Talking with Jessica St. Clair & Lennon Parham About Best Friends Forever
Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham, creators/writers/stars of NBC’s Best Friends Forever, and I are not friends, let alone best friends, but when I watch the show, like many of its fans, I feel like I am. You want to root for them because they’d root for you. It’s what makes them great comic actresses – they’d be just as happy, if not happier, with their scene partners getting the laugh as they would themselves. It’s how they were taught at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
Their show is a reflection of that training; it’s heavily improvised, absurd yet realistically grounded, not afraid to go into scary territories, and, most importantly, always true to its characters. Jessica and Lennon wanted, and achieved, a show where characters talk like real people really talk – there is overlapping dialogue, tons of shorthand, and completely idiosyncratic speech patterns. There was no agenda to this, no goals to change the face of comedy; they just wanted to make a funny show that wasn’t cynical or disingenuous. It’s how they were taught.
I was able to talk to them about this, becoming best friends forever, getting Best Friends Forever on the air (it involves a star-studded table-read), the portrayal of female friendships on television, and all things Queenetta. Stay tuned to see if we become best friends by the end of this.
Do you remember when you were first like, “This person is my best friend?”
Jessica St. Clair: I was about two years ahead of Lennon at UCB and there were very few women when I started – there were only 60 people total. So when Lennon showed up she was this really nice girl, she had like a cardigan twin set on and I remember seeing her from across a crowded room and thinking, “Oh my God, who is that other really nice girl? Something must be terrible wrong with her that her life has lead her to underneath a Gristedes supermarket, performing with all of these lost boys.” I knew I had to have her and then I kind of launched a four year slow romance of her, very Jane Austen style.
Lennon Parham: Which I haven’t ever heard of before this moment.
Jessica: This is the truth.
Lennon: I saw Jessica do improv with Mother at the 22nd street space and I had the same reaction. Like, “Why is this beautiful woman pretending to get assaulted by a horse?” Or whatever it was. It was gross and super funny. Then the next time I saw her, Jessica was sort of this mysterious swan.
Jessica: What are you talking about!? I had Hugh Grant’s haircut from Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Lennon: But then we didn’t really hit it off until Jessica was finally living in LA. I was doing the back and forth thing for a while and knowing that Jess had done it before me, we had our sort of awkward first date.
Jessica: You know how somebody will separate a weak buffalo from a herd, I knew Lennon was weak at this point so I thought, “This is my chance.” It was almost eight years of foreplay that lead up to this moment.
Jessica: It’s true.
Jessica: Our first lunch we were already improvising…
Lennon: At the table and people were looking at us weirdly, as we were making jokes about douches.
Jessica: I felt like I had known Lennon my whole life, I really did. Because I never thought I would find another woman like me. I had had a writing partner beforehand, Jason Mantzoukas, whose one of my best friends from college, but I really wanted to write with a woman so that I could write about all of my girl best friendship things. When I found Lennon I was just like, “this is the person I wanna write with for the rest of my life.”
Lennon: Yeah, me too.
Jessica: We didn’t start off writing as best friends but through the process of this we have become best friends. Truly, like closer than any human beings have ever been. We spend 15 hours together, we sit on top of each other when we write – we have to be physically on top of each other when we write.
Lennon: We don’t have to be.
Jessica: But we choose to be. Jessica chooses to.
How long have you had this idea for a TV show about you two as best friends?
Jessica: For about four years. When we first got together, we knew we wanted to write something about that kind of romantic friendship that girl best friends have. So we originally pitched an idea to HBO and we got a pilot script deal from them. We wrote a show about characters named Jessica and Lennon who were two friends whose best friendship was holding them back from being adults. That was where we developed our writing style of improvising, tape recording ourselves, and then transcribing that to make our first draft. We only did that because we weren’t writers first, we were performers first so that’s the easiest way we could think of. HBO decided not to do the show, not to shoot the pilot, and we were really devastated. I mean we really loved this first script so much and we just thought, “Oh my God, we’re never going to think up another idea” and we actually thought up another idea really quickly.
