On a dark Toronto night in the middle of a bleak pandemic winter, the cast and crew of What We Do in the Shadows are cracking themselves up with poop jokes. In the scene being filmed, the four lead vampires of the FX mockumentary series bickering lovers Laszlo (Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), ancient warrior Nandor (Kayvan Novak), and superhumanly boring energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) are debating what to do with Nandors human familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guilln), who recently outed himself as a vampire hunter. Guillermo is being kept in a cage in the basement of the groups Staten Island home, and Colin Robinson has been obsessively studying the contents of Guillermos toilet bucket.
The actors traditionally stick to the script for the first few takes before theyre unleashed to improvise a power even more potent than their vampire alter egos gifts of flight or hypnosis. On the spot, Novak has Nandor tell Colin Robinson, Youve been sliding to his BMs, and any pretense of staying in character is gone. As his colleagues try to control their breathing, Novak realizes he got the phrasing wrong: It should be sliding into his BMs, he acknowledges, to even more laughter. After a few minutes, everyone remains composed enough to film several takes with the new joke.
Viewers of Shadows Season Three premiere (September 2nd) wont hear the sliding into his BMs punchline. The vampires difficulty grasping the modern world is a core part of the series humor, and the producers ultimately decided Nandor wouldnt get social media well enough to make that joke. This would be the best gag in a given episode of tons of contemporary sitcoms, but its not quite good enough to make the Shadows cut.
This is something that often happens with us, says Shadows writer-producer Stefani Robinson. Thats the biggest bummer. We do a lot of laughing, and we end up having to pick one or two to keep.
Kristen Schaal shares a laugh with Novak and Guilln on set.
Its the kind of high-class problem that comes from making the funniest show on television. Based on the 2014 film of the same name written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, and centered on vampires sharing a house in the Wellington suburbs of the creators native New Zealand the TV version of Shadows transposes the action (or lack of it) to the U.S. with a fresh cast. Following its March 2019 debut, the first two seasons received critical acclaim and fan adoration for a supply of jokes as inexhaustible as its vampires appetites for blood.
And what makes viewers howl is often only a fraction of what could. Guilln and Novak bust up while recalling an unbroken, largely improvised 22-minute take from the first season where the five characters keep missing each other as they move from room to room through the house; maybe eight seconds made it to air. Shadows showrunner Paul Simms suggests that when he and editor-director Yana Gorskaya first start looking at raw footage, There are so many good options, we could release a second version of each episode that has the exact same story and entirely different dialogue.
The version we get is more than enough, thankfully. In an era when too many TV comedies are just half-hour dramas with occasional jokes, Shadows is an unparalleled laugh-making machine. Every kind of humor is fair game, from the slapstick of Laszlo repeatedly injuring himself while wearing a cursed witchs hat to the relationship antics of Nandor and Guillermo. It is a dumb show about dumb monsters, made by some of todays smartest comedy minds.
It immediately became one of my all-time favorite comedies Ive ever seen on television, says the shows most prominent celebrity fan, Mark Hamill, who memorably guest-starred in Season Two. Taking the mythology of vampires and burrowing down into the mundane qualities of their lives? Im a longtime horror fan, and I just cant praise it enough.
Clement and Waititi, friends and frequent collaborators, originated the idea in a stage show years before the movie came into being. They played bickering vamps, with Waititi as an undead comedian whose entire act was about being a vampire and Clement a heckler whod been following him from gig to gig for 300 years. Then we wanted to make a film, says Clement. Taika wanted to make a mockumentary, and I wanted to do something about vampires, and we just put it together.
As they were working on the movie, a lot of people in the crew said, This feels like a sitcom, Clement says, so the idea was already there. And we had joked that it could be like Real Housewives. We could have different cities with different roommates. (Eventually, they wound up doing exactly that, in the States with Shadows, and back home with Wellington Paranormal, an X-Files satire featuring a pair of cops from the movie.)
The film featured three male vampire roommates, while their familiar, Jackie, hung around on the periphery of the story. In expanding the idea into a series, Clement, who largely developed the TV incarnation while Waititi has focused on movies, tweaked the formula. He added a female vamp in Nadja, making sure she would be just as inane as the guys, plus Colin Robinson, who gains strength through the power of tedious office chitchat and internet trolling. Clement also realized in revisiting the film that Jackie had the most at stake. With the character of Guillermo, he decided to delve deeper into how a familiar would feel about his or her master.
