Meet the Next Tina Fey & Amy Poehler: Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair Talk ‘Playing House’
How fans’ obsession with Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair’s hilarious best friendship shamed USA into greenlighting Season 2 of their critically hailed comedy, Playing House.
You can tell how close best friends are not by the nice things they have to say about each other, but how much they fight—and what they fight about. Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, who co-write and co-star in the USA comedy Playing House, are currently fighting about Oprah.
“Lennon had Oprah’s Favorite Things, the last one she ever did, on her DVR,” St. Clair explains. “We used to watch it in four-minute increments because we wanted to spread it out and it never to end. Then she deleted it and didn’t tell me.”
“I didn’t delete it, Jessica, I upgraded to the DirecTV Genie so that I could record five channels at once and a necessary evil was giving up the old DVR,” Parham fires back, defending herself. “We gotta be honest, too, you haven’t been in my living room in a year…”
Then St. Clair cuts in again. “I know but I’m going to be there in September after this job is done and what the fuck are we going to watch on our lunch break? I’ll tell you what we’re not going to watch, Lennon, Mary J. Blige performing for Oprah.”
That such flagrant Oprah-related crimes were committed and this best friendship could survive is a testament to the strength and longevity of St. Clair and Parham’s connection. The two met over a decade ago while studying at the famed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and began writing and performing together a few years later after both had moved to Los Angeles.
Known individually for scene-stealing character work in major comedy projects—St. Clair played the employee at the dress boutique where Bridesmaids’ infamous pooping scene took place, while Parham recently had an arc on Veep as Karen, the noncommittal consultant—their respective skills have never been put to better use than when they’re working together.
Playing House will premiere its second season on USA August 4, an achievement in its own right because, as St. Clair says it, their show was basically “the walking dead.” Due to the first season’s low ratings, it appeared as if Playing House was going to go the way of Best Friends Forever, their previous collaboration together for NBC that was canceled after one season.
But charmed by the batty authenticity of the freewheeling chemistry between St. Clair and Parham, critics and the show’s loyal group of fans relentlessly sang Playing House’s praises and the comedy, which stars the pair as best friends raising a baby together, scored a surprise eleventh-hour renewal just as the stars’ contracts were almost up.
“You guys shamed USA into bringing the show back,” St. Clair says. “It was dead.”
That means another chance for St. Clair and Parham to prove how perfectly they fit into a pop culture world obsessed with female best friendships and comedy partnerships, a la Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer or Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
(In fact, Poehler was one of the pair’s improv teachers, and St. Clair was so obsessed with Fey and Poehler’s two-person show from years ago that she was able to mouth the words along to it from the back of the UCB Theatre. “To this day I think that Tina Fey thinks I’m a threat to her physical safety, and she’s probably right,” she says.)
To get to the crux of what makes their best friendship and comedy partnership so special, we chatted with Parham and St. Clair about the secret sauce to their chemistry, why they’re just like Rudy, and having sex with the Property Brothers. As you do.
There seems to be a mood of shock and appreciation with you two that you’re doing this show again.
Jessica: In Hollywood, normally things don’t work out and dreams are crushed. In fact [The Big Bang Theory star] Melissa Rauch told me it was like building a carefully built robot and then you have to watch someone smash it in front of you, and then having to do it over and over again. I don’t mean to be too depressing, but it felt like, OK, well this show we felt was really good had these amazing fans who were clamoring for it and the press was clamoring for it and it still wasn’t coming back. So we couldn’t even move on. We were trying to mourn it and move on and write something new but we couldn’t.
Lennon: We were sort of given the impression that it was dunzo, but there had not been an official announcement. So we were trying to keep it positive, but we really felt like this could be it. We were trying to write other stuff, but couldn’t. It was a movie about Bird Bones, basically.
Jessica: Then we got a call from Jess Wachtel, who is the president of Universal Cable Productions, who produces the show. He’s our biggest fan. He didn’t give up hope and found a way for the show to happen for Season Two and it was better than it could’ve ever been. And my first words were, both of ours, were, “Shut the fuck up. Is this a prank?” We couldn’t stop screaming at this man “fuck you” over and over again.
Lennon: All signs pointed to no, you know what I mean? When they flipped the script on us we literally didn’t believe it. It had been off the air for seven months. It was at the end of our contractual period. And we were sure that it was deadzo. But they couldn’t say no to us.
Jessica: We’re like the comedy version of the movie Rudy, which I haven’t seen. But from the trailer I understand that in the end they put him in. You know what I mean? I think I remember it ending with his football helmet on and staring at a stadium of people, so I’m hoping that they put him in and he scored a touchdown.
You two are just like Sean Astin in Rudy. For sure.
Jessica: But the other thing that was kind of cool about it was because we almost had our dreams smashed, when we finally got our second season, we said to each other, “You know what? We just want to have the best time of our lives.” That was our mandate. We put a board up in the writers’ room and everyone went around and said if they had a dream of working with or writing for somebody, and we said we’re going to make all these dreams come true. And then we were on set and one of our writers was like, “I can’t believe it.” Because we were watching Kenny Loggins sing a duet with us and she was like, “Everything really is coming true.”
Lennon: That’s a straight-up spoiler alert. You keep telling people that, Jessica!
Jessica: Oh, no, Kevin, just say, “When Mr. Kenny Loggins shows up on set.” Maybe we have sex with him. You don’t know!
Well the rumor is that it’s actually the Property Brothers who you have sex with this season.
Jessica: Lennon’s character was going to have her first sex dream after having her baby, which is a thing new moms go through when you realize, “Oh, I’m still a woman.” And it was with the Property Brothers. We were like it would be so amazing to see that dream. We had never had a dream sequence because it wasn’t in the reality of our show, but we were like fuck it this would be hilarious. So we tweeted at them and within seconds they were like where should we be and this is the size we are in white denim.
They are so tall.
Jessica: They’re so tall and their jeans were so tight.
Lennon: They said we put them in the tightest jeans they had ever worn, which I found surprising and also delighting.
Jessica: When we were shooting and Lennon emerged and saw the Property Brothers in their white jeans and white linen suits, I literally said this is the best moment of my life. It will never get better than this. And then we told them that we need to make the making out look more passionate, so would you mind getting more into it. And then I hear Drew say, “Lennon, do you mind if I lick your neck?” And that’s when I thought we made it.
Lennon: This is it. This is Hollywood. This is the stuff of dreams that Stevie Nicks is talking about.
So all your dreams came true, and you said it was because fans and critics were clamoring for the show to come back. There was also a lot of fan and critical support for BFF. What is it about the two of you and your comedy that gets such a response?
Jessica: I think it’s because Lennon and I are real-life best friends. And though the circumstances are heightened—we’re not really raising a baby together, although Lennon is sort of raising my baby in that she’s the only one that gives her discipline—the fact that we are literally behaving as ourselves and our real friendship is onscreen, I think people really recognize themselves and their best friends in it, in that we have our own language. We always have each other’s backs even though we can fight like sisters. There’s never any doubt that we’ll not work it out in the end. How would you say it, Lennon?
Lennon: I would say I think it serves to fill in the gap that doesn’t exist in comedy as much right now, which is super, super funny but also kind of sweet. You can watch each episode and cry and also laugh. Every episode is kind of connected to some piece of reality. The episode where I have a sex dream about the Property Brothers, it’s totally connected to a real time in a woman’s life where she hasn’t felt sexual in a while and now she’s getting back into that and it’s scary. She doesn’t know if she can do it, but because her best friend is there telling her she looks like a million bucks, she starts to try. Everything that happens comes from a kernel of a real, true idea and then we build the comedy on top of that. Those roots of each episode support us going off the deep end.
When I think about TV comedies about female friendship, and the best scenes between girlfriends on them, I think about the fight between Carrie and Miranda on Sex and the City or Hannah and Marnie on Girls. You need to see a full range of emotions to love those characters.
Jessica: We have talks about that “Don’t you go to Paris with him!” fight between Carrie and Miranda at least once a week, because they’re fighting because they love each other so fiercely and these changes that are going on in each other’s lives are threatening that. At the end of the day you’re not worried that they’re not going to work it out, but it’s not tied up in a bow, you know?
Do you have anything like that on the show this season?
Jessica: Lennon, you have this great arc in this season where I get a boyfriend. He crashes our girls’ weekend at the lake and Lennon’s character has a full-on breakdown when we take the paddleboat without her. It’s so ridiculous that she’s freaking out about the fact that she didn’t get to see a loon, but what it’s really about is, “Oh god, of course, we’re adult women, we’re going to have relationships. We’re going to have to work through this.” In our writers’ room everyone had a story about a girls’ weekend that was crashed by a man. For the readers out there, if your girlfriend says she’s having a girls’ weekend do not show up with a bottle of rosé. No one wants to see your face there.
Lennon: Leave the rosé.
Jessica: Leave the rosé and drive home in your Honda Civ. Nobody needs to see you.
So many of the interviews I read with the two of you have questions about advice for being good friends. Do you feel a pressure to be friendship role models, or to give advice like you’re Iyanla on Oprah.
Jessica: That’s our dream.
Lennon: If I could forever be in the same category with Iyanla. I mean, come on.
Jessica: In fact there’s an episode, Lennon, where she has to give an Iyanla-like speech to Bird Bones. I wasn’t aware while shooting it but now it’s all coming back that you’re really being like her. You were channeling Iyanla and I didn’t realize it.
Lennon: I don’t feel pressure. I love talking about our friendship. I would say this is how we do it. Everyone has ways to work their stuff out, but this is how we do it. We are together like 15 hours every day and when we’re on those press tours we are literally talking about the show in a positive light and our friendship in a positive light, and we have to stay connected. If we’re not connected you can feel it, I think. So we have to make sure that if there’s something on the table we deal with it when it’s appropriate to deal with it. We’ve had real tearful conversations in a Baja Fresh parking lot. Or even in our writers’ room, not in front of everyone, but if something goes down we talk about it right away, or try to really, and really get into it because otherwise we don’t have a show.
Jessica: Mostly our fights end with us apologizing and we make sure we’re OK and then I jump on top of Lennon and hump her.
Lennon: In a moment of clarity she grinds her crotch in my face so we can recapture the comedy of the moment.
Jessica: The one piece of advice I would give to all girlfriends, or guy friends too I guess, is that if you’re going to have a fight in a Baja Fresh parking lot make sure one of you has an available pair of sunglasses because whoever is crying is going to want to wear them. Lennon and I have had multiple experiences where we have to put the pair of sunglasses on. The person doesn’t stop crying.
Lennon: If you put the sunglasses on nobody can see it.
Season 2 of Playing House premieres Tuesday, August 4 on USA.