'Quick Draw' Duo Talk Old-Timey Improv, Horseback Acting and Career Westerners (Q&A)

Nancy Hower and John Lehr, debuting the second season of their Hulu series, tell THR about tackling period comedy and Hollywood's lingering community of Wild West extras.
Courtesy of Hulu/AP Images
John Lehr in "Quick Draw," (inset Nancy Hower)

On the northern ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains, in the former stomping grounds of Old West royalty Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Nancy Hower and John Lehr are making one of the least-conventional series (not) on TV right now: a Western improv comedy for Hulu.

The streamer launched the second season of Quick Draw, one of its ever-growing number of originals, on Aug. 7. And as was the case with the first run, the actors see no lines, the kill rate is surprisingly high and comedians are frequently forced to be spontaneously funny while on horseback.

Longtime collaborators Hower and Lehr shoulder much of the duties. The co-creators, who originally moved into series work with TBS' 10 Items or Less, are serving as multi-multi-hyphenates. Hower directs, Lehr stars and both write every episode. But as the duo recently explained to The Hollywood Reporter, scripts are only for those on a need to know basis.

Who gets to see scripts for the series?

Nancy Hower: All the Hulu guys see them, and all of our crew so that they can get ready for scenes. If we write a guy comes out with a gatling gun. we need to make sure the Gatling gun is there. The actors don't see it because we want the actors to be able to play it and get that fresh dialogue. If you're going to do an improv show, really do the improv — instead of having people writing stuff in their trailers.

John Lehr: We just wanted a really strong narrative, so we write the script out super specifically so Nancy and I are totally aware. If you tell the narrative to the improvisers, there's no organic feel to the storytelling. We try to shoot in order, so that the actors are in the story as it's unfurling. I say who the murderer is, for example, and people don't know. Even the murderer doesn't know.

Hower: We could probably cut the show four times over and never repeat the same dialogue. It's often very hard to choose which jokes we're going to go with. 

Lehr: And it's funny seeing the comedians out riding by on a horse. You look at them and you know they've never been on a horse before.

When you're writing a scene, are you ever thinking, "Can we do this without a horse?"

Hower: Oh my god. Are you kidding? That's usually the first thing out of my director of photography's mouth. "Can we take this off the horse?" He's always saying, "Do we need to make it as hard as humanly possible?" This year you're going to see an entire conversation where a guy is riding on a horse talking to somebody on the top of a stage coach as it's moving.

Lehr: There's so much about the Western that is just not meant for improv. The guns are so f—ing heavy, and you're shooting them forever because you're improvising. It's like a 20-minute take, and everyone's a comedian so nobody knows what they're doing. We got new horses this year so they better behave.

Hower: This year is like night and day from last year. You're going to see huge scenes. I think we had like two stunts the whole first year, and this season we have five or six.

Lehr: We didn't really realize this, but there's this whole cottage industry of Western people who are into Westerns. ... I mean, into Westerns the way people are in to Renaissance fairs and reenactments. You start shooting a Western, and these people just show up, and they're like "Hey, we can give you horses for this." You can find a guy who's got a warehouse full of set dressing from they heyday of the Westerns. If you look at our extras, those guys have been in everything.

Hower: You can see them at like age 20 in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or even Deadwood. It's so crazy. Our head stunt guy was like [Westerns director] John Ford's head stunt guy. I'd be yelling, and then say, "Hey, I'm sorry for yelling." He's like "Honey, you don't know what yelling is."

Lehr: Yeah we did all this incredible stuff on our budget. These guys really know what they're doing. Some extra will come up to me and go, "Um, John, a real cowboy never does that."

How do you get in touch with these people?

Lehr: They just found us. We shoot at the Paramount Ranch, so word got out that there's a new Western shooting at the Dr. Quinn set, and they all started approaching us our art department people.

Hower: It's a small community.

Being non-Western enthusiasts, what was the appeal of the genre?

I grew up in Kansas, so I did know a lot, and the show's set in Kansas. I'm just a big fan of Monty Python and the historical comedies.

Hower: We loved going back in time where everybody was dead at 40, and you get a nick on your arm and suddenly you have to take that arm off. "Oh, so-and-so's dead." It's just so matter of fact.

Lehr: We just made a 100 percent infant mortality rate joke. How often do you get that?

How have you used history?

Lehr: We use a lot of minutiae factoids. We'll just comment that rabies used to be treated by just locking people up in jail. If you got bit by a rabid dog or a boar or whatever, you'd just get locked up in jail.

Hower: And then we have a grasshopper plague. Back in 1875 there really was this huge grasshopper plague that took out 50,000 acres of land. It decimated Kansas. A lot of the stuff that you'll see that sounds absolutely crazy is the true stuff.

Lehr: Yeah, it's true. We have an episode that's all about essentially treating hysteria. And one of the treatments was to mount women onto this table device ... this masturbation device called "The Manipulator."

Hower: It was like a giant dildo.

Lehr: A steam-powered vibrator, essentially. As soon as we saw that, we were so gone.

Hower: It's almost like Drunk History. You look at it and think, "This didn't really happen." But it did.

How do you feel about streaming and how you never really know who's watching your show?

Hower: I think the only frustrating thing is we don't know exactly how they're judging the show. We don't know if the numbers matter or the reviews matter or if the comments matter.

Lehr: But then again, we didn't really know that on TBS either.

Hower: Do you ever really know why your show gets picked up?