Patton Oswalt & Glenn Howerton Talk New NBC Comedy A.P. BIO

In NBC’s newest comedy, A.P. Bio., disgraced Harvard philosophy scholar Jack Griffin (Glenn Howerton) returns home to Ohio to work as a high school advanced placement biology teacher. Jack does not exactly shoot for teacher of the year. At the NBC winter press tour, Howerton, Patton Oswalt, Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn, Jean Villepique, and EP Mike O’Brien talked about their new series.

You can catch a preview of A.P. Bio on Feb. 1st, ahead of its March 1st premiere.

For Patton, how did you approach the role of a high school principal?

Patton Oswalt: What I loved about Mike’s scripts was there was a lot of subtle stuff about wanting to be the cool guy, but the minute you’re in authority, no matter how cool you are, you are no longer the cool guy. You are the authoritative figure. So there’s a lot of really great human riffs in there about trying to maintain a level of coolness while telling people what and what not to do, and that made it very, very easy to play, because I understand that, wanting to not look dumb and awkward and yet you’re in a position where you can only look dumb and awkward. That was really, really fun to get to play. And getting to play off of all these guys, just made it even easier, because all they get to do is torment me, and it’s great.

Glenn, you’ve gone off to be a dad, but how do you think “It’s Always Sunny” people might feel when they find out that you really just went off to teach A.P. bio?

Glenn Howerton: First of all, I’ve not officially left “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” I hope people understand that. This is just a totally separate project that I’m doing. I think one of the tough things about doing a show for 12 years is people might have a hard time seeing you as anything else, and I realize that that could be a little bit of a struggle for me as an actor. But that’s why it was important for me to get to do something with someone who has a distinctive voice like Mike. I wasn’t even planning on jumping into anything else. But when I read the script and saw it was Lorne Michaels and Seth Meyers, I couldn’t pass it up. But mostly, I just loved the script and the character.

Will this show’s schedule allow you to do both?

Glenn Howerton: Absolutely, yeah.

Do you think you’re getting typecast as snarky guys?

Glenn Howerton: Typecast? I think it’s possible that that could start to happen. This character does definitely share some traits with the character on “Sunny,” but I think he’s distinct in other ways. I think there’s some real heart to this guy. I think he really wears his heart more on his sleeve than he even realizes, where I don’t think he’s quite I don’t think he’s as hardened as, say, Dennis. I think there’s a little bit more tenderness to this character, even though he wouldn’t want people to realize that. But, yeah, he’s snarky. I don’t know. I like doing it. It’s fun. I like playing that kind of character.

For Patton, what kind of a commitment is this for you in terms of the other work that you do?

Patton Oswalt: They’re very fast and loose on the show with the other commitments that I have in terms of voiceover and standup. But this is a really, really fun show to get to shoot. This isn’t something that I’m trying to get around. The scripts, when I get each new script, it’s, oh, my God. Like, how are they going to shoot this scene? And also, I want to come in both to get to shoot the scene, but then also to see how are they going to pull this off and cut this together? It’s a fun job that I’m really, really lucky to have. So right now, especially the way TV is, there’s so many different platforms. Everyone’s very, very cool about letting you go do whatever it is you need to do and being very flexible. So it’s a win win for me.

Glenn, this character has sort of the sadness of his late mother. How do you balance the humor with the grief?

Glenn Howerton: The show is so jampacked with comedy as far as I’m concerned that I never tried for that stuff to be funny at all. I’m always looking for some sort of a truth in everything. I don’t think you know what I mean? I wanted those moments to feel as though this is a man who is grieving, but who doesn’t want to believe that he’s grieving, someone who feels a terrible sense of loss and sadness but who, if you asked him, he’d be like “I don’t care.” Because I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I like to think that he is the type of person who actually has such big feelings that he has to act like someone who doesn’t care and has to act like somebody who doesn’t have big feelings because everything hurts too much. That’s my take on the character, because I think that’s what tends to happen with someone who–or I can relate to that too. I think if you have been hurt enough in your life as a human being, you might start to put up a shell, because you realize it stops serving you, or you feel like it stops serving you to feel so many things openly. Does that answer your question? That’s funny, right? Was that funny?

