Talking to Seth Morris About Funny or Die, UCB, and First Dates with Toby Harris

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We told you last week about  Yahoo’s new web comedy push. Part of that effort is a partnership with Funny or Die with the web series First Dates with Toby Harris, starring comedian and Funny or Die writer, Seth Morris.

Morris is the former artistic director of the Upright Citizens Brigade LA, and a member of the New York sketch comedy team, Naked Babies, with Rob Corddry, Brian Huskey and John Ross Bowie. In First Dates with Toby Harris, Morris plays an impossibly difficult single guy who can’t stop himself from committing a plethora first date wrongs.

I had a chance to sit down with Morris during the SXSW Interactive and Film Festival to talk about the show, writing for Funny or Die, and his support of funny women.

When did you get involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade?

I started pretty much at the beginning. I got to New York in ’96 and then I kind of got into the first wave of classes there. I always loved comedy and loved improv, but I didn’t know what longform was. Then I saw an Asssssscat and had a literal epiphany and was like, “I didn’t know this existed. This is what I want to do.” I started taking classes right away and met Rob Corddry in my first class. We became friends and formed a sketch group, Naked Babies, with Brian Huskey and John Ross Bowie. From there, we spent eight years doing as many shows as possible. I didn’t know until I moved to New York that you could make your career doing sketch and improv. So that’s how I got involved. Eventually, I was teaching. I lucked out timing-wise and got [to UCB] right at the beginning and was happy to commit myself to it.

And then in 2005, you went to L.A.

Yeah. I had been in New York for nine years at that point, and the last two years were particularly rough — just broke and (aside from the occasional bit on Conan) never getting paid to act. I was working in a coffee shop and cater waiting and whatever else. I wanted to move to L.A. because I felt like something had to change, but I was scared to move because if I didn’t make it there, then that meant I was done. I at least wanted a job. Being the artistic director [at UCB LA] wasn’t something I’d thought about doing because I’m not a particularly organized person, but I knew they wanted someone who understood how the theater ran. I’d managed the theater in New York at times and knew how it worked. So I said I’d throw myself in. And it was great. It was a really hard job, but really rewarding. I did that for two years.

I had met Adam McKay over the years through UCB and his wife, who was my acting coach in L.A. I had recommended some people to him and then they got to a point where they needed a writer, so they hired me part time. It became full time pretty quick after that because they just needed so much content.

Tell me about writing for Funny or Die.

Being a writer at Funny or Die is amazing, because these guys are writers. And especially coming from SNL, guys like Andrew Steele and Adam McKay really value writers and believe if a writer has the idea, they know how it should be [directed]. It was very much a writer-centric thing at first. As Funny or Die has grown, they have more people right out of film school and it’s a little bit more normal now that the writer has the idea, the director has the vision and so on. But I was very spoiled in that I wasn’t an official director, but I pretty much directed everything that I wrote.

There’s a newer wave now of more recent hires and general collaboration than there was in the beginning, because there were fewer of us and you had to do more. And at least for me, I had to just — I do better if I just lock myself away and work. But it’s like a playground in that up until recently the entire office was along one hallway. So you can talk about something and go, “Oh, Darrell knows someone with that sort of apartment.” You can knock on that person’s door right away and get a location for the next day. And then as that’s happening, other ideas are being dog-piled on. “Oh, I have a little mini bike. You can use that!” “Oh yeah, that’d be perfect.” And you know, it was started by people that were at SNL. I’m sure it’s not that different than a lot of other rooms, where part of your job is to be silly and be open and spontaneous.

Tell me about working on First Dates with Toby Harris. It seems like a very different process from writing for Funny or Die, given that one is sketch and the other is episodic.

