TV’s Breakout Comedy Stars on Pandemic Humor and Cancel Culture

·12-min read

This story about Hana Einbinder, Maya Erskine, Charlotte Nicdao and Punam Patel first appeared in the Comedy & Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The last 16 months have found people everywhere holed up in their homes and turning to television for the entertainment that can get them through times of isolation and turmoil. And those months have seen the emergence of a bumper crop of fresh voices, some of whom were doing great work before the pandemic and some who seemed to break out as the world shut down.

We picked four of our favorites for a photo shoot and a conversation that ranged from the changes wrought by the pandemic to the challenges of cancel culture to sex scenes.

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The participants:

Hannah Einbinder, “Hacks”
A stand-up comedian and writer from Los Angeles, Einbinder goes head to head with Jean Smart on HBO Max’s “Hacks.” She plays Ava Daniels, a comedian whose job prospects dry up after an ill-considered tweet, and who finds herself hired by imperious comic legend Deborah Vance (Smart).

Maya Erskine, “Pen15”
Along with Anna Konkle, Erskine writes and stars in the Hulu series that revisits the constant humiliations of a pair of awkward 13-year-old girls. Erskine and Konkle, who are both in their 30s, play the 13-year-olds amid a cast of real teens.

Charlotte Nicdao,” “Mythic Quest”
Australian actress Nicdao stars as brilliant but awkward gaming engineer Poppy Li in Rob McElhenney’s AppleTV+ comedy about a dysfunctional video-game studio whose dysfunction is embodied in the stormy relationship between Nicdao and McElhenney’s characters.

Punam Patel, “Special”
In Ryan O’Connell’s Netflix series based on his life as a gay man with cerebral palsy, Patel plays Kim, Ryan’s best friend and co-worker at the Eggwoke online magazine. The Florida-born actress of Indian descent landed an Emmy nomination for the first season, when “Special” was in the short-form categories; its second season finds the show moving to a longer comedy-series format.

How dramatically did the last year transform what you did on your shows?
PUNAM PATEL We were shooting Season 2 of “Special,” and we got through half of it and then we were on hiatus and were like, “Oh, this is perfect. We’ll lock down during hiatus, and then we’ll come back.” And then we just, like, never came back. So we ended up shooting the second half in the fall during COVID. I look very different in the second half of Season 2. There’s one scene where I’m at my door and the next scene I’m at a gym and it looks like two different people. But that’s kind of fun, that there’s something memorializing this year in our life. I can always go to that episode and be like, “Remember when I gained 20 pounds? That was so fun!”

CHARLOTTE NICDAO That’s the most relatable pandemic experience.

MAYA ERSKINE We were shooting Season 2 of “Pen15. “We had maybe seven days left and then we shut down, and our producer said, “This’ll probably be a week, we’re not gonna put anything into storage.” And we all kept waiting. And then Anna and I both got pregnant, so we can’t resume shooting until next month (July 2021).

Maya Erskine photographed by Corina Marie

Hannah, did “Hacks” exist pre-pandemic?
HANNAH EINBINDER
The casting process started just before the initial lockdown. I’m pretty sure I had my first audition four days before March 13. The callback was on Zoom, and then we did a screen test in person later. But we shot entirely in the height of the pandemic. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I’m told that sets are usually more of a community-building space. We all got close, but I can’t even imagine what it would have been if… I mean, people I loved, I was like, “I’ve never seen the bottom half of your face and I love you.”

PATEL Right. You’ve been seeing someone for two months, and then you finally see their (whole) face and you’re like, “I was so wrong. I had no idea that’s what you looked like.”

Also, you were making comedy for people who are stuck at home and probably more depressed than they would be if they were able to get out more. Does it change the way you approach what you’re doing?

NICDAO It was definitely a big thing for me. Television and especially comedy has always been a really big part of everyone getting through tough times. Throughout 2020, I realized how much I needed it. Going back to work after a few months where I was relying on that episode of “Friends” to get me through and feeling like I’m making a comedy that hopefully people will watch and get some sort of similar feeling out of was a cool feeling.

EINBINDER I almost feel like our collective consciousness has shifted. Because there is so much darkness around everyone, it has shifted sensibilities. I feel like (people are) more into darker jokes, and that to me is a really exciting space for comedy to go. As a stand-up, darker jokes that won’t usually work are starting to work. It’s saying something about where we’re all willing to go and how you can pair drama and comedy together so beautifully, because that’s life.

ERSKINE Our show takes place in the year 2000, so there was nothing we had to adjust. But the goal is always to be as honest as possible, which can be exhausting during the pandemic when you just want to lie down and not go there.

Punam Patel photographed by Corina Marie

If TV was so essential to people during the pandemic, what shows did you all keep going to?
PATEL
“Pen15.” (To Erskine) I wasn’t gonna admit this, but a couple of years ago I saw you at the Emmys and went up to you and I was like (nonsense blubbering). You were so sweet about it. “Pen15” is one of those shows that I watched and I was like, “Well, guess I’ll just pack it up. It’s never going to be better than this.” I’ve never had something make me laugh and cry at the same time, within seconds. On the surface, it’s like, “This is ridiculous, these grown-ass women playing middle schoolers.” But it has so much heart. It makes you feel so seen, and it makes you like cringe, but also comforts you at the same time.

NICDAO I agree.

EINBINDER Same. So we all agree!

