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The Comedy Actress Roundtable

The THR Comedy Actress Roundtable
Art Streiber

Emmy's funniest contenders reveal their big breaks, parenthood fears and why it's 'so boring' to ever ask a question about women and comedy.

The topic of parenthood was bound to come up at this year's Emmy Comedy Actress Roundtable. Jenna Fischer (The Office), pregnant with her first child, openly solicited the advice of her peers on work-family balance. (Modern Family's Julie Bowen's advice? "Lower your standards.") But the chatter also leaned heavily toward their craft -- though Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler was quite firm that there was no need to even question the state of women and comedy -- and how the rest of the panelists, The Big Bang Theory's Kaley Cuoco, Desperate Housewives' Teri Hatcher and Glee's Lea Michele, each embraces and laughs at the absurd demands of the television comedy actress.

 

When did you first know you were funny?

JENNA FISCHER How can you answer that without sounding like a total asshole?

JULIE BOWEN Can it coincide with losing your virginity? Because that was painfully funny. (Laughter.) I'm surrounded by so many funny people all day long that I'm constantly like, "You think I'm one of those funny people?"

KALEY CUOCO You are.

AMY POEHLER June 10, 1982.

 

What happened on June 10, 1982?

POEHLER I was in the lobby after seeing Footloose, and a 10-year-old guy told me I was funny, and … no, I don't know what I'm saying. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I didn't really know how to start. It wasn't until I got to college and joined an improv group that I learned you don't have to come from the stand-up world to do comedy. But I came at it kind of late compared to other people.

FISCHER I had a similar experience. I was in college studying theater and I was getting cast in the comedic plays, not the serious ones, so I was nudged in that direction and felt like, "Oh well, this is how I'm being cast, so maybe I'll just pursue that route a little more vigorously."

 

So somebody else kind of decided for you.

FISCHER Kind of, yeah. And when I came to L.A., I met my manager, Naomi [Odenkirk], and she said, "I'd really like to focus on television comedy for you." I was like, "That's great," because when I came to L.A., I was like: "I'll do anything. I'll do drama; I'll do comedy," but she provided that focus. It was really helpful because when you say you'll "do anything," it's hard for people to conceptualize how to use you.

BOWEN I came to L.A., and I said, "I'll do anything," and I meant it. I did a lot of dramas but -- I think it's OK to say this in retrospect -- pretty bad ones. There was this one where I'm holding a gun, and my arm just got so tired, it started sagging like (dramatically lowers arm).

FISCHER The title of it was Girl With a Gun.

BOWEN I was very happy when the dramedy world came around. Sitcoms and I were never really super-good friends. Like you (gesturing toward Cuoco) can knock it out of the park in a way I can't.

CUOCO I really love being in front of a crowd. I've been doing this since I was five and have liked not taking myself too seriously. But the audience thing -- I like the live audience.

TERI HATCHER Henry Winkler said to me in the late '80s that it was rare to be pretty and funny, both of which I always had a hard time with. Now, on Housewives, I just think of comedy like choreography. I'll go, "OK, if I take two steps and then pick up the fork, that's funnier than taking one step."

FISCHER It's like music.

HATCHER Yes, and I just love that. I love when I have found the thing, the perfect combination of prop and timing. It's like having to solve a puzzle.

 

Lea, on Glee, which is more challenging: the comedy or the drama?

LEA MICHELE When we're doing the serious stuff, I'm like, "Oh, let's get back to the comedy," and when we're doing the comedy, we crave those dramatic storylines. But I feel satisfied. I did every tragic Broadway musical possible. I died, I had abortions, I was poor …

BOWEN But you sang your way through all of that!

MICHELE I did. But I grew up watching SNL and would lock myself in my room and pretend I was Roseanne Roseannadanna or pretend I was Rosie O'Donnell and do a talk show for my mom. I never thought that made me "funny." I just was a kookie kid. And thankfully Glee came along. I just couldn't do the tragedies anymore.

 

What do you all consider your big breaks?

MICHELE Definitely the off-Broadway production of the musical version of Clueless (laughter) in which I played one of the high school students with a nose job. I actually didn't do that, but I wanted that job. I didn't get it.

BOWEN The first movie I ever did was Happy Gilmore. My hair was so bad in it, like Princess Di went through a freeze-bomb. But I never wanted there to be a big break; I never wanted to look at the other side of that, which is sitting at home rocking back and forth waiting for the phone to ring. I tried not to stick my head too far out of the gopher hole because I'm pretty sure someone was going to shoot me.

