Here’s how executive producer/director Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks & Recreation) described the new TBS comedy series People of Earth starring Wyatt Cenac, Ana Gasteyer, and Oscar Nuñez: “It’s the brainchild of David Jenkins, a New York playwright. The idea is that it’s about a support group of people who feel that they’ve been abducted by aliens. We gradually learn that this is their way of making sense of a lot of disappointments and weird, delusional episodes in their life, but actually it’s true. There are aliens and they have been abducted. Then as it goes forward, the aliens are kind of meddling in their lives in ways that they don’t really understand and are trying to make sense of – and maybe one day they will.”
Sitting down for interviews at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con, Daniels and series star Ana Gasteyer chatted about what viewers can expect from the series and if they believe we’re not alone in the universe.
Ana Gasteyer and Greg Daniels Interview:
What can you tell us about your character?
Ana Gasteyer: “So Gina’s a pretty badly credentialed therapist who isn’t that good at what she does and who runs this support group and tries to offer solace and some insight to people who… She’s also been abducted. She’s an ‘experiencer’ herself and so she tries gently and lovingly help people through a really tough situation that a lot of people (are in). They don’t have a lot of places they can go, so this is a comforting space.”
Greg Daniels: “It’s super relatable. I mean, everybody’s been abducted at some point by aliens.”
Ana Gasteyer: “Yeah. Everybody has been in a group, maybe for something embarrassing…or maybe not.”
How quickly will we see the aliens? Do we know what they look like?
Ana Gasteyer: “Yes.”
Greg Daniels: “Well, yes. Ana’s character hypnotizes Wyatt (Cenac’s) character in the pilot and you do see what he thinks he sees, but he’s been also having certain waking nightmares and so it could be the result of some kind of mental illness. You don’t 100% know it’s aliens, but we do see what he thinks he sees in the pilot. And then as the series progresses, you get to see more and more of what they’re up to.”
How did you get involved?
Greg Daniels: “Well, I read the script and thought it was hilarious! Conan is producing it – Conan O’Brien. He’s an old friend and the head of his company’s an old friend. Wyatt used to work with me on King of the Hill so by the time it all came together, I just felt like this is a really exciting concept plus a lot of really exciting people. So I wanted to get involved and I ended up directing the pilot and producing it with Conan.”
Will you be writing any of the episodes?
Greg Daniels: “Well, I feel like I’m probably more going to be kind of throwing in suggestions and giving notes and stuff more than writing them. We have a nice staff of six or seven great writers, so I’m hoping I’ll just contribute by tossing my two cents in.”
How hands-on is Conan?
Greg Daniels: “Conan’s a great inspiration and his sense of humor kind of permeates stuff through his company, and the executives of his company are very present. He’s a big fan of the script and what we’ve done so far. He probably won’t be making smoothies on the set…”
Ana Gasteyer: “I hope he will be.”
Greg Daniels: “I hope so too.”
Ana Gasteyer: It would be a nice thing just to sort of show that he’s one of us.”
Is there an opportunity for you and the other actors to do any improv?
Ana Gasteyer: “It’s definitely scripted, but I guess I can only speak to the pilot. Greg’s expertise is obviously comedy and finding things and letting people run with them, so there’s a lot (there). And it’s a very gifted improvisational cast with people from the improv world. They’re very, very funny and there is some improv.”
Greg Daniels: “The intention is to do even more. We’re loosening the shooting style a little bit. The thing is that it’s very arced out and we’re going to know the scripts for all 10 episodes in advance, so the challenge for them to improvise is to make sure that they don’t take it in a direction that we can’t get to later. Instead, they can add in the same spirit of the scene extra humor.”
Ana Gasteyer: “There’s a strong sense of story there and obviously drama. It is very much a mash genre show because it is very sci-fi focused and so it has this very grounded Office comedy, Office-style comedy, but also a lot of sci-fi intrigue.”
What is the atmosphere like on the set? Is everyone trying to one-up each other?
Ana Gasteyer: “Yes. It’s fun because it’s a big cast. I think anyone who does a lot of improv loves the sense of a big ensemble because there’s lots of energy and lots of people to play with. If you burn out in one direction, you don’t have to carry the ball all the time. It’s nice. So, it’s a very fun, very kind, convivial group, which is really nice. We just did the panel and Conan very eloquently was saying a lot of us have been working for a while, and it’s nice to do it with people who are also human beings and are kind of interested in doing something fun together.”
Greg Daniels: “Yeah, the subject matter because it’s a genre mash-up, there’s a lot of places to go. You can be funny in the situation with character comedy, you can suddenly turn it and show the more vulnerable side of a character, and that’s still good too because it’s interesting. And then you can try to blow people’s minds with a sort of a sci-fi thought that they hadn’t necessarily considered. The character that Oscar Nunez plays is a priest and he’s a priest at the church where the group meets in the basement. We were constantly sort of making comparisons between his faith and the faith of a lot of the people in the group that this thing happened to them. It’s sort of troubling to him that they seem to have this faith. So, you know, this is another area that you can just kind of go to when you’re acting to go to something interesting. I think it’s fun for them because they go to a lot of different, interesting places to go with their performance.”
