Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph Want to Retire the Phrase "Female Comedy"

Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph -Getty-Split-H 2019
Getty Images

"The hope would be any modifiers for previously marginalized voices slowly being eradicated and just becoming the norm," Lyonne tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph want to retire the phrase “female comedy” — or any modifier about a marginalized community.

“We are, of course, excited about new and original female voices in particular,” Lyonne says of the pair's Animal Pictures company, which inked a first-look deal with Amazon Studios in November. “The hope would be any modifiers for previously marginalized voices slowly being eradicated and just becoming the norm.”

Rudolph agrees: “I'm definitely one of those people that is looked at as part of this group of women in comedy, which is a drag. ... It's an unfortunate reminder of how women continue to be categorized in all facets of life.”

Rudolph — the star and executive producer of Forever — says she realized only recently in her career that her voice was an important one, and hopes to showcase others’ voices through their company. “There's a window right now of opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of for people whose voices aren't usually heard," she says. "I'm all about helping usher that into the world."

Lyonne — the co-creator, writer and star of Russian Doll (renewed for season two on June 11) — says the duo has “a really healthy slate” at Animal Pictures so far. Here, the two stars, who were named to The Hollywood Reporter’s Most Powerful People in Comedy list on Wednesday, talk to THR in separate interviews about their proudest moments of the past year, their deal with Amazon and the new talent they’re seeking.

Does this feel like an exceptionally big and busy year for you? 

Lyonne: It feels like a culmination of a lifetime of work. I've been this person for a while, but it's exciting to have created and written something that speaks to the way I see the world and visually and musically the way I hear and see it. So I almost experience it as a relief that now my point of view is out there for better or worse.

I'm over the moon that people are responding positively to something that I thought was pretty obscure. So it's a very curious delight. I can walk truthfully or if a bus hits me, I feel like it's okay now. I said what I have to say for the time being. So it's a relief, because before, every time I saw a bus, I was in a panic. And now I'm like, "Come at me. We're good."

What are you most proud of in the past year?

Rudolph: I'd have to say the dream is getting to do what you love with the people you love to do it with. [The Netflix film] Wine Country was a great culmination of many years of working with people who I consider to be the most talented, the most inspiring comedians and also genuine friends — friendships that are 20 years in the making. You can't really ask for anything more, because it makes the work that much sweeter and the history makes the content that much better.

Lyonne: On a personal level, the fact that Russian Doll was a collaboration over five years in the making with Amy Poehler. On a human level, it's very meaningful to me and very life-affirming.

I feel that way also about [Netflix vp original content] Cindy Holland and Jenji [Kohan, creator of Orange Is the New Black] and my time at Orange and being able to end the season directing one of the episodes. It's this definitive marker of ending such a giant chapter in my life on a high note of just feeling so close with that cast. 

This is a really special thing that just ended these seven years. To be a part of Netflix's rise in that time and feeling so supported by them creatively, and even to segue into being also a behind-the-scenes person, really made me feel like I had a home base. You really know who somebody is after seven years of seeing them every day, through all their personalities and everything on set. I'd never even dated somebody for that long.

The time spent with Amy — of course I've known her forever, being part of this round-the-way gang — but the creative excitement of getting to work with her and that it ended up building such a strong friendship with her and something professionally inspiring, I can't believe that I'm getting to make things with so much honesty of what I really want to say and who I really want to be. Now it's also happening with Maya. I can't believe that's my life. 

It's probably helpful to have some down time in this business. I really have that keen awareness of how lucky and special this moment is that maybe I wouldn't have if it had all happened overnight, out of the gate. I'm aware that I'm having my 15 minutes, but I know enough about Andy Warhol to appreciate it.

The company with Maya, Animal Pictures, is huge to me. We have such a shared aesthetic. Our dreams feel very aligned for the kind of stories we want to see out there. Selfishly, I feel like I'm spending my days doing things I really want to do — I mean, I'm working hard, let me be clear. It's pretty 24/7 on all fronts, but I am keenly aware that this is about as good as it gets.

What are you looking forward to working on together with Animal Pictures and Amazon? 

Rudolph: Natasha has always been like a creative spark and constantly excited by the work and the people making the work. She's given a lot of energy to the idea of our company, which is really infectious. She's very driven to hear people's truth and to hear stories that need to be heard and voices that we haven't heard from yet. Looking at the work from that lens, we continue to find interesting people to work with and exciting stories. And it's making the projects feel thrilling to help bring to life.

On a personal level, when you're working with someone who really cares about your whole life and your well-being and you as a person in this world, I think you're really able to get a lot more out of it, because it's really fulfilling on a personal level to connect with her on a more regular basis. And sometimes you have to do that through work, but when you know someone's got your back, I think that's the luckiest way to have it. And we really do have each other's back.

Lyonne: Maya and I always had a really shared cinematic language. There has been a deeper conversation about aesthetics that we'd almost been having. And then I wrote and directed a short that Kenzo filmed for her to star in, and we were like, "Holy shit, we found this secret way to spend time together doing the things that we love" and realized that we spoke a language so fluently that we were building all those years.

With Russian Doll and Forever, we realized that we also had a similar investment in finding a nuanced and funny way to talk about big existential ideas that directly address this idea of "What's it all about, Alfie?" This idea of, "What makes for a meaningful life? And what do we do with our time here?" That's at the heart of both Forever and Russian Doll, but packaged in a way that is actually soothing to take in and feels somehow life-affirming rather than alienating.

In forming this company, we want to go deeper into those ideas, coming at it from a million different directions. We've been fighting so we have a really healthy slate growing, and there are some incredible new voices that we're really excited about getting to help shepherd into the world. That's not to say by any stretch that that's what all the shows and movies are going to be about. 

We are, of course, excited about new and original female voices in particular, and we're also excited to see that modifier — eventually, the hope would be any modifiers for previously marginalized voices slowly being eradicated and just becoming the norm. 

You mentioned voices you want to highlight. What will be important to you with content at Animal Pictures?

Rudolph: I realized very late in the work that I was doing that my voice is an important one. It's always the most interesting when something feels like a story I've never heard before. It really resonated with me in Russian Doll, because knowing Natasha as well as I do, and seeing that story and how it resonated with people on a more universal level because of these greater life ideas, but when you really condense it down to what it is, she was really telling a very personal story. To me, that's always when it resonates the strongest.

I don't feel at this time in my life a desire to be in front of the camera in order to tell a story. I'm happy to do that when it feels right, but I've been so lucky to be able to do the creative projects that I've wanted to do and there are so many more things I want to see being made and so many stories I want to hear that don't really need me. The ability to be able to bring those things to life is what's so exciting about having this company, that is just broadens the horizons creatively of what content we're going to help create or nurture into the world.

Sometimes they're personal stories, sometimes they're fictional stories, but they're always a new voice and a new story. There's a window right now of opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of for people whose voices aren't usually heard to be able to come forward and tell their story. I'm all about helping usher that into the world.

Is there anything specific you want to see more of in comedy? 

Rudolph: I'm definitely one of those people that is looked at as part of this group of women in comedy, which is a drag. It doesn't surprise me, but I never really expected to be categorized in comedy. I think if it's funny, it's funny.

The kind of comedy I started out with — sketch comedy and improv — is a group sport. It always felt really unisex to me, where the most important players are just the strongest and the most talented players. A lot of us have those roots in this team sport idea of comedy. We're all used to assisting each other, making sure the sketch is funny, as opposed to the individual.

It's always strange when I hear the reaction to what I do, like when Bridesmaids came out, people were discovering that women made comedies. And it's always a lot later. People are always catching up to what we've been doing. But it doesn't surprise me. It's just a drag. It's an unfortunate reminder of how women continue to be categorized in all facets of life. When I hear that reaction, it's not really about comedy, because if I were doing something else, I'm sure they'd find a way to say, "Wow, women make snow globes? That's a first." I'm sure if I did something else for a living, it would be amazing that women made leather credenzas. It's just a drag, because it's a reminder of the bigger picture of the world.

I do think journalism has a lot to do with it. People like to tell old stories and I think it's time for new stories. What was nice about Wine Country specifically was it was a story about female friendship, which is such an essential part of life for most women I know. Yet, we don't see it often enough in movies. Every time I was in something and they wanted women to be in a catfight, I went like, "Well, that doesn't feel good. Why? I certainly don't thrive in that, why should I portray that?" That kind of shit. So, yeah, I think people leaning into a space that feels truthful, that feels like it shines a light on their perspective.

So modifiers like "So-and-so is working on a female comedy"? 

Rudolph: Yeah. I mean, look, if I weren't funny, we wouldn't be having this conversation. So I think it's about modifying the headline, and I think you're absolutely right that to me, within comedians, what's funny is funny. I don't spend a lot of time categorizing what's female and what's male funny. If it's not funny, it doesn't work. And that's really all that matters.

There are millions of strains of men's comedy and millions of strains of women's comedy. I keep my head down personally, and I don't venture into that territory. I just wish the headline would change, because I think any comedian would tell you, we don't live and die by it.

Maya, you mentioned being okay now stepping off-camera. When executive producing Forever this year, did that feel different having that creative control over the project? 

Rudolph: That was really born out of an idea to work specifically with Fred [Armisen] and the kind of work that we wanted to help create. That made the experience so satisfying, because we were able to find [co-creator] Alan [Yang] and bring on somebody that we knew would be so thoughtful from top to bottom, our entire crew and our entire experience was exactly what we felt we wanted to do right now in our lives, which was create a work environment that excited us.

That was a good example of all the work and time and years that I've put into doing this and then realizing what works for me, creating that and bringing that to life. I love the project so much. I'm really proud of it. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.