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This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s June 13 Emmy stand-alone issue.
Perhaps it was the vacation-inspired environs of the Bungalow in Santa Monica that put the performers in such a carefree state of mind. Or it could be that each of the comedy actors who assembled for a candid conversation about their bizarre livelihoods was so different from the other, their union played out like a well-cast ensemble performance: The Network Veteran: Matthew Perry, 43 (NBC’s departed series Go On); The New Guy: Jake Johnson, 35 (Fox’s New Girl); The Sketch Guy: Fred Armisen, 46 (IFC’s Portlandia, NBC’s Saturday Night Live, from which he departed in May); The Lovable Nerd: Jim Parsons, 40 (CBS’ The Big Bang Theory); The Straight Man: Adam Scott, 40 (NBC’s Parks and Recreation); and The Scene-Stealer: Eric Stonestreet, 41 (ABC’s Modern Family). They tackled with spirited candor the parts of the business that bug them, their worst acting gigs and the jobs they might have if they weren’t actors (warning: don’t use the word “penal” with this group).
The Hollywood Reporter: What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done for a laugh?
Fred Armisen: I don’t think we want to answer that.
Matthew Perry: That we’ve decided to spend our lives pretending to be other people. That’s the craziest thing. As opposed to doing something else. Or something funny. Or some funny answer that I could have thought of.
Eric Stonestreet: Putting on a wig. As a kid, that was the first stupid thing I did to make someone laugh.
THR: How old were you?
Stonestreet: There are pictures of me from 5 on wearing a wig. I’m like, “Who in the hell put me in this wig?” “Oh, you always wanted to wear wigs. Always wanted to wear wigs and makeup.” Did I? OK, all right.
Armisen: Is that a wig?
Stonestreet: This is a wig.
Armisen: It’s a good one.
Stonestreet: Thank you. It’s expensive.
Jake Johnson: When I was a kid, I used to do talk shows with my family where I would be the host, my siblings would be the guests, and I would draw on a little bit of chest hair and a mustache.
Adam Scott: I like that the talk-show host had chest hair.
Johnson: Yeah. I knew the kind of guy I wanted to be at, like, 7.
Stonestreet: Who was your inspiration? Which talk-show host that had a lot of chest hair?
Johnson: I can’t answer that.
Stonestreet: What public-access shows were you watching?
Johnson: I can’t answer that for certain.
Scott: Burt Reynolds did guest-host The Tonight Show all the time.
Johnson: Yeah, that’s interesting.
Armisen: Was he just un-shirted?
Johnson: In my 7-year-old’s fantasy version, it was open-shirted and mustache. My cousin always played a football player, my brother was a politician, my other cousin, Teresa, was a hooker.
Stonestreet: Curious, what’s she up to these days?
Johnson: Just chilling out, she’s around, great gal.
Stonestreet: Yeah, I’d love to meet her.
Scott: She’s your agent.
Johnson: She’s here, actually, somewhere.
Armisen: You know, you could pitch that show now. You’ve got the power to get it out there.
Johnson: That’s right.
Jim Parsons: I liked talk shows, too, but I only just wanted to come out from behind the curtain. I did that a lot when I was very young, like Johnny Carson, but I didn’t want to do the rest of the job. Or maybe I just didn’t have the energy to organize everybody in the family to do the whole thing.
Johnson: But you’d do the walk out.
Parsons: Oh, yes. That and [wear] Mr. Rogers‘ sweater — I wanted to take a sweater out of the closet.
Perry: How often did you do that?
Parsons: I don’t know. It stopped around 3 or 4?
Scott: That’s also a high-concept idea for a talk show. Just coming out from behind a curtain, roll credits, and it’s done.
Stonestreet: You could get advertisers to pay for it.
THR: If you could change one aspect of the TV business, what would it be?
Stonestreet: The way actors get jobs for TV shows. The whole test process is kind of old-fashioned, where you go in front of a room of execs wearing suits, multiple times, to get your job, versus putting a performance on tape and letting an editor edit it for the best performance. In reality, that’s what happens on our TV shows.
Johnson: I had to test in front of everybody.
Stonestreet: Yeah, I did too.
