Comedy Actor Roundtable: Andy Samberg, Matt LeBlanc, Tony Hale Talk Crazy Auditions, Typecasting Fears and Mortifying Moments
Six Emmy contenders — also including Jesse Tyler Ferguson, William H. Macy and Jason Biggs — on what most bugs them about comedy today, the struggle to land and appreciate great gigs, and why it's totally OK not to work for years at a time.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Not to stereotype, but it was pretty inevitable that this year's conversation among six Emmy-contending comedy actors -- held May 19 inside the Fox Studios lot's expansive Stage 8 -- ultimately would turn to dick jokes and flatulence.
In between these colorful bookends was a frank (and pretty hilarious) discussion about the messy, complicated business of being funny in 2014. Here, six top Emmy contenders -- Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Andy Samberg, 35; Episodes' Matt LeBlanc, 46; Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson, 38; Shameless' William H. Macy, 64; Orange Is the New Black's Jason Biggs, 36; and Veep's Tony Hale, 43 -- reveal what most bugs them about comedy today, the struggle to land and appreciate great gigs, why it's totally OK not to work for years at a time and why there are worse things than being typecast, especially when you starred in one of the biggest comedies in the history of television. (LeBlanc, how you doin'?)
What's the craziest thing you've ever done to land a part?
ANDY SAMBERG Everyone has sucked dick, right?
JESSE TYLER FERGUSON Oh my God.
WILLIAM H. MACY I was on time once.
FERGUSON I wore fake teeth from DrBukk.com -- they're called the Eleanor Roosevelts -- for my Spamalot audition. And I got the role. But I didn't accept the part.
SAMBERG That's the ultimate burn! Come in with prop teeth and then turn it down.
FERGUSON I told [director] Mike Nichols, "I'm going to put in fake teeth now," turned around and put them in. The guy who got the role used them in his performance.
MACY Same teeth?
FERGUSON No, a different set of Eleanor Roosevelts.
MATT LEBLANC Why did you say no?
FERGUSON I was doing another show. I turned down Mike Nichols, so I guess that's the craziest thing I've done!
SAMBERG To do what?
FERGUSON The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
MACY I saw you in that. You were OK.
SAMBERG Macy … straight shooter.
JASON BIGGS I can't believe you blew Mike Nichols and then turned him down!
Have you ever submitted self-tapes for an audition?
MACY Putting yourself on tape … why don't they just say, "Eat shit and die." Has anybody gotten a job off a tape?
FERGUSON I certainly haven't.
SAMBERG That would be a good audition tape -- eating a piece of shit and then dying hara-kiri.
TONY HALE When I was starting out, you had to send the tape to L.A. -- it wasn't digital. It was sent by pigeon. All the casting people were there, and it took five days, and in that time, they found the person they wanted.
SAMBERG People get parts now doing FaceTime and Skype. And by people, I mean Jennifer Lawrence.
LEBLANC I did this [baseball] movie Ed. There was a monkey in it. He played third base. They didn't have a monkey at the audition, so they said: "OK, the monkey is near death, he's frozen, and you're about to lose him, and you think he's dead. This chair will be the monkey." I'm going, "I can't believe this is what I do for a living." It was awful.
SAMBERG What you've described is my personal heaven.
LEBLANC There was never a real monkey in the movie, either. It was a gymnast guy with a motorized head, going "ee-ee-ee-ee-ee." No one realized that was going to ruin all the audio tracks until way later.
What is a current trend in comedy that annoys you?
FERGUSON Lack of creativity. I'm waiting for the next women's prison comedy. I'm frustrated with copycats.
Is it because the best original ideas aren't surviving the development process?
FERGUSON Possibly. But I'm really lazy. I just do what's in front of me. I'm not trying to develop anything!
LEBLANC There are so many outlets now, too.
MACY There's great stuff. We're in a second golden age.
LEBLANC But with so many outlets, there's still not enough great stuff to go around. "Oh, let's check this out!" Then you haven't laughed one time in the first 20 minutes.
SAMBERG But the flip side is that so many outlets have allowed things to come out of nowhere. Orange Is the New Black is a great example. People didn't know a show could be on Netflix. Then, it's good. So who cares?
BIGGS The show wouldn't work on a traditional network.
SAMBERG There are so many shades of comedy. Sometimes I'm in the mood for the Comedy Central kind of comedy. Sometimes I want the IFC thing like Portlandia. It's exciting but intimidating. There are so many funny people!
MACY Also the boundaries of what's funny are getting stretched in a delightful way. Shameless started off as a drama, and now we're a comedy. It's a great honor not to be nominated in two categories! The irony that this is the first year we're being considered a comedy and it was the darkest. I was on my deathbed for 12 episodes.
HALE One thing that annoys me is [directors] who feel the need to push the comedy. It's like, no, just trust the chaos of the circumstances. Trust the script! "Go broader?" It's like, "I don't think that's necessary."
MACY Especially when you're on a show with bold comedy and you get an old-school director. It doesn't work.
BIGGS Audiences are also smarter than they've ever been. Historically there was a need to spoon-feed and keep things right down the middle. The edgier stuff wouldn't have had a home because where do you put it? You'd pitch it at a network, and they'd go, "Oh, it's too smart for us, too edgy." Then it disappears, and that comedian doesn't get known.
LEBLANC And American comedy used to be very hit-you-over-the-head with the joke. That was the style here. You look at the older British comedies -- they were much smarter and assumed a higher level of intelligence of the audience. Now those walls have come way down. There are really smart comedies here in the States.
The laugh track used to be the cue.
MACY Whoever came up with that should roast in hell!
SAMBERG When it was real, though, it was great.
LEBLANC My first day on Episodes -- I hadn't done anything single-camera in a long time. I have this speech in the car with [co-star] Steve Mangan -- and I say the punch line, and no one laughs. There was a voice in the back of my head going, "That's it, you should have stayed away!" I'd forgotten how to do it!
FERGUSON Having done single and multicamera shows before Modern Family, there is that moment where you have to look for the cues of what's funny in other ways, and it's usually the shoulders of the cameramen shaking.
SAMBERG They yell cut and everybody laughs and you're like, "Thank God."
LEBLANC Or you're rehearsing, and [if] the crew's listening and hopefully not eating, you can get a chuckle.
MACY On the other hand, you start trying to get the crew to laugh, you're in trouble.
SAMBERG Yeah, especially when it's late. "Let me do another wacky improv!" They're like, "Shut up."
If you were tasked with running a broadcast network for a day, what's the first change you'd make?
LEBLANC Throw away standards and practices!
FERGUSON I love that there are shows like Shameless and Orange Is the New Black that don't fit into that drama and comedy mold. I wish we didn't have to classify things.
HALE So much is about testing during pilot season and often it doesn't pay off. Trust and foster it rather than rely on this testing [model]. Though I would never want to be the head of the network. That sounds awful.
MACY There are two things I'd do: Have a rule that the scripts have to be written in a timely manner. Scripts coming at the last minute is just an excuse for everybody to do crappy work. It's inexcusable. If you can get it consistently two days late, you can get it on time. The other thing: Allow one sponsor to buy the whole hour. Find another paradigm to pay for these things. It's a daunting task to tell a story and have the audience leave seven times during commercials.
What has been the most difficult period of your career?
BIGGS Trying to hold back some tears here.
HALE When I booked Arrested Development, I remember feeling disappointed. There was so much expectation because it's all I ever wanted. Then when I got it, it didn't satisfy me the way I [expected it to]. My friend said, "You have to wake yourself up 100 times a day to where you are." I'm sounding like Oprah, but if you're not practicing contentment where you are now, you're not getting contentment when you get what you want.
FERGUSON Just to bring it down further, I did a show right after the writers strike. I was really hurting financially. I wanted to stay in L.A. and make my way here. Then I got this show I wasn't proud of. I took it for money. It was very hard to do something every day I wasn't passionate about. The show was canceled after three episodes, and then I got Modern Family. But it was really depressing.
LEBLANC But no one can ever knock you for taking the job.
MACY Jesus. I'm older than you guys and I haven't worked for five years, three different times. But it's all been a gas, even the low points, even being poor.
HALE Wow, three times of not working for five years …that's really encouraging!
LEBLANC I had dry spells. But I always had this sense of, "Something will come along." People around me were like, "You're f--ing stupid. It's over! There's nothing coming. You're almost out of money." "No, it's coming."
