Some of the greatest half-hours of the past decade have arisen from a pretty understandable trend: Writers writing about writing, comedians writing about comedy, are a natural outgrowth of the first-person semi-autobiographical field that’s provided the best sitcom returns since “Seinfeld.” And with the rise and acclaim of cable and streaming half-hour dramedy, shifting the focus to giving characters intimate and complex lives rather than making them joke-spouting charm machines, it only makes sense to write what you know.
“You’re the Worst” isn’t about comedians, per se, but all three leads have close ties: A writer, a publicist and a blooming improv writer moving into scripted comedy. The FX/Louie C.K. factory just keeps turning out hits — “Atlanta,” “Baskets,” “Better Things” — which are all in some way performer bildungsromans, or at least journeys toward success in entertainment. HBO’s “Girls” (writer writes about a writer, who in turn writes about writers and writing) was joined this year by “Crashing,” which is — like “Master of None” and we’d say “One Mississippi” — much more specific in its focus. It’s been a long, long time since “Entourage” made Hollywood look easy.
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And tracing another trend with staying power, we see shows like “Workaholics,” “Idiotsitter,” “The Mick” and “Always Sunny,” where tight-knit comedy teams take their work to series — in these cases, it’s about showcasing their unique comedy and usually playing versions of themselves. Maria Bamford (“Lady Dynamite”) has been on this hybrid path for twenty years, now a mainstay of the comedy world: Anything-goes gigs, voiceover, cameos, podcasts, specials, videos and everything else, eventually leading to a series.
TV Land’s new comedy, “Nobodies” is about three working writers — played, of course, by the same working writers who created the show. Hugh Davidson, Larry Dorf and Rachel Ramras were in The Groundlings with comedy power couple Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. Now, on the show, they’re still trying to sell screenplays while their friends are blockbuster movie stars — while in real life, McCarthy and Falcone hold so much esteem for their longtime colleagues that they produced “Nobodies,” and cameo as themselves.
Realizing they’ve been forgotten as Groundlings alumni, and unsatisfied with their writing jobs (a Nickelodeon cartoon called “The Fartlemans”), they write a comedy screenplay: “Mr. First Lady,” about the first female president’s husband. When their pitch falls on deaf ears, they drop McCarthy’s name… and suddenly they have a go project. Now they just have to convince McCarthy to play Madame President…
We spoke with Ramras, Dorf and Davidson at the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival, where they premiered “Nobodies.”
Have you ever been on the receiving end of people pitching you things for your famous friends?
Rachel Ramras: No.
Larry Dorf: …I have! I have…
Ramras: — What?
Dorf: — I have relatives, I have an uncle who has a story. “Oliver the Marshmallow-Breathing Dragon…”
Hugh Davidson: And then you pitched it to us.
Dorf: He just thinks I know people, I can just get it made.
Davidson: That’s a funny thing that people outside of our business, at a certain point, think: It’s so easy that all you have to do is have an idea, and someone hands you a bunch of money.
Ramras: I went to the high school in Phoenix that Steven Spielberg went to. At one point my dad, when I first came out to L.A., was like, “You know what? Call him and just say We both went to Arcadia. I bet he’d think That girl’s got gumption, I want to work with her!” I’m like, “It… does not work like that.”
And because no one’s ever tried that with Spielberg before?
Ramras: Right? “He’ll be so charmed by you, Rachel. Everyone’s charmed by you!”
“Mr. First Lady,” starring Ben Falcone, is not a bad idea either. He could still ask Melissa to play the President…
Ramras: Maybe something like that happens in Season 1!
Davidson: Like the third or fourth episode.
Ramras: You don’t want to give it away…
Davidson: No, Fred figured it out.
Ramras: What a clever idea!
Even if it wasn’t her, Ben paired with another funny woman would be good…
Dorf: Maybe that’s something…
Ramras: We do poke fun at — and we give them a lot of credit — that if Ben were involved in the movie but Melissa weren’t, would anyone care? Is Ben considered famous enough, without Melissa? And they’re such good sports about it, letting us make fun of that.
