Career transitions are never easy, but former SNL head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider managed to make it look effortless. The pair moved from the biggest sketch comedy show on TV to creating their first narrative cable comedy. Their show “The Other Two” quickly became a critical favorite. The series follows a pair of siblings, aspiring actor Cary (Drew Tarver) and former dancer Brooke (Heléne Yorke), whose brother becomes an internet celebrity overnight.
Awards Circuit sat down with co-creators, Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, to discuss “The Other Two’s” successful first season. We talked about their background in sketch comedy with SNL, how they infused the show with relevant pop culture references and what it was like forming such a well-defined cast.
Christopher James/Awards Circuit: I just want to say I’m such a huge fan of “The Other Two.”
Sarah Schneider (co-creator of “The Other Two”): Oh that’s nice. Thanks.
Chris Kelly (co-creator of “The Other Two”): Thanks!
CJ: I know that you both got started as a writers team on “Saturday Night Live.” When you were working together on [SNL], did you instantly know that you would be a writing team, or was there a specific assignment or moment that made you both want to work together?
SS: Well, we didn’t get hired as a team. We met [at SNL]. It was kind of a slow burn. [We started] working with each other here and there. … When you’re both new, you gravitate towards other people who start [at] the same time with you. So we would just write with each other here or there. We just started seeing that that was kind of working for us…. [We] were getting things [on air] and our sensibilities were similar. Basically, by the end of [our] first season we started writing together every week. That’s when Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant started [the show] and we started writing with them. We kind of formed a little crew. There wasn’t one specific moment. It was kind of like a rolling love, but then it really took.
CJ: Amazing! Was there a favorite sketch that you loved to write for Kate and Aidy, or some [other sketch] you’re particularly proud of?
CK: We wrote all the music videos with [Kate and Aidy] when we were [at SNL]. Those are always really fun, like “Twin Bed,” “Back Home Ballers” and “Wishin’ Boot.” We wrote maybe nine or ten of those and those were always really fun. We wrote “Dyke and Fats” with them which we also really liked. That was an idea they had that we got to help with, which was super fun. I don’t know. We wrote a couple things almost every week with them and that’s just kind of when the sparks flew or something. We wrote a lot of political stuff with Kate when she started playing Hillary [Clinton]. That was really fun and fulfilling to get to do with her as well.
CJ: That’s awesome. I know there is obviously so much that you were writing together for SNL [at the time] Was “The Other Two” an idea that you had both talked about early on in your SNL days? Was is that something that you both came up with later, after leaving the show?
CK: Yeah, more towards the end [of SNL]. We were at SNL for six years, so I think maybe our second to last year we were like, “If and when we leave the show, we should probably try to do something else before leaving.” So we started talking about different ideas in our second to last year and then settled on this one. We wrote it, slowly but surely, during our last year at SNL and then sold it and then spent the second half of our last year casting [“The Other Two”] and all that kind of stuff.
CJ: [In] jumping straight from one of the biggest network shows to working in scripted cable, what to you was the biggest difference between cable versus scripted and cable versus network?
SS: The budget [all laugh]. I’m kidding. We liked both experiences for very different reasons. We really loved the pace of working on SNL. It was very fast and you got immediate feedback, whether it was good or bad. You knew immediately if the audience liked it or not. We liked that kind of frantic [energy]. We love to run around the hallway looking busy, so we loved Saturday nights and how fast paced everything was.
When you’re working on a narrative show for cable, you work on it kind of privately and silently for over a year. Then you send it out to the world you’re like, “I hope you like this child that we birthed.” That pace [and] that roll out is extremely different. Also, when you’re on SNL, like Chris [Kelly] was saying, we were writing a lot of political stuff. We were really beholden to what was going on in the world. What did people want to see or what did we want to put out there? There was a lot of pressure we put on ourselves to keep up with all of that. We have decided our current show takes place in a world without government, so that’s been a little freeing and definitely a change in terms of content.
CJ: Absolutely. Even though there are no politics, I think what’s so great about “The Other Two” is [that] it’s so plugged into pop culture. This is also very rare for a [narrative] show, as you said it takes so long to get made. [Whether it’s] the “Survivor” references, the Instagay episode [or] bartending on “Watch What Happens Live,” I love all those [pop culture] moments. How were you able to craft these [references]? Were those more in the moment when you’re on set because that was just within the pop culture? How were you able to write the show and keep things so fresh and new with the times if there’s a longer roll out?
CK: Yeah yeah. Absolutely nothing was on-set. [Sarah laughs.] Everything has to be planned so deeply. I mean, to be able to shoot at “Watch What Happens Live” [requires] lots of phone calls and e-mails. So no, everything was like way thought out ahead of time. Sarah and I would just kind of talk about things. Basically, the long and short of it is [that] there are a lot of pop culture references in our show, but we never specifically parody a Taylor Swift song that just came out. [We wouldn’t want to] be parodying that exact song because a year or two later that’s gonna be super old. So we tried to parody more of the kinds of things that were happening in pop culture, like big picture things that we could make fun of or satirize, as opposed to like one specific thing that would feel super old.
