Rob Huebel on Transparent, Comedy and Dead Bodies

Comedy Features Transparent
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Rob Huebel has made a career out of being everywhere. Huebel cut his teeth improvising at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, and performing sketch comedy regularly with both partner Rob Riggle, and as one fourth of Human Giant (with the equally ubiquitous Aziz Ansari, Paul Scheer and Jason Woliner). He’s made a career out of being “that guy” in some of the best comedies of the past decade.

Now with a regular role on Transparent (whose second season premiered on Amazon Prime last week), a new season of the Emmy award winning Childrens Hospital in January, featured roles in indie films like Night Owls (available on demand now), and next summer’s Keanu (the first feature from the team behind Key and Peele), Huebel will only be more everywhere in the near future. That gave us lots to talk about… and this doesn’t even include the rigorous breakdown of his Adult Swim project Fartcopter we got through. A condensed transcript is below.

Paste: Your work is expanding more towards the dramatic. Is there a project or moment for you that was an inflection point for the work you thought yourself capable of doing?

Rob Huebel: I’ve always thought it’s good to do stuff that makes you nervous. I used to get so nervous to perform live. For years, I would get really, really nervous before improv shows. The only way I got past that was to identify that feeling and trick my brain and just pretend that these butterflies are excitement, rather than fear of failing.

I love comedy and have the most fun doing comedy. I like anything that produces a physical reaction in people. It actually produces a physical reaction in your body. I’m also addicted to haunted houses. I love jump scares. Because it’s an actual reaction. So I feel so confident doing comedy, that as the TV landscape started to change, I got more interested in following where that’s going.

TV has morphed a lot, and it’s less binary. It’s less like, this is a comedy and this is a drama. A lot of shows now that are really good, and I think Transparent’s an example of one, it’s not like a sitcom. It’s really funny sometimes, but it can really make you fucking cry. It can hit a lot of emotional notes that a straight up sitcom doesn’t have the ability to do.

My sort of little segue into that has tracked with that trend in TV, though I would say The Descendants, with Alexander Payne and George Clooney, that was the first time I was cast as something where I wasn’t just some sort of charactery comedy guy.

I tend to get cast a lot as obnoxious assholes, jerks or douchebags. And I gravitate towards that to a fault sometimes because I think those guys are so funny. I don’t think I’m like that, but I’m good at playing them. The Descendants though was the first time when it was more grounded, more serious, and was a turning point.

Paste: When it comes to Transparent, what’s that process like? Are you leaning on your improv background?

RH: I know from my experience they encourage you to improvise a lot, but not in the way you might think. It’s not like you’re going for jokes. A lot of straight-up comedy movies or TV shows, I feel like I get hired a lot because I can generate a lot of alt-jokes. But that’s not the case with Transparent.

[Transparent creator] Jill Soloway has said, I remember, “you know what this scene is about, you know what we need to get out of this scene. What would you say? How would you say it?” The interesting thing about that for me, is that the writing and dialogue on Transparent is really great, and so at first I didn’t want to improvise. She would take the script, set it aside and say, “forget the script, don’t even worry about that.” And I would be like, “but wait, that script is so good.” So to me it was counter-intuitive.

But that’s how she is. It’s not ever going for jokes. You’ll just do a bunch of takes.

And in production, Transparent never feels rushed. Somehow we have all the time in the world. On most shows when you’re shooting, you’re so rushed. You really are under the gun to adhere to a really tight schedule. But on Transparent, it feels like we exist in this magical realm where no one’s going to fuck with us.

Jill will even tell people, in these awesome pep-talks on set, she’ll tell people in the morning, “I just want to take a second to remind everybody how incredibly lucky we are. No one gets to do what we’re doing. Here we are getting paid to come to work and have fun with people that we love, and make a project that might really change the way the world thinks.” She’s super positive, and has created this environment on set that really helps a lot with the performance. It all feeds back. It’s very supportive and open.

