Free Association With TV's Funny Ladies
Seven Emmy contenders spill about Twitter, paparazzi, how they discovered their own humor, and "labial saturation."
To hear these leading Emmy contenders tell it, the offscreen life of a comedy actress isn't too far from what audiences see every week on the small screen: equal parts pratfalls, a you-go-girl attitude and a willingness to do anything (even a fellatio scene with Woody Allen) for a laugh. Gathered at the Hollywood Tower in Los Angeles on May 7, these seven actresses -- Christina Applegate (NBC's Up All Night), 40; Julie Bowen (ABC's Modern Family), 42; Laura Dern (HBO's Enlightened), 45; Zooey Deschanel (Fox's New Girl), 32; Julia Louis-Dreyfus (HBO's Veep), 51; Jane Lynch (Fox's Glee), 51; and Martha Plimpton (Fox's Raising Hope), 41 -- reveal the moments they first knew they were funny, the topic that makes them most angry, how they cope with invasions of privacy and where they would retreat if their acting careers ended tomorrow.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: What has been your most embarrassing moment as an actor?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: This is only an hour long? (Laughter.)
Laura Dern: For each story, hopefully.
Jane Lynch: We were doing a scene in Glee, and I let some gas fly. (Laughter.) I blamed it on an extra. I went, "Whew, a drive-by!" I texted Matt Morrison after I got home and said it was me.
Julie Bowen: You had to come clean.
Martha Plimpton: It's going to be hard to top that.
Dern: I really respect the ultimate culpability.
Lynch: I'm a Catholic girl. But the extra still is to blame. (Laughter.)
Bowen: This is a terrible story, and it's going to make you feel better about farting and make my publicist throw herself in front of the camera. But I had to have a full-body cast made for a horror movie once. I'd just arrived in Los Angeles, practically fresh off the boat in the 1990s, and it was this famous Japanese effects guy with full '80s hair-band hair. I think his name was Crazy George. He speaks two words of English. He indicated what they needed. I'm like, "You're indicating that I'm going to need to be naked." I'm pretending to be cool because, of course, I do this all the time. They hand me a jar of Vaseline, and I don't know what's going on. It was supposed to help ensure that parts of me I didn't want to stick to the plaster didn't stick to the plaster. I finally figure that out …
Dern: Oh my God.
Bowen: I use the barest little [bit of it], and even though I know I should go further, I say, "I'm fine!" and wave them off. Later in the day, when they removed it from my body, it was a painful experience.
Zooey Deschanel: So it was kind of like a waxing?
Plimpton: But with cement and plaster.
Christina Applegate: How's your vagina doing now? (Laughter.)
Bowen: Three kids later, aces. How's yours?
Applegate: Fabulous. I've showed up to work at least twice on Up All Night with my pants on backward because I was so tired. I was like, "Why do they feel so weird?" And I look down, and there are the butt pockets.
Deschanel: I had to do this scene with Justin Long where I had to wear underwear. They had three different options, S&M-type things. The wardrobe fitting was really interesting. They had this leather bondage thing, and Liz [Meriwether], our show creator, nixed it. But there are pictures somewhere.
Applegate: I have them. (Laughter.) You looked really good in what you ended up in, by the way. I was kind of like, "Damn!"
Louis-Dreyfus: I had a bit part in Hannah and Her Sisters, the  Woody Allen movie. I was incredibly nervous and excited. I was in this scene where his character is producing a show and he thinks he has a brain tumor, thinks he hears ringing. He's supposed to say: "Wait, stop. Do you hear that ringing?" I'm his assistant. And so we start to shoot. He says, "Wait, stop …" and I say, "What?" He goes, "No, no, that's the line. (Laughter.) So we go back to the line, start to roll camera. He says, "Wait, stop …" and I say, "What?" again.
Plimpton: I would have been like, "Change the line, Woody!"
Louis-Dreyfus: Then he made some joke about me at my expense to the crew, and he was right to do it. Many years later, I get this call from Juliet Taylor, his casting director, saying Woody's making a new movie [1997's Deconstructing Harry], and he would love for you to do it. And I'm like: "I can't believe it! He forgot about that horrible thing!" I hadn't even read it, and I go: "Yeah, of course I'm going to do it! I mean, unless he's got me blowing him or something."
Lynch: And you're blowing him.
Louis-Dreyfus: Yep, there's a blow-job scene. (Raucous laughter.)
THR: Who was influential in developing your comedic acting style?
Plimpton: God, do I have one? Many of them are sitting here.
Louis-Dreyfus: Many, but not all of them? (Laughter.)
Plimpton: When I was a kid, Gilda Radner was everything. Madeline Kahn, too. All the women in all of those Mel Brooks movies were huge.
Louis-Dreyfus: Teri Garr.
Plimpton: Yes. Teri Garr in Tootsie is phenomenal! All those women were ridiculous, but there was an honesty about them. And Cloris [Leachman] is, of course, huge. And I get to work with her.
Louis-Dreyfus: Lucky you.
Plimpton: She's out of her mind. Completely and totally out of her mind.
Bowen: I see her waiting outside the park sometimes in a car filled with dogs, and she's reading. I wonder, could you answer that mystery for me?
Plimpton: Well, she's not allowed to drive, so I'm wondering how she got there in that car. (Laughter.)
THR: Christina, you started acting very young. Was there anyone who set you on the right track?
Applegate: I grew up with Ed O'Neill and Katey Sagal as parents, so anything that I've done well or poorly you can blame pretty much on them. I considered myself really dramatic, one of those angst-ridden 15-year-olds. But being with those two, I learned how to completely let go and that it's OK to look foolish, and to come at it with truth. That all really came from Eddie and Katey.
Bowen: [To Applegate] We've never talked about us both playing Ed's daughters. I don't even think of [our] Ed O'Neill as Al Bundy.
Applegate: It's so different!
Bowen: I'll see him on an episode of Married … With Children, and I'm like, "Oh my God, that's him!"
Dern: My parents [actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd] were hugely influential -- and hilarious to be raised by. They came from a generation of actors who were all about characters full of eccentricities and also protagonists in movies and in television. They deeply influence my longing to play those kinds of characters.
THR: When do you recall realizing you were funny?
Dern: In intimate relationships. (Laughter.) That was when I first heard, "You're funny."
Deschanel: My parents say I tried to make them laugh when I was a baby, which I don't really trust. I was always awkward and a little chubby. The only way I could get through the day was to make somebody laugh, make fun of myself first so others couldn't.
Applegate: There was a moment in my 20s where I just let go of everything and could then be more funny in real life. The second I went, "Who gives a f-- about any of this?" is when I became what my personality is today. And I am hilarious. (Laughter.) I don't know if you knew that, but if you get in a room with me …
Lynch: We are in a room with you.
Applegate: I'm usually quite hilarious, but it's too hot in here!
Lynch: Comedy was definitely a diversionary tactic, a very conscious one for me in high school. Keep people from looking too closely. There's stuff going on inside of you that's just so dark and ugly, you don't want people to see it. I hung out with the powerful people -- the cheerleaders, the jocks. I was the funny person to have around, and it made me feel safe, like I was under the radar from being mocked.
THR: Did you always know you wanted to work in comedy?
Lynch: I knew from the get-go. I loved The Carol Burnett Show and Saturday Night Live. They were both on at the same time for two years, and I was in heaven. I also wanted to live in The Brady Bunch household. Alice was hilarious.
THR: Julia, you had a stint on SNL during the early 1980s. What war stories do you have?
Louis-Dreyfus: It is just like war. (Laughter.) I did that show when I was 21. I hadn't even finished college and was unbelievably naive about the business. I came from doing ensemble shows and theater on campus in Chicago -- "We work as a team and support each other!" -- and I brought that to SNL, and it had no place there. I couldn't have been greener. It also wasn't female-friendly at the time. It was hard to figure out how to stay alive in that place. I will say it was really fun when I went back to host; it was like stepping into a time capsule.