Working on First Dates with Toby Harris was different in that it wasn’t my idea. I helped shaped the character and had a say in casting, but I was really busy at the time, so I only had time to act in it. I felt very spoiled, in a way, in that I just had to show up and improvise. Well, the show is written, but we improvise on top of it. It was different in that it was like a mini TV show. I don’t know what it’s like from personal experience to star in a TV show, but it’s like a taste of that, where it’s all done for you. The scripts are written — I got a say in casting and storylines and stuff — but my job is pretty easy. I didn’t have to deal with having to run anything. Because in the beginning at Funny or Die, you kind of produced your own videos, too. That gives you a lot of freedom, but that logistical stuff sucks.

That’s the neat thing about watching Funny or Die grow is that now they have actual producers. They’re not actors who are producing because they have to; they want to be producers.

What interested Funny or Die in the partnership with Yahoo?

It offers more exposure and it gets the word out about Funny or Die as a larger content provider, because like anybody they have bigger dreams of doing TV shows and larger movies. The idea is to show that we’re a production company now, too, as if this came from Funny or Die Studios.

It almost seems like you’re sort of an internet version of a cable channel or that’s what they’re aiming for.

Yeah.

Tell me about how the show started.

The writer and director, Elliot Dickerhoof, ran the equipment room. And pretty much everybody there gets an opportunity to direct. That’s not promised, but it’s sort of understood, especially if they deal with the technical aspects, they’ll get a shot. He did that for a while and then shot a couple videos. He had an idea for a series called “First Dates” that would be a different couple on a different first date every episode. The first one just happened to be me and June Raphael. And it did well. People liked it and responded to it.

Around the same time, Yahoo was doing their thing. From what I understand, in the last two years Yahoo said, “There’s no way we’re going to compete as a search engine. We have to do something else.” So they started becoming more of a destination content page. They already had a comedy following. They already had so-many-million hits per day for comedy content. So they decided to double down on their comedy page and they came to Funny or Die looking for content. Funny or Die was just starting to look to be considered a production company as well and that’s how it happened. It was kind of people having the same idea at the same time. One of the producers, Anna Wenger, looked at the first episode of what became First Dates and said, “I think this could be a series; this is funny.”

Yahoo liked the idea of dating, because I think they have a large female following. That fit in, too, because — while it’s not the main goal of the show — I thought it’d be fun to get really funny actresses to guest star. If the formula is me improvising with really fucking funny women and it’s exploring the already-charged situation of dating, then it’s going to be funny.

It’s also tonally different than most of what Funny or Die does. The dialogue is really realistic and, sure, it’s taking the characters’ asshole-ishness to another level, but as far as the way people talk to each other, it’s very realistic.

Yeah, one of Elliot’s goals is to just have a moment, a scene. One of the things I really like about it is that each of the writers did a really good job of writing a nice scene. And it’s not either like a sketch that has to have a beginning, middle and end or a fake trailer that follows a built-in structure. So it’s very different that way. My personal tendency is that I like to do a lot of crass, dirty shit and so I tend to do a lot of juvenile stuff. And that’s what I find funny, but I also like the relationship-y, romantic comedy aspect of this.

So it’s different in the sense that when you make a video for Funny or Die proper, you do have to think about what’s going to get hits. And you try to avoid it, but there is sort of a formula: it’s great if there’s a celebrity, if there’s sexuality, if there’s a current meme that’s involved. First Dates doesn’t have any of that, and it’s one of the first things we’ve done that had done well just because it’s good. And traditionally, series don’t do well on Funny or Die. People just don’t think of us that way. Most web series don’t do that great anyway, but especially on our site, we’ve found that the views decrease with each episode, because people have a short attention span. But this series seemed to make the most sense because it is tonally a little bit different, and since Yahoo hasn’t defined their tone yet, it makes sense in a way.

What appeals to you about playing Toby Harris?

Well, because dating sucks. I think of him as this guy who’s over-dating and a little too old to give a shit about whether or not the impression lasts or works. I think that’s one thing people can relate to — either they’ve been there, or they wish they could say those things. I like the fact he’s kind of a dick; he doesn’t really understand social graces or basic social cues. And there’s something funny about couples fighting and the tension in the dating world.

And June is one of my favorite women to act with. With a lot of my female comedy friends, our running bit is just being mean to each other, like brother and sister. I do pretty well working with female comedians for whatever reason and getting to work with so many was another thing that appealed to me.

