June 8, 2010 / 6:47 AM / 7 years ago

Sitcom stars get serious about comedy

9 Min Read

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "There's too much deconstruction and analysis of comedy," Ed Helms noted toward the end of a gathering of Emmy-worthy comedic actors (held in a bar though, sadly, nobody was drinking).

"Yeah," agreed Ty Burrell. "Like if you got together at a roundtable just to talk about comedy ..."

Helms ("The Office") and Burrell ("Modern Family") were joined by Ted Danson ("Bored to Death"), Neil Patrick Harris ("How I Met Your Mother"), Aziz Ansari ("Parks and Recreation") and Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory").

Who Is the Funniest Man Alive?

Ted Danson: Chris Rock.

Neil Patrick Harris: Really? His stand-up?

Danson: He cuts real close to the bone. The scary stuff. The stuff that you shouldn't be able to say, but somehow he can.

Ty Burrell: (For his) sensibility, Bill Murray. He's not necessarily doing his own material, but I can't think of anybody else.

Danson: I'm gonna switch. I like Bill Murray!

Ed Helms: When I started doing stand-up, there was a comedian that I was kind of obsessed with, Brian Regan. He could just always make me cry with laughter.

Harris: Ty Burrell. There, I said it. (Laughs.)

Aziz Ansari: Whenever I think about stand-up I feel Louis CK is so far ahead of everyone.

Harris: How does your stand-up translate into a TV show? Is it a good skill or is it awkward?

Ansari: In past TV shows, you'd see someone like Tim Allen, who had a stand-up act and then that stand-up act would be the basis of a sitcom. Now, my stand-up doesn't translate at all to the work I do on "Parks and Recreation." They're totally different things.

ROSEANNE, RAY ROMANO, JERRY SEINFELD -- A LOT OF COMEDIANS

Turned Their Acts Into Big Tv Series. Why Not Now?

Helms: I remember when I was doing stand-up, comedians were tailoring their acts to be "show ready." And now there's a different trend in stand-up, this very personal, cynical-observation stuff.

Ansari: Comedians would get pilots, but the show wouldn't get picked up, and I think people just started realizing that's not a game that works. It's a huge gamble to put (a show) all on one guy that people don't know.

Burrell: And a lot of the shows that seem to be doing well don't come from one point of view.

Ansari: Yeah, yeah. It's transformed into more of an ensemble comedy.

Harris: An "ensemedy."

So Showrunners Are the New Stand-Ups?

Jim Parsons: That would be my feeling. ("The Big Bang Theory" co-creator Chuck Lorre is) the gatekeeper of what's going to make it and what's not. There's a lot of other voices, obviously, a whole team of writers, but he has a very present feeling on the set. That said, he helps shape what's being shaped organically by the team -- not just the writers, but what the performer does with it, too. It's never a stifling hand, I feel. It's more of a safety.

WHAT'S THE HARDEST THING ABOUT DOING COMEDY ON TELEVISION?

Helms: One of the toughest parts is having to be funny at 6 in the morning, day after day. Our schedule on "The Office" is very intense. Everybody keeps it lively and fun but it can be hard to bring it on a Friday morning at 6:30 after all full week of 10-, 12-hour days. I'm definitely not complaining, I'm just contextualizing.

Ansari: "Ed Helms, the complainer!" (Laughs.) You gotta get up early. It's so hard to act in the morning!

Helms: I'd imagine it (would) be hard for anyone, like an accountant, to be on their game at 6:30 in the morning. And you know me, I'm out at the clubs until 4 every night.

Danson: The idea of standing up and being funny to an audience right now is too much for my nervous system. I swear to God, give me really funny writing and I'll get up at 6 and I'll do that. But the idea of standing up and having to do a joke for an audience -- even without an audience, if I know it's a joke and it's constructed like a joke, my heart starts to pound.

WHY? YOU TAPED "CHEERS" IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE FOR YEARS.

Danson: I can bury myself in a character in a funny situation and have a ball. But after so many years of having to be funny when it's written "this is funny," it scares the crap out of me.

Burrell: Were you getting tired of that (on "Cheers")?

Danson: No. It's a young man's game. "Funny" is being delighted and surprised at what's coming next. I knew what was coming next for me after 16-, 17 years and I can't imagine that other people didn't. I found myself not finding myself amusing and finding other people way funnier. So I'd much rather go in the other direction. There, I said it.

Burrell: That's really cool.

What's the Biggest Difference You've Seen in Tv Comedy

Since "Cheers"?

Danson: Cable gives you the right to say and do anything, which makes it closer to reality. You can say "f---" any time you want. That makes it harder ... The landscape has changed because of the Internet and reality shows. My kids go online and it's hard to get them to sit down and watch (even) a half-hour. They'll be doing their work and go, "I need some funny" and they'll search for it and get a 30-second or two-minute blast and then go back to work.

We've Got Three Guys Here Whose Shows Are

Mockumentary-Style. Is That Format Here to Stay?

Burrell: Yeah. It's a really effective way to tell a story. It takes so much pressure off exposition, to have somebody talk to the camera. You don't have to lay all that pipe in the scene

--

Danson: -- when you only have 22 minutes to do it.

Helms: These shows are a reflection of the emergence of reality television. It'll be interesting to see what America's appetite dictates next.

Do You Think Audiences Would Have Embraced Mockumentary

Shows if They Didn't Have Reality Tv as a Primer?

Helms: Well, Christopher Guest was making phenomenal mockumentaries before reality television and people loved those.

Danson: But cult.

Helms: Maybe not the mainstream. Reality television gives everyone context and a reference point to immediately connect to these shows and understand the language.

Harris: The blending of reality, scripted and the Internet is all coming together even stronger. You can watch TV and cruise the Internet on the same screen. I think a lot of it will all intertwine and there will be hybrids.

Danson: I don't know if it's just my age, but if I want to relax, there's nothing better than a beautifully crafted, scripted film or whatever. I'm finding myself at night watching "Lawrence of Arabia," just so I can go, "Ah, the world's OK." (Laughs.)

Ansari: I don't watch any comedies anymore. The only shows that I watch are "Breaking Bad" and "Lost" and stuff. I don't know if it's because I'm fully immersed in comedy or I have to figure out stuff that's funny all the time. It's kind of nice to watch stuff that's just dramatic.

Do You Guys Fear Not Being Funny Someday?

Burrell: For sure. I fear everything. I'm just afraid! I've never been one of those people who's driven by my deep knowledge of how good I am. It's like, "Am I going to suck today?" And that makes me work crazy hard.

Danson: I always think of myself as basically a 50/50 actor. There's an equal chance that I'm going to suck.

Harris: In comedy, a fair amount of self-loathing makes you work harder. Look at Jerry Lewis. When he split from Dean Martin he had to prove himself as uniquely funny. (But) he lost a gauge of what was actually funny. If you believe you're the funniest thing in the world, your comedy in turn suffers.

Do You Ever Ask Others for Input Into Your Performance?

Parsons: No, don't tell me.

Harris: I do. I'm always saying, "Is it funnier if I skip this word or that word?"

Helms: "The Office" is very collaborative that way. There are always little huddles and I love that, and on the movies I've worked on as well.

Burrell: That can feel so mischievous, in a really cool way: a group of people getting together to come up with the funniest s--- you can do in that moment. That's the best part of the day.

What About After a Scene? Is There Anybody You Trust to

Tell You if You Were Good?

Danson: After a take, I will turn to the director and go, "That was great, wasn't it!" and they say yes because they have to. And I believe them. (Laughs.)

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