Interview: NBC’s “Whitney” Earns Full Season Pickup

By Karen Moul

Dan O'Brien and Rhea SeehornThe fall season brought a new entry the NBC’s Thursday night lineup: Whitney, a half-hour sitcom created and produced by stand-up comedienne Whitney Cummings. The series centers on Whitney and Alex, a happily cohabitating couple with no interest in getting married anytime soon.

The freshman comedy wasn’t well-received by most critics and drew tough criticisms prior to its premiere. But the true judges, the viewers, felt otherwise. While Whitney isn’t exactly a hit, the show drew a large enough audience to warrant a full season pickup.

What is it about Whitney that excites viewers?

Rhea Seehorn, who plays Whitney’s friend Roxanne, says a big factor in Whitney’s success is a talented cast working in a supportive environment.

“Oh my God, we have a blast,” Seehorn says. “I’m kind of amazed at how much of a family it has felt like since the beginning. It’s an incredibly supportive group of actors and crewmembers and artistic talented people, from the props to the set design to the publicity department.”

That atmosphere allows the cast to take risks. “You feel safe to try stuff and I think that’s where the best comedy comes from. You feel completely protected to just give it a shot.”

Getting a few episodes under their belt was also critical. “Our cast got better each week,” adds Dan O’Brien, who co-stars as ladies man Mark. “We got more comfortable with our characters, with each other. I think NBC saw we had something good going and so they’re giving us a shot for the year, which is really exciting."

Whitney airs Thursday nights on NBC.

NBC Conference Call
Rhea Seehorn and Dan O’Brien

October 5, 2011

SCIFI VISION: The critics were kind of rough on the pilot but the viewers had a different opinion. You got great numbers and you got picked up, congratulations. What do you think it is about the show that…people really enjoy?

RHEA SEEHORN: (Dan), do you want go ahead?

DAN O'BRIEN: Yes, I like the cast. I think the cast is all just top notch. They’re people you want to hang out with. They’re people you feel comfortable having in your living room. We don’t eat your food. We don’t drink your liquor. People like that. I mean, who wouldn’t want to cuddle up with me on a Thursday night? I know I like to cuddle up with myself on a Thursday night.

SCIFI VISION: I don’t know if I want to cuddle up with [Mark]. Dan, you’re a married, family guy. You don’t have a ton in common with Mark. How do you channel this guy?

DAN O'BRIEN: It’s really fun. It’s a fun chance to play somebody who I’m not and it’s great. Hhow do I channel it? I think one of my favorite quotes about acting is the Walt Whitman quote. He says “I am vast, I contain multitudes.” And I think that all actors can have access to lots of different parts of themselves. And the part of myself I get to play around with in Mark and explore. So that’s the hoity-toity answer.

RHEA SEEHORN: Yes, it was hoity-toity, you just quoted Walt Whitman to explain Mark.

DAN O'BRIEN: To explain a sitcom character, yes.

RHEA SEEHORN: I love that.

SCIFI VISION: Rhea, do you have any inspiration for your bitter divorcee that you play on the show?

RHEA SEEHORN: I don’t find her bitter, thank you. I find her extremely practical. I actually think as soon as you get your head around - nobody who’s being bitter knows they’re being bitter just like nobody who’s being an ass knows they’re being an ass. We all think that we’re justifiable in what we are doing and that I actually think is identifiable in everybody.

So the actors are approaching the character the same way the audience is approaching the character, which is what is identifiable in me and if not in me what have I seen in someone else. And that’s actually why I think our show does appeal to people watching it. So it’s the same reason that I think as actors my whole cast really loves playing the characters we’re playing because there’s something identifiable.

Roxanne continues to try no matter how much she’s pushed down. And building up an armor because you’ve been hurt whether it’s always making a joke instead of falling apart or having a drink to get through happy hour, yes, that’s identifiable I think to most people.

DAN O'BRIEN: Such a lovely voice, Rhea.


QUESTION: You all must be very, very excited the show got picked up for the season, congratulations…Did you have the feeling that you would be picked up for the season, both of you?

RHEA SEEHORN: You mean the initial pick up when the pilot got taken to series or our back nine that we just got?

QUESTION: The back nine you just got.

