Don’t be jealous, but Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair are my new best friends. I mean, we totally talked on the phone for like, 45 minutes yesterday about Downton Abbey and… you know, other stuff. We definitely bonded for life and are probably going to get one of those gold heart necklaces that break down the middle, except since there’s three of us, we’ll have to get one that splits three ways, and those are really hard to find.
In all seriousness, you’re in luck: Lennon and Jessica are ready to be best friends with the world. If you haven’t watched NBC’s newest comedy Best Friends Forever yet, you should probably do that now. Well, when you finish reading this, anyway. Starring the ladies as exaggerated versions of themselves, BFF sees “Jess” move back in with “Lennon” after her divorce and explores the bond between the women – with the added fun and occasional complication of Lennon’s live-in boyfriend, Joe. It’s funny, it’s honest and most of all, it’s how real best friends talk!
I caught up with Lennon and Jessica yesterday to chat about the show and was amazed to see that their on-screen friendship is totally the same in real life. They finish each other’s sentences and bounce ideas off one another in a way that’s fascinating to see – and totally reminded me of my own other half.
First, let’s talk a little bit about your writing process for those who might not be familiar with your approach – it’s pretty unique.
Lennon: “Usually we conceive a story in the room with our writers, but as far as the scenes go, we improvise the scenes in our tiny little room and record ourselves in Garage Band.”
Jessica: “We play all the parts. If there are 5 people in the scene, we’re schizophrenic and do all of them while we’re recording ourselves.”
Lennon: “Then we transcribe it. We do the scene multiple times, writing them as we improvise and picking out what works.”
Jessica: “So we transcribe them, then pick a first draft from the things we like most.”
Do you include a lot of ad-libbing while filming?
Lennon: “The buttons do, for the end of scenes.”
Jessica: “The thing that is great about improvising the script is that by the time we film, the best bits are already in there, so we don’t waste too much time trying to find the funny moments. Let’s say that in the script we had a button that isn’t really hitting when we’re acting it out – then we can improvise to find an ending. In episode 5, we were just really tired when we were shooting so we did a long run about what it was like to be in Europe in the ’90s and that ended up being our favourite part of the season.”
Lennon: “It was the last thing we were shooting and we were trying to make the crew life, so it got pretty dark.”
How does your improv background affect the show? Do you think that differentiates it from other comedies?
Jessica: “What we really wanted to do with BFF was to cash in on the way real girls talk to each other, not the TV way where everyone’s got their s**t together, but the real way. We talk in shorthand, we reference movies, we have nicknames for people based on our shared experiences. The only way Lennon and I could tap into that was by recording how we talked to each other. We’ve spent about 15 hours a day around each other for the past 4 years, so we have a certain language that’s unique to us, but at the same time, I think when girls watch it they think, ‘That reminds me of me and my best friend’.”
Lennon: “The way you overlap each other or finish each other’s sentences, or how you have turns of phrases… that sort of thing was important. It wasn’t just about jokes, either. And also, for the relationship between Lennon and Joe, we wanted to capture a real relationship where they love each other and love each other’s weird stuff so that it’s not just like a naggy wife scenario.”
Jessica: “Anthony King, who used to be the artistic director at UCB, was on our writing staff, so a lot of times we had him in to play certain guy parts with us, which was fun. Lennon generally plays male parts ‘cos she just really finds it easy to get into the mind of a man.”
Lennon: “I don’t know why I have easy access to the heart of a true gentleman, but I do!”
Jessica: “Literally, I would start blushing and she’d be like, ‘Jessica, it’s Lennon.’ I’d be like, ‘Why did a man never say this to me when I was single?’ I get like a blushing school girl.”
You’ve gotta own your inner gentleman, Lennnon.
Lennon: “I do! A little too much.”
Jessica: “By the way, there’s a kiss in episode 6 between Lennon and I because I need to demonstrate on her face so she can tell me what it means. And I have to say that Lennon has the softest lips I have ever felt. It’s like the underside of a baby chick. Lennon had to tell me not to fall in love with her because it would be dangerous.”
I hope you feel comfortable going on record with that.
Jessica: “I do! I’ll say it to anyone who will listen!”
To what degree are you just playing yourselves on the show?
Lennon: “The way we handle situations is definitely us. Circumstances are not and we definitely heighten life. We heighten how bossy Jessica is or the degree to which she spirals into anxiety. For Lennon, Lennon the writer would not put up as much s**t as she puts up with. I tell you immediately when you cross the line. I’m not as conflict-avoidant as Lennon of the show. I’m playing a more caretaking role, but that’s the dynamic – I’m the balance between these two polar opposites.”
Clearly things have to be heightened, but what do you make of these other versions of yourself? Do you find that fun to play up, or is it kind of horrifying?
Jessica: “One of the reasons I didn’t want to read reviews is because I didn’t want to see anything negative about ‘Jessica’ because I would take it personally and feel like it was a personal attack, but it’s just a character. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that this is not who we really are.”
