Since the unfortunate too-soon cancelation of their great NBC show Best Friends Forever in 2012, television has been crying out for Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham to reunite. BFF gave us a frustratingly brief glimpse at the fantastic friend-chemistry of this duo, who came up together at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, before being yanked after one six episode season. They've taken their game to USA, which is just now venturing into original comedy programming, and their show Playing House debuts on April 29. Where BFF saw them playing best buds who move back in together in New York, Playing House is set in a small town and focuses on Emma (St. Clair) moving in to help Maggie (Parham) with her pregnancy after she kicks out her husband for having an online affair.
The good news is: Playing House is just as funny and has just as much crackling chemistry as Best Friends Forever, and is loaded with outstanding supporting players drawn from the alt-comedy world to fill out the kooky characters who live in the show's small town. Key and Peele star Keegan Michael Key and The Office/Silicon Valley supporting player Zach Woods round out the main cast. The first episode can also be streamed online here. We talked to St. Clair and Parham about bouncing back from BFF, moving from network TV to cable, and building out the show's colorful ensemble.
The Wire: I loved seeing Neil Casey in the second episode. I want you guys to throw as many UCB veterans into the show as possible.
Jessica St. Clair: If that's what you want, then you're about to get it. Our writers room was made up of mostly UCB people, Anthony King, Joe Wengert, John Lutz. We wrote down a list of all of our favorite people from the UCB, and we were like, let's write guest stars to them.
Lennon Parham: As we were breaking story, we were like, 'who would be amazing in this part?' And we would write towards them. We named the guy Neil Casey, Jason Mantzoukas will play someone who I used to march snare drum with in the drumline, we wrote a whole episode about them coming back for their marching band reunion and we have an entire conversation in snare drum.
St. Clair: Andy Daly plays a divorce lawyer who I end up having sex with in the back of a Toyota Highlander.
That's a real mirror to Review [which also stars St. Clair].
St. Clair: My husband was like, "I would be more worried if you and Andy Daly didn't look like twins. It just grosses everybody out."
The show has a real small-town vibe, too, so it's almost as if you got the Gilmore Girls Stars Hollow setting, but you're populating it with UCB comedians.
St. Clair: That's exactly what we say to people.
Parham: It's like Stars Hollow, but with a bunch of weirdoes.
St. Clair: We got Bobby Moynihan and Ian Roberts to strip in a Magic Mike-style stripshow.
I'll make that the lead of the article, and that'll guarantee the biggest opening of the year.
St. Clair: With the headline: "You're Welcome, America."
How did you get to USA? Obviously you're tapping into the chemistry you guys had on Best Friends Forever, which a lot of critics responded to but just didn't work out scheduling-wise. Did you want to create that in a new setting?
Parham: We took BFF around to try and take it somewhere else, because we were really proud of it and it had gotten all that critical acclaim, and twitter fans were going crazy about it.
The closest we got was at USA, we really liked the vibe there, and they really liked us, and they were like, could you do something that feels similar but is new? So we had this idea already for two ladies and a baby. And they loved it, and it kind of rolled from there.
Was it inspired by Lennon's pregnancy?
Parham: I wasn't pregnant yet.
St. Clair: Obviously babies were sort of on the brain for both of us, but we also were looking to do a show that was a little bit more adult. I mean, let's be honest, we're not still living in Brooklyn all together in an apartment. So it's, "What could be the life issues these best friends could be dealing with, and parenthood, the adult things..."
Parham: The things we're going through now.
St. Clair: Yes, are you living the best life you can live? But when we came up with it, we were like, "We'll write the pilot, and Lennon's character will be 8 months pregnant." And then she got exactly the right time pregnant for her to be exactly 8 months when we were shooting.
Parham: I didn't do it on purpose.
St. Clair: She got pregnant, I got secretly pregnant, I was three months pregnant while I was shooting the pilot, so we were both raving bitches.
Parham: We edited out all the parts where Jessica was throwing up in bushes.
St. Clair: Yeah, I threw up in bushes all over Pasadena.
Having Keegan Michael Key is a casting coup as well, as his show is getting bigger and bigger.
Parham: We have a bunch of coups.
St. Clair: Keegan is the most handsome funny person you'll ever encounter, and the nicest.
Parham: He walks into the trailer and all the hair and makeup ladies swoon, because he's like, "Honey, honey."
St. Clair: He's a Cary Grant of sorts. He can sing, he can dance, we also get him to take his clothes off, which is another coup. We played husband and wife in an indie movie last summer called Afternoon Delight. I fell in love with him there, and then I begged him, and he was so busy.
Parham: She tricked him.
St. Clair: I tricked him, I tricked him.
Parham: Everything is really blowing up for him right now, with the show, and the Peabody.
It feels like USA is using you guys to launch into the comedy world, which they've never really done before.
St. Clair: We've never been promoted before, so all of this is really kind of new. I think there was maybe one commercial for BFF that aired at 1 a.m.
Parham: The USA marketing team are geniuses at what they do. They do the right kind of thing for every medium, they're very active on social media, they're releasing videos every day up to the premiere.
St. Clair: They're almost freakishly nice people, so you think you're on a prank show or something. Everybody is very passionate about the job there. Everyone feels like they're family, everyone says hello to each other. It's weird, you feel like you're going to see Mark Feuerstein baking cupcakes in their staff kitchen.
Parham: I haven't really felt the pressure of it, like, oh God, we're the first one. Sirens was on the air, and we're coming close on the heels of that. We're right up next to Modern Family [reruns], which I think is a perfect pairing for what we do, the kind of heart.
The makeshift family angle too, you guys are a sort of unique family situation, the two of you and the baby.
St. Clair: What I love about Modern Family is that it makes you laugh and there's hilarious physical gags that are outrageous, but there's real heart to it and you feel good after you watch it. That's something that we tried to do in BFF and we're hoping to do again in this show. These people, at the end of the day, really love each other. That's what it's sort of about. It's kind of a romance, it just happens to be two women who are best friends.
There's that great button in the pilot where someone's telling you two to kiss, and you're like, 'Well no, it's not like that.' But it's a little like that.
St. Clair: Someone called us "friendsbians," and I think that's pretty apt. It was maybe our husbands. My husband literally sends us a story every day about lesbians, and is like, "Guys, let me know." And I'm like "I will let you know. I'm going to live a very happy life with Lennon when you're dead and gone, and that's the truth. In Boca Raton."
That actually feels like a sitcom you guys should be shopping around at some point in your careers.
St. Clair: Yes, much later.
Parham: Golden Girls part two.
St. Clair: We'll get the old set from Golden Girls, with all the wicker furniture.
It does feel like it's harder and harder to have a comedy get a foothold in the network television landscape. A lot of people are going to cable, where there's a little more time and nurturing. Is that what you've encountered?
St. Clair: Yeah. Again, this is so weird, but when USA would get a script, they would go, "We love it, but can it have more of your voice in it?" If anything, people usually tell us to tone it down.
They're almost like theater nerds. They kind of encourage you to be the best you you can be in this show, and it's rare to find that in television.
Parham: I also feel like the schedule is more doable. On network television, 24 episodes when you're just the [executive producer] is killer. But when you're the EP, and the star, and the writer, and all that stuff, and you have newborns, it's nearly impossible. In ten episodes, we were able to do our writers room first, we did that all summer and wrote for 15 weeks and got everything in really good shape. Then we took a month for Jessica to have a baby, came back, went into pre-production and shot everything with breaks built in. It was a really humane production.
St. Clair: Ten is funny. I think sometimes when you have 24 episodes, you almost have to stretch things out too much.
You need to pad whatever arcs you have to set yourself up for the end of the year.
St. Clair: I think we had exactly the right amount of episodes for the first season. The baby comes in episode nine, and then we have an episode that shows us what life is like for them with the baby. It feels like the first season of the British Office, which is almost a satisfying movie in a way.
Why did you guys decide to move it to a small-town setting? BFF was also about living with the stress of the city.
St. Clair: Well, I am obsessed with Gilmore Girls.
Me too, it is my favorite show. That was the first thing that came into my mind when I turned on the TV. "Oh, it's Stars Hollow."
St. Clair: It's the dream, right? I would watch even five minutes of Gilmore Girls a day when I was going through a tough time because I was like, "I just need to return to where life is simple, and you can get your waffles at Luke's, and everybody knows your name." Because it is a fantasy. I'm sure it exists for some lucky people, but most of us are working too many hours and living in these big cities. We really wanted the charm of this town where, in some ways, my character is getting used to it again and it feels fishbowl-y, but she's learning that people knowing your name and caring about you is a good thing, not a bad thing. And we wanted to really explore childhood best friendship, because we always talked about how childhood best friends, if you're lucky enough to keep one in your life when you're an adult, they were there when your personality formed. So they're really the ones who can tell you if you're living your best life.
For them coming back together, if they hadn't come back together, they lived fine lives, but now they can call each other on their shit and encourage each other to take risks.
When they return to each other's lives, they can be like, "Are you sure you want to be doing this thing?" Jess, your character is in China driving herself crazy working a zillion hours a day, and Lennon, your character is in an unhappy marriage.
St. Clair: It's exciting to see these two adults at crossroads and watch them, post-35, actually still find the love of their life, decide what they want to do with their career, the second act is something that can actually happen, if you are brave enough to go for it.
One thing I like about the small-town thing that you guys are doing, which Stars Hollow did as well, is that it's kind of a weird utopia. It's all the pleasures of a small town, but it's not boring. This is the small town that's actually a lot of fun.
Parham: It's not boring because like Gerry Bednob lives there, and Neil Casey, and all of these super-weird amazing, funny, hilarious people like Zach Woods, who plays my brother. It's essentially like if we all moved into the UCB theater.
St. Clair: Oh, God. And I had to share a bathroom with Neil Casey.
The thing about the UCB people is, they show up with fully-formed characters. With Neil, it was like he's a human gnome. He's got so many alt-takes about the history of gnomes and their habits that went on and on. They only mate in the moonlight, they don't have sex for pleasure.
He talks like David Attenborough.
St. Clair: Yes, there's 45 minutes of that in the editing room. The other thing is, we were so tired, so we were like "Screw this shit, let's just get the funniest people we know so we can have a million options in the editing room of jokes we didn't write."
Parham: Now that we know better what we're doing, we are able to have that room within the scene, especially with the actors we cast. They're the best improvisers in the world, it would be a real shame to not have them go off.
St. Clair: We hired directors familiar with improv. One is Tim Kirkby from Veep, who I had worked with, a British guy from the Armando Iannucci group. He directed three episodes and just encouraged that. British comedy is much more open to those moments. Tristram Shapeero, who did a lot of Community, directed an episode. And Jeff Blitz, who directed the pilot, came from the documentary world, he made Spellbound, and then worked on The Office and directed all of Review.
Parham: That show makes me uncomfortable as The Comeback did, because it's so real and everyone's so committed.
St. Clair: America loves to watch Andy Daly get shit on. He just takes it over and over again, but it never daunts him.
I just watched the episode of Review where Fred Willard dies on the spaceship. The tension I feel watching this comedy is truly palpable.
Parham: It's like The Wire or Breaking Bad, isn't it?
St. Clair: Here's a little tidbit about a show you're not interviewing us about, but I was there the day they were launching Fred into space. And they did not coordinate with the stunt person about how fast it was going to go, and they almost killed Fred. And Jeff was like, "holy shit, I almost killed Fred Willard on our set."
Parham: But guess what, that's the take we're using.
St. Clair: Yes, they used that take!
I wanted to ask you if you called the mean kid in Playing House Joffrey as an homage to Game of Thrones, or is that just a total coincidence.
Parham: I improvised that name, Joffrey Davidson.
St. Clair: She pictured a slight African-American teen.
Parham: Then we cast a different gentleman. You know what, it works. That was from the pilot right?
It's in the pilot, and then he appears in the second episode.
Parham: I was watching a lot of Game of Thrones while I was breastfeeding a newborn.
St. Clair: That is such a terrible thing to watch while you are giving life-giving milk.
Parham: It's so good.