Ridiculing the Past: On Set with Another Period

Comedy Features Another Period
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Ridiculing the Past: On Set with <i>Another Period</i>

I’ll never catch up on Downton Abbey. I’m long since resigned to this fact. At this point there are simply too many seasons of that show for me to ever finish. People talk about “Peak TV,” about the overwhelming number of shows to keep track of, and sometimes you have to make sacrifices. Sorry, Dowager Countess: I’ll never know if you settle down with the man of your dreams.

That’s one of the good things about Comedy Central’s hilarious Another Period, which parodies both class-conscious British period dramas like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs and the reality television of today: It’s still early enough to get into it. There’s only a single season of ten episodes out right now. You can knock that out in one workday procrastination session. That changes this week, with the debut of season two on June 15. If a show that mercilessly skewers and draws parallels between both today’s culture and the horrifying politics and oppressive social norms of the turn of the century sounds like a thing you’d be into, consider getting started as soon as possible. Before you know it the third season, which has already been picked up, will be kicking off next summer, and there’ll be an intimidating pile of episodes just languishing there in your Hulu queue.

Earlier this year I visited the Los Angeles-based set of Another Period while the second season was in production. I saw first-hand the complicated business of turning a group of this century’s best comedians into the incestuous, delusional family of an early 20th century “magnet magnate,” and the equally delusional servants who live in near bondage in their basement. I talked to the show’s co-stars and co-creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome, who oversee every episode in partnership with director Jeremy Konner, and who love satirizing the absurd inequality of the robber baron era. I learned how the feminist perspective that clearly drives the on-screen product courses through the entire production, proving that, although Another Period might look to the past for its humor, it’s also more forward-thinking than most shows on TV. Here are some of the secrets I discovered on set.

They actually hire women.

We all know there’s a lack of women onscreen, but even beyond that, there’s a general lack of women on sets. Cinematographers, grips, assistant directors, and other below the line positions tend to be held by men and it’s a tough boys’ club to break into. But on Another Period’s set there were quite a few women roaming around, and that accomplishment has a lot to do with the fact that there are significant roles for women in the show and in the upper levels of the production hierarchy. “We deliberately had in our minds that we wanted to create a lot of good roles for women and then when we were hiring our crew we just hired the people who were the best people, and they all happened to be women,” Lindhome explains. “We felt doubly lucky that a lot of the best people for the job were women.” Now if only every other TV show felt that way.

The crew is small, but they move fast.

If you’ve never been on a movie or TV set before, you may have a hard time discerning the two. The biggest difference between them is that TV crews shoot much, much faster due to timing and budget constraints. The goal on a typical TV set is to get the shot and move on, and few directors get the chance to get as many takes as they would like. It’s one of the reasons that a lot of people in film don’t cross over to TV. Another Period felt balanced—the crew was fast, but the team spent time perfecting takes and getting enough coverage, which is important in TV comedies. They felt like a cohesive team working together towards a common goal despite their shooting schedule (and their schedule is certainly constrained). What’s most impressive is that the entire season only had one director, Jeremy Konner, whereas most shows have a different person direct each episode. “The three of us are all partners,” says the show’s co-creator, Riki Lindhome. “Jeremy directs everything and he’s in charge on set but also we talk to each other, we make creative decisions together. It’s like a three-way partnership.”

They put a lot of thought into their jokes.

Improv from the actors was encouraged and it was delightful to watch Natasha and Jeremy at one point play around with her dialogue to turn a good dick joke into an amazing dick joke. Some directors and writers don’t want to be collaborative, but that wasn’t the case here; creativity and laughter were encouraged by Comedy Central. “They’re really, really amazing,” Lindhome says emphatically. “That’s their policy as a network: they hire people that they believe in and they let them create something that’s their vision.” Few productions say such nice things about the networks that oversee them.

Their location is incredible.

Another Period shoots at the impressive, towering Paramour Estate in the hills of Silverlake. The mansion looks like something straight out of Downton Abbey and rents to other productions as well. Its views of Los Angeles are incredible because it’s at the top of the most formidable hill my car has yet to attempt to handle – thankfully, the production provides transport to set for everyone. “We’re so lucky to be able to shoot there,” says Natasha Leggero, as she tells me about the owner’s rare taxidermy bird collection. “She has all this amazing stuff that she lets be in the background.” Though the show’s set design is fabulous too: one of the best details of the house is that there are period-style paintings of the actors scattered throughout to really make it look like they live there. Coupled with the house’s strange accoutrements, the set design does wonders in characterizing the Bellacourts.

“It really informs the family,” Leggero agrees. “It helps us create this super eccentric family that really is like how these families were in Newport.” The show’s characters are based off of the wealthy families of 20th century Rhode Island, who were lucky to be alive at a time when rich people got away with everything (not that that’s any different from the way it is now). “The eccentric families that lived there during the Gilded Age when they didn’t have income tax – the people were truly living like rappers,” says Leggero. “They were maniacs.”

Indeed, the team did a ton of research.

They wanted to make sure they really nailed their political commentary. “The economic disparity then is just like what it is now,” says Lindhome. “It’s impossible to not make a political commentary.” Aside from the show’s critique of class, it also highlights the absurdity of sexism in that time period. “The state of women was abysmal,” Leggero explains. “They wouldn’t allow college-level women to read books because they thought it would shrink their ovaries.” And that’s not even the weirdest historical tidbit she told me; evidently, the “Pageant” episode from Another Period’s first season is based on a true story. “The first beauty pageant was between a baby, a cabbage and a bird,” Leggero says as she laughs. “They didn’t think women should be objectified for their beauty. You read about this stuff and the comedy version just becomes obvious.”

Their costume department is top notch.

With comedies, there’s a sense that wigs and costumes don’t need to be super authentic to get the joke across, but in this case they definitely were. (I’ve seen them up close. They are really heavy.) “We try to keep it as real as possible,” Leggero says. But the jokes never rely on outdated wardrobe and hairstyles. The aim is always to be authentic first and to focus on making fun of what’s absurd about that society. Leggero draws a comparison between their show and Stephen Colbert’s style of comedy; by playing up the characteristics of this time period that sound inherently absurd, it becomes easy to see the deeper issues rooted in the culture.

That’s always been the goal of Leggero and Lindhome. But they don’t stop at just highlighting these problems. We tend to distance ourselves from the past. By watching historical dramas and poking fun at their antiquated traditions, we can act as if the present lacks any similar problems. Women weren’t allowed to read books in Newport, but women globally now still lack access to equal education. By injecting modern humor into an antiquated setting, Leggero and Lindhome show how these problems persist even today; they warn us of what’s to come if we allow history to repeat itself. And although Another Period is the heightened, satirical cousin of Downton Abbey, maybe it’s just as real if not moreso; rather than romanticizing the past, Another Period takes a long hard look at it and laughs right in its face.

Olga Lexell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Daily Dot, Splitsider and Reductress. You can find her jokes on Twitter.

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