Talking ‘Nobodies’ with Rachel Ramras, Larry Dorf, and Hugh Davidson
The concept of “making it” in showbiz is perhaps made up itself. There is no defining body of who makes it and who doesn’t, and sometimes your big wins will look small in retrospect, just like your minor wins could fill you with the most amount of pride eventually. That being said, it’s also not hard to understand how it could affect someone if they started seeing many of the people they came up with in comedy on Saturday Night Live, starring on network sitcoms, and winning Oscars. That’s where Nobodies, a comedy on TV Land that is based on the industry experiences of Rachel Ramras, Larry Dorf, and Hugh Davidson, gets its authentic reality of the comedians who sometimes get left behind.
The longtime writing trio all met at The Groundlings, coming up in comedy world alongside the likes of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jim Rash, and many more. They didn’t book SNL. They didn’t land that big part in Bridesmaids. They didn’t co-write a film with Alexander Payne. But their friends did.
After writing on animated shows such as Mike Tyson Mysteries and The Looney Tunes Show, Rachel, Larry, and Hugh finally discovered that the best idea for their own series would be one that was centered on their own experiences as people who know a lot of “successful people” but could never get a break of their own. They pitched the show to Melissa and Ben Falcone, who serve as executive producers, and with TV Land already ordering a season 2 they aren’t quite the “nobodies” that they used to be.
In the pilot, you approach Ben Falcone about getting his real-life wife Melissa McCarthy to star in a movie you wrote called Mr. First Lady. It was interesting to find out later that Nobodies came to be after you approached Ben to ask him about Melissa’s availability for a movie idea you had called Mr. First Lady.
Larry Dorf: Unlike the show, we didn’t even have a script yet, we just had an idea for a movie. We thought it would be really easy to get Ben to convince Melissa to be in it and then we’d just get a sack full of money. That didn’t happen. They were sorta lukewarm on it and Melissa was booked up for the next two years doing movies and was on Mike & Molly at the time. So we went and we pitched it anyway without them. It was very much like the meeting in the pilot where they’d sort of be into the idea, and they’d ask, “Well, what are you working on?” and we’d say we were writing on a kid’s cartoon and then it was like the meeting was over. Rachel and I would over-compensate and just say, “We know Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy and Jim Rash and Cheryl Hines, so if you like them, you’ll like us!” And then there was that Oscars where all of our friends were nominated for Bridesmaids, and Jim Rash and Nat Faxon won for The Descendents, and we were really like “Oh we were left behind.” And that’s when we thought this would be a good idea for a show. We pitched that to Ben and he had written with us for awhile on The Looney Tunes Show before he got Bridesmaids and left us behind. So it resonated with him and he pitched to Melissa and it seemed like an organic thing, our story to tell.
What was it like to keep all those same details, the same movie pitch, the same people, for Nobodies? How did the decision to keep it the same rather than analogous come to be?
Rachel Ramras: Any time you can be authentic and pull from reality, your odds of having funnier content are better. We certainly had no qualms about making fun of ourselves and using ourselves as the butt of the joke. The reality of this business is you do come up with ideas a lot of the time, and for some reason if no one cares about you or someone else is doing a competing project, these ideas fall by the wayside. We wanted to lend some truth to our show, so a couple of the ideas that we talked about, whether it’s Mr. First Lady or later on the season I have a pitch for a new movie, it was sort of a way to keep those projects alive even if they didn’t have success in the real world. We just find that pulling from reality is the funniest material.
How many of those details do you think were pulled from real life?
Hugh Davidson: We never had an executive go crazy, and we never bald-faced lied and said Melissa was participating in the movie, those were creative things just for the show. Having said that, it’s the way in which we go into those meetings, the nervousness, the way we function as a group and our dynamic, is all so real that those things don’t feel very fictional. When we shot the scene with the two fake executives, we had never met those actors, we didn’t know them, they’re some of the few people in the show who weren’t from The Groundlings, and it absolutely felt as sweaty and awful as going into a pitch meeting. We’re on the older side of it to be unknown, and it’s like time is running out, and we’re probably going to sabotage ourselves anyway, so all that just feels very real in the show.
Larry, your character on the show is often doing things that do sabotage or hurt certain opportunities early on. Do you think you have been that guy in the past?
