Seven of TV’s top comedic forces — also including Jerrod Carmichael, Tony Hale, Anthony Anderson and Jeffrey Tambor — talk about being booed, hated on by hecklers, pooping their pants and how it feels when a famous director mouths "What the f—?" at your live performance in front of 43 million.
Rob Lowe, 52, and Aziz Ansari, 33, shared screen time during the later seasons of Parks and Recreation. Jeffrey Tambor, 71, and Tony Hale, 45, worked together for several years on Arrested Development. And Anthony Anderson, 45, tried to recruit Keegan-Michael Key, 45, to join him in a recurring role on Black-ish. But never have all six, plus sitcom newcomer Jerrod Carmichael, 29, sat together — until THR gathered them for a frank and often hilarious conversation about their comedic inspira tions, their lowest points as performers (spoiler: Tambor once fouled himself) and the compulsion to weave more powerful themes — including instances of police brutality or the allegations against onetime legend Bill Cosby — into their comedy.
There was a point for each of you in your career when you got your first real paycheck and thought, "I've arrived." And then at least a few of you went out and spent that money immediately. Let's hear your best stories.
ANDERSON (ABC's Black-ish) The moment I got that check, I went to the bank. I didn't deposit it, I cashed it and then put the money in a Nike shoebox in the top of my closet because you never know.
KEY (Comedy Central's Key and Peele) I was married at the time, and what happened is I went out to eat twice in one week — and I'm not answering your question accurately because that was after three years of getting a paycheck. Because you're in that shoebox mentality, and then you go, "What if we just went out again?" So you went out on Monday, and you went out again on Thursday. And like, "What if we went to a steakhouse?" So the splurge was that we went out twice in one week. (Laughs.)
CARMICHAEL (NBC's The Carmichael Show) I don't even think I noticed restaurants until I could begin to afford them. At some point, I looked up, and I was like, "When did [Beverly Hills'] La Scala get there? (Laughter.) It's been there the whole time? For nine years? I noticed the McDonald's next door …"
ANSARI (Netflix's Master of None) There was a long time where I didn't realize I had money that I could spend. I was still living like a college kid or a young stand-up, and then one afternoon I was hanging out with Louis C.K. We had brunch together, and he wanted me to look at something he was working on at his house. I was like, "All right, should we grab a cab?" He's like, "No, no, I can drive." And he has this nice Porsche, and we went in the Porsche on the West Side Highway, and then we went to his apartment, and he had this nice apartment. I'm like, "Is Louis trying to f— me or something?" I'm being wined and dined here. This is very nice. And then I'm like, "Why the f— am I not doing this? I tour, I do these things, I should be doing this."
ROB LOWE (Fox's The Grinder) I was doing a lot of work as a young actor, big leads in movies, and then one day I saw this agent whom I thought was an idiot driving in front of me in this tricked-out Porsche and I'm driving my Mazda 626 that I've had forever. I said, "Wait a second, if that motherf—er can have a Porsche … I'm on the cover of Tiger Beat!" (Laughter.)
What do you know now about success that you wish you knew when you started out?
TAMBOR (Amazon's Transparent) I was raised in a house where it was, "Don't celebrate, they'll take it away from you." That was on the arch over the door. It was my dad's motto. It's tricky. I also thought, like Cinderella, that there was a ball. I wish someone had told me at the beginning that there is no ball. I mean, there are really great parties, but you're the ball. But you can't tell a young actor that.
KEY Everyone at the beginning says, "Oh, you gotta make hay while the sun is shining," and then you say yes to every single thing. The problem is you don't know when to say no. It was Anna Kendrick who said, "No one comes to your door on a particular day and goes, 'Hi, we're the famous people, here's the manual.' " Also, our parents are all very concerned about us being hurt or irreparably scathed in some way by life, so they teach us how to manage and deal with failure, but no one teaches you how to manage and deal with success.
LOWE Fame is the only drug for which there is no 12-step program.
ANDERSON No one ever teaches you about balance, either. I learned the hard way, being a husband and a father and missing out on some of those key moments in my children's lives because I was so focused on getting this or that so that we could have a better life. I had come from nothing, growing up in Compton.
KEY Right, but then if I get this, it will get even better.
ANDERSON Yeah, and it never ends.
ANSARI The thing I have learned and that I have to keep reminding myself of even now is that you have to make your own way. No one would have given me a show like Master of None. It definitely would have gone to some white guy. (Laughs.) It's easy sometimes to sit around and wait for an opportunity and wait for someone to open a door.
HALE (HBO'S VEEP) There's also a thing in this business of, "You'll have value when …" But your value stays the exact same no matter how you define success, and we're just not taught that.
Who has taught you the most about being funny onscreen?
KEY My partner, Jordan [Peele], who has a great way of saying, "Let's tackle this subject this way, but let's do what we can to make sure we play characters who aren't mean." Sometimes when a character is mean or yelling, they get didactic, and you go, "All right, I get the point."
LOWE Yeah, Lorne Michaels said to me (in Lorne's voice): "I don't like comedy where people yell; it reminds everyone of their childhoods."
ANSARI I'd definitely say Amy Poehler, not only in terms of comedic acting but as far as being a leader on set. She ran [Parks and Recreation] with such class.
HALE Jeffrey on Arrested Development. I was very new to the business, and Jeffrey scared the crap out of me and still does. (Laughs.) Often times in comedy, you're not so in your skin, so you're pushing to get the joke. Jeffrey was always very much in his skin, and it was fun to watch.
TAMBOR We rehearsed this, it's going really great, almost word for word what we did. (Laughs.) I have to honor somebody, Garry Shandling. I remember when he did It's Garry Shandling's Show, and he broke the fourth wall and went, "I'm going to go to the bathroom now, they're gonna play the theme song and I'll be right back." I went, "What the hell just happened here?" And I said, "Whatever that is, it's really funny." It was very instrumental for me.
Speaking of comedy legends, Jerrod, you kicked off your second season tackling the tarnished legacy of Bill Cosby. Why was that so important for you to do and how was it received?
CARMICHAEL The Cosby episode was the same as when we did the protest episode or the kale episode; they were based on conversations that were happening. I have an obligation as a comedian, as someone who exists in the world, to reflect those conversations, and so I just do it as honestly as possible. What's interesting is that this is one of the first times in American history where black people are able to genuinely just be human beings. We're able to really exist in America, and our conversations cannot necessarily fit into a box or be inhibited in any way. We can argue, and we don't necessarily take one side — it's balanced, and the intention of my show is to reflect that. So when we did the Cosby episode, it's like any other episode where it's like, "Well, what are the honest feelings around this topic?" And we just put that out there.
Did anyone, black or white, tell you not to do it?
CARMICHAEL Of course! Mostly lawyers. (Laughter.) It was the most legal-notes session that I've encountered. But not doing it wasn't an option.
Anthony, Black-ish hit on many tough issues this season, but none more powerful than police brutality. The episode focused on the difficult conversations that parents and children are forced to have. What conversations did it inspire on set?
ANDERSON Kenya [Barris, the show's creator] has five children, and he was watching the news with his younger sons, and one of his sons turned to him and said, "Dad, why is everybody so angry?" He was forced into that conversation with his child. We were dealing with this and looking at the young actors who play Jack and Diane on our show; those were the same questions they had because they're so innocent and pure. They're only 10. So we found ourselves having to have real conversations with these young actors about what's going on in the world and why it's important for us to tackle these issues.
Are these conversations you had with your own children? And if so, how did your approach differ from your character's?
ANDERSON My children are 16 and 20, but these are conversations that we have had. You have to tackle these things head-on so your children know what they're dealing with in this world. I'm pretty sure we've all created a vacuum which our children live in because we want to protect them, but that's not the real world. My daughter is now a sophomore in college dealing with racism on her own for the first time in her young adult life. I think she's dealing with it masterfully, but those are the realities in which we live.
Keegan, how much responsibility did you and Jordan feel about including skits about race on Key and Peele?
KEY Quite a bit because you check your Twitter feed, and everyone's like, "Why isn't Luther talking about this?" But very often if you're a person of color, the fact that you have melanin in your skin makes the sketch exist on more than two or three levels. I always thought some of the most revolutionary things we did were the ones where we would say, "We wanna do a sketch about Victor Hugo and Les Miserables, so we're gonna do that sketch." We just happen to be people of color, [but] we're gonna put on our powdered wigs and our cravats and do our sketch and that should just be OK. Why do we have to justify why we have melanin? But we're not there yet. So my hope, a hundred years from now, is for someone to watch a Key and Peele sketch and go, "I don't get this at all." (Laughter.) My prayer for Earth is that our show has no meaning in 200 years.