So what did you watch, Maya?
MAYA ERSKINE
At the beginning of the pandemic, I rewatched “The Sopranos.” I don’t know why I was drawn to do that, but I love it. And then I just started rewatching “Lost.” It was the first show I ever binged. I felt like they were my friends at one point.

PATEL “Lost” was the first show that I think a lot of us saw with a diverse cast. Pretty groundbreaking for the time to let that many of us on set at one time.

NICDAO I was living for “SNL.” I know that it was a strange season, but I kind of loved that about it. I loved seeing the cast cracking in the same way I was. This past year I was watching it live every Saturday.

Hannah Einbinder photographed by Corina Marie

The other thing that’s happened in the last year is cancel culture. Is comedy more of a minefield now?
EINBINDER
No. I just think that the standards are where they’re supposed to be. Higher. Cancel culture doesn’t affect a comedian if they’re not being outright racist or homophobic or misogynistic or transphobic.

NICDAO People get so worried about cancel culture in a way where it’s like, “We can’t talk about that thing anymore.” Which in a lot of ways I think is kind of lazy and uncreative. There are definitely ways to make stories and comedy out of things that perhaps haven’t been part of our consciousness before. Just try not to punch down, you know?

PATEL I think it’s a good thing that people are being held accountable when they’re being harmful. But at the same time, I think there’s a balance that needs to be struck because we’ve all done things that maybe we weren’t proud of. When I first started improv, I probably did an accent that was not appropriate because I thought I was being funny, but I’ve been given the space to be like, “OK, that wasn’t a good choice and I’m not going to do that anymore.” I don’t think anyone’s life needs to be ruined. It’s like, “OK, that woman did something that was extremely problematic and she’s apologizing. Does she deserve to have death threats?” Maybe not.

ERSKINE Can we just have a conversation about it, and educate ourselves? There should be a safe space to talk about it, and just do better. Just do better.

EINBINDER We all know Twitter is like the darkest depths of humanity and an absolute hell hole. That online space is not real life, and we do need to place less importance on what the mob is saying.

Besides the obvious problem of filming in a pandemic, were there particular challenges in these past seasons for you?
PATEL
It kind of paralleled what’s a challenge for me personally, which is allowing different parts of myself to exist at the same time. For a character like Kim, Season 1, you saw her as mostly confident. Season 2, you see she actually has a lot of cracks. I think we live in a world where, especially with women, we either need to be 1,000% body positive and “I love every roll and curve I have and fuck you if you don’t,” or “I’m hiding my body and shameful.” There’s no in-between.

I feel different about my body every day, sometimes every hour of the day. And that doesn’t mean I’m not confident or I’m insecure or I’m egotistical. That’s just very human. And so finding the balance of how to play that—a woman that does believe in herself, but is also a product of society, a product of standards of beauty that she has never fit into that she’s trying desperately to. I think that was a challenge.

EINBINDER I think the biggest challenge for me was probably the sex scenes or anything where I’m showing my body. I got through it and I was like, “Oh, this is fine,” but the anticipation was hard. But it’s on there forever and I’m fine with it.

NICDAO I had one of those first day back on set. (Groans) It was great.

PATEL You just think about your parents the entire time. My mom, actually, when she saw the trailer, she’s like, “So. Lots of kissing. Do you guys, like, put something between your mouths?” And I was like, “No, we’re actually kissing.” We never talked about it again, which is fine.

ERSKINE My first week of “Pen15,” we filmed all the masturbation scenes. First week. And no one knows what the show is that they’re hired to do. You have a new crew and they’re like, “What the f— is this? This 30-year-old woman in a Care Bear shirt?”

Charlotte Nicdao photographed by Corina Marie

What do you think the role of TV comedy should be to make Hollywood more inclusive when it comes to race and gender?
NICDAO
I think that television and film is at a point where it’s realizing that there are so many more stories out there that have been ignored until this point. TV benefits from paying attention to new stories. I think that we’ve told the same ones over and over and over again. And then we started being like, “Oh, wait, maybe there are some stories outside of this one white dude.” And now there’s a lot of amazing stuff on TV.

ERSKINE Think about when we were kids. I can’t name one TV show where I was like, “That’s me.” It is so damaging to not see yourself represented in the media. I didn’t really think about that until I was making a show. And then I was like, “Oh, yeah, when I was 13, I didn’t see what I looked like on screen.” That can hurt your consciousness.

PATEL Normalization is so important. Diversity’s trending right now, and everyone’s given themselves a big old pat on the back because they put a fat brown girl on TV—like, they’re allowing me to exist and do things that maybe you don’t think an Indian woman would do. They’re allowing us to be people first instead of making our entire identity about what marginalizes us. I think that is so important, too, because we’re not a monolith. Even if some racist dude who hates everything about me, if I can make him laugh for one second, I was a human being to him. And like little by little, that makes a difference.

EINBINDER Yeah. I certainly realized very recently how as a queer person, I just accepted that I wasn’t seen. And I probably came out so late because I have seen myself reflected in certain things, but not as a queer person. Not, “Here’s a bisexual person and they’re a real, fully formed and complex person.” It’s not the coming-out story. It’s just like, here’s a bisexual person and they’re at work, you know? I have never seen that. I truly think I was confused for so long because I didn’t see that.

(And now) I start crying. Oh, God. But yeah, we gotta get more of this stuff, guys.

Read more from the Comedy & Drama Series issue here.

Read original story TV’s Breakout Comedy Stars on Pandemic Humor and Cancel Culture At TheWrap

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