Casting the parents: How 5 TV comedies met their mothers (and fathers!)
There’s no perfect time to introduce a TV character’s parents. Friends did it for Ross and Monica in the second episode ever; Glee just did it for Blaine with five episodes to go before the finale. But five of EW’s favorite TV comedies have brought parents into the fold this past season—and the results have been more than relatively entertaining.
With Sandra Bernhard and Stephen Root bringing a new layer of plot twists to Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Rhea Perlman turning The Mindy Project into a veritable second Cheers, we sought out the producers of five sitcoms to explain how they chose the perfect actors to bring into the family.
Ana Gasteyer and Anthony Edwards as Shoshanna’s parents, Mel and Mel Shapiro
Introducing parents is “a great way to help explain character,” says executive producer Jenni Konner. “How do you build a Shoshanna? What makes Marnie have these insane relationships with men? Well, let’s see who her mother is; let’s see who her father is. Things like that explain characters we’ve already built a little bit.”
Enter Mel and Mel Shapiro—Melanie and Melvin, natch—whose dual names have already haunted Shoshanna as “the worst thing that ever happened to me, and also the first thing that ever happened to me.”
Rita Wilson, who first played Marnie’s mother in season two, looks notably similar to her TV daughter, played by Allison Williams. But physical appearance didn’t play a large factor in casting Shoshanna’s parents. All Konner and company knew of Shoshanna’s parents was that they were a very unhappily divorced couple who could almost never be in the same place together. So Girls faced the challenge of casting likeable actors who could overcome the Shapiros’ behavior on paper.
“Lena knew [Anthony Edwards]’ wife, and I’ve been watching him on ER for 45 years and was obsessed with him in Gotcha,” Konner tells EW. “Ana we’ve been a fan of for a long time, and I think she was the idea of our brilliant casting agent, Jennifer Euston. We just put them together and it was TV magic.”
The pair’s big scene in the season four opener—in which Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro try to share in the joy of Shoshanna’s NYU graduation—offered slight insight into what makes Shoshanna tick. “I think having those kind of parents makes you extremely independent because you’re not really getting so much support from them, and they’re so terrible when you’re together that you’re avoiding them,” she says. “The divorce was probably pretty dark for Shoshanna, and I thought that was an interesting way to shape her and say, this is why she takes matters into her own hands at all times. Even though she can be a princess, she’s very independent.”
THE MINDY PROJECT
Rhea Perlman as Danny’s mother, Annette Castellano
No TV mom has made more of an impression this year than Danny’s mother…and, contrary to his description of her in past seasons, she’s an absolute delight. You can thank Rhea Perlman for that.
From the first day of pre-production on season three, Perlman’s name was pitched as the mother of Chris Messina’s surly doc. The casting informed exactly who Mrs. Castellano became in the script. “Rhea was instantly excited about it, so we had this amazing opportunity to write the character for her, which you never get to do,” says EP Matt Warburton. “We knew Rhea played all kind of fun characters, and we noticed that any time Danny talked about his mom, he treated her like this very stern Catholic woman who had all these rules and raised her kids very strictly. And what we thought was fun was, well, what if that kind of wasn’t true?”
Enter Annette—a fun-loving yet intimidating ball of energy who’s much more lighthearted than Danny’s interpretation of her, which opened up a world of ways for her to bond with Mindy. “We had a great time having Mindy and Rhea connect on a level that’s impossible for Danny to process, because he has such a mythology about his mom being really tough,” Warburton says. “It wouldn’t have worked for everyone, but without someone as fun as Rhea, we wouldn’t have had as much fun with the character if she was the strict Catholic woman Danny had always described.”
That same flipped dynamic has proven to be comic gold for Messina as an actor. “His shame around her is one of the funniest things for Chris to play, and he’s so good at it,” says Warburton. “My favorite thing is that Annette knows everything about Danny, down to how often he masturbates. And the fact that he pretends she doesn’t know that, and any time she mentions it, it turns him into literally an altar boy any time she’s around.”
Perlman’s enthusiastic entrance struck a chord with fans, and the writers were so confident in the character and her story possibilities that Annette has popped up in eight episodes so far. She even comes with a friend: Dot, Annette’s confidante and sidekick, played by Jenny O’Hara. “It’s great on a network show that skews young to have this many adult, older characters that our fans have connected to,” says Warburton. “We could populate this whole world of parents. Fans are actually asking us for more.”
Chief among them: Mindy’s family, whom Warburton promises will be introduced eventually. “It’s really an issue of one family at a time. We tackled the Castellanos first, but we’ll definitely be seeing more.”
