Edi Patterson has saved me from having my first published piece of artwork be a drawing of a penis, and for that, I am grateful.
We have met on Zoom to talk about her work on The Righteous Gemstones, the HBO dark comedy in which Patterson is a perpetual scene-stealer as Judy Gemstone. At Patterson’s suggestion, we’re doing an adapted version of a common improv warm-up exercise. One of us will start off a drawing with a line, and the other will respond with her own. We’ll decide as a duo when the drawing is done, and then we’ll take turns naming the piece, one letter at a time, until we reach a title.
We’re both new to the Aggie.io app, which allows us to draw on a shared canvas from opposite sides of the country, but Patterson’s movements are fluid, and she’s focused. She uses her mouse to magic a pair of lips, a nose, and an ear out of squiggles that smoothly turn into recognizable versions of facial anatomy. Meanwhile, the Lisa Frank shades I chose for my contributions are only exacerbating my undeniable gracelessness. I am a doodler with pen and paper, but right now, with the absolute freedom to compose whatever I want, I have sketched the beginnings of what I fear might be, well, an American Vandal–style dick.
“Great!” Patterson says. I bisected one of her lines with a half-moon curve that set the drawing on a glans path, and she is unfazed — perhaps because The Righteous Gemstones is at the forefront of normalizing male full-frontal. (There’s a flaccid penis onscreen within the first 90 seconds of the second-season premiere.) But Patterson, who still performs when she can with the Groundlings at the weekly Cookin’ With Gas show in Los Angeles, is sympathetic to my embarrassment, and she does what any practiced improv partner would do: She pulls a “Yes, and?” on the drawing.
With one easy move, Patterson adds a vertical diagonal onto my phallic line, taking the whole drawing up and away from anything resembling a shaft. She encourages me to keep going, calming my jitters with a series of “Oh, wow!” and “Oh, okay!” reactions. Then she apologizes for accidentally taking an extra turn and potentially breaking the rules of the game because Edi Patterson is not Judy Gemstone.
Patterson presumably has years of experience with this exercise. She dabbled with improv at Texas State University before graduating in 1997, then leapt fully in: performing Theatresports at Austin’s Hideout Theatre in 1999; portraying Legolas in the popular Lord of the Rings musical parody Fellowship!, for which she also wrote songs; joining the Groundlings Main Company at the end of 2006; and guest-writing for two episodes of Saturday Night Live in 2013 (alongside Michael Che, who stuck around). Then came Vice Principals, during which Patterson immediately clicked with co-creator and co-star Danny McBride. (“He’s so dumb, and in my language that means like, That is the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen.”)
McBride brought Patterson on as part of both the writers’ room and the titular ensemble of his next series, casting her as the only daughter of televangelist patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), middle sister to eldest brother Jesse (McBride, who also writes and directs) and younger brother Kelvin (Adam DeVine), and wife to the newly baptized BJ Barnes (Tim Baltz). Domesticity hasn’t softened any of the character’s harsh edges or absurdities; in the second season, which concludes February 27, Judy is fiercely devoted to BJ and takes on a matriarchal role to the younger Aunt Tiffany (Valyn Hall), but she’ll also lick one sister-in-law’s face as a demonstration of dominance and start fights about cleavage with another at the family lunch table. Each Righteous Gemstones episode contains at least one highly meme-able moment, and in this season in particular, many of those come from Judy: her frantic indignation at Jesse dismissing her with a “Bye, Felicia!,” her consistency in sticking her tongue out for every selfie at BJ’s baptism, her huffy crossed arms and cocked hips whenever anyone does something she doesn’t like (which is often).
“She does take me over, and I love it and I welcome it, and I’ve invited her in,” says Patterson of a creation she describes as a “walking id.” She herself is exuberant where Judy can be fatalistic and nimble where Judy can go askew, but all she needs to feel “fully Judy” is the character’s exuberantly curly hair. She is committed enough to getting character details right that she practiced her clogging routine for the series’ breakout season-one song “Misbehavin,’” which she co-wrote “over and over and over and over and over and over and over,” but the key to her embodiment of Judy is more instinctive: getting “as free of logical thought as I can get.”
Patterson can’t keep the amusement out of her voice when discussing Judy, calling her “a bobcat” and “full throttle” in her unchecked confidence, aggressiveness, and anxiety and musing about how she probably does some domme-ing in her relationship with BJ. She has a wide grin, a gasping laugh, and a tendency to clap to herself when truly delighted, and all of those reactions burst forth when I ask Patterson about the triumphs and challenges of completing these nine episodes after a yearlong COVID-19 shutdown.
In the “success” column, Patterson counts nearly everything. She’s vibratingly proud of The Righteous Gemstones, and she’s quick to offer anecdotes and observations about the season. The improv moment that hit the hardest: Judy’s snarled “Man, fuck Mickey!” from the after-church lunch where Judy and BJ defend their Disney World elopement to Jesse and his wife, Amber, played by Cassidy Freeman. (Amber is one of Patterson’s favorite characters to write for, she says, to “make her just a little bit weirder … or more edgy than we think she is”; Amber’s chastising of Jesse with “Don’t kick chairs, baby” is a Patterson line that still makes her “cry-laugh.”) The songs Patterson wrote and performed as Judy in the episode in which BJ is baptized, “Butterflies” (“Of course she thinks she’s Mariah level. Hell yeah!”) and “Rock My Boy’s Body,” which plays during the end credits. (“It’s this haunting, very, very oversexualized … do you remember that artist Peaches?”) The unscripted physical flourishes that elevate the scripts: Judy smoking a cigarette and kicking a bathroom-stall door to intimidate her eerily similar-looking sister-in-law KJ (Lily Sullivan) in that same episode. And even though Patterson and Baltz broke often during a photo shoot in which they posed “like he just emerged from my vagina like a baby as I’m doing the splits on a stool behind him,” she counts their endless chemistry and ability to make each other laugh as wins.
