(L to R) JORDAN PEELE, WILL FORTE, FRED ARMISEN, DON CHEADLE, RICKY GERVAIS, and THOMAS MIDDLEDITCH
Actors DON CHEADLE and JORDAN PEELE are among six Hollywood Comedy Actors nominated for the 2015 EMMY AWARDS BEST COMEDY ACTOR AWARD assembled for 2015 EMMY AWARDS: THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER TV COMEDY ACTOR ROUNDTABLE!!!
Here are Portlandia's Fred Armisen, 48; House of Lies' Don Cheadle, 50; The Last Man on Earth's Will Forte, 44; Derek's Ricky Gervais, 53; Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch, 33; and Key & Peele's Jordan Peele, 36.
Here are some highlights from the roundtable interview:
Who or what first taught you what it meant to be funny?
RICKY GERVAIS My family — my older brothers — and friends. At 5 or 6, I realized it felt good to laugh and make people laugh. I was always attracted to funny people before anything else. The first time I understood it was people doing it for my pleasure was Laurel and Hardy. It began and ended with them because it was about empathy, not just jokes. It was the fact that I loved watching them and wanted to be their friend. I suppose it was understanding, empathy and that sort of thing. See, now I've gone first with a serious, pretentious answer!
WILL FORTE For me, it was also wanting to please Ricky's family and make them laugh. (Laughter.) Saturday Night Live was a big deal for me.
GERVAIS It was before Fred was on, wasn't it?
FORTE Yes. It was right before that.
FRED ARMISEN Thank you.
FORTE SNL and Letterman for me. I was like, "Oh my God, what a delightful thing if I could do that for a living."
THOMAS MIDDLEDITCH I am the token Canadian here, so for me it was Kids in the Hall. They were so weird and challenged absurdity. And the Monty Python movies. They combined their love of madness with narrative. When you get to sink your teeth into a good story and laugh along the way, it's always a joy. (To the group) Best answer so far? Vote?
GERVAIS Monty Python is also when I became aware that I was jealous of grown men acting ridiculous. I got told off at school for being a fool and mucking around, but they're doing it for a living. I thought, "This would be great." No one could tell me not to do it because it'd be my job.
MIDDLEDITCH "And I can finally dress as a lady and people will think it's great."
GERVAIS That's rule one: The funniest thing you can ever do as a comedian if you're a man is dress up like a woman.
ARMISEN Early on for me, it was probably friends and then cartoons, I suppose? Bugs Bunny and stuff.
What was the worst job you had coming up in the business?
CHEADLE I used to install cable in apartment crawl spaces, and I probably was crawling all over asbestos and rat sh*t. And then stealing from the apartments, weed stashes and stuff like that. That was fun.
GERVAIS Not that that's condoned.
CHEADLE Definitely not, especially if kids are reading this.
GERVAIS Why are they reading this? (Laughter.)
MIDDLEDITCH Go to your favorite viral video site! See someone get hit in the nuts! Anything but this, please.
FORTE My worst job was an office job doing what my dad did — financial consulting. It was really tricky because I started thinking I wanted to go into comedy, but it was really scary to break away from what I'd thought I should be doing with my life. But that job dragged me down. I stayed at it for so long that it finally broke me. I bottomed out.
GERVAIS "Father, I'm leaving. I am going to L.A.!" (Laughter.)
FORTE Of course, the second I told my dad, "I don't want to do this, I want do comedy," he was incredibly supportive. He was like, "I don't know why you were doing that in the first place."
MIDDLEDITCH "You're terrible at this job."
CHEADLE "I've been trying to fire you for three years, I just couldn't work up the courage."
What was your most mortifying audition?
GERVAIS I wrote parts for myself, so I didn't have to audition for anything. I cheated. I was around 36, 37. I'd worked in an office for like 10 years, which is what The Office was based on. But I never thought, "I am going to write this someday." I was just the "funny guy." Then I got a job at a radio station and started popping up on air. I think I went to one audition for a [commercial], and it was dreadful. I never want to do that again. I'm no good at auditions.