Larry: Yeah, I think we’re all very honest with each other and with ourselves. Hugh might be “the angry guy” and let’s use that. I might be “the desperate guy.” Cause of the three of us, I’m the only one who bought a house, and so I have those pressures on me — that I heightened for the show — just by nature. I always kind of feel like I need more balls in the air than Hugh and Rachel. I just feel that most of them are not gonna pan out so I need to have stuff going on. So I think there is a desperation there that lent itself to a lot of good storylines.
Hugh and Rachel, you’re married in real life. How was it to have an on-screen relationship? Was it weird or did it feel natural?
Rachel: It’s all weird because we’ve never acted on anything, for the most part. It was comfortable though because we’ve been performing at Groundlings for all these years. I’m married to Hugh, Larry’s our best friend, and Mike MacDonald, our showrunner and director, we’ve known forever. So there is a comfort factor. And TV Land is really encouraging of exploring the relationships on the show and not just have Hollywood as the drive of the show. I think that ended up being the part of the show we loved the most, the Hugh-Rachel relationship, and later on in the season Leslie Bibb comes in and creates some pressure there when she starts dating Hugh, and then Larry and his wife. We started having a lot of fun exploring all the dynamics of all of those people. There’s nothing more comfortable than getting to do all of this. If you’re going to do it for the first time and be lucky enough to experience it, the fact that we’re all together and getting to do it with our closest friends — hopefully it has set us up to succeed.
Hugh: The thing that was odd is that we’re dipping a little bit into our own past where we feel, I don’t know, like it’s ourselves five or six years ago. And so there’s a push and pull of things like, “Wait, where do we stand with each other right now?” Because we act out all these parts on the show that are potentially divisive. But the fact that Rachel, Larry, and I are doing this together, it’s like we’ve won the lottery. I also think that if our show is in any way competent, it’s because we got to be together and feel safe.
In Nobodies you are playing “the ones who got left behind” as it were, but in real life, you’ve built a very successful career writing on animated shows like Mike Tyson Mysteries and Looney Tunes. So was your mindset more about your friends who were doing “bigger” things or also acknowledging that you had pretty cool jobs yourselves?
Rachel: I think that the overall lesson or theme, if there is one, is that if people would stop comparing themselves to people and really sort of take a look at where you are in your life and appreciate it, we’d all be so much happier. We got the opportunity to write about 52 episodes of The Looney Tunes Show with very little input from the network or the producers, and we basically learned how to write a sitcom and we learned how to find our voice as writers. And Mike Tyson Mysteries is one of the most fun gigs in the world. It’s so fabulous. So the real Hugh, Larry and Rachel do know how lucky we are and were to have those jobs, but the characters haven’t discovered that yet. I think that’s relatable for people outside of Hollywood as well.
How was it to write for The Looney Tunes Show and for iconic characters like that?
Hugh: At first it was a bit of a challenge. When we first started they said, “Let’s bring back the characters but they can’t hit each other and Elmer Fudd can’t have a gun, and if he has a gun it has to be a paint gun.” All these insane rules that seemed to me at the start of it, “This is gonna be the biggest disaster on the planet.” And we ended up putting the characters in more of a sitcom setting. I still think Daffy Duck is one of the funniest characters in the world and we loved writing for him in that show.
Rachel: We broke down the characters, took away all of their typical aspects. Bugs was a great straight man because he’s super smart and confident, Daffy is desperate and insecure, and then we brought in Porky as the hanger-on friend, and we found some characters that really hadn’t been developed like Lola Bunny, or I guess the way she was developed was as a tough basketball player — I don’t know what that was — we were lucky enough to call up Kristen Wiig and ask if she would voice this character. I think that’s one of the funniest animated characters on TV, what she did with it.
You serve as writers of Mike Tyson Mysteries and Rachel has a regular role as Yung Hee Tyson. What’s been your favorite moment while working on that show?
Hugh: I think one of the best things in the world is getting to watch Norm Macdonald, Jim Rash, and Rachel do voice records together. I think just the voice record sessions have been worth everything. To be around Norm Macdonald is just amazing. And I do genuinely love Mike Tyson, he’s great.
Rachel: And he’s funny. He’s really not trying to do anything except read the lines, and when he does them, he is so heartfelt, he tries hard, and he has a great work ethic. There’s such a sweetness. When people ask me to describe him, the first word that comes to mind is “sweet” which is just so strange. And Norm is just a genius, it is thrilling. We pinch ourselves every time we are around him.
