Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sexting and Kenny Loggins: Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair talk Playing House

Jessica St. Clair, left, and Lennon Parham / Robyn Von Swank
Jessica St. Clair, left, and Lennon Parham / Robyn Von Swank

“Just think about something sad,” says Jessica St. Clair to Lennon Parham. The creators, producers, writers, and stars of Playing House are in a remote part of Malibu shooting a scene for the sixth episode of the show’s second season in a hot tub with guest stars Randy and Jason Sklar. Parham keeps breaking after a line from one of the Sklars, and everyone’s eager to get out of the hot tub, which has a bunch of dead bugs and a gross film on the water. (“There so much knee-to-soft-thigh touching,” St. Clair said as they settled into the tub earlier.) Adding to the urgency to get a good take: It’s a hot day, an errant air hose that’s providing the bubbles keeps popping up out of the water next to Jason Sklar’s nipple, and St. Clair and Parham are uncomfortably positioned on underwater crates so they’re framed correctly in the shot. It’s not one of the more glamorous days on the Playing House set, but Parham and St. Clair are clearly enjoying themselves. That they’re even filming a second season counts as a victory; after low-rated premiere season (balanced somewhat by solid VOD numbers) and no word from USA for months about a second season pickup, it seemed like Playing House would go the way of Best Friends Forever, Parham and St. Clair’s short-lived NBC show. Sustained demand for a second season on social media helped move the needle, and the duo was given a shorter second season last December. It returns with the first of eight episodes August 4 on USA (with an earlier viewing option for Comcast subscribers). A few weeks after that day in Malibu, The A.V. Club talked to Parham and St. Clair about the upcoming season, how doing their own show has helped their careers, and the bizarre world of their podcast, Womp It Up!


The A.V. Club: Where are you in production right now?

Jessica St. Clair: We’re in editing right now.

Lennon Parham: We started last week, and we’re on episode two currently.

JSC: So it’s a lot of being in a dark room together, side by side, asking ourselves or each other over and over again, “Does my neck look weirder than last year?” That kind of thing.

LP: Yeah.

JSC: And the answer is always yes, Kyle. The answer is always yes.

AVC: How did the shorter run of episodes affect how you wrote?

LP: I don’t really think it affected much at all, to be honest. I mean, we had 10 the first season, which also feels kind of truncated compared to the classic network sitcom. So anywhere from six to 10 for me feels like a really good number to tell a nice, satisfying story arc.

JSC: Yeah. For a couple reasons, we felt like we wanted to put all of our best hits into these eight. We probably had, like, 15 episode ideas, and then, because there were only eight slots, I feel like the best got done. I think with a longer order you might think, “Oh, we have to come up with 20 episodes, so I guess this will have to be in it.” But, for us, we actually had to throw away five big ones.

What we also do sometimes is like, if we have a physical bit that we love, that Lennon and I want to do, sometimes we put it aside and then we find, “Oh, it’ll actually fit in this episode we decided to do.” So sometimes we’ll harvest—that sounds like we’re harvesting body parts—the best stuff from a thrown-away episode and put it into one that we’re actually doing.


LP: I’ve asked her not to use farmer’s terms in this interview, and she refuses.

JSC: Harvest! Harvest an organ, Lennon, is what I was thinking.

LP: I know, but let’s think of harvest like, the time of the year all the wheat is given, and people are nourished by the comedy we’re providing, instead of, like, we have to go to the side of the road and someone’s had an accident and take their kidney.

AVC: Are there any ideas you weren’t able to do this season that you can talk about?


LP: Well, we really wanted to get Queenetta in there. Daija [Owens], our sweet babysitter from Best Friends Forever, and like—what do they call it when you hide little nuggets?

AVC: Easter eggs.

LP: Easter eggs. Yeah, kind of like an Easter egg, but also because she’s stone-cold just the funniest girl in the world. We had her for a hot second in episode eight, but, when you watch episode eight, you’ll understand why we couldn’t have another new character. [Laughs.] Because it is jam-packed with amazing personalities. And Kenny Loggins.


JSC: But we have a pledge to make to our fans. I made a pledge in season one to have baby raccoons in season two, and I did not deliver on that promise, so—

LP: You did? Why did you promise that? I wasn’t there for that. You’ve got to check with me on this shit. [Laughs.]


