My love of Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, as with most of my current media diet, started with Tumblr. I kept coming across these gifs from Playing House of these two well-lit women I had never seen before on TV making very specific, quotable lines, probably about Anne of Green Gables on the same blogs that really loved John Mulaney, Community, Tina Fey, Arrested Development, and the criminally underrated yet critically-acclaimed alike.
I’m all about the unmistakable sparkle of undying female friendships, particularly the kind that involves a certain underrated Canadian children’s book series.
Playing House is currently the only original comedy on USA Network’s roster (characters welcome, indeed!) and its logline is probably something along the lines of Broad City meets Gilmore Girls. The show is about two childhood best friends, Maggie (Parham) and Emma (St. Clair) who are childhood best friends raising Maggie’s baby together in their twinkly Connecticut hometown following Maggie’s divorce and Emma’s homecoming after years of business in China.
The first season is primarily about Maggie’s pregnancy, trying to bounce back after her not-particularly-acrimonious divorce, and Emma reckoning with everyone she had left behind in Pinebrook. But fair warning: this is also a show where garden gnomes are stolen, policemen strip, and a woman makes disgusting seasonal wreaths out of flip flops. It is a charming and delightful experience all-around.
The lifeblood of this show are the low-risk chicanery, tomfoolery, and shenanigans Emma and Maggie are constantly getting into and the remarkably healthy love that bind them. While the premise seems bleak, the characters never feel that they are ever “settling” for the live-in best friend situation. The scenario may be a bit unconventional, but this transition portrayed as any worse than the lives they had lived before.
What’s so bad about raising your daughter with your beloved best friend and your child’s father? Haven’t you heard? Sisters are doing it for themselves these days.
Also enjoyable are the supporting cast and the colorful denizen that pepper the town of Pinebrook. What distinguishes this show is how exceptionally pleasant everyone is to each other and how mature people are when resolving conflict. This is USA (characters welcome) not TNT (we know drama). Maggie and her ex-husband Bruce are still friends and doting parents to the infant Charlotte. Despite some initial awkwardness, Emma and Maggie develop a rapport with Tina aka Bird Bones, Mark’s current wife.
Keegan Michael-Key proves his potential as a rom-com leading man as Emma’s ex-fiancé Mark, “a dutiful police officer, a supportive friend, a doting sociological uncle to Maggie’s baby, and community theatre enthusiast.” (Make it happen soon!) Jane Kaczmaerk plays Emma’s estranged mother. Zach Woods is ever-strange as Maggie’s brother who is both a certified doula and a seafarer. (I truly do not know what funds his endeavors; sitcom personal finance is another monster of its own.
Their world is filled with St. Clair and Parhams’ friends from the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre (where modern comedy legends are born and bred) like Jason “Heynong Man” Mantzoukas, June Diane Raphael, Matt Walsh, and Andy Daly.
Their other great work can be found in the depths of the Comedy Bang Bang archives. CBB is a weekly improv comedy audio podcast hosted by Scott Aukerman, one of the foremost den mothers of the comedy world and the man responsible for hiring the unfortunately fictional but irrepressible CBB intern Marissa Wompler (created and voiced by St. Clair) of Marina Del Rey High School. I’d suggest listening to every appearance of Wompler in the podcast world chronologically. If the paywall prevents you from doing so, then start with Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair’s Wompler spin-off, Womp It Up, which is a free podcast in its entirety.
While St. Clair’s character Marissa Wompler starts out as a loud student in a gifted class precociously devouring the Outlander book series and its explicit sex scenes, she is eventually fleshed-out in all her Digiorno-with-cream cheese-obsessed and inverted nippled glory.
She is accompanied by her teacher in the STARS program (a gifted turned special ed. class turned what seems to be a cult led by Listler), protector, best friend, and mentor, Charlotte “Chardog” Listler (created and voiced by Parham). The presumably intersex Listler was a sniper in Afghanistan in her dark and mysterious past life and has the ability to apparate by “BA Barachussing” people to other locations.
Another thing I give them credit for is how sex-positive the show is, with all their characters engaging in unconventional sexual exploits without stigma.
Despite the wackadoodle hijinks the highly codependent Wompler and Listler get into each other and the colorful cast of characters introduced, this show never seems to lose its emotionally-grounded core. Everyone, even Listler and the installed ankle pockets and Joey pouch in her skin, is so beautifully real and well-characterized. While the gags are aplenty, there are also some raw emotional moments in the show that really hit me right in the feelz, particularly between Wompler and her one-time flame Eric “Gutterballs” Gutterman. This show is quite possibly my absolute favorite podcast.
Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair have provided my life with a fuller, more fun experiential vocabulary with the worlds they’ve created. They may be the kind of creators with more of a “cult following” than the kinds churning out Bazornkkles! mega-hits on network television, but they are responsible for a great deal of inside jokes with myself (since I have yet to convert people IRL) and a lot of laughs. Though Womp it Up has been on hiatus for some time, the return of Womp and List on a recent episode of CBB and watching season 3 of Playing House reminded me how optimistic and wacky comedy can (and sometimes should) be and why I love it.
Images via USAnetwork and Earwolf
Also published on Medium.