Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph are two performers who can make you laugh before they even open their mouths. On Saturday Night Live, they would often appear in sketches together as Barack and Michelle Obama or Prince and Beyoncé. But in the new Amazon series Forever, they have been given perhaps their most difficult roles yet: a normcore married couple from Riverside, California.
Alan Yang, who grew up in that strip mall-filled Inland Empire city, came up with the high-concept idea for this existential meditation on life and death after getting breakfast with the pair of comedy icons last summer. “It was very casual, just kind of a general meeting and they said they were interested in doing something together,” Yang tells me by phone this week.
Yang and his friend Matt Hubbard, who met when they were working as writers on Parks and Recreation, came up with a bunch of ideas and emailed them over to the pair. As he tells it, they wrote back, “Man, no one ever follows through and actually comes up with stuff” before picking the idea that became Forever, which starts streaming this Friday, September 14th.
Given the unusual format of the eight-episode series, Forever is nearly impossible to explain without spoilers. But that also make it compulsively bingeable, as each half-hour ends with a surprising cliffhanger that made this viewer need to see what happens next. The show is also an unexpected showcase for the rarely seen dramatic sides of Rudolph and Armisen, who have ditched not only the crazy costumes and wigs but also the larger-than-life performance styles that made them famous.
Forever also grants Yang the opportunity to get out from the shadow of his Master of None co-creator Aziz Ansari, who has all but disappeared from the public eye following the anonymous sexual misconduct allegation that was made against him last fall. With Netflix seemingly on board, Yang hints that a third season of that show just might address that experience, if Ansari wants to go there.
With Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen you have two actors with a long history together at SNL. How do you think that existing chemistry contributes to their performances here?
You can’t fake that kind of thing. To have your two leads not only be so tremendously talented, but to already have this preexisting relationship is so, so valuable. You could tell even when they were hanging out off set that they had this incredible chemistry. We were happy that it really translated. The second scene that we ever shot was the one where they’re driving up to Big Bear and they’re in the car and just having this banal but funny conversation about what the best way to spend 30 minutes of your life is. Even in shooting that scene, we were like, we believe this is going to work, because they were so effortlessly funny together.
You mentioned that you came up with a bunch of ideas when they came to you. Were there others that you were excited about that they didn’t respond to as much?
This was my favorite idea, but there were a whole bunch. Hubbard had some that were like they ran a daycare together and one where they were in a cult. One of the things that drew us to this idea is that they play relatively grounded, normal characters. And we felt like seeing them play real people was something we haven’t seen them do as much of. We’ve seen them be hilarious and do sketch comedy and wear wigs and all that stuff so this was almost a departure from all of that.
Your co-creator Matt Hubbard described the characters as a “normcore couple,” which is not what we are used to seeing from them.
Yeah, it’s like, what if they were wearing regular shirts and pants?
I read somewhere also that you told the writers to write fewer jokes?
Yeah, one of the watchwords in the writers’ room was restraint and just making sure we had control of the tone and pacing and all of that. And that’s one of the ways that the show is different. It’s a little slower-paced, there’s a little bit more space, a little bit more emptiness. That feeling of isolation in the way that it looks. We didn’t want every scene to end on a huge joke. We want there to be comedy in the show and I think there’s some really funny scenes but not every scene is a comedy scene.
We’ve seen Maya do some dramatic work, but Fred’s performance goes deeper than anything he’s really done before. Were you surprised with the places he was able to take this character?
Yeah, it was extremely exciting, man. It’s one of the reasons we were attracted to taking on this project, because we wanted to challenge them and broaden what people think of them. And Fred is terrific in it. I think people have not necessarily asked him to do this kind of thing. And he’s very sympathetic and I found them to be a very believable couple and I was rooting for them.
I know you have been very wary of spoilers since nearly every episode seems to end with a surprise of some sort. But I think it’s safe to say this show is less formally realistic than your previous work. What excited you about that element?
The most boring thing you can do is just do the same thing over and over again. So at this point I’ve worked on a workplace comedy and a more observational comedy and this is, I don’t know, a vaguely supernatural relationship show?
Compared to the other shows you’ve worked on, this also seems to be a contained, limited story. Do you think it works because it has this limited scope?
