Raising Hope’s Lucas Neff on starting stand-up and how his show apes The Simpsons

Raising Hope’s Lucas Neff on starting stand-up and how his show apes The Simpsons

Lucas Neff grew up in Chicago, not too far from where Smashing Pumpkins used to rehearse—and regularly freak out the 9-year-old Neff. For the last three years, however, the actor has played neighbor to a less-intimidating band of outcasts and weirdoes: The residents of Natesville, the colorful setting of Fox’s Raising Hope. Placed at the center of a live-action cartoon, Neff brings a winning mix of charm and naïveté to the role of Jimmy Chance, a (formerly) single father trying to provide his daughter with the type of fulfilling childhood his loving-but-chuckleheaded parents (played by Garret Dillahunt and Martha Plimpton) couldn’t give him. Prior to January 29’s matrimony-themed doubleheader, “Modern Wedding”/“Yo Zappa Do (Part 1),” The A.V. Club spoke with Neff about his onscreen relationship, what Natesville has in common with The Simpsons’ Springfield, and breaking into stand-up by more or less breaking stand-up.

The A.V. Club: Raising Hope is a pop-culture-savvy show, with a lot of specific callbacks to TV’s past. As an actor, do you find that satisfying? Does it connect you more directly to television history?

Lucas Neff: I think there have been moments where that’s been increasingly the case. And not necessarily just television, but all of recorded entertainment. We had a sort-of Back To The Future episode recently, and it was absolutely a thrill to get to work with Christopher Lloyd and the whole context of that, clearly just winking at the camera about Back To The Future and enjoying and crafting an homage to a classic, loved film. Times like that, you absolutely love it. It’s a complicated thing, though. It can be a tricky trope when you’re navigating what’s enjoyable as a person and what’s enjoyable or coherent in terms of narrative and storytelling and character and trying to maintain the aesthetic discipline of those things.

AVC: Because you don’t want to alienate the viewers who haven’t seen Back To The Future?

LN: Yeah, exactly. I know that’s a conversation Greg Garcia, our show creator, has with executives a lot of times. As a show that’s trying to attract a new audience, they want him to be careful about crafting jokes that are too enmeshed in the prior history of the show. Things that reference things that only happen within earlier episodes. You know, like how Arrested Development has these long, long-running joke threads, but if you’re a new viewer, you may not understand them. And while they’re eminently fucking satisfying if you have been paying attention, I think executives are very cautious about alienating potential new viewership. So we have to make sure that we stay available and accessible as characters and as stories.

AVC: Is there a steady back-and-forth between the actors, Greg, and the writers on Raising Hope?

LN: There is a back-and-forth. I think a lot of it’s sort of personal and changing—some actors are much more involved in where they want their characters to go. I’m fairly easygoing about it. I know occasionally I’ll write Greg an email after a table-read of a new script and be like, “Is there a reason Jimmy does or doesn’t have a reaction to certain information that’s given in a scene?” Like, when Jimmy learns something in a flashback, which happens often. [Laughs.] Sometimes it’s like, “Should he have a reaction to that information, and what type of reaction should it be?” And Greg allows me to initiate some of those conversations, and yes, things do get changed that way, or things get added in, or subtracted. I think my input is much more superficial, though. It’s a lot less story-arc-driven and more, “Would it be cool if I added this word here? Is it cool if I change the syntax of this sentence?” Very, very minor, skin-level cosmetic changing, as opposed to major elective surgery. [Laughs.]

And this is a writer-driven show. It’s Greg’s show. It’s Greg’s vision. It’s definitely not a star vehicle. It’s also not an improv show. We’re not creating it on the fly. It’s very much, “Here are the jokes. Here is the writing. Here’s the story. Here’s the universe,” and then we all do our parts to try and make it believable and fun, I guess. Simple, but true.

AVC: How did you react when you learned the will-they/won’t-they tension between Jimmy and Sabrina was going to be relieved last season?

LN: I was really pleased by it, totally honestly. I think there’s so many shows that have done the will-they/won’t-they forever, and I feel like it’s really familiar. I was a big fan on Parks And Recreation when Andy and April got together. I think that tension, it starts to feel very manipulated, like you’re struggling to find obstacles at a certain point. What new hurdle can we throw in front of these two people who clearly want to be together being together? So I think there’s plenty of grist for the mill in marriage and togetherness. You look at Burt and Virginia on our show, for example, there are so many storylines that revolve around them just trying to figure out their wackadoo lives, jobs, and relationships. The whole will-they/won’t-they—it’s good, but there’s rich fields to plow out there.

AVC: It’s just one tool in the whole sitcom arsenal.