Bowen: So maybe it wasn't as bad then as you thought?
Louis-Dreyfus: Well, it was definitely different with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig there. It was run better; Lorne Michaels was back. And I knew what I was doing. (Laughter.)
THR: Zooey, you hosted SNL this season. What was that experience like?
Applegate: You were so good.
Deschanel: Thanks! It was a dream of mine. I always wanted to have a variety show; I love to sing and dance. But it was so tiring. On my show, we work really long hours and I get tired, but it was like, there's something about …
Applegate: … the adrenaline.
Deschanel: And all the weird traditions. Like, you go in, everybody has these tiny little pieces of paper, and they pitch you the ideas. You're like, "Great -- perfect!" Then they do a day of writing, and none of the ideas are there. (Laughter.) The next day you do a table read with 50 sketches, and you have to learn 10 songs. It felt like the fantasy of doing summer stock.
Lynch: Where your back is up against the wall.
Deschanel: It goes by so fast. They pull you offstage, put wigs on you.
Lynch: Just stand there, and they tear your clothes off. (Laughter.)
Louis-Dreyfus: "Don't you move. We will move you!" The cue cards are also really something.
Deschanel: That was the most challenging. You don't have to memorize lines, but you have to …
Louis-Dreyfus: Be familiar.
Deschanel: Right, and then act like you're not looking at them. Which is a skill I didn't even think about.
Louis-Dreyfus: It's very old-fashioned.
THR: You mentioned Tina Fey, and in her book Bossypants, she wrote about her days at SNL and going up against the men on the show. Recently there were some comments by Two and a Half Men showrunner Lee Aronsohn that Martha responded to on Twitter …
Plimpton: He said we have reached a point of labial saturation on television.
Louis-Dreyfus: What, like we need more dicks and balls? (Laughter.)
Applegate: I think we've lived in the land of dicks and balls long enough.
THR: He's no longer the showrunner on Two and a Half Men, for unrelated reasons.
Deschanel: He stepped down after Martha gave it to him.
Plimpton: There were a lot of us who said something. [Actress] Sarah Thyre, [comedy writer and blogger] Lizz Winstead -- a lot of much funnier women than me, who nailed him in a way that was charming and hilarious and totally emasculating, which I enjoyed tremendously. I just wanted to remind him that 52 percent of the people watching those [TV] commercials are women, and advertisers care about that kind of thing. I tend to get a little pissed off about stuff like that.
Lynch: I'm with you.
Plimpton: I come from a dramatic acting background, so there is a lot more powerful rage and hostility toward the world.
Applegate: You're saying that as you're wearing this cute pink dress, too.
THR: Why do you think there was such a reaction to Aronsohn's comment?
Applegate: Why wouldn't there be?
Bowen: "Labial saturation" could be the opening of a book.
Deschanel: It's like kicking somebody while they're down. We're just getting to the point where people aren't making "female comedies." We've had like hundreds and hundreds of years of men dominating everything. I mean, I'm going way back.
Bowen: Five hundred years of television.
Deschanel: Jesus Christ had his own show.
Louis-Dreyfus: We can edit this, right?
Bowen: What makes it maddening is that the conversation shouldn't even be a conversation at this point.
Plimpton: What I love and loathe about Twitter is that you can say something in response to something like that and mean it off the cuff, which it is.
Deschanel: And then regret it.
Plimpton: Right. And it creates phony controversy. There is no controversy to me about this. Women are talented, smart, half the population. Some women are not talented and stupid.
Bowen: We're also slutty. (Laughter.)
Plimpton: We're great cooks; we're terrible cooks!
Louis-Dreyfus: Next topic!
THR: Laura, as co-creator of Enlightened, did you know from the outset that you wanted it on HBO? It's a very dark comedy.
Dern: Yes. I presumed the world was excited to see strong, hilarious women on television. And how exciting a place to work is HBO. Tony Soprano and Larry David can be flawed, and we still love them. But when I started doing press, [the questions were] really eye-opening: "Wow, the character of Amy is really angry." I had never had those conversations about an independent movie I'd been in.
