You know the kind of comedian who takes himself so seriously he won't even smile out of character? The five performers at our annual Emmy Roundtable were—bless them—nothing like that. We asked them to wear pajamas for a curl-up-by-the-TV photo, and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) even slipped on a pair of red fluffy slippers. "I thought of wearing a really filthy shirt," said Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men), but Toni Collette (United States of Tara) went him one better—she posed with a blow-up doll. "I love saying, 'Toni! Hey, Toni!' It feels good,' " said Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live), like some demented Valentino. They even found a way to have fun with plain old water. When one actor would say something especially funny during our conversation, Sarah Silverman (The Sarah Silverman Program) would slide over a bottle of Arrowhead like a liquid trophy—or, in the case of Parsons's dreary soliloquy about cell phones (don't ask), she took his away. So remember, future Emmy winners: if you deliver a subhumorous acceptance speech, Silverman might well come after your little gold statue, too. (Article continued below...)
Does anybody at this table actually have an Emmy?
CRYER: Hmmm. A curious paucity of Emmys here.
POEHLER: I won a High Times Stony Award.
POEHLER: For best stoner comedian.
CRYER: Really? I wasn't aware you were a stoner comedian.
COLLETTE: Were you stoned, or were the people stoned who enjoy your comedy?
POEHLER: I like to think it's a little bit of both. High Times gives a very important award out every year. When I received it, it was a golden bong.
CRYER: Ok. Usable?
POEHLER: Yeah, I believe so.
POEHLER: Here's a question: how can you make the Emmys shorter but better? Like, what would you cut out of the Emmys show?
All the awards for 30 Rock.
CRYER: Wow. OK.
SILVERMAN: What if when we're announced, we all put on mustaches, so when they cut to us, we're all really -serious.
COLLETTE: I'll do it with you.
POEHLER: That would be the kind of thing where I'd bring all the mustaches, and I'd be the only one to do it.
CRYER: Well, I've decided that, if in fact I don't win this year, I'm gonna lose my s--t and beat the s--t out of somebody sitting close to me. Not my wife. Probably someone elderly or infirm. You can have a countdown clock going through the first few awards, going, "Who will Jon kick the s--t out of?" I'd watch that show!
SILVERMAN: We should all be reading The Bridges of Madison County when they call us up.
CRYER: And pretend that we got surprised by it.
POEHLER: When people do bits when they lose, it makes me laugh so f--king hard. When the camera's on them, and they're like, "NOOOOOO," that makes me laugh so hard.
You guys are all comedians in one form or another, but people often forget that comedy is really hard. What makes a funny person funny?
POEHLER: Funny hair, funky hat, crazy jeans, kneepads, elbow pads.
CRYER: Homer Simpson slippers. They have to have a personality that is like a crockpot of a certain amount of pain with a certain amount of release, with an ironic release, if that makes any sense. A human crockpot that's leaky. A leaky human crockpot!
POEHLER: Yeah, that's good.
PARSONS: That's impossible. Everybody that's funny, somebody thinks they're not funny. Somebody hates me. I don't know who, but somebody does. I'm not a virgin to being disliked anymore.
SILVERMAN: [Singing] Somebody out there hates me!
CRYER: I was actually in a line once waiting to see a movie—this was back when I was still making movies—and somebody said, "Oh, are you going to see that Jon Cryer movie?" And the person opposite said, "No, I hate that guy!"
POEHLER: Were you the person who said that?
CRYER: That's the sad part. I hate myself. The human crockpot returns.
Have any of you actually been to an acting class?
SILVERMAN: I have.
POEHLER: What was that like?
SILVERMAN: I got so frustrated. I feel like I feel so deeply, I feel so much, but I can't tap into it super-easily. But then there'll be a girl who just lives on the surface and she'll do a sob scene, and I asked, "What were you thinking of?" And she said, "My dog." I have so much inside me. Why can't I access it so easily like these people that are …
SILVERMAN: There are people who are genuinely amazing actors who are truly empty vessels that great acting comes through. I don't think that can happen necessarily with comedy. Wait—that's obnoxious. I mean, there are a lot of dumb comedians. I'm a dumb comedian.
PARSONS: I really loved school, by the way. If they offered a doctorate in acting, I'd still be there. It was so safe! I went to grad school. I kept going as long as they'd have me. And you frequently would surprise yourself by what you were capable of, and you were not surprised by some things. I knew I couldn't play Stanley in Streetcar.
POEHLER: I've always disagreed with you about that.
PARSONS: Thank you. You are my Blanche.
SILVERMAN: You are such a good boy, and I love the shape of your head.
PARSONS: Thank you.
Jim, did you get good grades?
PARSONS: I got good grades after I started doing theater. I had one F in meteorology.
POEHLER: Oh, no! In meteorology.
PARSONS: I wanted to be a weatherman for a while. When I was in college, I had to take a science class, and I thought, well, you love hurricanes. I loved the drama of it. But there was a lot going on in my life then, and I would show up to class and be shocked that they were taking a test. I couldn't believe it. They'd bring out calculators, and I thought, what do we need a calculator for? And I failed. It was the only F I ever got.
POEHLER: That's nice that you liked the drama of hurricanes but not the science.
You were in a string of failed pilots before The Big Bang Theory . Did any of you ever have a backup career?
SILVERMAN: I think I would—I've really thought about this—if I had to do something else, I would work with retarded adults. Not funny, just true.
CRYER: Maybe you already do?
SILVERMAN: I do in another way. I really enjoyed being with retarded adults, and probably kids too.
PARSONS: When have you experienced that?
SILVERMAN: There was this guy who was always at Caroline's named Ronnie, and he was retarded and he would always come up to me after the show and be like, "You've got something, and I'd like to work with you." I sponsored him a couple times at the Special Olympics. You know when a friendship is defined by other people? I'm Jewish and I grew up in New Hampshire—there was nothing Jewish about us. I felt Jewish because I was the kid with hairy arms. What's my point? Omigod, I just went 1,000 steps the other way.
CRYER: I didn't know hairy arms was a sign of Judaism.
SILVERMAN: It is.
POEHLER: All I know about Jewish people is from Inglourious Basterds.
SILVERMAN: I had a friend who said, "I learned about the Holocaust from your act." She never knew about the Holocaust.
POEHLER: Was she in a coma? Was she, like, in The Matrix?
Is Amy the only one here who does improv?
CRYER: I always classify myself as an actor who is occasionally funny, but stand-up terrifies me and so does sketch. I occasionally have performed in sketches, but performing multiple sketches scares the s--t out of me.
SILVERMAN: Seeing Amy improvise is mind-blowing.
POEHLER: That is a test of really trying not to care. It's a good reminder when I get into my head too much. I've seen people get on TV shows and they don't perform as much, because they're nervous. There's too much at stake.
PARSONS: Are you in the Writers Guild?
POEHLER: The actors aren't listed as writers on SNL. It's fluctuated between 15 and 20 writers.
CRYER: We have about 10 writers.
COLLETTE: We have eight.
SILVERMAN: We have five. Me, Dan, and Rob, who runs the show. And tall Jon and Harris, who went to write for you [to Amy]. And we could only afford another writer for seven weeks. I was so sad when she left.
PARSONS: If we didn't have writers, I would have to find another career. That's my biggest fear. Thank you, writers.
POEHLER: They decided to put the writing awards back in the Emmys, right? They wanted to take them out. That was such bulls--t.
Sarah, I don't think most people remember that you started out on Saturday Night Live. SILVERMAN: I barely remember. I was 22.
COLLETTE: HOW old are you now?
SILVERMAN: I put my hair in these little ponytails and go, "And I'm only 38!"
PARSONS: That's amazing.
SILVERMAN: We wrote on legal pads and gave our sketches to typists. There weren't computers.
CRYER: Wow. Computers hadn't been invented?
SILVERMAN: They didn't supply us with computers, and like, maybe one person had a computer. I think I had, like, a Commodore 500.
POEHLER: My nephews and nieces can't believe that there wasn't Internet when I was in college. I remember in 1993 being like, "You know what, I'm never going to get a cell phone." I remember saying, "That's not for me."
PARSONS: I've often wondered, do you think people canceled appointments less before the cell phone?
SILVERMAN: I'm sorry, but this is not going anywhere. Canceling appointments before cell phones? This is a roundtable!
POEHLER: We're going down memory lane here, but do you remember calling up answering machines and changing the message to tell people where you were? That was a big deal. We used to have this big, honking, boombox-style answering machine.
SILVERMAN: You know what bothers me? I understand that this is such a great vehicle for storytelling in movies and TV and stuff, but now when you see movies or TV shows when the guy is, like, having sex with the girl and his answering machine picks up and you can hear the other girl leaving the message. It's like nobody has answering machines anymore! You can't use that vehicle for storytelling anymore! Unless it takes place in the '80s or '90s.
Doesn't that happen on the very first episode of your show, Jon?
CRYER: Yes. What are you saying?
COLLETTE: It's prehistoric.
SILVERMAN: Wait. What do you mean?
CRYER: The first episode of my show, Charlie's in bed with a woman, and you hear my voice on the answering machine. [Silverman covers her face in embarrassment, and everybody laughs.]
Speaking of technology, do any of you make webisodes, and if so, do you get paid for them?
SILVERMAN: We make Webisodes, but we don't get paid. We call them publicity.
POEHLER: I have a Web series, but it's separate from my show.
It's for girls, right?
POEHLER: Yes. It's called Smart Girls at the Party. I'll probably be asking you guys to come and do something in it. It's kind of like a Charlie Rose–style interview show where I interview young girls and then we have a dance party at the end.
CRYER: Charlie Rose should do that. He really should.
Do any of you watch TV on the internet or on your iPods?
CRYER: I watch TV on the Internet if there's a show that I missed. Like, I didn't see Glee, and I heard it was great, so I checked it out. Stuff that I'd be ashamed to tell my wife that I watch, basically.
PARSONS: I've seen an episode or two, but I don't like to. I prefer to watch it on my TV. I get a weird sense of vertigo staring at my computer that long.
COLLETTE: I tried downloading something. I'm hopeless, really, in that area. I just stick to old-school color television.
PARSONS: You know what I've seen mostly on the Internet is Saturday Night Live. I don't know anybody that's capitalized as much. I just remember specifically going to search out the Palin-Clinton press-conference thingy.
POEHLER: That's the interesting thing that's changed in the last 10 years. You watch bits and pieces of it. You can fast-forward, TiVo. It used to be that it was event television. You had to be home at 11:30. You had to be home watching it. Some stuff doesn't travel as well Sunday morning. Some stuff does. Some stuff spoils in the sun.
PARSONS: People aren't drinking when they're watching it Sunday morning.
Jon, your show is on YouTube as well.
POEHLER: Is it supposed to be on YouTube?
CRYER: It's not supposed to. Sumner Redstone will be very cross.
POEHLER: I have to say, I kind of like how sometimes you can't keep stuff off YouTube. Though I bet it must be weird if you're doing stand-up and you don't want something on YouTube.
SILVERMAN: I think the Internet's amazing, like this great medium. But stand-up-wise, it sucks, when you're trying something new and somebody's videotaping it on their s--tty phone, and then they put it out. It's like, why would I want an HBO special when I can have my act in 30--second grainy, s--tty increments on YouTube? Everything you're working on becomes so disposable. I feel like such a hack when my stuff is just, the second it comes out, it's done. It's hard when people are like, "I saw that already!" I'm not comparing myself to Richard Pryor, but Richard Pryor didn't write a new act every time he went onstage. You hone it and hone it over a long period of time and some things you throw away and then a new thing's added and it's so gradual. There's such an immediacy now that's hard to keep up with.
CRYER: Interestingly, the Internet has devalued the recorded performance.
Sarah, you told me you watched TV in your bathroom?
SILVERMAN: Yeah. There's like a TV in my bathroom, so I'll wash my face for an hour. I'll be like, Look—Law & Order!
POEHLER: Do you guys have any tricks to memorize your lines?
POEHLER: Flashcards? Really?
PARSONS: I've always handwritten my lines out. It's very visual.
POEHLER: Do you like running your lines with anyone but actors?
COLLETTE: The night before, I'll get my husband. Once, my mother-in-law was staying with us and it was a really, really raunchy part. I think my daughter was talking about sucking and f--king, and I was getting her to read it and secretly just pissing myself.
SILVERMAN: We have this great script supervisor named Maureen, and she's like this lovely lady. I always run lines with her. It's just so funny, to hear her say, "The raw batter smells like sperm." And I go, "I love hearing you say that! You make it so sweet!"
CRYER: I was driving my son to school, and I started hearing him talking and I'm like, why is that familiar? And I realize he's reading a Two and a Half Men script, in the back seat to me, which is cute until we get to talking about the plastic boobs and God knows what other raunch we're hitting. And I'm just like, "Honey, honey, could you give me that?" Trying to be subtle without actually raising a red flag.
There's one TV show devoted to a man's penis ( Hung ) and another full of vampire sex (True Blood ). Do you think TV is getting too raunchy?
CRYER: Some people don't understand how filthy my show is. We would get Emmys left and right if people knew how filthy we were.
POEHLER: You think filth is rewarded?
CRYER: Yes. I do. As well it should be. I'm not in any way complaining. The networks are always trying to push the envelope as much as they can and still sell soap. Our show has always been a little coy, and we've gotten away with it on that level. And the enormous personal baggage that Charlie Sheen carries—and he's actually a lovely guy—but he just has the reputation of the '80s on his shoulders. And that allows us to have a lot of freedom and fun without actually cursing.
SILVERMAN: Did you guys know each other?
CRYER: Yeah. We used to run into each other at auditions.
POEHLER: Was it fun to work for John Hughes?
CRYER: What freaked me out about John Hughes was I was a big fan of his as a writer, because he wrote for National Lampoon, he wrote some of my favorite stories. So I saw Sixteen Candles and I loved it, and then there were auditions for this movie called Pretty in Pink, and I read the script and thought, if I don't do this part, I am going to shoot myself, because I just love this guy so much. And I went and auditioned and the director wasn't John Hughes, actually, it was Howard Deutch, but John was there. And I was petrified. Even in the audition he was asking me to make up stuff and change stuff. I was just stunned at the respect he paid to a teenager. I was 18 or 19 years old and dressed particularly foolishly with unfortunate hair.
COLLETTE: Duckie Dale was my first fantasy boy. I've seen it about 3 million times.
SILVERMAN: Can I tell you? My dog's named Duckie.
Has something changed in the last five or 10 years for women in comedy? Because there used to be a myth that women weren't as funny as men.
POEHLER: Oh. This question is boring.
SILVERMAN: Women who get offended when people say that women aren't funny probably aren't funny, you know? Who cares if 90-year-old Jerry Lewis thinks women aren't funny? It's fine. It's endearing, if anything. It's like if your grandmother's racist—it's adorable, it's fine, it's subjective.
Don't you think Tina Fey has also done a lot to change the landscape for women in TV?
COLLETTE: Who's that? [Pause] I'm joking.
SILVERMAN: They used to call her Dirty Tina when she was a writer on the show.
POEHLER: Because she had a dirty mouth?
SILVERMAN: Yeah. I just remember being introduced to her as "This is Dirty Tina—she writes on the show." And then she became the head writer, and she's so brilliant.