Aziz and Jeffrey, you each play lead characters who aren't well represented on TV. What type of responsibility does that come with?
ANSARI What's interesting is that when we were doing the show, I never really thought about this stuff. And then when it came out, the reaction was like, "Oh my God, I've never seen Indian people or Asian people or an African-American lesbian woman depicted in this way, just like normal people." Like, you never see an Asian guy who is really capable with women. But Alan [Yang] and I were just writing to our reality. I heard this thing that Lee Daniels said about white writers writing for black performers …
It was during a THR roundtable, and he said he didn't care for it.
ANSARI Yeah, how it was insulting. I'd never really thought about that. A lot of times when people write for Indian actors or Asian actors or anybody somewhat different, it is insulting because they have a certain view of, "Oh, this is how that person can help our plot. Oh, this Indian guy, let's put him in the cab or in the market. Let's not make him the guy who is this woman's love interest," or something like that, "let's get the white guy for that, of course." (Laughter.) So with our show, it worked out in this great way where we were writing things that were just very true to us.
CARMICHAEL And the more personal you get, the more universal everything becomes.
Jeffrey, is there responsibility that comes with playing a transgender character? And how does that manifest itself in you and in your process?
TAMBOR I'm a cisgender male actor assaying this role, and so it's a great privilege and a huge responsibility that even in the third season just keeps tapping at me. It really weighs on me. And I do have a responsibility. I'm having these conversations in life, people coming up to me. I remember a gentleman on the plane, and he was all Zegna'd and cufflinked and coiffed, and he [wagged his finger at me], and I thought, "Here it comes." Then he put his hand in mine and said: "You. Thank you for introducing me to a subject I had no knowledge of." And I went, "Well, there's the revolution." I've had the other conversation, too, where I say, "You can't say that word, you can't talk like that."
Rob, you've been vocal about how, earlier in your career, doors were not opening because you were perceived as the "pretty boy."
LOWE Oh yeah. You can't play cops, you can't play detectives. … The list is actually kind of long.
ANSARI Can we switch problems? (Laughs.) They just kept wanting you to play leading men, love interests …
LOWE But that gets boring!
ANSARI When we did an episode of our show called "Old People," and I'm talking with this actress who's playing the grandmother of my girlfriend on the show. She was like, "I'm so excited to do this part because normally when I get stuff, it's old-people parts." I was like, "What are those?" "Oh you know, I'm falling down, I'm a rappin' granny." (Laughter.) So, everyone has their thing, no matter who you are. … So I don't mean to kid about what you're saying, Rob.
With [now canceled] The Grinder, Rob fronted a comedy. Is the transition from drama to comedy more challenging than the reverse?
CARMICHAEL What makes Rob good in comedies is that you have to be able to create that tension in order to let the air out. I think coming from a dramatic background is so beneficial to comedy. I'm always like, "Just leave your f—in' funny face at home, give me real tension — something honest as opposed to just this crazy guy. No one wants to hang out with that person."
KEY Because you don't actually know that person. That person has already been locked up in Bellevue. (Laughter.)
CARMICHAEL But everyone is so terrified. If I have to deal with one more note of like, "Can we make sure the girl smiles so she knows that you're playing with her?" It's like, first of all, I'm not playing, I'm saying a serious thing. And [second,] everyone's attempts to make everyone likable make people look f—ing stupid.
Let's end on a lighter note. What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you as a performer?
LOWE This is like we're at a poker game, and I know I've got a royal flush. You guys can talk whatever shit you're gonna talk, I still got this. (Laughter.)
CARMICHAEL I tripped onstage once. I fell and just did the rest of my set from the ground.
LOWE Keep it comin'. That's mildly interesting. (Laughs.)
KEY I've never pulled this out. Jordan and I did a stand-up show in Silicon Valley, and we're not stand-ups, per se. We did a show for 12,000 people, and right before, one of the comics who had just walked offstage tells us, "You have 20 minutes." So Jordan looks at me and goes, "We'll do some east/west bowl names, say some funny football names, we'll make some observations, shibbidy doo, blah blah blah."
LOWE I'm terrified.
ANSARI As soon as I heard 20 minutes, I got terrified.