LN: Exactly. And it’s super-common. It’s the Romeo and Juliet thing. Except, of course, it probably won’t end devastatingly tragically. We’re not all going to die, I feel like. Our season finale will not end with the friar preaching about the foolish errors of youth and the fatal hubris of family pride. I don’t think that’ll be the Chance narrative. But yeah, it’s fun to root for people to get together. That honeymoon phase is so much fun in real life, when you meet and discover somebody new and fall in love and chase them. The pursuit. And that climactic final moment of ultimate togetherness. It’s such a glorious consummation that I understand why audiences fucking dig it and writers dig it. And so many relationships, that can be the main thrust of most relationships, is trying to get together. Because then once you get together, it doesn’t always work out. You don’t see too many fairy tales about what happens after Prince Charming gets Rapunzel out of the tower.

AVC: Plus, there are only so many scenes where you and Shannon can have coy conversations about your feelings for each other.

LN: How many times can she learn what a fucking sweetheart I am? That my family is crazy, but cool? There’s only so long that she can stare at me with warm affectionate eyes, unbeknownst to me. Or I can plot and scheme behind her back in the wooing efforts. [Laughs.]

AVC: Now comes the easy part. 

LN:  Yeah, exactly! Marriage: the easiest thing in the world.

AVC: Even the buildup to marriage in last week’s episode was very, very complicated.

LN: Well, and it has to be, right? That’s the thing, I love when interviewers are like, “So are things going to work out? What’s going to happen? Is it going to be okay? Is Jimmy going to be okay?” I’m like, “No, man! Things are going to go terribly awry! This is a sitcom! What do you think is going to happen? It doesn’t work, okay? We’ll get there at the end, but it’s just going to be trials and tribulations, okay? Trials and tribulations!

AVC: Hijinks must ensue.

LN: Yeah! And really muscular hijinks. Like, just incredibly aggressive, muscular, invasive hijinks. There’s no escaping it. You’re not going to get through an episode without fucking hilarity ensuing. That’s just the way it works in this universe. In the sitcomiverse.

AVC: And the Raising Hope universe has grown to the point where there are so many rich characters to cause those complications. The way “Modern Wedding” gathers the supporting cast, it’s like a family reunion in addition to a wedding episode.

LN: I do sort of feel like we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of really great peripheral and supporting characters. The town is a really interesting community of people, and every time we get a chance to involve more of them into group gatherings—which I guess at a certain point, it’s just going to be weddings and funerals—it’s going to be really good or really bad. Those are the types of things that get people together. [Laughs.] That and holidays. So it’s a blast to have them around. Who doesn’t love Todd Giebenhain as Frank? That character’s so fucking perverse and loveable at the same time, it’s a really interesting paradox. Because you wouldn’t want to leave your kid with him, but at the same time, he’s a guy you’d love to hang out with.

AVC: Are there any citizens of Natesville you wish you got to work with more?

LN: I don’t think there’s any I’d like to avoid working with, which I think is a more fair answer. I love working with Gregg Binkley. Barney’s grocery-store world is a lot of fun. I’d love to see Kate Micucci come back more as Shelly, but she’s super-busy doing her own thing. I think she’s got a development deal with HBO. She’s been working with Garfunkel & Oates, they’ve made a lot of webisodes. They’ve been doing this web series for a while. I think it’s been like a year and a half, two years of pretty intense development. They’re always touring. So a lot of that stuff is just availability. Lord knows she’s a fucking blast to work with. Pretty much as adorable and weird in person as she is on camera.

AVC: Amid all of Raising Hope’s cartoonishness, there are grounding elements like Jimmy’s extremely limited wardrobe. Are there multiple versions of those T-shirts, or have you been wearing the same R. Crumb apparel for three years?

LN: In all honesty, his wardrobe is probably more extensive than mine. I cycle through about four T-shirts that I fucking love and that’s about it. [Laughs.] That’s the thing: I don’t wear my own clothes. Ninety percent of the time, I’m wearing imaginary people’s clothing. I don’t feel a huge pressure to go out and like, hit the town, hit the boutiques. I’m not going to Julia Roberts/Pretty Woman it any time soon. “You’ve just made a huge mistake.” Like, that’s not mine. I’m not doing that. I have a couple shirts I pull out of the dryer, and that’s what I rock. As far as Jimmy goes, every now and then, a new shirt makes an appearance. I think it’s kind of interesting, the whole R. Crumb thing. Because if you really know R. Crumb, that’s fucking dark stuff. As raunchy and blue as we can sometimes get on the show, we are fucking cotton candy compared to the, like, Jeffrey Dahmer deviancy of some of R. Crumb’s later, unspoken-of work.

AVC: Have you talked with Greg about how your character might’ve come across R. Crumb’s work? Because as salacious as it can be, that’s some fairly highbrow stuff for a sweet simpleton like Jimmy. 

LN: I’m going to make an assumption here, and you can take it as an insult or complimentary or however you want to take it. I feel like you may have spent some time at conventions. [Laughs.] Here and there. For whatever purposes. And let’s say, mainly on a professional basis. But you know and I know that when you go to conventions, a lot of the people there are some of the most innocent, sweet people you’ll ever stumble across, but they may be dressed as characters from hentai tentacle porn. So I do think there’s an ability to compartmentalize—or at least this is the theory I’ve crafted. I do think you’re able to compartmentalize a naïveté and an openness and a sweetness that can also share living space internally with the deepest, most depraved artistic acts of horror ever created with ink and pen. Because we’ve all looked at porn. We’ve seen some horrifying, terrifying things on the Internet. And in movies, too. I saw Django Unchained the other week. Do I think that makes me a terrible person because of some of the things I saw happen in that movie? No. I don’t. I thought it was really fucking entertaining. [Laughs.] And then I walked out and I had a kale salad. [Laughs.] So I think these things can cohabitate. 

AVC: On set and in the writers’ room, is there much talk about the class elements of Raising Hope? Other than your show and The Middle, there aren’t a lot of ongoing portrayals of working-class families in primetime.

LN: There is a somewhat-surprising, somewhat totally predictable paucity of struggle in entertainment television. I do like being a part of a show featuring a family from a struggling socioeconomic strata. In terms of active conversation on set, I think we do sometimes think about how dressed up we can get in a certain scene. How does the room look at a certain point? Are we cleaning at home? What are we hardworking about and what are we lazy about? Because when we make jokes about being lazy, or things that look like we’re lazy parents, we don’t want to make it appear like we’re not also incredibly hardworking people when it comes to striving at our vocational things. I do think it’s a conversation, but a lot of times, you make sacrifices for the sake of jokes, or for the sake of a scene. Like some of the costumes I’ve been lucky enough to wear. [Laughs.] I don’t think real-life Jimmy makes a Hulk costume of that exactitude and magnificence. That’s a fair amount of money and effort that would probably be spent on other things.

AVC: The wardrobe of his goth alter ego, Drakkar Noir, would probably be out of his price range as well.

LN: Yeah, exactly. Also, no matter what, it always fits perfectly. Or somewhat perfectly. As much as my body can squeeze into tight things, because I’m not the smallest dude in the world. There are certain things that cohere with the idea that we’re a working-class family, and then occasionally, there’s leaps of faith that are necessary to take for the sake of a specific, individual storyline or scene. 

But I like it, to get back to how I feel about it. I wish there were more shows about it. I’m a big John Steinbeck fan. Cormac McCarthy. I’ve always loved the stories of regular people. Mark Twain, too. When you look back at some of the epic writers of our country’s history, very rarely do you find upper-class royalty. We seem to delve into the struggle of life and the labor of life much more frequently. And with a pretty fair ratio of literary success. So it’s nice to be a part of that. You wanna talk about meta storytelling. I don’t know. It’s nice to be a part of that tradition. [Laughs.]

AVC: “Raising Hope as part of a whole legacy of American literature and TV.”

LN: Oh yeah. To the early days. Thomas Paine, my friend. Thomas Paine

AVC: There’s a great tagline for Raising Hope. “It’s Thomas Paine with fart jokes.”

LN:  Yeah, exactly! Exactly. To a less historical quotation, I like to think of us as a kick in the balls and a kiss on the cheek.

AVC: It’s all about balance with the show.

LN: Yeah, exactly. We knock you off balance and then we pick you up. It’s a nice way to leave people. In 22 minutes, it’s amazing some of the stories we’ve told. The squirrel rape leaps to mind. One of our more recent episodes. I was like, “Wow, how did we… okay.” Or “Candy Wars.” I really loved that episode. I know it wasn’t a big hit over at The A.V. Club. Some of our stronger episodes to me have felt like live-action Simpsons episodes. Particularly the middle seasons of that show, seven through nine, where it was still attached to character and story and it wasn’t just wackadoo jokes. The Simpsons are another working-class family, and all in the same house, for the most part. We just took Abe Simpson and put him in the house. And Bart Simpson is an adult with a kid. 

AVC: Outside of Raising Hope, what other creative ventures are you currently pursuing?

LN: I’m starting stand-up this year. I got my first date in a couple weeks out in L.A., which will be interesting, at a little club. Kristen Schaal hosts a little stand-up thing on Monday nights at this place out here, The Virgil, and she’s arranged for me to have a set. So that will be fun. I really only warmed to the idea once I realized that I wouldn’t tell any jokes.

AVC: So is it character-based stand-up?

LN: Yeah, I think so. Character stuff would be the most appropriate idea, or the most apt description.  

AVC: What inspired you to get into that?

