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Jessica St. Clair & Lennon Parham's 'Playing House' Is USA's Best Bet In Comedy

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PLAYING HOUSE
USA

Let's call "Playing House" Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham's victory lap. Even though their first sitcom, "Best Friends Forever," was canceled way too soon after just six episodes, the duo is back with a new sitcom on USA. The show shines in the same way "BFF" did, but with more welcome quirks.

"Playing House" follows another pair of best friends Maggie (Parham) and Emma (St. Clair) as they reunite in their hometown after years of a long distance relationship. Yes, in this show, friendships are basically equal to, if not more important than, romantic relationships. Maggie is on the verge of giving birth and Emma quits her corporate job to help raise the baby after Maggie's husband is caught cheating with a foreign cam-girl. (This scene is punch-you-in-the-gut funny.)

"We really wanted to do something a little different, which is comedy that tells a story that is straight up funny but also has heartfelt, serious moments," St. Clair told HuffPost TV.

St. Clair and Parham met at Upright Citizens Brigade and had known each other for years before collaborating. Their type of alt-comedy pairs slapstick and poop jokes with "Parks and Rec"-like sweetness. With one-liners that rival those in "Veep", and recurring stars like Zach Woods ("The Office," "Silicon Valley") and Keegan-Michael Key ("Key and Peele"), "Playing House" is USA's first venture into original comedy programming. It's a show more about friendship than anything else, and it totally works.

HuffPost TV: What was the first sketch you wrote together?
Jessica St. Clair: The first scene we ever wrote together was two women in a Loehmann’s dressing room, because both of us had experienced the horrible thing when you’re in a Loehmann’s dressing room.
Lennon Parham: Nobody has private stalls, obviously, in New York, and there’s always a large woman without underwear.
JS: That was the first time I’d ever seen a buttcrack that looked like Charlie Brown’s sideways squiggly smile.
LP: I think we were going to an important business meeting and we were trying to find appropriate outfits for the business meeting in a Loehmann’s dressing room.
JS: We started improvising and I was like, “Oh Lennon and I are the same person.”

How far into your careers was this?
JS: We wrote the scene when we were in Los Angeles, but we wrote it about when we were young and in New York. We had no money and there would be an audition and we’d have to go try and find something in the bargain bin at Loehmann’s and find something appropriate. We were 30 when we first started writing together.

Was it comedy love at first improv?
JS: I had seen her perform and we’ve known each other for 12 years, but in New York there were so few women that we were never put on stage together.
LP: It’s not that way anymore. There’s now a ton of women, but at that time there was only one woman on a team of seven dudes.
JS: But I remember watching Lennon perform and I was like, "This literally is the funniest person I’ve ever seen.” When I saw her one-woman show, in which she played a variety of male characters, I was like, "Who is this insane woman?" I laughed so hard that I had to physically punch the man next to me who was our good friend. I had to give him several dead arms because it wasn’t enough to laugh. I needed to physically express how funny this woman was. That’s when I set my sights on her.
LP: Then I saw a woman in the audience clutching my friend and I was like, "What is she doing? Wait, that’s Jessica St. Clair."
JS: I launched an offensive to pursue Lennon after that.

So many critics loved “Best Friends Forever” and tons of people were devastated when it was canceled. I think now it’s up in that world of shows that were gone too soon, like “Happy Endings” and “Freaks and Geeks.” What’s it like to have that post-mortem support?
JS: When we went off the air, our Twitter followers put together this video that pledged how much they loved the show and it was the nicest thing that I have ever seen. It was girls and guys who were just like us, who were talking about all our favorite moments of the show. So we were like, you know what? We have to do this again. There’s an underserved population of comedy nerds out there who really are responding to a story about girls who truly love each other and show up for each other.
LP: It’s underneath the polished veneer of what you usually see on a Hollywood show, and that's a universal thing. These two girls who are really trying to do their lives right but they fall into the same patterns and it’s hilarious to watch.
JS: I think that the best compliment we’ve gotten from people who watched the show is “It made me want to call my best friend,” or “I Skyped with my best friend and we watched it together.”
LP: Or like “I’m the Lennon and she’s the Jessica.”
JS: At any rate, we thought we gotta do this again. So USA approached us and said, "We want what you guys are doing. Come up with another concept." We only write about what we are currently living. We had babies on the brain and we weren’t yet pregnant, but I was like, "Lennon, what would it be like if you and I had to raise a baby together?" Then we came up with the show. Then we both went and got ourselves knocked up perfectly timed, so when we shot the pilot, she was exactly eight and a half months pregnant.Then I was secretly three months pregnant in the pilot. I was throwing up in every bush in Pasadena. We have new babies and a new show that is like a baby and we’re basically raising it together.

Have you used anything from your real life with your new babies in the show?
LP: We are definitely playing so close to ourselves, and how we may be in a real situation, even though the situations are usually heightened for TV. But when we got to the birth scene, it was really important to us to tell a real birth story that we had both just experienced. We actually wrote that episode when I had given birth like four months prior. Jessica was moments away from giving birth and we wrote this speech talking to Michael Key’s character, Mark, about how the baby came out and how the baby was like 10 pounds and then Jessica literally had that birth. We turned the script in and then Jessica had a baby.
JS: We turned the script in and at 2 a.m. I go into labor and have exactly the experience of the episode we wrote. I was in the delivery room saying to my husband, "I don’t know why we wrote an episode about birth. There is literally nothing funny about this." Then when we read it later…
LP: You were like, "That was so heartfelt to read!" and I was like, “You know we wrote this before you gave birth?” and you were like “Wait, what?”

That must have been a trip! In the pilot, Maggie gets in a huge fight with her husband and they break up. But the morning after the fight, he’s still there. That scene is tense for Maggie and Emma. How do you balance the funny with the poignant parts of friendship?
JS: We really wanted to tell a story of childhood best friendships. We find it’s so amazing because they’re the only people who are there when you’re so young. They’re the only people in your life that can say, “You know what? You’re not leading the life you were meant to lead.” So many of us let those friendships go. Some people are lucky enough to have someone in your life who can be a real touchstone. We wanted to tell a story of two girls who have been apart and then something brings them back together again, so they can encourage each other to take a risk. We watch these two girls try to find the lives they were meant to have with each other. That being said, it’s so fun to have the local town where they grew up. All these people from their past pop up, like Michael Key’s character. It sounds kind of cheesy, but they learn how they can be friends with each other, all of them do. We really wanted to do something a little different, which is comedy that tells a story that is straight up funny but also has heartfelt, serious moments. We want you to really care about these characters.

That’s the kind of TV that really resonates with me too. I don’t want to talk about female-fronted comedies, because that conversation is so frustrating. Obviously women are funny, etc. But it’s so unique to have shows like yours and "Broad City" where it’s about friendship, not the men or jobs in their lives.
JS: It’s weird because there was that kind of TV -- "Laverne and Shirley" and "I Love Lucy" and "Golden Girls" -- that was the television we grew up with and then it went away. If anything, women have gotten more powerful now but it’s kind of snarky. I hope you can see how our show is kind of a return to that era. It’s about people who are there to love and support each other. We just really wanted to show basically girls who are what we are. We’d do anything for each other.

"Playing House" debuts Tuesday, April 29, at 10 p.m. EDT on USA, but you can stream the first episode right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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