5:00pm PT by Jackie Strause
'Yearly Departed' Team on "Pulling Off Something Impossible" With Amazon Female Comedy Special
Casual sex. TV cops. Making America Great Again. And, pants.
Those are some of the topics that Yearly Departed memorializes when saying goodbye to everything that America "lost" in 2020.
The Amazon Studios' year-end comedy special, which released on Dec. 30, boasts a lineup of comedians that includes Tiffany Haddish, Natasha Rothwell, Rachel Brosnahan, Patti Harrison, Natasha Leggero, Ziwe and Sarah Silverman. Yearly Departed welcomes all seven comedians to a memorial, hosted by Phoebe Robinson, to deliver 2020’s final eulogies.
The special, which was filmed during a three-day shoot in October, reveals its production trick in the end credits: none of the comedians physically filmed in the same room together. When viewers see one of the stars in the audience, their onscreen reaction was captured thanks to visual effects, so Yearly Departed could operate safely amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Star Brosnahan, who executive produced the special, and head writer Bess Kalb detail that process in a chat with The Hollywood Reporter. "Every woman I know in this business has experienced coming onto a scrapset where they didn’t feel safe and taken care of," the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel star tells THR about the care and safety put in place by the female-led team and production house Done + Dusted amid COVID-19's second wave in Los Angeles. "Every single person feeling safe and well taken care of was a major priority for us, and that’s because we all know what it’s like to not feel that way."
In a chat below, the pair explain how they "pulled off something impossible" in order to deliver Yearly Departed amid the pandemic era of production, explain the importance of having a female comedy special to tackle the year ("It shouldn’t still feel radical, but it does," says Brosnahan), and why it was important that the topics felt authentic and true to each comedian’s voice when tackling some of the most hot-button areas of the year: "When people watch Yearly Departed, they will hopefully leave feeling seen," says Kalb.
In the theme of Yearly Departed, what were you eulogizing behind the scenes when it comes to making a TV special in 2020?
Rachel Brosnahan: We really eulogized craft services! And touching other people. But the truth is that we had so many fears because, for so many of us, this was the first time we were going back into production since everything shut down. And as soon as we got on set, all of those fears evaporated because of the team of people who came in every day with an incredible attitude. Everyone was so grateful to be able to work. This was a team of almost entirely women, in front of and behind the camera, and that felt really special. Everyone was just ready to come in and make something awesome together. And it was also a really cathartic experience and a way to say goodbye to arguably the most terrible year in recent history.
Bess Kalb: I wasn’t sure as to whether or not I would even go onto set. I am in deep, deep quarantine. We have a baby at home and I’m quarantined with my parents, who are over 65. And I’m so glad I did, because as soon as I got there, I felt really safe. The level of safety and vigilance that our production team, Done + Dusted, had put into place made it feel really safe. It sort of felt like this strange spaceship where you were socially distanced and in masks, of course, but where you could be around other people in a safe way for this crazy, three-day shoot.
Brosnahan: Our director, Linda Mendoza, came in with this incredible attitude and that definitely trickled down. Linda is one of the kindest, most generous, most energetic and fun directors that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and we could not have done this without her.
In what ways was production impacted by surges of COVID-19 in Los Angeles?
Brosnahan: Everything had to, in some degree, happen on the fly, because this was a first for so many of us and there was a lot to get done in such a short period. Everyone was flexible and working at the speed of light. I don’t think there was anything major that shifted and changed. But, best laid plans were quickly thwarted by the reality.
How did the concept of this special come together and how did you pick your all-female lineup?
Kalb: The idea to joke about 2020 is the only way that I and the writers in the room are able to process the horrors of this year. It was truly a therapeutic coping mechanism and one that we also thought, as a team, would be therapeutic and cathartic for an audience. What better way to deal with 2020 then to laugh together at our collective misfortune? In coming up with a comedy special and landing on the format and what we wanted to talk about, we also knew as a team that this was going to be a female comedy special. That came from strong-held beliefs from Rachel and Paige Simpson, her partner at Scrap Paper Pictures, and our team on the executive producer side with We The Women Productions.
As a comedy writer and as a kid who was a fan of comedy, when I was growing up women were the [token addition] in a roast or comedy lineup. There was not an all-female comedy special. There was a woman spot to be in a comedy special. So when I could write my own as a head writer, the dream was, “Let’s make a show where it’s just women, and the men in it are eye candy or helping with the set.” Women can be the special. They don’t have to be window-dressing or a prop. I’m so lucky to be a part of something that will hopefully make that look normal to the girls who watch this show. Now, there is this incredible, high-caliber, all-female comedy special out there, and that makes me feel like I can look at my nieces and be proud of the comedy world that I helped make for them.
Was this the most female-run project you two have worked on and if so, what were some of the biggest differences when working on something run by women?