You guys get to do something that’s a little out of the ordinary here with this show, what is that like?

Patton Oswalt: With Lyric and Mary and Jean really nailed, I think, kind of the more out there aspects of where the characterizations in the show could go.

Jean Villepique: Well, in terms of being broad — well, I guess what’s really fun about our dynamic is we get to play–we get to bounce things off each other really quickly, and that–I don’t know if this is answering your question in any way, but I guess things can be a little bigger. I think that our characters do give the show an opportunity to — like, Mary is really aggressive and confident and strong, and as well as Lyric’s character, Stef, kind of bossing Principal Durbin around, and it’s just a little weird. But because we speak the same language in this little trio, it’s still grounded.

Patton Oswalt: It’s also really cool how the three of them, even though they’re teachers, are in a lot of ways way less mature than a lot of their students. You sort of see that some people kind of don’t ever graduate high school on some level, and that is really, really fun to watch.

Mike O’Brien: The three teachers to me were based on my older sisters and their friend. I had two older sisters, and there was always five friends around the house. They would just own you. They just owned you. You say any sentence, and they’re, like, hilariously burning and piling on you right away. You just got emasculated in a good way at age 12. That’s what these were to me. These guys then made it a whole other level of human and awesome to me, and I think that hopefully that speaks to the type of comedy, and maybe these guys’ experience was like that.

Lyric Lewis: I think to your credit as well, Mike, is you gave us an opportunity while we were shooting to improvise so much with each other and to play off of each other where instead of these women necessarily being one-dimensional or a history teacher or health teacher or art teacher, we just got to just take after take just play, and play with Glenn and play with Patton. That’s something that will come across, that it has just a different glimmer of life and well rounded versus kind of a flat “they’re just teachers” type of deal.

Glenn Howerton: That is the dynamic. You’ve got this guy who thinks that he’s all that. And then, the second he gets around his three older sisters, which is kind of dynamic, he’s just brought right back to who he is at his core. They don’t take any of my shit. It’s great.

Jean Villepique: I was just going to say, the cynicism, we don’t buy into the cynicism or the coolness of Harvard. We are just, like, “Okay. Pass the mozzarella sticks,” like we don’t care. This gets lost on us in a good way.

How much of what we see is improvisation?

Mike O’Brien: I’m going to say all the improvisation made it in. It genuinely did, and it also often started in earlier versions where you are at the table read or something, and you are starting to do that. Then also the writers’ room falling in love with these three ladies and writing towards how they improvise and them adding a little bit, it was like a slow process where I hope they felt like they got to own what they were saying.

Mary Sohn: Absolutely. I think the way we owned it too, like, the way we are written, a lot of times I find myself being, like, “Ooh, I’m really proud to have a big back,” and roles that you wouldn’t–

Jean Villepique: Mary, that reminds me of a time when we I think it was the first week we were working. Maybe it was the second episode, and Glenn said something really low to you. You answered really low, like, “survival,” or something. You went, “All right, Batman.” That stayed. It was just so funny of a moment.

Lyric Lewis: It stayed in, yeah.

Jean Villepique: It will translate better in the episode. But, yes, it did stay in. That made me laugh in the moment as well.

Glenn Howerton: To answer your question, there was a ton of improv, and a lot of it did make it in the show.

Lyric Lewis: We are constantly breaking.

Glenn Howerton: We are constantly breaking. Like, to an unprofessional–

Did you have any specific teachers in mind when you were preparing for these roles?

Lyric Lewis: I think, at first, no. But as we shot, then, absolutely, there were teachers and women that I’m, like, “Oh, she would fly into class whatever time it was.” Do you know what I mean? Or, like, she was cool with all of the students. I think, over time, you do start to pull from high school and junior high and these teachers that just were just down and hip with everybody and the ones that would, kind of, bully the principal and things like that and the teacher cliques, so yeah. For me, yeah.