LN: People kept asking me if I did it. I do a lot of live improv shows around town after I get off work. A lot of times, I’ll go join up and drop in on a show and do my own show as well. And I’ve done some storytelling around town. People always go, “Oh, where do you do this regularly?” I’m like, “I don’t.” [Laughs.] I guess I started thinking about it and thinking, “Maybe that’s the next step.” I’ve written a bunch of plays. I had a play produced in Chicago last year, and that was a fun first. I’ve done a bunch of political work and union work the last year, and I was like, “Okay. I’ve done the scripted thing. I’ve done the unscripted thing with improv. What’s the next thing to fuck around with?” And stand-up seemed like a really interesting venue.

AVC: In most of those examples you cited, you have an ensemble backing you up. How do you feel about taking the stage as a solo performer?

LN: I’m sure as I get closer to it, I’ll be catatonic with terror. Right now, I feel scientifically numb about the whole thing. I’m just constructing the process in my head: “What exactly do I want the experience to be for the audience?” I’m thinking of it more like a 10-minute play that I’m going to create with no explanation or justification, and hopefully very opaque rationale. And certain people will be like, “Wait, what?” And a little bit sad. [Laughs.] That’s my goal.

AVC: That’s a tough line to walk: People have strict expectations for what is and is not stand-up comedy.

LN: I rarely accept things on blind faith, especially the orthodoxy of any given practice, or any given practicum. I’m like, “Oh come on. Is this the way to do things?” I really don’t want to do anything that resembles stand-up comedy. But I will agree to say that I am doing it, and I will hope that people expect it to be that, so I can thwart those expectations. [Laughs.] Drastically. But I also love responding to rejection letters. Fairly whimsically. With a dash of scathing. Which I think is in keeping with the tone of your fine periodical.

AVC: Could you provide an example of when you did that?

LN: Oh yeah, last week. The Manhattan Theatre Club, they had asked for a play of mine last summer, and then they spent seven months dithering about it, and finally got back to me with a very polite and thoughtful rejection in about seven sentences. It was like, “Thanks. You asked to hand me depression. [Laughs.] I had no desire to reach out to you. You reached out to me. ‘Come here. Walk with me five feet so I can slap you.’” There’s the option of not responding, writing something small and timid, or writing something that makes me giggle. So I wrote back as Ian McKellan. [Laughs.] Which is fun. And I think I might start sending the literary manager poems from my memoir that I’m writing.

AVC: As Ian McKellan?

LN: As me, as Ian McKellan. It’s very meta. I don’t know if we talked much about meta. I’d be happy to explain it to you. [Laughs.] A lot of it’s going to be in 14th-century Chaucerian English. But she has not yet responded. I think it’s best to just keep sending missives. Just sort of see where it takes me. 

I like the idea of building this wandering, epic narrative in a form that people don’t expect epic narratives to appear. Oftentimes, when people don’t respond to text messages or emails, I just start writing long, long in-depth essays and diatribes where characters start to appear and narrative threads begin. There’s usually a couple deaths. I don’t know, it seems funny to me. I feel like if you have the right mind about it, you get a kick out of it, because you don’t expect it. You wouldn’t expect to see that in your inbox.

AVC: It’s the perfect challenge to a mode of communication that’s so fleeting, like email or text.

LN: Or even Twitter. I’m thinking there’s real potential in things like Twitter. When people really start appreciating how you can use that for narrative, that’s going to be incredible. There’s already been a couple people dipping their toes into the narrative pool when it comes to Twitter, sort of like the fake celebrity personalities, creating these fictional experiences.

AVC: Something like @DadBoner? 

LN: Exactly. But it could go even further. You could do almost the equivalent of television, I think. Serialized, episodic narrative. But in 140 characters. Twitter’s going to be so exciting when people start realizing the potential of it more fully. And it’s going to be really funny. You’re going to be out there and there’s going to be entertaining things happening all around you. Some of it’s going to be utterly fictional, and some of it’s going to be authentic, and sometimes those two are going to meet, and man, I think that’s going to be just awesome. [Laughs.]

AVC: People’s minds are going to be blown?

LN: No, they’re not. They’re going to be mildly confused, I think, and then get on with their lives, for the most part. Barely perturbed by the overwhelming insanity that surrounds them at any given moment. I think most people are very quick, can blink away the absurdity of life. Pretty quickly. Which I also find hilarious. Look at the whole Sandy Hook thing, and how quickly people returned to Twitter to make sarcastic jokes. And Instagramming ironic photos of themselves next to religious iconography. That type of thing immediately—that’s the normative. You know what I mean? It’s hard for us to really touch the primary miracle of existence in all its persistent nagging questions for too long without getting terrifically depressed, I think.

AVC: Humor’s a powerful defense mechanism against that sort of thing.

LN: That’s why I think my comedy album’s going to be called Unfathomable Sorrow.

AVC: Somewhere out there in Chicago there’s a 9-year-old kid who’s absolutely terrified of that album.

LN: Mmhmm, yeah. Probably me. [Laughs.]

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