Comedy Central’s Review, a new show for which TV reviewers must already have their puns locked and loaded, premieres tonight. Based on the Australian cult hit Review with Myles Barlow, it stars Andy Daly (who also created the show) as Forrest MacNeil, a straight-laced, intellectual “life critic” who wholeheartedly commits to reviewing firsthand experiences — including drug addiction, racism and sex with a celebrity — and weathers through the resulting chaos. Review also stars Jessica St. Clair, Fred Willard and James Urbaniak, and features such five-star guests as Jason Mantzoukas, Maria Thayer, Lance Bass and Andy Richter.
I recently had a chance to ask Daly about his absurd new podcast The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project, his favorite character to play, and Forrest MacNeil’s entirely arbitrary system for doling out stars.
Would you ever try any of the things that Forrest does?
In the first three episodes, there’s nothing that I would ever willingly do that he has done. Well, one of the things he reviews is “What’s it like to have a best friend?” He’s sort of surprised to realize at the outset that not only does he not have any best friends, he has no friends, and so he targets a neighbor of his really because of his proximity to Forrest’s ex-wife. And all he has on his mind at that point is getting closer to his ex-wife to try and get back together with her. [Laughs] So it just becomes a completely bizarre and self-serving exercise.
And you know, most of the things that Forrest is doing — well, obviously everything on the show that he’s doing — he’s doing for the show and for the purpose of reviewing it. And that is just such an odd and peculiar way to go through life, to take on challenges for no other reason than to just give them a star rating out of five stars. And so along the way, because his behavior is inexplicable apart from that, he ends up infuriating and confounding and bewildering people wherever he goes, and that definitely happens to the guy he targets for best friendship.
Let’s get really deep here for a second: To what extent is Forrest an extension of yourself?
I mean, I am a guy from suburban New Jersey. I am a married dad; I live in the suburbs now. I am having and have always had a pretty straight-laced life — but there is something about being in show business and doing comedy and doing comedy improvisation and taking on projects like Eastbound & Down and like this that necessitates me going to crazy, dark, bizarre places. So yeah, I think that actually my life is extremely similar to Forrest’s. [Laughs] I’ve just figured out a way to do it that isn’t quite as dangerous and disruptive to my life as Forrest’s chosen path.
You’re living the dream.
So what goes into making a fake documentary show?
Well, in some ways it’s easier than shooting a more scripted thing where the actors have to hit marks and there’s all sorts of specificity to what the cameras are doing all the time. In this sense, as an actor it’s great because the cameras are trying to capture what looks like natural real life, and so you can do what feels natural. But it’s also challenging because you really have to try and get as real performances as you can out of everybody that comes into the world, and from a writing point of view, it’s very, very hard to walk that line between something that is improbable and absurd in the right way, an enjoyable way, without taking it outside of the real world. That was a real challenge for this show, and I’m proud of the way we did it. This show is constantly funny and surprising without ever bumping out of the real world.
How do you guys avoid veering too far into absurdity?
It’s just a matter of asking, “Would that happen? Do I buy it? Do I believe it? Would he really say this? Would anybody really do this?” and then justifying it and really knowing your characters well enough — particularly the character of Forrest well enough — to understand whether something he would do is justifiable within his identity. And it’s hard. What it takes is just a hell of a lot of rewriting.
Is any of the show improvised?
There is a lot of improvisation. Every scene is written; every episode was fully scripted. But then once we got on the set and started doing it, I’m a big believer in — if there’s any way for any actor in the scene to change up the words a little bit, get it a little bit more natural and be able to sell it a little more as real conversation, then all of that is fine. And if, in the process, we find things that are even funnier than what was on the page, then that’s great. I don’t think we very often went into improvisation with the goal of creating a whole ton of new, hilarious comedy. In general, the improvisation was aimed at feeling more natural and less scripted.
Is there anything you want Forrest to review but haven’t been able to figure out logistically?
Dang, I can’t think of one. But I do feel like we ended Season 1 going, “We didn’t crack that one. Shoot.” There were some that we wrote that didn’t feel entirely there, like having Forrest solve a crime. I think that’s one that we’ll revisit in Season 2. That’s a hard one.
Right, because that would involve him actually becoming smarter.
That’s exactly right. That was one of the challenges. I think Forrest is quite intellectual and quite focused, but has no sense and is an idiot about how the world works. So yeah, it would be hard for that guy to actually solve a crime.
I watched the first episode and noticed that Forrest refuses to give anything a zero-star rating. How tough a reviewer is he, really?
Well, he’s pretty tough, you know? But for some reason — it’s never fully explained — with his system you can get as little as a half a star, and you can get as much as five stars, but zero stars is just not an option. And it is a problem a couple of times in the course of the season that, you know, there are some things that should get zero, but it’s just the policy of the show; something they arrived at early. And I think it’s funny because the whole concept of assigning one to five stars to a life experience is absurd and meaningless. So to then put this extra meaningless restriction on it, that you can’t go all the way down to zero, is just absurdity on top of absurdity.