The other thing, the one thing they do such a great job of, it’s such a small thing, but it’s so important is the overtalk. There’s a lot of scenes where there’s a lot of people and you can’t always get what everyone is saying. Jill just encourages that a lot. What ends up happening is a more realistic scene. In the real world you don’t wait for someone to finish their sentence. You jump right in. I think that’s a unique element that she captures very well.

Paste: Coming back for a second season, is there a renewed sense of confidence? What does coming back bring to the process?

RH: I can only speak for myself, but the response to the first season was so positive, so overwhelming that it certainly gives you a lot of confidence and momentum going into season two. But most of what the writers are doing already feels predestined. Jill is on a mission, and I think they’re going to make this show regardless of whether people watch it or not. It’s such a personal story, and she knows these characters so well, I feel like she really now believes this is happening organically.

Now she’s downplaying the amount of hard work she and the writers do, but they really are in sync. The scary thing for me, or anyone really, is to be afraid of a sophomore slump, but I think they’ve already tracked out where the world is going and now they can’t really be stopped.

Paste: From an early point in your career you’ve managed to be ubiquitous, and now that’s expanding, somehow becoming even more ubiquitous. Is that what you were going for? What drives you to be present and working in that way?

RH: The reality is that I’ve been very lucky to do a lot of projects that I’m also a big fan of. I’ve never been, and I’d trade places with one of these people in a heartbeat, but I’ve never been the third lead on Big Bang Theory, or the neighbor on Modern Family. I’ve never had a regular network gig like that. Fuck man, I would be on Bones for seven years in a heartbeat. I would have a house in Telluride and a jetski. All that. It didn’t go that way for me, but I’m really thankful though. Instead of being able to do one show for seven years, I’ve been able to do like 90. [laughs] So it’s been really fun.

And as I’m getting more into the business, and as the TV landscape is changing, you become interested in other things—I don’t want people to read this and think I’m one of those fucking dumb dumbs [does dumb dumb voice] I’m tired of comedy, I want to be taken seriously. [returns to normal Rob Huebel voice] my bread and butter is playing hard comedy. Really funny characters. And I have the most fun in the world doing that. I think it’s about making myself uncomfortable, nervous, a little bit afraid. And it happens to coincide with a strand in television right now where things aren’t black and white. The best shows on TV are doing both drama and comedy. The best actors do both. Steve Carell.

Paste: Bob Odenkirk?

RH: Odenkirk is a great example. He’s the funniest motherfucker around. A sketch comedy legend. And then he goes on Breaking Bad and steals the show and gets his own spin-off show that people love. I’m envious of guys like that, and it’s more interesting and fun to start doing stuff like that.

Paste: Your now long-running project Want To See A Dead Body could be getting new life next year at Comedy Central. What about this project that started years ago, why is that the one that keeps staying alive for you?

RH: I have always loved that idea, and thankfully when we first made those shorts it connected with a lot of people for some weird reason. That sort of jokey bit has been in the ether. You get drunk with your friends, it’s late at night, you’re about to go your separate ways, there’s always someone in the group that says, as a joke, “anyone want to see a dead body?” That seems like the most absurd, epic quest that you can ever take. It hearkens back to Stand By Me. It just always made me laugh.

We shot those bits originally for Funny or Die. You know we shot some with comedy people, Ben Stiller, Rob Riggle. But we also shot with other people like Deepak Chopra who has no business going to look for a dead body with some weirdo. Just to play that creepy guy who gets a thrill of seeing a dead body makes me laugh at the end of the day. “Where the fuck are you finding these bodies?” The good news is for the show is that it’s a jumping off point. It’s an excuse to go on an adventure.

It’s exciting for me, but some people don’t get it. I told my wife’s parents about it. They did not get it. They were like, “why would you want to go find a dead body?” It’s an adventure! [laughs] Like an Easter egg hunt. Really, it’s that strange obsession, morbid curiosity, and following that to the nth degree, and there’s a lot of comedy there.

Spike Friedman is a writer based out of Los Angeles. His work has been featured at Grantland, Deadspin, The Stranger, Daily Dot and others.

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