If there’s any show on television that encapsulates what it feels like to report to a cubicle every day and endure the daily slings and arrows of office life–the misunderstood emails, the bad coffee, the back-to-back Power Point presentations–it’s Corporate. The second season of Comedy Central’s nihilistic ode to life as a nameless 9-5er launches today, bringing back its eccentric ensemble of slackers, OCD strivers, and occupational web surfers. And, once again, it makes the other famed workplace TV show, The Office, feel like Mary Poppins in comparison to its The Babadook vibe.
Corporate‘s first season indoctrinated viewers into life at mega-corporation Hampton DeVille through the eyes of two low-rung employees played by Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman (who are also co-creators of the show along with Pat Bishop), by focusing on the ceaseless indignities and ironies of office life. The show’s second season, however, ventures further afield. Although Matt and Jake–the actors go by their real names–are still front and center, this season delves deeper into the show’s very talented bench of supporting actors, including Adam Lustick, Ann Dudek, Aparna Nancherla, and Lance Reddick.
The show also takes a turn in a more, if not sunny, then slightly less bleak direction, with an episode devoted to Matt on vacation (he takes advice on where to go from fellow employees who claim it’s “the” place to visit; it is not), and one that rhapsodizes the pleasures of staying home in slippers (and playing with cats) rather than attending a late-night hipster concert. More attention is given to workplace gender issues and other subjects that feel important and smart as opposed to merely funny.
“Creatively, the show has evolved in that it does broaden the apertures of the other characters and the stories are more relatable,” says Sarah Babineau, who shares the title of executive vice president and co-head of talent and development at Comedy Central with Jonas Larsen.
“It’s a little bit brighter. They go out a little bit more,” adds Larsen, who says he hopes the (slightly) broader sensibility will help Corporate itself venture beyond its cult status and resonate with a larger audience.
Fast Company recently spoke to Bishop, Ingebretson, and Weisman about their thoughts on the new season; how they convinced Kyra Sedgwick to play a boozy “Mrs. Cowboy” in one episode; and how the best comedy comes from feeding crazy lines to dramatic actors.
Fast Company: Season two definitely feels like you’re pushing things deeper, exploring your secondary characters’ more and building stories around them. How conscious was that on your part?
Jake Weisman: When you make a first season of a TV show, you are learning a lot. We’re competent people, but there’s a lot to learn. So there are only so many things you can really do in one season while you’re just trying to show that you’re competent and know how to make TV.
Half of the writers’ room is split, 50-50, between women and men. We try to ask everyone else, What are things that you experience in the workplace? Because we don’t just want it to come from us, three men who created the show. So the “Natural Beauty” episode–where Jake oversees a pitch for a line of male makeup–came out of a lot of talking to female writers on our show and them explaining the things they’d had to deal with.
The other thing about TV shows is, people really come back for the characters. So as we got to know more, we realized how important they are to people when you really get into seeing characters’ development. Last year, in the episode “Weekend,” when we went home and saw John’s place [Adam Lustick’s character] and we saw how sad and lonely it was, it gave you more empathy for John in general. We saw the reaction to that and realized how effective that episode was. We were like, We should do that for all the characters.
Pat Bishop: We’ve also been hanging out with these actors now for a year, and we just know them better and are friends with them. So we can focus more on, how are they funny, and what situations do we want to see them in?
FC: Yet the beauty of the show is that it still, at its heart, is about things like having to drink the same crappy office coffee every day–and the absurd reality that there is a lot of comfort in that.
Matt Ingebretson: The other thing that we discussed going into the season was this feeling that we’ve all had, or I think everyone has, where it feels like the world is ending right now. Like, literally, there was a news report that came out recently that was like, There is no turning back on global climate change, and we’re in a lot of trouble, and our grandchildren are in a lot of trouble. And have a nice Tuesday! And then you’re just expected to turn back to your job and be like, okay, I guess I’ll fill out the rest of these expense reports. But it feels a little alarming. So we’re tapping into that feeling that I think a lot of people have right now, which is this condition that the world is ending and yet I still am hungry right now, so I guess I’m going to figure out where I’m going to lunch.