Berry, center, as Laszlo
Clement wrote the pompous, sexually adventurous Laszlo with Berrys voice in his head, having long been an admirer of the English comic actor (Toast of London, The IT Crowd). The other characters really came into focus after casting. Guillermo was originally written to be an old man still holding out hope that Nandor will one day make him an immortal vampire. When the far-younger Guilln nailed his audition, the familiar became a millennial whose optimism hadnt yet been drummed out of him. Novak, meanwhile, viewed Nandor as a blend of Clement and Waititis characters from the film (Hes a warrior, like Jemaine, but hes also a pedantic, neurotic head of the house, like Taika), and had to figure out a comic dialect a slight Eastern European flat-pancake voice that contrasts amusingly with words like pillaging and killing as a way into the role.
Both Demetriou and her character, Nadja, have Greek ancestry, which the writers began leaning into in a way that made Clement whose own wife (actor-playwright Miranda Manasiadis) is also of Greek descent belatedly realize he had created a show about being married to a Greek woman for a long time. But Berry argues the fictional relationship is a healthy one, calling it one of the only sort of positive things going on in the house. They are there because they want to be with each other. And theyre still as sexually active as they were on that first night.
Those two may not be the shows only case of true romance. Initially, Guilln struggled with the idea of Guillermo just being Nandors slave, but he found an emotional center to the character that made sense to him. What I brought to that relationship is the love that he has for Nandor, and the love they have for each other, he explains. What kind of love is that? Is it sadomasochist, a passionate obsession, or a borderline lover-father figure? Its all these elements, where its, What is going on with them? But I like that were on a tightrope about it. (Novak, for his part, says he pulls from dysfunctional relationships from his own past to inform scenes with Guilln.)
The actors dont just take their characters connections seriously, but the entire ludicrous world of Shadows, an attitude crucial to making the show as riotous as it is. I have never been interested in comedy from people that are aware that theyre being funny, says Berry. Its got to look as if you dont think what youre doing is ridiculous in any way at all. Proksch, who compares the show to high-concept Sixties sitcoms like The Munsters or The Addams Family, agrees: Otherwise, itll just come off as a wink and a nudge, and that is never funny. Its always embarrassing to watch that type of comedy.
The actors find ways to goof around on set when they can Demetriou laments that when she and Berry film talking-head interview segments in character, he often starts off by snapping, Thats what she said! just to make her break character but even the improv on set is serious business. Its not your typical yes, and type of comedy, explains Proksch. Were actually acting in character and listening as those characters would. Nonetheless, the ad-libbing provides all involved with so much joy that it can be hard to stop coming up with new jokes. Its like playing hot potato with these actors, says Guilln, and no one ever drops the potato.
There is genuine danger from too much improvising or flubbing of takes, especially on a show that films at night in the dead of Toronto winter: When youre outside and Mark [Proksch] is in a grave and its minus-15, youve got to get through it, or someone might die, says Demetriou, exaggerating only slightly. This show is life-or-death in many ways. Mostly, though, the fear is simply having too much of a good thing. FX gives its producers leeway on running time, but Simms whose rsum includes The Larry Sanders Show, NewsRadio, and Atlanta says he tends to get antsy around minute 23 of most sitcom episodes, and would rather leave the audience wanting more. It is hard, he says, because theres so much funny stuff. Theres just no way to fit it all in without making each episode 55 minutes long.
Jokes that dont advance the story, or that defy our understanding of these characters, are often the first to go. A Season Two subplot where Laszlo and Nadja perform songs at a bar originally featured a long sequence where they invited Colin Robinson onstage with them It was one of the most disgusting things Ive ever seen, watching Mark Proksch move his body [to music], Demetriou says, cackling but Simms cut it because it conflicted with earlier scenes that had Colin rooting for his housemates to flop in front of an audience.
A lot of decisions on what jokes to keep come down to a hard-to-quantify sixth sense the creative team has developed over the years. As Stefani Robinson explains, Its dirty but its not too dirty. Theres poop jokes, but we dont want to see the poop. Theres puns, but not too many puns. Cultural references, but not too many. Its this weird balance weve had to strike.
The biggest question, particularly for a show whose characters are as stupid as they are powerful, is figuring out when things have gotten too stupid even for Shadows. And that line seems to be shifting all the time. During Season Two, Clement pitched the idea of Laszlo fleeing town to avoid an old foe. Robinson fleshed it out to write the shows comic high point to date: On the Run, where Laszlo finds himself tending bar in a small town in Pennsylvania, with only a pair of dungarees, a toothpick, and the name Jackie Daytona as his disguise. Hamill played Laszlos nemesis Jim the Vampire, who is completely fooled by the costume, only recognizing Laszlo when he takes the toothpick out of his mouth.
When I read it, Clement admits of the toothpick scene, I said, We havent gone this dumb before. But it played spectacularly well, as did all of the episodes jokes about Jackie inspiring the local girls volleyball team to newfound success (all involved insist that Laszlo did not use his powers to aid them in their pursuit of a championship) and playing Robert Palmers Simply Irresistible on the bar jukebox. Another show might have consigned Jackie to a third-string subplot; Shadows made him the centerpiece of a whole episode.
Simms compares Jackie Daytonas genesis to his days writing with Clement and Bret McKenzie on the HBO musical-comedy Flight of the Conchords. Those episodes often started out from the songs they had, he says, which is a completely backwards way of working: How do we build an episode where this song makes sense here? Thats how itll be with Jemaine: I thought of a really funny scene, and thats how you get there. It violates everything I would tell anyone about how to structure a story. But on a show this silly, we find a way to make it work.
The cast and crew were largely awestruck by the presence of Luke Skywalker himself. Novak was so nervous to talk to Hamill that he sent Guilln over in his stead, only to feel jealous when the two quickly hit it off without him. But it turned out that Hamill was just as giddy to meet everyone on Team Shadows. Hed become a huge fan of the whole franchise after his kids first showed him the movie, and encouraged his Twitter followers to watch Season One because every new show he likes gets canceled quickly, and he wanted Shadows to avoid the same fate. (Hamill neednt have worried: While the show started out as a solid ratings performer for FX, its overall viewership actually jumped 100 percent in its second year, which basically doesnt happen anymore. Season Four goes into production this fall.)
Out of all the people Ive met, even at Comic-Con, none of them was as excited about the show as Mark Hamill, says Clement. One time, I was at Skywalker Ranch, and they have a lightsaber there. And I was so excited to see this lightsaber. Our costume designer, Amanda Neale, gave Mark the ring I wore in the film, and he was as excited to have that as I was about the lightsaber, which blew me away.
For Hamill, the hardest part was not laughing constantly while surrounded by his comic heroes. Matt Berry ad-libs like crazy, he says. You have to stay in character, because my character doesnt think hes funny, but Mark Hamill thinks hes hilarious.
Demetriou, center, gets a touch-up.
Season Two debuted in the early days of the pandemic, which only made the shows brand of unapologetic goofiness even more appealing. As the cast and crew reassembled in Toronto at the start of this year to film new episodes under strict Covid protocols (this story was reported entirely via Zoom and phone), the most important thing on everyones mind, Demetriou says, was, How can we make this scene the funniest it can be, how stupid can we take this? Thats a rare thing at the moment. Because everythings quite serious in the world.
Season Three deals with the fallout from the vampires discovering Guillermos secret and the power vacuum he created by killing so many elite vampires, plus Colin Robinson exploring his own cloudy origins. What it will not deal with is the pandemic, which is far too weighty a subject for this show. But Shadows premise turns out to be oddly perfect for a world emerging from quarantine. Its always about creating situations where they have to go out into a world theyre not familiar with, says Simms. They havent had to interact with it, and they just sat around doing nothing. For as much havoc as Laszlo and friends wreak upon the neighborhood around them, he and his housemates are almost performing a public service, both for the people who watch their misadventures and the people who make them.
I hear this all the time from friends who watch the show, especially when Season Two came out during the pandemic, says Robinson. It ended up being a light for some people. It was a way to detach from more difficult things that were happening in the world and watch something that felt like it was purely silly and comedic and comforting in a very specific way.
Not bad for a project that began with Taika Waititi in a theater telling corny vampire jokes like, I just flew in from Transylvania boy, are my arms tired! What We Do in the Shadows has gotten (slightly) more sophisticated since then, but the end goal is the same: Make the audience laugh till it hurts, then, like Guillermo, beg for more pain.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero