Ricky Gervais, Jordan Peele and TV's Funniest Actors on Failed Fart Skits, Louis C.K. Worship and When to Play the Race Card

Six top Emmy comedy contenders — including Fred Armisen, Don Cheadle, Will Forte and Thomas Middleditch — explore the merits of critics (consensus: no merit), the tyranny of political correctness and the humor they don't get: "There are plenty of shows that get millions of viewers, and I'm like, 'I can't sit through 22 minutes of this,'" says Middleditch.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Two sketch performers, an Oscar nominee, an awards-emcee instigator, a Canadian import turned American geek icon and a Saturday Night Live alum who somehow persuaded a broadcast network to do a comedy about the apocalypse walk into a studio … The punchline? They're countless in this no-holds-barred discussion among six top Emmy comedy contenders.

Here, Portlandia's Fred Armisen, 48; House of Lies' Don Cheadle, 50; The Last Man on Earth's Will Forte, 44; Derek's Ricky Gervais, 53; Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch, 33; and Key & Peele's Jordan Peele, 36, explore the merits of comedy critics (consensus: no merit), where the funny really comes from, the mastery of Louis C.K. and their dream collaborators (dead or alive).

Who or what first taught you what it meant to be funny?

RICKY GERVAIS My family — my older brothers — and friends. At 5 or 6, I realized it felt good to laugh and make people laugh. I was always attracted to funny people before anything else. The first time I understood it was people doing it for my pleasure was Laurel and Hardy. It began and ended with them because it was about empathy, not just jokes. It was the fact that I loved watching them and wanted to be their friend. I suppose it was understanding, empathy and that sort of thing. See, now I've gone first with a serious, pretentious answer!

WILL FORTE For me, it was also wanting to please Ricky's family and make them laugh. (Laughter.) Saturday Night Live was a big deal for me.

GERVAIS It was before Fred was on, wasn't it?

FORTE Yes. It was right before that.

FRED ARMISEN Thank you.

FORTE SNL and Letterman for me. I was like, "Oh my God, what a delightful thing if I could do that for a living."

THOMAS MIDDLEDITCH I am the token Canadian here, so for me it was Kids in the Hall. They were so weird and challenged absurdity. And the Monty Python movies. They combined their love of madness with narrative. When you get to sink your teeth into a good story and laugh along the way, it's always a joy. (To the group) Best answer so far? Vote?

GERVAIS Monty Python is also when I became aware that I was jealous of grown men acting ridiculous. I got told off at school for being a fool and mucking around, but they're doing it for a living. I thought, "This would be great." No one could tell me not to do it because it'd be my job.

MIDDLEDITCH "And I can finally dress as a lady and people will think it's great."

GERVAIS That's rule one: The funniest thing you can ever do as a comedian if you're a man is dress up like a woman.

ARMISEN Early on for me, it was probably friends and then cartoons, I suppose? Bugs Bunny and stuff.

You were watching Friends before you saw cartoons?

ARMISEN No. Friends. My own friends.

MIDDLEDITCH I thought you were talking about the sitcom, too.

ARMISEN That's my appeal — the mystery! I felt like being funny had currency with my friends. We'd talk about shows like SCTV and SNL. You'd impress each other by doing impressions of the characters.

GERVAIS It's certainly bonding, isn't it? "That's my type of person; I like what they like."

MIDDLEDITCH And it was about survival. You may see me now and think, "That guy's a really cool guy; he was probably always really cool." But there was a time when …

GERVAIS I actually thought you were probably the bully.

MIDDLEDITCH Yeah, I was the bad one. Definitely the bad one. I made laughter my weapon, and I killed people with it! (Laughter.)

GERVAIS Here comes the Canadian, watch out!

JORDAN PEELE For me, at 7 years old, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, it was the first time Ricky Gervais came on the screen. (Laughter.) No. Ricky actually was very instrumental to me. (To Gervais) I think you're just a rare genius. Actually, let's cut that part because I feel uncomfortable with it. Early on, it was In Living Color and SNL for me, too. I always wanted to be like Phil Hartman — a utility player on a sketch show. I loved the fact that he could take any role and bring such truth to it with amazing vocal work. And when In Living Color came on, it showed me how important sketch is to push boundaries. Sometimes it went too far, and it was magical.

