When TBS announced it’d given a new show called People of Earth a full series order in January, little was known about the project. Sure it starred The Daily Show‘s Wyatt Cenac, Saturday Night Live‘s Ana Gasteyer and a host of other comic actors, and Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation) and Conan O’Brien’s names were attached as executive producers. Aside from these details, however, viewers who discovered it via January’s announcement teaser knew nothing else — except for the fact that is co-starred a bunch of bickering alien characters prone to spouting mid-abduction one-liners.
“Okay, he’s looking right at me,” the shorter, bug-eyed “Grey” exclaims during the previewed scene. Behind him, a “Reptilian” frantically taps away on a control screen. When the Grey pokes fun at his green counterpart’s apparent mistake, the latter snipes right back: “Oh eat a dick!” After People of Earth‘s Halloween premiere, audiences quickly learned the Grey’s name was Jeff (Ken Hall) and his Reptilian co-worker’s was Kurt (Drew Nelson), and that the pair also operated aboard a ship with a “White” named Don (Björn Gustafsson). Together, the trio of alien characters stole their scenes — earning praise from critics and viewers alike. Even their better-known colleagues couldn’t help but sing their praises, as Gasteyer did when she told us “the guys they discovered to play the aliens are really, really wonderful.”
2016’s comedy slate was rife with fantastic newcomers and stellar returns, including The Good Place — the latest from Daniels’ former partner Michael Schur — and Veep. Despite the prestige of these leading comic ensembles, however, People of Earth‘s aliens presented the year with its best new television comedy team. As Canadian actors Hall and Nelson, and Swedish comedian Gustafsson told us in a series of interviews, much of this is due to creator David Jenkins’ original voice and Daniels’ expert direction and production. Yet much of the team’s effectiveness comes from the rapport the three actors developed both on and off the small screen, especially since they were allowed to improv more than their counterparts in the earthbound StarCrossed support group.
“They wanted to get the scripted portions down, but there’s also a lot of nuance to this kind of stuff. It really shows whenever we’re allowed to play around. The scenes that I would do with Björn and Drew were always on this ship — this very contained world — so it was more comfortable and easier for us to play with those boundaries,” explains Hall, a Canadian Comedy Award-winning performer who specializes in improvisation and clown. “Finding moments like that all the time were essential, certainly when I was at the control. I’d be handling all the buttons and levers and dials and stuff like that. It was easy to have a lot of fun with all of that, both by myself and with the other two at the helm.”
According to Hall, Daniels was particularly instrumental in encouraging him and the others to flex their comedic muscles once they laid down a few takes of a scene’s written elements. “Daniels and the other directors were very encouraging, allowing me and the others to improvise some stuff. Which is great because the writing is already super solid and hilarious, but they’re also playing to my strengths and allowing me to play around. With Björn and Drew, once we’d finished the script we were still going, improvising and riffing off of each other. They would just let us continue the fun, so to speak.”
“That’s a testament to how good the writers are, I think. That was all scripted stuff for the most part. The beautiful thing about working on this show is the writing is so strong,” Nelson says. Jenkins and the other writers’ strengths notwithstanding, the star of The Strain‘s first season noted the show runners “left room for the aliens to ad lib” many of their scenes together. “When the three of us were on the ship together, we’d just go off and work off of each other’s strengths really well. We had a blast doing it.” Nelson is especially grateful for the creative freedom too, as neither comedy nor improv were really his strong suit before tackling People of Earth‘s mouthy Reptilian.
“I have some improv training as an actor, but by no means have I done enough comedy in professional productions to consider myself a comedic actor. As much as I like playing bad guys on shows like The Strain, to be honest, I feel like I sit in the easiest in comedy. So it was really cool that Jenkins thought I’d be right for Kurt in an arena I’d never really been a part of previous to People of Earth. It’s been great opportunity to expand my horizons and try different things, especially with Ken and Björn.”
In addition to Jenkins’ writing and Daniels’ oversight, Gustafsson picks up on Hall’s point about their constant presence on the spaceship set. Because of its close quarters and the long shooting days they spent there, the Swedish stand-up suspects the three were able to learn each other’s character traits more effectively. “We had a long day shooting all of the promos, and the three of us were on that ship all day. It gave us some time to find our characters — especially since we’re all very distinct. The two are very mean, whereas Don’s this very emotional and sensitive guy, so they keep on teasing him,” he says. “It was a great opportunity for us to explore those dynamics.”
