In “Joust!”, the 21st episode of ABC’s freshman sitcom “Single Parents,” Will (Taran Killam) is rushing out of his house when he pauses to crack a joke. “Don’t steal anything,” he tells Angie, played by Leighton Meester. They both laugh — it’s a joke! — but then Will stops again at the door and repeats his request, sans frivolity. “Don’t steal anything,” he says.
“I’m going to steal some shit,” Meester told IndieWire when remembering the scene during a recent interview. “For some reason, that’s become an inside joke — that Angie’s a freaking klepto.”
What matters, though, is that Meester manages to build off that joke in just two seconds of screen time. As Will leaves, Angie turns toward the camera with an annoyed look on her face — as if to say, “How dare he think I’d steal from a friend!” — only to pivot to inquisitive inspection one beat later. Her face says it all, and as she walks offscreen, you don’t need Meester to tell you Angie’s going to steal some shit.
These are the kind of seemingly minuscule — and easily overlooked — additions actors can bring to a project. They make choices, offer different looks for different takes, and the editors pick the best option. But you have to give those editors an extra line, laugh, or look for them to be able to use it, and Meester has been filling the 23-episode first season of “Single Parents” with supplemental contributions that add up to a thoroughly charming, hilarious, and human performance. She’s adding laughs anywhere she can.
If Meester were a lifelong comedian, these kind of contributions would be expected, but this is only her second regular role in a comedy — the first being Fox’s medieval time-travel comedy “Making History.” Though short-lived, Meester’s turn caught the eye of “Single Parents” co-creator Liz Meriwether.
“It was a difficult part, and she was hilarious,” Meriwether said. “And she was hilarious opposite Adam Pally, who’s amazing and has been doing comedy his whole career. So as a comedy writer, I was really blown away by her comedic talent.”
Meester said she spends a lot of time observing funny people she works with, be it Pally, Will Forte, or Fred Armisen. “Yeah, and it’s sick,” she said. “I do it a lot. I’m sure I make people uncomfortable.”
But from that scrutiny comes key lessons for the young actor, like timing, delivery, and an appreciation for those who make time for her to create.
“I think you have a lot of writers, directors, and actors who are all kind of there to support you and inspire you,” Meester said about what she brings to the series. “You watch and you learn. Certainly, over time, the development of the character [helps] you understand what they would or wouldn’t do and really informs how you put a button on a scene, how you deliver a joke — or if you deliver that joke — or if you think of something else that makes more sense.”
Meriwether said her lead actress has been looking to make the show as funny as possible since her first day, which led the writers to keep challenging her with tricky material.
“She kind of blew me away with the heavy metal stuff,” Meriwether said, referencing Angie’s birthday episode, when the character unveils her deep love for death metal — and even sings some herself. “I think it was Leighton’s idea — ‘Maybe she’s a Slayer fan’ — and JJ and I were like, ‘I don’t know, maybe this will work.’ Then she just killed it.”
Despite encouraging a dark turn or two, Meester said one of the big draws of “Single Parents” is that “it isn’t mean.” Unlike other half-hour series, she finds the characters’ community uplifting and the messages mostly encouraging. She hopes fans take away a sense of fellowship from the show.
“There’s no such thing as supermom,” Meester said. “There’s no such thing as a completely insular nuclear family. We need each other, or we would go insane.”
Meester is clear about her passion for comedy — “Even when I was doing ‘Gossip Girl,’ the scenes that had more of a fun, light tone, those were more exciting to me” — and unrelenting in her praise for co-workers. She wants to make more episodes, but ABC has not yet made a decision on whether it will go forward with “Single Parents” for a second season.
“I think the network has been really happy with the show, and we’ve been really happy with it, so let’s just keep our fingers crossed,” Meriwether said. “I feel like we’ve developed a pretty enthusiastic fanbase. I don’t understand numbers any more in this world, but I think the more people keep talking [about the show, the better our odds of renewal].”
Along with sharp writing from Meriwether and co-creator J.J. Philbin, as well as a strong supporting cast, Meester’s dedication to every moment of the shoot is what can help separate average sitcoms from ones that keep viewers coming back. She offers a distinct presence on TV; one that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“There are a lot of manic pixie dream girl comedy heroines, and I feel like Leighton has this strength — this, ‘I’m not going to suffer any fools’ vibe that hasn’t really been on television in a while,” Meriwether said. “She’s not trying to get you to like her. It’s a testament to her talent that you also feel her vulnerability, even when she’s at her toughest.”
Through 23 episodes, she’s made outrageous moments look natural and turned throwaway shots into gold. Snagging her for 23 more would be nothing short of a steal.