Deschanel: When you did press, had you shot your full season?
Dern: We had.
Deschanel: That's the cool thing about cable because when we were doing press for our show, we'd only shot the pilot. So I'm like, "My character is this and this … actually, I don't know yet!"
Plimpton: Women have the added pressure of representing every woman, no matter what character they're playing.
Deschanel: It's like, is "flawed" unlikable?
Bowen: My therapist and I talk about this all the time. (Laughter.)
Applegate: Angry is hilarious!
Louis-Dreyfus: When I started to do press for Veep, I didn't consider these questions, and that was stupid of me. People started talking about, "Oh a female vice president!" And I'm just trying to make a funny-as-shit show. But I'm being asked questions as if I were running for office.
Deschanel: There is always an angle. For us, it's like,"You're setting feminism back because you like to wear dresses!"
Dern: I met with male journalists ages 30 to 65 from various newspapers who said: "I feel so much like Amy. I totally relate to this character." A majority of the times I had difficult questions like: "Why is she so angry? Do you think people are going to like her?" was with female journalists.
Bowen: I get questions like: "You're a mom on Modern Family; you're a mom at home. Is that exactly the same, or is it different?"
Applegate: I get, "Are you really up all night?" (Laughter.) God bless the people that have asked me that.
Lynch: The beast wants little bites. It really doesn't want the in-depth.
THR: Speaking of which, Christina, you've had run-ins with paparazzi.
Applegate: I get hot when I think about it. We're all subject to this idea that the public has access to us. But when you're dealing with my kid … look at me, I'm sweating right now. I'm shaking.
Bowen: What did they do?
Applegate: I don't want them pointing their energy at her -- period. It became a big fight. It was bad. Children should be off-limits.
Louis-Dreyfus: The paparazzi culture has taken off since I had my kids more than a decade ago. I've had my share of problems, which I won't go into, but I've just kept my kids out of it -- though sometimes you don't have control.
Applegate: I mean, you're coming out of their little class. That's supposed to be a safe environment!
Bowen: I remember when my first son was born. I thought, "I don't want anyone to take his picture." If the world knew what he looked like, some fruity nutburger was going to come steal him. I have never done this, but someone told me you can Google my son and find tons of pictures, and I'm not in them. But I can't make myself crazy over it.
Deschanel: It's so much, you can't even sort through it.
Bowen: Now I have three kids, and I'm just trying to get down Ventura Boulevard to get to my hair cut and there's a bunch of paparazzi because they normally don't give a rat's ass about me and they're hanging out for George Clooney because he lives around the corner.
Lynch: It may be valuable at some point!
Deschanel: They were following me around doing errands one Saturday. I went to the most boring places. It's like, "Guys, what do you want?"
Applegate: "I got my aluminum foil. Now I have to go get that nail clipper."
Bowen: But then, who's buying that magazine? As kids growing up, we'd go to the supermarket, and we were not allowed to touch [the tabloids]. But my mom now buys them! It's become totally acceptable to know who looks good without makeup.
Deschanel: Do you think people like to be in the grocery store looking at people in the grocery in the magazines?
Bowen: It's so weird.
THR: It speaks to the influence of your shows. Joe Biden said on Meet the Press that his views on gay marriage were influenced by Will & Grace.
Lynch: Weren't they just the wackiest people! (Laughter.)
THR: But is it ever overwhelming to you how impactful your shows can be?
Louis-Dreyfus: I can't think about it because that is just paralyzing to me.
Plimpton: I shudder to think that anyone in America would be emulating the parenting skills on our show.
Applegate: There's a lot of child neglect on my show. (Laughter.) But if it gets to where I feel, like, yucky about it, I say something: "You know, maybe she shouldn't be playing with all of those electrical wires."
Plimpton: That's my show! (Laughter.)
Applegate: Or if the babies get really tired, I try to step in and help them. But for the most part, anything goes. I mean, half the time we are drunk or hung over.
