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‘What We Do in the Shadows’: Jemaine Clement Brings Comedy Back in the Dramedy Era

With serious-minded "comedies" taking over TV, here's how Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi set out to bring high-spirited fun back from the dead.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS -- "Manhattan Night 1 Club" -- Season 1, Episode 4 (Airs April 17, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: Kayvan Novak as Nandor. CR: Russ Martin/FX

Kayvan Novak in “What We Do in the Shadows”

Russ Martin/FX

For two producers who like to have a good time, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi take one aspect of making “What We Do in the Shadows” very seriously: the rules of being a vampire.

“Most people probably wouldn’t care if a vampire went for a swim in the ocean, but they’re officially not allowed to — they’re not allowed to go in seawater, according to vampire law,” Waititi said during a December set visit. “Some of the rules are so weird if you told someone to explain it in the [show], people would think you’re just being over-the-top.”

“One was, if you want to get rid of a vampire in your village, steal his socks, fill them with garlic, tie them up, and throw them in the river. He’ll be compelled to chase them, [but] then he’ll get the socks and they’ll be full of garlic,” Clement said, chuckling to himself.

Vampires and the laws governing them aren’t exactly new territory for TV fans. From “Supernatural” to “True Blood” to “The Vampire Diaries,” the small screen long ago jumped into the salt-free waters of a generation’s favorite mythical monster. But what makes Clement and Waititi’s FX series stand out isn’t what separates it from other vampire series; it’s how it sets itself apart from other prestige TV “comedies.”

“What We Do in the Shadows” is no hybrid between comedy and drama or even comedy and horror. There’s no overt political messages or highfalutin conversations about the show’s “cinematic” look. It’s just funny. Really, really, funny. And, oddly enough, the rules help make it even funnier.

When they made the 2014 cult film of the same name, Clement remembered having to repeatedly explain vampire rules to his cast and crew. No garlic. No crosses. No sunlight. And if the vampires are exposed to the sun, they don’t wince or sparkle. They burst into flames and die. These are the rules Clement and Waititi understood as law, as well as many more gleaned from a lifetime of obsessing over vampire lore, and the duo was surprised everyone didn’t share their intricate knowledge.

By the early winter of 2018, as Clement nears the end of production on Season 1 and vampires have become prolific in pop culture, such “common knowledge” is more widespread. Still, during one of many late-night scenes — Waititi said making the show was “a lot like being a vampire” because of always shooting in the dark — Clement stands behind Waititi, the episode’s director, and calls out alternate lines for his cast as the try out new jokes on the spot.

“If I’m listening to the actor improvise stuff, I’ll [correct them], ‘They can’t swim!’ ‘They couldn’t do that!'” Clement said.

What We Do in the Shadows FX Season 1 Natasia Demetriou and Matt Berry

Natasia Demetriou and Matt Berry in “What We Do in the Shadows”

Russ Martin/FX

Borrowed predominantly from “The Lost Boys,” these rules are plentiful and steadfast. Producer and writer Paul Simms remembered learning, “If they eat human food, they get sick. Leeches they can chew on or suck on to get the blood out, but the actual leech meat they can’t eat.”

Clement thinks the limitations can be helpful in creating fresh comedy. After all, the rules also serve as a reminder of what these creatures are capable of — like, say, flight.

“It’s different,” Matt Berry said. “It’s a thing that makes the job different, and, more importantly, it’s the thing that makes the show different. What you think you might get is this kind of [normal] sitcom situation — and then somebody will shoot right up in the air, or they’ll get thrown against a wall, which are things you want to see in real life or in a sitcom, and they’re actually happening in this.”

This was of particular appeal to Simms. “So many comedies these days are realistic slices of life that to me end up feeling a little bit the same,” he said. “It’s either a married couple or a divorced couple or this family or that family. And in a way, you can say more about the actual human condition in a crazy, silly parody than by actually trying to imitate life.”

Stefani Robinson, a co-executive producer who also works with Simms on “Atlanta,” said this kind of comedy is what attracted her to Hollywood in the first place.

“It’s silly,” she said. “The characters are really fun, and it’s basically the family sitcom with this group of wacky people living together, and there’s something very cozy about it; something comfortable and relatable.”

And over the last decade, those kind of series aren’t the in-demand comedies. Darkness reigns — just look at a few of last year’s Emmy nominees for Best Comedy Series: There’s “Atlanta,” which Simms said “does plenty of silly stuff, but it’s more of a surprise because it’s part of the surrealistic ‘Atlanta’ world”; Netflix’s “GLOW” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” tackle sexual harassment and abuse; ABC’s “Black-ish,” got so political the network banned an episode from airing; and then there’s HBO’s “Barry,” which got so dark in Season 2 The Hollywood Reporter said it’s “basically a drama now.”

So selling “What We Do in the Shadows” as a silly comedy about wacky characters is no slight. This show is “really trying to be funny,” as Simms said, and despite the supernatural elements and modish focus on vampires, it’s a bit of a throwback. Early talks between Clement and Simms focused on episodic storytelling — standalone episodes akin to traditional sitcoms.

“I mean, there are still elements in the first season that are season-long arcs, but we’re thinking of it more as 10 episodes,” Simms said. “I hate it when TV people [say], ‘It’s like we’re making a 10-episode movie.’ No you’re not! And TV’s better than movies anyway, so why would you want to make that comparison?”

“I think people think of TV as a smaller scale, but it’s actually larger because you have to have so many different stories,” Clement said. “But next week we’re doing a different story, and I love that.”

What We Do in the Shadows Kayvan Novak Mark Proksch

Kayvan Novak and Mark Proksch in “What We Do in the Shadows”

Russ Martin/FX

Meanwhile, the rise of vampires in popular culture give the series an extra edge — intentional or not.

“I think that’s why it’s funny,” Robinson said. “I don’t know if I was consciously aware we were making a commentary on the nature of vampires in pop culture, but I think that […] gives us more story to mine. These aren’t the glamorous, glitzy, shirtless vampires we’ve all grown accustomed to; it’s about the mundane practicalities of being a vampire. I think it’s funnier.”

Also funny: mining pop culture for cameo creatures — or at least characters that exist in the same world as “What We Do in the Shadows.” Clement has said repeatedly the vampires he and Waititi played in the film (as well as Jonny Brugh’s Deacon) exist in the same universe as the TV series, and — as is made clear by the title of Episode 3, “Werewolf Feud,” — so do werewolves. But Simms also said The Babadook exists in the vampire’s world. Necromancers are also real, along with ghosts, “but they’re just referred to and never seen.”

“There was a long debate as to whether a Jewish golem exists, but he doesn’t exist in Season 1,” Simms said.

“The Jersey Devil was a maybe,” Robinson said.

They’re also not exactly sure who the documentary crew is that’s tracking the vampires. Simms said they are human, and they might be the same group who made the film, but he’s not committing to that just yet.

“We have a lot of arguments that are basically [about] what we want to write that’s funny, and trying to use ridiculous logic to prove [why it works],” he said. “‘No, if a vampire could exist, then of course there could be a golem!’ Then someone else says, ‘Well, I think Jewish folklore is different than the literature that led to vampires.’ All of it is really silly when it comes down to it, in the end.”

But that’s pretty much the point: If you’re going to break the rules, do it for the fun of the show.

“What We Do in the Shadows” airs new episodes Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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