chat room

Shooting Mr. Mayor Is Like Being ‘Shot From a Cannon’ for Vella Lovell

Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Elton John AIDS Foundation

Every episode of Mr. Mayor tends to orbit around organized chaos, bureaucratic or otherwise. And how could it not? Give us the nonsense! Los Angeles’s newest leader (TV’s heavenly father, Ted Danson) secured the job after running on a late-life-crisis platform, and his administration is filled with eccentric deputies (including Holly Hunter’s dedicated Arpi) and strategists who want to fast-track diarrhea legislation over, say, useful city infrastructure. Then there’s chief of staff Mikaela, portrayed with panache by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend alum Vella Lovell. Sure, she might have her priorities jumbled at times (installing Malin and Goetz products in mobile showers so the homeless can smell like “grapefruit and sandalwood”), but she’s an Absolutely Did That! “30 Under 30” winner and a social-media savant, and as the mayor’s term carries on, so do her professional capabilities. “Not all heroes wear capes,” she explained a few episodes ago, “although I did just order a cape from ASOS.”

Lovell talked to us about the joys of acting in a Tina Fey sitcom, why network television is more creative than viewers might realize, and her most endearing Danson story.

You’ve starred in shows spearheaded by two of the funniest ladies around, Tina Fey and Rachel Bloom. How the hell did you get so lucky?
I have no idea. I have severe imposter syndrome all the time. What am I doing here and how did I end up in this room? Rachel is wild because — I don’t know if you know this — but we went to NYU together. But we didn’t know each other! We had all these friends in common. And with Tina, I was shaking in my boots the whole audition process. Two very different situations but two incredibly funny and legendary comedians.

There have been a lot of thoughtful articles written recently about how network sitcoms, while never fully gone, were reinvigorated this year. I know everyone’s talking about Abbott Elementary, but I think Mr. Mayor deserves to be part of that conversation.
I agree! It’s great to actually be a fan of something you get to work on. We had this with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as well, where the constraints of network television are helpful for people who are smart and creative. They couldn’t curse in The Good Place, so they had to come up with creative ways to get around it. It’s the same with Mr. Mayor. The confines can be creatively explosive if in the right hands. Tina and Robert think the fun of network television is that it’s for everyone. It’s so accessible. That’s also the confine. You have to be okay with your kid and your grandma seeing this. It’s a puzzle for people.

What’s a good example of those creative confines for Mr. Mayor?
Anything that’s innuendo is going to be funnier than fully going there — when you give your audience the chance to figure out a joke. We have jokes every ten seconds on Mr. Mayor. It’s a show you have to watch a few times because the human brain can’t catch all of them. Assuming the audience is smart enough to keep up with everything is a real gift.

I talked with Holly last season, and she said something about Tina’s writing that stuck with me for a while: She has her “own kind of genius with character revelation through the briefest amount of words.” I’m curious if you agree with that, and if so, how it reflects in your character.
Completely. I remember a line Holly’s character said in an episode earlier this season where Mikaela thinks she can solve the Los Angeles homeless crisis. She goes, “It’s a problem we’re unable to solve, and that’s why network comedy shouldn’t even go there.” That one line is brilliant in being self-aware. We’re trying to talk about these subjects in city government, but we’re not going to solve them.

Tina’s writing is so layered. I find out more about my character every episode when I get a script, but it’s also in the service of humor. You have deep character analysis, facts about your character you didn’t know that makes them a totally wacko person, and then you’re also making a joke, all within five seconds. It feels like the comedy Olympics, and you have to fully dive in. Once we start a scene, you’re kind of shot from a cannon.

This question is amazing, by the way. I haven’t thought of these things before. Getting the material, there’s so much pressure because Tina’s humor is such a fine line. It doesn’t work if you don’t play it for real, but it also has to be light. The jokes and making people laugh are the most important things, but you also don’t want people bogged down with how heavy the stakes are. It’s this dance of being light on your feet and fully embodying the characters’ reality. It’s been a joy to watch Holly, in particular, because she’s such an actor with a capital A. Everyone has their own style of doing it.

What would you say is your style of comedy?
I never set out to be a comedian, so I have no idea what my style is. I do my best to get to the truth of the moment. My goal is to be as truthful as I can and see if the humor comes through. I take things very seriously as Mikaela. And then I cross my fingers and close my eyes and pray that the joke comes across. That’s what you’re hoping for with this show!

I always find myself writing down the one-liners from Tina’s shows. “I got to the end of Hinge.” “My last date was with an improviser who robbed me.”
They’re so genius. I do the same. I’m sure you remember this from season one, but someone compliments Mikaela’s pants and she responds, “Oh thanks, they’re H&M single-use.” A lot of times we do alternate jokes, and we also tested out, “Oh, thanks, I said the word pants into my phone two weeks ago and they just showed up at my door.” I’ll watch each episode twice because I’ll miss jokes other people say. The scripts are an overflowing joke fountain. How do they come up with this stuff?

I’ve been waiting for Tina to show up in an episode for a guest role like she did in Great News and Girls5Eva. What would you like to see her as? Another beleaguered government employee?
She’s obviously proven that she can do anything. There was a part in the season finale I assumed Tina would be playing, but she’s not. Whatever it is, I want her to stick around for a few episodes. I hope it’s not a one-off. Her Dolly Parton impression on Girls5Eva was next level. I feel like it would be particularly good if she had scenes with Holly. Tina, if you’re reading this, please write a part for yourself.

Tina, hello, we need a five-episode arc in season three.
I want to see a full arc with a beginning, middle, and end.

Per my tradition of many years, I must end this chat by asking you for your favorite Ted Danson story.
Oh God, you probably have, what, 70 at this point?

I think a solid dozen.
What if I just went, “He was a living nightmare.” He’s a perfect gem of a human. My favorite story is that on my very first day … I had never been so terrified doing that pilot. What am I doing in this room with these people? Did someone make a mistake? The first scene I shot was walking with Ted through City Hall. I’m shaking in my boots. Literally. You can see the movement. He turns to me and goes, “Oh my God, I’m so nervous! I was up all night. I wasn’t sure if I would be good or not. First days, right?” It totally disarmed me. He wasn’t lying. He was nervous. That’s his gift. He can be vulnerable with you. It’s totally genuine. It bonds you as two humans in a room together in a way you don’t expect from a person you’ve seen on your television for decades. He put me at ease immediately.

That’s a valuable lesson for us all. If the man behind Sam Malone can be vulnerable, anyone can.
And it’s such a gift when you do that to people. Especially if you’re in a vulnerable situation, which we are every day as people in the world. It’s a good reminder that if you share with someone how you’re really feeling, it’s a gift.

Vella Lovell on Why Mr. Mayor Is Like the ‘Comedy Olympics’