SERIOUS SIDE OF LAUGHTER
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
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?”
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
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.”
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.”
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.”