DON CHEADLE I think we all learn early that making people laugh — and laughing at yourself — is kind of the best feeling. And to combat bullying, too. You can reach across to people that you thought you would have no connection with and laugh, and you're like, "Oh, wait a minute, we're not that different." And they get back to kicking your ass. But there was a minute.

What was the worst job you had coming up in the business?

CHEADLE I used to install cable in apartment crawl spaces, and I probably was crawling all over asbestos and rat shit. And then stealing from the apartments, weed stashes and stuff like that. That was fun.

GERVAIS Not that that's condoned.

CHEADLE Definitely not, especially if kids are reading this.

GERVAIS Why are they reading this? (Laughter.)

MIDDLEDITCH Go to your favorite viral video site! See someone get hit in the nuts! Anything but this, please.

FORTE My worst job was an office job doing what my dad did — financial consulting. It was really tricky because I started thinking I wanted to go into comedy, but it was really scary to break away from what I'd thought I should be doing with my life. But that job dragged me down. I stayed at it for so long that it finally broke me. I bottomed out.

GERVAIS "Father, I'm leaving. I am going to L.A.!" (Laughter.)

FORTE Of course, the second I told my dad, "I don't want to do this, I want do comedy," he was incredibly supportive. He was like, "I don't know why you were doing that in the first place."

MIDDLEDITCH "You're terrible at this job."

CHEADLE "I've been trying to fire you for three years, I just couldn't work up the courage."

MIDDLEDITCH (To the group) In those jobby jobs, were you "the funny guy"? I found that I shut down and wasn't myself. People weren't interacting with me. It was just like, "I'm just trying to walk these dogs and pick up the poo." (Laughter.)

What was your most mortifying audition?

GERVAIS I wrote parts for myself, so I didn't have to audition for anything. I cheated. I was around 36, 37. I'd worked in an office for like 10 years, which is what The Office was based on. But I never thought, "I am going to write this someday." I was just the "funny guy." Then I got a job at a radio station and started popping up on air. I think I went to one audition for a [commercial], and it was dreadful. I never want to do that again. I'm no good at auditions.

PEELE There is no good audition. It is an exquisitely mortifying experience. One of the more recent ones I had was for [Marvel's upcoming film] Ant-Man

CHEADLE Did you get the part?

PEELE The funny thing is, I actually did. But the audition was a nightmare. This was when Edgar Wright was still directing it. It was one of those things where my manager tells me: "You got the gig. Just go in there. It's a done deal. They just want to see you on camera. It's already done." So I go in there, it's like four lines.

GERVAIS "I'm an ant! Oh, there's some sugar!" (Laughter.)

CHEADLE "Now, you and your friends make a bridge."

PEELE You think you don't need the script because you studied it so much. I told them: "That was shit. That was awful. I apologize. I've wasted your time." And then Edgar was, "No, no, that was good." I guess that's how Hollywood works now — I had the worst audition of my life, and I got the role anyway. So, my manager did not lie. [Editor's note: Peele ultimately didn't work on Ant-Man because of scheduling conflicts.]

FORTE I used to, no matter what, do a weird Southern accent in auditions. I once read for a part that Jimmy Fallon got — the band manager part in Almost Famous — and they said, "Try it again without the Southern accent." It got more Southern the second time. I guess I didn't think that my own voice was interesting enough. That's the good thing about auditioning for SNL — at least you're doing your own thing. You have a certain amount of control because you're saying your own words. You're like, "This is what I got. Do you like it?"

MIDDLEDITCH [My] SNL audition was so nerve-racking. The show is a bit of a gold medal that you wear around your neck, gold medal-style. It's built up for so much of your life. And you finally get to be on that stage, and it's like, "OK, do three characters, three impressions" in five minutes. It's like, "Oh man, there's [creator-executive producer] Lorne Michaels and all these people that I want to work with."

ARMISEN You might still get the job someday, you never know.

What's the craziest thing you've done for a laugh or to get a job?

CHEADLE Whenever I get naked on House of Lies, it's really laugh-worthy. At least the crew laughs. Hmmm. The craziest thing I've ever done to get a job … does blowing somebody count? (Laughter.)

Absolutely.

ARMISEN It's not that easy anymore.

CHEADLE I didn't get the job, by the way, and it seemed like it was a setup.

GERVAIS That's a really tough question.

OK, when were you the most wrong about something you'd written that you thought would totally kill and didn't?

CHEADLE I was a senior in high school in Denver, and there was a comedy club open mic night. My friend and I came up with the routine and did five minutes, and I was like, "We crushed. People loved it! Shit, this is easy." Then I invited my parents the next time, and we didn't crush so much. It was very, very, very bad. There's no worse feeling I've ever had than being onstage trying to do stand-up and having it tank. I've been in bad plays, but you can pass the ball there, you know what I mean? You can hide.

GERVAIS You can't suddenly say, "I didn't write that," or "That's not what I really think." It's just you.

CHEADLE Then I started pushing harder, getting in sort of an adversarial relationship with the audience.

GERVAIS With stand-up, it's like you're coming out saying, "This is the funniest stuff I can do. This is my best." Silence is the worst.

CHEADLE The collective sound of 100 people groaning quietly to themselves, it sounded like, "Ughhhh." It was a chorus. It was bad.

ARMISEN When Liam Neeson hosted SNL, we played a German family in a sketch. We all had blond hair. Liam Neeson was the dad and kept sitting on everything. We presented him with a violin, and he'd sit on it. A dollhouse the daughter made, he'd sit on it. I thought it was the funniest thing in the world. Then it went to dress rehearsal, and it was very, very dead silent. There wasn't even a groan. It was the absence of sound. And Liam totally sold it — German accent and everything. But now that I've described it, I'm thinking that was not the best idea in the whole world. Like, where's the joke?

MIDDLEDITCH Are you kidding me, bro? I love it when he crushes all those tiny things.

FORTE You go in knowing there's a chance of total failure. Bill Hader and I did a sketch called "Fart Face." It was two people in an office setting. One guy says, "I'd like you to stop calling me Fart Face, please." He's like, "Oh, you got it, Bill. Sure." Then Josh Brolin comes in, and he's like, "Hey, have you met Fart Face here?" And, he's like, "I thought I specifically asked you to stop calling me Fart Face." We thought, "OK, pretty solid sketch here." Then, no laughter. But Lorne somehow still put it into the show, and it was met with even more silence. But I watched it the other day, and I still stand behind that thing. (Laughter.)

GERVAIS You have 10,000 T-shirts at home that say "Fart Face."

CHEADLE Who watches the SNL dress rehearsal?

ARMISEN They bring in an audience at 8 p.m., and they judge things according to how it goes and bring in the other audience at 11:30. The thing that's humiliating is there will be a sketch, and the audience is on board, and then they're totally dead.

PEELE One thing that's not advised is doing sketch comedy at a stand-up show, especially when people have been killing it. Keegan[-Michael Key] and I did a live show between our first and second season of the show — no one really knew who we were — we did the football names sketch that totally works now on television. But onstage, it was like a riot. The crowd was all lubed up, drunk and surly. It was an angry mob.

GERVAIS It's asking too much of the audience. Stand-up cuts through the alcohol. A sketch is too demanding.

CHEADLE They have to change gears and actually watch it.

PEELE That was a tough lesson. But if we did it now, that same drunk audience would be like, "Woo! Do it again!" (Laughter.)

GERVAIS I never went through the struggle of having to make it as a stand-up. I was already on TV, so it was sort of easier. But there's also this strange duality — it's harder to do if you're on TV because they expect it to be perfect. They expect it to be the best show they've ever seen.

ARMISEN There are so many variables.

MIDDLEDITCH A college crowd is going to be overall so much more into it than at a club where they've paid $30 and there's a two-drink minimum. They're coming in there like, "All right. Show it."

Will, The Last Man on Earth has won over audiences but was a hard sell for network television. What was the toughest part of getting it on the air?

FORTE Fox was into it from the beginning. But the hardest thing was getting them to buy into long stretches of time without people talking. We were very honest about our intentions from the beginning. The nerve-racking part was thinking that at some point, they would force us to go against their promise of letting us do what we wanted to do. There were some battles along the way, some conversations, which were nerve-racking. Oh, God, we wrote so many drafts of the pilot. I will say, while it seemed like we were addressing crazy notes at the time, it ultimately made the show better.

What were some of the notes?

FORTE "Have more talking." (Laughs.) Also, "Don't show a dead body," which we thought was pretty important in the beginning. Still to this day, we think, "Where are all the dead bodies?"

GERVAIS "Just don't use real ones."

FORTE That was the main thing.

ARMISEN (To Forte) I like that we don't see the bodies on your show.

PEELE Thankfully we're on a network that's been successful with South Park and Chappelle's Show. The word "comedy" is in the name of the network. They're not afraid of going for it. The strangest notes that we'll get are things like, "Is Star Wars really a thing that people care about?"

MIDDLEDITCH You just write back, "No doy."

PEELE There's a lot of questioning of the zeitgeist and questioning what's relevant. We're also targeted at kids, so we have to write sketches about Drake and shit. But one of the main reasons our show has been successful is that the network has allowed us to go places, even pushed us over the line sometimes. And we have this wonderful thing called the race card, which we can play at any point. Any time we get a note we don't like, we say, "It's a black thing," and that's the end of the conversation.

CHEADLE Just wait till they hire that black exec who's like, "It's not a black thing."

PEELE Thank God Hollywood does not hire black execs. (Laughter.)

CHEADLE You're safe! For us on Showtime, the notes are more like, "Can you do more?" We get to really let our id run wild. We haven't run into a lot of pushback. It's a dramedy, so the cast is always pushing to have it be more funny. It's a tricky balance trying to find which foot you want to be on.

ARMISEN We mostly make Portlandia for us and our fans. If we feel like we've done a season of a certain type of sketch, we think, "Let's just change it up this year." At the beginning of every writing session, it's, "What's the goal for this season?" And the inspiration is never-ending, so far. We usually haven't seen each other in a few months, so we will check in with each other's experiences, and we usually write it on our phones. Like, "I noticed this happened, it might be worth writing about."

Thomas, how much input do you have on deciding what's funny on Silicon Valley?

MIDDLEDITCH I'd say it's fairly substantial. We're all allowed to try things, and sometimes they'll be, "Hey, not for this." That's mainly because they have a bird's-eye view of the episode — or it's just not funny. But I would say my character is very much an amalgamation of my contribution plus everybody else's. And we do improv, but it's not about rewriting a scene or creating a new storyline. A tangent may evolve, but it's more about character color — all these little improvs that don't necessarily make it into the show but help the writers. "Oh, I know how to write for you now."

CHEADLE That happens a lot on our show, too. The writers start to hear us messing around and throwing things in, and they're like, "OK, that's good, yeah," and they start to write to that.

GERVAIS That's why I think the second season of something is better than the first. When you first write a show, you don't know who's going to play the characters. Then, in season two, you build in the actors' strengths and weaknesses.

MIDDLEDITCH There are a lot of times where you watch comedy on TV or in film where you get the sense of the actors trying to throw in fun lines. When it seems out of place, it's like, "What?"

PEELE But it can kill on set because it's unexpected.

GERVAIS The crew laughs because they haven't heard it before. I feel sorry for boom operators. When they laugh, everybody [gets mad], but if an actor laughs, everyone goes, "Oh, isn't that cute, he's laughing." And he's ruined every take.

Who or what most inspires your comedic sensibilities?

GERVAIS Real life is my biggest influence. A lot of my family were care workers, so I suppose I wanted Derek to be a bit of an antidote to the other stuff I'd done a lot about fame. [The Office's] David Brent was about a normal man getting famous. I like making the ordinary extraordinary. I want you to care for the characters. Even though we're laughing at David Brent, I want people to feel sorry for him, too.

CHEADLE I recently saw Dave Chappelle do stand-up after a long time away. It was really only about 15 minutes of material and then an hour of the audience just taking him wherever. It was unbelievable to watch, like a high-wire act. He was literally like, "What do you guys want to do?" It was like jazz to me. He was so free.

GERVAIS Also, Louis C.K. is great. He's got everything.

Ricky, Louis is sort of the American you, in that you both prioritize the humanity piece of the comedy.

GERVAIS Please keep that in. (Laughter.) That's amazing. I think that's his secret. He can say the most horrendous things, but he's a struggling father bringing up two kids whom he loves, so he can say anything. He can be angry and get away with murder because it's all about his intention. We're all flawed. We make mistakes. We're struggling. We all want to be popular.

PEELE But I love, love, love despicable characters like David Brent. Or that politician character Will played on SNL.

FORTE Oh, Tim Calhoun?