RHEA SEEHORN: Go ahead, Dan.

Dan O'BrienDAN O'BRIEN: I like to think positively and, you know, I was hoping. You can’t really tell. You can’t really know but our cast got better each week. We got more comfortable with our characters, with each other. I think NBC saw we had something good going and so they’re giving us a shot for the year, which is really exciting. Couldn’t predict it but I had a good feeling the whole time so it turned out the way I hoped.

QUESTION: How much are you like your characters?

RHEA SEEHORN: I think that I identify with things as Roxanne. I am not a divorcee nor am I someone who goes to alcohol a lot but I think that she’s identifiable in what’s positive about her, that she keeps getting back up and trying, you know? No matter how much she makes jokes to the contrary, she keeps trying.

And all of our characters are written so that they haven’t given up, they keep trying to get something. And that’s pretty much something anybody could identify with so...

DAN O'BRIEN: I’m not quite like Mark but I understand Mark. I’m playing a point of view that I understand. And he’s the anti-marriage guy on the show and the part of all us, like, you know, marriage is for the birds. Let’s not even try to go there. But that is not the choice I made in my life. Married life is a great life so I’m not making the choices that Mark has made but I understand the point of view. So I try to get to the character that way and think about it the way he would think about it.

QUESTION: Rhea, I want to know from a woman’s perspective, how effective is the silent treatment when arguing with the opposite sex?

RHEA SEEHORN: You know what? I find it be effective. I guess slightly in an off-kilter way because I find it to be effective because I am someone that always wants to talk out the argument…and talk it to death.

So the few times that I’ve said, you know - if someone I’m dating has said “Are you mad, do you want to talk about it?” And I just say, no, I’m good. They actually - the shock and the dire quality to why I would actually just shut down, that part works.

The fact that I’ve underlined that it’s that bad that I’m not even going to talk to you about it, that part registers pretty heavily. The person usually is like, wait, wait, wait, no, no, no and they want you to talk, which is what you want anyway.

QUESTION: So reverse psychology I’m guessing.

RHEA SEEHORN: Pretty much, yes.

QUESTION: Dan, you just touched on this a minute ago, but I wanted to know, before you were married how much did you resemble Mark as a bachelor?

DAN O'BRIEN: I was better looking than Mark as a bachelor when I was younger.

RHEA SEEHORN: That’s good.

DAN O'BRIEN: No, I’ve always been kind of a one-woman kind of guy. It just fits me better. So not a big player.

RHEA SEEHORN: Not a player.

I broke a few hearts, I won’t lie to you but, you know.

RHEA SEEHORN: But do you actually think Mark is a player or do you think Mark is making stuff up?

DAN O'BRIEN: I don’t know, that remains to - that’s above my pay grade, that’s the writer’s environment. I think he’s definitely a player. I think he’s definitely a player.

RHEA SEEHORN: I think Roxanne doesn’t care - no I'm kidding.

QUESTION: So you never shared any of Mark’s views?

DAN O'BRIEN: Well, not so much the views. I definitely understand where Mark’s coming from. Like, marriage - one of the things that attracted me to this show was Whitney’s frank assessment of the state of marriage in America.

It’s often occurred to me, Americans – we’re great at a lot of things but marriage is not one of them. We’re just not good at - so what’s the point of going into this broken institution? But I guess I like to think - so I’ve associated with that point of view before, for sure, yes.

QUESTION: You’ve both done a lot of work with theater, did that help you prepare to work in front of a live studio audience?

RHEA SEEHORN: I think definitely. Dan and I both enjoy performing for the live audiences. I would definitely say it helps prepare you. Dan, what do you think?

DAN O'BRIEN: Yes, without a doubt, 100%. I couldn’t imagine - I think it would just be different. You’d be a lot less comfortable. And I think that’s what our cast has going for us in this format is that comfortability with the live element, the conversation between audience and actor.

That’s what we feel comfortable with.

QUESTION: Do you enjoy doing one more than the other, theater or TV, or are they kind of the same for you guys?

RHEA SEEHORN: I find them to be totally different. It’s kind of like - you know when you see a movie that they already made the book of and you go back and forth. Some of them are better - you really like the way they made the movie of it, some of it you liked it better as a book. It’s not a perfect comparison or analogy but it’s kind of like - it depends on the story.