Lennon: “And the creation of the character of Jessica is as much her as it is me. I had input on who I thought this woman was, and vice versa for the character of Lennon, as well. I think the whole show is so very clearly the stories and the situations that we wanted to tell that it’s harder to draw a line between – “
Jessica: ” – us and the show. In order for men or women to connect to it, we wanted it to come from a really real place. We really brought ourselves out.”
Lennon: “There are moments in the show when it gets dark and tearful and we’re like, ‘Who the f**k wrote this? What are we doing? Comedy isn’t supposed to be like this!’ But I think the moments that are funny are funnier because you go to a dark place. It’s like improv, they always say to ground it – what’s funny is truth. As for what I’ve learned from the character of Lennon, I like myself. That’s a terrible thing to say…”
Jessica: “That’s because Lennon’s an only child. I would have a very different answer.”
Lennon: “I’ve learned in the show that it’s better to be up front and and not tiptoe around. It causes all kinds of messes in your life when you’re not honest and you try not to hurt people’s feelings. I do that in my real life but at the end of the day, it’s not good for anybody. There’s also a part of Lennon that’s very controlling that I very much connect to. She thinks that she knows better for other people so she tries to control it so that no one gets hurt. I do that as well in my real life, and again, not a good idea. Ends in a mess!”
Jessica: “I feel like it was almost therapeutic to write this version of Jessica, where her faults kind of led her to this – I don’t know if you’d call it a midlife crisis, but a quarter to midlife crisis. All the things that Jessica has gone through, I’ve gone through at some point in my life, so it was easy to act. Not a divorce, but a break-up, acting poorly – these are all things I’ve struggled with. Luckily, I feel like there’s something about getting older where you feel like, oh, I’ve passed that stage so it’s fun to look back on and laugh at.”
Let’s talk about Queenetta – already a fan favourite! Where did she come from?
Lennon: “I taught high school French in the Mississippi Delta for two years and I had a student named Queenetta. She was different in that she was an older girl, but she was very talented and precocious. Also, we were thinking about Brooklyn. As you well know, people are always up in your business. Everyone from the coffee shop guy to the women doing your laundry -”
Jessica: “- weigh in on your life choices.”
Lennon: “Right, and tell you what you should or shouldn’t be wearing or eating or drinking or saying.”
Jessica: “You’ll be standing there and some little girl will be there like Queenetta, giving you a once over and you think, ‘Oh, you’re right, I shouldn’t be wearing these pants.’”
Lennon: “There’s always a kernel of truth so in that way, Brooklyn is its own character. And living there on top of each other, it’s always like you’re intertwined. So we wanted a representation of that.”
Jessica: “And we had a hard time finding a Queenetta, a real Brooklyn girl. All the girls we saw at first came in and were so stunning and polished and Hollywood. At one point I thought we were going to have to go to New York and find someone ‘cos I didn’t think we could find that kind of attitude. Then we put out a public breakdown and we got Daija Owens’s headshot and she had her head in pigtails and this sassy look on her face, so I knew I had to see her. She came in and pretended she was shy, which was a total lie, and then she let it rip as Queenetta and I fell off the couch and was punching the ground from laughing so hard.”
Lennon: “Yes, she has perfect timing. She talks about Queenetta with elegance, like Meryl Streep. It’s insane – she’s in her own little world.”
Jessica: “She’s 8 years old. Also, all of the buttons with Queenetta, she has improvised. She knows how, which is crazy. I don’t know how she does it! The other day I said, ‘Daija, do you want to see the new car I got?’ and she’s like, ‘What did you buy that with, your good looks?’ She’s just so funny!”
Lennon: “Already at 8, she has better timing than the rest of us and we don’t know why. Also, she loves being there and she loves us, as well, so it’s a real love fest whenever she’s around. She eats lunch with us and is really the best.”
Why did you decide to shoot in LA over New York?
Lennon: “It was a financial thing because being here to shoot indoors was cheaper. Then we shot our exteriors in New York. We were there for four days and shot all of the Brooklyn exteriors there so that it would feel real.”
Jessica: “Because we had an order of six and it was mid-season, we were able to shoot like a movie. We shot everything out of order so we could do everything in one trip.”
Clearly this entire show is your creation, but how much control over the production at large have you still got?
Lennon: “I would say a much greater percentage than a lot of people do. Literally, we don’t get into the nitty gritty of every financial piece. We weren’t combing the budget…”
Jessica: “But that’s the only thing we’re not looking at!”
Lennon: “We hired the people who are combing the budget. Every single person we hired, we met them and if we didn’t, we sat down with the person who did hire them. We chose the wallpaper on the set…”
Jessica: “Even before we started, Lennon and I were ripping pages out of of Domino magazine and we brought them these clips saying, we want this to be our dream apartment and I think it was a bit scary for them.”
Lennon: “We’ve hired a lot of people who are really patient and are really respectful of our vision, which is great because I think you can get your feelings stepped on when you’re good at your job and then someone comes in and tries to tell you how to do it. But there was a lot of collaboration because we have a lot of specific ideas. We had in mind down to the shoe we wanted Jessica to wear in episode 6, for example. “
Is there more tension to come between Jessica and Joe?