Lennon: We had three things we were kind of kicking around and we took them to our representation and kicked them around there and we all settled on this idea, which is what we took out to producers in July of 2010. And then we got a blind script deal with NBC through our good friends Ravi Randan and Scot Armstrong’s production company, which has a deal with the network.
Jessica: And then things got really unnatural after that. We turned our script in right when Bob Greenblatt came in as the president at NBC. These were none of his pilots so when we showed him our pilot he was like, “Oh this is good, but it doesn’t really have a big hook. I need to see them actually perform it.” So we did a table read for him where Chris Pratt from Parks & Rec played Joe, Jake Johnson from The New Girl read Rav, Paul Scheer read stage directions, and Nick Kroll read every other ethnic part. [Laughs]
Lennon: And I played Queenetta.
Jessica: Which was borderline offensive. That was the scariest moment of our lives because we realized this show that we loved is either going to sink or swim on that table read.
Lennon: Now that we’ve been in it for one or two years, there’s been a lot of, “this is it” moments. So I started taking those with a grain of salt. That first one felt pretty insane and then the next felt very insane as well.
Jessica: Then he picked it up but we only had a quarter of the money most pilots have. That’s when we hired Fred Savage because he had worked on things like Party Down and It’s Always Sunny, which had that budget actually, so he knew how to make something look really expensive. So we took all of the furniture from our own homes and put them on the set. And we shopped for our own wardrobes and we put the pilot together and they picked it up. [Laughs] It was crazy, at a certain point they had no idea that we were alive. I don’t even think they thought that we were going to turn in ten minutes of the show – we turned in thirty.
So you mentioned the process of you tape record yourself but how does that actually kind of play out with you have a writing staff?
Lennon: It was real learning process because we tried it every different way. We had five of the six stories before we even started our writer’s room.
Jessica: Lennon and I did.
Lennon: So we used the room to flesh it out, track arcs, and come up with awesome b-stories. Like really A/B it up on the board.
Jessica: Really detailed.
Lennon: Yeah, super detailed. For episode two we took that structure and did it all our own way, which was to improvise and transcribe it. But for tonight’s episode (episode 4), Anthony King did the first pass and we went back and re-improvised things, especially the Jess and Lenn stuff.
Jessica: We always have to re-improvise whenever Jessica and Lenn are talking because otherwise it just doesn’t feel right coming out of our mouths.
Obviously improv is a big part of the writing process but are there things about the show that you’d say are distinctly a UCB sensibility?
Jessica: It’s as UCB as it gets, in terms of the way we learned to always ground things in reality. Even when you go to a show at the UCB and there are two aliens talking, they are still talking like how humans would relate to each other.
Lennon: Well they’re talking as real life as you could imagine aliens in a high stakes situation would. You have to believe it.
Jessica: There’s this book that Charna Halpern (Founder of the Improv Olmypic in Chicago) wrote called Truth in Comedy and that’s sort of the bible of all improvisers (and if you’re nerds like Lennon and I, you might have highlighted it). It’s all about having emotional reality happening. We wanted to make sure everything that happened in our show could actually happen in real life.
And then you also learn something called “The Game”, which is what makes two different characters interact, what’s specific about that and then you heighten it. It was really helpful to have somebody like Anthony King [Former Artistic Director of UCB-NY] on the writing staff – he gets the short hand. We almost had to teach it to the rest of the people in the writer’s room.
One thing that jumped out at me from that is there’s a lot of screaming. Was that your intention or is that just where the scenes went?
Lennon: Well I will say that I think we feel like we’re both really funny when we’re screaming.
Jessica: We love to scream at each other.
Lennon: I mean I’m not kidding, like if you come to see me do an improv show, chances are I will scream four or five times within the show. I think because I appear to have a calm exterior, when the demon bursts forth, hopefully it’s super funny. We have said that we should scream less.
Jessica: But girls do yell a lot, they’re excitable people.