Bishop: Everyone has their own coping mechanisms and their own comforts and small things that you can find and continually feed yourself.
FC: You and your writers are clearly tapped into what it feels like to work in a dreary office. And yet you work in Hollywood at jobs that are the furthest things from a desk job. Where do you get your material?
Ingebretson: Each season we’ve interviewed and spoken to, at length, a couple people that we’ve reached out to through friends of friends who work in the corporate sector–all of whom have explicitly asked to remain anonymous. But for example, the expense report episode (in which the guys go on a work trip, have an insane adventure, and are grilled on an expense report from a Mexican restaurant where they drank several rounds of margaritas), my sister works in the corporate world and she shared with me a story about a coworker of hers who had to take a trip to Florida. It turned into a complete nightmare where she got taken off course and had to end up driving six hours to help her kid out, or some kind of truly insane story. And the accountant at the company went back and forth with her over a 50-email thread message demanding that she account for, like, $60. She was like, ‘I fucking had a life-changing experience in Florida, can you please leave me alone?’ So some of the stories come from things like that, where we talk to people in the real world. Some of the other stories come from our past work experiences at companies like this.
Weisman: The other thing, too, is that if you’re listening and you’re watching, almost every conversation you have with every human alive is about how much they don’t like their job. The way people communicate is by complaining. That’s literally how Americans communicate. Oh, my back hurts. Oh, my job sucks. I’m too tired. My kid hates me. If you are listening correctly and watching, everyone is miserable and that’s what they’re saying to each other. So I think if you’re just alive and if you go to a place of work or watch someone at a restaurant, just observe what’s going on. There’s a lot of stress going on. And I think if you use your imagination and are listening, you can see that pretty much everyone is in pain and it has to be funny because there’s no option. If it’s not funny, then you’re just gonna die.
FC: Kyra Sedgwick appears in one very funny episode, playing a drunken CEO who dresses up in Western gear and goes by “Mrs. Cowboy.” How did she get cast?
Ingebretson: We were very lucky, I guess, because she’s been doing more directing lately. The way she explained it to us is, she’s more interested in doing comedy and things that are purely fun for her, versus a dramatic role. She was at the top of our list for someone who has the crazy bravado that would be necessary to play this very over-the-top character.
Bishop: But we also wanted someone you hadn’t really seen do that before. We wanted it to be surprising.
Ingebretson: Yeah, we wanted someone to come in and be a little crazy. And she definitely did that. She’s famously married to Kevin Bacon, and we heard that they rehearsed lines together. The image of Kevin Bacon rehearsing lines from Mrs. Cowboy tickles us to this day.
Weisman: We’re one-degree away from Kevin Bacon. It was this hallucinatory experience when you grow up being a fan of Kyra Sedgwick and then at midnight one night you’re shooting in a graveyard and she’s there and she’s really cool. Its like, what happened to our lives?
FC: Lance Reddick, who plays the super-serious CEO of Hampton DeVille, also gets more airtime this season. He’s one of the few members of the cast who’s not a trained comedian, and yet he’s hilarious. How did you tap into that side of him?
Weisman: He’s always been one of our favorite actors, and obviously he was on The Wire. We’ve always just loved his intensity, his look, and the way he can stare someone down. But we saw him on a Funny or Die sketch called Toys R Me. It’s a sketch where he’s basically himself, saying really absurd shit, and it was so funny. It just sort of immediately came to us, that if we were to write very intense stuff for the CEO to say . . . If you get the best Yale Drama School actor to say insane jokes straight-faced–nothing is funnier. In the movie Airplane, people forget that it’s essentially a drama with the funniest jokes possible. Leslie Nielsen was a dramatic actor, and he just said insane things. Lance is doing it differently, but that’s kind of our model. Light it like a drama, write it like a drama, get the actors that can be in a drama, and then just give them the silliest shit to say and do.