From the first moment we meet Hugh, Rachel and Larry, the protagonists of TV Land’s new comedy Nobodies, the Groundlings loom large just offscreen. The trio is there to perform at a reunion show, of sorts, with fellow alumni like Maya Rudolph, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. They quickly discover, however, that they are billed as “and others,” and aren’t even afforded last names when called onstage. It’s a cheeky tribute—“the Groundlings have launched the careers of Giant Comedy Stars! Just not these guys”—and the first of many moments in the Nobodies pilot where art reflects life, albeit through a refracted lens.
Created by and starring Hugh Davidson, Rachel Ramras and Larry Dorf, alongside executive producers (and real life husband-and wife duo) Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone,Nobodies fictionalizes the endeavors of TV Hugh, TV Rachel and TV Larry to achieve the success their famous Groundlings’ peers have found, while stuck writing for an animated Nickelodeon show called The Fartlemans—mirroring their real-life experiences on Cartoon Network’s The Loony Toons Show. “It’s a grim, grim world,” notes Davidson. “Where the bulk of the work takes place in Korea.”
And it’s a world their TV counterparts are eager to escape from, hopefully by selling their script Mr. First Lady to fancy studio executives. The only problem? They need a star attached, and while any of their famous friends would do, they’ll need to play a little dirty in order to get someone to bite.
This is where the line between Nobodies’ premise and the story of its creation gets particularly tongue-in-cheek. The star they’re forced to court first is their old friend McCarthy, after Rachel impulsively tells a group of executives that McCarthy’s already interested. Nobodies has an deliberately weird relationship with the celebrity friends of its creators. Literally the moment Rachel admits to Jim Rash that Melissa hasn’t been responding to their texts is the moment “Executive Producer Melissa McCarthy” appears on screen.
“It’s a testament to the Groundlings,” says Ramras. “All these people we’ve known for twenty years who appear in the show… everyone was happy to come back and work on the show, because it was like a family reunion.”
“We get nothing but yeses all the way,” adds showrunner Michael McDonald (MADtv). McDonald strengthens the Groundlings connection even more: Two decades ago, he was Hugh, Larry, Rachel, Ben and Melissa’s improv teacher (“They were my favorites,” he notes). Early footage was shot in the Groundlings’ green room, with the old friends “sitting on those crummy old couches that have probably been there for 20 years.” “As everyone went out into the world,” adds McDonald, “we didn’t forget about each other.”
Their years of friendship materialize onscreen unexpectedly; they all kind of resent each other. This is a playful instinct, however, rather than a truly malicious one.
“We went out to dinner once, before we got too far into this,” says Dorf. “And we had an open and honest [conversation] where we wrote down, ‘these are all the things about you, good and bad.’”
“We pretty much filled a notepad,” says Ramras. “When I get nervous, I overtalk, and I get myself—and others—into trouble.”
“I get angry over things,” says Davidson. “At an early TV Land meeting, maybe our second one, I was inappropriately angry. Probably no one could tell—”
“Oh no,” interrupts Dorf, “we could all tell.” Dorf thinks of himself as cheap and worrisome: “I have a lot of balls in the air because I don’t have any faith that anything will happen.” Ramras and Davidson feel differently. “You’re a fair-weather friend,” she adds, as Davidson outs Dorf as the first one of the group who might go in for plastic surgery. “If season one’s a hit,” says Ramras, “Larry’s eyes are going to be a little more open in Season Two.”
Davidson ultimately takes a modest approach to the challenge of turning himself into a TV character. “Normally, famous people play themselves,” he says. “And there’s something to be said for the choices they make. When people as incredibly unfamous as us play ourselves, it probably makes no difference. But psychologically… it’s interesting to show the warts-and-all sides to ourselves, and heighten that, and feel comfortable doing it.”
And it works. The creators have made the smart move of making themselves as desperate as they are incompetent, as sycophantic as they are bitter. Their pitch meeting is a hilariously unqualified disaster; they clumsily name-drop and talk over each other until they begin patently lying. This approach extends to Nobodies’ high-profile guest stars, too. Maya Rudolph is written as tactless and condescending backstage before their improv show, while Jim Rash and Nat Faxon unapologetically flaunt their status as Oscar-winners.
Meanwhile, McCarthy is literally a stratosphere above everyone else, starring in a goofy-looking flight attendant movie called The Friendly Skies. Her only appearance in the pilot is on a billboard for a movie that Hugh, Larry and Rachel gaze up at while stuck slouching around the Paramount lot.
It’s the Larry Sanders School of Celebrity Cameo, though the trio admits to some trepidation when it came to painting their friends as out-of-touch jerks. “We thought it was so funny that Jim Rash and Nat Faxon would have their Oscars ostentatiously displayed in their office,” says Davidson. “But there is that moment when you send them [the script]. ‘Is this gonna offend the crap out of them?’”
Ultimately, what makes the Nobodies’ pilot work is that, from the mild pleasantries exchanged to their attempts to genially rib each other in the green room, we believe that these people were all real friends once, getting drunk after basement improv shows and wondering what life would be like once they get famous. Now Ben is on the phone with “Sandy” Bullock and the core gang is left to wonder what they did wrong.
Their attempts to claw their way to the top are realistically gross, but also—given what they’ve seen happen to seemingly everyone they know—completely understandable within the world of Nobodies. That the creators are hyper-aware of this prevents the exercise from becoming actively depressing; it’s self-mockery, for sure, but not without a genuine underdog arc. By defining their first major success as a meditation on their own failures, they’ve managed to retain outsider status while still starring in a TV show about themselves.
“We don’t know anything about Hollywood,” says Davidson. “Us making a satire, or making fun of Hollywood… We haven’t been to any of those parties, we don’t know the executives, we don’t know any of that. We’re seeing it from the perspective of actual nobodies.”
“We’re a little late to the party,” he adds. “But we don’t aspire to just be at the party. It’s a desperation for credibility, certainly more than a desperation for fame.”
“It’s sort of of the opposite of Entourage,” adds Dorf. “This is not glamour and ‘making deals.’ This is the Burbank Airport version, where we’re the butt of the jokes.”
“It’s ‘Sad-tourage,” clarifies Davidson.
And how will they be watching the remainder of Nobodies’ first season?
“I don’t know if I’ll watch it with my bite-guard in…” muses Dorf. “It’ll be very glamorous.”
“And I’ll be on the Sunset Strip,” adds Davidson. “Shaking hands.”
Nobodies airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on TV Land.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.