Yeah, I mean there’s certainly a world where if Amazon came to us and said they wanted to do another season I think we’d be open to it. But I think it has a really satisfying ending and it pays off from what you see in the first frame to the last frame. I really like what Maya and Fred do in that last episode. I think their performances are really great and that last sequence really pays off a lot of the show. And it’s something that really excited Matt, too, because he had never worked on a show that wasn’t 150 episodes. It’s eight. So we were able to be very selective about the choices we were making and where we were heading and making sure everything had narrative purpose.
Because it has those cliffhanger endings, it also feels more bingeable than something like Master of None, which was on Netflix, but had more standalone episodes, so that must have been different for you as well.
Oh yeah, it’s a totally different challenge. You’re building a narrative over the course of several episodes and I’m really happy with some of our endings. The crazy cliffhangers, I’m not used to writing those and getting to do those was very fun.
This series deals with long-term relationships and how marriages can evolve and eventually get stale. Why was that something you were eager to tackle, especially because Master of None deals so much with the beginnings of relationships?
I joked about this a little bit when we were doing press for Master of None, but it was kind of like, how many more episodes can we do about Dev going on dates and eating nice food? You want to sort of move on and progress to other topics. So I feel like I’ve really branched out and that’s been a good thing. I love relying on personal experience so on this show I mined a lot Hubbard’s life and our other writers’ lives just in terms of what it means to be married for that long. What drove you crazy and what did you love about it? I always think the real stuff provides some of the best stuff.
It’s a pretty dark look at what marriage can be. They have this great rapport but it also shows how difficult things can get.
Yeah and also how you can be keeping secrets and not being totally honest with the person you’ve spent your entire life with. I think that’s very common. There’s things that are left unsaid and even people who have been together a long time have difficulty communicating I think. That’s very, very relatable.
So speaking of Master of None, Netflix recently said they would be open to a third season. Is that something you are hoping to do at this point?
It’s definitely possible. Aziz and I are obviously good friends and we talk all the time. We were texting today or yesterday. It really depends on whether we hit on something that we’re super excited about. It’s kind of the policy we had between seasons one and two. If we see that we have a season that we’re really, really passionate about, we talk about doing it for sure.
Aziz Ansari has been getting back on stage in a bigger way over the past couple of months, but according to reports he has not addressed the accusation that was made against him last year. Is that something you think you two would try to address through Master of None?
We haven’t talked about that specifically, but I would leave that up to him. Because it’s a personal thing. He may have stuff to say about it or he may not, but that’s certainly something we’ll talk about.
As his friend and close collaborator, what was it like for you to watch that whole story play out?
It was definitely very strange. And you know, Lena [Waithe] has commented on it a little bit and Retta has commented on it a little bit. The big thing is that I know I’m a huge supporter of the whole [#MeToo] movement and I think Aziz is too. But it was very strange, it was a very strange moment in my life, for sure.
So you’re also working on a new film called Tigertail for Netflix. What can you tell me about that project and where it is at this stage?
It’s going, man, we’re shooting it right now. I’m shooting tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. So yeah, it’s been going for a couple of weeks, I love the cast. I’ve been working a lot with Christine Ko and John Cho for this first section of the movie and they’ve been wonderful. I just couldn’t be more excited. Again, it’s a really personal story. It’s loosely based on my family and it’s intergenerational and we’re shooting in Taiwan for part of it. It’s very ambitious so I’m hoping it all pulls together, but I’ve really enjoyed working on it and I’m putting everything I have into it.
From the description, it feels like sort of an extension of the “Parents” episode from season one of Master of None. Do you view it that way?
I think both the “Parents” episode and this entire film are sort of extensions of my own increasing comfort level of making work about being Asian-American and being more comfortable with myself and being more comfortable as a writer and director. So tonally, I think this is more of a drama and has a few comedic grace notes, but is mostly dramatic. So it’ll differ a little bit, tonally, from that episode, but certainly there are some settings in common.
Before Crazy Rich Asians came out, there was a lot of talk about how it could open the door for more Asian-American stories. Now that it has been such a huge commercial success, are you already seeing that become a reality?
I haven’t seen it in the last two weeks, but I’m sure it’s happening! It’s really exciting. I think it just goes to show how underserved a community the Asian-American community is and I hope this is just the beginning, and I’m pretty sure it is. Hopefully the success of that movie inspires not only the business side but the creative side as well. For younger Asian-American writers, directors, performers, there’s hope and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel—not only to make your own stuff but make it about your own lives and not be afraid to write Asian characters.
This interview has been edited and condensed.