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Amy Hoggart Would Like to Help You

Amy Hoggart in It’s Personal. Photo: TruTV

Amy Hoggart is best known for her work on the faux-reality BBC show, Almost Royal, and as a correspondent on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. On her new truTV show, It’s Personal With Amy Hoggart, the comedian is looking to put her master’s degree in experimental psychology to use and genuinely help people. The show is winning and charming in surprising ways, and seems legitimately unique in the comedy landscape. Ahead of the premiere, Hoggart spoke with Vulture by phone about integrating science into a comedy show, authenticity, vulnerability, and doing good in the world via jokes.

How did you figure out how to integrate a scientific approach into a comedy series like this?
I’m in character quite a few times over the season, and the twins study [in the “Humor” pilot] is the most scientific-leaning one that we did. I think that the other times that we do studies, they’re a little bit less scientific, but I do set out with one in mind. For the “Monogamy” episode, I dress as a politician, release videos to a focus group, and come as being married to two men to see what they think. It’s the same thing: I have a setup, and I predict what the results will be. In this one, I’m completely wrong. It’s a similar setup, but you learn so much about people, even though you’re doing something that’s completely moronic.

If the pilot is more scientific in that way, what’s guiding the other experiments you’re taking on in the other episodes?
What we do in each episode is for the client specifically. So when we’re writing it, we’re trying to write something really funny. We thought it would be really funny for me to do the twin study. We thought it would be really funny to release the political ad with two husbands. We’re always thinking, What do we want to play with? In the episode “Miami,” I go to the tourist board and try to convince them to buy my ad claiming that Miami should let in less than 9s and open the city up to less sexy people. We thought it was extremely funny for me to pitch a terrible idea to really intelligent people. It’s really a mix.

We’re always thinking, What do we think is related to the theme, what will really help the client, and what do we just want to see? I love being in character, performing like that, and committing to things. I like dealing with real people. A lot of what we learned with the show is that if you give real people space, they will surprise you, and they will delight you. So, it’s also how we can create a space for real people to have some emotion and reaction that’s interesting and authentic.

Obviously authenticity and sincerity are so important to the show, but I’m curious if there were any plants. I’m thinking especially of the moment you take Laura to the comedy in business seminar in “Humor,” and there’s that person who says she was involved in a commercial airline crash.
My showrunner is Leo Allen, who made Nathan for You and worked on other shows with real people in them. I was also in a show called Almost Royal, with real people. Our shared belief is that if you plant people, it’s (a) obvious, and (b) if someone works it out, they’ll never trust you again. It is of the utmost importance to me that everyone is a real person, because if someone is clearly a performer, and someone realizes that and looks them up on IMDb, that’s all your hard work gone. Because it is hard being with real people convincing them that you’re the real deal; it’s almost like me shooting myself in the foot because I’m cheating.

So everyone is always real, and we’ll find them through different means and do absolutely everything we can to find people we think are funny. We knew she’d been in the commercial plane crash already, so sometimes you know that person’s great. You keep getting these gifts all the time. There’s one in the “Monogamy” episode where three people tell me they had affairs without being prompted. It’s really crazy TV, because you’re like, Why are you telling me in front of cameras? But people just do.

The show is funny, but you’re also legitimately trying to help these people. Are there choices you’re making, things you’re kind of trying to adhere to or establish, or do you feel the show keeps shifting?
It’s so hard, honestly. The “Humor” episode that you saw is much easier to make funny. In “Miami,” which deals with body image — and “Anxiety,” “Grief,” and “Shame,” which deal with helping people through those topics — the writing was so hard. The body image one was difficult, because what do you say to a 19-year-old woman about body image that she hasn’t read on Instagram already? How do you make jokes when someone is grieving? How do I deal with my shame? With the anxiety one, it’s like, How do we make a TV show with a guy who’s extremely anxious without making it worse? It was hard. We were like, How is this a comedy show?

With “Anxiety,” I’m talking to the guy for probably two minutes in the episode about establishing his anxiety problems. We call it an intake interview, and I have them at the beginning of every episode. I meet the person in their space, and we talk about the issue. We were probably there for two or three hours, and it is, I have to say, unbelievably unfunny. I’m talking to a 24-year-old about his problems: why he feels he can’t get a job, why he struggles in job interviews, how hard it is, and how much he worries about money. If you were to watch the raw footage, it’s me giving a pep talk as me and not even the character. I’m just saying what I would want to hear. It’s never going to go anywhere, and it’s not funny. Then we have to, in the edit, keep the stuff that is funny, while keeping some of his genuine anxiety in there, while not worrying the viewer that we’re dealing with someone that is too vulnerable.

It’s just balance. We have a psychologist screening them, and producers who have relationships with them and are parenting them. We were going to have a psychologist be on set if he needed it. We really care for these people, and know that he’s done brilliantly now and is fine. It’s a really hard challenge, and I knew that I wanted to do a show dealing with real problems. I was almost cocky, and thought, I could handle this, and actually, it takes extra effort.

What does the show allow you to do or be that you couldn’t have conceived of before?
I really like helping people with their problems, and I need them to help me with mine. My closest friends and family really talk to me when I need it, and vice versa. To me it’s the greatest thing about being human.

In the show, we play around with empathy. We’re sort of laughing at it. I find that people who say they’re empathetic too much are usually saying it to get a reaction from you and seem like a good person. So my character keeps telling everyone how kind she is. I’m really laughing at people who constantly tell you how kind they are, because in my experience, the kindest people don’t tell you that. So I do like talking about their problems. I don’t think it’s just altruism or anything. I do kind of face my own stuff on the show.

The network, every time they gave notes early on, kept being like, “What’s Amy’s position? What does she think? What’s Amy’s experience with shame? What does Amy think about her body? What is Amy’s experience with monogamy and dating?” I kept being really resistant, like, I’m a comedian. This is not my memoir. This is not my therapy session. But we do deal with my stuff.

There’s a bit at the end of “Miami,” where I’m like, Do I tell people I used to struggle with liking my body? Is that embarrassing? Do I want people to know that? Then, when I’m in the actual space with this 19-year-old who reminds me of myself when I was her age, I can’t help but connect to her. She turns it back on me and gives me a pep talk about myself, and it’s one of the highlights of the series, because I thought I was about to cry on the beach with her. You can tell I’m about to cry, and this 19-year-old is telling me that I should love myself more. I definitely benefited from it. I’m never going to forget that moment my whole life.

On the “Grief” episode, I talk about my dad dying. I have this guy, John, talk to me about my dad dying, and we do this big finale where I really had to interact with my own experience of grief. It was truly traumatic, actually. It just so happened that my best friend’s dad died the week that we were filming that. So I’m dealing with that grief, on top of this man’s grief, on top of my grief. I don’t know if it was good for me, but it was a big life experience, and I’m sure on some level it was very cathartic. That’s a very long answer, but when you’re unpacking other people’s emotions and your stuff comes through, yeah, I’m sure I benefited from it.

Amy Hoggart Would Like to Help You