THR: What's been your strangest fan interaction?
Deschanel: I get a lot, especially since I play music, too. Girls come up to me who are dressed exactly like I am -- same hair and everything. I'm super-flattered: "Oh my, I'm looking into a mirror." But they're 16.
Louis-Dreyfus: I was on a plane, and a flight attendant said, "You look so different in real life." I didn't know if it was a compliment or if I'd just been blasted.
Deschanel: "You are so thin in real life!"
Lynch: "You look much younger!"
Plimpton: I had a guy come up to me on the street. I was hailing a cab and he called out to me, and sometimes I don't respond right away because in New York, you can get away with [ignoring people]. But he said: "I feel very strongly you're a part of me. I feel your presence in me as well as your father and your grandfather because they're both actors."
Louis-Dreyfus: Hey, you never know. (Laughter.)
Bowen: What did you say?
Plimpton: "Thank you! Taxi! Taxi! Thank you!" It's interesting to me how people feel they know you. They feel an affinity, even a familial relationship.
Deschanel: Or they hate you. They are so polarizing. "I love you!" or, "I hate you!"
Plimpton: People don't say they hate me on the street.
Bowen: They do it online. But I have a "no online" rule.
Deschanel: I have an "all online" rule.
Deschanel: Oh yeah.
Bowen: "Henry, 48, who lives in his mother's basement in Des Moines, thinks you're a stupid old slut."
Deschanel: You have to consider the source. But who doesn't get to say it?
Bowen: Like everybody gets to say whatever they want to say.
Deschanel: Sure, I always feel it's like I have a few people whose opinions I value.
Louis-Dreyfus: So one of them is Henry in Des Moines, is that right? (Laughter.)
Deschanel: Henry in Des Moines is one of them. I'm on Twitter, and I have a website [HelloGiggles.com]. It started as a female comedy site and has become more editorial. There's way too much negativity online. But it will eventually change.
Louis-Dreyfus: It will get worse!
Deschanel: No, I think it will get better. It's still this frontier, this weird Old West, like everyone shooting each other; it's just with words.
Plimpton: Then everyone is just going to be dead. (Laughter.)
Bowen: It's too lawless. I mean, this is America, freedom of speech and all that, but it's amazing to me. I remember as a kid being in a planetarium, and the minute the lights went down, everyone was whipping shoes at each other. We were 8 years old. And [my teacher] would say, "Character is who you are when the lights are off." And I was like, "Uh-oh." I was the first person to whip my shoe across the room. That's what the Internet feels like to me.
THR: If your acting careers ended tomorrow, what would you do?
Dern: Is that why we were brought here? "This is your last interview!"
Plimpton: I would move to that island -- I think it's called Yap -- where the only form of currency is a giant round stone that gets moved from house to house. You want a cow? You give the giant round stone to the guy with a cow.
Lynch: It's gotta be a bitch to move this thing.
Plimpton: I would move there.
THR: I'm sorry. This is a real place?
Plimpton: Yes, it's a real place. I would totally find that island and live there.
Louis-Dreyfus: Get that f--ing stone, yeah!
Plimpton: I have no skills and no ability to function in the world. I have to move somewhere. (Laughter.)
Louis-Dreyfus: I'm going with you.
Applegate: I might go there, too.
Plimpton: I think we're all going to Yap.
Deschanel: I'll stay here and play music.
Bowen: Well, you have other things you can do.
Dern: Will you come play for us in Yap?
Deschanel: You can pay me with the stone. Although I may have to take it with me.
Dern: No, you can't take it!
ABOUT THR'S ROUNDTABLE SERIES: Now in its sixth year, The Hollywood Reporter's Emmy Season Roundtable Series has emerged as the television industry's premier showcase for no-holds-barred discussions with the town's top talent. An offshoot of THR's popular Oscar series, the Emmy roundtables also have become predictors of academy winners; in fact, 23 of last year's participants went on to earn nominations for writing, producing, starring in and hosting television's top series.