This might be more inside baseball than you get on the show, but just having a proven actor attached to the script gives it more legitimacy than “We’re looking for anyone to star in this.”
Ramras: That’s how we started all of this. In real life we did pitch Ben “Mr. First Lady” before we pitched him the idea for “Nobodies.” We wanted Melissa to be in it, and then we thought, If we can go into a room and say Melissa’s starring in the movie…
Davidson: At the time did we think Ben would direct it?
Ramras: Yeah, we thought.
Davidson: Oh yeah, we thought he might offer.
Ramras: She wasn’t interested.
Davidson: Quit saying that! She was busy, remember?
Ramras: Maybe he just said that.
Davidson: She was! She’s a big movie star.
Ramras: Ben just pointed out it’s a little bit of a straight-man part. Let’s not argue in front of the press.
Davidson: Especially because your point is to argue that our idea is bad. That’s the part that really doesn’t make sense.
So you actually wrote “Mr. First Lady”?
Dorf: No, we didn’t write the script, because we were too lazy. We just had the idea. Just like my uncle with his idea for Oliver the Marshmallow Breathing Dragon, we thought we could just have this idea, and Ben would get Melissa involved, and we’d get a sack full of a million dollars, and then we’d write it. Or someone else could write it.
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Davidson: But immediately, once Melissa was too busy to act in it and attach herself to it, it was just us and our idea. We did go on pitches. We went on three or four meetings. One was at Warner Bros. It was just so embarrassing because A, we hadn’t written anything. Then they would say, “What are you working on now?” We were working on a kids’ cartoon — and you could tell the meeting ended right there.
Dorf: They would shut down. “Oh, you write for kids.”
Ramras: Then we thought, maybe this is a funny idea.
Davidson: Because it seemed so funny.
“Looney Tunes” is not nothing…
Davidson: We learned how to write on that show.
Ramras: That is also the core of this show. That was the best job the three of us had ever had, at that point in our careers. We were happy, we were making enough money to support ourselves…
Davidson: …We got auto insurance for the first time ever…
Ramras: But Melissa was nominated for an Oscar. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo were nominated for Oscars, and Jim Rash and Nat Faxon won Oscars. So then what happens is you compare yourself, and you think, “Well, am I happy? Am I successful enough? Or am I a nobody?”
Dorf: I think that’s something that’s beyond just Hollywood, people just comparing themselves to other people. Our job is writing for “Looney Tunes,” great. As soon as you compare yourself… A lot of people do this. My doctor friends do this.
Davidson: It’s that you want to feel recognized by your friends and peers as being as successful as you see them. Somehow if you have this feeling of, “They make Oscar-worthy material, and we write on a kids’ show. We’ve got to change that, we’ve got to feel like we’re the same as them.” Not so that we can also be on TV, as much as we just want to feel like we made it there.
“Looney Tunes” is not just a great job — there’s a legendary history you’re a part of…
Davidson: A funny aspect to that was people love “Looney Tunes” so much that no matter what we did, it was hated by most animation people. What they didn’t realize was we were told you couldn’t really do any more of the slapstick and the violence anymore. You’re not really allowed to. At one point we went to a meeting and someone said, “They can hit each other but never above the neck.” So we felt like we were disappointing people in every direction we went.
This shows you my tastes, but “The Fartlemans” sounds like a great show.
Ramras: It would be a popular show — it certainly would. A lot of kids cartoons, I don’t want to say the word…
Davidson: Potty humor?
Dorf: And that came from… You lived next door, right?
Ramras: Oh yeah, my grandparents’ next-door neighbors is “Fartleman.” So we thought, what kid wouldn’t watch that show?
Dorf: In the show, the rival for “The Fartlemans” is “Toilet Monsters.”
Davidson: Which was a real thing. That was a real show that an executive called me and said, “Hugh, this show we’re developing right now, you’re perfect for it. It’s called ‘Toilet Monsters.’ I thought of you right when I heard the pitch.”
Did they make “Toilet Monsters”?
Davidson: I think somebody did. It might’ve been at Cartoon Network. Somebody made “Toilet Monsters,” at least a pilot.
Dorf: There is a line in the second episode, our boss on “The Fartlemans” is saying, “Our ratings are great. We’re killing it with boys 2-6. That’s our demographic. If we keep this up, we will be pleasing boys 2-6 for the rest of our lives.” It is like that world. You’re stuck, which is great, nothing wrong with it…
When all your Groundlings friends went off in different directions, did you ever have a reunion show where they were the famous headliners?
Dorf: Oh yeah.
Davidson: And when you go back there, it has been our experience — we feel like second class because they are that. The audience laughs a little more, as they do at people that are recognizable.
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Ramras: And in the Groundlings green room, there’s photographs of all past and present Groundlings. We really aren’t in any photos.
Also, why would you? People come to The Groundlings, they do want to look up and see Kristen, Melissa, Ben and Wendi McClendon-Covey, Michaela [Watkins]… They don’t want to look at pictures of us! But some part of you does think, “I was there for 10 years also.”
Were you at least on the poster for the show you performed in?
Ramras: Maybe our name? Maybe our name was misspelled.
Dorf: We even did a promo for “Nobodies” and my name was misspelled. It was Larry Dorr.
Davidson: That’s a good name. You should consider it.
Like a promo that aired?
Dorf: No, we shot the promo and on some paperwork for it, my name was misspelled. It didn’t get out — but it was a very “Nobodies” experience.
Is the dynamic on the show very similar to the three of you in real life?
Ramras: It’s totally our real dynamic — but we found that very early on working together, the three of us. It was very easy and very relaxed, and felt very special. We always thought it would be funny to portray that. Fortunately, Ben and Melissa thought it was funny also.
Davidson: We thought there was something complementary about our dynamic. Obviously we all share the same sensibility, roughly, or broadly. What I think is funny about me is not the same as Larry and it’s not the same as Rachel. We don’t overlap and a lot of comedy groups seem like they’re all the exact same. We’re very different from each other.
Dorf: We have chemistry because we’ve worked together for nine years. We’ve known each other for 18 years, so we do have a natural chemistry that you see in the show.
Rachel, do you have a lot of real life moments where you get nervous and start babbling?
Ramras: Yeah! Have I not done that during this interview? When I get nervous, I talk way too much. I always tell the story that the best day of my life was the day I got laryngitis. We went out to dinner with people and normally I would be so nervous and talking too much, and I didn’t say anything the whole dinner, I just had rosé — and it was so delightful. I definitely talk too much, and I say the wrong thing, and get myself and others in trouble…
You can do that when you’re not sick too, just sit and listen…
Ramras: No. I don’t know how to! I don’t know how!
So is it easy to write those out in a script? Are any just transcribed from real life?
Ramras: We write very quickly, because we know our own voices and each other’s voices really well. So it comes very naturally.
What funny stuff is coming up on ‘Nobodies’?
Davidson: Unbelievably, we get ourselves into more trouble!
Ramras: It just gets more complicated — because of our lying, and our trickery.
Dorf: We have sort of a love storyline, a will they/won’t they?
Davidson: A real Ross and Rachel?
Dorf: A Sam and Diane situation.
Ramras: Some very fun celebrity guest spots.
Davidson: Bruce McCulloch.
Ramras: All of our Groundlings friends who were able to work it into their schedules make an appearance. Of course Ben and Melissa are very funny in their episodes.
Who is the love story between?
Ramras: That’s played by Leslie Bibb, and she comes in…. Episode seven maybe. It was nice having her, because she’s a legitimate experienced actress, and it made us all feel like, Oh wow, this is a real television show. Leslie Bibb is here!
“Nobodies” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on TV Land. Condensed for length and clarity.