The Unlikely Journey of a British Sketch Duo to HBO’s ‘Project Greenlight’

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“It’s a bit like a marriage,” suggests Ed Weeks of his relationship with Tom Bell. “A marriage that broke up, got together years later to discuss divorce terms, and ended up having amazing sex. It’s been amazing actually.”

Taking a break from shooting The Mindy Project’s fourth season, Weeks is reflecting on the capricious fate that led him and Bell, his long-time double-act partner, to be reunited as bickering brothers in The Leisure Class, a mere five years and an entire continent away from their split. Airing tonight on HBO, the movie borne from the revived Project Greenlight reality series has provoked controversy about diversity. But with its two British leads, it’s bordering on the incestuous.

Long before gracing red carpets with Matt Damon, Tommy and The Weeks were a decidedly cult sketch duo whose appeal rested heavily on their odd couple relationship. With his entitled, assertive manner and almost parodic square-jawed good looks, “bullying lothario” Weeks constantly found himself undermined by the wan, “indie waif” Bell.

Speaking from Los Angeles and London respectively, the pair recall their first meeting at Cambridge University in 1999 as members of The Footlights, the renowned dramatic club whose alumni include John Oliver, Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Emma Thompson, Eric Idle, Salman Rushdie and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.

Weeks was president and Bell vice-president. But they moved in different cliques and were initially wary of each other, until they were thrust together in the Footlights touring show by future Mighty Boosh director Paul King. Although Weeks performed conventional verbal comedy and Bell favored high-concept, “improv-y” shows, King was influenced by the Frenchman Jacques Lecoq and encouraged the pair to find their inner clowns: the desperately ambitious, “ineffectual nerd” behind Weeks’ brash assurance, the weirder-than-thou ego that Bell hid behind his understated fey.

“Even though we’ve never shared a particularly homogenised sense of humor, he’s so funny and baffling to me, it’s just so much fucking fun in the small section of our personal Venn diagram where everything meets” Weeks explains.

“We leaned into our differences, that’s what gave it a lot of energy” agrees Bell. “Rather than having two people coming from the same world and doing the same thing, we realized there was so much more interest and conflict in having this space in the middle. On our own on stage, we’d have been a bit unlikable. Why is this thin man flapping about and talking about birds? What does this posh Euro-sceptic think he’s doing?”

After graduation, they initially pursued solo careers. But they realised after three years that they preferred working with each other. In 2007, they started performing eccentric, energetic, hour-long shows like Powershow! and Wonderbang! at the Edinburgh Fringe in unglamorous shipping containers to audiences of approximately 50 people a night.

The intense, month-long festival only accentuated their differences. Bell recalls tidying away props post-show while Weeks smoked and chatted to female members of the audience. Bell would hang out at the inclusive, hippy-ish Forest Cafe, “putting on improv nights and making badges” says Weeks, “while I was spending my time in rooftop bars trying to network and hit on women. We really didn’t spend much time together socially and it was exactly as you’d imagine Tommy and The Weeks spending their time off.”

They made fleeting appearances on the BBC, ultimately in 2011 as a giant prawn (Bell) and Scottish dog (Weeks) on knockabout children’s show Dick and Dom’s Funny Business. But they struggled to convince provincial British towns, more used to conventional standup, of the genius of their whimsical skits. Touring for a pittance, when three of their commissioned pilots were rejected in a single week, they were “at the end of our tether” acknowledges Weeks.

Bell recalls his partner “just losing your shit” at the Northampton Picturedrome, “having a go at everyone in the crowd”. Weeks “shivers” at the recollection. Rescuing the gig only by sitting at a piano and leading a singalong, “you could see the anger in your face as you were doing Wonderwall!” Bell chuckles.

Shortly after, “fat and depressed”, Weeks flew to Los Angeles for pilot season, imagining he’d be back in six months. However he sold a script to CBS based on his parents’ divorce. And while it didn’t get picked up, he hung around long enough to be cast as the caddish Dr Jeremy Reed in The Mindy Project. Meanwhile, Bell began compiling a new showreel and amidst recurring alien roles in children’s television, appeared in Jason Mann’s 2012 short film, The Leisure Class.