Brosnahan: This was the most female set I’ve ever been a part of. And I should say that I’ve been very lucky to be on a number of sets that really prioritize women in leadership roles. But I’ll never forget our first production meeting when every role had been filled and we were in a Zoom room trying to figure out how to bring this thing to life, and looking around this Zoom room and staring out at so many female faces and a few token, brilliant men! I’ve never had that experience before. And it shouldn’t still feel radical, but it does. The biggest hope moving forward is that this doesn’t feel strange or revolutionary. This should be the new normal. How many sets have we all been on where it’s run entirely by a group of men with one or two women in the room? That’s become normal for us. And the reverse should as well.
Kalb: I think it's also about showing people that I can be really funny and that quality isn’t sacrificed when you say, “Let’s let the women have a hand at it.” We actually pulled off something impossible. What Linda did as a director, and the vision she brought together under impossible circumstances; our female DP and female editors and female composer; the female writers and our incredible writers room of Karen Chee, Franchesca Ramsey, Akilah Green and Jocelyn Richard; what the women who had every creative hand in making this happen put together is something that is, in my opinion, great comedy. This was creatively and producorially done by women at every step and quality wasn’t scarified. It happened in impossible circumstances and it happened because it was done by women.
You mention the technical and production feat. What was the experience like to rehearse and plot this all our over Zoom?
Brosnahan: We’re a group of technically challenged women, so I will never forget us trying to figure out rehearsal over Zoom while our DP and director were rehearsing with stand-ins on set the day before we started shooting. It was important that did as much as possible ahead of time so that everyone could have their space on the day. I just remember staring at the Zoom on the computer and trying to speak to people on the right channels on our phone. It was a challenge and a technical feat at the end of the day. So many things were strange. So many things had more steps than they ever had before. But, by that same token, in some ways post was really challenging and in some ways post was simpler, because we could just jump into a digital room and fix things in a way that you can’t if it involves a 30-minute car ride.
Kalb: If we do this next year, the first eulogy will be for Zoom!
Rachel, as an EP, you were on set and crossed paths with the other comedians. Did any of the other eulogists film on set together?
Brosnahan: All of the women delivering their eulogies were delivering on one stage to an empty house, to just our crew behind the camera. To peoples’ cardboard cutouts on chairs, actually.
Kalb: It looked like the day before an awards show.
Brosnahan: It’s a testament to their talent. For these comedians with so much experience to be able to deliver to an empty room that isn’t giving you that immediate feedback is an extraordinary feat, and I bow down to each and every one of these hilarious women. One of the biggest tricks involved is that, simultaneously, we had women in these green screened pods on a different stage, a bit of a ways away, who had an earbud in, and they were listening and watching on the monitor to whoever was performing on the main stage in real time. The whole group was never in any space together at the same time. There were a couple pairings of people spread out far across the room for a few reaction shots in our third set, which involved a motion control camera and some of the wider shots. That was the only time anyone was ever in the same space and it was mostly our background actors for reactions. But a lot of the reactions, about 80 percent of them, are primarily reacting to Bess! She would be reading things off-camera for folks. It was wild.
Kalb: It felt like a strange acting exercise. There was a moment where Rachel was in the pod in makeup and hair and costume, and I was standing there with a list that really said things like, “Now you’re laughing!” And she would laugh. And, “Now you’re sad.” And she would act sad.
Brosnahan: We wanted to make sure that we could cover our asses in post and that we didn’t miss anything. Bess, my favorite thing from you was, “Something shocking has happened on the other side of the room.”
Kalb: I think we used that for our big musician reveal at the end!
There was no playbook for you to follow; no one could come onto set and say they had experience shooting under these circumstances. What was the prep process like to get ready for the three-day shoot?
Brosnahan: Never long enough!
Kalb: Once it started happening, it happened fast. I want to say we had one of our first meetings in May.
Brosnahan: We first began conversations in May and brought the project to Amazon shortly afterwards. We partnered with [production house] Done + Dusted, who probably have more experience than anyone with shooting during these conditions during this time. While there was no playbook and this was certainly different than anything else they’d ever done, we really benefitted from their expertise, and knowing what was possible and knowing how to keep our budget in check. Without experience and shooting during this time, all of those things become impossible to wrap your head around.
Kalb: After we spent almost every day together on Zoom for months — Rachel has seen me comfort my screaming baby on Zoom — Rachel and I actually met for the first time on set!
What were the protocols once people were on set?
Kalb: I’ve never been so medically managed. It was great and completely necessary. There were multiple tests before and then tests every day. Done + Dusted are such pros and the COVID safety on set was ever-present. As somebody who was super paranoid about being anywhere outside the house during the pandemic — I haven’t been in a grocery story since March — I felt completely safe.
Brosnahan: It was so many peoples’ first time back on set and it was really important to us that every single person who was working on this with us felt comfortable coming back to work. As a team of primarily women, many people have experienced it, but every woman I know in this business has experienced coming onto a set where they didn’t feel safe and taken care of. And when you ask about what it’s like to work with all women, every single person feeling safe and well taken care of was a major priority for us, and that’s because we all know what it’s like to not feel that way.
Kalb: I pumped milk probably eight times during the course of this shoot. People would say, “Bess is pumping — hold everything!” That just would not have been possible on any other shoot. That is revolutionary.
Because of COVID, did people have hesitations about returning to a set and was there anyone you wanted who couldn’t make it work?
Brosnahan: Understandably, almost everyone we spoke to had concerns about COVID. And, again, that's because it’s so many women who know what it’s like to be told that things are going to be a certain way and to arrive and find that they are different. This team really understood those concerns and met them. We spent a lot of time before we started shooting checking in with everyone; checking in with talent, our director and our writers, just making sure that everyone was there with us every step of the way and that questions were addressed as early as possible. There was a lot of transparency involved with this production.
The topics that you eulogize range from light-hearted — like “casual sex” and, Rachel, your takedown of “pants” — as well as the hot-button topics of “TV cops,” “Making America Great Again” and “beige Band-Aids” that address cultural and political changes going into 2021. Why was it important to have this mix and to have authentic voices tackling them?
Kalb: The topics feel like the most representative of the year, which was a mix of heavy and the every day. We did have to say goodbye to things that are national tragedies, as well as things that are just something like casual sex. In the spirit of catharsis and coming together and comedy, we didn’t want this to be a special that preaches to anyone or knocks you over the head with an explicitly political message. But, at the same time, it has to reflect political realities and sentiments that are certainly held by everyone in the writers room. We wanted to make sure that the topics represented a wide swath of an audience and that this was bringing in diverse voices in a real way, and representing a large audience experience in the best way that we could.
To do that, we needed to make sure that people were talking about things that they cared about and what actually affected them. Those topics that you mention from Sarah Silverman, Ziwe and Natasha Rothwell are all coming from places of deep political importance but are approached in a way that’s clever and unexpected and in a way that, most importantly, makes you laugh and think about that topic in a new way. That was our general approach so that when people watch it, they will hopefully leave feeling seen and like their experience was reflected in what people were saying at that podium. That’s the goal. And, that they’ll laugh!
How much collaboration was there between the writers and the comedians?
Kalb: We pitched the show with the topics and a few jokes per topic. In our final Amazon pitch, I was wearing a buttoned up shirt and very 2020 sweatpants (laughs.) We had a general idea of what those topics would be, but heavily leaned on contribution from the writers room. We also worked with some of the best comedians working today and were lucky to have any input they wanted to give. Some delivered what we gave and many of them gave great jokes and takes and approaches, and some got really specific. But the most important thing was that it felt authentic and true to each comedian’s voice. What I was so happy about is that every process of this project was collaborative and, as a result, I think the jokes are stronger and the eulogies are stronger.
Rachel, how cathartic was it for you to eulogize the concept of wearing pants?
Brosnahan: There’s no way I would rather end 2020 than by ripping off my pants and telling them to fuck themselves. And I am so grateful to Bess and our incredible writers for that opportunity.
Kalb: Nobody could nail that moment but Rachel. The seriousness and the earnestness of that performance is the funniest thing.
Sarah Silverman never mentions Donald Trump’s name in her “Making America Great Again” eulogy. Can you talk about that decision?
Kalb: It’s not the important word in that eulogy. I don’t think you need that word to understand that eulogy. And it’s about something bigger than one name; it’s about an entire concept. In keeping with what the eulogy actually means, I think it would be a disservice to focus it on something that is a political lightning rod. Instead, her eulogy speaks to the larger truth of what people are feeling, which is this movement and this general feeling that we are saying goodbye to. And the most important part about that last eulogy is what we’re welcoming in instead, and ending on this hopeful message that doesn’t size into something niche or something specific. That we’re really about making America good again.
How proud are you both to have pulled off this special amid the circumstances?
Brosnahan: I am so immensely grateful for Bess in this process. Bess wore so many hats and is also a mother of a 1-year-old in a pandemic, and was running the writers room and executive producing and in our virtual edit suite and writing bits for PR and marketing. She is the force at the center of this and we are so damn lucky to have had her at the helm.
Kalb: This is going to turn into a lovefest! But maybe it should. Rachel could have brought this to Amazon [through her first look deal] and that’s it. And instead, she was on more meetings than I was, in every single aspect of production. This is somebody who ran an entire show, down to the micro-level of detail of what a page of the memorial program would look like. I’ve never worked with an executive producer who has been more passionate about the project. And, not to mention, being an anchor eulogist on the show and coming out and performing. There is a moment on set where Rachel is giving direction when she is alone on the set with our director, realized that her wardrobe was not appropriate for where we were in the scene and quickly changed and kept giving direction. Rachel wore many hats — and many pants — and I’m so grateful to have worked with her.
What can you say about the surprise musical cameo at the end of the special?
Brosnahan: There is a video that I will treasure forever of Bess and two of our other EPs as we heard the audio of that song played for the very first time. Our heads collectively exploded! We found ourselves overcome with emotion and excitement. We are still pinching ourselves that this most iconic performer said yes.
Kalb: When I watched the cut with my husband at home, he asked, “What was it like to be in the room with her?” And I said, “I don’t know!” I have no memory of it. I was floating above my body, watching it happen. I blacked out.
Yearly Departed is now streaming on Amazon Prime.