POEHLER I started an improv group in New York and L.A., Upright Citizens Brigade, and we had a sketch show on Comedy Central for a couple years after I graduated from college. SNL [was my big break] in terms of people knowing my face, but it's very difficult to comment on your own career. You want to leave it up to other people to dissect it.

CUOCO It is hard to answer. I don't know if 8 Simple Rules … was my big break, but working with John Ritter and Katey Sagal, I fell in love with sitcoms. All of a sudden you wake up, and you're on a show that's doing well. It's crazy.

HATCHER It took until Lois & Clark, a lot of movies and a lot of pilots for me to stop thinking I should have a waitressing job on the side. I know what you're saying about the gopher. At the end of each job, you do wonder how it will shift and then it just does, but it took me a long time.

 

What other jobs did the rest of you have while you were coming up in the business?

CUOCO I am so lucky -- I have never had another job. I can't believe it. It's really sad.

BOWEN Wow. You're sleeping in and having sex with your boyfriend. Great lifestyle. (Laughter.)

CUOCO I ran into Julie one time at breakfast, and she thinks that's all I do.

BOWEN Hey, I'm only going on what I see. I think Jenna's hiding a weird job. She's way too quiet over there.

FISCHER I was a telephone psychic for a while. (Laughter.) I also worked at a car wash for three years in St. Louis. I really wanted to dry the outside of the car because then you were in the sun, and you got to take the tips. But because I was a girl, and everybody else were dudes, I had to go in the car and spray the insides of the windows, which is just fumes and …

BOWEN Hot and stinky in the summer.

FISCHER So after I had been there a year I got to do the outside, after two summers of fumes. (Laughter.) Then I moved to L.A. I wanted more time for acting and needed to be at home waiting for the phone to ring. So I called the number in the back of L.A. Weekly that was looking for psychics and …

HATCHER So you had no psychic ability?

FISCHER None. Here was the interview: "Do you feel like a rather intuitive person?" "I do. I really do feel intuitive." "Do you read tarot cards?" "Yes." (I'd never read a tarot card.) So they said: "Great, here's your dial-in number. You'll start receiving calls at home," and you would dial in and stay on for as many hours as you wanted to work.

CUOCO I am never calling them again. I cannot believe this!

FISCHER I had a couple girls call, and they were like, "What color shirt am I wearing right now?" And I said, "I don't know." And they're like, "You're not a psychic." And I said: "I have a feeling you're calling me for another reason; that one of you has a boy that you like, and you want to know if he likes you." She's like, "Oh my God." So that was it.

 

Can anyone match that?

ALL No.

 

What do you consider your scariest moment while performing?

POEHLER On SNL, Queen Latifah, me and Maya Rudolph all did a Supremes girl-group sketch. I could hear the stage manager, Jenna, on the phone, and she was like: "You want me to tell them? OK, so we're still going? OK." And she's like, "Ahem, you guys are singing without any music." All of a sudden the scene started, and we had to sing and remember how the music sounded. It was thrilling and just enough to make you panic and raise your adrenaline level.

HATCHER I was doing Cabaret, doing Sally Bowles, and we were in Boston. The song "Cabaret" is the finale, and she's singing by herself in front of a mic. I went sky-high in the middle of the song in front of 2,000 people ... standing there in a gown, with the mic, and not a word.

MICHELE You mean you forgot?

HATCHER Yeah, not a word. And the orchestra is tinkering with the keys a little bit, trying to help me. And somehow it came back and I started singing, and the music came back, and I was like, "I'm going to sing the f--ing best I've ever sang in my whole life!" At the end I threw the mic down. I got a seven-minute standing ovation.

ALL Nice!

POEHLER So just pretend you're having a nervous breakdown.

HATCHER Yeah, exactly.

MICHELE I've had so many embarrassing, scary things happen working on Broadway. I was in a show called Spring Awakening, and there's a scene where my character is deciding whether she should have an abortion. I'm 14 years old and it's Germany, and everything bad is happening, and this one woman in the audience just goes, "Go for it!"

POEHLER I'm really sorry. I thought it was funny at the time. (Laughter.)

CUOCO There is nothing worse. There have been a few times on the show where we've run it a million times, you know it, and then you're just blank. Oh my God, it is the worst feeling. I literally am like a tumbleweed -- saloon doors. Done.

 

What's the craziest thing you've ever done for a laugh?

CUOCO I would do anything for a laugh.

BOWEN I do all sorts of things for laughs and then regret them all the time. We just did Inside the Actors Studio, and James Lipton asked, "Julie, what's your favorite swear word?" And I went to the dirtiest place you can go. I won't even say it here. I spread myself in filth and danced about in it. But now, everything we say lives forever, so I'm getting more scared.