CARMICHAEL Any performance that starts at "shibbidy doo, blah blah blah" is terrifying.
KEY Jordan has done one stand-up gig in his life, right? I've done none. What do I know? I'm a classically trained actor — learn the lines, right? So we walk onstage, and it was the first time in my career where I was like, "You guys ever think about …" and [we hear] "Boo!" Then it starts rolling back. By minute six, there are like 800 people going, "Come on, guys," and seas of rolling boos. And I look over at Jordan, and we always end our set when we do shows at colleges with a song. So we're six minutes in, and I'm trying to tell the most ribald jokes I can think of. And I got decidedly black, like, "Yo, when you in prison and someone tryin' to rape you …" Nope, that didn't work. And Jordan looks at me and goes, "Keegs?" I'm like, "Hmm, yeah?" Flop sweat. He goes, "You wanna sing a song?" We were onstage for nine minutes. It was sublimely horrible.
TAMBOR You still good, Rob?
LOWE Yep, still think I got a royal flush. (Laughter.)
ANDERSON I attempted stand-up early in my career at the Comedy Act Theater off Crenshaw [Boulevard]. It was open-mic night, and I went by the name Tasty Tony the One & Only, If There's Another He's a Phony. (Laughs.) There were three comics who went up ahead of me, and I foolishly heckled each one. And I was f—ing hysterical as a heckler. Then the guy called up Tasty Tony. Nobody knew who I was, I was just the crazy heckler in the audience. And it was a room full of comics, so I was persecuted as I walked to the stage. I grab the mic, and the host says, "You better be funny, motherf—er."
KEY Oh, no.
ANDERSON Before I could get anything out, they turn my mic off. I was like, "F— it, I don't need a mic." Then 15 seconds into me being onstage, they shut my light off. I walk off, and I'm shaking uncontrollably. I didn't get back onstage for four years.
TAMBOR I was doing repertory theater in 1967 in Detroit. It was the year of the Asian flu, and I went, "Well, that seems a little … Oh, what's that? Well, I better just get rid of that little gas before I go on." I completely fouled myself. And I'm in chainmail! I had to walk on, glush glush glush. (Laughter.)
OK, Rob, lay 'em out there.
LOWE I'm asked to open the  Oscars. The idea, in theory, was that I would sing and dance with Snow White, and Merv Griffin would then appear singing, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," and all of the old Hollywood establishment would be acknowledged and finally Lily Tomlin would come out of a bunch of fruit. Sounds great, right?
CARMICHAEL I mean, what could go wrong? (Laughs.)
LOWE We start, and it's apparent that the old people, God bless them, can't rise or wave. They're just sitting, so that's flat, and it begins to die. Then the girl playing Snow White, she's been rehearsing with those placards on the seats that say Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and now she's got actual Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. She's like an Anaheim Disney girl, so she freaks, and her voice goes up one whole octave. I finally come out and give her that look like, "Whoa, hey, it's me and you, we got this." I start doing my bump and grind. By the way, I'm singing "Proud Mary" …
ANDERSON Tina Turner's "Proud Mary"?
LOWE Yeah 'cause that's what you think of when you think of me. But with lyrics adjusted to the Oscars. It's the year Rain Man won everything, and I'm in the middle of singing, and I think I'm actually kinda killin' it, and I look out, and Barry Levinson, the director of Rain Man, is doing this: (Mouth hanging open). (Laughter.) He turns to the person next to him and goes (mouths, "What the f—?"). I'm like, "Oh, that's not good." So I finish, and I go into the greenroom, and this redheaded older woman says (growling voice): "Young man, I had no idea you were such a good singer." It was Lucille Ball. She says, "Come sit with me." She grabbed my hand and wouldn't let it go, and we watched the Oscars for 20 minutes, just the two of us. And then she said, "Darling, I have a splitting headache, could you get me some aspirin?" So I went and got Lucy what I thought was an aspirin. I gave it to her, and she died 48 hours later. [Editor's note: Ball died four weeks later of an abdominal aortic aneurysm.]
TAMBOR Wait, hold on, this is way more than embarrassing! (Laughter.)
HALE Yeah, this turned into a crime story.
ANSARI That's what's great about hanging out with Rob. His Hollywood stories are all like, "And I look in there, and it's Lucille Ball." My stories are like, "And I look in there, and it's Mario Lopez!" (Laughter.)
This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.