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Interview

Lennon Parham & Jessica St. Clair Are Your New Best Friends

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Lennon Parham & Jessica St. Clair Are Your New Best Friends
Photo Source: Stephanie Diani

Lennon Parham’s pants are soaking wet, and Jessica St. Clair can’t stop laughing about it.

This isn’t classic bullying; St. Clair has just accidentally knocked a glass of water into Parham’s lap at the beginning of a very dramatic recounting of the tearful walks around the studio lot the duo took after NBC canceled their sitcom “Best Friends Forever”—“We would go past that Jurassic Park ride and they’d be like, ‘Whee!’ And I would be ready to throw myself in front of that fucking T. Rex.” Though she does take advantage of Parham’s absence to tell a dirty, hilarious story that Parham calmly refutes as soon as she’s returned, still damp but unperturbed.

Wet jeans are nothing between best friends—and St. Clair and Parham have endured worse. First introduced as potential collaborators, they bonded over sweet potato fries and one very uncomfortable, advanced yoga class, where they found themselves upside down and in over their heads. Then came what seemed to be their big break: “Best Friends Forever,” the off-kilter, astutely detailed sitcom that first introduced them as the pair of pals who perfectly encapsulate everything you love about your own best friend, taken to sitcom highs. So over the course of a cruelly brief six episodes, the two went from an afternoon spent sobbing over “Steel Magnolias” to Parham rescuing an emotionally vulnerable St. Clair when the latter inadvertently attends a Cougar Ball. And though the show didn’t survive, it did elicit a passionate response from viewers.

“I don’t know what it is, but there was something we were hitting on, some nerve,” Parham says. “Girl nerds and gay guys,” St. Clair clarifies. But Parham demurs. “There are a bunch of straight guys obsessed with our show.”

“You know what it is?” St. Clair elaborates. “We write about the real stuff that goes on in our lives, so when we talk about a crush we had, we talk about Drakkar Noir and the fact that he wore Adidas sandals.”

Despite the disappointment of being canceled, both were eager to jump on board the onscreen friendship train again. Talks with USA about bringing “Best Friends Forever” to the cable net fell through, but the network did ask if Parham and St. Clair could tell the same story within a different framework.

What they came up with is “Playing House,” airing Tuesday nights. After both their lives implode during a very uncomfortable baby shower, high-powered exec Emma (St. Clair) abandons her job in China to move back to her hometown and live with newly single and very pregnant childhood best friend Maggie (Parham).

“I had said to Lennon, ‘This is so weird, but what if we raised a baby together?’ ” St. Clair remembers. “Because we are like a husband and wife. Pretty much. We see each other more than our own actual husbands. So we wrote the pilot having Lennon be eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and she got pregnant at exactly the right time so that she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when we shot. We wrote the baby! We wrote it into existence!”

“I was also having sex with my husband,” Parham says in an aside.

St. Clair is undeterred. “I take credit for this baby.”

This time, however, they knew more than when they were launching “Best Friends Forever.” They wrote guest spots for specific actors who could nail the tone and still bring their own sense of the comedic to the material, but more important, as new mothers they were adamant that the show not be the biggest thing in their lives.

“With ‘BFF,’ we literally gave a pound of flesh,” Parham says. “And we both ended up at different points in the ER because we were working too hard and too long.” This time around, they took a page from the writers of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which famously had a 9-to-5 approach in the writers room.

Both women came to writing as a natural outgrowth of their training at Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, though St. Clair has been at it longer. “I’ve been trying to cram myself down the throats of America for a longer time than I care to remember,” she says. “And also, after you go out for a couple years for pilots that are one more terrible than the next, you’re like, ‘Man, you’ve gotta do this for yourself.’ ” Parham agrees.

“I wrote a show basically to show people what to do with me, because I think I look one way and then inside I’m all fucked up and weird,” she says. “So I was like, ‘Here are all the crazy characters living in my head!’ ”

The success of her show led to a meeting with St. Clair, who had almost given up on finding a fellow female comedian who could write the stories about friendship she yearned for. “I just didn’t think there was anyone out there,” she says. “There’s just not that many women in comedy, and there’s not that many women who write, so I just felt like I would never find her.”

Not that either sits down at a table opposite one another to tackle an episode, like a movie version of sitcom writers. To avoid facing a blank screen, Parham and St. Clair improvise each episode in the writers room, playing all the roles. “It’s really intense when these two start improvising,” says executive producer Judah Miller. “There were times when Jessica was about to give birth and I was thinking, This baby in the womb is hearing all of this screaming and must think it’s a very hostile world out there! I wish I’d taken an improv class earlier on, because I’m amazed at the speed with which these performers are able to come up with material.”

Once their session is transcribed, they have their first draft. Even after the script is finished, the cast is still improvising during filming.

“They really know how to use improvisers in the best way, and not everyone does,” says Brad Morris, who plays Parham’s skeezy husband, Bruce. “And they give a really nice scripted structure to work with and allow us to play in certain places. It’s more regulated than an Altman film, is how I would describe it. And maybe slightly more playful than an Aaron Sorkin film.”

St. Clair and Parham feel the looseness, too—not that “Best Friends Forever” was a Sorkin film, but both say that “Playing House” has a lighter feel. “They’re having fun,” St. Clair says. “It’s kind of the fantasy of what it would be like living with your best friend as an adult—and not the harsh reality that Lennon and I live every day when we spend 14 hours together.”

Both loved the “scrapes” their “Best Friends Forever” characters would get into, and the plots of “Playing House” reflect that. “Any time we can get ourselves in an awkward situation, we did that,” St. Clair says. “We have an episode where we go to our nemesis’ house—”

“And we get soaking wet,” Parham interrupts. “In almost every episode we get soaking wet. They’re like, ‘Again?’ ”

Proving that when it comes to comedy, life can imitate art.

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