I think some stories, the medium of theater serves them best to have to be live in a room with some people - with someone telling certain stories is the best way for you to tell that story and for you to hear that story.

And then other times the cinematic world that’s created and can only be created by being on camera and everything that goes into that is best. I think both of those mediums are best used when you’re celebrating the one you’re using instead of trying to imitate the other one.

QUESTION: That’s a great answer. So can you give us any hints about what’s coming up for your characters this season?

DAN O'BRIEN: Do you want me to get - I can read you my lines.

RHEA SEEHORN: Are you working on your lines right now, Dan?

DAN O'BRIEN: Yes, definitely.

RHEA SEEHORN: You actually find out that Dan and I’s characters is the same thing, same person. No, I’m kidding. We’re not allowed to give away very many hints. And sadly what I wish is that I had a bunch of secrets that I wasn’t allowed to tell you but unfortunately I don’t think they trust me and Dan yet because they’re not telling us anything.


QUESTION: No inside scoop.

RHEA SEEHORN: No, I mean you definitely get to explore lots of different angles of being a couple in a very contemporary, modern way. A lot of things that you’d be sitting around talking about with your friends anyway, which Whitney’s so smart at including for her story lines. And then as far as the rest of us, I think they’re just really - the writers have - they’re so nice and such wonderful people to us.

And ever since we got the back nine, they talk to us about how they’re excited to explore each of these characters and see where they go and who they are and everything. So we’re going to be excited to find you with you.

QUESTION: So what has the chemistry been like on the set? Whitney cast

RHEA SEEHORN: In real life? What - our cast and stuff?

Oh my God, we have a blast. Most people keep asking us if all of us were friends of Whitney’s before we got here. And other than Chris who plays Alex, none of us had met her before or each other. And it’s kind of - from my experience, I just keeping having to pinch myself.

I’m kind of amazed at how much of a family it has felt like since the beginning. It’s an incredibly supportive group of actors and crewmembers and artistic talented people, you know, from the props to the set design to the publicity department. Like really, everybody very family, very sweet.

You feel safe to try stuff and I think that’s where the best comedy comes from, you feel completely protected to just like give it a shot.

DAN O'BRIEN: Yes, definitely.

QUESTION: Have there been any funny moments on the set so far?

RHEA SEEHORN: Very talented comedians or leads so yes. So it’s constantly hysterical. And we have gifted comedians as writers as well so all of these people are on set just cracking up. I remember when we did the pilot. Typically there’s people on the floor that give alts and between our writers themselves and then the writers that are around before we had all of our staff for the pilot, that those were all standup comedians too.

And alts are like alternative lines in case you need coverage of a couple of different jokes. And normally that would be if a joke didn’t work if you’re in front of a live audience and there’s people, writers standing around who might pitch a different joke. But in our case it was an embarrassment of riches because none of the jokes didn’t work.

But people would just have, like, 80 other jokes and you’d do them one after another. And they would just increasingly make us crack up. It’s constant, constant hilarity.

But Chris D’Elia definitely is a physical comedian..I have definitely died laughing to his ridiculous body language on a day-to-day basis. The dogs are pretty funny. We have an episode of dogs coming.

The dogs were pretty funny. Those were some funny moments, yes.

QUESTION: Rhea, you’re coming from a great role in Franklin & Bash this same year. How do you prepare yourself to compose another no-nonsense character and keep both different and relevant at the same time?

RHEA SEEHORN: Do you find them both different and relevant at the same time?

QUESTION: So far so good.

RHEA SEEHORN: Yes? I just need to know if you’re setting me up because you’re getting ready to say that they are not different and I am failing.

I'm just kidding. I find them to be different. It’s weird. I’ve never played two back-to-back characters. I’m very grateful, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never played two roles this close together that had that strong, strong streak of no-nonsense practicality. But I do find them very different.

I find Ellen Swatello on Franklin & Bash to be a woman who is - she’s not ready to break out of her armor. She’s living in a very safe place and it’s only when you shake her do you see the cracks in the armor. And I love her for it because the audience is discovering things about her before she does.

And there’s just a lot of obstacles in her way of her finding out about herself whereas Roxanne in Whitney, I think she’s right at that exciting place in life where she’s starting to see she’s got to shake up her own life, that she is getting in her own way and she needs to figure out a new path to happiness. So I think they’re both trying to get somewhere but they have very different vehicles. So that’s how I see them.

QUESTION: And this one’s for Dan. Yours is probably the most difficult character in terms of the risk of [becoming] some sort of caricature. How do you do it to - being the funny crazy one but still avoid the cliché?

DAN O'BRIEN: I try to find the truth in whatever he’s talking about. Like what if I was really in this situation, what if this was really happening? You know, there are extreme personalities in life and they’re extreme for a reason. They’re a type of person who is a certain way because life has treated them a certain way.

So, you know, try to find the reason why he would be acting this crazy and, yes, I don’t like to play cliché or go for cliché but sometimes people are big. They’re still real but they’re big personalities. So you’re trying to find that sweet spot between clown and reality. That’s what I’m trying to find.

QUESTION: How’s the [chemistry] between Mark and Roxanne? And where are you planning to take it?

DAN O'BRIEN: It’s pretty hot, pretty hot. I think she really likes Mark but Mark doesn’t really have the time for her.

RHEA SEEHORN: That’s just a load of crap, that’s a...

DAN O'BRIEN: Yes, they’re still fleshing that one out. I’m just making stuff up.

RHEA SEEHORN: Do you want us to make it together, is that what’s happening?

QUESTION: I don’t know. If you have that kind of a spoiler, if it would make a lot of people crazy writing…

DAN O'BRIEN: Yes, it’s true.

QUESTION: What is the most memorable date that you ever went on? Could be really bad, could be really good.



RHEA SEEHORN: Dan, I know who you better be talking about.

DAN O'BRIEN: I just thought of the date where I - for the first time, that date is the most memorable for me.

RHEA SEEHORN: Where you what?

DAN O'BRIEN: Kissed my wife for the first time. We were on the Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn, about halfway across the bridge. We crossed that bridge.

RHEA SEEHORN: Okay very funny. Ha-ha.

DAN O'BRIEN: Ha-ha. Yes, that’s…

RHEA SEEHORN: I don’t know. That was - was that your first date or your second date?

DAN O'BRIEN: Me and my wife?

RHEA SEEHORN: Yes, did you kiss her on the first date?

DAN O'BRIEN: That’s a good question. We did a play together and we had been friends. But yes, that was sort of like - it was one of the first dates anyway, first good date, first where we kissed.

RHEA SEEHORN: Okay, I like it. I was friends for a long time with my boyfriend before we started dating too so then they kind of get blended together, what’s a date and what’s not a date. But, you know, I think one of my worse dates ever was kindergarten. Well, it was a combined first and worst date in 48 hours because there was this kid, Mike, and me and Mary Jo were both in competition for him.

And it came down to if he agreed to come to - I had a birthday party and my mom actually allowed it to be co-ed. It was daytime only, which was pretty risqué in my kindergarten class.

DAN O'BRIEN: Five year olds.

Rhea SeehornRHEA SEEHORN: Totally, so he did come and Mary Jo was very angry. And back then, even if you were in competition with another woman you still invited her to your birthday party because you invite your whole class. So she was there and she saw that he came and he gave me a present. So it went down right in that moment. Like she knew he had picked me.

And he gave me a purse that was macramé with little berries as the clasp that you had to, like, hook macramé loops over. It was a huge hit and I was extremely excited. And then the next day he said let’s meet at the swing set at recess. And we did and it had been raining.

And you know where you kick your feet up on the swings and big trench starts forming if the dirt is soft underneath from people kicking their feet all the time? It was filled with muddy water so you had to straddle, then get on the seat, and then get on. So I’m swinging and swinging and missing the puddle and waiting for him to come and Mary Jo comes and sits in the swing next to me.

And she’s like, “I think he changed his mind because your birthday party date didn’t go down so well, he told me it was kind of sucky.” And then he walks up and I’m like, no, he’s still with me.

And I demanded that he pick one of us and he pushed me out of the swing backwards and I flopped into the big muddy trench and they walked off into the sunset. And that was the end of the second date.

