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Envelope Emmy Round Table: Comedy stars on TV's serious role in humor

June 08, 2012|By Elena Howe, Los Angeles Times
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus ('Veep'), Ed Helms ('The Office'), Jesse Tyler Ferguson ('Modern Family'), Nick Offerman ('Parks and Recreation') and Laura Dern ('Enlightened') photographed at the Los Angeles Times for The Envelope Emmy Comedy Round Table.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus ('Veep'), Ed Helms ('The Office'),… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

When you gather five comedic actors to discuss their work, the conversation naturally turns to, well, pain. And anguish. And desperation.

But thankfully, when the performers are as thoughtful as Laura Dern (who plays Amy, an aggressively well-meaning woman on HBO's "Enlightened"), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (who as Mitchell is raising a daughter with his partner on ABC's "Modern Family"), Ed Helms (the under-appreciated Andy on NBC's "The Office"), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who as Vice President Selina Meyer finds her ambitions thwarted on HBO's "Veep") and Nick Offerman (the anti-bureaucracy bureaucrat on NBC's"Parks and Recreation"), a healthy dose of wit and optimism is thrown into the mix.

Here are edited excerpts of their conversation with Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara last month.

VIDEO: Watch the video version here.

Mary McNamara: What do you feel that comedy can do now that drama can't, if anything? With "Enlightened," that's one of those shows where it's dealing with so many serious topics but in a way that is both painful to watch and hilarious to watch. It's one of those shows that could be considered a drama but it's just so funny that it's a comedy. And you were involved in the creation of that.

Laura Dern: I think we lied. [Co-creator] Mike White and I went into HBO and said, How can we get them to do a subversive show about a whistleblower who blows up American corporations, who deals with addictions, rehab, rage? We'll tell them it's a comedy. We'll do it as a half-hour. And they were like, "Oh, that sounds hilarious." So I think we somehow got away with it. It's pretty sad and dark.

MM: So you don't think of "Enlightened" as a comedy?

LD: I do, but I feel like I grew up doing movies that I thought were hysterically funny, like David Lynch movies. My kind of comedy has always been a little odd. So I think it's funny, but I don't know that it's deemed traditional in any way. But I think that's what all of these shows have in common, is that they're hilarious in their deep sadness and longing. And we're all very flawed people, and that's what's kind of beautiful about it.

MM: And so is that something that comedy can get to in a way that drama can't? That pain …

LD: Very much so. And the world is so absurd right now, I don't think that we're allowed to talk about it, 'cause we're so off the deep end, unless it's done in a comedic way. Which is why, you know, perhaps in film as well, there's more opportunity to do it with irreverence than to do it as a traditional drama, so that's cool, to me.

MM: Do you feel that too with "Veep"? That's a political comedy. You're dealing very much with sort of the insanity of very serious subjects.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Yeah. And I think that's why we keep it nonpartisan. You'll never know what party anybody's in, in the show. You just know that they're .... You know, I play a character who's in one party and then there's the opposition. And it somehow levels the playing field and invites everybody in for a good laugh, I think. And then the area is so funny. You know, I mean just the office of the vice presidency is [laughs], is funny.

Ed Helms: What is it exactly? We don't really know. But Joe Biden is watching your show like, "What am I supposed to do? These guys have it right. I'm just going to watch this show."

But just to build on that and a little bit what Laura was saying, I think that there is so much hypocrisy, and especially in the political process and in the media coverage, and in just all around us all the time, and in our own lives and with our own relationships and the demons that we each face as people. And "Veep" is an example, like"The Daily Show"or something, that calls out a very public form of silliness or hypocrisy. But then a lot of these shows that touch on more dramatic personal stories can also just help us laugh at painful realities. And, yeah, like you said, sad things. And I think that that has been part of the trend of comedies for the last few years, is a real sort of digging into trouble areas.

JLD: But isn't that sort of, too, the nature of comedy? I mean, trouble and conflict is funny.

EH: Yeah, absolutely. And I watch a show like"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which I love, and you can see in the episode what the writers' room was doing that day. It's like: What's the most offensive thing we haven't gotten into? Child molestation. Great! Whole episode about that. That's the gauntlet we're throwing down. And it's painful, weird, disconcerting subject matter, but it's so… All that tension makes it so funny and engaging.

Nick Offerman: It's cathartic to admit that we as a society have that among us. And to do it in comedy is much safer than … you know, it's a much more painful thing to watch a gripping drama about child molestation. You're going to have a harder time having a good time.

JLD: Having a good laugh?

NO: Yeah.

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