Talking to June Diane Raphael about ‘Ass Backwards’, ‘Burning Love’, and ‘NTSF:SD:SUV’
June Diane Raphael is a familiar face in the comedy world. She’s known for her starring roles in the web series Burning Love and Adult Swim’s NTSF: SD: SUV:: in addition to guest and recurring appearances on the likes of Party Down, Happy Endings, New Girl, Drunk History, and more.
In her time away from TV, Raphael also performs at the UCB in LA and co-hosts the popular Earwolf podcast How Did This Get Made? with Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas.
Most recently, she stars alongside her writing partner Casey Wilson in Ass Backwards, a raunchy road trip buddy comedy about two best friends revisiting the beauty pageant they lost as children. Meanwhile, Raphael and Wilson also have a series in the works at ABC, and Raphael’s due to appear in Parks and Rec’s star-studded doppleganger episode this season.
I recently had the chance to talk with June Diane Raphael about some of her recent projects both as an actor and writer, as well as comedy partnership, bad movies, and marriage.
I just read about your pilot [written with Casey Wilson] getting bought by ABC. Congratulations!
Thank you so much.
Can you talk at all about your plans for that show?
Yes! This is based on where both Casey and I are in our lives: being in relationships where you have incomes coming in but you don’t have any children so you’re in this sweet spot of life, but at the same time, you’re doing too much examination with your partner and have time to be roaming the halls of Williams-Sonoma for three hours. Things are starting to get a little strange: “Why do we have time to take a calligraphy class?” “Why are we doing an astrology reading with our partners?”
We wanted to do this deal with a simpler premise. We talked about the two pilots we did in the last two years. One was a ’50s-style sitcom called The Housewives last year which we absolutely loved. It was a period piece, and it was a comedy. The one before, called Walk of Shame, was almost like a procedural, and a comedy too. Both were very high-concept shows which are fun, but then I started thinking about the shows that I really love and that I think have a lasting impact on people and TV, and the premises are usually pretty simple. We wanted to streamline in terms of premise and really let our characters and the comedy speak for itself as opposed to doing something that was totally “out there.” We loved our experience during the show last year, but this is us trying our hand at something that’s a little bit different than what we normally do.
And do either of you intend to perform in it?
Yes. I am attached to be in it right now, and Casey’s not sure, so we’ll see. I don’t know which role I’m playing because there’s sort of the married one, there’s the mom, there’s the single gal. I’m not sure who I’ll be playing but that’s why I’m writing a show for myself!
Between that and Ass Backwards, that’s a lot of stuff going on for both [you and Casey]. What was it like making that movie?
Oh my God, it was amazing! It’s the thing I’m most proud of in my lifetime. I don’t mean to get corny about it, but it just means so much with me and Casey and it’s our baby. I feel like we’re giving birth this November. It was a very rough journey to get it made. We were raising money on Kickstarter before a lot of people knew what that was, and it was truly independent in that respect. It was a warzone of financing and battles. That said, the great thing about it is that it’s exactly our comedy and it’s exactly us doing what we want to do with no constraints, no studio notes, no network notes. The only real limits were just budgetary. So that was an amazing experience. It’s a big comedy with big characters, and I’m excited about that. I’m excited too, because a lot of female comedians don’t get to do that; that’s kinda reserved for the guys. These aren’t two quirky girls; these are big characters and they’re insane. We talk about it as a female Dumb and Dumber in that sense. We’re super, super excited about it.
Working with Casey on this was — we’ve known each other since we were 18 and this is a culmination of everything we’ve done together, which is cool.
That’s awesome. Does this story come from any place personal?
Yeah, definitely. The characters are heightened versions — very heightened, I’m gonna warn you — but it’s loosely based on this road trip we took after college where just everything went wrong. We were going to perform at this comedy festival in Charleston, and both of our cell phones were shut off within the first five minutes of the trip because we weren’t paying our bills and it was just kind of disastrous.
There’s that scene [in the trailer] where the CDs are skipping, and that came about because Casey was in charge of the music. She brought a binder of CDs and we were so excited to listen to this music on our way down, and she’s admittedly kind of a messy person. Not super organized. With the CDs, every single one she had was completely scratched, and it was just so upsetting because she was in charge of the music and all of it was skipping. So by the end of it we were playing Les Mis and just learning the music with the skip because “we have to listen to something.” So it’s based on that time of your life where you’re not really ready to be married but you’re not a child anymore and you’re in this very weird zone.
