are a reflection of the emergence of
reality television. It'll be interesting to see what America's
appetite dictates next.
THR: Do you think audiences would have embraced mockumentary
shows if they didn't have reality TV as a primer?
Helms: Well, Christopher Guest was making phenomenal
mockumentaries before reality television and people loved
Danson: But cult.
Helms: Maybe not the mainstream. Reality television gives
everyone context and a reference point to immediately connect to
these shows and understand the language.
Harris: The blending of reality, scripted and the Internet
is all coming together even stronger. You can watch TV and cruise
the Internet on the same screen. I think a lot of it will all
intertwine and there will be hybrids.
Danson: I don't know if it's just my age, but if I want to
relax, there's nothing better than a beautifully crafted, scripted
film or whatever. I'm finding myself at night watching "Lawrence of
Arabia," just so I can go, "Ah, the world's OK." (Laughs.)
Parsons: The last month-and-a-half of our show, I had on AMC
in my dressing room and for some reason, after we'd rehearse a
scene, I'd go back upstairs and it would be "Lawrence of Arabia" or
some odd comedy from the '40s that I wasn't laughing at, but there
was something very calming about it. I'd be like "Uh-huh, uh-huh."
And then I'd go out and do our version of events. I understand that
Helms: I like "Prairie Home Companion." (Laughs.)
Danson: I like my comedy to put me to sleep. (Laughs.)
Ansari: I don't watch any comedies anymore. The only shows
that I watch are "Breaking Bad" and "Lost" and stuff. I don't know
if it's because I'm fully immersed in comedy or I have to figure
out stuff that's funny all the time. It's kind of nice to watch
stuff that's just dramatic.
Danson: Does anyone else, when you get a script, and you
know it's not funny, does it make you mad? Like, you are now going
to have to confront something not funny, get over it and find the
funny. That's why I'm not doing half-hour (sit-coms) anymore. I'd
pick up a script -- and the first bad joke, I'm like, "God damn
it!" (Laughs.) That's what's great about drama. You can show up
drunk, depressed, divorced and "Ah, that's beautiful." Funny is so
scary, because only that is funny. All that other crap around it is
not funny -- and you have to land on that funny.
Ansari: If I see a joke in the script on "Parks" and I'm not
into it, I can talk to the writers and we can change it. But man,
if it's a studio audience, not only do you have to do it, you're
thrown to the wolves. To them it's like, "Aw, man, that guy
THR: Do you guys fear not being funny someday?
Burrell: For sure. I fear everything. I'm just afraid! I've
never been one of those people who's driven by my deep knowledge of
how good I am. It's like, "Am I going to suck today?" And that
makes me work crazy hard.
Danson: I always think of myself as basically a 50/50 actor.
There's an equal chance that I'm going to suck.
Harris: In comedy, a fair amount of self-loathing makes you
work harder. Look at Jerry Lewis. W hen he split from Dean Martin
he had to prove himself as uniquely funny. (But) he lost a gauge of
what was actually funny. If you believe you're the funniest thing
in the world, your comedy in turn suffers.
THR: But isn't there a certain amount of confidence you need
to do comedy?
Harris: If people smell the desperation on you, it's less
funny, so you have to carry yourself as if it's successful.
Helms: This is a really hard career. The fans of these shows
get to see the fun stuff; they don't see the hundreds of stand-up
shows. (To Ansari:) Yours were apparently all funny; mine were not
so good. All the auditions are brutal, so there's a certain
baseline of determination that, mixed in with a little confidence,
you have to have. But the fear of not being funny is a motivating
thing. It's kind of exciting to me. I'm afraid a lot -- that I'm
not going to deliver on this project, or that I don't quite
understand how this script is funny. And do I have the capability
to be as funny as this script actually is? Those are all
insecurities and fears that thankfully aren't crippling. I was
reading a book about "Monty Python," and John Cleese was going
through a phase when he genuinely didn't think he was funny. And I
was thinking "What? How did he possibly ..."
Danson: To us, he's royalty.
Helms: John Cleese is way up there as one of the funniest
people in history, not just present day. And to think a guy like
him could ever question his comedic gift is surprising. But now,
for me, having been in this career a long time, it's something I
can relate to and appreciate the struggle.
Danson: Without the struggle, I probably would not be as
good -- without doubt, without fear you would be complacent.
Burrell: All these jokes are just little leaps of faith.
Parsons: Before every taping we do, every audition I go to,
every meeting, even today -- no matter how excited I am to do it,
there's part of me that says, "If it was canceled, that'd be
great." And yet there's a part of me that can't wait to get out
there and do it again.
Helms: What you're saying is that we're exactly like the
bank robbers in "Point Break." There is a little bit of an
adrenaline-junkie thing about putting it out there with the full
possibility of crashing hard.
Harris: That's my biggest fear, to do stand-up. I could
never, ever, ever.
Helms: But you just hosted the Emmys and Tonys.
Harris: But it's all material written by others. I had a say
in it, but if I had to sit there and come up with my own material
and then present it, I'd be infinitely more nervous.
THR: When you watch your performances, what's your biggest
criticism of yourselves?
Ansari: No criticism. (Laughs.)
Danson: I need a seven-year space where I can genuinely look
at it again. First time, I see my nose, my hair, my age, my
something -- pure physical -- and I'm depressed. Second time, I go,
"Hmm, I guess I'm not that bad." Third time, I notice there are
other actors in the scene! (Laughs.)
Helms: When I watch something, I am so focused on my
performance, I'm not even laughing at all the things that are
really funny. It's like, "My sideways glance during his line was
not hilarious." (Laughs.)
THR: Do you ever ask others for input into your
Parsons: No, don't tell me.
Harris: I do. I'm always saying, "Is it funnier if I skip
this word or that word?"
Helms: "The Office" is very collaborative that way. There
are always little huddles and I love that, and on the movies I've
worked on as well.
Burrell: That can feel so mischievous, in a really cool way:
a group of people getting together to come up with the funniest
s*** you can do in that moment. That's the best part of the
Danson: If you're on a show for 11 years, the last four or
five years it's the exact opposite. You'd see somebody start to get
in trouble with a page or a monologue they had to do, and everyone
would go "Ehhhh!" (On "Cheers") you could see on George (Wendt's)
hairline, in some shots, spitballs where people had gone behind him
while he's trying to sweat his way through some difficult material.
It became like a bad fraternity party. And if anyone showed
vulnerability, it was like (smacking sound) "Oh great, Woody's
THR: What about after a scene? Is there anybody you trust to
tell you if you were good?
Harris: I don't do that. It's hard to think too much in that
way because then you'd never make a choice, you'd be editing the
Danson: See, you guys are young. After a take, I will turn
to the director and go, "That was great, wasn't it!" and they say
yes because they have to. And I believe them. (Laughs.)