When was the first time in your career that you felt “I’ve made it”?
Hugh: For me, when we got our Looney Tunes job and I got car insurance. I had never had auto insurance, I was driving illegally in California forever, and I’m now legal. So that felt pretty good.
Rachel: I was very fortunate early on, maybe 15-some years ago, I landed a Writers Guild job on the Cedric the Entertainer Presents variety show. And I kinda felt like “Hollywood’s easy!” And then I realized that those jobs are few and far between, and since then I’ve written on some less-glamorous shows. I think I had a taste of it early on and then it sort of all went away.
Larry: I’ve never felt that.
When was the first time that you saw one of your comedy friends get something huge that blew your mind?
Rachel: Melissa got on Gilmore Girls and that seemed huge. I remember when Maya Rudolph got on SNL; something about SNL, people getting on that, seems the biggest. I think her first episode she did Beyonce and it was just so weird to see someone that maybe a few weeks before you had performed on the same stage with them and now they’re on the biggest live stage there is.
Larry: I remember I was in The Groundlings with Kristen Wiig and Kent Sublette, who’s now the head writer at SNL, and then both of them had to end the show because suddenly they were going to New York for SNL. I remember Kristen did this scene where she was a flight attendant and the LA Times came to review the show. I thought her scene was the funniest in the show, and LA Times reviewed it and they loved the show but singled that sketch out as the worst one. It’s weird to get called out when everybody else thought it was a great sketch. Then a couple weeks later she’s doing that same sketch and it’s a huge hit and I don’t know who that reviewer was. I also remember Melissa, ever since I’ve known her, she’s been on TV. But I went to North Carolina when they were shooting Tammy and we went to this small town, and driving in there were all these signs, people saying “Welcome, Melissa” and “God bless you, Melissa.” The crowds of people that were there, it was like being with The Beatles.
How did you get your first agent?
Larry: There used to be this thing called Backstage West, I don’t know if it’s still around, where you’d have a list of agents who were looking for certain types of actors. I did a mass mailing. Someone told me you had to make your envelope “stand out” so use like a different colored envelope. I got this guy, his name was Jack Scagnetti, and he was like a 98-year-old man and had in his office just so much paper everywhere. He said, “I wanna be your agent” and I thought that was great because if you have an agent you’re gonna get jobs. That was the hard part and now it’s gonna be easy. That was about 20 years ago, that was the easy part.
Rachel: I was in the Sunday company at The Groundlings and it was a friend of a woman Julie Conway who was in the Sunday company with us. She had a friend who was a travel agent and then decided to become a talent agent because most of the letters are the same. She was looking for new clients and I jumped on that ship. She didn’t think I should go out for commercials because I was “too ethnic looking.” So I didn’t go out for any commercials. It was a short-lived agent-client relationship.
Have you had any of those “this is Hollywood” moments? Parties that seemed ridiculously cool or awards?
Hugh: I was writing for Robot Chicken and we got nominated for an Emmy. I went to the Emmy awards in my pickup truck, by myself, and joined the Robot Chicken crew. Somehow we won an Emmy for a special that we did. But the whole time sitting in the Emmys theater, there was like a candy wrapper that was on my seat and it was like wadded up and nobody had really cleaned the seat. That’s when I thought, there’s no real great thing out here. Even when you make it to the big awards show there’s still gonna be a used candy wrapper in your seat.
What do you want everyone to know about Nobodies?
Larry: We start out and it seems like the show’s about these people who want to be as successful as their more successful friends. And yeah, that’s what gets us into the show, but what I want people to know is that the show opens up so much from there and really gets into our lives and there are real moments. I think we’ve made kind of a good world and it’s not like a Three Stooges kind of thing.
Rachel: I’d also say that Hugh, Larry, and I are very discerning with what we like and what we find funny. There’s not a ton of stuff on TV that we love to watch, if I’m being perfectly honest, and I think there are probably people out there like us who like comedy, like to laugh, but maybe some of the sitcoms on TV are too broad. Maybe some of the indie things are too inside or too cool for school. Maybe this can bridge the gap somewhere for people who have a similar sensibility to ours. It’s somewhere in the middle. Certainly you won’t see three people who look like me, Hugh, and Larry starring in many shows. Not that we’re trolls but we’re not on the cover of Vogue.
Nobodies airs Wednesdays at 10:00pm on TV Land.