Some of your friends become your everything and there’s a co-dependency — there was to our relationship too. Building each other up in totally the wrong ways, and there was nothing she could do wrong and nothing I could do wrong. I remember getting fired from a job because literally my boss would come in and I was using the entire office to send out flyers for our show at UCB, and Casey said “Well, he doesn’t understand you. You were working; you were doing something.” And I was like, “I know!” We’re just totally supportive of each other to the point of like, so not being healthy. That’s kind of where these characters came about.
How did you and Casey first start working together?
Casey and I met in a clown class at NYU. We were both at Tisch at Stella Adler studying to be actresses and met freshman year in this class where we were doing big crazy comedy and that was it. I think there was a similar worldview, and it’s a very special thing when you find somebody who thinks the same things are funny and who really makes you laugh. At the end of college we started writing because our biggest goal was to get an agent in New York, and really, our writing started from creating something for ourselves because nobody would hire us as actors. That was the only reason and then when the writing for our sketch show got a lot of attention. It was kind of shocking because it was not at all what we wanted. You know, I remember us having a conversation. “This is bad news, they don’t think we’re attractive enough to be actresses so they want us to be writers…” We were devastated. But now, of course, we really enjoy it.
Now that you do get cast in roles and you don’t always have to write for yourself, do you still prefer writing for yourself?
There is something about knowing, I guess I prefer it, but I do love working on other people’s stuff too. I think you have an advantage when you are bringing that skill [as a writer] to the table because, especially with comedy, you have that brain always working:”How do I punch this up, make it better? What else is here?” To be able to improvise, which essentially is writing, is such a useful skill that everybody who’s worked on our projects so welcomed: “Oh please, if you have any thoughts, make it better!” I’ve never understood that philosophy behind comedy that’s like, “Don’t improvise. Stick to every single word.” In my opinion, it should be playful and fun; there’s nothing precious about it. That’s helped me in terms of acting in other people’s stuff because I can do that. But there’s something so satisfying about having total creative control over something, and a pride in it. But God, I never turn down work just because I didn’t write it.
When did you realize that you were creative and wanted to be funny?
In our families there was always a lot of story telling and I just remember in dinners where my mom would just say stuff that would crack us up, and my dad would tell stories, and my sisters… if you made my parents laugh that was a great thing. I think we all kinda have a discerning sense of humor because my dad was super funny and my mom was super funny. I guess there was a premium put on like making people laugh but to be honest I thought I was going to be a real dramatic actress on Broadway, doing Chekhov. I did classical training, so the comedy, I’m not sure where it came from because it certainly wasn’t what I set out to do. But I feel there is a misunderstanding sometimes when people are like, “Oh, its easier,” because there’s comedy on TV and sitcoms, but I think when people really try to do it, or at least try to do it well, it’s so hard. It’s so so hard.
What were your favorite parts about working on Burning Love?
Oh my gosh. Burning Love was such an amazing experience. You know, Ken Marino and Erica Oyama are a really special collaboration to me. I know I just said there’s so much pride in doing your own work, but I feel very much so a part of what that show is. I’ve never felt I had been given so much freedom from creators and so much encouragement to just do what I wanted to do. I absolutely love them. It’s even a little crazy, but I want to get in their relationship and be a part of it because I’m just obsessed with them. It was such a wonderful experience. It was crazy the way we shot that because it was so quick. I mean, Ken Marino had a timer out and we were shooting scenes for five minutes and then had to move on. In some ways, working that way is just better for me. I don’t like having a ton of time to sit around and wait. In big movies you sit there forever, and when we were doing Burning Love, we did not have time to think about it. And oh my God, they got such an amazing cast of people to play, and Erica I think is such an enormously talented writer! I’m sure you’ve seen her on Deadline every day; she’s basically writing every script she gets for the next five years. She is writing every single day, and she should be because she’s just so funny. So that’s very close to my heart. I love it so much.
Do you approach performing in Burning Love and NTSF differently since they’re both based in parody?
