It could be described as a cross between Gilmore Girls and Broad City. Playing House is USA’s can’t-miss new comedy that’s making waves as one of the funniest new shows of 2014. Hailing from New York’s legendary improv comedy school, Upright Citizens Brigade, creators Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair are bringing their unique chemistry and fun, relatable voice to your television screen, every Tuesday night at 10 p.m.
The former creators, writers and stars of the canceled-too-soon NBC series Best Friends Forever have struck gold with this latest endeavor, a show about a high-achieving career woman, Emma, quitting her job to move in with her pregnant best friend, Maggie (after Maggie’s husband cheats on her). With a baby on the way and both of the friends’ lives in the midst of tumultuous change, the show’s foundation lies in the strength of their relationship. “It’s like a romantic comedy, but with two female leads,” St. Clair explains.
I spoke with St. Clair and Parham about how they got started in comedy, what it’s like being new moms working on a freshman TV show, and how Breaking Bad has influenced the storyline on Playing House.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue comedy?
Parham: Well I have been obsessed with all things comedy for as long as I can remember. I was obsessed with Kids in the Hall, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, SNL … like, I was a Conehead for one Halloween and the Wild and Crazy Guys for another.
St. Clair: Always a man. Whatever she was, it was usually a man.
Parham: Actually, I was a female Conehead.
St. Clair: Oh, oh, good.
Parham: But I wasn’t sure about pursuing a comedy career — because I didn’t know you could just do that — until I was in New York and taking classes at Second City. My friend who I’d gone to college with happened to be Jack McBrayer (Kenneth Parcell on 30 Rock), and I saw he was doing it and he told me that I would be good at it too. So I saw that he was succeeding and I was like, “That’s what I wanna do. I can do this.” So I started performing regularly at the UCB and that was it.
St. Clair: For me, the first thing I fell madly in love with when I was little, was: Gilda Radner had this live performance that she had done at the Met that was on tape, and I could rent it from Video Video in New Jersey where I lived, and so I literally would rent it every two weeks. I would just keep checking it out until I broke the tape and we had to buy it. I just thought she was the funniest thing in the world. I’m not from “show people,” so when I told my parents I wanted to be a comedian, they almost had a heart attack. But my freshman year at Middlebury College, I saw the college improv group, which has a really cool name, Otter Nonsense Players, and Jason Mantzoukas was in that group. When I saw them perform, I rushed home and I called my dad and I was like, “I just saw the funniest thing in the world.” I’d never seen improv before, but I decided to audition. So I wore a pair of pleated jeans and a beefy tee that said “Whatever” on it because I thought, “I’ll show them.” And I had Hugh Grant’s haircut from Four Weddings and a Funeral and they said, “Yes please!” And that’s where I met Jason, who was my first writing partner. And when he graduated and moved on to New York and UCB, I kind of followed him there like a little sister.
(St. Clair and Mantzoukas are still friends today; he plays an old flame of Maggie’s in episode 5 of Playing House.)
So how did you two eventually meet? Through UCB?
St. Clair: Lennon and I actually never performed on the same stage in New York because there were so few women, they really spread us out and put us on different teams. But I used to watch her from afar and I fell in love with her. We didn’t officially meet until she came out to L.A. for pilot season. I had already moved here and we had our first girl date and talked about how we had been crying in separate cars in various Target parking lots across Los Angeles. So we thought maybe we’d get together and see if we could write together, and that was it. I remember literally thinking, like you would if you went on a date with your future husband or partner, “I want to write with this person for the rest of my life.” Then I came home and told my husband that and he was like, “Well don’t say that to Lennon — that is SO creepy.”
How do your improv backgrounds influence your writing style?
St. Clair: For each episode, we have an outline of the plot, and then Lennon and I will play all the parts in front of our writers and just tape record it and that becomes the first draft. Because you want to write the way you talk, you know? It’s almost impossible for us to do it the other way.
Parham: We were improvisers and performers first, so it’s so much easier for us to do that and really capture the way people speak by acting out the scenes, because if we just sat in front of a computer we would freeze up.
St. Clair: Yeah, we don’t like that.
Parham: And, you know, we’ve cast a bunch of improvisers, so even though the script is improvised in order to write the first draft, we also allow room at the end of the day for improvising over what we’ve already written.
St. Clair: So many of the jokes that we put into the final cut are jokes that we improvised on the day of shooting. The plot and the structure of the scene are always really set in stone, but the actual content of the joke can change. Like Zach Woods will come in with literally 4,000 jokes. It’s almost like … do you think he cooks those up beforehand?
St. Clair: Yeah, he’s a real nerd. So he comes in with like, 50 alternate endings.
Speaking of Zach Woods and guest stars, have you found it difficult to schedule people like Zach and Keegan-Michael Key with the success of their shows, Silicon Valley and Key & Peele?
Parham: Well, we knew kind of ahead of time how long we had each of them for, so we basically just plan the episodes accordingly.