PEELE There is no good audition. It is an exquisitely mortifying experience. One of the more recent ones I had was for [Marvel's upcoming film] Ant-Man …
CHEADLE Did you get the part?
PEELE The funny thing is, I actually did. But the audition was a nightmare. This was when Edgar Wright was still directing it. It was one of those things where my manager tells me: "You got the gig. Just go in there. It's a done deal. They just want to see you on camera. It's already done." So I go in there, it's like four lines.
GERVAIS "I'm an ant! Oh, there's some sugar!" (Laughter.)
CHEADLE "Now, you and your friends make a bridge."
PEELE You think you don't need the script because you studied it so much. I told them: "That was shit. That was awful. I apologize. I've wasted your time." And then Edgar was, "No, no, that was good." I guess that's how Hollywood works now — I had the worst audition of my life, and I got the role anyway. So, my manager did not lie. [Editor's note: Peele ultimately didn't work on Ant-Man because of scheduling conflicts.]
FORTE I used to, no matter what, do a weird Southern accent in auditions. I once read for a part that Jimmy Fallon got — the band manager part in Almost Famous — and they said, "Try it again without the Southern accent." It got more Southern the second time. I guess I didn't think that my own voice was interesting enough. That's the good thing about auditioning for SNL — at least you're doing your own thing. You have a certain amount of control because you're saying your own words. You're like, "This is what I got. Do you like it?"
MIDDLEDITCH [My] SNL audition was so nerve-racking. The show is a bit of a gold medal that you wear around your neck, gold medal-style. It's built up for so much of your life. And you finally get to be on that stage, and it's like, "OK, do three characters, three impressions" in five minutes. It's like, "Oh man, there's [creator-executive producer] Lorne Michaels and all these people that I want to work with."
ARMISEN You might still get the job someday, you never know.
What's the craziest thing you've done for a laugh or to get a job?
CHEADLE Whenever I get naked on House of Lies, it's really laugh-worthy. At least the crew laughs. Hmmm. The craziest thing I've ever done to get a job … does blowing somebody count? (Laughter.)
ARMISEN It's not that easy anymore.
CHEADLE I didn't get the job, by the way, and it seemed like it was a setup.
GERVAIS That's a really tough question.
OK, when were you the most wrong about something you'd written that you thought would totally kill and didn't?
CHEADLE I was a senior in high school in Denver, and there was a comedy club open mic night. My friend and I came up with the routine and did five minutes, and I was like, "We crushed. People loved it! Shit, this is easy." Then I invited my parents the next time, and we didn't crush so much. It was very, very, very bad. There's no worse feeling I've ever had than being onstage trying to do stand-up and having it tank. I've been in bad plays, but you can pass the ball there, you know what I mean? You can hide.
GERVAIS You can't suddenly say, "I didn't write that," or "That's not what I really think." It's just you.
CHEADLE Then I started pushing harder, getting in sort of an adversarial relationship with the audience.
GERVAIS With stand-up, it's like you're coming out saying, "This is the funniest stuff I can do. This is my best." Silence is the worst.
CHEADLE The collective sound of 100 people groaning quietly to themselves, it sounded like, "Ughhhh." It was a chorus. It was bad.
ARMISEN When Liam Neeson hosted SNL, we played a German family in a sketch. We all had blond hair. Liam Neeson was the dad and kept sitting on everything. We presented him with a violin, and he'd sit on it. A dollhouse the daughter made, he'd sit on it. I thought it was the funniest thing in the world. Then it went to dress rehearsal, and it was very, very dead silent. There wasn't even a groan. It was the absence of sound. And Liam totally sold it — German accent and everything. But now that I've described it, I'm thinking that was not the best idea in the whole world. Like, where's the joke?
MIDDLEDITCH Are you kidding me, bro? I love it when he crushes all those tiny things.