Jessica: “Well, over the six episodes, Lennon, Jessica and Joe are going to learn to live together as a family. Joe and Jessica definitely butt heads, so Lennon finds herself in the middle of them a lot. I don’t have a good sense of boundaries so in episode 4. I keep opening their bedroom door without knocking because I never had to knock before. I see them in some interesting situations. I start dating again… Jessica gets there a little too soon. I don’t want to give much away but where she ends up… it’s an interesting place.”
Lennon: “I think Jessica thought her life was going to be one way but now she has to define who she is and what she wants. As we all know, when you’ve gone through a bad breakup you have to confront that it’s real and you have to move forward. That’s the first few episodes and she ends up getting back on the horse too quickly.”
Jessica: “Joe and Lennon are a new relationship so they’re going through the realization of like, ‘This is the person I’m going to be with forever’ and they have to have tough talks, but they get through it. And between Rav and Jessica, there’s a little something there…”
Lennon: “There was an old heat that was never acted on in the past.”
Jessica: “Rav never thought Jessica would be single again and they’re both single now, so they get to see what their new friendship is like. We call it girl porn moments, you know like Sense & Sensibility, where it’s all said in a look. We wanna drag that s**t out!”
Everyone loves unresolved sexual tension!
Jessica: “Yeah, the flash of an ankle, you know what I mean?”
Definitely. Looking forward to future episodes, are there any big guests stars you’d like to have on the show?
Jessica: “We write parts for people in our minds all the time. A lot of people from UCB we’re obsessed with and we have parts for them coming up. We have a piece for Jessica’s Great-Aunt Abby and were toying with Carol Burnett, or like an Elaine Stritch from 30 Rock. If Bea Arthur was still alive, we’d love her. Or Betty White – any Golden Girls, we’d take.”
Lennon: “We had an idea… the butcher in episode 1 was Angelo, played by Mike Starr, who has been in a ton of gangster-type movies. We don’t see him again, but we wanted Jessica and Joe to get into a serious poker game on a dirty pier somewhere and it goes wrong, and then we could cast all of those out-of-work Sopranos actors that we’re obsessed with. One of those pool sharks with that long ropes of hair…”
Jessica: “We’re going to expand their group of friends, hopefully. We have a part for Lindsay Sloane, who we love. Joe’s parents are played by Mimi Kennedy and JK Simmons, both of whom are phenomenal actors. I’d like to see Jessica’s parents.”
Lennon: “We had an episode in mind where Jess’s parents have gone to China at the last minute and they never told her, so she had to go home with me to my Christmas, which is a down home Alabama Christmas, singing along to all the songs we know the lyrics to and Jessica and Joe are like, ‘What’s happening here?’”
Jess: “‘Why is everything covered in denim in here?’… I also want Lennon and Joe to get engaged at some point… something beautiful, maybe in the snow, like Downton Abbey! They stole that from my mind!”
They could down a Downton reenactment!
Jess: “That engagement was so good!”
Lennon: “I don’t know, but if it’s Joe and Lennon, it’ll happen in some weird way.”
Jess: “Like a Garth Brooks cover show, Thunder Rolls or something.”
Have you not watched Downton Abbey, Lennon? Am I hearing this right?
Lennon: “No, I have, but Jess blew it for me. People were catching up with this while we were finishing writing and shooting and I was wondering, how are people watching this? She had already watched it and I mentioned that I started to watch the Christmas episode and she was like, ‘The engagement, right? The proposal!’”
Lennon: “I wanted it, of course I wanted it.”
How much are you still performing imrpov? Do you feel like the show gives you another outlet to that?
Lennon: “When we were writing and pulling 10pm and 11pm nights on a Friday, we didn’t do our show. We do the Mother show at UCB LA called The Soundtrack at 9.30pm on Friday nights.”
Jessica: “It feels like going to the gym but in a good way, not one that you dread and take a nap on the mats when you go there. When you don’t improvise like that, you can feel it. You’re not as funny.”
Lennon: “Because we improvise when we write, I felt like I had that outlet, but while we were editing, I thought, we have to go. ‘Cos you feel like you’re purging something with improv. Then Jessica, Jason Mantzoukas Zach Woods and I entered ourselves in Cage Match out here and we did well! We had a 12-week run or something. We were called ‘Skinny Businesss Will Not Apologize’. That was super, super fun. I think we just love the theatre. I wish I was doing that New York Assscat from 2008 and I’m not doing that anymore, I live here. I do Assscat here whenever I can.”
Jessica: “Yeah, we love the theatre. It’s fun because the improvising we do here is for work, which great, but it’s fun to get on stage and play crazy characters. I love working with Lennon in front of a crowd because it gets wild and crazy.”
Lennon: “We’re like two teenagers who stole a baby and named it Destiny.”
Watch Best Friends Forever on NBC every Wednesday at 8.30pm/7.30pm central.