JSC: It’s in writing somewhere.

LP: In the Twittersphere? No, we tweet enough. I think it’s gotten swallowed now.


JSC: Yeah. But we pledged for this season, for the diehard BFF fans, that Queenetta will be our babysitter/Girl Scout that hates my guts. She will be that.

LP: What if we just say we’ll use Daija? [Laughs.]

JSC: Okay.

LP: What if we don’t promise a specific storyline? [Laughs.]

JSC: I want her in a sash. I want her in that green outfit and a sash, and I will die on that sword.


We didn’t know if we were even going to get a second season. When we got one, we felt like we were just going to go for the gold. Everyone in the writers’ room went around and we said, “Who is your dream actor to write for or somebody that you just want to meet?” Like, in terms of Kenny Loggins, Lennon just needed to meet him, so we put him on the board, and we made a pledge, like, “We are going to make everybody’s dreams come true this year.” Then we did! Somebody in our writers’ room had an obsession with the Property Brothers—

LP: That was me.

JSC: We wrote them sexting with Lennon in a dream, and they said yes to it. We wrote these almost, like, stalkerish letters to people that, if I read one, I would feel unsafe.


LP: But then you would say yes because you can’t say no.

JSC: You can’t say no because you’re afraid! So we did that. Pamela Adlon was a good example. We’ve been obsessed with her forever, and then we saw her at the WGA Awards, and we were like, “Oh, my God, she’s so beautiful and so funny and so kickass.” So we wrote her a scene, basically, with Zach Woods in the finale, and we were like, “There’s no way she’s going to have time, writing for Louie or whatever.” But we wrote her this insane letter, and she was like, “You complimented me in the letter. I’m going to do the part.” She came and did it, and we had the best time of our lives.


AVC: It seems like she would eat Zach Woods’ character alive.

LP: It’s interesting, because you would think that, and you can tell that’s what they both want to have happen, but they really go toe-to-toe with each other. He is in his wheelhouse with music, so when they meet up, she’s like, “Oh, you are a musical genius.”


JSC: Let’s just say sparks fly between the tallest man in Hollywood and Pamela Adlon.

AVC: The second season is airing earlier on demand, right?

LP: The first week, episode one and two will air back-to-back at 10 and 10:30, August 4th, and then right after that, episode three will become available for Comcast Xfinity subscribers. So if you have Comcast, you can watch all three; otherwise, you’ve got to wait until the second week to watch episode three. Then episode four will be released that week for Comcast Xfinity, and then that’ll go through September to the day after Labor Day, when the last two episodes will air. The finale will not be released early, so everyone will have to watch it when it airs or right after it airs.


AVC: Did the budget change much on a per-episode basis compared to season one?

LP: Yeah, we did go down some. I mean, we were already kind of doing it for a discount, and it did go down some more.


JSC: It was basically, like, we had to be really creative. You saw the hot-tub scene with the Sklar Brothers, but we had another insane dream—we have no idea why—of a paddleboat race, like a regatta, on a lake. Our production line producer was like, “If you do this, you have to give up your week off.” And we were like, “That’s fine.”

We become obsessed with these things. Then we were baking under the hot Malibu sun and, like, literally almost died out there, and I was like, “Oh, this better be worth it.” [Laughs.] But the moment I saw the Sklar Brothers have to jump in that dirty lake, I was like, “This is 100 percent worth it.” [Laughs.]


You know what else I think is really fun about this? Because it’s for the love of the game, obviously, and that’s how the UCB always was for us. For us to even get paid at all is always kind of a shock.

LP: We don’t like to put that in writing, though, because of our families.

JSC: I know, that’s true.

LP: We have families and mortgages and stuff.

JSC: We wrote those episodes for all of our best friends, like Rob Riggle, Jack McBrayer, Keegan [Michael Key], Zach, and they come on, and nobody—because it’s all for the love of comedy—[it’s] almost like a summer-camp vibe about it. It’s like, “Yeah, I’ll fucking do that!” We had Riggle in a welding mask he couldn’t see out of, and he was like, “Guys, I can’t see where I’m welding. But if it’s funny, I’ll still take the risk.” We were like, “You’re a father of two. We probably shouldn’t do that.” But the UCB mentality is you do anything for each other to make each other’s projects better. That is very touching for Lennon and I, that every week, we would have another one of our best friends show up and say, “What can I do? Do you need anything else?” That’s the most special part of the show for us.


