Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How Never Have I Ever flipped the script with Ben's episode
One of the bright lights in an otherwise dark 2020 was Never Have I Ever, the new Netflix comedy from creators Lang Fisher and Mindy Kaling. The show follows hot-headed teen Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she experiences a series of firsts, from getting drunk at a party to lying to everyone about sleeping with school hottie Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), all while dealing with the grief of her father's death. But despite the fact that nine out of 10 of the season's installments focused on Devi's journey — as narrated by John McEnroe — the show's sixth episode changed things up with a surprise switch, following the character of Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), Devi's nemesis.
Not only did the episode provide an in-depth look at Ben's lonely life, but it came with a twist: Instead of having McEnroe narrate, the show enlisted Andy Samberg. The result was an incredibly creative episode within an all-around great season of television.
EW spoke with co-creator Lang Fisher about how Ben's installment came together.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for a Ben-centric episode come from?
LANG FISHER: I think originated in the fact that we decided to have a narrator in general for the series. Because we chose John McEnroe to be Devi's inner monologue, it was such a fun choice for us that we thought, "What if every character had a different celebrity narrator?" And because we created this character of Ben as such an adversary for her, we wanted to know why he was the way he was, and so he seems like an obvious character to delve into his inner psyche and see why he's so antagonistic and rude. It stems from a place of loneliness and his own insecurities. So we felt like he would be an interesting person to do a special episode with.
And how did Andy Samberg's name get thrown into the mix?
Ben loves basketball, but he's also kind of a regular teen boy comedy nerd, and so we thought Andy Samberg would be a funny choice.
What was the actual process of getting Andy to do it? Was it relatively easy?
Well, I worked on Brooklyn Nine-Nine for a few years before I came over to this, so I emailed him. Mindy [Kaling] and I both reached out and were like, "Do you have an interest in doing this?" And he's truly the best and was so gracious and kind to do it without knowing whether the show was going to be good or not. So we appreciated it.
Were there any backups if Andy said no?
No. But we were thinking initially that we would give everyone an athlete. And because Ben loves the Clippers, we were thinking maybe we would get Blake Griffin, because he does comedy, so we thought he'd be funny. But then we started to feel like everyone having an athlete would be too limiting, so we branched out. So now, the sky's the limit, hopefully. As long as we can convince people to do it.
Yeah, I feel like there are only so many athletes who could successfully pull off a narration.
That's the other thing. You're like, wait, not a ton of them are trained in voiceover acting.
It's also something that you guys could theoretically continue. You could give every character a different narrator.
Yeah, in season 2 there's another special episode where a different character, you get to hear their special narrator, so we want to keep it going.
What is it that you love about this Ben episode? Why do you think it works?
It's a fun tonal shift. There's no B-story, it's just him, and in many ways it's a very quiet and vulnerable episode. It was interesting, when we were reading it at the table read, Ben doesn't say a ton. A lot of it is you just experiencing his world and imagining him being this lonely kid in a big house. And I think what is moving and nice about it is seeing a character who seems really sharp and abrasive and seeing their inner sadness. In the beginning of the series, you want to hate him. He has this shit-eating grin and he's so incredibly rude to Devi, and then you see that he has basically no friends and his parents have no time for him, and so you sympathize with him. By the end, you want her to be nice to him, you want them to be friends.
I love that the character who begins the series as the antagonist has one of the more vulnerable episodes of the season.
Yeah, he's a huge jerk. You don't want to take the teeth out of him completely, it's funny that he's snarky and is a name-dropper and is a little pompous sometimes, but I think we just wanted to make sure all of our characters have nuances, including her nemesis.
And then you add in the pedophile scene, which really stole the show in that episode.
It was funny, when we first pitched it to some of our executives, they were like, "Is this really rough? Is this not what you're going to want to see?" And I just have to hand it to that actor, Dave Theune, who played the pedophile. He made it so funny, and it became truly a beloved character on our set. Our DP, Rhet Bear, was so obsessed with the pedophile character that he pranked Jaren for the rest of the season by sneaking photos of the pedophile into all of Jaren's belongings. So whenever he'd open his locker, open his backpack or anything, there was just all these pictures of that character everywhere. One of the great joys of the season for the crew came out of that episode.