FERGUSON (To LeBlanc) I became friends with you right before Episodes, and you were definitely enjoying life and raising your daughter. It's a testament to your character that you were enjoying the fruits of your labor. We have to remember that we do this so we can enjoy life, too.
MACY You get three months off and you're freaking out!
LEBLANC During summer hiatuses on Friends, we were all looking for [movie roles]. I was like, "I have to do something in the summer, I can't be known for this one show!"
MACY You broadened your horizons with a monkey movie.
LEBLANC But after a while I was like, "No, I'm going to take the summer, sleep late, have a second slice of pizza, put weight on and cut it right before we go back to work."
SAMBERG You were on something that is generally regarded as one of the greatest shows ever. Was that freeing for you after it ended to be like, "I can do nothing if I feel like it and still be well-regarded [because] I was part of something really special"?
LEBLANC Well, it was a bizarre ending for me because I did two years of the spinoff Joey, which wasn't received [well]. The pressure was incredible. Nothing could perform like Friends did. When Joey ended, I said, "I don't want to go do anything for at least a year." That turned into six years. Then David [Crane] and Jeffrey [Klarik], the writers of Episodes, told me, "We have an idea."
SAMBERG This is interesting. In those six years, were you blissful or was there an itch that you wanted to be acting?
LEBLANC I really didn't think about work at all. (Motioning to Ferguson) He did a show with my girlfriend. He knows. At the time I was cutting my own hair.
FERGUSON He was also making ragu with a side of a beef.
MACY Was it depressing to think about working again?
LEBLANC It was a little nerve-racking. It was like, "OK, you'll be playing yourself … that's easy, right?"
SAMBERG Still takes so many hours to shoot.
LEBLANC Yeah. I'd sailed off into the sunset. I was really fortunate, financially. All six of us were fine.
SAMBERG There were reports about that.
LEBLANC Though I did have to borrow this jacket today.
FERGUSON You look awesome, by the way.
MACY And I can cut your hair after this.
LEBLANC Thanks, guys.
Last year Matthew Perry told us about Friends: "We all decided to stop, but I'd love to get in a time machine and say, 'Please, let's not stop.' " Did you ever feel the same way?
LEBLANC I didn't want to stop. It had become the greatest gig. We didn't work Mondays. The work week was 20 hours.
SAMBERG How many seasons?
LEBLANC Ten. And the show was still good, the writing was strong, no one felt like we were jumping the shark.
LEBLANC It was really fun, and I was like, "I don't want to go off and do this by myself. Come on!" But it was a group decision. Some people wanted out, some didn't, and so the majority won.
MACY One thing that scares me is, if you get on a successful show, dollars to doughnuts it's going to live a year or two beyond its [expiration] date. The writing falls apart. … I've seen it on so many shows. If you can go out like you guys did, that's grand, but so many live [too long]. That's when they back up the Brinks truck, and you say, "OK, well, who's the writer?"
SAMBERG "Well, maybe they could start f--ing each other?" Yeah, that's a season.
What's the most personal thing you've ever infused into a role?
BIGGS Obviously my real-life wife is also incarcerated, but for a totally different reason. No, Orange is the most adult role that I've played. The first where I'm playing a character who's complicated and recognizable to myself, anyway.
MACY My character on Shameless didn't drink in the pilot. I brought all of that. That's a joke.
SAMBERG It was originally called Shame.
FERGUSON Mitchell is a close approximation to me. There are little things that [have made it into the show], like, I had to come out to my dad three times. I actually auditioned first to play Cam, Eric Stonestreet's role. I read it, and they're like, "You'd be a better Mitchell." It makes me laugh when people say, "Those characters are stereotypical." I'm basically playing myself, so I find that offensive!
LEBLANC On Episodes in the beginning, they were like: "What are the rules here? How's Matt going to react to that?" And I'd be like, "Oh, that's good, I'll do that, that's fun." Now it's come full circle. I'll tell them a story, and they'll go: "We're not putting that in. That's disgusting."
If we asked your castmembers to describe you when the cameras aren't rolling, what would they say?
BIGGS Rapey, just rapey.
SAMBERG Just a dawg, D-A-W-G.
