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.”