Ana Gasteyer: “It’s sort of in the here and now. It feels very grounded and real at the same time.”
We know you as a comedian but how are you with the sci-fi elements of the show?
Ana Gasteyer: “Well, as a fan I’m excited. I’m really interested in it. I mean I’m playing a real person who’s experienced extraordinary things so in some ways that’s just acting.”
Greg Daniels: “How do you make your tongue turn into a snake and come out of your mouth? That’s a really cool thing to do.”
Ana Gasteyer: (Laughing) “That is genetic. That’s just something that my family has had and I always thought of it more as probably why I went into comedy because I was so embarrassed by it.”
Greg Daniels: “Right, yeah. Fundamental.”
Ana Gasteyer: “Yeah, but as a fan I’m excited. I’m geeking out to be at Comic Con. I came in a day early, my husband and I have been out seeing panels. He’s like texting me from the various booths that he’s at buying art and stuff. It’s funny. I don’t know about Greg, but I don’t actually watch that many comedies. If I have a friend on something, I’ll watch it because I’ll feel guilty if I’m having dinner or something and I have to tell them they were good in it. I enjoy them, but it was always shamefully late. Like after it’s in syndication I’ll be like, ‘You know, Frasier is pretty funny.’ You know, just like hopelessly really late.”
Greg Daniels: “You know if you work in comedy, most of the people that I know that are in comedy they’re big Game of Thrones fans.”
Ana Gasteyer: “Exactly. We watch all of that. We watch The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, we have a lot of guilty pleasures and so a lot of that’s here at Comic Con.”
Will there be any flashbacks this season?
Ana Gasteyer: “Yeah, a lot of episodes in the first season explore the origin stories of the experiences because it’s a big cast and a big crew.”
Greg Daniels: “There’s a great episode, our fourth episode you see the ship and you see the aliens and the stuff that you’ve previously only see when Wyatt’s been hypnotized. Then suddenly it reveals that now Gina, Ana’s character, is strapped to the gurney up there. And then it just dissolves to what she’s up to at her job at the crockery hutch. Suddenly you’re like, ‘Yeah, that happened to her too. My god!'”
How much CG is involved?
Greg Daniels: “The goal of the way we’re doing the sci-fi is to be as practical as possible. There’s a little CG, but it’s what they call CG enhancement where we have costumes and prosthetics and then the CG is added just to put a little bit of moistness to the costume.”
Ana Gasteyer: “We also do it in the non-alien sections just to look better. (Laughing) My boobs are slightly higher and my cheekbones a little more sculpted.”
How much of story takes place in the basement and how much is outside in the world?
Ana Gasteyer: “It’s mostly out.”
Greg Daniels: “I think that the support group scenes, there’s at least one per episode because it’s just sort of the home base where everybody gets to see each other in person. But then they break up and they follow the different characters on their days and stuff like that. Sometimes they’ll have little field trips that Gina will have arranged that brings them outside of the basement.”
How would you define People of Earth’s comedy style?
Greg Daniels: “I think it’s behavioral, character comedy so it’s sort of like you have to get to know who the characters are and then how they’re behaving is really funny, and their choices that they’re making more so than like setup, setup jokes. Setup, setup, joke.”
Ana Gasteyer: “Definitely. It’s not a mockumentary. It doesn’t have that style to it so much. It doesn’t have that pausiness, I would say. It’s definitely a single-camera comedy that’s happening in a very filmic way, in terms of the look of it. I would say there are some Office similarities only because Greg is masterful at that.”
Greg Daniels: “We talked about the Coen Brothers a lot, doing the pilot. They’re very funny in filmic ways. My hope was to try and use the camera to tell jokes sometimes, not all verbal. One of the things that attracted me to it was that when David wrote it, he put in his pitch document that it’s sort of a combination of a Greg Daniels comedy. I was like, ‘Oh, somebody name-checked me. Yeah!’ with a J.J. Abrams magic box show like Lost. I was like, ‘That’s kind of cool.”
Ana Gasteyer: “It does feel that way to me, having seen the pilot.”
Do you believe there is life out there?
Ana Gasteyer: “Definitely. Not even a question. I mean it seems so insane that there wouldn’t be to me, even just from a logic standpoint. I don’t know that they’re like green Martians or I certainly don’t think we’re smarter than anybody. It’s big, it’s a big old universe. Why would we be the only ones in it?”
Greg Daniels: “Yeah, also if you look at the history of the progress of science, it’s always been to take us from a position of uniqueness and put us further and further away from the center of what matters in the world. You know, whether it’s like, ‘The universe spins around the earth.’ ‘Well, actually, no it doesn’t. We’re spinning around the sun.’ Actually the sun is really kind of a small star among endless stars. The odds are that there’s life out there and that they would be big fans of the show.”
Watch the full Ana Gasteyer and Greg Daniels interview: