Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firsties, we talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.
Hailing from the same generation of Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre regulars as Casey Wilson, Rob Huebel, and Jason Mantzoukas, the chummy vibe of that creative community infuses the collaborative work of Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. In 2011, the duo parlayed that connection into the NBC sitcom Best Friends Forever, but the show proved to be a victim of unfortunate timing: It lost original male lead Adam Pally after the unexpected second-season renewal of Happy Endings, after which it was shelved for the majority of the 2011-12 TV season and unceremoniously burned off in the spring. They’ve received a second chance at buddy-comedy success thanks to USA’s Playing House, which casts St. Clair as a corporate striver who drops everything to move back to her hometown and help out her pregnant best friend (played by Parham) after her marriage implodes. Parham and St. Clair sat down with The A.V. Club at NBCUniversal’s Summer Press Day to discuss the new show, watching one another on other people’s shows, and the origins of their recurring Comedy Bang! Bang! characters, irresponsible intern Marissa Wompler and sniper-turned-high-school-teacher (and so much more) Miss Listler.
The first time they ever knew they were funny
Lennon Parham: I had a moment—and I don’t know if it was funny necessarily, but I realized the effect I could have on people—when I was doing a production of The Little Prince and I played the snake. All these elementary-aged kids came to see it, and afterward I was in the bathroom getting changed out of my snake costume and these kids started to walk in and they were like, [Gasps.] “Ah! It’s the snake, it’s the snake.” And I was like [Triumphantly.] “Oh, yes.” Because I’m this skinny, nobody-cares-about little white girl from the middle of Georgia, and I can have this effect on these kids that I have never met. It was a pretty powerful feeling.
First comedy heroes
Jessica St. Clair: Gilda Radner did a show at the Met, like a live show, and I would rent the VHS of it every two weeks. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to ask someone to buy it for me. But I rented it until I broke it. I learned all of the words. I also did that when I saw Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey do their two-person show to get Lorne Michaels to see that Tina could be on Saturday Night Live as a performer. I learned every single line like a psycho in the back of the UCB Theatre and I would just like mouth it along with them. If Tina sees me, she asks for more security detail for that reason.
LP: I was obsessed with Carol Burnett and then Tracey Ullman. Like obsessed with their shows. [Impersonates Ullman.] “Go home!” All that stuff. I loved it, loved it, loved it.
JSC: We should get her on season two.
AVC: Was it because Ullman and Burnett can play such a breadth of characters?
LP: I think it was—tying back to that weird snake story I told—but it’s like you could be whatever you wanted to be. You didn’t have to be what it looked like you were. That you could just blow it out of the water. Which I think is why on Comedy Bang! Bang! I play someone so very far from myself. It’s just so fun to not be myself.
JSC: And I would say, sadly, Marissa Wompler is pretty much my real personality, just a little turned up. That’s the sad thing. [Laughs.]
The first time they met
JSC: We were like ships passing in the night for a long time.
LP: Jessica was on this legendary team at the UCB called Mother.
JSC: Please. A legend in our own minds, I promise you.
LP: No, no. Everybody knows who you are. Mother was Jason Mantzoukas, Scot Armstrong, Tara Copeland, Jon Daly. You guys had a pairing with Respecto Montalban…
JSC: Right. Rob Huebel and Rob Riggle and all those guys…
LP: …at the 22nd Street theater. That’s the first time I ever saw you. And I saw you and you didn’t know anything about me. And then I worked for the summer with her husband, who’s a playwright.
JSC: Lennon does this thing where she stares—she has this real intense stare. So I’d be visiting my husband at this thing and I’d be like, “What’s up with that girl staring at me, right? She’s got eyes on me.” Almost like she could see through to my soul.
And then, I remembered seeing Lennon perform and she was wearing a little sweater set, and I was like, what is this—there’s the staring girl again. And she was wildly funny. And I’m like, this girl, something’s up with her.
LP: And then you saw my show and then we had a lady date. And then that was it.
