LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Six of the funniest women on television gathered recently to share their insights on comedy, creative control and conflict.
Wanda Sykes (“The New Adventures of Old Christine”), Jane Lynch (“Glee”) and Sofia Vergara (“Modern Family”) disclosed that they rarely watch their shows.
Patricia Heaton (“The Middle”) no longer savors lengthy speeches, Courteney Cox (“Cougar Town”) may have been responsible for the mysterious disappearance of an irksome writer, and Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”) is still trying to figure out what comedy is.
Wanda Sykes: I would say Mo’Nique. Have you seen “Precious”? She was hilarious! (Laughs.)
Jane Lynch: Outrageous! I’ve been watching “Damages” lately and Martin Short is in it. Not that he’s a funny woman, but funny people can do drama really well. Lily Tomlin is on “Damages” too and they’re both fantastic.
Patricia Heaton: Don’t you love seeing someone being cast completely out of type?
Lynch: If you can do comedy, you can really do anything.
Courteney Cox: It just happens so fast. You give three different versions just to give it a range and you don’t really have time to go in and change (things). “Why did you pick that one? That’s actually not good.”
Heaton: You’re producing, right?
Cox: Yes, it’s great because I’m really hands on and this is the first time a show has been tailored to me. On “Friends,” I was part of an amazing experience and cast but I didn’t have a say in anything. Now I do and it’s my baby and I want to be a part of everything.
Cox: Pretty assertive. (Showrunner) Bill Lawrence is amazing about sharing. I didn’t think he was going to be; he didn’t want to have to share. But now that he’s decided to go into business with me, he’s been great.
Heaton: Are you in the writers’ room when they’re breaking stories?
Cox: No. We meet beforehand, we talk about directions and stuff.
Heaton: And then are you in the editing room?
Cox: Yes. The editing room is like 10 yards from my room, so I just pop in or give notes. Bill’s really smart, so you can say, “In that scene, I think there’s a better take.”
Heaton: I don’t know what’s going on the other side of the camera. Sometimes they use a weird lens, like a fish-eye, and you’re acting up a storm but you don’t know how it’s going to look. There was a scene (on “The Middle”) where we’d forgotten our daughter’s birthday and she’s sitting at the table by herself with this balloon and we walk in and are so mortified — and I’m doing all this feeling and recollection of all the crap I did to my kids that made me feel terrible. And when I watched it, I was way over on the other side of the room. And I thought, I would have loved them to pick something a little bit closer. If I had known it was going to be that — maybe I should ask more questions — I would have done something more than just standing there. But they may have decided to use the long shot because it was funnier. I’m not a producer so I have no say in that whatsoever.
Cox: But even if you are, when I read the script for “Cougar Town,” I thought it was really funny. But when I went to watch the first cuts, I was shocked at how frenetic it was. It was just boom-boom; there was no time for moments; it was nothing like I thought it was going to be. And since then, the show has developed into something a little more calm. It’s still fast and has whip-pans, but it’s a completely different show now. (At first) I was completely taken aback, because that was not what I read at all, so that was kind of scary.
WHEN YOU WATCH YOUR PERFORMANCE, WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE
Felicity Huffman: My favorite thing is someone else’s close-up — and my least favorite thing is my lack of lips. (Laughs.) Driving home at the end of the day, you’re like, “Oh my God, I know how I should have done that scene,” so I find (the show) hard to watch. I watch like this with one hand over my eyes or I multitask so if I can make it through one pass without (thinking) the acting police should come get me, then I never see it again.
JANE AND WANDA, COMING FROM THE IMPROV AND STAND-UP WORLD,
DO YOU HAVE A GOOD SENSE OF WHAT IS WORKING WHEN YOU’RE DOING
Lynch: With “Glee,” yes, because everything I say is written so well. I don’t touch any of the writing because I don’t have time. I’m learning lines all the time because my character is rather verbose. But in other things, you just hope they (keep) the moments because sometimes the hilarity is in the moment and sometimes an editor might blow through that. When I do things other than “Glee,” I cross my fingers, hoping that whoever is editing it knows how to edit comedy. Because they can really kill it.