DAN O'BRIEN: That is a bad one.

RHEA SEEHORN: I have to say from that moment on all matters of dumping me have never been that bad. That’s the worst I’ve ever been dumped.

QUESTION: So I guess is that why now you’re friends with someone before you date them, so you can make sure they won’t do that?

RHEA SEEHORN: Totally, I need to check it out. I need to see how they feel in recess areas, their behavior, if there’s a lot of shoving. And I don’t like people named Mary Jo anymore either.

QUESTION: So since both of you were friends with your partner before you got together, do you think that that’s the way it should go? Do you think everybody should be friends first?

RHEA SEEHORN: You know what? It would probably be nicer for me to say yes because I adore my boyfriend now. But I have to say, I’m a big - ours just happened that way but I’m a big proponent of full-on courtship, asking someone out and it being a date. I think people get lazy in the contemporary way of like “if you and your friends aren’t doing anything and you happen to be by such-and-such place I might be by there.”

I might, I don’t know, maybe I’ll see you and whatever. And then they call that a date and I don’t like that at all. I think you need to take the risk to actually ask someone out. And even though I was friends with my boyfriend when we decided to take another direction I basically made him start from that place and he was happy to do so.

I like a formal date request. I like somebody to put it on the line. I like you to hang up 40 times, calling me before you can figure out what you’re going to say, I like all of it.

Dan, do you think it should just be a friendship that melds into something more?

DAN O'BRIEN: I guess I don’t want to say - I don’t know. Whatever’s working for people I’m happy for them. I know what works for me and, like...

RHEA SEEHORN: I guess a good friendship should be the basis of anything.

DAN O'BRIEN: Yes, definitely.

QUESTION: Rhea, you had a lead role on the television series I’m With Her. How is playing Roxanne on Whitney different than playing Cheri on I’m With Her?

RHEA SEEHORN: Those are very different characters in my mind. I guess they both have a certain healthy skepticism about them but I think that Cheri was [originating] from a place of fear a lot and I know that’s not really a healthy choice as an actor.

I’m trying to remember back then. I definitely had positive reasons for making her that way but she was afraid of losing her sister and afraid of not finding her own way in life. And she was kind of looking forward and afraid of all the traps that she was getting ready to fall in.

Whereas I feel like Roxanne is looking backward a little as far as I’ve hit all these traps and now I’ve got to figure out a way to move forward. But I do think that both of them definitely had a very healthy sense of skepticism and wanting the best for people and it not always coming out the right way. I would definitely say they had that in common.

QUESTION: So how would you say Roxanne would contribute to Whitney?

RHEA SEEHORN: How does she contribute to Whitney’s life? I think she’s a good friend to Lily and to Whitney in that she represents the practical point of view, which can come off as pretty harsh. But I think we all have those friends that - you know, they mean well but they’re not frilly about some of the advice they give.

But she’s willing to learn from her friends too. Nobody wants the friend that just wants to tell you what to do. I think that you see and you will see in future episodes that her friends are helping her get out of her own way a lot of times.

But I think she’s good for Whitney in that she shows her an extreme one way and…sometimes reflects to her how good her relationship is because she does have such a great boyfriend that she sometimes can’t see what’s in front of her.

QUESTION: Dan, you directed and produced and acted in several theater plays. How’s playing Mark different to what you’ve done in theater plays?

DAN O'BRIEN: Doing this role of Mark is kind of like a hybrid between the theater and television because this live studio audience gig is very similar to theater but it’s also television. So back in the heyday I guess the idea is let’s tape live theater and broadcast it to the nation. A

nd that’s what we’re still doing but, you know people have become obviously much more adept at using the camera to its fullest potential but there’s still something so wonderful about the theatrical experience.

I think that - you know, that’s why all these shows are…you know, American Idol and X Factor, these shows where you want to see somebody doing something live so you see what it’s like and they really shine in the moment.

And I think that’s why the multi-camera sitcom with the live studio audience has the potential to be one of the most relevant and exciting TV shows because there are these things that happen live that are just really entertaining. And so in that way the theater experience that I have and my theater background has prepared me for playing the role of Mark.

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