Talking to Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham About ‘Playing House,’ UCB, and Female Friendships
Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham met over a decade ago while studying at the UCB Theatre in New York, and they instantly became best friends. Since then, the comedy partners have translated their real-life best friendship into several unique fictional ones for TV and podcasts. In 2012, they starred in their unfortunately short-lived NBC sitcom Best Friends Forever as childhood friends also named Jessica and Lennon, and the ladies appear semi-regularly on the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang! as fan-favorite characters, intern Marissa Wompler (St. Clair) and her highly-unauthorized faculty mentor Miss Listler (Parham).
This week, St. Clair and Parham return to TV in their new show Playing House on USA. As with BFF, the series has them starring as childhood best friends reunited at a later stage in life, but this time with a headier premise: when pregnant Maggie (Parham) splits up with her husband, Emma (St. Clair) moves in to help raise the baby. Playing House premieres on USA with two episodes tonight but you can watch the first episode online now. Recently, Jessica and Lennon took a break from editing to talk to me about Playing House, working with their mega-talented cast of improv friends, and some of their favorite female friendships.
Can you tell me a little bit about where the inspiration for Playing House came from?
Jessica St. Clair: It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to raise a baby with Lennon, which is only half true, obviously. I have a baby now, and I sometimes wish Lennon could raise it. When we were writing and doing BFF, we had such a good time. It was really a story about friends in a different time of life — before kids, before marriage and all that. So we decided we wanted to write about what we were actually going through — both of us are new moms and in that time of our lives where we’re making these important decisions, so we thought it would be interesting if we told that girl best friendship story but through the lens of what it would be like if those two had become parents. Two Ladies and a Baby is what we horribly called it.
Lennon Parham: All of our shows have a terrible name to begin with, and then we settle on a different title.
St. Clair: BFF, we used to call to ourselves as a joke, You, Me, and My Gal Pal Marie.
Parham: So we call it Two Ladies and a Baby to ourselves, thank you.
Those are great.
Parham: When we were sort of gestating the idea and what we wanted it to be, we both came to the table with different ideas. Then after we went through all of our ideas, Jess was like, “Hey, I have this crazy idea, what if the two of us raised a baby together?” And I was like, “That’s the best idea that you’ve ever had.”
St. Clair: We were huge fans of Kate & Allie, of them raising a kid in a Greenwich brownstone. We really wanted to show that kind of adult story, but with your childhood best friend.
How much of your real life friendship do you guys inject into your fictionalized friendships?
Parham: There’s no separation. We are together 15 hours a day, and our work is our life is our friendship is our work.
St. Clair: When we write, we improvise and tape record ourselves, so we play all the parts, including ourselves. We tape record ourselves, and then that gets transcribed and becomes the first draft of the show. The ways we talk to each other and the things we say are what actually came out of our mouths.
Parham: At the beginning of the writers’ room, which was filled with a bunch of people — Anthony King, Joe Wengert, John Lutz, Judah Miller who wrote on American Dad, Vera Santamaria who wrote on Community — we basically just go through our lives and talk about what would make for good television, with these two girls. Then from there, we improvise.
St. Clair: The second day of the writers’ room, we were talking, I think it was about giving birth, and Lennon was telling some story about the two of us, and what I said to you right before I gave birth or something. We look around and all these dudes are crying, and they were like, “What are you doing to us? Don’t look at me!”
Parham: Our entire staff has small children as well, so we were really drawing on our own personal experiences of pregnancy and friendship.
St. Clair: John Lutz is a real crybaby. He’ll bring out the waterworks whenever he can. He’s a dream. We would be coming up with story ideas or whatever, and then Lutz would just be like, “Oh, if anyone needs this tip, if your baby’s crying nonstop, just put a hairdryer on right next to its face, and that will quiet it right down,” and we were like, “Thanks a lot, Lutz!” Like, we didn’t know that he was writing a parenting book.
Parham: But then…
St. Clair: But then, P.S. I got my baby addicted to a hairdryer. She’s gonna be on that reality show about strange addictions because she can only go to bed with the sound of a hairdryer next to her head.
Parham: True Life: Addicted to a Hairdryer.
St. Clair: Seriously.
What friendships from TV shows and movies were you inspired by and did you find relatable?
St. Clair: Well, we have a long list of girl friendships that we’re obsessed with. We start with the Anne of Green Gables and Diana Barry friendship. Anne of Green Gables is the most amazing olden days. Lennon and I are in love with the olden days. Anything that involves a petticoat, a corset, or a touch of the wrist — like an erotic touch of the wrist…
Parham: I’m partial to a Game of Thrones. You’re gonna have to fuck this man to feed your husband, and then you’ll fall in love with him and become the mother of dragons.
St. Clair: At any rate, Anne of Green Gables is one of our favorites, we’ll start with that. That’s great, true childhood best friends as they go into adulthood. Then, we love ourselves some Kate & Allie, we love Lucy and Ethel.
Parham: Laverne and Shirley.
St. Clair: Oh my god we watched a ton of Laverne & Shirley. This might have been before BFF, we started getting obsessed with it on YouTube, where you can watch just certain scenes, and I will tell you what, those episodes hold up.
Parham: They’re so insane.
St. Clair: More than any show that we’ve done, this one is very much Laverne & Shirley. Lennon is straight-up Laverne 100%. In this season, even though Lennon is like eight-and-a-half months pregnant, most of the time we’re just going on these crazy adventures: We get stuck at our nemesis’s house for brunch, and we end up getting in her shower for no reason, that kind of stuff. We found with BFF that we had the most fun when the two of us were getting into trouble and having to get ourselves out of it, so we did a lot more of that in this season.
Parham: Yeah, and I just happened to be, like, super pregnant. The other thing for Splitsider that’s going to be amazing is that we have like every UCB comedian ever on our show. We wrote parts for Neil Casey, Ian Roberts, Keegan-Michael Key, Bobby Moynihan, Andy Daly, on and on and on and on.
St. Clair: What we did is we said to ourselves…
Parham: At the beginning of the writers’ room we made a board that was like, “These are the people we want in our show,” and we made a big list. As we were breaking stories, we would be like, “Which one of these amazing people is going to be this part?” And we would write for them in their voice.
St. Clair: We knew that we wanted Neil Casey to play the guy in town that had a thousand gnomes on his front lawn…
Parham: …and they were stolen by a terrible teen.
St. Clair: Right. But we didn’t know what episode that would be, so we just had “Neil Casey is a gnome,” and we would plug that in. There’s a great episode called “Drumline” where Lennon’s character has a marching band reunion, and so the drumline comes back to town and Jason Mantzoukas plays the bad boy of the drumline, C.J. Wolf. They had an almost-kiss at a pool party senior year, and they basically try to relive it.
Parham: Go skinny dipping, break into the Jewish Community Center…
St. Clair: They get arrested. But at any rate, there’s a scene where Jason and Lennon have an erotic conversation in snare drum, a primitive call and response. And I’ve honestly never seen people act nerdier in my entire life.
Parham: We were just doing something very loud.
St. Clair: It was so lame. He’s like “rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat.”
Parham: It wasn’t lame at all. Everybody was like, “This is fucking great,” and, “Why are they so good at that?”
St. Clair: I wouldn’t have sat with either of them in a cafeteria.
Parham: And now you’ve learned your lesson because you’re sitting with me all the time.
Was the network really easy to work with, as far as assembling the cast went?
St. Clair: I don’t want to tell you how good USA is because then all of our friends are going to want to pitch them shows, and then there will be no more room for Playing House, but they are literally like a dream. Whatever show we wanted to do, they were like, “Do it.” If anything, their notes were, “We would like to have more of your voice in it,” which, if anything, people tell us to tone it down. And every single person we brought to them, they were like, “Oh my God, we’ve been obsessed with them forever. How did you get Bobby Moynihan?” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”
Parham: “Bobby and Lennon were on an improv team since the beginning of time together.”
St. Clair: “Bobby and Lennon slept in a van in Cleveland, Ohio when they went on their UCB tour.”
Parham: “Lennon drew a big doughnut on Bobby’s belly for a TourCo joke.” USA has been a really nice place to call home.
Playing House is the second original half-hour series that USA is doing in their push for comedy content. Has that played a role in the promotion or making of the show?
St. Clair: First of all, Lennon and I are not comfortable with anybody actually promoting our work . It’s so rare that we’ve never experienced it.
Parham: We would be flyering in Washington Square Park for our first show. That’s what we’re used to. Just going out and handing homeless people flyers. “It’s free, just watch it.”
St. Clair: It’s really awesome because not only are they super supportive of our creative voice, but they have this amazing marketing team. USA knows exactly who they are, and they have a brand, and their message is really simple, and they get it out there. They started promoting our show in September. It won’t be airing until April. We would never get that on a network.