Lennon: Especially with their girlfriends.
Jessica: Our husbands constantly are like, “Hey guys, can you please stop acting like eighth graders. You are screaming like you’re at a sleepover.” And we’re like, “Sorry, we’re just watching The Voice. “ And they’re like, “Alright but you’re giving me a headache.” And we’re like, “Well this is why you guys have no friends.” You know what I mean? [Laughs]
Lennon: I’m sure your husband loves it when you remind him of that.
Jessica: It’s true though! I’ve been told to turn it down my whole life and I’ve not yet been able to take the note.
Lennon: And I keep telling her to turn it up!
Jessica: Turn it up!!! [Laughs] But people would be advised, Jesse, perhaps to watch our show at a lower level of volume.
Was there an explicit desire to try and do things differently with the show?
Jessica: The shows that we love, the one’s that we were obsessed as children and also as adults, are shows where people love each other in a very real way. And I’ll say that for a show like Laverne and Shirley, even though that show was all about hijinx, what made it so special to me was how much they cared about each other.
Lennon: It’s also a simpler story.
Jessica: And people weren’t ironic. You know that whole thing where everyone’s trying to show you how smart they are with their comedy? You know I can totally get on board for that, but…
Lennon: But we’re not that smart.
Jessica: We’re not that smart, that’s why we have to yell so much! [Laughs]
Lennon: We came into it like, “We just want to tell a true story and do it really funny.”
Jessica: I always had a dream of doing a show where people could say, “Oh my God that reminded me of me and my best friend” or “I went through that.” Our ratings have not been that huge, but we get these tweets from people that are like, “Oh my God, after your show I called my best friend crying. I booked a ticket to see her.” They share stories of their best friends and that means a lot to us.
Lennon: Even people who are just saying that they love hearing me say the word, “butthole.” That really hits hard with me.
Jessica: Or the word, “areolas.” Somebody created a drinking game of how many times we mention the word, “areolas” in episode 3.
I think touches on how the show has been able to hit certain women, especially. I won’t say the show is girly but there’s like a real grown up woman thing going on…
[Lennon and Jessica Laugh]
Like you describing someone as Short Bangs just felt very specific to how women talk. How important was this to you?
Jessica: When you asked what show we wanted to do, that was like our number one thing. We wanted to show how real women talked to their best friends. On TV you see three best friends, usually, there’s a nice girl, a bitch, and a slut. Or no, a weird one – Lennon’s usually the weird one. I’m sometimes the bitch, sometimes the slut and then there’s a real nice pretty one. And I’m always like, “You know, in real life those three girls would not be friends.”
Lennon: No those three girls exist all in one woman usually. [Jessica Laughs] And those girls are friends.
Jessica: We wanted to show what girls are like when they put on their loose fitting pants and act like assholes behind closed doors.
Lennon: It’s real because that’s how we really talk to each other. We have nicknames for everybody. We call people, “Short bangs” or “Clam Chowder.”
So where did the Queenetta character come from? She’s the best. Where did that actress come from?
Jessica: We had her in our HBO pilot. We’ve been obsessed with this idea of a fictional little girl who lives with us, forever.
Lennon: I taught high school in the Mississippi Delta for two years with Teach for America and I had a student named Queenetta and I just love that name. The character is actually kind of based on a compilation of all of my students who would feel very free to share their opinions about my clothing choices or my hair choices…
Jessica: Why you were still single…
Lennon: Right. If I had my hair up in a bun, they would assume that I had not had sex in a few years – if I wore it down, they would make fun of me for getting some the last night.
Jessica: Queenetta is like a Greek Chorus, commenting on the comings and goings of the building and that helps us, especially with story structure. Like whenever we need somebody to say something or teach one of us a lesson, Queenetta is the easiest to do it because she can do it in a funny way. And to find Daija Owens we put a call out for this character and all these kids came in who were too polished.
Lennon: So we put out a breakdown ourselves, and…
Jessica: Like a public breakdown.
