THR Emmy Roundtable: Jim Parsons, Adam Scott and More Comedy Actors on Failed Pilots and Mean Fans
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's June 13 Emmy stand-alone issue.
Perhaps it was the vacation-inspired environs of the Bungalow in Santa Monica that put the performers in such a carefree state of mind. Or it could be that each of the comedy actors who assembled for a candid conversation about their bizarre livelihoods was so different from the other, their union played out like a well-cast ensemble performance: The Network Veteran: Matthew Perry, 43 (NBC's departed series Go On); The New Guy: Jake Johnson, 35 (Fox's New Girl); The Sketch Guy: Fred Armisen, 46 (IFC's Portlandia, NBC's Saturday Night Live, from which he departed in May); The Lovable Nerd: Jim Parsons, 40 (CBS' The Big Bang Theory); The Straight Man: Adam Scott, 40 (NBC's Parks and Recreation); and The Scene-Stealer: Eric Stonestreet, 41 (ABC's Modern Family). They tackled with spirited candor the parts of the business that bug them, their worst acting gigs and the jobs they might have if they weren't actors (warning: don't use the word "penal" with this group).
The Hollywood Reporter: What is the craziest thing you've ever done for a laugh?
Fred Armisen: I don't think we want to answer that.
Matthew Perry: That we've decided to spend our lives pretending to be other people. That's the craziest thing. As opposed to doing something else. Or something funny. Or some funny answer that I could have thought of.
Eric Stonestreet: Putting on a wig. As a kid, that was the first stupid thing I did to make someone laugh.
THR: How old were you?
Stonestreet: There are pictures of me from 5 on wearing a wig. I'm like, "Who in the hell put me in this wig?" "Oh, you always wanted to wear wigs. Always wanted to wear wigs and makeup." Did I? OK, all right.
Armisen: Is that a wig?
Stonestreet: This is a wig.
Armisen: It's a good one.
Stonestreet: Thank you. It's expensive.
Jake Johnson: When I was a kid, I used to do talk shows with my family where I would be the host, my siblings would be the guests, and I would draw on a little bit of chest hair and a mustache.
Adam Scott: I like that the talk-show host had chest hair.
Johnson: Yeah. I knew the kind of guy I wanted to be at, like, 7.
Stonestreet: Who was your inspiration? Which talk-show host that had a lot of chest hair?
Johnson: I can't answer that.
Stonestreet: What public-access shows were you watching?
Johnson: I can't answer that for certain.
Scott: Burt Reynolds did guest-host The Tonight Show all the time.
Johnson: Yeah, that's interesting.
Armisen: Was he just un-shirted?
Johnson: In my 7-year-old's fantasy version, it was open-shirted and mustache. My cousin always played a football player, my brother was a politician, my other cousin, Teresa, was a hooker.
Stonestreet: Curious, what's she up to these days?
Johnson: Just chilling out, she's around, great gal.
Stonestreet: Yeah, I'd love to meet her.
Scott: She's your agent.
Johnson: She's here, actually, somewhere.
Armisen: You know, you could pitch that show now. You've got the power to get it out there.
Johnson: That's right.
Jim Parsons: I liked talk shows, too, but I only just wanted to come out from behind the curtain. I did that a lot when I was very young, like Johnny Carson, but I didn't want to do the rest of the job. Or maybe I just didn't have the energy to organize everybody in the family to do the whole thing.
Johnson: But you'd do the walk out.
Parsons: Oh, yes. That and [wear] Mr. Rogers' sweater -- I wanted to take a sweater out of the closet.
Perry: How often did you do that?
Parsons: I don't know. It stopped around 3 or 4?
Scott: That's also a high-concept idea for a talk show. Just coming out from behind a curtain, roll credits, and it's done.
Stonestreet: You could get advertisers to pay for it.
THR: If you could change one aspect of the TV business, what would it be?
Stonestreet: The way actors get jobs for TV shows. The whole test process is kind of old-fashioned, where you go in front of a room of execs wearing suits, multiple times, to get your job, versus putting a performance on tape and letting an editor edit it for the best performance. In reality, that's what happens on our TV shows.
Johnson: I had to test in front of everybody.
Stonestreet: Yeah, I did too.
Johnson: There's so much anxiety, it's a nightmare!
Stonestreet: It's like hazing in fraternities.
Johnson: It's smarter, especially with a single-cam show, to shoot it, edit it and see how an actor would actually be on the show.
Scott: I wonder about the psychology behind it; do they just want to see how much pressure you can take and still be competent? Ten years ago, I remember going in, and it was an arena full of people watching.
Stonestreet: My standard line would be, "I've done theater for less people than this."
Perry: The whole idea of making 100 pilots, paying for 100 pilots, but knowing you're only going to use seven is just such a crazy, ridiculous waste of money. I don't know how you fix that, but that just has always seemed ridiculous to me. If I were running a network, I think it would be nice to just put on a show that you think would be great. There's nothing wrong with putting on a show that 20 million people will watch, but aiming to put on a show that 20 million people will watch is not the smartest thing.
THR: Well, 20 million people don't watch primetime shows anymore.
Perry: Yeah, don't I know it! (Laughs.)
THR: Do you all pay attention to your ratings?
Parsons: It dictates whether you get to keep your job.
Armisen: You get the e-mails -- all the time.
Johnson: We just finished season two. And we hear, "Oh, you guys will come back for sure," but if the ratings start really slipping on anything, they're not going to spend a lot of money if people aren't watching it. I think the actors who don't pay attention to it at all are on huge monster shows.
Scott: If I were running a network, which I will never do …
Stonestreet: I think that's selling yourself short.
Scott: You're right. When I run a network …
Perry: He really turned you around on that.
Johnson: So quickly.
Scott: I have made plans now, it's officially happening.
Stonestreet: I've changed my mind. I'd rather you not run a network.
Scott: OK, forget it, it's not going to happen.
Perry: You actually will make a great network person.
Scott: I'm just agreeing with everything everyone says! No, I would try and pick the right showrunners and then leave them alone. When there's constant network meddling, the shows get watered down.
THR: How involved are you guys with the notes process on your shows? Do they trickle down to you?
Scott: Not at all.
Stonestreet: Zero, zero.
Armisen: A lot. We go through them on Portlandia all the time, so it's about trying to find the balance between seeing if it's an actual valuable note or something to be ignored.
THR: Matthew, what is the biggest difference doing a comedy today versus during the Friends heyday?
Scott: The free Ferrari you get Friday morning?
Perry: Yeah. I mean, it's completely different. When Friends started, there was no cable, no hot food, no mass transit.
Stonestreet: It feels like just the other day.
Perry: No, it's just really a completely different thing. But I always have the same thing -- which is the fear of not getting a laugh -- that I've had from the time I was a kid; obsessing over "This joke doesn't quite work, we've got to get this right." I was always like that whether I was a member of a six-person ensemble or whether I'm the center of a show.
Parsons: The taping process was completely different too, right?
Perry: It was in front of a live audience and a 10-to-4 kind of job. And we only worked a third of the time.
Johnson: (To Stonestreet.) Like you.
Stonestreet: Take it easy.
Perry: Why in the world did we stop? We all decided, "You know what? Let's stop." But I'd love to get in a time machine right now and say, "Please, let's not stop!" (Laughter.)
Scott: Do you miss the live audience?
Perry: I do. Doing single-camera work is a completely different type of acting. It certainly breeds playing to the last row in the audience. It's a slightly bigger performance. I've gotten a kick out of being able to play something a little bit more real, but it really is so different.
Scott: That rush of the live audience, I imagine, would be very tough to give up and say goodbye to.
Perry: Yes … The big difference with single-cam work is that if your character is sad about something, or very angry, instead of just playing it exactly the way somebody would play angry or sad, you're sort of saying, "OK, I'm going to be angry and sad now, so watch this. You're going to enjoy it!"