If comedy can thrive in chaos, then it’s no surprise that my memories of talking with “Another Period” star/creators Riki Lindhome and Natasha Leggero are filled with laughter, as we sat down to chat at a table in the busy halls of the hotel hosting the TCA Winter Press Tour earlier this year. Joined by an unanticipated guest halfway through our interview — “Period” director Jeremy Konner — Lindhome and Leggero laid out the genesis of their ingenious new comedy series, which takes a “Real Housewives”-style spin on high society in Newport, Connecticut, circa 1902.
What inspired Lindhome and Leggero to dig into the time period? How does authentic period dress effect one’s ability to perform comedy? How do you seduce “Mad Men” star Christina Hendricks? The answers are below.
So I just wanted to start off by getting the origin story of the project.
RL: We made the first short two or three years ago. Three years ago, maybe?
RL: I guess two, a little over two years ago, because it was in October.
NL: We funded it because we just knew that if we wanted to make this ambitious period piece, that tone would be so important. We wanted to show what that would be and not just have people guess.
RL: We also wanted to set it before someone bought it, so that we could have it how we wanted it.
That’s actually a great point. Have you guys been in projects before where you thought you had the tone figured out, but when it gets into production it didn’t work out?
NL: Well, one thing I’ll tell you is that we can both count on one hand the projects we’ve been in that we thought were funny. [laughs] We have both been in 50/60 jobs since we’ve been here. Our main goal was to make something that we really loved and that we thought would be funny.
[Note: At this point, Konner joined us at the table.]
RL: This is our director Jeremy.
Hi Jeremy, nice to meet you.
J: I’m just going to sit here. I’ll direct. [laughs]
You made the original shorts, and then you got it funded. When did Comedy Central enter the mix?
NL: They made the pilot with us, I guess, a year ago. I’m really bad, I always just say a year ago. [laughs]
RL: I think it was though because we edited it over Christmas, or was that two years ago?
JK: It was last Christmas.
So it’s been in gestation for a long time.
NL: Yeah, which is good, because we had a lot of time to do research and find our tone.
In terms of the research, what kind of internal rules were there in terms of depicting the time period?
NL: Jeremy was also in the entire writing process, in the writers’ room with us, and he would really stay on us about making things historically accurate. We have a scene with Gandhi. It’s Gandhi in 1902 and it’s Gandhi as a lawyer. We cast someone who would be that same age and have same facial hair. We tried to keep it as close as possible. Wouldn’t you say?
RL: A lot of the time, the actual facts are funnier than anything we could make up.
NL: That’s true.
RL: A beauty pageant with cabbages and humans was real. We were like, we can’t improve on that [laughs], so let’s just do that.
I was just reading about Alice Roosevelt, who was an insane figure, smoking on the roof of the White House and everything.
RL: Rich people are so eccentric, and I don’t think people really realize. Especially by the turn of the century, they were living like rappers and there was no income tax. They are some of the most fascinating people, and I am endlessly fascinated.
Was there some specific fact that inspired you, got this whole thing rolling?
NL: Well, we went to Newport, where the show is based. We took all the house tours and learned about all of these eccentric families and their lifestyle. The houses show you. You couldn’t even run the house without 30 servants. That’s why, when they introduced the income tax in 1915, people started getting other jobs. They were like, “Wait, we don’t want to be your slaves anymore.” They actually couldn’t keep the houses running. Now, they just have all of these museum houses sitting there. It’s very inspiring to go there.
JK: One thing that was most interesting to me about this time period and Newport, when you guys first talked to me about it, is the fact that everybody is living like “Downton Abbey,” but it’s all new money. Even the old money is actually only a couple of generations old. That is the oldest the money gets. Everybody is the richest human that has ever lived, but they’ve never lived like this before. All of the servants in “Downton” have been in a serving class for hundreds of years, but in America nobody knows what the hell they’re doing. They don’t know how to be a servant or an under-butler. [laughs]
NL: They are doing an impression of what they think royalty is, which is basically a nouveau riche type of behavior.
When I was watching it, I was very struck — maybe it is just because “Downton Abbey” is airing right now — but I was struck by the comparisons between the two. Was that in the back of your mind at all?
RL: Yeah, we love “Downton Abbey.”
NL: We are just on a wavelength with them. It only helps our show, but it’s cool to know we are channeling something. Or maybe we are all channeling from the same source?
