What's so funny? Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, more give us their take

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Six talented performers from the most talked-about television comedies of the season recently gathered in the Los Angeles Times Kitchen to discuss the art of laughter. Elle Fanning of Hulu’s historical satire “The Great,” Tiffany Haddish of AppleTV+’s mock murder mystery “Afterparty,” Keegan-Michael Key of AppleTV+’s paradoxical musical “Schmigadoon,” Natasha Lyonne of Netflix's mind-bending “Russian Doll,” Craig Robinson from the Peacock’s snake-killing series “Killing It” and Tyler James Williams of ABC’s back-to-school comedy “Abbott Elementary” spoke with Times TV critic Lorraine Ali about the rhythms of the form, the comedy brain switch and, well, Joe Pesci.

The wide range of comedic styles your shows represent says something about the vibrant state of TV. Keegan, “Schmigadoon” is a great example of a unique series. It’s a musical comedy that parodies classics like “Brigadoon” and “The Music Man."

Keegan-Michael Key: "Brigadoon” was about these two guys that find this magical place that only appears every hundred years. [Show co-creator Cinco Paul] turned the concept into a couple who was on the rocks in their relationship, and then they find this place and can't leave until they find out what true love is. He did such a wonderful balancing act of creating a show that had a character at its core who gets to comment on everything that's happening, but not in an ironic, meta way. He’s just trying to figure out what the hell's going on. It's like for anybody who doesn't like musicals.

Natasha Lyonne from Netflix's "Russian Doll."
Natasha Lyonne from Netflix's "Russian Doll." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Natasha, I don't think of your show as a musical, but how do you explain Season 2 of “Russian Doll” to someone who hasn't seen it?

Natasha Lyonne: I do sometimes think of it as a musical in that Bob Fosse's “All That Jazz” is a big touch point for the inception of the show. And weirdly we use music, especially in the edit, and it gets very satisfying to lay the songs over, because they kind of create the rhythm of the show correctly so that you have time to process some of the more high-concept events that are happening. I would describe it to a stranger out there, all alone in the desert, wondering why they're just stranded with a volleyball and “Russian Doll,” as a sort of a metaphysical existential sort of psychedelic, adventure-type show. It's pretty out there.

Craig, “Killing It” is about a guy who’s broke, then decides to enter a contest sponsored by the state of Florida.

Craig Robinson: It's a real thing in Florida, where they hire people or have snake hunters because [the state] was so overrun with snakes. People back in the day got them as pets and they just let them out in the wild once they got too big and nothing eats the snakes, but they eat everything. So now [Florida’s] overrun. So when we talked about doing this, they're like, "You OK with snakes?" I was like, "Yeah, I'm cool with snakes." I did handle some and I think I'm supposed to say that the American Humane Society was there every time. We had three kinds of snakes. You got the CGI and you got a fake snake that you're working with. And then you had some real snakes … bunch of them … all moving around.

Tiffany Haddish from Apple TV+'s "The Afterparty."
Tiffany Haddish from Apple TV+'s "The Afterparty." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Tiffany, in “Afterparty” you play a homicide detective and a former LAPD officer. It seems to come naturally…

Tiffany Haddish: I know a lot of police. So I played Detective Danner and the show is basically a murder mystery and trying to figure out who the murderer is. I like to relate it to the game Clue meets every genre of movie and TV that you can think of, all mixed in one. Every episode's a little different. My favorite is my backstory where I was in the LAPD, how I got on with the police, why I became an [officer], and then how I wanted to work my way up to detective. I'm not respected as a detective, but I solved the case. And that's all you need to know. I'm good at my job.

And Tyler, “Abbott Elementary” is a mockumentary that takes place in an underfunded, Philly elementary school.

Tyler James Williams: It's a workplace comedy about teachers just trying to make it happen. We're finding humor in something that's not really that funny. It's really resonated with people and that's a beautiful thing. Everybody in their life either had a teacher or dropped their kids off with a teacher [that mattered]. These are people who arguably raise your kids more than you. We don't talk about what that's like — kids are sticky and gross and all types of things. It's something that we're finding a majority of audiences can relate to and laugh at. And it feels like we need that right now. We need some kind of commonality. We know how to be mad at things but we don't know how to laugh together anymore.

Elle Fanning from Hulu's "The Great."
Elle Fanning from Hulu's "The Great." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Elle, you play Russian empress Catherine in The Great.” She’s changed so much from Season 1 to 2: She's now in power. It’s a fascinating evolution to watch. Does it feel like that playing her?

Elle Fanning: The trajectory of her character in the first season is pretty A to B: She comes to Russia, she’s very naive and learns, "OK, I need to kill my husband. He's not very nice." She has a lot of ideas for the country and wants to start this coup. Season 2 picks up where she is in power and the big question is now that you have the power, how are you going to handle that power? Is she up to the challenge? Is she a good leader? Catherine is also pregnant in the second season and the baby's [arrival] is almost a ticking time bomb because she knows, once this baby's out, I could definitely be killed. So she's trying to get everything done in those months that she has left. Tony McNamara, our showrunner, he's a genius and our show prides itself on being historically inaccurate. So we get to make up things as we go along.

Tiffany, you’re also known for your stand-up. Do you have to switch gears in your brain when moving between acting in a series and doing your own show like “Black Mitzvah.”

Haddish: Oh, definitely. My brain switches gears, because when you're doing stand-up, it’s like you're alone but you're with a room full of people. And people are there to hear your thoughts ... and they better be funny thoughts. So it's a lot more pressure. I'm more rapid-fire. When I'm doing a scripted show, I’ve learned somebody else's thoughts. And then I put myself in a place of living this other person's life. This is not my life. This is not my story that I'm sharing. This is someone else's life, someone else's story. And if I'm supposed to be funny and I don't try to be funny, I allow that slice of life, that moment to be funny.

Lyonne: Tiffany, that's so interesting because you're such a beautiful actress. So it's very interesting to hear that thought process because obviously, of course, you're a ridiculously funny person and fascinating, but just that that's your way in … that's very interesting.

Craig Robinson from Peacock's, "Killing It."
Craig Robinson from Peacock's, "Killing It." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Robinson: [Once when I went in for a table read] my part was supposed to be this funny dude. I said the first line, I got the big laugh and then I turned it into a comedy club, and then everything, the timing, all of it, felt like I was doing stand-up. I was free and I owned the part in my mind, I owned that seat … I didn't get the part. But I fully agree. It's like two different lives, an actor and then doing comedy on the road.

Does moving between drama and comedy require a different acting muscle?

Fanning: I can't believe I'm here, at the comedy [roundtable]. I was rechecking the email. I'm like, comedy?

Haddish: You say that ... but you are funny!

Fanning: It was a real adjustment for me with “The Great.” I've learned all about rhythm and like everything you guys are talking about. You read scripts and you're like, yeah, you've got to hit that joke. It doesn't work if the rhythm is off. But I felt like all of us [in the cast] had this pulse. We couldn't go party, but we could party together on set in our crazy, bonkers situations and that electricity really carried through and this second season, I'd figured out the tone and I put it all out on the table.

Tyler James Williams from ABC's "Abbot Elementary."
Tyler James Williams from ABC's "Abbot Elementary." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Tyler, you played a young Chris Rock on “Everybody Hates Chris.” And Elle and Natasha, you also started acting at a very young age. What are the pros and cons of starting out so young?

Williams: The hard jump that anybody who started as young as we did has is, will the audience grow with me or do they lock me into time in this box? I think anybody who has a role of any kind that people really love has to deal with that. [Audiences] have such an attachment that they want to hang onto it, and you moving on dismantles it for them. Part of [growing] is that you’ve got to have patience, and be able to switch genres, go back and forth. After we had finished “Everybody Hates Chris,” I didn't want to do another comedy for a while. As a child, you learn how to do your job, regardless if that's a comedy today, or if you have to be a triple threat and dance tomorrow. And that's now my strongest asset, the ability to be in something, regardless of what it is, and maintain the world and the life of the character, regardless of the genre.

