How the Most Authentic Female Friendship On Television Found Its Home on USA
When you think of USA Network, your thoughts don't immediately conjure up super-modern or experimental comedy.
But the home of cozy procedurals and candy-colored summer fare has been pushing the envelope with its content lately. We've seen that in the gritty summer drama "Mr. Robot" and we'll see it again Wednesday night when the second season of the comedy "Playing House" premieres. The series is written by and stars real-life best friends Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham as, well, best friends Emma and Maggie. (This is their second crack at this formula, after the pair starred as friends named Jessica and Lennon in the tragically short-lived 2012 NBC sitcom "Best Friends Forever.")
The plot of "Playing House" centers on an unconventional family arrangement — Emma moves in to help Maggie raise her newborn baby — and does more to capture an authentic female friendship on-screen than any other shows going. Boasting rat-a-tat screwball dialogue packed with pop-cultural references and featuring a fantastic supporting cast including Keegan-Michael Key of "Key & Peele" and Zach Woodsof "Silicon Valley," the tone of the improvisation-heavy show is a lot sharper than you might expect.
When speaking with St. Clair and Parham on the phone about this upcoming season, one thing is perfectly clear. The difference between fact and fiction when it comes to this friendship is pretty much nonexistent. What you see on the screen is what you get in real life, including fast-paced, overlapping dialogue. We talked about the origins of this on-screen couple, their unconventional writing style, and which comedienne's face St. Clair wants to wear over her own face.
VF Hollywood: So how did this Hepburn and Tracy–like relationship of yours start?
Jessica St. Clair: We met when we were both in our early 20s. We were learning how to be comedians at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. We had horrible haircuts — or I did anyway — that made me look like I was Hugh Grant from "Four Weddings and a Funeral." There were very few women at the U.C.B. at the time, so we didn’t actually get to perform together when we were in New York. When we moved to L.A., we were both doing a lot of independent crying in our cars in Target parking lots. Then, when we shared that fact with each other, we decided to have our first friendship date, which Lennon decided should be an advanced yoga class.
Lennon Parham: Well, I didn’t know it was advanced. It wasn’t supposed to be advanced. It was actually supposed to be yoga 101, but there happened to be a sub that day—
St. Clair: Neither one of us had ever done yoga—
Parham: He was teaching maybe a 301 class, and since Jessica had been in L.A. for awhile, I thought surely she had done yoga.
St. Clair: I'm sure I said that to you because I rarely tell the truth.
Parham: So we found ourselves upside down with our legs in a very wide-legged position.
St. Clair: In crow's stance, is that something?
Parham: No, that’s not right at all.
St. Clair: And then our eyes locked
Parham: And that was it. Afterwards, we ate turkey chili and a lot of french fries and that was it for the rest of our lives.
St. Clair: And we fell in love. And I went home and I told my husband that I want to write with this woman for the rest of my life, and he said, "I hope to God you didn’t tell her that. That is the creepiest thing you’ve ever said."
Parham: That is certainly not the creepiest thing you've ever said. Remember when you said you wanted to devour Julia Louis-Dreyfus's face?
St. Clair: No, I said I wanted to devour her whole and I wanted to wear her face as my face.
Parham: See, that's creepy. And you won't watch "Silence of the Lambs," and that's exactly what happens with Hannibal Lecter—
That's a running joke in Season 2; Jessica pretends to have seen movies she hasn’t seen. Is that something airlifted directly out of your friendship?
St. Clair: Everything about our real-life friendship is in the show ... I can't watch most movies because they scare me too much.
Parham: So I'll tell her most of the plot, and then she’ll take that and tell everyone that she's seen it.
St. Clair: So I know the plot of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Parham: You don’t know the plot. What happens?
St. Clair: I know that she's a ward of the state, and then I got too scared for you to continue. ... But I think the reason the way we talk is captured is that we improvise every script and we play all the parts with our writers watching and we tape record ourselves and that becomes the transcript for the script. Basically, we don't know how to write like normal people.
Parham: Also, when you improvise, you turn off your judgy brain. You just go straight for the reality of the situation. So when I sit down to write, I find myself judging it as I’m doing it, as opposed to letting it free flow.
St. Clair: I'm so terrified to write that I don't type at all. I make Lennon type and I just sit next to her and breathe hot in her ears and tell her what to do.
So that improvisational environment must work well for well-seasoned comedy co-stars like Keegan Michael Key and Zach Woods, but what about someone like Hootie & the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker? He has a cameo in Season 2, did he improvise?
St. Clair: I will tell you how it works. Darius Rucker is straight up the most charming, handsome man you have ever met in your entire life. He showed up on set — I thought Lennon was going to have a nervous breakdown — he had a gorgeous leather jacket—
Parham: We gave him that jacket—
St. Clair: Who cares? His voice is the voice of an angel. It's like a salted caramel.
Parham: He was like a real man who has an extreme gift and that gift is his voice and his charm. He's not a star for no reason. And he was so professional. He had all his lines ready in rehearsal and the chemistry was real.
St. Clair: And then he did improvise a little. But when he started to sing — he sings in the show — there were women in the bar. Extras. Who started to, like, pass out.
Parham: That was me. I laid down and said, “I’m going to Disney World,” after he did a scene.
St. Clair: And then there's people like Zach, or Keegan, or Rob Riggle, or all of the founding members of the U.C.B. were on this season or Pamela Adlon did an episode. She's not an improviser, she’s a writer, but since she was with Zach and he improvises so much, she ended up giving us some of the best lines of the episode. So even if you're not an improviser, I feel like you get caught up in the spirit of it and people are much better improvisers than they think they are. Kenny Loggins!
Kenny Loggins is a great improviser?
St. Clair: Yes, he did improvise when he was singing.
You two are famously fans of Anne of Green Gables. Will there be an Anne-themed episode this season?
St. Clair: We don’t talk about Anne in this season, but I will tell you that we have written a scene between myself and Keegan which is as close to olden-days romance as I've ever seen. It's like Anne and Gilbert, straight up. I really believe that our characters are modeled on those two, in that they should be together, but they're not. And I hope that Keegan doesn't have to get scarlet fever in order for me to realize it. But we do have a lot of old-school, Jane Austen-type romance in this season.
Why do you think representation of female friendships on television ebbs and flows? I feel like we were just complaining about the lack of female friendships, and now there are so many!
Parham: I don't know why it ebbs and flows. There is a definite trend, though, right now, of that happening. I'm loving it, and it's making way for more to come.
St. Clair: I think the medium of television is so great for women, especially right now, because I feel like with "Broad City" and Amy Schumer and "Girls," the creators are the stars so their voice is totally pure. So that's why the relationships are so identifiable, because it’s not a 50-year-old man writing what girlfriends are like. It’s actual girlfriends writing what their friendship is like, and I think that’s why it’s really resonating. For Lennon and me, we grew up with Laverne and Shirley or Lucy and Ethel. For us, those are our inspirations. And I think Amy Poehler and Tina Fey led the way for us to be fearless in the way we kept shoving our message and our comedy voice down people’s throats until they listened.
Parham: But everything is so specific now. Everything is kind of small in that way. So there’s room for it all. Just because we’re on USA, we didn’t necessarily have to be the USA brand. Comedy was new for them, so they just wanted us to do what we do. They were just like, “Listen, you do you. Get it, girl.”
Watch St. Clair and Parham's discussion about "Playing House" on AOL's BUILD series at AOL's New York headquarters on Tuesday:
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