Is that something you’re worried about, having to make a distinction between the two?
NL: It’s in America though, that’s the thing. It’s America. It is our story. “Downton Abbey” is all about England, and it is a huge hit in England. We just like it because it’s entertaining, but it’s not about our country. This is first and foremost a comedy, but its roots are America.
In terms of the writer’s room and the production, what kind of internal rules were there for what you do, in terms of a reality parody versus actually trying to be truthful to character and story?
NL: I don’t think our show is a reality parody, though.
RL: No, but we do the two cameras. We do the talking heads. But, for the most part, we try to tell the story as a narrative and sprinkle in reality elements, instead of straight-up reality.
NL: Our rules are to be as dirty as they’ll let us. [laughs] We just try to get as much past as we can.
You have an incredible ensemble in this. How do you go about building that kind of cast?
NL: We got so lucky.
JK: The first thing that happened that was so amazing was that because we were only doing a presentation at first, we got to say to all of these incredible people that we are just doing a presentation. You are not signing on, it’s not even a pilot. It’s just a presentation. So a lot of people agreed to lend themselves for a day, for a friend’s presentation.
Is there anyone you can say that agreed to do that and found themselves roped into the main cast?
NL: Everyone wanted to be in it.
RL: That’s how we got so lucky. After people did it, everyone is, like, what’s happening? Are we doing it? What is going on?
NL: So many amazing people like Paget [Brewster]. She is a very in-demand actress. She quit a very lucrative criminal procedural [“Criminal Minds”] to do this. This is what she wanted to do. So we just got really lucky.
RL: We had been in the comedy world for so long — we had been in people’s stuff.
NL: Michael Ian Black came here from New York. We tried to shoot him out around his kids’ schedules in New York because they were entering school, but it was important enough for him. A lot of people made sacrifices to make it happen.
RL: Enough people had fun on the pilot and short.
NL: They knew it was something very different, that they wouldn’t typically get the chance to do.
It does lend itself to this perception that I keep encountering, where it seems that everyone in the comedy world knows each other.
RL: I know. [laughs]
Is the fact that just everyone knows each other?
J: Yeah, pretty much.
NL: The parties are great. [laughs]
You guys just sit around playing Celebrity.
JK: That is also why it was a little more of a seduction that we had to do, to entrance Miss Hendricks.
RL: It was a seduction!
JK: With Ben Stiller, he’s producing, it’s like, will you be in it? Okay, cool, Ben is in it. With Christina, we actually had to convince her that this is going to be a real show.
So how do you seduce Christina Hendricks, then?
NL: That is a good question.
RL: We were really passionate about getting her.
NL: We knew she would be hilarious, too. We knew she would be great for the part. We knew she would shine. Selfishly, we knew almost no one else would be as good as her at that part because she is so sexy and so good at going head-to-head with Paget. We saw it so clearly that I think we convinced her. I’m so glad we did because she was awesome. She was so amazing.
JK: We took her to have some pancakes. [laughs]
RL: We also bought her pancakes. That could be it.
JK: That’s how you really seduce someone in this business.
RL: Yeah, breakfast.
NL: Also, let me just say, not everyone can do periods. It’s a very specific skill in casting. Oh, they’re too modern, too modern, but Christina just blossoms in a period thing. The fact that it was comedy was such a unique new way to see her, I thought.
How does period dress affect the kind of comedy you can and can’t do? Is there stuff you couldn’t do in a corset, and inversely, stuff that you can do in a corset that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise?
NL: Well, our characters do whatever they want, because they have a team of people to bathe them, serve them, clean up after them and carry them around.
I meant like would it be funny, versus would it not be funny?
NL: Everything is funnier to me when you have six petticoats on. Our characters really did whatever they wanted.
JK: There were a lot of times when we wanted things to spill, but not so easy with period costumes.
You were renting, I imagine?
NL: Let’s just say we ruined a lot of valuable, priceless clothes. [laughs] That’s a good point. I remember tipping over a table and then all this punch coming on the dress, and then the wardrobe girl, her face turning white, and she is like, “That is 85 years old, that dress you’re wearing.” Some of the stuff was like 200 years old. It is cruel to be able to wear these old pieces of art.
And then ruin them.
NL: And ruin them!
“Another Period” premieres tonight on Comedy Central.