Jean Villepique: We had a teacher in my–I grew up in New Jersey and went to a public school in a small town, and we had this chemistry teacher, Mr. Fennemore, who wore a lab coat everywhere, like, and drove to school in a lab coat. And he’s, like, “That’s my thing, chemistry.” Like, that kind of eccentric thing is a little bit how these ladies are, like, “We are making our own. We will do it our own”–we don’t wear lab coats.

Lyric Lewis: We don’t.

Jean Villepique: We don’t teach chemistry either.

Lyric Lewis: We don’t. You need a lab coat.

Jean Villepique: Mary, did you have a teacher–

Mary Sohn: I luckily get to play Mary, and I believe it’s loosely based on me. So, in that way, I feel like I get to really own — like, as if I were a teacher, I could be this immature and this silly. I think I draw on myself a lot.

Mike, a superstar philosophy professor is a funny concept. How deeply do you go into that?

Mike O’Brien: I was very excited about the idea of having a fun, silly, playful show that has some extremely intelligent lead, and not that that hasn’t been done before, but it’s often easier in my comedic brain in the past to have the lead be dumb. That was very exciting to me and obviously very intimidating because I’m only so smart. This person had to be way smarter. My mom and dad have an occasional lunch with this guy who is a retired philosophy guy, and so he was emailing him. He and his son, who also teaches philosophy, were throwing back some stuff. […] We had, like, a lot of very, very smart, fucking writers in that writers’ room that would be occasionally, like, “I don’t think Jack would say that because it’s not quite sounding smart enough.” To have him be fun and playful while being that smart was the challenge that we then tossed at Glenn, and I thought he did–

Glenn Howerton: For me, what I loved about it is there’s a philosophy–you can use a philosophy to justify almost any behavior, and that’s what my character does. It’s like if I act in a selfish way, I’ll have some philosophical reason for why that is a philosophically sound way to live one’s life. So if I’m ever called out on it, I’ll say, “Yeah. Well, this philosopher blah, blah, blah,” which I think is, sort of, a more hifalutin way of how any, sort of, horrible person walks through the world and justifies their behavior. It’s just that he can do it in, sort of, an intellectual way. What I love is that Mike wrote a character who is intellectually smart but emotionally immature. That’s a very funny combination because he is–he does some of the dumbest things a human being would ever do, but he has some smart reason for why it’s okay that he did it. I always love watching characters justify ridiculous behavior because I think you can get behind that. When you talk about broad, to me broad is where I can’t understand why a character would do something, where I don’t understand how that–how the character thinks that will serve them. That to me is broad. A character can do something absolutely ridiculous and insane as long as the audience understands why the character thinks that’s a good idea, and I think Mike did a really great job with that. Nothing felt broad to me in that sense. Like, people will do ridiculous things for selfish reasons as long as they have a justification for it.

For Patton and Glenn, have you been friends for a long time offstage?

Glenn Howerton: I don’t know if this is just the way Patton is, but I felt that way when I met not just Patton, but actually everybody here. There was an immediate camaraderie, and I don’t know if that’s–I don’t know if that’s just an accidental thing or–

Patton Oswalt: I think it had also to do with I’m such a huge fan of his and have been for a very, very long time. I’ve seen a lot of stuff that you’ve done. It felt like I did know you. The minute we started talking, we had all of this stuff in common in terms of what we like comedically. Mary and Jean and Lyric all have very similar comedic tastes and takes on the world. It’s just that and other people on the show, Paula Pell. We were very, very lucky that a lot of people with a lot of the same kind of rhythm and voice in comedy, got together and, like, “Oh, we just got it.”

Glenn Howerton: It’s a beautiful thing. They are all improv professionals.

Patton Oswalt: Yeah, trained.

Glenn Howerton: I thought I was good at improv. I think I’m okay at it, but they are amazing at it, and it was really fun. Some of the funniest stuff that you guys did didn’t make it in the show because the cameras weren’t even rolling.

