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What Are These Women Laughing At?

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What Are These Women Laughing At?
There are now more high-profile roles for women in primetime comedies than at any time since perhaps the 1970s heyday of Mary Tyler Moore, Maude, and Laverne & Shirley. The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond gathered six of the funniest examples of the trend: Christina Applegate (ABC's Samantha Who?); Jane Krakowski (NBC's 30 Rock); Julia Louis-Dreyfus (CBS's The New Adventures of Old Christine); Mary-Louise Parker (Showtime's Weeds); Amy Poehler (NBC's Parks & Recreation), and Sarah Silverman (Comedy Central's The Sarah Silverman Program) to debate how to star on a hit comedy series and keep your sanity.

How does working on television comedy, as opposed to a film, impact the pacing and the style of your performance?

Mary-Louise Parker: I actually think it depends on the budget, because some films I've shot a lot quicker than shows. But that's good because I don't like a lot of down time. It's like, "Why is it taking 20 hours to light that ashtray?"

So doing Weeds is comparable to acting in a weekly low-budget movie?

Parker: It certainly doesn't look that way on the screen. In fact, I have to say the quality of all of the shows of the women here today—in terms of the production values—is all pretty uniformly great, whether on broadcast or cable.

Christina Applegate: That's mostly true. But I'm sensing that because of the economy it's all going to change. They're shopping at, like, T.J. Maxx for my clothes now [on Samantha Who? which was canceled after this roundtable], so I don't know what's going on. You think I'm kidding. I'm not.

Is it possible to slip in an actual life during production of a hit comedy series?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Well, I do a multicamera series, which I think is a lot easier than what these ladies are up to. We have two or three 12-hour days every week, but not five, which I think is what you have to put up with in a single-camera show.

Was it important to you to do a multicamera show for the regular schedule?

Louis-Dreyfus: Actually, it's pretty much just for the money.

Amy Poehler: The Benjamins. Call them the Benjamins.

Louis-Dreyfus: No, but it was important because while I adore single-camera comedy, and the look of it is so fantastic, considering the life I have with my kids I couldn't pull that off.

Parker (whispering): What the f*** is a single-camera comedy?

Sarah Silverman: It's like a show where there isn't a live audience. It's kind of an old term. Single-camera and three-camera.

Parker: I really am this stupid, by the way. I have two kids, so it's tough. It limits you. I can't really do much of anything else aside from the show or I'd never see my kids. Or I could just have someone else take care of them. I mean, they're super-duper cute.

Do the mommy duties make it tougher for an actress to be the star of a series?

Poehler: It's a pretty crushing schedule for me, like 14 hours every day. I'm in every scene. Plus I'm the producer on it as well, so we're casting and writing and stuff all weekend. And yes, I have a baby, too. It's trying to figure out how to balance all of these things. You just depend on a lot of help and a lot of good advice from people.

Jane Krakowski: Tina [Fey] astounds me because she wears all of the hats on [30 Rock] and is raising a child. She'll shoot the show all day and then go home and write until like 2 in the morning. And then her daughter will bop in at 6 a.m. going, "Hi Mommy!" I really don't know how she does it.

Poehler: She has a heroin problem.

Krakowski: No!

Poehler: What, we're not supposed to say that? Sorry, that's off the record.

Silverman: It's way different for me on my show because, first off, I need 20 hours of sleep a night. I have children's hours.

Krakowski: The main challenge for me is to do what I do in my job along with everything the tabloids might say I'm doing. Like, I wasn't even in the country when I was supposedly at a party here in the U.S. I literally have proof that my passport was stamped. I don't know how they can get away with that sort of writing.

Mary-Louise, how would you compare Weeds to working on a drama like The West Wing?

Parker: I enjoyed West Wing. But so many people come up to me and are like, "I just don't understand why they had you on that show." They apparently didn't like the character. You just can't believe the s*** people say to us.

Silverman: And they're always such quality people, too.

Parker: People come up to me now and ask for a dime bag. As if I've never heard that one before.