Then again, as Gustafsson joked while en route to the People of Earth cast’s appearance on Conan last week, some of the brotherly animosity exhibited by Jeff and Kurt against Don may have had to do with his requiring less makeup than Hall and Nelson. “I’m not sure they were using it against me, but they definitely had to go through a lot more makeup. I would show up sometimes at six or seven in the morning, and I was so tired and yawning. ‘Oh my God, it’s so early guys.’ Meanwhile, they’d been there since three for four, so I got no compassion from them. Though it was amazing to see Ken act behind that big mask, which covered a lot more of him than any of my stuff did on me.”
Sure enough, Hall is completely unrecognizable behind what he compared to “wearing a big hug” for his head. Despite the intense prosthetics and makeup required to make the Grey appear as he does on screen, the character never truly comes to life until Hall’s performance begins — so much that viewers can simply close their eyes and listen to any of his scenes. Hall’s distinctive voice, the hilarious (but righteous) anger he floods Jeff with, sounds just as loudly without what Gasteyer has dubbed his “ball sack-ish” look. That’s all the more amazing considering the process Hall underwent everyday on set.
“My head is completed entombed in this giant thing, so my hearing is affected. Then they put the eyes in, which is kind of like looking through tinted swimming goggles. From time to time, I had to keep a lookout for the eyes because they’d start to fog up. While we were shooting the pilot, they’d fog up after a minute or so, and it was so bad I couldn’t see. I could see light and colors, but I couldn’t really make out any shapes, so I was performing while partially blind and deaf,” he recalled. “It was quite an experience, but we figured out some tricks along the way. You know how when you go swimming, you put saliva on your goggles before putting them on and they don’t fog up as much? We didn’t use saliva, but we found a certain kind of soap would prevent it from fogging up for a little while longer. At least 10 to 15 minutes, maybe, would pass before we’d have to reapply the soap. It became a well-oiled machine rather quickly.”
Nelson, on the other hand, had to endure a much longer makeup process than Hall. It seems unreal that Jeff the Grey’s evidently heavy use of prosthetics would surpass Kurt the Reptilian’s look, but the latter’s slightly more humanoid appearance meant a greater number of smaller pieces, and applications, for Nelson in the makeup chair. “I don’t know if Ken told you, but his prosthetics took a little bit less time than mine. Mine was about three hours, though the amazing team we had got it down another hour. Then you add the extraction at the end, which takes just over an hour, but it’s all totally worth it in the end,” he says.
Kurt dies early on in People of Earth, which one would assume might come as welcome news to Nelson, who stayed on throughout subsequent episodes to voice the deer character from Ozzie Graham’s (Wyatt Cenac) hallucinations. Yet his experience working on the show, especially with Hall and Gustafsson, swayed the Canadian actor in favor of what turned out to be an otherwise early call time. “You know what? Honestly, if it was any other show that wasn’t as well done as this one, I might not want to. But there’s no question in my mind that if they write me back into the script, I’m getting greened-up for them. They know exactly what they’re doing, and we had a blast making the first season.”
Whether or not Nelson’s Kurt will return in 2017 for People of Earth‘s second season remains to be seen. Then again, the two-episode season one finale hasn’t even aired yet, so the fate of Hall’s Jeff and Gustafsson’s Don isn’t known by anyone outside of the show’s production either. As far as the fans know, some freak turn of events on the ground in Beacon, New York might set of a chain reaction aboard the poised invaders’ ship — thereby exploding Jeff into the atmosphere and abandoning the lovelorn Don on the planet’s surface.
Yet Jenkins and Daniels’ television farce is less a silly adaptation of Independence Day: Resurgence and more a comic extension of The X-Files‘ “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space.'” Viewers are far more likely to be treated to a banter-ridden exchange regarding Jeff’s aggression against the StarCrossed group for its unknowing involvement in Kurt’s death, and Don’s burgeoning affection for the very species he and his fellow extraterrestrials are supposed to be preparing for the home office’s announced invasion. The ridiculous, heartfelt complexity of People of Earth‘s alien ensemble is what truly makes the show stand out.
The final two episodes of People of Earth air tonight at 9 p.m. ET on TBS.