[The one exception was] the “Call Me By Your Name” parody we did. We knew it was about a year old and we still decided it would be worth it. We also tried to make sure that the pop culture references weren’t there just for fun. They were all moving the story ahead. So the pop culture references were always in service to the characters like journeys.
CJ: Yeah. I think what’s so great about the show is the tone that both leads have. Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver have kind of equal parts heart and cynicism and are a completely hilarious. What was casting like for those roles? How did you discover them? Did you work with them a lot on crafting this specific tone that you wanted?
SS: Yeah. We got really really lucky with our cast, first of all. We talk about it almost every single day of our lives. We’d seen a lot of people, specifically for Heléne [Yorke]’s role. We loved both Heléne and Drew [Tarver] because they could play grounded very well. Drew cries from zero to cry in one minute. But they are so so funny. It was that combination, just like you were saying. We were looking for someone who could do both. Molly [Shannon] is another example of someone who does that brilliantly. We knew Drew from UCB, [both] socially and as a performer. We knew Heléne from “High Maintenance” [on HBO]. She was just so specific and so f**king funny. We just asked to see her. Then they read together and they immediately had chemistry and seemed sibling-esque. We cast[ed] them and we got really really lucky.
CJ: You mentioned Molly Shannon, who’s just absolutely one of my favorite parts of this show. Chris, I know you had worked with her on your movie, “Other People” (which he wrote and directed). Did you write this role specifically for her? … It just feels so tailor made. At what point did she get involved with the show?
CK: Yeah. We didn’t write the part for her, only because we didn’t want to presume she was available and would want to do it. But then, once we cast her in the pilot, it probably did really change the role. I think we made the part bigger and deeper and kind of leaned in to the grief of it all. The loss of her husband (and Cary and Brooke’s father) became a bigger part of the season because we went, “Oh my God, we have such a good actor that can kind of do these deep emotionally grounded scenes, so let’s do that as well.” I think the part got fleshed out in a more realistic way once we knew it was Molly doing it absolutely.
CJ: One of the other main cast members who is such an amazing find was newcomer Case Walker, who plays Chase Dreams, the kid at the center of all this superstardom. I love the decision that he’s this sweet person who also has a sweet on screen persona. Was that the impetus of this character, that you really wanted him to not be this spoiled famous jerk? Also, so much of the comedy comes around him being almost cypher-esque, which is fun. How do you go about directing Case, because it feels like he nails it so perfectly?
SS: I know. He’s so good. We kind of thought that him being like a little spoiled brat kid is kind of what people might expect from this premise. We just thought [there] would be be more to play with and [greater depth and complexity] of emotions if your brother is famous and it came very easily to him, but he’s also been very sweet and nice about it. He still defers to [them] as his older siblings. We just thought that was so much more interesting and we could be so much more introspective with how that really feels. You can’t write him off for being a spoiled little jerk. So we definitely did that on purpose.
Case Walker himself is very sweet. He’s from Colorado. This is his first acting job. A lot of the way that [Chase] is in the show is very authentic to who [Case] is. [Case], for better or worse, calls Chris and I “sir” and “ma’am,” and did when he first met us. So he blends a lot of that sweetness to the role. I think it really helps because you really feel that at the core of this story, which is very pop culture based and satirical. It is a show about a family and they all love each other. That was really important to us.
CJ: Awesome. Was there a long rehearsal process with these four core actors to get this family dynamic down? Did they meet prior to shooting the pilot?
CK: Yeah. Not everyone was in rehearsal, but our budget was zero dollars. [Everyone laughs] They met though. It was important for us to have them know each other and hang out. [We would do] dinners and that kind of stuff, just so they felt like they weren’t strangers when they were rolling. But, yeah, no rehearsal time. It was a real “run and done” situation.
SS: Sometimes you would shoot on a rehearsal and then they’d be like, “Okay great we got it.”
CJ: Oh wow!
CK: Every episode was like four to four and a half days, so we were moving.
CJ: That’s awesome. [So Chris,] you directed four of the season one episodes. You had also come off directing your own movie (“Other People”). What is it like directing your own writing? Do you feel that it’s easier since you know the source material, or does it almost make it harder to put on your directing hat?
CK: No, I think it makes it easier. I mean, I think with me directing, Sarah and I being the writers of it, being on set and being the executive producers, we just have a very clear idea of what we want, for better or for worse. If it was bad, that would be on us too. It helps to kind of streamline it. It was nice because we have a good clear vision of the show, so there is no miscommunication because we just know what we’re going for, whether that’s right or wrong.
That being said, we also have three other directors who were great and super funny. It was fun to work with other people too, because Sarah and I worked with the scripts for so long. It’s nice to bring fresh eyes on something and be like, “Oh here’s something you haven’t thought about.” [They would say,] “Here’s a way to make it funny that you just didn’t see, because you’ve been staring at this for months.” It was nice to get to direct and then also nice to defer sometimes.