Parham: They have a lot of faith in us, and they’re giving us a lot of love. [USA’s other new half-hour comedy] Sirens, we got picked up at the same time, just because of having babies we were a later premiere, essentially.
St. Clair: It’s been a dream.
Can you talk about some of the things you’ve learned from doing Best Friends Forever, and maybe some of the stuff you did differently this time around?
St. Clair: Well, the great thing about BFF was those episodes that aired were exactly what we wanted them to be.
St. Clair: I don’t know if NBC forgot that we were shooting or what, but we were just left alone to do what we wanted, so these stories you hear about networks making you dumb your show down, we didn’t have to do any of that.
Parham: We basically learned how to be executive producers on it, because neither of us had really — we had just produced a pilot, but it’s a feat to write, produce, and star in something, so for us to get to do it for six episodes and be happy with the outcome and practice those skills and build an amazing team, it was sort of an amazing opportunity. So we went on to just do it again, kind of in a bigger way.
St. Clair: I think one of the things that we learned to make our lives easier was writing for people in mind. The fact that we wrote with all of these guest stars and people in mind for guest stars, we already had their voice in our mind, so it was easy to write it, and then we didn’t have to worry about casting it, and then when they showed up, if we happened to be tired…
Parham: We’re always tired.
St. Clair: …we’re always tired because we slept for 30 minutes in the last six months. We’d be like, “Zach [Woods], can you just come up with seven different endings?”
Parham: We didn’t even have to say that. Zach would just come up with seven different endings. That’s how he is.
St. Clair: And the nicest thing about this is that we’re in the edit room right now, and we have a million tapes of things where they’re all different. It’s all of our friends being as funny as they can be. Something that’s really nice about the UCB is, and I really credit Amy and Ian and Matt and Matt for doing this, it’s all about helping each other, in a way I feel like nobody else does in Hollywood.
Parham: If you’ve ever taken an improv class, the whole point of the scene is to make your teammates look good. You support the shit out of whatever anybody on stage is doing. And that’s how people roll in the business too, as far as UCB goes. You hire your people, they show up, and they give 150%.
St. Clair: I play Andy Daly’s wife on Review right now, and he’s so funny on that show. He plays our divorce lawyer…
Parham: My divorce lawyer.
St. Clair: I’m sorry, I say “our” like we’re married. He plays Maggie’s divorce lawyer in the show, and we get in a big fight; I end up having sex with him in the back of a Toyota Highlander. I remember being on Andy’s show, and all I wanted was for him to get exactly what he needed. “You give me a line reading, whatever. I just want to make sure you have what you need.” And it’s the same when all of our friends came on our show, they were like, “Do you need me to do it again? Just tell me what you need.” And we were like, “Okay, Ian Roberts, take your clothes off!” We made Ian Roberts do a Magic Mike-style strip show.
Parham: And you’re welcome, America.
St. Clair: And you’re welcome, America, it’s the hottest thing you’ve ever seen. That’s the man that taught me how to improvise, and I’m making him bump and grind. On camera.
Parham: I remember getting notes from Ian in my first improv scene, and I was just overwhelmed by how intelligent his humor was, and how good his notes were, and then I was like, “Ian, I’m gonna need to see your butt a little bit more.”
St. Clair: He ended up saying to you, “You can come over to my house and fuck my face anytime you want.”
Parham: Yeah, essentially, but PG for the show.
St. Clair: That is how a scene ends in one of our episodes.
What are some of your other favorite TV shows?
St. Clair: Well, we’re going to love Zach’s new show, Silicon Valley on HBO. Premiered last night.
Parham: We love Veep.
St. Clair: I’m watching my girls on Broad City.
Parham: Oh yeah, those girls are doing it. And then all the other Comedy Central shows. Kroll Show, and Key and Peele.
St. Clair: I was watching a cut of one of our episodes and I say something like, “That’s entirely too many teddy bears.” And my husband was like, “You’re just quoting Gil Faizon, and ‘That’s entirely Too Much Tuna.’”
Parham: Wouldn’t be a surprise. And we also love So You Think You Can Dance, and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
St. Clair: We also love Nashville in a very trashy Dynasty way. Anything with Connie Britton and her hair…
Parham: …we pretty much watch.
St. Clair: If Connie Britton’s hair had a spin-off –
Parham: We’d watch it.
St. Clair: We’d watch it.
Playing House premieres tonight at 10pm on USA.
Jenny Nelson is a writer living in Brooklyn.