TV stars talk about their shows and making viewers laugh

It’s no surprise that when you get seven funny people together you’re going to have some laughs. But when that septet comprises some of the freshest faces in comedy mixed with some of the legends of the form, you also get thoughtful insight on everything from improvising on set to the best way to fake cry.

The Los Angeles Times invited Ted Danson of “The Good Place,” William H. Macy of “Shameless,” Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley,” Issa Rae of HBO’s “Insecure,” Tracee Ellis Ross of black-ish,” Timothy Simons of “Veep” and Lily Tomlin of “Grace & Frankie” into our offices to talk.

Q: First, let’s talk about chemistry because I think you all are blessed by the casting gods with your TV families, your coworkers, your friends, your afterlife patrons. You all have these incredible casts that you work with and chemistry is so important. Lily, I’m imagining that with Jane Fonda you had a shared vocabulary already from working together and being friends in real life, did you sort of fall back into a similar chemistry or did you start a new one for this show?

Tomlin: Oh, I think it had to be new because we were doing new characters, and the show was a totally new idea, and we had the guys, Sam (Waterston) and Martin (Sheen), with us, and it just seemed sort of blessed from the beginning, you know?

Q: I think you know when it isn’t there, right? Issa and Molly’s relationship, was that there right away?

Rae: I think so, yeah. Obviously, we auditioned several Mollys and did chemistry reads with different women, and Yvonne (Orji) and I just had — she’s one of those people where you meet her and you want to be her friend immediately, so that helped. People usually think I’m trash when they meet me, so she just really helped to elevate me.

Danson: Where is she? Is she around now, by any chance?

Rae: No, she’s not paying me for this at all.

Q: Are you ever surprised when you were having an off day, that the show actually ends up just killing? It’s much funnier than it felt in the moment that you were doing it?

Middleditch: You lost me at have you ever doubted …? And then I was like, no, I don’t, no.

Ross: A bad day, that’s not your thing either.

Middleditch: Yeah, no, I don’t know what that is.

Macy: It’s a lesson to learn though when you read a script and you think, this is not funny, this is not going to work, and then you see it and you couldn’t have been more wrong — it does work.

Middleditch: And you also have the times where you read the script and you’re like, ‘This is so hilarious,’ and then after you’re like, ‘What a pile of … ’

Q: And then you wonder — did I make it the pile of … ?

Middleditch: Yeah, am I the critical component? Damn.

Danson: I think chemistry is really good writing and two adequate actors. Really, it’s the writing. I mean, I do think you can have wonderful actors and the material sucks, you’re not going to talk about their chemistry, most likely.

Q: You talk about the writing, you’re all on single-cam shows, is there room for improvisation?

Middleditch: With a single-cam, you can try alts and then slide in whatever you like in the edit. So I would say there’s a lot more opportunity in single-cams.

Danson: Sure, you’re on HBO.

Tomlin: I don’t feel like there’s that much improv room for us on our show because our shows are tightly scripted. Within a certain expression, you might be able to improvise, and especially my character, because frequently I’m going to sing to somebody or I’m going to try and make it, you know, wacky. So I can improvise those things, but we don’t try to do too much.

Ross: Anthony (Anderson) and I do a lot, mostly in the scenes with us. With the kids, we don’t. Things can derail very quickly if you do that. But yeah, Anthony and I do a lot and with new directors we ask them to not say, “Cut,” because that’s when Anthony and I kind of start to trail off. And that’s some of our best stuff, in the pilot especially, that was how a lot of the juice of our relationship kind of got established.

Simons: I think it also depends on how far behind production is. “That was a really funny joke. You cost us $20,000.”

In the first season, I remember that Armando Iannucci, when he was still showrunning, we would have 12- and 15-page scenes, and we would do it, and we would get all of it, and then he would say, “Just hit the major beats. We’re going to do the entire scene. Don’t use the words. Just hit the major beats.” And it really was an amazing experience to go in — and we weren’t looking for funny jokes. We were just trying to look for something that made the scene a little bit more natural, just, like, a little moment here or there that would add that sort of level of naturalism to it. You were essentially improvising, like, a 15-minute play.

Ross: Now that sounds exciting.

Tomlin: Yeah, that sounds good.

Simons: Honestly, it really was an amazing experience.

Macy: We don’t improvise and it’s sort of verboten to do that. It’s a real writers-heavy thing. I don’t know, a lot of you have written, but I’m always amazed — it’s happened to me a couple of times — where I’ve written this script and I’m in the scene and some actor or actress will just take off. And I want to say, “You are aware I wrote this, right? Because I’m aware you think you’re funnier than me. And everyone’s aware that you’re not.” I didn’t say it, but I wish I’d said it just like that.

Q: So, there’s something like 465 just-scripted shows on television. What are you guys watching and how do you decide to watch it?

Rae: I’m watching a lot of things. I watch so much because I can classify it as, like, research. But I find it interesting because nobody’s like, “Oh, there are too many books,” you know? I think there’s a place for everything. Literally so many people can find a show that speaks to them and I find something amazing in that. But I tend to watch what people tell me to watch, what I see conversations are happening about and I’m just excited to be immersed in their world. It’s so much harder for me to sit down and watch an entire film, but I will watch 12 hours of a TV show in one sitting.

That is a thing that I’ve heard from a lot of people, that for some reason they can’t commit to a movie, but they’ll binge all of “The Good Place” in one sitting.

Danson: It’s so strange that you can get OK ratings in the overnights, but then when you factor in cellphones and everything else, all of a sudden you’re this hit because a month later enough people have cobbled together watching your show.

Tomlin: Remember when there would be like three or four shows, maybe, max, that you wanted to be on? I mean, you know, like maybe even as recently as “The West Wing” or something. When “West Wing” came on, I said, “How come I’m not on this show?” I could not believe it.

Q: And then you were.

Tomlin: Well, I lobbied to get on it. But I’m just saying there are so many shows that you’d like to be on and the range is just huge. I’d like to be on everything, just have one crack at every show.

Simons: You’re about to get a lot of emails.

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