PLAYING HOUSE: Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham on Their Reel (and Real) Best Friendship, their Unique USA Network Show, and More | Give Me My Remote

PLAYING HOUSE: Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham on Their Reel (and Real) Best Friendship, their Unique USA Network Show, and More

April 29, 2014 by  

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USA Network is expanding its comedy lineup with tonight’s debut of PLAYING HOUSE, a series about two long-time best friends, Maggie and Emma, who band together when Maggie discovers her husband is cheating on her…while Maggie is eight months pregnant.

The show is wickedly funny, and the chemistry is incredibly authentic, thanks in part to series stars/co-creators Jessica St. Clair (Emma) and Lennon Parham’s real-life best friendship. And when I sat down with them on the set of PLAYING HOUSE, they talked about the show, of course, but also shared the creative way they piece the series together, the insane gift Parham got St. Clair for her last birthday, and more…

As you’ve gone through production of the first season of PLAYING HOUSE, how has the show been gelling in ways you may not have expected when you were making the pilot?
Jessica St. Clair: So, Lennon and I are actual best friends in life. So we don’t need too much gelling. We’re pretty hardened at this point. [Laughs] We are the same person.
Lennon Parham: But it’s been fun to have basically all of our best friends do the show with us: Lindsay Sloane, Jason Mantzoukas, Andy Daly. It feels like there’s no getting used to each other, the chemistry is there immediately, we don’t even have to explain it to them. They just show up doing exactly what we thought they would do, because we wrote it for them.
JSC: Yeah, that’s something different — with [Parham and St. Clair’s former series,] BFF, we didn’t do that so much, so this time, we thought, why don’t we make it easy on ourselves, and we put up a list of all of our favorite people, and said, OK, we’re going to find a role for them in this weird world we’re creating. And that means in the edit room, we have like 17 endings we didn’t have to write. It’s basically because we’re lazy.
LP: That’s not at all what it is. It’s the opposite of lazy.
JSC: We cast the best improvisers and up-and-coming comedians we could find, and they make everything funny.

Is working together on PLAYING HOUSE different than working together on your last show, NBC’s BEST FRIENDS FOREVER?
LP: We have babies now.
JSC: We have tiny, tiny babies…they are also best friends, by the way. They are really also best friends by the way. They’re the only friends: they don’t have a choice.
LP: There’s a lot more to balance this time around. We’re also a little more laid-back about all of it.
JSC: The thing we did here, in this show, is we hired all the best people, and we really let them do their jobs, as opposed to feel like we need to control every minute. We can’t.
LP: We physically can’t.
JSC: And it’s been better, because we’re comedy nerds, and we hired whatever version of a set designer nerd there is. Everyone is the best at their job, and is a perfectionist, so we don’t have to worry about the rest of it.

How has it been working with USA Network? Not only are they newer to the comedy game, but they’ve also had more male-led shows than female-led shows in the past, too.
JSC: I never thought of that.
LP: I think for us, because we write it and are in it, it’s kind of a different [thing], because there aren’t a lot of people doing that in general. No one has a grasp on it, really. There’s only a couple of examples: Tina Fey [for 30 ROCK] and Mindy Kaling [for THE MINDY PROJECT]. It’s kind of new territories we’re setting, which is fun, especially with two people writing it and starring in it.
JSC: One of the reasons we chose to work with USA is because literally the first thing they said was, “We just want to preserve your voice,” which you don’t hear very often. [Laughs] We thought we were on a prank show. It was like, “Is this whole thing going to fall apart at the seams, because they’re so wonderful about supporting our vision.”
LP: What’s cool is they saw it, and they said, “We want that on our network, as it is.” As opposed to, “We need to find something that goes in line with what we’ve got.” They don’t have anything, so they were like, “That makes us laugh, that makes us cry, let’s bring that to our network.”
JSC: So they basically encouraged us to be as much us as we can be.
LP: And if we stray, they say, “That doesn’t feel right for the show. That doesn’t feel like Jess and Len.”

It’s interesting, we write it all together and we improvise. So we kind of break the story with our room, and then we go away and improvise all the scenes between she and I, so it feels like us, and then we record it and transcribe it, and then we build the scene from there.
JSC: It takes forever. But we look like crazy people. And if there’s a scene with five people, Len and I play all the people like crazy psychos. And, like, if there’s a romantic scene, Lennon plays the man, by the way: she says things to me I only dream of a man saying.
LP: Mhm.
JSC: And sometimes, we’ll play each other. So sometimes I’ll be Lennon. But we know each other so well we literally can be each other. It’s weird.

Has this been filmed? Because this kind of needs to be a DVD extra.
LP: Luckily it’s audio. But I don’t know, maybe it will! There are some things we might have to censor.
JSC: Sometimes our writers’ assistant will come in with lunch, and we’ll just be caught in an embrace, and we’ll be like, “I’m sorry!” And she’s like, “I’m sorry. What is happening in here isn’t right.” And then she drops off our sandwiches and leaves.
LP: She understands. She just rolls her eyes and leaves.
JSC: “My two moms.” That’s like her life. The other thing that is super weird, is that Lennon, when we shot the pilot, was weirdly enough, eight-and-a-half months legitimately pregnant.
LP: And my character was eight months pregnant in the show. So I was like 32 weeks, and we said eight months pregnant.
JSC: We conceived of the show before Lennon got pregnant. We always like to say we wrote the baby into existence.
LP: You like to say that.
JSC: I like to say that.
LP: I’m not interested in saying that at all!
JSC: But we did. And when we were shooting, Lennon was pregnant, and I was secretly three months pregnant…and then when we were in the writers’ room, I was nine months pregnant. And when we were writing scenes, Lennon would be, “Would you please not climb up on the couch, you’re nine months pregnant.”
LP: She forgot she was pregnant a bunch of times.
JSC: I’ll tell you when I didn’t forget I was pregnant, which was on my birthday, which was about a week and a half before I gave birth: Lennon got a Channing Tatum lookalike —
LP: A Channing Tatum lookalike stripper to come.
JSC: He did not look at all like Channing Tatum. He was, in fact, a slim Latino…he was covered in sesame oil, and he gave me a lap dance, and I was nine-and-a-half months pregnant. I was also barefoot, because no flats fit my feet anymore.
LP: We have a video of it.
JSC: And we have a video of it, and it was terrifying.
LP: The smile on her face was primal, that’s all I’ll say.
JSC: At one point he whispered to me, “Rip my shirt.” And I was like, “What?”
LP: And then you did it…I had given strict instructions that no clothes were actually to come off his body, because I didn’t want to cross any lines.

You don’t want to send her into early labor.
JSC: It almost did. I went into labor still smelling faintly of sesame oil.
LP: You went home and your husband was like, “She did what?”
JSC: So that’s what it’s like to work with your best friend!
LP: What did you get me for my birthday?
JSC: Oh, a beautiful necklace with the initial of her baby’s name, and I fucking get a stripper!
LP: It was exactly what you wanted.
JSC: Yes it was.

This raises the stakes for the next present.
JSC: Believe me, I’m going to give it to her next year.
LP: I can’t wait.

What can you say about your characters’ best friendship?
JSC: Something we wanted to do in this show was explore the childhood best friendship, because it’s something that’s so unique in that childhood best friends were there when your personality formed, so they’re really the only people in your adult life who can say, “Hey!” They can call you on your shit. “This isn’t the life you should be leading. I remember you when you were [the way you were before].”
LP: Which is probably why a lot of people don’t stay with those people: it’s hard. It’s difficult to be faced with your own truth every day. But it also pushes you to be the best version of yourself.
JSC: Maggie and Emma have been going on, they have perfectly fine lives, but they’re not fulfilling who they should really be, so fate has brought them back together. In coming back together, they’re going to actually encourage each other to live the best version of themselves they can. To find true love, versus the meaningless flings [my character] was having. And Maggie was married to a man she wasn’t truly in love with. So together, we have this weird little family — we’re going to raise a baby together, which is insane — they’re going to have the life they were meant to lead. The audience is going to watch them find those things, which is kind of exciting.

Is season 1 leading up to the birth of the baby, or will the baby be born before the finale?
LP: Before. The baby comes the episode before [the finale].
JSC: The episode before, and then you get a little taste of what season 2 would be like. You’d think having a baby would stop them from having these LAVERNE & SHIRLEY-esque adventures, but they actually take a baby to a bar filled with Hell’s Angels in the finale. So look forward to that.

You’d think in some ways maneuvering a kid who is strapped to you would be easier than maneuvering your body when the kid is still in you.
JSC: Exactly, she’s just in a Baby Bjorn. She’s a feisty one from the beginning. She’s giving it to everyone: she’s giving a stink-eye to the leader of the Hell’s Angels.

Is there a different kind of physical comedy you can play depending on whether or not Lennon is using the fake pregnancy belly?
LP: I think it feels heightened because I’m pregnant. We get wet — we fell into a bathtub — and we’re doing the same sort of psychical stuff, but because I’m pregnant, it feels crazier.
JSC: It raises the stakes. In an episode, we go skinny dipping, with [Maggie’s] crush from her marching band days. And she’s like, I can’t take my shirt off. This is weird. I’m a big, pregnant woman. And so of course, he gives her his [shirt] in this big chivalrous moment. We had a lot of fun — at first we thought we’d have the baby really soon, but then we were having so much fun with [Lennon playing] pregnant, we just stretched it out.
LP: The other thing is, too, that we’ve seen the shows where we go to baby class, all the things preparing for a baby, and what we were interested in was the friendship —
JSC: And having them do crazy stuff together.
Lennon: We just did the stories that were the most fun about that.

Is there a particular episode you’re excited for viewers to see?
JSC: One that we love, we just mentioned that Lennon’s character, Maggie, has a 15-year marching band reunion. So all the nerds come back.
LP: Maggie was a part of the drumline.
JSC: It’s Jason Mantzoukas, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work on THE LEAGUE, but he looks like an insane terrorist. John Lutz, who was in the 30 ROCK writers’ room. He was legitimately in our writers’ room, and he played a man named Rodney who cooked s’mores under his butt in a van. He lets them heat up.
LP: They’re called band s’mores.
JSC: We have basically a John Hughes-esque adventure at night with them —
Lennon: Basically in high school, Maggie messed up her chance to kiss this guy she had the hots for, so she’s faced with the opportunity to recreate it, and she goes for it.
JSC: While she’s super preg. So that’s a fun one, that’s a homage to 16 CANDLES, and all of that.
LP: We have a conversation entirely in snare drum.
JSC: So look out for that, America!

PLAYING HOUSE debuts tonight at 10 PM on USA Network.

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