TV fans first fell for Adam Pally as schlubby and hilarious Max on the gone-too-soon Happy Endings, a beloved sitcom that still has quite a cult following. He followed it with another well-received turn as bro-tastic Peter on The Mindy Project, then appearances in a variety of indie films like Don’t Think Twice and Joshy. Adam Pally returns to the small screen Sunday, March 5, in the unlikely time-travel comedy Making History, in which his character finds a duffel bag that’s a time machine. He travels back to 1775 Lexington and falls in love with Paul Revere’s daughter, played by Leighton Meester. We caught up with Pally at the Fox party at the Television Critics Association press tour in January to talk about his previous series and what his hopes are for his new one.
The A.V. Club: You left Mindy Project, even though it seemed like a good fit for you. What was going on?
Adam Pally: You know, I loved my time on The Mindy Project so much. It was only supposed to be half a year. It was really only supposed to be one episode, and then it became three episodes, and then it became half a year, and then it became a year and a half, and then it became two years. And I loved every second, and I’m indebted to Mindy for my career, really. She really breathed the second life into my career. At the time it was over, I had done five years straight of 22 episodes of network television, and I was a little burnt, and I wanted to do indie movies. And so I went and I did, and Mindy was totally fine with it. Which, not a lot of bosses would be. And so I went and did a bunch of indie movies, and then Phil and Chris [The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller] saw one of them and were like, “We would really like you to be in this show,” and you can’t say no to Phil and Chris. It’s like a weird Hollywood thing where if you do, you die right away.
AVC: Are you surprised by how many people still love Happy Endings? Our readership is devoted to that series.
AP: Well, you’re Chicago. Y’know, I grew up in Skokie a little bit. My parents were actors. And so I was born in New York City, and when I was 7, they quit acting and went back to medical school at the University Of Chicago. So from, like, 7 to 12, I lived in Skokie. My mom was an actress as well. They were in a band called Pally And Pal that in the late ’70s and early ’80s would tour the Catskills. My dad got a little frustrated, and my mom was willing to not do that. And so we moved to Chicago. And then we moved back to Livingston when my dad opened his practice in Florham Park. I was in New Jersey from seventh grade until I left.
He visits me a lot. He was on the set of Making History quite a bit, and he does not keep his opinions to himself. His instincts aren’t always correct. He’s the most honest with me. But he also does love everything I do. Tough to parse it out. I remember one scene in particular, I came off and I sat down in my chair. I thought I was doing a good job, and he turned to me and he said, “Tone it down.” It’s so hard to hear that from your dad. But he was right. He was 100 percent right.
AVC: In that scene or in general?
AP: Oh, I think he means in my life. But I used the advice for that scene.
AVC: I feel like the love for Happy Endings extends past Chicago. All of you have gone on to do so well. Do you keep in touch with those guys?
AP: Oh, yeah. I talk to Damon [Wayans Jr.] probably four or five times a day. I talk to Casey [Wilson] probably the same amount. I would say I talk to everybody once a week. And the writers, too. So, it’s a family. And every set I walk on, I hope that it’s going to feel like Happy Endings, and if it doesn’t, I do my hardest to try to make it feel that way.
AVC: Do you have writing aspirations yourself?
AP: I started as a writer, and I’ve been writing a little bit. I’ve been producing more, which I find to be really fun. It’s a new way to think about stuff. I’ve been directing a little bit. I might direct an episode next season.
AVC: How did you get involved with this new show?
AP: I was just looking for the best script I could find, and Phil and Chris had seen an independent movie of mine called Joshy. And they asked me to come meet with them. And I was like, “Oh, they want me to play Han Solo, of course.” So I walked in, and I was like, “You want me to play Han Solo?” And they go, “No, no, no. That movie is called Young Han Solo. So you can’t play that.” And I was like, “Got it.” And they go, “But we do have this script.” And they gave it to me, and I loved it, and “Goldy” Julius Sharpe was the showrunner and creator. I love his work from Family Guy. And it’s always been a dream of mine to be directed by Jared Hess [Napoleon Dynamite]. Sometimes you just kind of have to leap. And I was lucky.
AVC: Did you know that there were a lot of other time-travel shows out there?
AP: I did and I didn’t care. I don’t think that that stuff matters. I mean, there’s a billion cop shows. There’s, like, five shows alone about the different government jobs in Chicago right now. Who cares. Our show is different and it’s funny. And the other ones are hour-long dramas. I think it will find its audience because it isn’t the other shows.
AVC: How comfortable is it acting in a duffel bag?
AP: More comfortable than a hot tub.
AVC: I don’t believe you.
AP: Trust me. You ever spent eight hours acting in water? It’s a lot easier to get in and out of a bath. Hot tubs are bad news for actors, man. I do not envy Adam Scott and those guys. They really did it.
AVC: You mentioned this in your panel that America is in such a horrible time right now. Do you think that’s why time travel is so popular? Do we want to go back and fix everything?
AP: Oh, no, no, no. I think it’s pretty classic if you look at the way entertainment reflects the country’s status. There was a reason in the ’50s when communism was bubbling that there were a million zombie movies. Because that is the direct allocation. So for the last two years we’ve been hearing, “Make America great again.” People go, “Well, America was never great.” What do you mean? What you mean is that they want to look back in history. And so I think it’s only natural for entertainment to reflect that.
AVC: Which would be your favorite time period to visit?
AP: I can’t stress this enough. Me, Yassir [Lester, who plays Chris], and Leighton: a woman, a Jew, and a black person. I don’t want to go anywhere. The only place I want to travel to is the United States Of America from 2008 to 2016. Anywhere else is a horribly dangerous time for women and minorities. And we’re about to enter into another one. So for me, why would a Jew want to go anywhere in history ever? I’m only going to have to run.
I think we deal with it in a comedic way, because, I mean, I’m a Sephardic Jew. Do you think anyone looked like me in the 1800s? It just doesn’t exist. It’s like, in Boston in the colonial times, if I was around, I was running a general store. So I think that we look into that. And I like that. That’s what attracted me to the project is that they went at that head-on. The whole second episode has a lot to do with gun control, and the forming of our country and the Second Amendment. That is my sweet spot. I love to know why and how it affects today.
AVC: That is a really interesting tactic to take to go to Revolutionary times right now. Hamilton is so popular. The country started out so great. How’d it get so fucked up? What went wrong?
AP: It didn’t start out so great.
AVC: On paper it looks good.
AP: On paper it looks good, but it didn’t. And that’s what I think is important to remember now and when you hear that slogan, “Make America great again.” I think it’s important that we remind everybody that America was never great in itself. It’s been great in its aspirations.
AVC: Even under Obama? I feel like that’s as good as America ever got, except for World War II and FDR.
AP: I don’t know. I love Obama. He’s my favorite president of all time. I have a giant picture in my apartment in New York that is of his Chicago Tribune cover, Mr. President. I cried last night at his speech. But there are a lot of black marks on a presidency. And I think that’s the point. What does “great” mean? What does great mean and for who? A lot of people would say that America was not great for them during Obama. So I think that it’s important to remember… America is never great. America is great in what it can be, which is the American dream.
AVC: So this show has loftier aspirations than a regular comedy might have, since it’s addressing this part of the country’s identity?
AP: Look, the worst-case scenario is I say something—which I probably already have—incredibly lofty, and then you print it. But fuck it. I’ll say it. Al Franken yesterday grilling Jeff Sessions. That’s a comedian. That’s a comedy writer. And you’re about to see a big part of this future presidency try to shut down any avenue of criticism. And that’s what comedy is. Comedy is taking a look at things, and if you can’t take a look at things… So, are we going to save the world? I don’t know. But I like to think that we’re on the way. I mean, I would say that the best article written about this election came out of Teen Vogue. So I think journalism can come from anywhere, and comedy can certainly come from anywhere.