Sykes: On “Old Christine,” it’s such a piece of cake for me because I don’t have to mess with it. But on my show, because I’m doing everything, I’m more aware of “Well, is this funny?” And, you know, I just mug it up.
Lynch: I’ve had moments in “Glee,” some moments that are kind of iconic now, that I didn’t think were that funny. But I’m one of those people: I’m tired, I’m not that ambitious anymore. (Laughs.) So a moment will come up and I’ll just play it and do my best. Maybe it goes flat, but I don’t take responsibility. I rarely watch what I do, I just walk away from it.
Heaton: You don’t watch the show?
Lynch: Not much. I watched the Madonna episode of “Glee” last night. I was in bed with my dogs and my cats all by myself, laughing! I turned to my dog and said, “You’re mommy’s funny!”
Lynch: (Not) because I don’t like to watch myself. It’s just that when I’m done, I’m done. I spent a lot of time when I was younger dissecting my performances, going: “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that, what if I had done it this way,” to the point where, just for my mental health, I had to stop watching myself. I was very critical. Now I just have as much fun in the moment and I really walk away.
Sykes: I used to watch everything. Now I TiVo “Old Christine” and I don’t have time to go back and watch it. And also, because I’m not involved with the editing, it’s like, I know what I did, they make their choices. But on my show, I stopped watching because I do the editing. I’m there all night. We shoot Friday nights and I get home at 6:30, 7 in the morning on Saturday. So it’s like, I just watched it eight times.
Sofia Vergara: Sometimes. I have a 19-year-old son.
Lynch: Really? How is that possible?
Vergara: Plastic surgery. (Laughs.) Now, at his age, it’s hard to find things to do with him. I realize his friends love the show and he loves the show, so I enjoy seeing him laughing and feeling like I’m part of them. Because usually he’s so annoyed with me.
Vergara: Well, I’m new to acting.
Heaton: What? You’re new to acting?
Vergara: Like, five years.
Heaton: Really? I would never have known that. What were you doing before?
Vergara: I was a TV host. But it was a travel show — not comedy, not acting.
Lynch: Wow, she’s a natural.
Vergara: I never had time to train or go to acting classes, so it gives me a little bit of insecurity. Waiting for an audition, you see all these girls that have been preparing, working for eight years. Then I started saying, “Whatever, if they want me, they want me.” So I did fool them.
Lynch: It’s all fooling, isn’t it?
Huffman: I’m trying to figure out comedy, to tell you the truth. My husband (William H. Macy) and I sit there and watch (“Desperate Housewives”). He tries to give me pointers.
Vergara: You have to be not too afraid of looking like a fool or ugly or fat. You have to let go of all of that.
Lynch: It’s about having confidence in your lack of confidence. It’s being able to look silly and show the parts of you that aren’t so sophisticated or shiny and allow that to come out, and not try to shape it to look good.
Heaton: I don’t think you can learn it, though. If you’re not funny, you can’t learn it. For certain kinds of comedy, there’s a musicality and a rhythm, and maybe you can learn that a little bit. And there are some people who are funny unintentionally. But, especially for comedians, you have to have it in your DNA to make it work.
Lynch: It’s being able to go to the dark places, which is why comedy actors are good at drama. It’s the same process. You’re going to those dark places in the shadow, and that’s the stuff that the people in the audience respond to.
Heaton: Comedy is all about pain and suffering — but it’s the take on it, finding something in it that connects with everybody.
Lynch: People feel better about themselves after a comedy. They don’t realize they’re seeing themselves or an aspect of themselves that they’re laughing at, but they walk away feeling better about themselves.
Sykes: Comedy is ugly. But I do think you have to have confidence. Especially doing stand-up: If you get onstage and they see you’re nervous, it makes the audience nervous. Same thing in acting, but you have to have a little vulnerability with that. They want to see a flaw to connect with themselves.
Heaton: An actor is somebody who has a big enough ego that they’re willing to go out in front of a bunch of people, but also be vulnerable (enough) to fail in front of people. It’s this very weird dichotomy. We’re sick; it’s a sickness.
Cox: And you’ve got to be willing to offend.
WHEN YOU GUYS HAVE DISAGREEMENTS WITH WRITERS OR PRODUCERS,
Vergara: Well, I just had one: I was supposed to shoot a wedding scene. Gloria, my character, is marrying Jay (Ed O’Neill) and so they do the (Colombian) wedding thing, and I arrive (on set) and there’s people dressed like Mexican people! “This is a traditional Mexican outfit! Do a little bit of research! This is so annoying!” So now they ask me.
Heaton: Did they change it?
Vergara: No, it was too late. It was so painful. (Laughs.) Americans think every Latin person is the same. So at the beginning, I used to have a lot of fights — not fights, but I was always complaining.
Cox: I get frustrated when I think something’s really not funny and the writer-producer thinks it’s hysterical. But you just don’t want to battle, so you do it anyway. And then you watch it and you know you should have battled, because it wasn’t funny.
DO YOU EVER GO BACK TO THEM AND SAY “I TOLD YOU SO”?
Cox: I say, “That’s still not funny.” (And they reply) “No, no, it’s really funny.” It’s so subjective. That’s when I really like to hear the words, “Well, I think it’s funny.” When someone says, “No, it’s funny,” it makes me crazy!
Cox: Yes. When I see a (take) that’s been cut out, I’ll say, “Please put that back in, it was really funny.” And (they’re) great with that.
Heaton: It’s little, tiny things. Mostly changing the word so it sounds better. The laugh is really specific to what words you pick and how they are lined up. It’s very orchestrated.
Lynch: Every once in a while, my character is rather heinous. She says awful, awful things. Sometimes, for my money, they go too far. Like once, something ended with me talking about skinning a cat, which I could not do because I have two cats. I just did a PSA for PETA so I could not say that. So (showrunner Ryan Murphy) rewrote it and the bit was fine. Ian Brennan writes most of my stuff. He’s from Chicago and I’m from Chicago, so he’s worked at the same theaters I’ve worked at. He’s Irish-Catholic, just like I am. So it’s really easy.
Vergara: And when do you learn your lines?
Lynch: All the time. I’m driving around town talking to myself. I have them on a tape recorder. This last episode, I had seven scenes all in one day and it was three days after I got the script. So my head was ready to explode. I woke up one day — and I don’t know if this is menopause or something, but I couldn’t remember my name! I couldn’t put a sentence together. Does that ever happen to you, where you don’t know if you’re at the preposition or the verb? So they made me cue cards, I have to admit. But I took a little estrogen that day and a little of that ginko and the next day I was fine.
Heaton: Remember when you used to look through a script when you were young and you had the big speeches and you were like, “Yes!” Now it’s like “Oh, s—-.” (Laughs.)
Lynch: And what kills me is when they cut out half of the speech. (But) on our show, if you don’t get every word in every take, they come after you. We have a really tight script supervisor. We actually warn people that come on as guest actors that you have to have it exactly as it is on the page.
Cox: I couldn’t do that. One time, the camera was on my back, and one of the writers — Bill’s not like this, he doesn’t care at all — but this younger writer had the script supervisor come up to me and say, “Can you make sure you say whatever it was.” And I was like, “Dude, it’s on my f—-ing back. No one’s seeing my face! Someone save this writer ‘cause I’m going to scream at him.”
Heaton: That was the guy that disappeared, right? (Laughs.)
Cox: When writers care about that one little thing they wrote, it just drives me nuts. Or maybe I have a problem with control. (Laughs.)
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