AVC: You’re both newish mothers. Does that inform what’s going on through this season, now that Maggie has had her baby?

LP: One hundred percent. In season one, when I started the writers’ room, I had a 10-week-old, and Jess was super-pregnant, and then we took a little break. We started shooting when Jess had a 10-week-old, and I had a 6-month-old. This whole motherhood thing has really been, like, back to work from the get-go. It’s sort of a balance. We’ve been trying to figure out how to balance being a great mom and being present and having our girls know what we do and see where we’re going every day. A lot of times they come with us to work. They did for sure first season. Second season, they’re a little bit more rambunctious. They need their space.


JSC: Also both of our daughters had to become comfortable with Lennon in that Bosephus beard.

JSC: My daughter kept going, “Aunt Lala? Where’s Aunt Lala?” “I don’t know what to tell you, but that’s your Aunt Lala in that beard. You’re just going to have to accept this as part of our reality now.”


LP: Yeah, and my daughter met Bosephus when she was still breastfeeding. I brought her into the trailer with me while I got the mustache put on, so when she would see me later, she would not reject my mother’s milk. [Laughs.] Then there’s some weird video of her talking to Bosephus and getting used to that. But then she learned how to say “Gimme dem crawdads” and everything was okay.

But I mean, as far as it informing the show, for me, I guess it affects both of them because, in effect, Emma also is a new mom. But it was a real balance for us of, like, how much baby, and having a baby inform the decisions, but not feeling like we were bound to baby storylines or bound to the house because when you’re a new mom, you do less. We didn’t do that; we didn’t do less. We didn’t stay close to home because we literally couldn’t do that with deadlines. Maybe I would have stayed home longer if I had the choice, but we were like, “Just hit the ground running and find the comedy in that,” and we did. This season is pretty reflective of that, like new parents trying to get back into the world, but, at the same time, you’re a new mom, and what does that mean, and how does that make your choices more important or different?


JSC: I think a lot of times for a show, having a baby can actually ruin it. Like, “Oh, God, now they have a baby and now they’ll have to do episodes about going to Mommy And Me.” I don’t feel like that’s really reflective of people’s lives necessarily. It was actually a positive for us when the baby was out and about for the show, because all the stakes were raised.

What Maggie decides to do with her life career-wise—we have a whole episode about that she’s very concerned about the fact that, if she’s going to be away from home and her daughter, it’d better be something important. The beautiful thing about raising a baby with your best friend is that you’re both there to help achieve each other’s dreams. If anything, it just gave us higher stakes, which is always good for comedy, and the drama part of it. There’s really no episodes that revolve around the baby. The baby is just part of our lives; she’s with us on adventures, and sometimes she’s not, but we want to be better people for the baby. That’s something true for Lennon and I: We’re always trying to get our shit together, and sometimes succeeding and failing. [Laughs.]


AVC: In an old interview, you said that with Best Friends Forever, the episodes that aired were exactly what you wanted them to be. At the end of the day, does it feel the same way going forward with Playing House?

JSC: Yes.

LP: It does, honestly. We’re lucky in that we came to USA at a time when they were just figuring out what they wanted to be for comedy, and then the demand for the show is what brought us back. Jeff Wachtel, who was the main reason our show came back, and also got picked up to begin with, is from the New York theater. He believes in the artist’s voice, and I feel like he’s said at some point, “Let’s let them do their thing.” Which I think is what you’re seeing with a Broad City, or with an [Inside] Amy Schumer, or with any of the shows on AMC, or you’re getting with FX. You’re getting a pure version of the artist’s voice, and for comedy, that’s essential. That’s also what we learned at the UCB. It’s like, “What do you think is funny? Put that up.” Because nobody knows how to make you funny better than you.


JSC: Yeah, and I would say USA, if anything, people on the production side and development, they’re trying to make it work. We come to them with crazy things, like, “We’re going to have Kenny Loggins, a tour bus, a concert hall. Let’s see how we can do this.” That feels really good, you know?