Patton Oswalt: It was a little thing they would add at the end of the scene that I would go, “Oh, we should go back so that she says that because that’s the better way to end the scene.”

Glenn Howerton: Like, these guys will throw away jokes, and I’m, like, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” And they are, like, “Whatever” and then just move on to the next funny thing that they’ll do. But that’s really fun to work with. Personally, I like people like that in life. I feel a kinship towards somebody when I can say the most ridiculous thing, and one of them would always do the improv thing of “Yes, and” that sort of mentality of, like, there’s nothing I could say to ever trip them up. They would just be in it, like–and so I always feel an instant kinship. Patton was the same way. The first scene we did together, I was, like, “Okay. This is going to be really fun.” I think when characters–I think, when actors are having a lot of fun together on-screen, I think it shows.

Patton Oswalt: As the show went on too, they started getting our rhythms, and we would get handed scenes, like, “Oh, this is going to be a really fun scene to do. This is going to be really cool.” Some of the stuff–I don’t want to spoil some of the plots that are coming up, but there is some stuff with Glenn and I that was really, really fun to shoot. And speaking of “Yes, and,” then they kind of play with that too where not only is this character not saying, “Yes, and,” to me, he’s saying, “No. And I’m not paying attention to you”–while I’m rambling on, which is really, really fun to play. “Wait a minute. Were you talking? What was”–it’s really cool.

For Mary, Lyric, and Jean, how did you arrive at the dynamic among your characters?

Jean Villepique: I believe it was written that way, if I remember correctly. Yes, it was definitely written that way, that Michelle had been bullied by these two; but then, in a family way, they just also brought her into the followed. As it continues, my character is, kind of, like a little sister, like, “Oh, what are we doing? Okay.” Like, where is this, Michelle? Like, “Okay.” But, like, it’s all done in a good natured way.

Lyric Lewis: Actually, Michelle, over the course of the show, like, she’s so similar, I feel like, to Stef and Mary underneath it all. Like, the undercurrent of Michelle is very with it, you know, versus what you can necessarily see right away from the pilot, on the outside. So …

Mary Sohn: In the ways that we are super confident, I think Michelle is also confident in being an absolute weirdo. So it is, kind of, this mix. By the way, guys, thanks for those nice thoughts. It really is very sweet.

Glenn Howerton: That’s true. These guys are seriously so funny, so funny to me.

Patton Oswalt: They’ve got to learn to keep the camera rolling a little bit–It’s, like, set your DVR for five minutes after the show is over because a lot of stuff gets lost, and it should be filmed and used at the end of scenes.

Mike O’Brien: We are using actual film, so we can’t afford it.

For Mike, if this trio of teachers are loosely based on your sisters, then do you have a nemesis in your life somewhere as well?

Mike O’Brien: I feel like I have many in the size and shape that Jack does with Miles in that your good friend took off when you were stalling out, and it strains your friendship that–because I don’t think of Jack and Miles from the show as actual nemeses. They are too close and were too close, and then one having a good year while the other doesn’t is just too much to bear and getting to heighten and indulge in that and be a baby through Jack of that. And Glenn’s performance of it is really, really fun. But, yeah, Miles, from the show, would be a whole number of fun standups and sketch comedians who I could name, but frankly, after a little while, I often am, like, “Do you know what? I’m really glad they did well. That seems like a good guy or gal.”

Patton Oswalt: I also love how you add the element that Jack’s nemesis and you’ll notice this is lethally oblivious to Jack’s anger at him, which, in real life, that’s often how your nemesis–It’s usually one side because you are almost, like, “I don’t”–“fine with me,” like they don’t know and they don’t care, which I love, and it drives you insane because he does not understand how much you hate him.

Mike O’Brien: A hundred percent. That’s the nature of what’s fun about that. It took a little while negotiating in the writers’ room that we are, “So this isn’t a conventional nemesis because this is a person who genuinely wishes well upon the main character.” But that drives him more insane.