'House of Lies' Gets Serious About Being Funny

Robert Chan
Yahoo TV

Sometimes, it's kind of hard to remember it's a comedy.

"Things get super dark. And introverted and scary and disgusting and … eeuuchh! And for me it was so fun because when do I get to do that?"

The new season of "House of Lies" premieres Sunday, and that quote from Ben Schwartz, who plays Clyde, best describes the particular pleasures of the show.

"We take the most painful, horrible things in our lives and distill them down — like brandy — into a reduced comedic form." That's Matthew Carnahan, the show's creator, and this season, he's conjured up the most horrible circumstances to subject his characters to, then cast the lightest, funniest people to play them.

By the end of the second season, the show had become about "relationships and about betrayal, about lying," according to Carnahan, leading some to wonder what had become of the colder and funnier satire of the business world from the first season. Season 3 seeks a middle ground between the two extremes. The freeze-frames and visualized imaginings are back in force, and an influx of new comedy blood has been infused into the show.

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Performers like Ryan Gaul ("Identity Thief") from the Groundlings Theatre and Eugene Cordero ("Key and Peele") and Lauren Lapkus ("Are You There, Chelsea?") from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre — both big comedy venues in Los Angeles — populate the supporting cast.

The show's core four performers, of course, have well-established comedy credentials. Schwartz plays Jean-Ralphio on "Parks and Recreation"; Josh Lawson (Doug) is currently in "Anchorman 2"; Kristen Bell (Jeannie) has a string of romantic comedies under her belt; and Don Cheadle's "Captain Planet" videos for "Funny or Die" on YouTube may well have eclipsed some of his cinematic work.

Unwilling to stop there, those actors actually went out and filmed a long-form improv set at the UCB Theatre in L.A.

That sense of play carries over to the set. "It really is just a traveling group of idiots," said Bell and, because they only shoot for three months, the downtime "leaves a bit of a hole in my heart the rest of the year."

"When get together, it's my favorite thing," gushed Schwartz. "I wish you guys could watch us film this," referring to the scene that they would be shooting 10 minutes later. "It's just the four of us right now. It becomes a game. Like in improv, we play with the script a little bit. With Matthew writing and directing the episode, you get to play and you get to have fun and you get to perform this beautiful scene."

"I never have as much fun as I do when the four of us are in the same room together and we just get to bounce off each other," said Lawson, lamenting the breakup of the team. "That does happen this season, but not as much as it did in Season 1." And when he says, "We just lucked out because we became instantly best friends," you can tell it's more than just show-biz talk. How? Well, look at the video above and ask yourself if co-workers you don't like much could persuade you to stand up in front of a sold-out theater without a script for 30 minutes.

[Related: Ben Schwartz on 'House of Lies Live! Special': This Hasn't Been Done on TV Before]

The chemistry is a good thing, because in the show, things are in shambles. Jeannie confessed her love to Marty — to disastrous effect. "I don't think she's ever got as vulnerable with anyone as she did with Marty," said Bell. "So the fact that it was a first for her and then she was also denied ... She's walking around with a lot of wreckage."

Doug, long the whipping boy for the pod, now abuses his power as Jeannie's second-in-command. "He tries to bully the newbies way too much to try to make up for the fact that Doug is the most powerless guy ever," confessed Lawson. And that, combined with his disintegrating personal life with his wife (UCB alumna Jenny Slate) leaves him "a broken man."

Clyde's betrayal landed him a pod at Kinsley-Johnson under Marty's ex-wife, and the repercussions from what Schwartz calls "being overcome with power" end up being "so much different than I thought they would be." In the season premiere, he shows up in Doug's office subtly looking for a way back in. "I think I realized what those guys mean to me — that they're kind of like my family, and when I'm away from them, I'm kind of like a shell of myself, and I want to get back. I need to get back."

And as for Marty? Well, you'll have to wait for the freeze-frame to find that out.

"House of Lies" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.