Doing improv, for the most part, is fun. Turns out, doing improv for an entire week — hosting a fake talk show that’s also a metaphor for the stages of grief — is worthy of an Emmy nomination.
Beyond the unconventional story setup, “The Earliest Show” was a unique challenge for seasoned improv veterans Lauren Lapkus and Ben Schwartz. In the Funny or Die web series, they play the co-hosts of a morning show where emotions run high, interviews run weird, and everything goes back to how funny a breakup can be in a different context.
What ultimately became a six-episode run came out of a week of shooting based on a story outline by Schwartz, who also directed the series. Playing the lovesick Josh Bath, Schwartz also got the chance to take the character through the aftermath of a failed marriage proposal. When Captain Crunch and Funny or Die came to Schwartz with a late night talk show format idea, Schwartz thought that flipping it to a morning show might be the perfect vessel for Josh’s mini-tragedy.
Read More: Emmy Predictions 2017
“I haven’t seen a ton of these type of comedic web series that have a through-line,” Schwartz said, in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It would be funny if two people have to be cheery every single morning, something terrible happens that one of them can no longer face, and you see them literally go through hell — go through all the stages of grief. While that is happening you have someone that has to continue pretending that they’re the happiest people in the world, which is what Lauren does so well.”
Lapkus is no stranger to playing off-the-cuff energetic improv characters, whether on her podcast, “With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus,” or through her many “Comedy Bang Bang” appearances. But maintaining that in-character faux positivity as co-host Sam Newman meant going through a slightly different process.
“It was an interesting learning experience. We had been doing these absurd characters for so long that we started to get a little slap-happy. The last day of shooting ended up being the first episode, so it starts at a really high note,” Lapkus said. “I think you can see in different areas where I hadn’t gotten as insane with the character yet, but I think we were just finding how weird we could get with it.”
As it stands, “The Earliest Show” is an impressive juggling act: The exaggerated morning show premise, a disparate roster of guest stars (from Jane Levy to Pedro Pascal), and structuring each episode around the various stages of grief would be difficult even if everything was intricately plotted out. But, in a way, working from suggestions rather than a fixed script made Schwartz’s job a little easier.
“You learn to self-edit yourself. If it goes off track, I’ll ask them to do it again. That’s the benefit of being an improviser and directing at the same time. You can choose the content you want and veer it in the direction you want,” Schwartz said.
What made the final cut was bizarre enough: Lapkus’ character gets a fake proposal from former NBA player and current broadcaster Reggie Miller, and a rogue piece of toast sticks to her apron in a cooking segment. The third member of “The Earliest Show” crew, Joe Hartzler as Mark the producer, also gets some prime opportunities to navigate the onscreen emotional minefield the show sets up. But having such a free production process left room for plenty of moments that Schwartz was sad to see go.
“The Jake Johnson interview we did three different times, and one of them made me laugh so hard,” Schwartz said. “Jake crumples a piece of paper and threw it at Joe Hartzler’s character, and it hit the ground, and then Jake goes, ‘Can you pick that up for me, please?’ When he bends down, Jake slaps Joe’s ass really hard. Joe stands up and doesn’t let anybody see that he’s in pain, and then he gives the paper back to Jake. Jake drops it again and goes, ‘Oops,’ and they do that, no joke, six times. And then, when it was done, Jake and Joe hug, and Joe starts crying, feeling like it’s a huge emotional catharsis and they went through an emotional thing together. It really made me laugh. There’s a lot of that.”
Schwartz and Lapkus are no strangers to the improv world: performing together in the past in the UCB flagship show “Asssscat” helped make them natural scene partners on screen. Even without an audience, their experienced helped maintain the right character atmosphere on a closed set.
“When you hear the crew laughing a little bit, you roll with it a little bit more. You hope that you’re doing it correctly, but we could feel each other out, between the three of us, me, Joe, and Lauren. It wasn’t as terrifying because we could push on each other and be like, ‘That was alright, right?'”
Even though this absurdist take on the morning show host, Lapkus insists that her character comes from a place of love.
“Of course this character that I’m playing is kind of an idiot, and I think Kelly [Ripa]’s very smart, but watching her is really amazing, because she keeps the conversation going no matter what’s happening. I think that’s very cool, and it was really inspiring for this as well,” Lapkus said.
And what’s a bit of improv without delighting in someone screwing up every once in a while? That might explain how the hourlong blooper reel of the show’s funniest unused moments ended up taking on a life of its own. (At one point, Schwartz even toyed with submitting the full set of outtakes to Sundance as another level for the joke.)
“It’s so fun to watch, because really those are the things that you just never get to see again. Those moments that you crack up, they just get cut from a scene or a show, so it was really, really fun to be able to watch that and relive that experience,” Lapkus said. “I think it’s really cool to be able to share with the audience that there was just hours and hours of footage that was more insane than what actually ends up being on there.”
“I get a lot of people that’ll be like, ‘Listen, it took three sittings, but I finished that thing and I love it so much and any time I need to laugh I just pop it on and run it,’ and that makes me so, so happy,” Schwartz said.