Happily, when Mann won Project Greenlight and persuaded Damon, Ben Affleck and HBO to let him turn the short into a feature, he wanted Bell to reprise his role as the dissolute Leonard. Instigating chaos at his brother’s wedding by threatening to expose him as a conman after his fiancee’s wealth, it was a huge break for a performer who’d scarcely visited the US before. When Bell subsequently received an email from the director, telling him he’d just had an actor named Ed Weeks deliver a great audition for the part of William, and did he know him, “I couldn’t stop laughing, I was on the floor.”

However, it wasn’t quite the coincidence it appeared. When the original short was shot in the UK, Bell had tempered Leonard’s “sinister” side as written, in favor of what Weeks calls “more of a Tom Bell creation, a sweeter sort of character.

“So when I joined the party years later, it was weird, there was a Weeks-shaped hole but Tommy was already there. Auditioning before I knew Tom was in it, as the casting director read the part of Leonard, I recall thinking ‘this is very Tom Bellesque’. Sweet but annoying, kind of whimsical and imaginative. It wasn’t your standard social grenade, there was something very specific about it. And of course, I found out later that Tom had improvised a lot of his original dialogue.”

Mann encouraged them to improvise once more. “And we clicked straight back into it” Weeks enthuses.

“As soon as we got back on set, we remembered what the dynamic was. But our Tommy and The Weeks stuff was quite surreal, fanciful and sketchy. Now it was mixed in with this sparkling dialogue that Jason and Pete [Jones] had written, the more naturalistic, grounded relationship of the movie. It was a new tone that we hadn’t really explored before as a double-act, taking it into the real world. It was an intoxicating mixture of the old fun we used to have and this new, cinematic challenge.”

Sharing their “worst ever sketches for anyone in the crew who foolishly stood next to us for long enough,” they even managed to incorporate an old Tommy and The Weeks insult into the movie. “I don’t even look that much like a ‘drowned Elizabethan’ now” Bell laughs. “But it still got a huge laugh at the premiere. That was lovely.”

Moreover, The Leisure Class, like their original act, is built “around Tom being whimsical and annoying me” reiterates Weeks. “And at times, that’s been our real friendship as well…”

“His character is trying to marry into this more opulent life, which mirrors his life in LA…” Bell rejoins.

“So I’m busy hustling” Weeks continues. “Then Tom, or Leonard, shows up to fuck everything up. That’s the potential parallel. We have a shortcut for these characters’ chemistry because Tom and I are such good friends and collaborators. But a little part of me worried Tom was going to come and charm everybody, people would realize I’m an idiot and Tom is the real deal. I’ve had that feeling of fraud ever since Cambridge.”

They speak affectionately about the “recklessness” and “fearlessness” of their early careers, with no responsibility to earn more than beer money. “We were in a gang of other great sketch comedians – Anna and Katy, Colin and Fergus, The Penny Dreadfuls – it was a very cool, supportive time and I look back on it fondly” Weeks reflects.

Nevertheless, “things needed to come to a head in England. We had to surrender to the fact that nothing was going to happen at that point and go our separate ways. Find different creative outlets, work with different people and really grow, without being too wankily LA about. Which I realize I am”.

Their experience is “a sound lesson” Bell agrees. “There are always other ways to do stuff, you don’t have to go down the obvious path. We missed each other. But we went away and got better too. We wanted to show off to each other what we’d learned.”

For now, Weeks returns to The Mindy Project and Bell to children’s show Horrible Science in the UK, his recent roles including that of a singing turd in a barbershop quartet. But the Tommy and The Weeks juggernaut is regaining momentum, with Bell about to temporarily relocate to LA.

As well as some live dates, they’re hoping to develop a series with the Project Greenlight team as “a backdoor pilot.”

“The idea is we would write, star and direct some Tommy and The Weeks shorts, maybe set in LA” says Weeks. “Then all going well, we could turn it into a longer pilot, something a little bit more naturalistic and narrative-based but keeping our old dynamic.”

“I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say we’re writing some very sexy shows” Bell confirms. “Very sexy shows indeed.”