LEBLANC Pretty much the same as when the camera's rolling.
SAMBERG I don't discriminate, either. All genders, colors, I just wants it.
MACY My cast would say, "Who?"
HALE I play pretty messed-up characters. They're all emasculated. On Veep, Gary, is very …
(Samberg mimics a crowd cheering)
SAMBERG You can't say Arrested Development and Veep and not have me cheer. They're f--ing awesome.
HALE Thank you so much. I break the most on set because I'm in the closest proximity to Julia [Louis-Dreyfus].
What would your agents say about how you react when they present you with projects?
HALE "How much?"
LEBLANC "I wish you'd work more."
HALE I like details. I like to know the whole picture of what I'm getting into. It's nice to get the whole script.
SAMBERG We are all in a position that's very luxurious, which is, we get offered things. I never don't feel weird about passing on something.
HALE I have that guilt, too. "Oh, I'm sorry!"
SAMBERG To know what it takes to write a movie; to have somebody go -- "Out of everyone in the world, the person I want to be in this movie is you" -- and then you read it and go, "I don't want to do it." I always feel bad.
BIGGS Do me a favor and send me whatever you don't want?
HALE But that's very admirable. You're actually doing them a disservice to say yes. Then they're not getting 100 percent of you if you're kind of "eh" about it.
MACY How long do you take to read scripts sent to you?
FERGUSON My lines or the whole script? (Laughter.)
MACY I became a director last year. It's a nightmare. If I send you a script, do you promise to read it within a week?
LEBLANC I'll read it the same day. How's that?
MACY A week or two is fine.
SAMBERG Same-day pact!
LEBLANC Same-day pact!
BIGGS Are we all being offered the same exact role?
LEBLANC Is this movie called The Roundtable?
MACY You talk about guilt turning down scripts. It's harder for me now to look at a movie and say, "Whoever directed that should be shot." Have you guys directed?
FERGUSON Not a feature.
MACY It's like getting hit by a train and being dragged for 25 minutes. The other thing I found out, and you guys aren't going to like this -- we're nuts. Actors are nutty as fruitcakes when you're on the other side. I had a dream cast, and the actors would still say things to me, and I'd go, "Huh?"
FERGUSON Are you a different actor now, having been on the other side of it?
MACY Hard to tell. I'm sure I'll be changed by it, but more than that, I look back on my misspent youth and realize what a jerk I was to so many directors.
LEBLANC On Episodes, and Friends too, I've been shocked at how unprepared a lot of actors are who come in. It sounds like you didn't even read it!
FERGUSON I've gone into auditions, and I'm so wrong for the role that literally as much as I study the script, it will not sink in, but I was too afraid to turn down the audition because I didn't want my agent to drop me!
LEBLANC I remember when we were casting the role of Sean, Steve Mangan's part, and Damian Lewis came in. The part is this very quiet, timid writer, and Damian's not like that at all. It sounded like two guys about to go out and get into a bar fight. He was like, "I don't think I'm right for this."
You've all been in iconic shows and films, which can be a blessing and a curse. Jason, how hard was it for you to not be "that guy from American Pie" for the rest of your career?
BIGGS I would never use the word "curse." Does it impact casting from that point forward? For sure. I was a kid actor. You get something that works, and suddenly you're castable. You've seen the ups and downs of how this town works, and you go, "Well, I want to work." I wonder if there was maybe more of an opportunity for me to try something a little bit in the other direction, and maybe that would have affected, but I don't know that I would have wanted to. I liked the character I played; I liked that kind of comedy. It just so happened that none of the other films that I did were as good as American Pie or performed nearly as well. Even recently it's come up in casting. People still have that perception!
LEBLANC Which is better than no perception at all. People ask me, "Are you ever going to get away from that Friends role?" Get away? I'm proud of it. I had a great time!
BIGGS Exactly. I'm incredibly proud of that movie. If I have to work a little harder to get a job that's completely different ... I've never had an ego about auditioning. When I read for Orange, it was for [creator] Jenji Kohan. She says that when I walked in the room, [she knew] I was the guy.
MACY I turned that part down.
BIGGS All of you?
SAMBERG And no guilt. And I was like, "This stinks."
BIGGS "The role is useless, Biggs might take it!"