LP: Yeah, and they also look out for us. It’s like a family at this point, like a lot of the guys on the studio side, too, are like looking out for us. Like in season one, when we were like, “We want to do it all on location,” they were like, “You have a 10-week-old. Let’s have a stage.” And we were like, “Okay, that makes sense.” We were so thankful they were looking out for us in that way. There’s just a real nurturing thing that is happening from a lot of the support there.


AVC: Have you allowed yourselves to think beyond this season? Like you said, when you came over to USA, it was part of this comedy wave the network was doing, and now Playing House is the last lady standing of those shows.

JSC: I think for Lennon and I, we always are. I mean, the characters that we play are so close to ourselves, and I feel like we always have 24 more episodes to do. If we had to sit down tomorrow and write those, it would be no problem. But I also feel like we’ve definitely been in the business long enough to go, “We’re going to enjoy this moment and this season, and not necessarily obsess over what the next one will be or when the next one will be.” Right now, we’re really enjoying putting together this season. We always leave our seasons on a cliffhanger, and this season, there’s a pretty good one in this finale. So we’re excited, really excited, to come back. We almost set up a problem for ourselves that then we have to solve in the next season. We did that with Bird Bones and Mark—you’ll see what happens with our relationship and their relationship and everything. We’ve definitely done that; we’ve cut our work out for us for season three, if we’re lucky enough to have one.


LP: Yeah, and we’ve still got a bunch of names on that board that we want to get in going into season three. We have a bunch of ideas that didn’t get into season two that we could do as well.

AVC: You’ve said in the past that your shared awful pilot experiences pushed you two to do your own show, whether it was Playing House or Best Friends Forever, as a way to show Hollywood what to do with you. Do you feel like your work on the shows has helped accomplish that?


JSC: Oh, yeah. I feel like that the guest stars we do now in our off time are so much more well suited to what we can do because people have just seen it. I think that what’s nice about the show, the comedy community has been really supportive of the show and just watched it.

I love our show because it’s so specific, and I feel like, in answer to your question about USA and being the last lady standing, it’s like we’re in a new part of television where it actually doesn’t matter where you air. What matters is that you’ve connected with an audience. It feels like that audience seems to keep growing. So I’m interested to see how season two goes, because it’s almost like we could be airing anywhere and people will find it, hopefully. But that’s how I feel about all the shows that have broken out. Even Key & Peele took a while to build, and then they got this core audience that was so passionate, and that carried them.


LP: For me, I was in New York, getting my chops or whatever. I did my one-woman show in order to show people what to do with me. But I was dressed as a man, which, eventually, made it into [Playing House]. I was dancing around to a Michael Jackson song with a ribbon. [Laughs.] It wasn’t exactly like, “Take that and put that on television.”

When we got to do our own show, it was like we were just trying to figure out the story that we wanted to tell, which, to us, was the story of these two women—almost a romantic relationship between two best friends and what happens and how that happens. I definitely feel like having a couple of seasons of that out there, people see pieces of it or whatever and are like, “Okay, I kind of get better what to do with you.” But, to be honest, even if they haven’t seen it, they’re like, “You’ve been the star of your show for two years and you write and produce it? Let’s see what you have to offer.” It just gets us in different rooms or something, even if they haven’t seen it.


JSC: Or a show like Veep, which we both did, they loved to bring people on that are writer-performers because there’s a lot of improv that goes into it, so that’s nice. Something like that was a dream job for both of us.

LP: Yeah, and Review is the same way. We know Andy Daly, obviously, and have loved him for a thousand years, and he’s like one of the best actor-comedians in the whole world—


AVC: He’s a national treasure.

JSC: He is a national treasure, truly, and in the podcast world, he’s next-level.


LP: Jess was on season one with him, and then we brought him onto our show, and then I was on season two and Jess was on season two. The director, Jeff Blitz, directed our pilot and the birth episode, so it’s just a conversation that was already happening. When they thought of this character, they thought, “Oh, you know, Lennon would be good as this algebra teacher that he seduces or whatever.”

JSC: We found our director because I had done Review, and Jeff Blitz was directing that. I was like, “This guy is amazing.”