Makes you question how much value a star really has.
It might make you look at Yelp in a whole new different way. What do these stars really mean?
So I saw the racism clip from later in the season, and I thought it walked the line between offensive and clever really well. Will there be a “too far” for Review? Is anything off-limits?
Yeah, all kinds of things are off-limits. Actually, I’ll tell you because I was just mulling this over in my head when you were talking about segments that we’ve wanted to do: We tried very hard to do a segment where Forrest had to get breast implants. [Laughs] But weirdly enough, it felt very offensive to people who are undergoing sex changes, you know? Or who are in transition. This entire funny sketch about a guy being forced to get breast implants all just felt like a total insult to the trans community. With this show, we don’t want to insult people; we don’t want to upset anybody. So yeah, I think we’re trying to be on the right side of all of these lines.
What other things will Forrest review this season?
There are some great ones: He reviews road rage. He goes into space. Also, very disturbingly, orgies. He is asked to go to an orgy, and he does it. Thank God that was our last day of shooting because I don’t know that we would’ve been able to look at each other for another day. It was super disturbing. “What’s it like to be the life of the party?” was a super fun one. One of my favorite ones was “What’s it like to marry someone that you just met?” That’s a very cool one, and Maria Thayer plays the woman I meet and marry.
Wait, isn’t Forrest already married?
Well, I guess that’s a big spoiler! In episode three, Forrest is asked to review what it’s like to get a divorce.
Is Forrest close to any of the characters you’ve done on Comedy Bang! Bang! or anywhere else?
Ah, I don’t think he’s very much like any of my Comedy Bang! Bang! characters. Probably the Comedy Bang! Bang! character that’s closest to Forrest MacNeil would be Chip Gardner, who’s running for Honorary Mayor of Hollywood — only in that he has such a straight-laced presentation and is such a sort of authoritative figure, in his own mind, anyway. But you know, Chip is a Satanist and all kinds of crazy, crazy things that Forrest is not. But I do think that there are some similarities between Forrest and [Eastbound & Down’s] Terrence Cutler in that he’s a guy whose life seems very promising and very together, and he’s very enthusiastic about where he is in life when we first meet him. And the more we watch, the more his circumstances change, and we see that he is ill-equipped to handle hardship.
Of all the characters you’ve created over the years, who’s your favorite to perform?
You know, I feel like I have two careers in a way. I have a career where I act as characters who are a little more like myself, a little more grounded, a little more sort of grounded in the real world — your Terrence Cutlers, your Forrest MacNeils — and then I have more of a sketch comedy career, which is Comedy Bang! Bang! and Reno 911! and stuff like that. And they’re both really fun and really challenging in different ways. It’s more of an interesting challenge to me to act in things that are rooted in the real world. But it is just flat-out super fun to play a crazy character that can go anywhere and do anything, like I do on Comedy Bang! Bang!. I think I might have to say that Dalton Wilcox, cowboy poet, is my favorite guy to play because his ego is so huge and he is so unhinged and insane and so sure that he’s right. That’s a fun combination of characteristics to play.
Tell me about your new podcast, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project.
We were done making Review — we had shot it, we had edited it, and we were just kind of waiting for it to come out, and I was kind of going a little stir-crazy. My wife was like, “You need a hobby to do in the meantime — why don’t you do a podcast?” And I was like, “No, that sounds hard!” And within a week of that, Matt Gourley sent me an email saying, “Hey, I’m producing podcasts for Earwolf now, so if you ever want to do one, we’ll make it as easy as possible.” So I had the idea of doing a limited run — there’s just like, eight of them — during this pocket of time between being really done with Review and then having to sort of go into press mode of Review. So we just cranked these out. And one of my aims, which I’m up front about, is that people will listen to this and will stay tuned to the end when I plug Review. [Laughs] I would say the podcast also seems to have taken on a bit of a life of its own.
I only half-read the podcast description at first and went into it thinking you guys were really curating rejected podcast pilots. I’m not proud of how long it took me to realize that wasn’t the case.
[Laughs] I am! That’s funny.
So will you still be taking advantage of Comedy Bang! Bang!’s open-door policy now that you have this whole other outlet for all your characters?
Yeah, I’d like to. I mean, the challenge of going back there is — I don’t know, I might’ve used up all my voices. And it’s weird for me. I don’t know how Paul F. Tompkins does it, how he can go on so frequently as the same characters because I have a hard time keeping the information straight about the characters that comes out, and remembering from episode to episode what’s been established about my characters. I know every time I go on there, we’re going to learn a lot of new stuff about these characters. And to me, I don’t know, it’s important to me that we keep track of it all and have it all make sense together. [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s just a weird tic of my brain, but yeah, I like biographies to be consistent. But maybe I have to get over that. Paul can pull it off, but Paul’s a special kind of genius.
Meera Jagannathan is a writer living in New Jersey.
Photo credit: Comedy Central/Michael Yarish