FISCHER I have a unique job because I feel like I'm a little more of a straight man on The Office. I haven't done anything too crazy. But I did lick another man's tongue in a movie.

BOWEN Excuse me?

FISCHER I licked John C. Reilly's tongue in Walk Hard. I also did an improv once where I talked dirty to this guy. At the end of the day, I felt vulnerable because I realized you can only improv what you know. I was like, "I just revealed so much about me sexually to a room of men." (Laughs.)

POEHLER It's fun on Parks and Rec because we get to play vulnerable moments. Greg Daniels and Mike Schur are not afraid of real moments. But they're a little scarier for me than comedy.

 

How involved are you in crafting your character's storylines?

POEHLER The process is really collaborative. Mike and I used to work together on Saturday Night Live -- he used to be the head writer on "Weekend Update" -- but I think people think our shows are more improvised than they are because of the way we shoot, in that hand-held style. I don't know if I could ever shoot any other way again. It's so satisfying to change things on the fly, not be beholden to the camera.

BOWEN Because you shot something in the master and now we're coming in for the 18th close-up, and you have to match it.

POEHLER We don't even do that. We don't do master close-up or any of that because everyone's on camera all the time.

HATCHER On our show, you don't get to bring what you might feel compelled to. You're in the boundary of what they wrote and how they want it word-for-word and how it's shot. I'm jealous, that's what I'm saying.

BOWEN Comedy does better fresh and doesn't do well with constant repetition, which is why I'm amazed at your show (pointing to Michele). At a certain point, you must, for the sake of time, just hit your mark and bark and make it funny, right?

MICHELE We spend a lot of time on individual scenes -- we really do. We have a long, long day.

BOWEN There are so many moving parts on that show. Does the comedy take a backseat to the singing and the dancing? By the time you get around to doing a scene, are you like, "Can I just get this over with?"

MICHELE We've gotten to the point that we know the formula for shooting the musical numbers. When we get into the scenes, it's nice to take our time. But also we don't want to take too much time because it's always earlier takes that are best because you're not thinking about it. I find my best coverage is when the camera is not on me. You know?

BOWEN Yes.

FISCHER That's one of the benefits of how we shoot our show. You don't know they're shooting you, so you're relaxed.

POEHLER Often, you don't know where the camera is. That's the greatest.

FISCHER But then if I overhear them say, "OK, we are going to whip to Jenna," it's like …

BOWEN You freeze.

 

Kaley, how is that different from your experience with multicamera? Chuck Lorre shows are famous for rewrites at the last second.

CUOCO There are some at the last second. It's actually the biggest compliment when someone says it looks like we've improvised. We don't at all; it's completely on the page every time. And he's so good and the writing is so good, but it's so fast.

POEHLER Do you ever improvise something in rehearsal that gets in the script?

CUOCO No. I wish I could say yes because I want to be responsible for that, but I'm so not. We just don't have to. Everything on it is good, and I don't want to question it because it's written so well. We shoot very fast. People get very jealous. I'm sorry. (Laughter.)

 

How do you handle it when you read something you are supposed to say, and you think, "This isn't funny"?

MICHELE My character says things like "My training bra is hurting me," and I'm like: "Really? Come on. I know that I'm not giving you beach-babe here, but" … and they're like, "No, no, no -- it's funny!" We have three writers, so I know they were like, "Wouldn't it be funny if Lea said, 'Ha ha, my training bra'?" And then they write it down.

BOWEN You have three writers? That's it?

MICHELE Three writers for our show.

CUOCO You're serious?

BOWEN Oh my Lord.

 

And they're all men, too.

MICHELE Yep, all men.

CUOCO You're like, "A male wrote this." You can definitely tell that sometimes.

MICHELE They always sit and write together, every script. But it is very clear which writer is each character's voice.

 

Is there a chasm between what male writers think is funny versus female writers?

CUOCO Oh, I think so.

 

How does that manifest on your show?

CUOCO We have one female writer on our writing staff, which is between 15 and 20 total. And I can always tell when she has written the joke. I'm also the only girl in the cast, so we totally connect. But I can definitely tell.

POEHLER Half of our writers are female. And SNL had a great percentage too. But I find the question of women in comedy so boring. I don't want to talk about it.

HATCHER I love that.

POEHLER It's not that much of a difference.

FISCHER That's what I was going to say too.

CUOCO There are too many boy jokes on my show. Maybe that's why I can see a difference sometimes.