I don’t know. It’s a funny thing that Burning Love is a parody because I think sometimes when you’re so deeply into it, you sort of forget that it is, and it kinda becomes about something else. Even though Burning Love is a parody, it starts to take on a weird life of its own, and I think NTSF is the same way. There’s certain ways of being on that show. There’s a pace to NTSF that’s like, “Yeah that’s a trope of all of those shows,” but at the same time NSTF also now has a tone that is very much itself. It’s kind of a weird thing but I don’t approach it differently. Maybe because I don’t know how to. [Laughs] I just refer to it the same old way I would anything else.
Do you like watching films and shows from the genres you’re parodying? Especially considering How Did This Get Made?, do you like watching stuff like bad action movies?
It shocks me that I’m part of a podcast that talks about movies because I’m upset if it’s a criticism because it takes such courage to put something out in the world, so I’m really resistant to shooting things down. But at the same time, there’s sort of, I think and I hope, the reason why people really respond to it is I think we’re coming from a place that’s just really loving movies. The best times I’ve had at the theater are at terrible movies. They’re so much fun and there’s such a joy to our conversations. Nobody’s getting paid, and it’s just fun. When I realized that so many people listened to the show, I thought, ‘Oh that’s so weird,’ since I think we forget. It’s such a natural conversation. That show came out of… I think we all saw Old Dogs at the theater together and we went out afterwards and had a 40-hour discussion about the movie. We were just like crying laughing, and we literally talked about every single thing in that movie. It was some of the most fun I had in the theater and so that’s where that came from. In terms of the other stuff, I’m totally a sucker for The Bachelor or The Bachelorette and all of that. You know, I’ve been lost in a Law & Order wormhole in my days. So I watch it all.
What is it being married to someone in the same field as you?
It’s great. I know it doesn’t work for a lot of people but I feel like the thing Paul [Scheer] and I don’t do together, which is good, is we don’t write together. I’m very supportive of him and he’s very supportive of me, but I don’t write NTSF scripts. I give feedback and notes as he does with everything I do. It’s not like, we’re at dinner and we say, “Oh, we’re going to work on this now.” So there’s a nice separation there, and I think when you’re in “the business,” someone is up and somebody’s down all the time. Somebody just got great news and somebody just got really disappointed. So there’s a challenge in just maintaining who you are regardless of what’s going on in the outside world. But I feel like I couldn’t imagine being with somebody — it doesn’t have to be someone on TV — but I cant imagine being with somebody that wasn’t as obsessed and passionate about their work as me. That’s the main thing. I don’t know that other people are as into their jobs — maybe they are — but it’s a lot of what we talk about, and we want to. He gets that, I get that. There’s sort of an understanding, which I think is good.
What was it like filming the pilot for Pulling earlier this year?
It was so great. It was a dream team and such a wonderful experience. Jenny [Slate], Kristen [Schaal], and I became very friendly. I knew them just from being in comedy but hadn’t spent that much time with them. I think we were all nervous during shooting because, “Oh wow, this would be so much fun.” It was scary because it felt so good. We were very disappointed because it was like, “Oh if this is our lives for even just one season, what a dream!” So it was such a bummer, but I had a great experience.
Is there still a chance of the show getting picked up by another network?
I don’t know. There’s so many channels and so many networks now that who knows? I think that there are a lot of fans of that pilot. That pilot is not perfect, but pilots in general are so difficult to do well, and I think we did a really good pilot. A lot of people who saw it loved it. I haven’t heard it’s dead, but for my own sake, I must let it go.
How did you get involved with guest starring on Parks and Rec this season?
They just sort of came to me. I just got a phone call; I didn’t do anything. I know Amy [Poehler] and I know Aubrey [Plaza] from UCB, and Amy knows my work and has always been so supportive. But I didn’t do anything all that special to get it. They just came to me, and I was like, “Yes yes yes yes!” before I even read. I just love the show so much. I had an amazing time. It felt so good to see it and was one of the best sets I’ve ever been on. Everybody there is just so happy and having so much fun; that usually comes down from the top, and I feel that that’s all Amy and that’s so cool.
Ass Backwards is out on VOD September 30th and in theaters November 8th. NTSF:SD:SUV airs on Adult Swim Thursdays at 12:15 EST.
Jenny Nelson lives in Brooklyn and writes and goes to school.