LP: On BFF, we had sat down with him and felt really good with him, and then he couldn’t do it. I think that’s how we originally met him. Then you did Review with him.

JSC: And I totally fell in love.

LP: And then there was no escaping.

LP: We harvested him.

JSC: We harvested him.

AVC: You mentioned podcasts, so we have to talk about Womp It Up!

LP: Yes, please.

AVC: How did that come together?

JSC: Marissa [Wompler] was a little reluctant. I never do characters, ever on anything; I only play somewhat close to myself, so I was so uncomfortable when he asked me to do Comedy Bang! Bang! I’m like, “This is going to be terrible. I’m going to ruin your show.” Then Marissa had a bit of a—I don’t know, she just fit in with the world or whatever, and they kept having us back. Then Lennon joined, and then that became its own thing. I mean, really Marissa didn’t become who she was until [Marissa’s teacher/best friend, Charlotte] Listler came on the scene.


LP: Not true. Maybe she wasn’t, like, a sellable commodity or something [Laughs.] until it was an unlikely duo. Marissa is one of the fan favorites of Comedy Bang! Bang! for everyone throughout the years.

JSC: Well, that’s nice. The point is, Scott had been suggesting, “You guys should do your own podcast.”


LP: And Jeff Ullrich, who used to run Earwolf as well, was always like, “Can you do it? How can you do it?” We had been doing the Womptacular specials, where we would just get, like, every single person, and everyone would play, like, four different characters, and it was insanity from the get-go. Those were doing really well, and so then we thought, “Well, we could just do it the way we do our show,” which is, every week we have another of our incredibly funny friends play something that they think would fit into the world.

JSC: For Andy Daly’s [episode], we were like, “Come in and do whatever you want.” Most people are playing something close to a teacher they knew in their public high school. Joe Bongo is, I guess, very close to a teacher he had once. Then you know what’s funny is I saw Daly yesterday, and he’s like, “Oh, Joe Bongo came on Comedy Bang! Bang!” So I feel like now we’re cross-pollinating both shows, like people who are doing characters on our show then cross over. Then we had a—it’s not a finale, but the eighth episode of Womp It Up! We did a live spot. Scott came on as a guest. And I think Marissa was downright rude to him!


LP: She was always rude to him.

JSC: She was like, “I got my own show now.” I actually felt like I had to apologize to Scott after the show for the rude things I said.


LP: You always feel that way.

JSC: Then we had a—somebody who I won’t name—somebody found out about the show and crashed the live performance, and it was very revealing, let’s say. A lot of spoilers. We haven’t done an episode since then, so I really don’t know how we’re going to bounce back from some of the information that was brought to light.


LP: I always forget everything that has happened after we do it. Because we kind of like go into this vortex when we record it, and I hear it back and I’m like, “Whoa, that’s a weird thing we just said.” [Laughs.] Then, especially when we were in the writers’ room and we would just go and record two back-to-back, we would just say the craziest stuff, or set up some storyline.

AVC: When did you record the episodes?

LP: Last fall and into the early winter.

AVC: Were you writing the show at the time?

LP: We started writing in January. We were both shooting Review and Veep and a bunch of other stuff, I think.


JSC: I usually have a headache after I do one of those because I’m screaming so much more than I scream in my normal life, which is already a lot.

AVC: Do you think you’ll be able to record a second season soon?

JSC: Yeah.

LP: Yeah, we said we’re going to start recording again soon. There will be no gaps, hopefully.


JSC: For Womptacular Birthday we’re going to go on Comedy Bang! Bang! too. Apparently, the money that was spent at Six Flags was because there was damage done to a log flume, which meant that Seth has no money to spend on her birthday this year, so it’s at an American Legion and they’re going to be sharing space with a bunch of Korean veterans. So it’ll be an interesting group.

LP: Wait a minute, like from the Korean War? Or for actual Korean men who are also veterans?


JSC: Well, it will be for Korean men, but they’re from the Korean War. Yeah.

LP: What? Let’s talk about this.

JSC: [Laughs.] But that’s the only space that was available for her! But there are going to be a lot of speeches, it has a bar downstairs, it’s going to be great. Joe Bongo said he’s going to come.