 

Well, the issue has been a hot one lately because Bridesmaids did so well.

POEHLER I don't ever want to answer a question about women in comedy again until I'm like 60 and I go on my very lucrative speaking tour, where I wear a tuxedo and I sit on a stool with a glass of water and I talk about women in comedy. Until then, I want there to be a moratorium on it. You know?

 

But look at the shows that were picked up for the fall. A lot of them are comedies with female creators and showrunners.

BOWEN But that will change. There were great women comedians in the '30s who ran Hollywood. It comes and goes. We get used to something, and then we get bored of it and we move on. So right now it's great, but next year, I don't know. If it's funny, I don't care if it's a dog in a tutu or two babies beating each other to death.

FISCHER I do find that with Mindy Kaling and Jen Celotta, two of the female writers on my show, I like how they write for Pam. But B.J. Novak also writes great for Pam.

BOWEN I joke that I play every writer's wife on our show, and I can tell what the relationship is that I'm working on. It's like, "No, it's more shrill -- she's angrier!" "I don't know whether she'd be that angry." "Oh, she is." (Boisterous laughter.) But funny is funny, and it doesn't matter who's written it.

 

What's the most personal thing you have infused into your character?

MICHELE The writers drop in a lot of my personal experiences, especially from when I was younger. God forbid I ever bring up any of my insecurities -- it is in that script. We did a whole episode about my character wanting to get a nose job. I've talked about my nose enough in this business for everybody to know: It's big; it's there. (Laughs.) I was very different from anybody I knew growing up. Nobody really looked like me. That's why I said I loved Gilda Radner; she was the only person that I felt looked or acted like me. So that's really something that I find very emotional for me to draw upon, that feeling of just sort of being different and not quite knowing how to deal with that but still trying to have the strength to be strong. That's why we do our long hours. That's why we get those slushies in our faces. I feel so lucky that we get to make people laugh, but I also feel like we're doing something important. I have the greatest job to do both things.

POEHLER Tough answer to beat. I say we move on. (Laughter.)

MICHELE Did I just bring you down?

ALL No.

POEHLER That was so good.

 

What's the best or worst career advice you've received?

HATCHER I heard very early on that, "You're not out of it until you quit." I got my first job in 1985. I got into the business in such a weird way. I was a dancer, and I got cast as a glorified extra on The Love Boat after some nationwide search. So I moved to L.A. and dropped out of college. I didn't know what a SAG card was; I didn't know what an agent was. I leapt from being just a dancer to an episode where I was one of the Love Boat story arcs. I slept with the producer. (Laughter.) And I was funny. I did a character that was kind of an airhead, just talked a mile a minute, and someone saw it -- and that's how I got an agent. That's who told me you're not out of it until you quit.

CUOCO I think mine actually is going to sound super-corny, but it's from my parents. I was very little, and they said, "If you want to do this, you always have to do something else with it," so I was never allowed to just audition -- I had to do something else. Whether it was a sport or art. It's completely helped me be kind of sane through this whole business. I always tell people: "Do something else. Always have something else you love, so you're not focused in on the one thing."

MICHELE I've gotten a lot of bad advice. As I said, I was kind of a weirdo kid, and I used to sing around the house. And I will never forget my father saying: "You are a great dancer, but you're not a singer. Just stick with that." And now I think about that every day I'm on the Glee tour, my legs are like noodles, I don't know where I'm going and all I do is move my arms.

BOWEN The good advice I got was, "It's a numbers game." I heard early on that you're going to have to go on 30 auditions to even get a call back, and 50 before you get a job. "Oh, I can do that." So every time I heard no, it's like, "Oh good!" That meant I was getting closer to the yes. In a world where you hear no more than yes, you have to find a way to make friends with no. So that advice worked out well. That and you can all sleep your way to the middle. (Laughter.)
Actually, I married outside the business. I don't have any salacious stories.

CUOCO That's probably good advice too.

 

Julie, you expressed some angst earlier about not having enough time to see your kids lately. How do you cope with balancing work and family?

BOWEN You don't. Luckily my job is fantastic and it's a real ensemble and we shoot fast. I sometimes stay at work and take a nap in my trailer and take the long way home. Once I went to a bar too. I called my husband and said, "I'm in a bar watching the basketball game." It was only like 40 minutes. It didn't hurt anyone. The kids were napping. But a lot of times you don't do it all well, and the thing that I was willing and have always been willing to give up is any alone time. That's why I occasionally stop at LACMA on my way home and just sit there. It feels so indulgent and good.

