‘Playing House’ Creators/Stars Are Our 21st Century Laverne and Shirley

DAME talks to hilarious BFFs—and new moms—Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair as they breast-pump their way through our conversation about their new show, friendship, and the Liz Lemon effect.

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“All we ever wanted to do,” Jessica St. Clair tells me, “was do a show that made people feel like calling their best friend.” She’s talking about Playing House, the new USA series she created and stars in with her IRL BFF, Lennon Parham. You guys are watching it, right? (If not, you can catch up online right here.) The fifth episode airs tonight and it’s only getting weirder, better, and oh so relatable. Parham, 37—who you might remember from Confessions of a Shopaholic—plays Maggie, a very pregnant woman living in her Stars Hollow–esque hometown. When she ditches her cheating husband in the hilarious pilot, her best friend Emma, a corporate go-getter played by St. Clair, 36—who was perfect in DAME fave Afternoon Delight and also made appearances in Bridesmaids and Veep—moves home to help her face motherhood.

The actresses came to the comedy world through Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and their improv genius is on generous display, so the laughs come easily and unexpectedly. Like in the first episode when Emma pretends to use Maggie’s boob as a microphone while belting out Kenny Loggins in the car, just as a cop rolls up on them. A cop who happens to be Emma’s high school boyfriend played by—babe alert!—Keegan-Michael Key. (St. Clair’s favorite description of the show is “Gilmore Girls gone UCB” and it’s wonderfully accurate.) The women’s obvious chemistry gives each episode the comfort and joy of a 22-minute slumber party—they finish one another’s sentences, crack each other up, and are clearly enjoying every second. Which is pretty much how they are in real life as well, when I catch up with them by phone. After pushing our interview back so they could get through a quick script meeting, we talked kindred spirits, sister wives, mystery thongs, and what it means to follow in the footsteps of television’s greatest female friendships. 

It sounds like you guys are having a busy day over there.

Lennon Parham: Thanks for waiting, we’re kind of burning the candle at seven ends.

Jessica St. Clair: I’m gonna be real honest with you Lisa, both of us are currently hooked up to breast pumps while we’re doing this interview, so picture that in your mind’s eye.

LP: We cover it up in a classic paisley…

JS: …hooter hider. It’s a lot easier to do this embarrassing thing with each other than it would be alone.

I’m sure. Now that you’re both mothers are you mining your personal experiences for the show?

JS: What we really mined for the first season was what it was like to be pregnant and all the emotions that go into it—feeling like you gotta live it up before the baby comes and going crazy because your life is going to end.

LP: Or that you’re not ready, all that jazz.

JS: Yeah, but in the beginning of episode 10 there’s a scene where we can’t get the baby to sleep at night cause we can’t find her sleep suit and then you find out that basically, she crapped all over it, and it scared me so much I rolled it into a ball and shoved it under the dresser. Like, that is legitimately something that happened in the first six weeks of my baby’s life.

Do you get the sense that you’re gaining ground for women in the pop cultural landscape?

JS: Well, you know, Lennon and I grew up watching I Love Lucy and Laverne and Shirley and Kate and Allie, really strong women. Gilda Radner and Tracey Ullman—these are the women who made us want to be comedians. So our dream has always been to return to that golden age of television if you will, we just never thought we’d be able to ’cause it used to be really hard to get a show that starred two women. Now, because of Bridesmaids, there’s been some sort of cultural shift, it’s easier. But I think it’s wonderful for younger girls, and we have a lot of fans who are in college and high school, to watch two women who are celebrating each other and supporting each other to live their best lives as opposed to, like, fighting over a man or backstabbing each other, which honestly is just not how women are to each other for the most part.

LP: I feel like we are showing women as they authentically are and sharing our worst parts and how we mess up and our vulnerabilities and how close we are at any moment to just falling apart. And I feel like there has recently been a celebration of that as opposed to like, if you’re on television you have to look a certain way and you’re always together and you’re always saying the best things. That’s not who women are, you know? So I think women are just connecting. I know I connect with that. When I’m talking to my girlfriends, I’m not talking about how perfect my hair is, I’m talking about…

JS: …how you spent the last 24 hours with a raisin stuck to your ass and no one told you.

LP: Yes! [laughs] You know, Jessica eats a lot of little bites of chocolate and when we were writing this show I had just bought chairs that had white covers on them and Jessica had sat down on one and smeared a piece of chocolate on one—she had somehow gotten chocolate on her butt. And I did not know what was going on. I was like, “Jessica, do we need to talk?”

JS: She’s like, “Is this one of those things in Cosmo magazine where you write in and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I got my period all over my white seats in my convertible Cabriolet.’” I’m like, nooo, what?! That’s a day in the life for Lennon and me. [laughs]

I think that’s a day in the life for most women. Like, the scraps of food I find in my bra at the end of the day…it’s ridiculous.

JS: It’s weird, right? The other day I found a thong in my purse that wasn’t mine. And it wasn’t Lennon’s and I don’t know whose thong it is or why it got in there. Like, that’s a mystery that will go unsolved.

LP: But anyway, I think we’re more allowed now because of Bridesmaids and because of Tina Fey with Liz Lemon and all her faults, to be our goofy selves, and I think women really connect to that ’cause that’s how you connect with your best friend.

Your real-life friendship lends so much authenticity to your characters. And I don’t know if this is wishful thinking, but it seems like kind of a trend. With ‘Playing House’ and ‘Broad City,’ and Garfunkel and Oates’ show that’s coming out, we’ve got this great crop of real life friends doing excellent work for television.

JS: You know, I’ve got to give it up to Amy Poehler honestly, because she was one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre so when we were young comedians we were looking up to her and watching how she did things. And she and Tina and Maya [Rudolph] and all those girls, they’re legit friends. I remember when I was an intern at the UCB I was cleaning the bathrooms, which were disgusting, on Wednesday nights, and Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey, who were old-school friends from Chicago, they did a sketch show together on their break from SNL. I could tell that they were having the time of their lives on stage together ’cause not only are they both fearless comedians, but also they clearly loved each other. And I was like, That’s what I want to do. I feel like it’s that generation of women who showed us what it was to not only be great comedians but to also celebrate being women and working with your best friend.

You two met at UCB…was it, like, love at first joke? Were you looking for another person to partner with in that way?

LP: Well, Jess was already working with another alternative comedian, Jason Mantzoukas, who’s one of the funniest dudes in the world. And I was on another team so we sort of just passed each other in the night and nodded and were like, “Oh, I like your style.”

JS: But I mean, we were both these nice girls, who had normal upbringings and so something had brought us both to this basement theater. And then the moment we had our first date, which was to talk about how we had both been crying in our cars separately in different parking lots because we’d just moved to L.A., instantly I felt like I had known her my whole life. Not to get all psychic and, like, Shirley MacLaine on you, but I do feel like maybe we knew each other in a former life or something.

LP: I feel like we were wives of somebody.

JS: Yes. [laughs]

LP: We would, like, help each other take care of our children. I would secret you some pieces of bread and you would be like, “He likes it when you tickle him…”

JS: [yelling] All right, all right! Gross. [laughs]

I love that story because I feel the same way about my best friend. We met at a slumber party in junior high, and I can remember the moment, like, in our sleeping bags where we stayed up all night talking, thinking, This is my best friend forever. And she is.

JS: YES! And you know, it’s very romantic. You meet somebody and they just get you and to be understood in that way is so special and it doesn’t happen that often. I always quote Anne of Green Gables, my obsession since I was eight years old. She would talk about these kindred spirits and how they were really hard to find but once you found them you would have them for the rest of your life and that’s really what Lennon is to me. And luckily she wanted to write stories about female friendships and have it be super funny.

You guys mentioned being inspired by Lucy and Ethel earlier, and several ‘Playing House’ reviewers have compared you to them. Do you feel like you’re continuing that legacy?

LP: I hope so. I mean nothing would make us happier. There was a pure joy with which those women moved through their lives and you could see the problem coming, you could see that they were about to get into the wrong place at the wrong time, but then you were so happy when they did because it was so fun to watch them get out of it. And it still holds up, that stuff is still funny. So hopefully we are doing the same thing.

JS: We watched a lot of Laverne and Shirley before we started writing this because Lennon is like straight up Laverne and I’m 100 percent Shirl and always have been. And what we took away from watching those episodes, which are still as funny as they were when they were first on TV, is that they looked like they were having fun. And I thought, Let’s make this show just straight up fun, let’s write parts for all of our best friends from the UCB, let’s have the set be a place where people really want to come to work, let’s wrap at 6:30 so we’re home for bath time, and let’s fucking live the dream and we did it.



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