Patterson even finds a way to spin positivity out of the season’s most physically grueling task: a nighttime shoot for “After I Leave, Savage Wolves Will Come.” In the second episode’s final act, the Gemstone children literally stumble upon the dead body of investigative journalist Thaniel Block (Jason Schwartzman), end up soaked in his blood, and flee to their father’s house to try to clean themselves in his fountain. During rehearsal, “a whole men’s [shoe] heel landed on the top of my foot with full force … it went immediately purple, blue, red — like, terrifying shades,” Patterson says, and her foot swelled so much it looked like “a full water balloon.” But they still had to shoot, and Patterson kept going: “It’s almost like [as Judy] my body and brain forget things that might have happened to Edi’s body.”
The result is, in typical Rough House Pictures style, a slapsticky sequence that relies on the bombastic physicality of Patterson, McBride, and DeVine to reflect their characters’ squeamishness and insecurity. Judy slips and slides in blood, flees to the Tesla SUV whose controls she doesn’t understand, and frantically splashes water all over her nice-church-lady clothes. As the Gemstone children reckon with Eli’s mysterious and violent past, the lingering effect of their suspicion toward their father is an awareness that things aren’t always what they seem. And appropriately, there’s no sign of discomfort from Patterson in the finished episode; whatever mixture of adrenaline and determination that pushed her through the injury worked.
Patterson’s obvious love for the job feels tethered to her guiding belief in being deliberate in the now, a concept that has shaped her personally and professionally. She’s joined me from the Los Angeles home she shares with husband, Dan O’Connor, a co-founder of the Impro Theatre, and their 17-year-old cat, Veruca. During our talk, she’s seated in front of a neatly organized wall of frames of all shapes and sizes. Prominent are the word “YES,” spelled out in bright red letters atop a plate rail, and a portrait of Patterson and O’Connor. Also in the mix are images that capture their myriad interests including David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust era; the iconic girl groups the Crystals and the Shangri-Las; Batman and Catwoman in an embrace; He-Man getting a haircut; the Chicken Boy statue that lives in Los Angeles’s Highland Park; and a cross-stitch of a deer, flowers, and the text “Bitch please” that was a gift from Patterson’s Righteous Gemstones hair stylist, Bryan Moss.
Patterson is increasingly passionate about design, noting that she spends “a good amount of my time dreaming into that and rearranging things.” She recently oversaw the top-down renovation of the bathroom in her mother, Jeannie’s, Texas home, incorporating Moroccan-looking encaustic tile and vintage travel posters from Bermuda, where her parents took a trip when they were first married. “What’s the weird way that will make us happy when we walk in here?” Patterson says of her design philosophy, a statement that offers another glimpse into her prioritization of the present. She encourages me to pursue my half-formed fantasy of an all-green room in my home, and much as she didn’t judge my X-rated illustrating, she’s also kind about my millennial desire for a velvet couch. A word of caution, though, if I were to add a pet into the mix: “I had an emerald-green velvet love seat in my living room, and Veruca really enjoyed ruining that. She loved just casually destroying it,” Patterson says, and the satisfied smirk with which she punctuates that warning seems not unlike the Cheshire cat.
Our drawings continue. Patterson guides our first sketch into two faces, further camouflaging that nascent dick with blue eyelashes and a blue nose. I use Patterson’s trick of drawing lips with only one move to round out the face on the left and add some eyelashes to the face on the right before we coax the title into Tea, Mrs.? “Do you kind of feel like Bell Nose is her butler?” Patterson asks me, referring to the figure on the left, and I wonder if we haven’t unwittingly recreated a scene from The Gilded Age.
Our next sketch gets far more abstract and a little metal. I switch my paintbrush to neon purple and Patterson goes for a royal blue similar to the shade of the caped jumpsuit Judy wore to the Zion’s Landing time-share resort in the season premiere, which Patterson considers her favorite outfit of the season.
We lay down some spiky squiggles and cascading waves, and I take the sketch’s title to a Metallica place with Kill All. Patterson gulps good-naturedly when she sees my attempted homage to the band’s debut album; she tells me about how she thinks horror and comedy live on the same visceral frequency and how she knows she’ll write and direct a horror movie one day. Patterson has adored the genre since childhood thanks to her late father, Dennis Lee’s, influence. She saw The Shining, still one of her favorites, when she was 8 years old, around the time she started to mimic Saturday Night Live characters and skits. As a teen, she took that affinity one step further by filming her own horror shorts with the help of friends and family; a movie with a teddy-bear killer that she partially shot at her grandmother’s house shares a title with the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter. Does this make me feel better about our inanely odd, facetiously dangerous sketch? It does!
We have time for a third and final drawing, and I try to take to heart Patterson’s early advice: “I think anything you do is right.” In blue, Patterson starts with a curve that I interpret as a mouth, so I draw in green a big circle as a face. I add bashful eyes and a Guy Fieri–like goatee, and she adds an ear and one-half of a Hercule Poirot–style mustache. As we look at the little visage we’re making, I ask what she’s learned from crafting Judy in all her quirks, affectations, and eccentricities, and the answer I receive makes me think once more about the “YES” hanging on her wall.
“Judy helps me to remember that we’re all gonna die someday, and none of us knows when we’re gonna die,” Patterson says matter-of-factly, her expression the most serious it’s been during our entire 90 minutes together. “You might as well just let it rip because all you’ve got is this moment.” Then she takes an assessing look at our drawing and adds one last letter to finalize its title: Show me lolz.