Those diligent followers of improvisational comedy will likely know the names Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo, the Boston-born comedians who have taken to the stage internationally and created and starred in the satirical Ronna and Beverly television series. Speaking to Chaffin and Denbo, who appear in memorable roles in the acclaimed comedy The Heat, we instantly understand how their partnership allowed their careers to blossom: the two play off one another like lifelong friends. Chalking this up to a common language and, even more simply, the ability to make one another laugh, Chaffin and Denbo have a lot to say about comedy in general.
With experience in sketch comedy, television, and film — working in cities like Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and London — Chaffin and Denbo are a requisite for any aspiring comic looking to learn all that he or she can about the craft. The pair gave us some insight about their origins and using them to construct a brand of comedy that seems to transcend cultural barriers, about working on director Paul Feig’s outstanding Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy buddy cop comedy (which is now available on Blu-ray), and about the rattling conversation that seems to follow movies like The Heat about whether or not women are funny. The discussion will enlighten you.
On the beginnings of their partnership and working together in the comedy world…
Jessica Chaffin: We both grew up just outside of Boston. I grew up in Newton, Jamie grew up in Swampscott. My grandmother actually lived in the town next to Jamie’s, so we were kind of living these parallel childhoods even though we didn’t know each other. But we had, basically, all the same kinds of influences and references and knew the same kinds of women. Twenty years later or 15 years later, we both found ourselves in New York doing improv. Jamie did improv in college —
Jamie Denbo: Anything that doesn’t involve homework, or memorization.
JC: I was the exact opposite. I was doing homework a lot, and not doing comedy. And then we both ended up at the UCB Theater, so that’s how we met initially. Jamie got there a year before me, so we weren’t always performing together. We’d do special shows together. Actually, one of the shows that we did together — before we started doing Ronna and Beverly, which was several years later — was this show called Wicked F**kin Queeyah, where all the improvisers from Boston would do a show together during the Del Close Marathon. And I would say that’s probably where our common language found its first footing.
Then we both moved to L.A. around the same time. It was Christmas in L.A., and the guy that was running — the artistic director at the time, Seth Morris, a very talented and funny comedian and actor in his own right — said, “Hey, are you Jews gonna be around?” And we said yes, and he said, “Do you wanna do a show called Kosher Christmas?” So we said, “Let’s do something together.” We had never done something together, but I think we had admired each other from across the room.”
In Boston, there’s this thing called the Matzo Ball. I think they do it in a lot of major cities. Christmas Eve is like Jewish Valentine’s Day. So basically, all the Jews go out that night. Your mother drops you off and hopes you get the number of a pre-med student — a pre-pre-med student, meaning a 16-year-old who may or may not have done very well on his SATs. So what really happens is, you go there and you’re like, “I thought I hated all these boys and now I hate them more.” Jamie and I both have non-Jewish partners. But I would say that’s how we exorcised those demons. [But] where do you put it all? It became Ronna and Beverly. We basically said we wanted to do something that has to do with singles. We ate a tube of cookie dough and talked about it. She was like, “I wanna be this person,” and I was like, “I wanna be this person.” We decided to basically make fun of these women who had been making us laugh for our entire lives.
On transforming their backgrounds into a career in comedy…
It’s a funny circle. We left Boston to go be performers… and now, all these years later, the things that still make us laugh harder than anything are the people that we grew up around. So, we joke that we play either really high status Jewish mothers or we play scumbags. We were very lucky to get to do that in The Heat.
JD: We get to do both with Paul Feig, which is pretty great.
JC: He directed our pilot for Showtime in 2009. That’s how we met him. We’ve continued a relationship with him, and he produced our show that we did in England — the Ronna and Beverly show — but also, he put us in The Heat and gave us a forum to do our nonsense. It was great. We had a terrific time.
JD: They always say in comedy, the more specific, the more universal. I think what happens when you get really specific about where you’re from or who you are, something in that is able to reach people about their own specific quirks, and they just enjoy it for what it is. I say that because we’ve had such a diverse audience. Specifically for Ronna and Beverly, where we’ve done Telluride Comedy Festivals year after year, and we’ve performed all over England and had a television series there. These are not places where you’d think, “Oh, they’ll completely understand Boston and Jews.” I don’t know that they do. But something in it connects with them. And the overbearing matriarch, the judgmental matriarch, the embarrassing matriarch — those are universal. So, when you fill it with your specifics, you’re able to surprise them with new jokes. It’s been really fun for us to introduce the world to the quirky, quirky, crazy stuff that is very specific to Boston Jews. It’s a WASPy kind of Jew.