PEELE Yes, characters that are so delusional. I think one of the first guys who taught me that black people can do that too was Martin Lawrence. On Martin, his character was a dick, kind of an asshole, totally flawed. A Ralph Kramden type, where his flaws were totally visible.

CHEADLE Totally arrogant.

PEELE And still you loved him and empathized with him.

ARMISEN I'm personally consistently inspired by how Amy Poehler keeps making new things. She's behind Broad City, she still wants to keep making comedy. Also, in our writers room, we talk about Key & Peele all the time. We're like, "They were able to do it like this." I'm honestly inspired by everybody here. I'm not shy about saying it.

Conversely, is there a trend in comedy that's irksome to you?

GERVAIS Yes, idiots confusing the target of the joke with the subject of a joke. It's getting worse and worse. I am all for political correctness, but it's not about that. It's about stupid people misunderstanding jokes and then getting angry. At least understand the joke before you dislike it. There was a review once of one of my comedy gigs that said: "Ricky Gervais should be banned. His subject matter deals with da-da-da." That review [shouldn't] count.

MIDDLEDITCH But he's got a blog! (Laughter.)

ARMISEN Getting angry in general about comedy … who cares?

MIDDLEDITCH They want to be heard!

GERVAIS You have to ignore them. It's like arguing with someone about whether or not they have a pain in their leg.

MIDDLEDITCH But I think you can argue comedy. You can be like, "That's not funny," and someone says, "Yes, it is."

GERVAIS If someone says I'm not funny, they're right. If someone says I am funny, they're right.

MIDDLEDITCH A gripe for me would be that in feature comedies right now, there seems to be a staleness; a formula where everything works out in the end and you'll see the two-minute trailer and you might as well have just already seen the movie. There's nothing else to it. Then again, I could be not the right person to be the arbiter of what's good or not because there's plenty of TV shows that get millions of viewers, and I'm like, "I can't sit through 22 minutes of this."

CHEADLE I feel like you're talking about my show now.

GERVAIS But you only have to please one person and that's yourself. Everything else doesn't matter. Whatever you do, as many people who are going to love it, more people are going to hate it, and someone will find it offensive.

Present company excluded, who are your dream comedy collaborators?

GERVAIS You can all still say me.

ARMISEN I would say Prince. (Laughter.) I've worked a little bit with Louis C.K. on SNL, but doing something with him on Portlandia would be fun. And maybe Woody Allen?

MIDDLEDITCH My top one — besides everyone at this table — would be Jim Carrey. But Jim Carrey in The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He can do everything. On the other side of the spectrum — Wes Anderson. After seeing [The Grand] Budapest [Hotel] so many times, I just want to know, how can I get into his dollhouse world?

PEELE Christopher Guest and Catherine O'Hara — that whole crew is legendary. If I could be in one of his movies, I'm done. I'm hanging up the gloves.

CHEADLE You actually have an audition next week.

GERVAIS Don't do the acting!

ARMISEN You know who would be great whom I haven't seen in a long time is Rick Moranis.

MIDDLEDITCH He's retired. I think that's the word.

FORTE John Cleese?

MIDDLEDITCH Can we pick nonliving people?

ARMISEN Alec Guinness. Dead. Remember him in Kind Hearts and Coronets?

GERVAIS He's perked up now that dead people are in.

ARMISEN Also, Dracula.

GERVAIS He's a fictional character, isn't he?

ARMISEN No, I think he's just dead.

GERVAIS He didn't exist.

ARMISEN You've seen him with the fangs and everything.

PEELE That was Prince.

GERVAIS I like Bill Murray and Kristen Wiig.

PEELE You already worked with Kristen in a movie.

GERVAIS I know. Wait, does this round­table count now? Have I officially "worked with" all of you now?

ARMISEN Yes, actually.

GERVAIS Also, Bill Murray for me. And Mickey Mouse.

ARMISEN He's dead.

GERVAIS He's not dead, he's fictional. (Laughter.)

ARMISEN Wait — Steamboat Willie ... that guy is still alive?

GERVAIS Steamboat Willie — hey, that's what I called Fred in the toilet earlier, isn't it? (In a high-pitched voice) "OK, who's going to have a wee now? Into the train, into the station, wee, wee, wee, wee, wee!"

The full Comedy Actor Emmy Roundtable can be seen on Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter when it premieres Sunday, Aug. 23, at 11 a.m. ET/PT on Sundance TV and HollywoodReporter.com.

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