St. Clair: For example, if we knew we only had Zach for four episodes, we try to make the most of him in every Zach episode. Before, it used to be that you had to sign on to a show and then you could never do anyone else’s show. But I feel like on cable, the networks are really learning to play with each other and share, because there aren’t that many comedians, especially that can improvise.
Parham: And a lot of our friends are working on other things and we all love each other and show up and do each other’s stuff.
What about Andy Daly? Will he be back later this season? In the last episode, he kind of caused a little bit of a rift between your characters.
St. Clair: He won’t be back this season because we have so many other stories we wanted to tell, but I definitely think he’s a potential love interest for Lennon in subsequent seasons.
Parham: They’re very cute together.
You have this awesome built-in countdown clock with Lennon’s character being eight and a half months pregnant. How will the baby’s arrival affect the tone and structure of the show?
St. Clair: Well, we made a conscious effort to have the baby come at the best possible time. The baby is delivered in episode 9, and then we have another episode after that.
Parham: And that’s because one of our writers, Anthony King, was saying that in all of his favorite shows, like Breaking Bad, the big, kind of crazy stuff happens in the penultimate episode of the season, and the 10th episode, or last episode, sets up the story for the next season. So in episode 9 the baby comes, and then in episode 10 we have a baby and we’re kind of living our life and going on an adventure.
St. Clair: So basically the 10th episode answers the question: Will life just be horribly boring once this baby comes? And the answer is no, we just put the baby in a BabyBjörn and wind up in a bar full of Hell’s Angels. We’re gonna continue to live our lives, but the baby’s just comin’ with. Season 2’s not gonna be a show about us getting her into preschool — like, nobody cares.
Any info you can reveal about the baby?
St. Clair: Well, we revealed in the pilot that the baby is a girl, but the name of the baby is a secret and who delivers the baby is a secret.
So Lennon’s character is about to be a new mother and you are both new mothers in real life too. What’s it like being a couple of new moms working on this new show? Do your babies come with you to work? Are they best friends too?
Parham: We bring them with us to work every day, so like right now we’re editing, and our babies are downstairs in their own little dressing rooms. Once, my baby had just turned 6 weeks and I had to go on this tour of the Paramount lot, and Jess was out of town, so I strapped my baby to me and got on a golf cart and we just rode around the Paramount lot. The women at the Rizzoli & Isles props department were like, “Is that a 6-week-old baby?” and I was like, “Yes, yes it is.” But then I was thinking about how this is just a new reality. This is gonna be my baby’s life, where she’s meeting the producers from Baby Daddy and watching Betty White as she walks by to film Hot in Cleveland.
St. Clair: I found out my baby was visiting Julie Chen a lot, from The Talk, and my nanny was just like, “Oh yeah, that’s Julie. We pop in on her all the time.” And I’m like, “Whaaat?” Babies are a lot like puppies —
Parham: Don’t say that!
St. Clair: We can say that! In that people love to have them on set. It makes everybody happy. If we’re having a tough day we’ll bring the babies on, and suddenly these crew guys who have like, tattoos all over their necks are cooing and fawning.
Is there anything coming up this season that you’re especially excited about?
St. Clair: Well, right now we’re working on editing an episode we’re really excited about. It’s basically, whenever Lennon and I have writer’s block, we watch the Channing Tatum strip scene from Magic Mike, just as a little pick-me-up. And everyone in the writers’ room knew that, so we were like, what if we had the police, including Keegan-Michael Key, have a Magic Mike-style strip show as a fund-raising event? So we have Keegan, Ian Roberts and Bobby Moynihan — who is a phenomenal dancer, by the way — stripping. And we had Mandy Moore from So You Think You Can Dance? choreograph this dance to “Pony” that is the best thing I’ve ever worked on.
Oh my God. Will Steve from last week’s episode be involved in this?
Parham: Unfortunately he’s shooting a pilot in Atlanta, so we couldn’t get him.
St. Clair: We pretty much wrote the episode in the hopes that Steve could take his clothes off for us.
Parham: We became fast friends with Ryan McPartlin, who plays Steve, so he’s definitely coming back for season 2.
St. Clair: On the real, Ryan has like the best body in the world, and then, like, in between takes he was teaching me how to sleep-train my baby. So he can really do it all, is what I’m saying to America.
You opened the season with that great image of a little red playhouse in Maggie’s backyard. Will we see it again by the season’s end? And, more important, will the raccoons be back?
St. Clair: We get back in the house in the last episode. One of us is found crying in that house. But the raccoons …
Parham: I think we might reference them.
St. Clair: This is my dream — it was not able to happen in season 1 — but I would like, in season 2, to have baby raccoons on the set. I would like to see the raccoons raising their family as we raise our family. I was told that wouldn’t fit in the season 1 budget. But I promise America —
Parham: No, don’t make that promise.
St. Clair: Listen to me; I’m saying it on the record.
Parham: Jessica is going to pay it out of her own salary.
St. Clair: I will pay out-of-pocket to get baby raccoons in season 2.
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St. Clair: Yes, that is an exclusive scoop.