CJ: You mentioned how the feedback loop is just a lot longer with scripted shows. Was there a specific moment once season one came out that you realized, “Oh, this really worked or this really connected with the audience?” Was there a sort of “a ha” moment that you remember when you [realized] an audience has found the show?
SS: There was a lot when episode four aired with Kate Berlant’s character in that episode. She plays the agent, Pitzi Pyle. We felt like that resonated. That was one of the most specific things that started spreading around.
CK: I like the idea of her saying, “I’m gagging for you, fa**ot,” straight to a gay potential client. It’s so homophobic and she doesn’t realize that. Definitely some of the more specific things about being a gay actor or being a gay person who is not closeted anymore but is still not 100% comfortable in his own skin [resonated]. Some of [those] specific things came with the Instagay [episode]. We could feel that kind of resonating in that way, which is really nice.
SS: Then we went to Atlanta [to do] a panel and we went to a gay bar. The bartender immediately recognized Helena and then she screamed at the top of her lungs, “We’ve been recognized!” That was another moment.
CJ: Oh my gosh. Were there any other niche moments that you remember writing or shooting and … [were] really hope [they] get the big laughs with the audience or goes viral online?
CK: Well actually, in the “Call Me By Your Name” moments, that was something that we really like and made us laugh. We were unsure about it and that was one of the scenes I think other people were unsure about too. … I think we were [wondering], “is that going to be old?” And I think we were worried it was gonna be a little old, but then [we thought] it’ll be so old that it’s a funny surprise and we’ve earned it because Cary just kind of went through a traumatic breakup, so it kind of works that he would do this. I think we were worried which way that one was gonna land. It was a nice surprise. It was a deep sigh of relief from us [when this worked].
I’m trying to think of what else. We were really excited for the plane episode to come out, [Episode 9 – “Chase Drops His First Album”]. While we were shooting that, it felt like a tiny little moment. Seeing the episode as a whole [we see] the way the dad died [and] the ramifications of that. That was the first episode we shot. We really liked it so much. [We] really were trying to make Dad’s death surprising and funny and bizarre, [while] also grounded, real and dramatic. We thought we had done a good job of landing that, but it was a big swing and it very gratifying when people weren’t like, “What the hell is this?”
SS: This was not like a “chance” or anything, but the part of Lance, played by Josh Segarra, we ended up writing that part for him after he auditioned. We just basically were like, “We are so excited by him. We love him.” He is so funny and so specific. He really feels like one of those characters that people come up to us and say they love the most. That was really gratifying because that’s how we felt. You never know [when you’re writing the part, but Josh] is just the best. That’s been really great to have people respond to a character like that that we kind of wrote to our actor.
CJ: That’s amazing. I loved that character too. That’s interesting what you said to Chris about the plane [episode] being the first one that you shot. Was that a conscious decision to go to the most emotional episode first or were there any other reason that I was shot first?
CK: No. We had to block shoot things and that made sense for yada yada production reasons, but yeah it just happened to be that way.
SS: … We jumped all around all the time, so [the actors] had to constantly be recalibrating where their characters were emotionally and just start at that spot. After that you’re like, “Oh. I started there, so I think everything else will fall into place.”
CJ: So now that you guys are renewed for season two, how that process is going? Have you already started writing the second season? Are there any up storylines in particular that you’re really excited about?
CK: Yeah, we’re kind of in the middle of writing Season 2 right now, in the thick of it. In season one we set up that Pat Dubek [played by Molly Shannon] gets a talk show. That is definitely a theme we’re following. … Brooke and Cary were the other two to their little brother. Now what happens is they’re also the other two to their mother, who got famous without them even realizing that what’s going to happen. So yeah, it’s kind of like playing with what we think we like about the show, what’s working about the show and the premise of the show. [We are] finding new ways to explore that so we’re not repeating ourselves. Yeah, it’s a work in progress right now.
CJ: I feel like there is a lot of awards chatter around, particularly in Molly Shannon’s case because she’s such a legend. How do you think each of the individual characters in the show would react to having awards buzz around them or if Chase had to accept a specific award that he won?
CK: Well it would be perfect. If Molly Shannon got the nomination, but not Drew or Heléne [who are] the stars [and] don’t get anything. I guess that would be perfect.
SS: I think Heléne’s character Brooke would pretend like she didn’t really care that much but then show up in the most insane attention grabbing gown that she could put on. Drew would barf. But in general, even hearing the idea of this show or anyone on it [being considered for awards] is so nice. [We] feel so excited even weirdly being in the conversation. We’re such a small little show so it’s really really cool. We really we are very grateful to that, even that as an idea.
CJ: Wonderful. Well thank you both so much for talking with me. It has been great talking about “The Other Two” and I wish you both the best of luck.
SS & CK: Thanks very much.