Sandra Bernhard as Gina’s mom, Darlene Linetti, and Stephen Root as Charles’ dad, Lynn Boyle
With so many characters already on the FOX sitcom, Brooklyn’s writers didn’t consider introducing the people who raised Gina (Chelsea Peretti) and Charles’ (Joe Lo Truglio) until they devised the storyline in which the former lovers’ parents would strike up a courtship.
“There are two ways to go when you’re casting parents: go totally against type—like, Charles’ dad is a suave, good-looking football player—or reflect the character themselves,” says EP Dan Goor. “It’s a case by case basis. When we cast April’s parents on Parks and Rec, it was funny that she was so dour and her parents were the sweetest Midwestern folks in the world. But in this case, because we were casting two parents whose relationship was important—as important as their relationship to their kids, who also had a relationship with each other—it seemed to make sense to make the parents logical extensions of their children.” (Another big question: Would the show introduce Gina’s mom and Charles’ dad, or Gina’s dad and Charles’ mom? The writers chose the former.)
Goor explains two factors in casting—whether the characters resemble each other, and whether they share a vital essence. “We threw around a few names, but very quickly coalesced around Sandra Bernhard for Chelsea’s mom,” Goor shares. “She had a thing to her that feels like something Chelsea has to her. They both have these kind of brash personalities and are very presentational, like you can imagine them both in front of a crowd. They’re interesting people, and it felt like they had a similar energy.”
For Lo Truglio’s father, played by Stephen Root, it was all about the eyes. “Joe has such expressive eyes, and so does Stephen, and they’re both incredible comedy all-stars, which could also be said about Chelsea and Sandra. But Stephen, like Joe, has played so many different characters in the comedy world that as soon as his name was pitched, it just felt like it would be perfect.”
Now that the show has introduced Darlene and Lynn—who will soon be happily married, too—an entire world of storylines has been opened. “It’s a horrible entanglement for Gina and Boyle, and it promises fun family episodes like Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving or Boyle-Linetti family trips,” says an eager Goor. “And there’s a bizarre step-brother/step-sister strangeness in their past, which is going to be fun to explore.”
Bob Balaban and Susie Essman as Ilana’s parents, Arthur and Bobbi Wexler
Perhaps the most memorable moment of Broad City‘s spectacular season two was the introduction of Ilana’s mother and father, played to perfection by Bob Balaban and Susie Essman. Not only are show creators/stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson big fans of these “comedy bombs,” but Balaban and Essman’s uncanny resemblance to Glazer—particularly Essman, thanks to that curly coif—made casting an easy task.
“They’re people you wouldn’t expect to be on our show,” says Glazer, whose big episode with her personality-clone mother involved running around New York City in search of knockoff handbags. “There’s a different joke in casting our parents,” she continues. “Mine was total doppelganger casting, but the people we’ve talked about for Abbi’s parents are a totally different type. They’re badass.”
The bonus with Glazer is that her real brother, Eliot—a comedy writer and performer—also occasionally guests as her onscreen brother…also named Eliot.
Paul Sorvino as Murray’s dad, Pop-Pop
Creator Adam F. Goldberg faced a different challenge in casting Pop-Pop, the father of Jeff Garlin’s loud-mouthed Murray. Like the rest of The Goldbergs, the cast is based on the showrunner’s real-life family, so Goldberg had a real model of his paternal grandfather to keep in mind during casting.
“Pop-Pop as a real guy was just the total opposite of George Segal [who plays Pops], and everyone thought that was really interesting—to have one grandfather on the show who’s the life of the party, and this other curmudgeon who’s this broken guy,” says Goldberg. “There were a lot of really juicy stories to tell with Pop-Pop, and once we wrote it, we always had Paul Sorvino in mind. When you’re going to cast a scary, curmudgeonly guy, how do you not think of Paul Sorvino? I mean, he’s from GoodFellas! We knew he’d bring so much to. Plus, my grandfather had a similar body type to Paul Sorvino.”
The choice to introduce Pop-Pop in the second season was a conscious one for Goldberg, who wanted to build the foundation of the family’s core before extending the relative branch too much in the first season. In building out the family tree now, Goldberg has a dream list of actors who could play other family members who have yet to arrive on the scene.
“I’ve written letters to Bette Midler to play Murray’s mom, because we liked the idea that Murray basically married his mom, and I’m just patiently waiting,” Goldberg says of his casting wishlist. “Also, my mom had a brother, and we broke a whole story for Uncle Jack hoping to get Adam Sandler. He dove into this new movie, so we have to wait until next year.”