There is arguably no greater, funnier, or more realistic friendship on TV right now than that of Playing House‘s Maggie and Emma, played by real-life best friends Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair.
As Yahoo TV celebrates TV’s Best Female Friendships, we spoke with the duo about the shows that influenced them, how they approach their characters’ relationship, and what we can expect when the USA comedy finally returns for its third season in 2017.
“We’re writing it right now. We’re gonna start filming in January, because Lennon has to have a baby,” St. Clair says.
“At this point, it is definitely a have-to situation,” Parham adds.
As you know, we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Designing Women. Was that a show you were fans of growing up?
Lennon Parham: I haven’t watched it in a thousand years, but I did digest it with great venom.
Jessica St. Clair: When it was on the air, how old were we? We were much younger than we should’ve been to connect with four women in their 30s and 40s. It’s funny, because we have a lot of young high school and college-age girl fans, too, that are obsessed with our show, even though we’re late 30s.
Parham: I think for me, it was my fantasy of what it would be like to get to work with my three best friends in an open-air office. Or maybe my dream to own a potbelly pig. Meshach Taylor just wandering in…
St. Clair: With bolts of fabric. That was a real fantasy. I think even before we knew we were gonna be comedians, we were so drawn to these women who were so clearly killing it on the comedy front. Also, there was such great love between them, so it was a very heartwarming show in that sense. They were always having a blast, and getting into scrapes, but at the end of the day, it was really about them having each other’s back. That’s, for Lennon and I, always been what our goal is in writing a show. That it’d be super funny, but it’d tell the truth about what female friendships are, which is basically, always have your friend’s back, even when you’re in a fight.
Are there other shows that resonated with you as you were growing up and maybe influenced your writing?
St. Clair: I remember watching I Love Lucy from an early age, Laverne & Shirley…
Parham: Kate & Allie, we loved.
St. Clair: Yeah, Kate & Allie. Gilmore Girls was a passion of mine, to the point where Lennon actually can’t watch it because if she does, then we might be fully ripping them off.
Parham: I think both of us watched early SNL, too. The Sweeney Sisters [played by Nora Dunn and Jan Hooks], and Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin.
St. Clair: Any of those phenomenal ladies. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, we’ve been obsessed with her for a long time. We finally got our physical clutches on her, and we’re not ever letting go. And Mary Tyler Moore was a big one for me. One of my biggest and most influential was The Golden Girls. That show, I remember specific episodes. Let’s see, what was my favorite of Golden Girls. Anything Stan was involved with I was obsessed with. In fact, Stan might be an early model for [Maggie’s] relationship with Bruce, before we made him a more likeable character. There was also a murder mystery episode of Golden Girls that I was just obsessed with because of how stupid it was, and how hilariously funny.
The other thing that we were inspired by, I sat next to Michael McKean in an audition. It was at the time when we were binge-watching Laverne & Shirley. I complimented him on his work as Lenny. He was like, “What are you talking about? That show was 30 years ago.” I said, “That what’s amazing about it is it’s such simple ideas.” He said they used to just sit around at lunch, at Hamburger Haven, and be like, “Hey, what if these two just ran a diner?” So sometimes when we’re writing, we’re like, “Let’s just put Emma and Maggie in a situation,” and then because their friendship is so well-defined, it’s so easy to make it funny.
Our favorite Laverne & Shirley [episode] is when they desperately want to go to this mixer where they’re gonna meet men, but they need money to get in, so they submit themselves for medical testing. One of them is made to stay up for 72 hours, and the other can’t eat for 72 hours.
Parham: They go to the party, and Laverne’s falling asleep on Shirley. The ones that I love of I Love Lucy are when one of them decides they need something, and the other one is along for the ride, sort of as the voice of reason, and is helping and making it worse.
Do you have any rules, written or unwritten, about the things that you will never have female friends do in scripts you write?
Parham: Certainly the situation can be exaggerated for comedy, but as far as stuff we wouldn’t do, it’s based on what we wouldn’t say or do to each other in real life.
St. Clair: In Playing House, let’s say there was an episode where Emma ended up dating a guy that Maggie has a crush on. But Maggie has a secret crush on him, so Emma didn’t know about it. I would never knowingly go and date somebody that my friend loved. We always make sure that, even if for some reason we end up hurting each other’s feelings, it’s never knowingly.
Parham: It’s always in service of each other, or the friendship, or taking care of each other, or what we think is best. It’s always out of love.
St. Clair: And at the end of the day, we always make up. These are two that always make up before they go to bed. Because women, we’re not afraid to say we’re sorry, you know what I mean? Or to admit, “Hey, I made a total mistake here, I’m so sorry, I love you,” and then everybody’s crying.
What else was important to you as you were creating that friendship for Playing House?
St. Clair: The inspiration, the journey that we wanted our friendship to go through, was that they were childhood best friends, and in their separate adult lives, they were not living their best lives, the lives they had sort of set out to lead when they were children. In coming back together, they encourage each other to be brave, and leave a relationship that’s not serving them or leave a job that isn’t fulfilling them.
I think they enable each other to do that because they know each other’s deepest dreams and fears, and they can call each other on their s–t. That’s sort of the whole through line in Playing House: if they hadn’t come back together as adults, neither one of them would be having the fantastic life they’re having now.
In this next season, without saying too much, Maggie and Emma go through a really terrifying time in one of their lives. They couldn’t get through it without each other. Lennon and I together went through something last year that was so intense, and I will say confidently that I could not have made it through it without my best friend, Lennon. That’s the story we’re writing for Maggie and Emma this year. This is now life or death.
Do you think it’s easier, in a way, for shows with strong female friendships to deal with serious issues and still find the comedy? Like Designing Women, in its first two seasons, did Charlene’s breast cancer scare, Mary Jo getting sexually harassed and nearly raped by a client, and their Emmy-nominated AIDS episode with Tony Goldwyn guesting as a young gay friend who asked them to design his funeral.
St. Clair: We don’t skate on the surface with each other in our friendships. We are as deep as any romantic relationship ever would be. I feel like we grew up with television that did that, that allowed in a half-hour comedy for there to be really serious, heartfelt moments. I feel like in some ways comedy went away from that for a while, and there was a lot of ironic distance. What we wanted to do with our show is to bring back that you can have in one moment you’re laughing, and then the next moment you’re crying. Because you care about these characters because they’re behaving like real women. I will just say that we’re gonna be taking that laughing/crying ratio to the next level in Season 3. It’s gonna be a wild ride.
In a lot of shows, they have a bitchy woman, a slutty woman, and a nerd, and all three of them are best friends. Well no, no woman is just one of those things. We’re all bitchy slutty nerds. We don’t back stab each other. Those aren’t the friendships that we have. Our show’s based off our real life best friendship, and in our real life best friendship, that stuff doesn’t go on. Maybe that’s just because people don’t want to have sex with us as much anymore, especially not Lennon, because she’s as big as a house.
Lennon, is there anything you want to add to that?
Parham: I think that Jessica summed it up pretty perfectly.
What other recent or current shows have female friendships you enjoy?
Parham: I’m obsessed with that show Call The Midwife. Although I had to take a break at a certain point in my pregnancy because every episode is about having babies. Those women, they live together, so that’s similar to what Jess and I are writing about. They live together, they’re taking care of each other, and there are nuns living beside young women. I feel like they do that pretty well. It’s not a comedy necessarily. I thought Parks and Rec —
St. Clair: I was just gonna say, Amy Poehler…
Parham: And Rashida [Jones], and even Aubrey [Plaza]’s character. I thought they had a nice dynamic.
St. Clair: As that friendship developed, it made me relate more and more to that show. At the beginning, Leslie’s sort of her own island, and as she starts to bond with those women, you’re like, “Oh yes, this is great!” It just strengthened the show. I think because Amy Poehler herself is such a warm, and giving, and strong woman, she brought that to a character that could have been played really kind of annoying, that drove everybody crazy. She was somebody that you were just drawn to, and I think also she and Rashida and Aubrey were actual real-life friends off screen, and that kind of warmth and chemistry comes across. It’s very hard to fake. When you see Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, you can tell they really love each other.
It’s nice because female comedians that we know, that we came up with, they’re all really nice girls who just ended up in this bizarre profession. They all are very supportive of each other. That trickled down for us from the way Amy Poehler is: we don’t look at each other as competitors, we look at each other as a potential best friend. That’s why I think that that relationship on Parks and Rec works — you can tell that they actually do like each other in real life.
Parham: Amy and [Parks and Recreation showrunner] Mike Schur talked in her book, Yes Please, about her character and the development of the character. How basically it was just a woman with a good intention. That she was big enough to change the world alone, and as this family built around her, people started to see that she really was speaking her truth from her heart. It developed to this point where she was no longer talking to the camera because everything that she said, she was not ashamed of. She believed deeply in everything she was saying, whereas other people were giving a surface response. Whenever you see people being super truthful, that just resonates.
St. Clair: Whenever there’s one of our comedy queens, we’re always gonna be watching. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey. I think Lena Dunham does an amazing job. [Girls] is a different generation of women from us, but I feel like [those people in their 20s] speak their truth to each other in a really captivating way. They’re in that upheaval of their lives, which I think is really interesting, to see the different paths those women are taking. Lena’s a phenomenal writer. She’s writing about her real experiences, too. I think any time women are bringing their real-life experiences, their real-life friendships to the screen, you’re always gonna have something relatable to other women.
One thing that I think we definitely borrow from [our friendship] is that there’s gonna be a couple months where one of you is crazy, and the other one’s more stable. Then, sure enough, you’ll switch roles, and then the other one’s losing her mind. I always say to Lennon, “Thank God both of us aren’t losing our minds at the same time. Then this whole ship would go down.” It’s time for Lennon to lose her mind, I would say. I’m ready. I even said to her, “When your second baby comes and you’re losing your mind, I plan on becoming more stable.”
Parham: I really appreciated that.
Last question: Can we get any tease what’s next for Emma and Mark (Keegan-Michael Key) in Season 3 of Playing House?
St. Clair: If what you’re asking is whether or not we’re gonna see more of Keegan’s body, the answer is yes. You’re welcome, America, in advance.
Binge-watch Seasons 1 and 2 of Playing House on USA’s website or on demand.
Read more of our TV’s Best Female Friendships interviews: