TBS’ new original comedy People of Earth, is about a support group for alien abductees. While at San Diego Comic-Con this week, we discussed the new series with star Ana Gasteyer and executive producer Greg Daniels (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation”). Watch the trailer and read our interview below.
Let’s begin with you telling us a bit about People of Earth and the evolution of it?
Greg Daniels: It’s the brainchild of David Jenkins, a New York playwright. People of Earth is about a support group of people who feel that they’ve been abducted by aliens. We gradually learn that this is their way of making sense of a lot of disappointments and weird, delusional episodes in their life, but actually, it’s true. There are aliens and they have been abducted. Then as the show goes forwards, the aliens are kind of meddling in their lives in ways that they don’t really understand and are trying to make sense of, and maybe one day they will.
Ana, what can you tell us about your character Gina?
Ana Gasteyer: Gina’s a pretty badly credentialed therapist (laughs) who isn’t that good at what she does and who runs this support group and tries to offer solace and some insight to people who … She’s also been abducted. She’s an experiencer herself, so she tries to gently and lovingly help people through a really tough situation that a lot of people, they don’t have a lot of places they could go, so this is a comforting space.
Greg: It’s super relatable. I mean everybody’s been abducted at some point by aliens. (laughs).
Ana: Yeah. Everybody has been in a group, maybe for something embarrassing, or maybe not.
How quickly will we see the aliens? Do we know what they look like and things like that?
Greg: Well, yes. Ana’s character hypnotizes Wyatt Cenac’s character in the pilot and you do see what he thinks he sees, but he’s been also having certain waking nightmares and so it could be the result of some kind of mental illness. You don’t 100% know it’s aliens, but we do see what he thinks he sees in the pilot, and then as the series progresses, you get to see more and more of what they’re up to.
Greg, how did you get involved?
Greg: Well, I read the script and thought it was hilarious! Conan O’Brien is producing it, and he’s an old friend and the head of his company’s an old friend. Wyatt used to work with me on “King of the Hill” so by the time it all came together I just felt like this was a really exciting concept plus a lot of really exciting people, so I wanted to get involved and I ended up directing the pilot and producing it with Conan.
Will you be writing any of the episodes?
Greg: I feel like my … I’m probably going to be just kind of throwing in suggestions and giving notes and stuff more than writing them. We have a nice staff of six or seven greater writers, so I’m hoping I’ll just contribute by tossing my two cents in.
How hands-on is Conan?
Greg: Conan’s a great inspiration, and his sense of humor kind of permeates stuff through his company, and the executives of his company are very present. He’s a big fan of the script and what we’ve done so far. He probably won’t be making smoothies on the set (laughs), but I think he’s going to have a lot of …
Ana: I hope he will be! I want a smoothie!
Greg: I hope so too.
Ana: I mean the nice thing is that Conan is one of us.
Is this a 100% scripted show or was there an opportunity for you and the other actors to do any improv?
Ana: It’s definitely scripted, but I guess I can only speak to the pilot. Greg’s expertise is obviously finding comedy and finding things and letting people run with them, so there’s a lot … It’s a very gifted improvisational cast with people from the improv world, they’re very, very funny. There is some improv and I think …
Greg: The intention is to do even more. We’re loosening the shooting style a little bit. The thing is that it’s very arced out and we’re going to know the scripts for all 10 episodes in advance, so the challenge for them to improvise is to make sure that they don’t take it in a direction that we can’t get to later, instead they can add in the same spirit as the scene. They can add extra humor.
Ana: There’s a strong sense of story there and obviously drama. It is very much a mash genre show because it is very sci-fi focused, and it has this kind of grounded “Office” comedy, “Office” style comedy, but a lot of sci-fi intrigue.
How far along with filming are you at this point?
Ana: We just began. Obviously, we shot the pilot last year and then we’ve all been Toronto. Now, starting Tuesday, starting the second and third episodes.
Greg: Then the writing has happened … We’re in the last week of writing.
What is the atmosphere like on set? Is everyone laughing or is everyone trying to one-up each other?
Ana: It’s very fun because it’s a big cast. I think anyone who does a lot of improv loves the sense of a big ensemble because there’s lots of energy and lots of people to play with. If you burn out in one direction, you can kind of, you don’t have to carry the ball all the time. It’s nice. It’s a very fun, very kind, convivial group, which is really nice. We just did the panel and Conan very eloquently was saying a lot of us have been working for a while, and it’s nice to do it with people who are also human beings and are kind of interested in doing something fun together.
Greg: The subject matter, because it’s a genre mash-up, there’s a lot of places to go. You can be funny in the situation with character comedy, you can suddenly turn it and show the more vulnerable side of a character and that’s still good too because it’s interesting and then you can try to blow people’s minds with a sort of a sci-fi thought that they hadn’t necessarily considered.
The character that Oscar Nunez plays is a priest, and he’s a priest at the church where the group meets in the basement. We were constantly sort of making comparisons between his faith and the faith of a lot of the people in the group that this thing happened to. It’s sort of troubling to him that they seem to have this faith. This is another area that you can just kind of go to when you’re acting to go to something interesting. I think it’s fun for them because they go to a lot of different, interesting places with their performance.
Ana: It’s sort of in the here and now. It feels very grounded and real at the same time.
Who’s the funniest when cameras aren’t rolling?
Greg: Who’s the funniest when they’re rolling? (laughs)
Ana: When they aren’t rolling? Obviously me. (laughs).
Greg: Yeah, exactly.
Ana: You could say somebody else. That’s okay, I’m supportive.
Greg: Maybe Conan, back in L.A.
Ana: That’s probably true. (Brian) Husky’s funny too…
We know you as a comedian Ana, but how do you like the sci-fi element of the show?
Ana: Well, as a fan I’m excited. I’m really interested in it. I mean I’m playing a real person who’s experienced extraordinary things…
Greg: How do you make your tongue turn into a snake and come out of your mouth? That’s a really cool thing to do.
Ana: (laughs). That is genetic. That’s just something that my family has had, and it’s why I went into comedy because I was so amused by it.
Greg: Right, yeah. Fundamental.
Ana: Yeah, but as a fan I’m excited. I’m geeking out to be at Comic Con. I came in a day early, my husband and I have been out seeing panels. He’s like texting me from the various booths that he’s at buying art and stuff. It’s funny, I don’t know about Greg, but I don’t actually watch that many comedies. I’ll sort of tape … If I have a friend on something I’ll watch it because I’ll feel guilty and I’m having dinner or something and I have to tell them they were good in it. I enjoy them, but it was always shamefully late, like after it’s in syndication, I’ll be like, “You know, ‘Frasier’ is pretty funny.” You know, just like hopelessly really late. (laughs).
Greg: You know if you work in comedy-
Ana: I know, it’s just like-
Greg: Like right? Most of the people that I know that are in comedy, they’re big “Game of Thrones” fans. (laughs).
Ana: Exactly. We watch all of that. We watch “The Walking Dead,” “Fear the Walking Dead,” we have a lot of guilty pleasures, and so a lot of that’s here at Comic Con.
Will there be any flashbacks this season?
Ana: Yeah, a lot of episodes in the first season explore the origin stories of the experiences because it’s a big cast and a big crew. So, yes.
Greg: There’s a great question … It’s in our fourth episode. You see the ship and you see the aliens and the stuff that you’ve previously only see when Wyatt’s been hypnotized. Then suddenly it reveals that now Gina, Ana’s character, is strapped to the gurney up there, and then it just dissolves to what she’s up to at her job at the crockery hutch. Suddenly you’re like, “Yeah, that happened to her too. My god …”
How much CG is involved?
Greg: The way we’re doing the sci-fi is to be as practical as possible. There’s a little CG, but it’s what they call CG enhancement where we have costumes and prosthetics and then the CG is added just to put a little bit of moistness to the costume.
Ana: We also do it in the non-alien sections just a little … My boobs are slightly higher and my cheekbones a little more sculpted throughout. (laughs).
How much of story takes place in the basement with the support group?
Greg: I think that the support group scenes, there’s at least one per episode because it’s just sort of the home base where everybody gets to see each other in person, but then they break up and they follow the different characters on their days and stuff like that. Sometimes they’ll have little field trips that Gina will have arranged that brings them outside of the basement.
How would you define this comedy?
Greg: What do you think? I mean I think it’s a behavioral, character comedy so it’s sort of like you have to get to know who the characters are and then how they’re behaving is really funny, and their choices that they’re making more so than like setup, setup jokes. Setup, setup-
Ana: Definitely. It’s not a mockumentary. It doesn’t have that style to it so much. It doesn’t have that pausiness I would say. It’s definitely a single-camera comedy that’s happening in a very filmic way in terms of the look of it. I would say there’re some Office similarities … Only because Greg was masterful at that.
Greg: We talked about the Coen brothers a lot. Doing the pilot and they’re very funny in filmic ways. My hope was to try and use the camera to tell jokes sometimes, not all verbal. One of the things that attracted me to it was that when David (Jenkins) wrote it, he put in his pitch document that it’s sort of a combination of a Greg Daniels comedy, I was like, “Ohh, somebody did check me out, yay!” (laughs).
Ana, how did you get attached to this project? Were you approached?
Ana: I was approached, which was really … I was super psyched!
Greg: It was in an alley. She was on her way home late at night with groceries and it was very-
You were abducted (laughs).
Ana: (laughs) Yes I was. They tried to make it real, so they put this big light and then it was just Greg with a kind of a creepy flashlight. I mean these are great people to have the good fortune to work with, so that was an easy decision.
Which of the characters’ back stories were you most interested to find out about?
Ana: That’s a great question. Kind of all of them because honestly.
Greg: Yvonne Watson played by Da’Vine, Da’Vine Joy Randolph.
Ana: She’s a postal worker.
Greg: Yeah, she’s got the most sort of skeptical attitude of all, and the idea that she is also a believer in this. It makes me very curious as to how she got there.
Ana: Yeah, and Ennis (Daniel Stewart Sherman). The farmer. It’s a tough luck group.
As you were saying those things, postal worker, and farmer, we immediately think of “Men in Black”. What other movies inspired you as you were building each script and story for each character?
Greg: “Men in Black” … We talked about that too. “Men in Black” is definitely something in the genre. The interesting thing is the tone because a lot of times when you mix comedy with sci-fi it gets very broad. What I think is unique about this project is that the comedy is very realistic and grounded and there is sci-fi. To me, that makes the sci-fi in a sense almost more compelling because the characters are freaked out by it and they’re taking it very seriously. I always appreciate comedy that is grounded and it makes all the silly moments more fun I think because you don’t go there all the time.
Do you believe there is alien life out there?
Ana: Definitely. Not even a question. I mean it seems so insane that there wouldn’t be to me, even just from a logic standpoint. I don’t know that they’re like green Martians or … I certainly don’t think we’re smarter than anybody. It’s big, it’s a big old universe. Why would we be the only ones in it?
Greg: Yeah, also if you look at the history of the progress of science, it’s always been to take us from a position of uniqueness and put us further and further away from the center of what matters in the world, whether it’s like, “Well, the universe spins around the earth.” Well actually no it doesn’t. We’re spinning around the sun.
Greg: Actually the sun is really kind of a small star among endless stars. So the odds are that there’s life out there and that they would be big fans of the show. (laughs).
Ana: I should hope so!
*Interview was done by TNWU’s on-site SDCC reporter Anna Ruth Ramos