SE­RI­OUS SIDE OF LAUGH­TER

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - BY MARY MCNA­MARA

The Tele­vi­sion Academy re­cently de­fined a com­edy as a 30minute show in terms of en­ter­ing the Emmy Awards race. And while it has granted ex­cep­tions to the new rule, how does one re­ally de­fine com­edy? And are come­dies as be­holden to au­di­ences to present real world is­sues, to deal in chal­leng­ing sub­ject mat­ter? Those are ques­tions that were tack­led in this year’s Emmy Com­edy Round­table when An­thony An­der­son (“black-ish”), Billy Crys­tal (“The Co­me­di­ans”), Danny DeVito (“It’s Al­ways Sunny in Philadel­phia”), Anna Faris (“Mom”) and Jef­frey Tam­bor (“Trans­par­ent”) got to­gether ear­lier this year to talk about tele­vi­sion then and now. Here are edited ex­cerpts from that con­ver­sa­tion. The tele­vi­sion land­scape has changed be­cause now we have th­ese dra­mas that are funny and we have th­ese come­dies that are very se­ri­ous. When you signed on for “Trans­par­ent,” Jef­frey, did you think of it as a com­edy?

Jef­frey Tam­bor: I think we can all at­test, you never think of it, you just — I read that thing and I just said, “I have to do it.” And I do re­mem­ber laugh­ing, but I also re­mem­ber be­ing ter­ri­bly af­fected and know­ing that this was a role of a life­time. I all but threw my­self at th­ese peo­ple. Com­edy, drama, what­ever, I just knew it was great. I think what’s hap­pen­ing in cul­ture now is ev­ery­thing is mix­ing and there’s al­ways a plié in com­edy, you know, there’s al­ways a se­ri­ous bent to it.

Danny DeVito: Wait, did you just say there was al­ways a what in it?

An­thony An­der­son: A plié, he went to ballet ... Billy Crys­tal: Like French, he went ... An­der­son: He didn’t go French; he went

dance.

Anna Faris: I grew up in the Seat­tle area, and I did lo­cal theater. Never any com­edy. And my first job here was “Scary Movie” and I was in the com­edy world, never to come out of it, sadly, which has been a de­gree of frus­tra­tion to me. I was so naive with how this in­dus­try de­fined com­edy and drama. And for some­body who sort of viewed them­selves as an ac­tor, and my ap­proach to both ideas is the same, for me, it’s sort of sin­cer­ity of char­ac­ter. I still feel frus­trated with how ar­bi­trary it all seems.

An­der­son: Were you prepped be­fore you got here? [Laugh­ter.] “Mom” is in some ways a very tra­di­tional com­edy, but you deal with many se­ri­ous sub­jects: can­cer and adop­tion and al­co­holism. When you signed on, did you know it was go­ing to be that dra­matic?

Faris: No, but the pi­lot was quite dark, and I loved that. Es­pe­cially as a woman, you don’t read too many roles that are very di­men­sional. And I loved that she is a char­ac­ter who has a lot of strug­gle. I loved that it was a very rounded show.

DeVito: I think it’s — there’s a se­ri­ous ef­fort, it looks like any­way, from the shows. I’m watch­ing your shows. I can’t wait to see Billy’s show. But it seems like, be­hind the scenes, there’s a se­ri­ous ef­fort for peo­ple to make the show about some­thing. So it’s, like, you guys are deal­ing with — in “black-ish,” you’re push­ing all kinds of but­tons. [To Tam­bor] You for sure are. [To Faris] You are too. So what­ever we call it, we’re in th­ese shows that are pretty damn funny, some of them, but un­der­ly­ing, I think, there’s an ef­fort from the peo­ple that are putting them to­gether to give the au­di­ence a lit­tle bit more than just some­thing to joke around with.

Tam­bor: And with stream­ing, what is hap­pen­ing is con­tent is com­ing back again and, sort of, con­tent is king. It re­minds me a lit­tle bit of what off-Broad­way was to Broad­way. As Danny was say­ing, you can go a lit­tle fur­ther. You can write al­most nov­el­is­ti­cally now

be­cause au­di­ences are binge­ing rather than watch­ing one at a time. It’s very free­ing, and a lot of writ­ers are com­ing over to it, and di­rec­tors and per­form­ers.

“Black-ish” di­rectly ad­dresses is­sues of race. Is that what in­ter­ested you? Be­cause it’s also about a mil­lion other things — fam­ily, mar­riage.

An­der­son: Right. Those were all ideas and con­cepts that were at the fore­front when Kenya Bar­ris and I were con­ceiv­ing our show, and it’s a bit per­sonal for us as well. You know, Kenya be­ing from In­gle­wood, Calif., me be­ing from Comp­ton, Calif., be­ing, you know, first-gen­er­a­tion suc­cess­ful in our fam­i­lies, be­ing the only African Amer­i­cans in our neigh­bor­hoods now. Those are things that we wanted to tackle as a show. It’s the Amer­i­can dream, and we’re telling it from a black per­spec­tive, and we’re also telling it from a comedic per­spec­tive, but it’s also go­ing to spark that con­ver­sa­tion around the wa­ter cooler the day af­ter you see our show. That was our in­tent.

Tam­bor: You can get ideas that are dif­fi­cult and con­fronta­tional across with hu­mor. With our show, there are heavy stakes, noth­ing less than — ba­si­cally our show asks the ques­tion, “If I change, will you still be there? Is your love based on gen­der?” And th­ese are big ques­tions, but there’s a big hu­mor and there’s also a Jewish hu­mor to the Pf­ef­fer­man fam­ily. Billy, your show deals di­rectly with the old com­edy ver­sus the new com­edy be­cause it’s

about a ver­sion of your­self do­ing a show with a ver­sion of Josh Gad, and the con­flict that comes. How did that show come into be­ing?

Crys­tal: This Swedish com­pany sent me this show that they had pro­duced in Swe­den. And with all due re­spect to the coun­try, I don’t think of that place as the comic foundry. … But the con­cept was just so easy and right, a vet­eran co­me­dian teamed with a younger guy to do a latenight sketch show. They don’t think they need each other, but they do, and they sort of re­sent each other for need­ing each other. It’s very much like a two-handed “Larry San­ders Show,” which is still one of the great shows of all time.

But the de­ci­sion was … I have to play my­self. Josh and I said we should play our­selves be­cause that’s what’s go­ing to make it re­ally danger­ous, be­cause we’ll have to poke fun at our­selves, we’ll have to take jabs at our own per­sona, our own work, what peo­ple think of us. You get stuff that talks about you per­son­ally or some­thing that you’ve done, and you go, “That’s a lit­tle too far. Is this what they re­ally think about me?”

[Laugh­ter.]

Have there been mo­ments when it has got­ten a lit­tle too close to re­al­ity?

Crys­tal: Yeah, there’s an awk­ward­ness about the show that I love. There’d be times where Josh and I would say, “You know, I do love you. Just, you know, this is the other me say­ing this.”

A lot of you have been in tele­vi­sion for a long time. What do you think is the big­gest thing that’s changed about tele­vi­sion com­edy in the last five or 10 years?

Crys­tal: Well, look how far we’ve come. If I played the first gay char­ac­ter in a tele­vi­sion se­ries start­ing in 1977 [on “Soap”], [ges­tures to Tam­bor] look how far we’ve come and wel­comed that. You know what I mean?

DeVito: Yeah, and I — in 1978, I played the first black char­ac­ter on tele­vi­sion and, uh, … [ges­tures to An­der­son]

An­der­son: Look at us now. Now [en­ter­tain­ment news web­site Dead­line Holly- wood] says the pen­du­lum has swung too far to the right, all thanks to you! [Laugh­ter.] DeVito: It’s my fault. I’ll take the heat. Crys­tal: What is it? I’m sorry, I didn’t

see it.

There was an ar­ti­cle on Dead­line that quoted some anony­mous cast­ing agents com­plain­ing that now they were be­ing

re­quired to cast mi­nori­ties to hit cer­tain quo­tas. What did you think of that?

An­der­son: I found it in­ter­est­ing be­cause I’d never heard any­body say that the pen­du­lum had swung too far be­fore this, be­fore mi­nori­ties were given the op­por­tu­ni­ties that they’re given now to be on net­work tele­vi­sion. I found it a very in­ter­est­ing read, and for some­one to even go that far to say that. … You know, we all de­serve an op­por­tu­nity, and for so long, the op­por­tu­ni­ties were few and far be­tween … I found it very in­sult­ing, that some­one would write that about the pen­du­lum swing­ing too far.

An­thony was talk­ing about op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple of color but that’s true of women too.

Faris: I’ve had so many, in the most amaz­ing way, mo­ments this last sea­son of “Mom” where there will be six women, all of us are over 35, and we’re not in biki­nis, and we’re not talk­ing about men. It just feels like, “I don’t think this has ever hap­pened.” And I’m so grate­ful that I get to act with th­ese in­cred­i­ble women. I hadn’t quite re­al­ized just how rare it is.

DeVito: I re­mem­ber with “Taxi,” Mar­ilu [Hen­ner] was the only woman on the show. We did gang shows and we did shows about all the in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters, but I al­ways felt like it was weak in Mar­ilu’s end of it. Like, with our show we have Kaitlin Olson, who’s one of the fun­ni­est women on tele­vi­sion to­day. I mean, she’s swal­lowed up with all the crazi­ness that we do, but she’s in there and she gets some re­ally se­ri­ous stuff to do. They write for her. I’m just say­ing, it’s like, look at the en­tire coun­try. We’re steeped in racism. We’re steeped in sex­ism. So, I mean, hats off to the shows that are mak­ing a lit­tle bit of a head­way.

“COM­EDY, drama, what­ever, I just knew it was great,” Jef­frey Tam­bor says of “Trans­par­ent.”

Pho­tog raphs by Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

AN­THONY AN­DER­SON of “black-ish” joined his peers to talk about TV of the present and the past.

“I LOVED that she is a char­ac­ter who has a lot of strug­gle,” says Anna Faris, a star of “Mom.”

BILLY CRYS­TAL’S show deals with old com­edy ver­sus new.

DANNY DeVITO sees an “ef­fort ... to make the show about some­thing.”

Pho­tog raphs by Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

ANNA FARIS, Billy Crys­tal and Danny DeVito ru­mi­nate on how the tele­vi­sion land­scape is chang­ing.

AN­THONY AN­DER­SON: “We all de­serve an op­por­tu­nity, and for so long, the op­por­tu­ni­ties were few.”

JEF­FREY TAM­BOR: TV now is “very free­ing ... a lot of writ­ers are com­ing over to it, and di­rec­tors and per­form­ers.”

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