Johnson: There’s so much anxiety, it’s a nightmare!
Stonestreet: It’s like hazing in fraternities.
Johnson: It’s smarter, especially with a single-cam show, to shoot it, edit it and see how an actor would actually be on the show.
Scott: I wonder about the psychology behind it; do they just want to see how much pressure you can take and still be competent? Ten years ago, I remember going in, and it was an arena full of people watching.
Stonestreet: My standard line would be, “I’ve done theater for less people than this.”
Perry: The whole idea of making 100 pilots, paying for 100 pilots, but knowing you’re only going to use seven is just such a crazy, ridiculous waste of money. I don’t know how you fix that, but that just has always seemed ridiculous to me. If I were running a network, I think it would be nice to just put on a show that you think would be great. There’s nothing wrong with putting on a show that 20 million people will watch, but aiming to put on a show that 20 million people will watch is not the smartest thing.
THR: Well, 20 million people don’t watch primetime shows anymore.
Perry: Yeah, don’t I know it! (Laughs.)
THR: Do you all pay attention to your ratings?
Parsons: It dictates whether you get to keep your job.
Armisen: You get the e-mails — all the time.
Johnson: We just finished season two. And we hear, “Oh, you guys will come back for sure,” but if the ratings start really slipping on anything, they’re not going to spend a lot of money if people aren’t watching it. I think the actors who don’t pay attention to it at all are on huge monster shows.
Scott: If I were running a network, which I will never do …
Stonestreet: I think that’s selling yourself short.
Scott: You’re right. When I run a network …
Perry: He really turned you around on that.
Johnson: So quickly.
Scott: I have made plans now, it’s officially happening.
Stonestreet: I’ve changed my mind. I’d rather you not run a network.
Scott: OK, forget it, it’s not going to happen.
Perry: You actually will make a great network person.
Scott: I’m just agreeing with everything everyone says! No, I would try and pick the right showrunners and then leave them alone. When there’s constant network meddling, the shows get watered down.
THR: How involved are you guys with the notes process on your shows? Do they trickle down to you?
Scott: Not at all.
Stonestreet: Zero, zero.
Armisen: A lot. We go through them on Portlandia all the time, so it’s about trying to find the balance between seeing if it’s an actual valuable note or something to be ignored.
THR: Matthew, what is the biggest difference doing a comedy today versus during the Friends heyday?
Scott: The free Ferrari you get Friday morning?
Perry: Yeah. I mean, it’s completely different. When Friends started, there was no cable, no hot food, no mass transit.
Stonestreet: It feels like just the other day.
Perry: No, it’s just really a completely different thing. But I always have the same thing — which is the fear of not getting a laugh — that I’ve had from the time I was a kid; obsessing over “This joke doesn’t quite work, we’ve got to get this right.” I was always like that whether I was a member of a six-person ensemble or whether I’m the center of a show.
Parsons: The taping process was completely different too, right?
Perry: It was in front of a live audience and a 10-to-4 kind of job. And we only worked a third of the time.
Johnson: (To Stonestreet.) Like you.
Stonestreet: Take it easy.
Perry: Why in the world did we stop? We all decided, “You know what? Let’s stop.” But I’d love to get in a time machine right now and say, “Please, let’s not stop!” (Laughter.)
Scott: Do you miss the live audience?
Perry: I do. Doing single-camera work is a completely different type of acting. It certainly breeds playing to the last row in the audience. It’s a slightly bigger performance. I’ve gotten a kick out of being able to play something a little bit more real, but it really is so different.
Scott: That rush of the live audience, I imagine, would be very tough to give up and say goodbye to.
Perry: Yes … The big difference with single-cam work is that if your character is sad about something, or very angry, instead of just playing it exactly the way somebody would play angry or sad, you’re sort of saying, “OK, I’m going to be angry and sad now, so watch this. You’re going to enjoy it!”
THR: A lot of your characters are becoming iconic. Do you worry about being typecast?
Parsons: No. It wouldn’t be fun to work under that worry. It can’t matter, if that makes any sense. Are you supposed to backpedal and do less of a character? I don’t know. I’m sure some people have a hard time seeing me in different roles. And that’s OK. It’s my job to keep doing other things, too; that’s the only way around that, you know. Having that hurdle is fine.
