“Portlandia.” “Togetherness.” “The Last Man on Earth.” They are three of the most eclectic indie comedies on television, each with a unique point of view that has garnered enthusiastic audiences. They have something else in common. All are hoping their efforts will be recognized this awards season.
The creators of the three shows came together at an FYC event at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills last week.
“We’re in your house, movies,” exclaimed Michael Schneider of TV Guide, who moderated the panel of participants representing their respective comedies on Fox, HBO and IFC — Will Forte, Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Carrie Brownstein and Jonathan Krisel.
The evening ricocheted between humor, with multiple clips shown from each program, and serious business as the show creators discussed their creative challenges and production schedules.
While IFC’s “Portlandia” is heading into its sixth season and has been renewed for a seventh, Fox’s “Last Man” and HBO’s “Togetherness” are the new kids on the block, each having recently completed their first seasons.
Forte has already notched a 2015 Critics’ Choice nomination for best actor in a comedy series, “Togetherness” garnered two such noms for performers, while Brownstein also landed a Critics’ Choice nod as a contender for best supporting actress in a comedy series. Since debuting in 2011, “Portlandia” has received 11 Primetime Emmy nominations and won two, both for best costumes. The show also took home the 2013 WGA Award for comedy/variety series and a Peabody Award in 2012.
Previously best-known for his roles on “Saturday Night Live” and in the feature film “Nebraska,” Forte created and stars in “Last Man” and initially thought it would be a cable show. “There’s been a willingness on the part of the networks to try something new,” he said. “We’ve had a wonderful experience with Fox. They’ve really stood behind us and been very supportive. But it was a little tricky to figure out with the marketing as new characters enter and it’s not just me.”
Cue clip from the pilot episode of his bearded character, Phil Miller, breaking a store window by shooting it out so he can go speak to a female mannequin, while his companion, a white soccer ball with a face drawn on it, patiently waits in the car.
“We had all these ideas,” Forte said. “You want the character to be likable. You want a sympathetic character, but let’s take this ride and see where it takes him emotionally.”
As for being a first-time showrunner, Forte said it was a lot more work than he thought and reflected back on the “insanely good” hours he had working on other shows including “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “That ‘70s Show.”
“Somehow we skipped some steps. I had no idea what it was like to be a showrunner,” he said. “I’m an over-thinker. But I’m definitely not going through it alone. You get to put in writers that are good friends and I’m very proud of what we’ve done. We learned so many lessons, but we have to make it more efficient.”
For Jay and Mark Duplass, prolific independent filmmakers, “Togetherness” is their first television experience on this level and they agree it’s been one of great learning, and pleasure.
“The pressure of opening weekend is off in TV. If it takes a little while, it takes a little while and that’s comforting,” said Mark Duplass, who stars in and with his brother also executive produces the domestic comedy set in Eagle Rock, a section of L.A. known for being where hipsters go to raise families. “We were indie, small auteurs and nervous as filmmakers that TV would take over our lives. But 8 to 10 episodes is like two movies. It feels very similar. It’s very handcrafted.”
“It felt like more than a movie because we kept writing,” added Jay Duplass, who is also known for his acting roles on “Transparent” and “The Mindy Project.” “It’s fun and easy to write a 28-minute script and to see that we can delve into specific yet subtle things about people’s internal lives and get to know the characters. We’re weirdly suited to it.”
Compared with the newbies, “Portlandia” is a more well-oiled machine, what Krisel called a sketch show with narrative. He said the concept changed a bit in the fifth season so that the upcoming Season 6 is like Season 2 of a new format.
“We decided let’s just change it and get deeper into it. Let’s go for it,” said Krisel, who has directed nearly all of the episodes. “It’s still a sketch show.”
“We live and die by minutia. It triggers pain and joy,” said Brownstein, who co-stars with Fred Armisen. “We are keen observers of those moments. There’s something in that absurdity that defines the universe.”
Brownstein, who said she was leaving at 4:30 the next morning for a gig in Seattle with her band Sleater-Kinney, was asked by Schneider about juggling the show and being a musician.
“It doesn’t feel schizophrenic,” she said. “We make it work. I’m so grateful to be able to do both.”
The discussion about music fueled a conversation about buying music rights for the respective shows. Krisel says “Portlandia” still operates from the assumption that they don’t have money for anything while “HBO pays double,” according to the Duplass brothers.