Emmy Wrap: Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein and Duplass Brothers Do Comic Double Duty

For actors who also serve as showrunners, each new season is an invitation to exhaustion

Last Updated: June 19, 2015 @ 12:29 PM

This story originally ran in the Comedy/Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

From Desi Arnaz and Ozzie Nelson to Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham, there’s a long history in televised comedy of actors who double as showrunners. And that means there’s also a long history of exhausted actor/showrunners.

“It’s fascinating, terrifying and exhilarating in equal parts,” said Will Forte, who plays the title character on the Fox sitcom “Last Man on Earth,” and also created the show with Phil Lord and Chris Miller. “Even though I used to be a sitcom writer, I never knew the amount of work that went into a show.”

He laughed. “There’s so much. So much. Anytime you think you’re safe — oh no, there’s a spotting session for an hour. Or you’ve got to look at fonts. Fonts, dude? Like, there’s not a font department that takes care of that? It was overwhelming.”

Forte was one of the new showrunners who waded into the arena this past season, with a show in which he hadn’t originally planned to act. “The goal was to create something, have fun and write with Phil and Chris,” he said. “But as I started mapping out the season and writing the pilot, I got to be attached to the character, and I couldn’t give it up.”

Adam Amengual for TheWrap

Mark and Jay Duplass / Adam Amengual for TheWrap

Indie filmmakers and actors Mark and Jay Duplass, meanwhile, got sucked into the episodic TV game with the HBO series “Togetherness.” They created the series about four thirtysomethings, two married and two single, and the brothers write and direct every episode. Mark stars in the show with Melanie Lynskey, Steve Zissis and Amanda Peet, while Jay sticks to behind-the-scenes work but also acts in “Transparent.” (Mark is also in “The League.”)

“We get a little beat up,” Mark Duplass admitted. “There are moments when Jay and I are on our other TV shows, and episodes of “Togetherness” aren’t edited yet, so we watch cuts of the show in our trailers, or on our iPads as we’re getting our makeup done. And we send each other five-minute clips of scenes that we can watch on our phones while we’re on set. It’s just the life we kind of live for a little while.”

Still, they asked for it: Though they could have continued making independent films like “Baghead” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” the Duplasses said they were attracted to the storytelling style of episodic television, where stories don’t have to find resolution in two hours the way they do on film.

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Will Forte / Adam Amengual for TheWrap

“There’s a lot less emotional artifice in the serialized, ongoing TV format,” said Jay. “We work our asses off in our movies to try to close storylines and emotional arcs, but in real life that doesn’t really happen. We’re obsessed with how we close storylines in our films, and people always tell us, ‘Oh, that felt unbelievably genuine.’ But still, in the back of our heads we’re thinking, Yeah, we had to cheat.

“That’s the big thing that swept us off our feet with TV. We get to let this stuff play out the way that it really does. Not knowing, cliff-hanging — that’s what we live for, and that’s your job as a serialized TV creator.”

Among all the comedy showrunners who find themselves trying to divide their time between various jobs, though, “Portlandia’s” Carrie Brownstein has had to develop one of the oddest split personalities. When she and Fred Armisen started the acclaimed IFC show four years ago, Brownstein was a few years removed from playing in her groundbreaking punk band Sleater-Kinney, which had been on hiatus since 2007.

But Sleater-Kinney is now back, so this spring Brownstein found herself bouncing between playing shows with her band and trying to write the next season of her show.

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Carrie Brownstein / Adam Amengual for TheWrap

“I like focusing on one thing at a time, and for it to be immersive,” she admitted. “I don’t necessarily want things to be as compacted as they have been recently.”

As for the workload of both serving as a showrunner and an actor on a series, she shrugged off the pressures. “I don’t think any of us knew how much work it would be, but I think that kind of discovery is part of the charm of ‘Portlandia,'” she said. “There was a clumsiness to the first season that felt important to hang onto.

“Even when clumsiness becomes more intentional and more refined, it’s still able to capture the awkwardness of some of life’s moments, and that’s important for us to run with that. The kind of sink-or-swim feeling that comes from having so much to do helps keep the stakes high–and in all meaningful creative endeavors, you want the stakes to be high to push you to do good work and take risks.”

The most high-profile of the current actor/showrunners include Louis C.K., Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling, whose “The Mindy Project” is shifting from Fox, where it had a three-year run, to Hulu for its next season. Kaling has agreed to make 26 episodes for Hulu, more than she ever did for Fox–and while she said she will appreciate the freedom not to have to make every episode last 21-and-a-half minutes and be separated into four evenly-timed acts, she also embraces the idea of both acting and showrunning on a weekly-TV pace.

“I actually think it would be weird not to do both at the same time,” she said. “I got my training on ‘The Office,’ which really gave me a 360-degree view of what it takes to run a show. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you have to train like an athlete and have endurance to do it.”

Other actor/showrunners might not run with the comparison to athletics, but they all face the immersive world that comes when you conceive something, write it or supervise the writing of it, oversee it and also perform in it. “It’s a lot of work, but that’s not a bad thing,” said “Portlandia’s” Fred Armisen. “Things should be difficult, they should be a challenge. We never want to feel like we’re easing through anything, or sitting back on a hammock.

“We’re making a real effort, and I enjoy that because it’s not easy. And even the word enjoy is strange, because I don’t think it should be a goal to enjoy this. It should be a goal to make a body of work that is solid and has a presence, that’s part of the fabric of TV with all the other comedies I love.”

See more of TheWrap Magazine’s Emmy Movies and Limited Series issue.

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