POEHLER It's about not being too hard on yourself. It's controlled chaos, and you have to decide every day how to make it work. When you have kids, you get this beautifully wrapped package of something to worry about, and your work just becomes different, in a good way. The only time I find it difficult is when I'm doing work I don't really love. And then I feel like -- why am I here?

BOWEN You're on your 18th hour on a set that you don't care about.

POEHLER That's when you start to get that crunchy feeling that you're not doing it right. You also just have to get a lot of help. I have a lot of people who help me navigate my day and take care of my kids. It's a lot of depending on people to help.

FISCHER My biggest anxiety about becoming a mother is how work and motherhood will go together. I don't know if I'm going to want to work a lot, a little, or the same. I've been squirreling away my money for a long time, so I could have the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom if that's what I wanted. But I feel like I don't know totally. Did that change when you became mothers?

BOWEN I felt really guilty.

FISCHER I'm older and I really know who I am now, and that is such a neat feeling when you get in your mid-30s and you're like, "Oh, that's who I am." That feels so good. And then this feels like a big monkey wrench in the works.

BOWEN Wait, so now mid-30 is "older"?

HATCHER I've got your back on what older is. (Laughs.)

BOWEN It took me a year of having three kids. I would come home, turn off my nice switch and say, "This floor is dirty and you people don't look like you've had vegetables." Then I lowered my standards, and my happiness has gone up in direct proportion.

HATCHER It's a marathon, not a sprint. Every little moment of, "Oh my God, I missed their first step" or "I wasn't there when they took their pacifier out!" -- there are a gazillion of them. I'm speaking now from having a 13-year-old. In the moment you get hung up, but parenting is a lot of years of moments. So if one doesn't go right, who cares.

FISCHER OK. That's really good advice

HATCHER And the other thing: Don't take anyone's advice. (Laughter.)

 

What's your biggest annoyance with the business and how it works?

BOWEN I love working, but if I had a complaint it's that the Hollywood publicity machine is so huge now. That didn't exist 15 years ago. They like ladies to be mean to each other. They look for it when sometimes it's not there. I work with guys, I work with women, I work with kids -- everybody is very supportive. So, that makes me uncomfortable.

 

But that's the difference between celebrity and the business.

BOWEN True, true. But sometimes it's really hard to unknot that knot.

FISCHER It bothers me that at the Oscars, which is supposed to be about celebrating people's work, the first question on the red carpet is: What are you wearing? It also bothers me that I care. (Laughter.) I am part of the problem. I think about being 13, back in Missouri, laying in bed wondering what it's about, and now so much of what it's about is dresses and parties.

HATCHER I don't read any of the gossipy stuff. I just love going to work. I have a lot of friends there; the crew, we just laugh all day. We try to take the material and do the best with what we can do with it.

FISCHER I love your show. I watch it every week. I'm a huge fan.

HATCHER Thank you! You know, at this point, there is such a great respect, gratefulness for how it's changed all of our lives. For all intents and purposes I've been a single mom the whole time I've been on the show. I can afford my house, and I can send my daughter to school. I love this character and I can try to do with it what I can.

FISCHER I'd like to say that I don't like getting up at five in the morning.

MICHELE I'll take a 5 a.m. start over a still-there-at-3 a.m.

 

Who are the funniest people in comedy, alive or dead?

CUOCO Lucille Ball. I remember I used to watch her and think, "Big eyes are funny!" And I find myself doing it all the time. The camera's staring at me. I'm doing it right now with these giant eyes. I think I've tried to copy that.

POEHLER That should be the name of your book.

CUOCO Big Eyes Are Funny. Don't steal that.

FISCHER I would say Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell. They are just two of the funniest people I know.

POEHLER Oh God, so much pressure. Certainly Will Arnett. (Laughter.) I hate these f--king lists because -- excuse my language -- I am so blessed to have spent a lot of quality time with super funny people. So I'm totally avoiding your question. (Laughter.)

 

OK, what was the last really funny thing you saw on TV?

BOWEN Actually, it was your show (gesturing toward Poehler). Oh my God, when they all were drinking that snakebite stuff and you started dancing into the camera. I was peeing my pants. It made me so happy.

CUOCO I watched your show the whole way home from New York.

POEHLER Oh cool, on the plane?

CUOCO Yeah, like a million episodes. I was laughing so hard, I'm looking around -- "Is anyone else watching this?" It is hysterical.

Art Streiber
Ron Tom/NBC
Art Streiber
ABC/Karen Neal
Art Streiber

POEHLER Sometimes on the plane, when I'm by myself, I'll laugh really hard at my own show, just to see what happens. (Laughter.)