JSC: This shit was so fucking funny. I was sitting next to Brett Gelman. I had to physically take my fist and punch him as hard as I could, because the laughter was not enough. And I said to myself, and then to Brett, “I have to have her.” He said, “That’s fucking creepy man. Don’t say that about another woman. That’s weird.” And then I pursued her like an olden-days suitor would.
AVC: What was the first lady date?
JSC: We went to yoga—I pretended I did yoga and so did she, but neither of us like it. So we were like, “But that’s what we do in L.A.”
LP: I like it. I didn’t like it then.
JSC: Come on.
LP: It’s true, I do.
JSC: You like the prenatal yoga where you can like, take a nap.
LP: You never took the prenatal yoga class, so don’t judge it.
JSC: And I never will. I’ll never go back to those classes anyway. But by accident, we got into an advanced class. It was a nightmare. Our heads were like underneath someone else’s vagina and I was like, this is horrible. [Laughs.]
LP: It’s like, “Hey what’s up? We should write comedy together.”
First writing collaboration
LP: We wrote a pilot for HBO. And it was like a year-and-a-half that we worked on that pilot. It was too long. It was about two women who worked in brand management for a big company and we had this big presentation that we were working toward.
JSC: It was a little bit like Broad City, characters in their 20s struggling to get their shit together.
LP: And then we both got on other people’s TV shows, so she was on In The Motherhood and I was on Accidentally On Purpose. We were writing cross-country, because I was still living in Brooklyn at the time. So we would be on speakerphone or have headphones on and just write.
AVC: It must be difficult to write comedy like that.
JSC: Really hard. I don’t recommend it.
Then she moved to L.A. and we pitched Best Friends Forever. We did six episodes of that show, which was like our dream. It was so much fun. When that ended, we were like “We have to get that band back together again. It was like that Muppet movie where they go and get Fozzie Bear and he’s performing at a casino. And they’re like, “Get in the car.” That’s what it was like. We went and we got everyone back together again and now we’re doing Playing House. Because, creepily, when BFF was ending, I was like, “I’ll be back for all of you.” And all the crew was like, “What? Do we have a choice?” And I was like, “No.” And we got them all back. Each and every one of them.
LP: And you say I have the creepy stare.
AVC: It sounds like once you get in Jessica’s general vicinity, she will have you forever.
LP: That’s what she says.
JSC: Oh, yes. I will have you.
LP: It’s true. Keegan-Michael Key…
JSC: …tried actively not to do the show.
LP: He shot our pilot, right? And then everything was blowing up for him. And basically he was calling to say, “I’m not going to be able to do the series.” And Jessica was like, “Listen. [Impersonates St. Clair.] You gotta do it! We’ve going to have you. We’ll see you on Monday!” And that was it.
JSC: It was like, “Click.” And his agents were like, “Wait, what do you mean he’s still doing it?” I’m like, “He’s still doing it.” My husband’s like, “You can’t just yell into the phone, ‘You’re doing it.’ and hang up on someone.” I’m like, “It worked.”
The first time one saw the other on another TV show
JSC: I was like a jealous lover, because I’m like “That’s my Lennon, and there she is doing her bon mots for someone else.”
LP: Very possessive of me. It is really inappropriate.
JSC: I am. But you were so good. You were so good at multi-camera. You were like watching an Olympic athlete.
LP: Well, Jessica is in everybody’s show. Everybody’s like, “Gosh, she’s so good.” And I’m like, “Yeah. Yeah.”
JSC: That’s right. No, that’s not true. Whatever, man.
JSC: I show up for five seconds in every movie.
LP: In Bridesmaids. You’re in everything.
JSC: Remember how in Three Men And A Baby they said there was a ghost in the back of one of those scenes? That’s me in every movie. I pass in and I pass out.
AVC: “Was that a cardboard standee of Ted Danson or was that Jessica St. Clair?”
JSC: We’ve got the same hair.
