Awards Watch: Emmy Roundtable -- Comedy Actors
Six leading comedy actors talk about long days, improvising and reality TV.
"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 else.
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 things.
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, cynical-observation stuff.
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 ensemble comedy.
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 television?
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 contextualizing.
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 years.
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 me.
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 since "Cheers"?
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 improvised.
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 it.
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 on.
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 awesome?"
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 breath.
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 house.
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 nice.
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 right around.
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 those.
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 solace.
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 sucks!"
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 Cl