SAMBERG But that's why it's exciting. It's like, "Oh shit, he's doing something different!"
LEBLANC It's always a crapshoot. You can be in something great and then, who knows? The editor doesn't know his ass from his elbow. Or the director makes a mess of it. There's so much out of your control.
SAMBERG That's the craziest feeling, when you leave a shoot and you're like, "I nailed that scene, it was funny." Then you see the cut, and it has these long pauses, it's dragging. And you're like, "No! What happened?"
In making the decision of what to do post-Saturday Night Live, did you ask Lorne Michaels for his advice?
SAMBERG I didn't on [Brooklyn Nine-Nine]. But I assumed he would say, "Go for it if it feels right." That's generally his advice. He's like an encouraging parent. "Trust your instincts." I like to think I do. Sometimes things don't work out how you expect, but I don't have anything I regret. The decision you make is the best one for you at that time.
MACY My rule is: Do the good stuff, don't do the bad stuff.
HALE We want to do good work, but of course we're going to make mistakes. I mean, I did Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector -- you guys might have heard of that?
SAMBERG I'm also not over the idea of, "This is a movie that's going to come out, there's going to be a poster, a trailer and be in theaters." That's not lost on me.
HALE You're making money for acting, which is awesome.
SAMBERG It's killer!
When you're given a script and your lines aren't funny, how do you manage that situation?
HALE It's all in the communication. If you come off like a dick, you're going to put up a wall. But if you give options, they might say, "Oh, that's a good idea."
LEBLANC Be a collaborator instead of a crazy actor.
SAMBERG I want to point out that I'm a comedian. I didn't study acting. I've never gone into character!
BIGGS That Golden Globe tells a different story, Samberg.
SAMBERG I was the closest thing to Andre Braugher. They didn't have a supporting category. "Give it to the guy closest to him."
MACY We're not the writers. We can't make it funny, but we can make it truthful. John Wells runs our ship pretty tightly. We are invited to talk to the writers, then he makes sure you never see one on set. I wrote one of the episodes, so I'm pals with them, but it's tough for any actor who keeps playing the "My character wouldn't say that" or "This isn't funny" card. Don't piss off the writers!
SAMBERG I pitch jokes immediately. We'll try five different things. I'm not precious about it. All I want is not to feel embarrassed.
Speaking of, what is the most mortifying thing that's ever happened to you as a performer?
FERGUSON I was hosting this year's Drama League Awards in New York City for actors from the theater season -- Denzel Washington, Audra McDonald, Neil Patrick Harris, who is currently playing Hedwig on Broadway …
SAMBERG I hadn't heard!
FERGUSON He lost 30 pounds to play this role, so I thought it'd be funny if I took his food away from him. We're on this stage in front of a ballroom full of people. I move his plate -- I haven't started my hosting duties yet -- and put a glass of water in front of him. But the condensation made it slip out of my hand and shatter …
HALE Oh, no, no, no.
FERGUSON And I'm bleeding. I was mortified. I actually broke a gravy boat once at Matt's house doing dishes …
LEBLANC You cut yourself a lot!
SAMBERG The worst thing that happened at SNL was during a sketch called "Hamlet Auditions With Jude Law." The bit was, I come in as Nic Cage for 10 seconds and immediately go into a scene from The Wicker Man, "The bees, the bees!" and then jump through the window, which is [fake] glass. But the frame was [solid]. In dress rehearsal, the stunt guys were like, "Put your arm up and cover when you go through," and I'm like, "Yeah, I've gone through a fake window before." And, of course, in the heat of the audience laughing, I go through, land on the mattress and blood is pouring out of my eyebrow. Oh, f--. And I was in the next sketch.
MACY I did a play in New York and was in bed on the stage with this actress who was constantly dieting. She's telling me about her latest diet when we get in bed and then pull the covers up. Then she goes, "Oh, I'm so sorry." Dear God in heaven, I don't know what she had been eating …
SAMBERG I want to know who it is so bad.
MACY I can't say!
BIGGS I once farted onstage and saw the guy in the front row go, "Oh."
MACY I did too, on Boogie Nights during one of those long-ass shots. I started laughing, and [director] Paul Thomas Anderson said, "What? We almost had it!" I said, "I farted!" It was a big one, too.