I feel like a lot of female comedians get relegated to playing support stuff or one specific kind of character, like the drunk sorority girl. But there’s a lot of unappealing female characters in this, who all show it in different ways. We tried to even it out, too, where half the time my character is unequivocally the asshole and half the time it could be the woman.

That works really well, too, that here’s this character that is really absurd as far as the way he handles people, but then the female character’s filter is gone, too. So it gives these women a chance to be absurd and funny instead of playing straight man to you all the time. What appeals to you about getting to work with so many women comedians?

It’s unique in the sense that a lot of sketch comedy stuff I do, there isn’t much exploration of relationships. It’s premise-based; it’s not really slice-of-life. I don’t like to admit it, but I like good romantic comedies. Ever since Foul Play, when I was a little kid, with Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn — it’s just fun to see people partnered up that way. I guess I like it because there’s not enough people out there doing it. For the number of funny women out there who can be funny in a lot of different ways, there should be more shows like this. Because it’s usually an all-female centered show or a mostly-guys thing. First Dates is about my character, yes, but it’s 50/50 as far as who’s misbehaving, for the most part.

I hope people give the show a shot. People shouldn’t be scared off by it looking like a romantic comedy and not being your typical Funny or Die dick joke.

It’s almost an anti-romantic comedy.

Yeah. It’s smart and funny, but it’s completely accessible.

Each of the episodes functions as its own stand-alone unit, but will there be any story arc across the season?

None of us wanted to get too sentimental. I don’t think it would be all that fun for this guy, Toby Harris, to end up with somebody. We’ll see how much we can milk out of the humor that’s inherent in a first date and both people trying to present themselves in a certain way whether they’re being honest or not and how that can clash.

Are there any episodes you’re particularly looking forward to?

There’s one with Angela Kinsey that’s really funny, because she’s really nasty and filthy in it, and you don’t usually get to see her do that kind of stuff. There’s one with Erinn Hayes where she does a great job of playing a specific type of annoying almost sorority girl. And in the final episode, Suzi Barrett — she’s a UCB person — she is just so fucking funny. She plays a lady who’s a self-help junkie, not so much a hippie but one of those people who loves Oprah and dispenses advice without being asked.

What’s funny to you?

I generally love silly, goofy, dumb, dirty stuff. But then I like awkward, sad slice-of-life, sort of Alexander Payne-ish type stuff. I think life is really hard and really shitty a lot of the time, and the funny-because-it’s-true, gotta-laugh-to-keep-from-crying makes me laugh a lot. Because I do feel like most of the time it’s a fucking joke how hard it is. [Laughter]

Do you have any unexpected advice for aspiring comedy writers that you wouldn’t have expected to be helpful when you started out?

A lot of people have said this, but: don’t wait for other people to come to you. I think that — because I’m a performer, too, and I have a little bit of ego — I just thought that someone was going to come to me and be like, “Please, you’re so amazing.”

For writers, I’d say just write and write and write. And just find a way to make yourself useful. If there’s a theater in town, get involved there. I can only speak for myself, but being in UCB was amazing because you did everything or at least you had the opportunity to do everything. I’ll always champion longform improv because you do learn your comic sensibility, what works in front of a crowd, you’re writing on your feet. That’s part of it. Then you’re eventually going to meet other people and collaborate. Don’t be afraid to suck at first, because you’re going to. Just keep doing stuff and learn from it and you’ll get better.

And it sounds cheesy, but: read. Nobody reads. There’s something about interacting with words and taking them in that gets me in a mindset of expressing myself that way. And since nobody reads, it’s like a secret weapon. Your mind is going to be a little bit sharper if you read good stuff. I’m not even talking comedy, just read good literature, good essays. Read people who know how to express their point of view. That’s really helpful. If you can find people who can say what they mean and be understood, that’s a good thing to learn.

Erica Lies wishes her middle name was “never.” She lives in Austin, TX and has a web series that ten whole people have watched.