JC: I was going to say… everyone thinks [of] New Yorkers. “That’s a Jew.” No, there’s Southern Jews and Boston Jews and Chicago Jews. There’s such a specific thing to each of those… in Boston, actually, people assimilated much more quickly than they did in New York, probably because there were fewer of them. You had to just jump into the stream, whereas in New York there was a bit more of a ghettoization. The Lower East Side, or Brooklyn, or whatever. I’m getting too deep into the etymology of that kind of language. Basically, one [universality] is the matriarchal archetype that Jamie is talking about. But also, ultimately, the reason why these women are so funny to us is because it’s the complete lack of self-awareness and self-consciousness about what they do. They feel completely entitled to their opinion at all times, and they feel that everybody should either know it or share it. What we’re essentially doing, because we are young people playing old people, is satire. It’s happening on two levels. Yeah, it’s funny to watch those old women, but we put it through the prism of how we feel about how they behave, or how they treat us, or how racist they are, or whatever it is. That’s what it is, I think, that people respond to.
On bringing their comedy to film, specifically in The Heat…
JC: I think that was always great about it. You work on a huge movie, with a huge budget, and huge movie stars. I actually think this is a real credit to Paul — you could be doing a Funny or Die video for free, or for like 12 bucks, or you could be working on a huge multimillion dollar movie, and the actual act of doing the part, the process, feels very similar. I give credit to Paul, making everybody feel comfortable, and giving you the arena to do what you do best.
JD: I also think that it starts on the page. The great thing about The Heat is that it was a great script and it was something in the area of what we do and already connect with. So we were really able to have a blast feeling confident that we could bring what we already knew to the table, and make whatever adjustments we had to make. Driving Sandra Bullock crazy, her character — that’s not a situation that we’ve had onstage. We haven’t had the opportunity to make her nuts or intimidate her or try to make her laugh. It was so fun to be able to do that, it really was. Honestly, especially now that I’ve just seen Gravity, I’m like, “We f**ked with her! That was fun!”
JC: I also think shooting in Boston [made] the whole thing so cool. It’s the greatest set that you can dress: the entire city. You get to see these characters in their natural habitat. It’s this weird “What’s real and what’s not real?” thing. I think that was super fun and super satisfying. Actually, that’s why I think Joey McIntyre is so fabulous in the movie, too.
JD: What a doll.
JC: He brings such an authenticity to it.
JD: He never let that part of him fall by the wayside. That’s just who he is. It’s something he’s proud of.
On Paul Feig’s understanding of the language of comedy…
JD: He’s really, really brilliant, and has incredibly confidence in his performers. I don’t say that because he just lets everybody run wild. There’s a reason he has chosen to work with Melissa McCarthy over and over and over again. Part of that is because he is very confident that when he lets her do what she does, he’s going get everything and more. I’m not saying he’s not a control freak. It is a controlled environment. But at the same time, he lets people have a certain amount of control, and it makes you a confident performer. It’s this great circle of confidence.
JC: I remember the first day. The very first thing we shot in the movie was my scene when I come down the stairs. You had Melissa — who is such a formidable talent, and who you admire and adore, and who is boundary-less in how far she’ll take something — and Sandra — who is a huge movie star. On the one hand, it’s really intimidating. On the other hand, Jamie and I work together all the time and have a common language. All the boys that were on the [set] — Nate Corddry is a really old friend of ours, Joey is a really old friend of ours. Bill [Burr] we met there, but it was immediate. We get each other. So on the one hand, you’re totally comfortable, on the other hand, it’s terrifying. You never know, when you have a small part, how much you can do — that’s one of the things actors don’t talk about. You just show up and think everyone is friendly and nice and awesome. When you have a small part, you just want to go and do it and get it done with and not f**k anything up for anybody else. I said to Paul, “I just need to know where the boundaries are. How far can I go? How much time can I take? Just let me know what you want me to do.” And he said, “I want you to be yourself. Take it as far as you can.” When I was coming down the stairs, he kept being like, “Even slower, even slower.” Like, the slowest walk down the stairs that you can possibly do. I don’t think I even quite got there. But that was so freeing. And to do such a crazy melee of a scene — Jamie is running out of the car, and we’re getting in a fight. We probably did that for three hours. I think that set the pace for the rest of the movie. “Oh, we can totally have fun and play and do our thing!” I think that made it easy for us.
On the infamous conversation about women being “not funny”…
JD: Blah, blah, blah. You know what? You can quote me. Women aren’t funny. They’re just not. Everybody wins. There you go.
JC: We just think people are either funny or they’re not. How do you know? You either f**king laugh or you don’t. We don’t ever think about being women while we’re working. I’m not trying out my new period jokes on Jamie. “I hope that this one lands!” We just crack each other up. Actually, that’s the secret to our overall relationship and collaboration. We really make each other laugh. We’re not laughing at each other because I’m like, “Oh my God, her boobs are so funny!” when she’s running around on stage. No. It’s your brain. It either turns somebody on or it doesn’t. The rest of it is people that are just, I guess, scared.
JD: I agree, except with the caveat that Jessica’s boobs are very funny when they are running around onstage.
JC: You’re right. I apologize. That’s something men don’t have. Funny boobs.
JD: Ha. Suck it, men. You’re not as funny as women because your boobs aren’t funny.
JC: Did your boobs get their own credit in the movie, Adam Carolla?
JD: No they did not.