The last press run I did was for “The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday” when we rolled right into “Abbott.” But in the world of these characters, they're not sure what the genre is. Whether they’re being chased by the cops for playing jazz and talking about lynchings or they’re working in underprivileged schools, they're still dealing with struggles. So we have to find a way to weave in the genre seamlessly without really changing the performance.

Lyonne: It's so true what you're saying, the character has no idea what genre they're in. But something Craig said about owning your seat. I definitely really experienced that this season on “Russian Doll” with the show running and the spreadsheets and the directing and all this s— that was happening. And I was like, I have to pay for these takes, so to myself, I would almost say, "You're not going to be the squeaky wheel here, kid." And I would do the things that I hadn't previously been able to really do on command, like just cry on cue or something. I would just be like, "I don't even know where that came from." A career is an evolution of the ways in which you sort of shape your person, your artist or whatever, to be able to do all these different permutations of the art form.

Natasha, you’ve portrayed so many different personality types over the years, from “Slums of Beverly Hills” to “Orange Is the New Black” to now, but each character has embodied the essence of you.

Lyonne: Sometimes I think that they're all just Joe Pesci, but I appreciate it. I really love like those '70s actors, that sort of subtlety you'll see with Gene Hackman or something like that, where I always know it's him but somehow he's enough of himself that I also believe he's these other people completely. I think a lot in terms of what that subtlety is. Like Peter Falk in “Wings of Desire,” he's not quite that, but I always believe that he's telling you the truth.

Is comedy also a means of working out personal trauma through your stand-up or characters?

Haddish: I definitely deal with my trauma through comedy. If I feel like I can't laugh about something, I'll never heal from it. For me, laughter is healing. When I hear it, it's like the most beautiful sound in the world. Sometimes I get really sad, I just go to YouTube and pull up babies laughing. And that just changes my whole vibe.

Robinson: Turn on the babies.

Haddish: Turn on the babies. It's a necessity. I couldn't even imagine living in a world that didn't have laughter or where you couldn't figure out how to laugh about something. I want that to be my superpower where I control people's happiness, their joy, and I could take it away and I would never have jails [just take away their joy].

Keegan Michael Key from Apple TV+ "Schmigadoon."
Keegan Michael Key from Apple TV+ "Schmigadoon." (Jay L. Clendenin /Los Angeles Times)

As comedy actors and comedians, do you intrinsically know when a series or film is funny?

Key: It becomes an intellectual exercise. A person watching can go, "Oh, God, I'd never thought of it that way." But there are those two different qualities, there's "Huh, oh, man, that was clever." And then there's "Ha-ha-ha," right? There's this interesting spectrum and I think every part of the spectrum has validity. It's not that it's not funny, but it's interesting to me, it's a fascinating discussion to have.

Williams: Have you ever watched a great sports moment, live, with somebody who plays that sport? It's kind of like that. Like you see someone drive down the court and take off and just dunk and rattle the rim. When you're watching it with somebody who coaches basketball, they can tell you how that was set up back and forth, but either way, the ball still goes in the hoop and we all have this feeling. The euphoria is the same. You can sit there and break that down, but then the whole stadium still goes crazy when he dunks it. And that's what's nice about having the laugh of somebody who does it as well.

By overthinking why something’s funny, is there a danger of taking the magic out of it?

Haddish: Executives do it all the time. They know how to pull the magic out of anything. They're actually the reverse of my superpower.

A group of six people poses for a portrait against a blue background.
Clockwise from top left: Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, Craig Robinson, Natasha Lyonne, Tyler James Williams and Elle Fanning. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.