The first appearances of Marissa Wompler and Miss Listler
JSC: Casey Wilson and Paul Rust had a show where, basically, you “audition” for the high school musical and you just come on as a character. Seth Morris played the really creepy drama teacher, and Casey Wilson always took her boobs out. She’s like this damaged 16-year-old girl who like starts doing a monologue from Steel Magnolias and ends up with her top off each time. But anyway: I did this character that was loosely based on a character I did in a sketch show with Jason Mantzoukas, but I had a neck brace that I dug out and a Christmas sweater vest and I came out and did something as Marissa Wompler. Scott Aukerman said “Would you like to come on the podcast as this character?” and I thought it would be funny to have her be the show’s intern. I just thought I would do it once. I don’t have much of a range—I can’t do any other characters. So anytime he wants me to come back, I’m like “I’m coming back as Marissa.” [Laughs.]
AVC: She’s the worst intern in the history of podcasting.
JSC: She’s terrible. Then I was like, “Lennon, I want you to come on as somebody in Marissa’s life. You decide.” She didn’t tell me what she was going to do, and she came on as Charlotte Listler, Marissa’s teacher. It was a fully realized woman.
LP: But it made you so uncomfortable after the first podcast, because I was taking a little bit of a sunshine.
JSC: Miss Listler was creating such a bizarre world for me and Marissa wasn’t ready for it. As Marissa, I was like, “Scott, this worst decision I ever made.”
LP: You can hear it, too. You could hear it. But then it got such a reaction, the dynamic between the two of us. Jessica has to go for the comedy, no matter what, and so we were like, we’ll do it again. From then on out I was just, you know, smooth sailing.
AVC: The mythology around these characters has grown so vast.
JSC: Well, it’s so complicated. It’s like Dynasty now.
LP: I had to re-listen, because when you’re improvising, you don’t remember most of what you say.
JSC: [To Parham.] You’re a man now. You understand that the next time we go on, you said you were a man.
I love it when I go on the comments on Comedy Bang! Bang!, because people who come to it for the first time and hear our episodes are like, “What’s happening?” Then other people write in, they’re like, “You have to listen to the other 15 episodes to even understand remotely what’s going on.”
We did a Comedy Bang! Bang! right before Lennon gave birth and there was something going on hormonally where she literally doesn’t remember anything she said, but she was the most funny she’s ever been. I think that was when you told Brian Huskey that you visited your embryos at night.
LP: Was that when I said I had “joey pockets,” where I have skin sewed to my ankles and I keep knives in there? Like I take skin out of the bottom of my stomach or something? Yeah, that was really great.
AVC: They’ve become such grotesque creatures at this point.
JSC: Somebody tried to put together a police sketch of what Marissa looks like and they can’t. She’s got hair on her nipples, she’s shaped like an upside-down muffin. She looks like Grimace meets the pyramids…
When they first heard that Playing House was going to series
LP: I think I was nursing? They called us right? It’s a blur. I literally just had the baby.
JSC: Lennon had just given birth and I was pregnant and so I was throwing up everywhere.
LP: There was every indication that the show was going forward, but USA hadn’t officially told us. They didn’t officially tell us until two days before the upfronts when they officially told everybody—because Jessica had to get on a plane.
JS: But we wouldn’t let ourselves believe.
LP: No, no, no, you couldn’t because your hopes would get way too high. But I had literally just given birth like a week before we found out so I remember the press release went out and my Twitter feed went crazy and like I was like basically up at like 2:30 in the morning with a baby on my boob and just like, [Makes hyperventilating typing noise.] with my husband sound asleep next to me. And Jessica, we were like on different sides of the continent.
JSC: Then I went to the upfronts alone, five months pregnant, and I still had to hide it. So I was on the red carpet with my manager screaming, “Stick your butt out, everyone can see it.” And I’m like what the…?
But it was so exciting, because we didn’t know if we could ever get to do it again. So to have a second chance to do our dream show and to even do it better? That was just like winning the lottery.