“The big fear,” says Marc Maron, “is that overnight your reputation can be dismantled and you wake up to this Twitter shitstorm.”
It is several weeks before Roseanne Barr’s big comeback will detonate in a single tweet and a lewd crack will put Full Frontal‘s Samantha Bee under fire when The Hollywood Reporter convenes its annual Television Comedy Actor Roundtable. Still, the discussion focuses, for a time, on political correctness. Or, more specifically, its damaging impact on the genre, according to a group that also includes Baskets‘ Louie Anderson, 65; Will & Grace‘s Sean Hayes, 47; The Last O.G.‘s Tracy Morgan, 49; Get Shorty‘s Ray Romano, 60; and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s Tony Shalhoub, 64.
“There’s no room for it in comedy,” says Morgan, who wonders if his heroes Richard Pryor and George Carlin would survive in today’s unforgiving landscape. Maron, meanwhile, seems more concerned with his own survival. “It’s scary when [you] get out there and tell your truth,” says the 54-year-old GLOW star, “as a stand-up, and that’s in the back of your brain.”
Over the course of an hour on April 8, these veteran stars weigh in on the dangers of being a funny guy in the #MeToo era as well as all the other pitfalls and perils of comedy.
How are your choices you’re making different at this stage of your collective careers?
LOUIE ANDERSON I love working. If it fits, I’ll do it. And even if it doesn’t fit, I’ll still try to put it on.
RAY ROMANO Yeah, I don’t shy away from comedy, but I’m not going to do a sitcom again. Definitely not a four-camera. No offense, Sean.
SEAN HAYES You did it.
ROMANO Yeah, that’s kind of our legacy in that world, and I don’t want to have to follow it. It doesn’t appeal to me as much, but a single-camera comedy I’m not against at all. For now, I’m enjoying mixing it up with dramas.
MARC MARON I’m just happy to be playing somebody who isn’t me specifically. I’ve been painfully playing me for most of my life, and the opportunity to do some guy who is actually a bigger asshole than I am but who I could understand at different points in my life was exciting.
And yet I assume you end up infusing some of you into him?
MARON Oh yeah. This guy is a down-and-out dude with a coke problem, and he doesn’t really think he’s down and out, and I remember when I talked to the showrunners, I said, “This guy doesn’t carry a vial, he’s not flashy, he doesn’t share his blow, he does it out of the corner of a magazine, folded.” And the two showrunners are kind of nerdy women, and they both looked at me, and one said, “We’re so glad you’re here!” Some of that experience from when I was younger certainly filtered into this character. I’m glad it’s behind me, but, yeah, I remember how to do blow. (Laughter.)
TONY SHALHOUB Yeah, I think we all … I’m just going to speak for everyone.
ANDERSON Please. (Laughter.)
SHALHOUB We all just want to do things that are different from what we’ve done.
ANDERSON And all of us are going to get a chance to work because when most of us started, there were four places, and now there are 140.
MARON Yeah, and there are four people that watch some of them, so it’s flipped.
ANDERSON But you know what’s so great about that? It doesn’t really matter. I mean, we may not get the ratings but …
MARON But you get to know your audience, one at a time.
ALL Yes. (Laughter.)
Several of you played iconic characters on iconic shows. What were the unexpected pieces of moving on from those projects?
HAYES There’s that balance of embracing the thing that made you famous for the public and also moving away from it for your own personal growth.
MARON How do you (to Shalhoub) respond to people when they’re like, “Monk! Monk!”
SHALHOUB They say, “You’re Monk,” and I usually say, “I was Monk” or “I played Monk.”
TRACY MORGAN When I was doing 30 Rock, I had a meeting with Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey about what to name this character. Lorne said, “Fuck it, name him Boo-boo.” And I said, “Yeah right. You go through the airport for the next 10 years with people calling you Boo-boo!” (Laughter.) I said, “No. Tracy Jordan.” I learned that from SNL, when I was at “Update.” Use your name and don’t wear a beard, that’s how you become a household name.
ANDERSON I don’t think anyone here gets to choose what they’re remembered for. I was in Coming to America. I played a cartoon character. I was a game show host. Now, I’m playing a woman, and I’m just looking forward to playing a man again. (Laughs.)
MARON It’s interesting because I’m at a very midlevel situation with whatever celebrity I have. Like, three guys could walk toward me and one of them will be like, “Holy shit, Marc Maron!” And the other two will be like, “I don’t know that guy, who is that guy?” And I don’t mind it. But I have learned that I don’t have to stand there while the one guy tries to explain who I am to his friends because that’s not a great five minutes for me.
Ray, you’ve said you had a “little emotional breakdown” after Everybody Loves Raymond ended. What happened?
ROMANO I came from New York, I was doing stand-up 11 years, and then the show came along, so we all move out [to L.A.] And for nine years, it was Everybody Loves Raymond, and I was immersed in it — I was in the writers room, the edit room, everything. I loved it. Then it ended, and it was like coming out of a submarine. Seriously, I was like, “I live here, my kids are 15 now, this woman [his wife] is still here? (Laughter.) But I had money, I had some fame, and I thought, “This is great, I can enjoy this.” My therapist had said, “Do you want to start coming twice a week now?” And I said, “No, I don’t have things to say to you once a week. I mean, I have to make stuff up for 30 minutes.” (Laughter.) Four months later, I was going twice a week. The way I describe it is I have to keep moving or I catch up with myself.
SHALHOUB We say we love to work, and that’s about 50 percent true. The other 50 is when we’re not working, the demons overtake us.
MARON I tried to do a vacation. I went to Hawaii and I figured out a way to make that terrible. (Laughter.) For two weeks. I’m with this woman, and I’m like, “It’s scary here kind of, isn’t it? We’re in the middle of the ocean.”
MORGAN Do you ever fix that?
MARON I’m starting to think not, Tracy. I’m 54, and I don’t know if I can un-fuck myself. I think it might be permanent. (Laughter.)
Sean, you ultimately chose to go back to the show that made you famous. Was that a hard decision?
HAYES It was quite easy. We did this election video for people to get out and vote. We did it for free and the crew did it for free.
ANDERSON How did that go? (Laughter.)
MARON It didn’t work, Louie.
HAYES It was great to see everybody, and then we said goodbye, and here we are because of the response. We all agreed there was more to say.
How did it feel to be back? You were a baby when it was first on, you weren’t out …
HAYES That’s a 15-hour therapy conversation. I was in a different place then. I was out but not out to the press — I was out on the set and I was out to my friends, but I didn’t have the DNA or the ability to be a spokesperson for an entire group of people. [But] now I’m in a different place — and you realize silence equals death.
When you look at the success of Will & Grace and Roseanne, is there any piece of you that thinks, “OK, we should reboot 30 Rock or Monk or Everybody Loves Raymond?”
ROMANO We’ve lost major castmembers [including Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts], so it’s a moot point with us — but I don’t know that we would anyway. We were ready to wrap it up in the eighth season, Phil Rosenthal and me. We were running out of stories.
MORGAN If Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin and all them agreed to it, I think I would.
SHALHOUB I don’t know, I go back and forth on that. I mean, they better hurry up or I’ll have to play Monk’s father. (Laughter.)
How has comedy been impacted by the current climate? Has the line moved?
MARON Well, you better know where you’re going with it, you know? It used to be like, “I’m just going to shoot from the hip,” but there are certain areas where it’s like, “I better know where this ends and I better be tight with it.”
MORGAN But you don’t control that line of funny, funny, funny, not funny. I went through it. [In 2011, Morgan came under fire for what were considered homophobic remarks during a stand-up set.]
MARON Yeah, I know and it’s a lot to go through. It’s not really that there’s censorship in the country because you can say whatever you want, you just gotta take what’s coming at you, but self-censorship is the bigger cancer.
Marc, following the allegations about Louis C.K., you used your podcast to talk through what was happening and how you were processing and learning from it. What was the takeaway?
MARON Well, at some point there has to be a conversation, there has to be some sort of leveling off so we can communicate so not everybody, men in particular, is running around terrified of their past or of how to behave. Because I don’t think that’s going to be helpful for anyone.
MORGAN I embraced it. Me and my wife role-play. I play Louis C.K., she’s like, “Oh, move that flower pot over here!” (Laughs.) [Editor’s note: C.K. was accused of masturbating in front of women; Harvey Weinstein was accused of doing so into a flower pot.]
MARON I’m sure Louis would be thrilled to hear the homage. (Laughter.) It all got hot and it’s still hot. Louis made mistakes and now he’s paying for them. It’s heavy, man. Because it was just decided and it came down hard and it came down fast and it was terrifying.
Men are disappearing. Jeffrey Tambor was sitting at this very table for Transparent two years ago …
MARON Obviously, we’re all going to behave a little better. I mean, we’re not fucking stupid … (Laughter.)
ROMANO I don’t know how to speak to any of this, but there’s an awareness of how hard it is for women now. They did a sketch on SNL about it, how it’s everywhere. Yes, there are some harsh things happening and harsh judgments, but the one good thing is that we’re becoming aware of what it means when somebody, even if they don’t think they’re harassing, is crossing the boundaries a bit.
What makes you guys uncomfortable? Are there lines you won’t cross, things you won’t do?
MARON I had to do nudity. And the thing about it was that all these women, all 14 of ’em, signed this contract …
MORGAN You got nude in front of 14 women?
MARON No. They all agreed that they would, they signed the nudity waiver and, was I gonna be the one who says, “No, I’m not gonna do it?” I had to sign it. So I knew my time was gonna come. I didn’t know what it was gonna be, but I knew it would happen. I did talk them out of doing frontal. I didn’t need that pressure. (Laughter.) I said, “I’ll do a full-ass shot, but if we can leave my dick out of it, I’d be happy ’cause I just don’t need that on the internet.”
ANDERSON Full ass?
MARON Yeah, but I wore the little sock. (Laughter.)
ROMANO I had a nude scene in Vinyl. It was a threesome, and it was me on a bed waking up in Vegas after a night of craziness. Bobby Cannavale comes in and, you know, he does full-frontal nudity in Boardwalk Empire and I’d seen that, and he wakes me up and I stand up and I have the sock on. And after the take, he goes, “Bro, you don’t gotta wear a sock for me, I don’t care.” And I said, “I’m not wearing it for you, man.” He goes, “I don’t wear it.” And I say, “I’ve seen you in Boardwalk, I know why you don’t wear it. I’m keeping the sock on.” (Laughter.)
Were you nervous?
ROMANO Oh yeah. And in that episode, I had nudity and I had to be drunk — and sometimes playing drunk is even scarier.
ROMANO Put it this way, the director is not gonna yell, “Too big!” during the nude scene. (Laughter.) But yeah, simulating sex, it’s nerve-wracking.
SHALHOUB Sex is nerve-wracking enough in real life.
MARON On some level, if you do get turned on, it’s like you’re in it.
MORGAN That happened to me. My first movie, 30 Years to Life, I had to do a sex scene, and I had an accident. I just said, “Pardon me, I’m sorry.” She was a sport.
ROMANO There was some actor — I can’t remember who — who said to women before sex scenes, “I apologize if I do and I apologize if I don’t.” (Laughter.)
HAYES We did an episode this season where Nick Offerman was sleeping with Will and Grace at different times, and he just … it was full nudity. He just went for it, and they blurred it out.
MARON He seems like that kind of guy. (Laughter.)
MORGAN I got nervous when I did The Longest Yard with Adam Sandler. I had to play a transvestite in jail. I remember feeling funny about it. They literally gave me a camel toe.
ANDERSON You were very pretty in it.
MORGAN Thank you, I felt pretty. All them boys wanted me. I might be pregnant now. (Laughs.) But I remember Chris Rock pulled me over and he said, “Never be ashamed of what you’re doing because if you’re ashamed, then the people in the audience gonna be ashamed. So, embrace it.”
Marc, you’re now on a show that’s about women, starring women, run by women and staffed largely by women, which makes you very much the minority. How has that changed your perspective?
MARON I’ve never been around this many women in my life — and the fact that they’re learning how to wrestle, doing this thing that’s very theatrical and then the amount of hair and makeup that they have to go through because it’s the ’80s, there was definitely a lot of empathy and a lot of pride that I felt and I was very moved by the camaraderie. I’d get choked up when they’d succeed in doing things. I was not, like, anti-women before I went in, so I’m not going to tell you, like, “Who knew they were humans?” But the thing it did increase was my respect.
ROMANO Well, a lot of them can now beat the shit out of you, too, right?
MARON Oh yeah. (Laughs.)
What’s the key to your respective preparation processes? Louie, I believe you’ve said your character Christine’s name is on your scripts.
ANDERSON I didn’t realize that it would make a difference. I thought I’d be able to just put that [costume] on and I could still be who I am. But there was a definite change when they put the lipstick on, something happens. Because people treat you different as Christine.
ANDERSON There was a lot more door-opening — it was just different. So, I asked people not to call me Louie on the set because I really wanted the character to be Christine. Sometimes we’d have a two-hour break and I’d go out as Christine. I’d go to the store and I’d get weird looks. Some people went, “Is that a guy?” But mostly the difference I felt was in the preparation, the getting ready to be a woman. And I don’t mean because I’m a man; I mean what women go through every day to present themselves to the world.
MARON I wear the same pants the entire series. I don’t change them. And I have black cowboy boots, the aviator glasses were essential, and the mustache had to be a certain way. When I put that stuff on, it completely makes me lose myself in that guy.
ROMANO For me, it’s the hair. My character is a washed-up producer, and I based the hair on Brian Grazer’s — though I always say, he is not at all washed up. I usually use a line, too, for each character I do. I do a little bit of a voice and I’ll have one line of dialogue that kind of gets me into it. So, before each scene, I say it out loud as a way to get into him.
MORGAN How do you get connected to what’s on the page?
ANDERSON I just think of my mom, mostly. My mom and my five sisters. I say, “How would they do it? What are they thinking?”
ROMANO I do a backstory. I heard Denzel Washington say it once in an interview, “Write your backstory.” So I do that for each character. And I always put my father in there. I’m always trying to please my father.
SHALHOUB For this character, it’s the clothes, because it’s 1958. I always use my father, too, by the way. And when that doesn’t work, I use your father (to Romano). (Laughter.)
ROMANO I always say if my father hugged me once, I’d be an accountant right now. I wouldn’t have to do any of this. (Laughter.)
What’s the best and worst advice you guys have gotten about navigating fame and success?
HAYES Be patient.
That was the good advice, I assume?
HAYES No, it was the worst advice ever. (Laughter.) Be patient for what? You’ve got to make shit happen.
SHALHOUB I think the best advice has to do with humility. It’s a quote from Stanislavsky, which is, “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”
ROMANO And it’s good to have a wife who couldn’t give a damn if you were a plumber — well, as long as the money was the same! (Laughter.)
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.