Silverman: I've learned that it's best to just fake your reaction. Like when people come up to me and say, "Hey, I'm f***ing Matt Damon, too!" I'll act like that's the funniest thing I've ever heard. It allows you to move on.

Parker: I'll have to remember that. Because usually I just flip them off.

Julia, what can we expect from you and your Seinfeld cohorts on the upcoming season of Curb Your Enthusiasm?

Louis-Dreyfus: I can't tell you anything. We're still shooting it, and it's been really fun. That much I can tell you. I've been asked to shut the f*** up.

Poehler: Julia can't say anything, but I can. I'm going to guess that you're playing a school bus driver that runs into a robot, and then it's like a Transformers thing and you walk around killing people. It's like CGI improvisation!

Louis-Dreyfus: Did you come to the set? You must have come to the set!

Julia and Christina, you both had roles on classic comedies and managed to move forward with success in other series. Do you ever fully leave that breakout show behind?

Applegate: No, I don't think I ever will. [Married With Children] is still on five times a day, so it's constantly there, even though it left the air, like, 12 years ago. But I don't try to hide from it. People had posters of that girl, and without that show I wouldn't have learned how to do what I can do now. I don't pooh-pooh on it like a lot of other people have their prior shows. I really embrace it, in fact.

Louis-Dreyfus: Seinfeld still comes up a lot in my life, which is great. I mean, it's kind of an iconic show.

At least you don't have to hear about the Seinfeld Curse anymore.

Louis-Dreyfus: Oh yes. That was…so fun. There are lots of curses in this business. I'm just glad to no longer be associated with one of them.

Is age ever an issue for any of you in your careers?

Louis-Dreyfus: I'm 48 now. I think it's not so much an issue in TV as it is in film.

Poehler: I auditioned to play Jonah Hill's mother not that long ago, and I'm 37. I was eight years older than Rachel McAdams when I played her mother [in Mean Girls]. That was a broader comedy choice thing, but yeah, you can end up playing much older than you are. And issues can arise out of that.

Applegate: I was supposed to do the cover of a magazine and they said I was too old. They didn't want anyone over 35. Now I guess I'll never be on it. I just don't think of any of that because I feel 20 years old.

Silverman: The only time age comes into play for me is if I'm looking at a script and it's for a "girl" part that isn't funny. Even if it's a great comedy, often the character you read for isn't funny. I don't need to play the girl who's mad at the main guy anymore. I've done it, and it can be embarrassing.

Louis-Dreyfus: Wasn't Anne Bancroft only like six years older than Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate? That's real acting.

Silverman: When she did Grease, Stockard Channing was, like, 35!

Krakowski: Let's talk about how great HD is for helping us with our age issues. My show is so harsh. We shoot, like, nine to 10 pages a day, with multiple takes and stuff. We improvise all the time. We're always in real locations using real props.

Applegate: Oh God, with HD, it's so crisp you really do see everything. You can actually see into your brain.

Silverman: It's the future. [Laughter]

Poehler: I know that when they switched to HD on SNL, it was a huge deal. You could suddenly see things you never had before. You could see so deep. So the sets had to be changed. We had to wear a lot more makeup. Wigs had to get even more refined and smaller.

How much do you monitor your show's ratings?

Parker: I don't give a s***. I mean, if people aren't going to watch it, then it's going to get canceled and I'm going to find another job. It's not like I'm going to think, "I better take off my shirt!" I'm going to take my shirt off anyway.

Poehler: You can't worry too much about your show's numbers or it just drives you mad. But I have to tell you, I find TV to be good for comedy. There's an immediacy in television, a feeling that everything isn't so precious. You can readjust things. There's not so much weight behind every choice. And especially if you get to play a character for a while, you get to experiment a lot. I like the fact the piece might not always quite be ready but has to be done.

Louis-Dreyfus: I think the idea of playing a character for a long period of time isn't weird so much as interesting. Because you can just keep making crap up about yourself. It's an interesting challenge. But it also makes it quite fun.

Krakowski: That's so true. No matter how things go one day, you get to try again the next day and say, "I'm going to figure out a way to be funny in that particular situation or watch everybody else and grow." Sometimes, you get magic just by throwing it out there.

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