Stonestreet: I always see it as reflective of the person. When people tweet me when they’ve seen me on American Horror Story or on a TV show I did well before Modern Family like, “Cam’s in this episode of NCIS!” I can’t take it seriously. I think: “You’re stupid. You don’t understand that’s not Cam?” It’s hilarious.
Perry: Just get ready. (Laughs.)
Scott: I was kicking around for like 15 years before having any semblance of success, so if I’m typecast, I’m like, great, fine. I’m just psyched to have a job. I feel kind of excited to be in danger of being typecast.
Stonestreet: Yeah, it’s true.
Johnson: If you’re typecast because you’ve done such a good job with a character that everybody loves it, you’re awesome.
Perry: That’s a hilarious way to think about it. Somebody goes, “Yo, Chandler!” and I just go, “[I have my own] Red Bull machine!”
Johnson: That’s hilarious. That guy’s going to be so confused.
THR: What are some funny or strange fan interactions you’ve had?
Armisen: I was going to the movies, and this woman came up to me and said, “I work at this bakery, here’s a loaf of bread. I couldn’t dump it. That would be rude, so I just had to take this bread with me to the movies. And it wasn’t teeny, it was long.
Stonestreet: That’s really sweet when you think about it.
Armisen: It’s great.
Stonestreet: You give me laughs, I give you bread.
Scott: Did you end up eating it?
Armisen: Part of it. I couldn’t do the whole thing.
Scott: It’s a lot of bread.
Armisen: All carbs.
Parsons: Not what you would normally take into the theater to watch a movie.
Scott: Well, you don’t, maybe.
Parsons: I was given a knit cap at a taping. We were in the middle of a scene, or between scenes, and so I was on the stage. I heard someone say, “I made a knit cap!” And I thought, “I’m not hearing this right,” and it finally kept making its way down, and I had to kind of walk off the stage, get the knit cap and say thank you.
THR: Did you put it on?
Parsons: No, I was in show hair. I didn’t want to cause anybody more work. But I thought that was very funny. I didn’t know my character or I were big into knit caps.
Stonestreet: Because of the character I play, I register a tremendous amount of disappointment on people’s faces when they meet me. Honestly. They’re like, “Do Cam!” As lovely as I think you all think I might be, I’m nowhere near as lovely as people hope.
Scott: Well, that’s fun for you.
Stonestreet: It is.
THR: And how do you “do” Cam?
Stonestreet: I don’t!
Armisen: (Chanting.) Do it, do it, do it!
Stonestreet: I love it the most when people come up to me — I can’t imagine it happens to any of you guys because you’re all extremely traditionally handsome — but they tell me that I’m much better-looking in person and I’m not as heavy as they thought I would be. I usually tell them to go f— themselves.
Perry: Do you?
Stonestreet: No, of course not. No, I’m always nice. “Well, thank you very much. That’s so sweet.”
Johnson: It could go the other way. “You are fatter, uglier and lamer in person.”
Stonestreet: OK, Jake, stop it.
Johnson: The first season of the show, it really spooked me because I’d be in a supermarket, and I make eye contact with somebody. I’d register that they just recognized me, but they wouldn’t be clear about it. And you’re like: “If you’re going to kill me, just do it. Whatever you’re planning, just do it!”
Stonestreet: As actors, we’re aware of people. I think the reason we’re probably actors is that we’re investigators, we’re upward thinkers, we’re paying attention to things. My nature is to say, “Hey, I see you circling me.”
Johnson: That’s right, and then all you’re thinking about is, “I was on a nice train of thought.”
Stonestreet: I was thinking about bread.
Johnson: And I was in a nice zone.
Stonestreet: But how do you do it?
Perry: Well, one thing is, you don’t go to the grocery store anymore.
Stonestreet: Yeah, but I want to go to the grocery store. I like it there!
Parsons: I like grocery stores, too.
Perry: Then you guys have a real dilemma. (Laughter.) I go to L.A. Kings games all the time, and people can turn really fast. They’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m meeting you, can I take a picture?” And I say: “It’s nice to meet you. The only problem is, with so many people around, if we take a picture, it’s going to start a whole thing.” And they go, “Well, you’re an asshole.”
Armisen: So does that change the way you handle it or do you continue to say, “I can’t do a photo right now?”
Perry: Yeah, [I continue to say no] because it’s also such a different time. You never know where that picture’s going to go.
THR: There were no camera phones during Friends‘ run.
Scott: And everyone has one on them at all times.
Stonestreet: That’s why I love when people come up and ask for an autograph. That’s such a cool, retro thing. It’s like, “Yeah!”
Scott: Old school.
Stonestreet: “What’s your first name?” It’s like a genuine moment in time. A camera just reduces it. I was at a Chiefs-Patriots game, and this guy was walking down the aisle taking pictures of me, and I’m like, “Hey man, I’m just watching the game here.” And he started cussing me out, saying that he’s never watching the show again.
Perry: You can just say, “Lucky for me, 17 million other people will!”
Scott: My recognition depends on the demographic. I get a lot of love from caterers at events because of [my time on] Party Down. That’s a great group to be in with when you’re at the party.
Stonestreet: You don’t go to acting school to learn how to deal with the things that come along with your dreams coming true. Thankfully, my dreams came true at 38, when I was able to really be grounded and smart with money.
Johnson: People take weird liberties that they wouldn’t if I weren’t on TV. I’ve honestly had my arms around some random dude, someone’s taking a photo, and he goes, “I don’t know who you are, but everybody else is doing it!”
Scott: Oh yeah, all the time.
Johnson: I’m like, “Your arm’s on my back, man.” I want to be like, “Thanks for not watching New Girl, dude, ’cause I know you don’t!”
Stonestreet: I love when people feel the need to come up to you and say, “I don’t watch TV.”
Perry: I always mess with those situations. I always say, “Well, that’s clearly not true.”
THR: Is there a job — acting or otherwise — that you wish you could remove from your résumé?
Perry: I did a pilot about a guy who was in charge of separating aliens’ luggage at the L.A. airport in the year 2194.
Stonestreet: When was that?
Scott: That sounds great.
Johnson: There’s a real part of me that’s interested.
Perry: I did that the same year, the same pilot season as Friends. It was called LAX 2194.
Scott: Is it on YouTube or anything?
Perry: It must be, I wore a futuristic shirt, and the aliens were little people, little people wearing wigs.
Scott: Such a bummer that didn’t get picked up.
Stonestreet: Do you remember who the showrunner was?
Perry: It was a real show. Barry Kemp.
THR: The world would be a different place if that show happened.
Perry: I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here.
Johnson: It’s really funny to imagine your agents back then. “Matt, you’re so good in both! Let’s just see what happens.”
Parsons: “They’re both home runs!”
Armisen: For me, it would have been nice to not have worked in that many restaurants. (Laughter.) I think I have amnesia about it. I’ve deleted it from my life, but yeah, it would have been nice if it was scaled down. Also, working for a nightclub and having to put fliers up everywhere … and in bathrooms.
Parsons: That does sound terrible.
Armisen: It was awful, all these little packets of fliers to put in bathrooms. This was in Chicago.
Stonestreet: What year were you in Chicago?
Armisen: 1988 through 2000.
Stonestreet: Oh really? I was there 1996 to 1998. Did you ever put fliers up at 4443 North …?
Stonestreet: It explicitly said “No solicitors.”
Armisen: I know, but there was a technicality where it was actually outside of your property, so we were totally allowed to do it.
Stonestreet: That ordinance did not pass. Not true, Fred.
Armisen: It did pass. Do the research, of course it passed!
Perry: There’s a time and a place, fellas.
Armisen: Did we all get to go through all our embarrassing jobs?
Scott: For me, no matter how embarrassing at the time, it was probably a big deal to get an acting job. I’ve seen things pop up on TV, and it’s embarrassing. But at the time, I was really excited, so who cares?
Armisen: Yeah, you’re starstruck to be on a set. “Wow, I’m actually doing this.”
Johnson: You also learn from them. A director once called me, and I told him I didn’t like the script, I didn’t like anything involved in it. It was a movie. And he’s like, “I want to make Bottle Rocket.” I was like, OK, Bottle Rocket‘s cool as hell. So I said yes. I got down there, and I’m like, “Why did I trust that?” You can’t just listen to the movies the director wants to make. I want to make that too, but your track record says you’re not making that movie!
THR: If you weren’t acting right now, what would you be doing for work?
Parsons: Teaching theater. I loved being in school, especially college. I don’t actually want to spend more than three days at the university, but I suspect I would actually have a higher tolerance for teaching.
Stonestreet: I was going to school to be a prison administrator. I was studying criminal justice. I wanted to work in the federal penal system. Penal … ha!
Scott: It sounds like “penis.”
Stonestreet: Yeah, but it’s penal. Not a penis.
Scott: Different meaning.
Perry: He didn’t want to work in the penis system.
Stonestreet: No, not then.
Scott: Like a system made entirely …
Perry: Of penises.
Stonestreet: OK, correctional. But then I did a play in college, and people said I was good at it, and I was stupid enough to believe them, moved to Chicago, got solicited by this motherf–er (to Armisen).
Armisen: I was hired to do it!
Stonestreet: There’s no doubt I would be doing that job. I was from Leavenworth, Kansas, and Leavenworth is known for its federal facility, its disciplinary barracks for the military — it’s a prison town. My dad knew a lot of people, so I had an in.
Perry: I just realized the first part of “penal” is exactly like “penis.”
Scott: The second syllable is where it changes. It turns into a different word.
Stonestreet: You’re really dwelling on that. I just should have said “correctional” system.
Scott: Since it starts out sounding like “penis.”
Stonestreet: “Correction” sounds like “erection.”
Scott: But it’s almost more funny just because it ends up being something else entirely.
Scott: And you’re just thinking about a big penis.
Armisen: The opposite, almost, in a sense.
Perry: I think there’s something very unfair happening here. If you’ve won an Emmy, you should not be allowed here. (To Parsons and Stonestreet) You’ve both won Emmys. You know, let the people who haven’t won anything come, you know?
Parsons: He wants them penalized.
Perry: So until that happens, until somebody rights that wrong, I’m going to talk about penal and penis.
THR: Who or what makes you laugh the most?
Scott: I like it when a word sounds like it’s going to be “penis.”
THR: We’ve moved on from that.
Stonestreet: Have we?
Armisen: Wait, so what’s “penile”?
THR: That’s actually an adjective for …
Perry: Having to do with the penis.
Armisen: Right. So penile implant would be of the penis.
Scott: What about “penish”?
Armisen: That would be resembling a penis.
Johnson: I’ll go through phases where there’ll be something that makes me laugh the hardest. There’s a character John C. Reilly does on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! named Dr. Steve Brule. It’s ridiculous. The last two weeks, all I’ve done is watch Dr. Steve Brule until tears are coming out of my eyes.
Scott: I love Portlandia.
Perry: The hardest I’ve ever laughed is watching Steve Coogan doing Alan Partridge.
Armisen: So great!
Parsons: CareerBuilder.com for years had a thing called “Monk-e-Mail,” where you can type a message and e-mail it to somebody, and this monkey will read it in different voices that you pick. There’s the wonderful woman, British voice, and different outfits the monkey will wear. I think it’s been about eight years since I’ve dealt with this. But then a couple years later, somebody sends you one, and you go, “Hot damn, it’s back!” Monk-e-Mail is back being funny as of a couple weeks ago.
Stonestreet: I forgot about Monk-e-Mail!
THR: Who are your comedy heroes?
Armisen: Chevy Chase. And Martin Lawrence. He was so great on his show. So much energy.
Stonestreet: Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. And we just lost Jonathan Winters, who, for my type specifically, was a true pioneer. And John Candy too.
Scott: For me, it’s Steve Martin, David Letterman and Albert Brooks.
Perry: Michael Keaton.
Johnson: When I was growing up, no one made me laugh like Chris Farley.
Perry: I worked with Chris on his last movie. He was one of the very few people who on a daily basis made me laugh. I generally don’t laugh. I’m just one of those guys who says, “Huh. That’s really funny.”
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