Lennon: And we got like 200 headshots submitted and one of them was this cheeky little girl, she had the chubbiest little cheeks, she was smiling the biggest smile, had three little pigtails, and we were like, “Done and done. We have to see her.”
Jessica: She came in first.
Lennon: She was wearing a shirt that said, “Peace, Love, BFF” and that was before we named the show.
Jessica: She was dressed in all hot pink, all bling’d out, and she pretended like she was shy and I was like, “Oh this isn’t going to work” and then when she played Queenetta she unleashed like a torrent of sass on us that literally knocked me off my chair. I fell off the couch and onto the floor and started punching the floor, which is what I have to do.
Lennon: True, this is true.
Jessica: And then we asked her to do it again and she said, “No.” and I had to say stop. [Laughs] Because she is like Queenetta, she’s so cute.
Lennon: And she’s smart like a whip, like crazy smart.
Jessica: And she improvises. A lot of those last lines of the scenes she improvises. I don’t know how she knows how to improvise; she’s only 9 years old.
Lennon: She’s amazing.
Jessica: She told me once that I looked like an old lady mixed with a monster. And one day I asked her, “Hey Daij, you wanna look at the new car I bought?” And she goes, “What’d you buy that with, your good looks?” Like, what is going on? She’s amazing.
So one of the fun things is that you guys have been appearing in a lot of podcasts and the comedy community has been taking a pretty active role at getting the word out for you, how has that been and how has that felt?
Lennon: Well, I’ll say this, the UCB world is crazy supportive. Like we know that we will have a family there for the rest of our lives and I think we all feel that any of our successes reflect back to us, the theatre, in a good way. So all of us are happy when we see someone succeed or do well in a good way. Like we hired from the UCB, we hired guest stars from the UCB, we hired writing staff from the UCB, and we will continue to do that because there’s a work ethic, there’s a respect for comedy that I think you learn when you’re cleaning the bathrooms while taking classes, really paying your dues so that when you get where you’re going you really appreciate it. And I mean I can name on my hand all of the people helped me, that have reached down and helped me take that next step up to do Asssscat or to do Reuben Williams or giving me my first TV job, Parks and Rec. You know what I mean? So I hope that we will continue to do that for other people and then it’s just like a pay it forward situation, not to quote a terrible movie.
Jessica: And I think that back in New York when nobody had agents and nobody was really looking at us, we used to put these sketch shows together and our only goal was to make each other laugh or to make it funnier than the last show that was put up, and I kind of feel like, in some way, because our show is so much out of the spotlight, that’s how I felt. Like when we were writing this I would think, “Well, would this make our fellow comedians laugh?” That’s really all that I wanted. And so the fact that we able to get the show exactly the way that we wanted on the air, we didn’t make any compromises, NBC didn’t make us change anything.
Jessica: The fact that we were able to get that show on the air and that our fellow comedians seem to love it, that means the world to us, honestly. I mean of course we want to keep doing the show and we want everyone to watch it and love it, but the fact that we have that kind of support and approval from them, means the world to us.
Lennon: Yeah, that’s our target audience, you know what I mean? And hopefully it resonates with millions of other people.
So you’ve shot the six episodes and things are uncertain but where would you hope to see the show go if you were given another season?
Jessica: In the first six we had to do very big stories, because in order to get attention as a midseason show, you have to have hooks for every episode. So I would hope that in season two we would be able to tell some smaller stories. And I want to see what happens to Jessica and Rav’s relationship and what happens with Joe and Lennon – are they gonna get engaged or are they gonna start thinking about having kids, and what is that gonna do? I want to see everybody’s relationships evolve, you know? And then Queenetta, she’ll probably have her own spin off; she’ll probably write us out of the show so that she can shoot her own show, “Q’s World.” Or her talk show, “Get Real With Yourself.”
Ok cool. So last question, seriously, do you want to be my best friend?
Lennon: Of course!
Jesse David Fox is a writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn. This interview is his best friend.