Over the summer, Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer turned heads with her outstanding work as Karen Grisham (Agent), one of several outlandish characters who populate Maria Bamford’s manic phase in Lady Dynamite. Thanks to critical claim and subscriber eyeballs, Netflix decided to renew the series for a second season. Yet this doesn’t mean Gasteyer’s fans will have to wait until her larger-than-life Hollywood agent performs an encore of “Cradle the Balls and Work the Shaft” to see her on screen again. All you have to do is watch People of Earth every Monday on TBS.
Along with Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show), Oscar Nuñez (The Office) and a fantastic ensemble of comic greats and television newcomers, Gasteyer stars stars as Gina Morrison, a disgraced therapist whose own experience with alien abduction inspires her to form a support group called “StarCrossed.” Though as Gasteyer explains, Gina’s (mostly) good will for her fellow experiencers isn’t enough to mask he otherwise botched career as a therapist — resulting in the group’s often manic, though hilarious, meetings in every episode. And she never would have been a part of it if it weren’t for executive producer Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation).
Greg Daniels seems to be the reason everyone decided to join People of Earth.
Oh sure. I come from Saturday Night Live. It’s a mafia and he’s one of the early shareholders, as far as I’m concerned. He and Conan [O’Brien] both, actually. I knew of their SNL legacies, so I was excited to be a part of that extended family. Of course Amy Poehler’s a great friend, and I knew of her experience [with Daniels on Parks and Recreation]. So I called her right up and asked, “Is this somebody you’d recommend working with?” And of course she wholeheartedly endorsed him. He’s a master at what he does.
Aside from working with Daniels, what drew you to People of Earth?
I loved the script. I mean, obviously you don’t ever sign on to do a project without liking the script. The premise is fantastic. I don’t mean to sound arrogant in any way, but I’ve been a screen actor for 25 years — I read a lot of half-hour scripts every year, and it’s a lot of the same old, same old. I don’t profess to knowing what necessarily makes a successful show and what doesn’t, but you do look for a few things. You’re about to sign a seven-year contract when you agree to do a pilot, so you want to make sure there is an opportunity for many, many stories to be told in a world that’s interesting. With People of Earth, it’s one of those premises that you’re like, “I can’t believe nobody wrote this before!” It taps into something deeply communal and familiar, but at the same time offers a new approach, which is always exciting.
I happen to be married to a massive alien nerd, so I’ve become familiar with the premise of extra-terrestrial life. We have a lot of books around the house about it. I remember, at the turn of the century, The X-Files mania and the kind of alien fascination it fostered. I’m still kind of fascinated with the whole idea of life somewhere else. Plus it feels like a little bit of a genre-bender, which makes it different from other things I’ve done. That was really appealing, too.
It definitely is, but it also make you wonder about how far a premise like this can go.
I guess that’s where Greg comes in handy. What he did with on the American version of The Office and Parks and Rec was to take very familiar terrain, continue to make really good shows, and grow them exponentially from season to season. Those are challenging shows if you’re a TV nerd. They started one with a huge comparison to a massive international hit. That’s not an easy thing to do, even with that gifted cast. I think people don’t remember this, but they walked into The Office mildly skeptical and Greg turned that on its ear. Same goes for Parks and Rec, which was this sort of spin-off of The Office. People were skeptical, and it turned into a fantastic piece of television.
I remember getting excited about People of Earth when TBS released the first trailer in January, then thinking “Now what?” I worried they’d dump you all on an island a la Lost then move on, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The first season is challenging. It’s figuring out the energy, what the tone is, and all that business. It takes a minute, but I have to say I’m genuinely excited for future seasons of the show. Depending on what the writers room ultimately evolves into, I think there are so many cool, fun stories to tell. Also, it’s just a giant, really talented ensemble cast. It includes two of my favorite people to work with: Brian Huskey is unbelievable, and Nancy Lenehan is fantastic. I mean these are seasoned, funny people, and the guys they discovered to play the aliens are really, really wonderful. Ken Hall, Björn Gustafsson… they’re funny.
You and Oscar Nuñez were both members of the Groundlings, yes?
Yeah we were. Also, hilariously enough Wyatt was our intern my first season on Saturday Night Live, if you can believe it. He was the kid running around and getting videotapes of Nancy Grace or whoever when you were preparing to do an impression.
His story about fighting with Norm MacDonald is the stuff of legend.
[Laughs.] His infamous “hall ball” incident.
Like you said, it’s a big SNL “mafia.”
It really attracts a certain kind of performer — a very proactive performer, one who cares a lot about writing and structure. Those kinds of performers, who are engaged and interesting, are a lot of fun to work with. It’s not just people reading the lines and hoping the writers did a good job.
At the same time, People of Earth‘s ensemble features plenty of theater actors and stand up comedians
Casting gets credit for that. It takes a very shrewd eye to do that. Then again, it’s a hodgepodge right? It’s a group therapy setting. It would be a mistake to put a bunch of wacky people in a room who all possess or demonstrate just one note of wacky. Putting all of these performers with diverse backgrounds together is satisfying. It makes for the clunky vibe of a group therapy setting, which is really fun.
The group therapy scenes are hysterical.
I cannot tell your how hard they are to shoot. They’re a huge circle. Just from a purely technical standpoint, it’s hilarious to watch each director come in and say, “Ah f*ck I have to shoot the circle today!” Because you have to go around and the coverage is bananas. It’s funny because Jenkins actually said to me late in the season, “Yeah sorry about these big group scenes.” I told him don’t even apologize for it. They became some of the most delightful days on set. They’re the most delicious days, for sure, because there’s lots of people to engage with and a lost of what happens is unexpected. There’s lots of great improvisation that ultimately made it into a lot of the edits, which is really satisfying as a performer to see.
I’m telling you, sitting in a circle with Brian Huskey for 12 hours is like The Breakfast Club. That guy is insane. I laughed so hard. With Wyatt, too. There were days when the makeup artist would say, “I hate days when you’re sitting next to Brian.” My makeup would come off because I was crying, because I’d been laughing so hard. My lashes would fall off my face. It ended up being kind of deliciously, terribly fun.
Huskey’s character misquoting Fleetwood Mac to Alice Wetterlund and Tracee Chimo in “Sponsored By” had me in tears.
Greg directed the pilot and he really rent out of his way to make sure, since he understood it from The Office and Parks and Rec, those workplace dynamics remained. They still apply to this group therapy setting. It’s people at their most human, and their most shitty and petty and hilarious. That’s what makes it so funny. The cast spent a lot of time together. We shot on location, and I think that lends itself to team-building. Because you’re out in the world together. Alice is obsessed with these escape rooms. It was so much fun! I ended up doing it for my 14-year-old’s birthday party because it ends up being such a fun thing to do as a group. We did gazillions of them together. That’s the kind of thing that leads to a really satisfying and ridiculous group dynamic.
Alice and Da’Vine Joy Randolph told us all about the escape rooms at the 2016 New York Comic Con. Everyone except for Oscar seemed excited about it.
I think he did one and felt claustrophobic after. I can’t remember. Somebody had to draw a line in the sand around the escape rooms. They weren’t having it.
You’re famous for playing these larger-than-life, and sometimes outlandish, characters. Not just on SNL, but recently with your spot on Lady Dynamite. Yet People of Earth‘s Gina seems much calmer. Do you have a preference for either, or does it depend on the material?
I’m always going to have a good time putting on a wig and a pair of glasses. That’s what we do. Though it’s really about the writing, is what it comes down to. I like good writing. That’s a super dumb and arrogant response all at once, but it’s true. Mitchell Hurwitz, Pam Brady and the writers on Lady Dynamite — as well as Maria Bamford — are writing such a hyperspace world. I admire it so much because I think that show is really challenging form. It really speaks to mental illness, too. To liveas reasonably as possible in that world. Plus Karen Grisham (Agent) is very of the world they’ve created. I don’t think she’s obnoxiously over the top compared to the rest of the show, as it’s an intense show. I was written as part of a manic phase for Maria, and people like that do exist. There are extremes in Hollywood.
Whereas People of Earth is a little broader and more of, I don’t know, a big broad American half-hour comedy. With Gina, it’s fun to play somebody who’s a little more internal, and naturally in conflict. It took me a long time to figure this out about the show. You’re studying these people who believe in aliens, and you’re looking at aliens, but here’s the thing. If you truly believe you’ve been abducted by aliens, and what you experienced was profoundly traumatic enough to upend your life, but couldn’t tell anyone about it, how much would you doubt your own reality? Your own truths? You would becomes an alien in your own culture, and I think that is very much what the group is experiencing. It’s comically challenging, but the conflict is what’s interesting.
This is especially true of the Gina-centric fourth episode, “Past, Present and Future.” The audiences gets to see her live this alienation, in a way.
That’s what I ultimately find interesting about the character, and fun to play. What I like about her the best is, I like playing people who are ill-founded authorities. Gina doesn’t really know what she’s doing, and she’s only been at it for six months. I sort of love that she’s been shaken off her pedestal. She’s not necessarily that good of a therapist, but she’s really well intended.
People of Earth airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on TBS. Check out our review here.