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Busy Philipps has been involved with a number of TV series since getting her big break at 20, but it’s that big break that remains her most beloved role for many TV fans. In the vital role of Kim Kelly on Freaks And Geeks, Philipps turned what could have been a stereotypical stoner’s girlfriend into something heartfelt and vulnerable, to the point where an early episode focused on the Kim character kept getting rescheduled by the network because it was so dark. Since then, Philipps has bounced around the world of film, but she may be better known to TV fans for major recurring parts on both Dawson’s Creek and ER, as well as guest roles in series like How I Met Your Mother. Philipps' latest role is the self-assured, breezily trampy Laurie Keller on ABC’s Cougar Town, a series that has made an unlikely journey from punchline to critical favorite in the two seasons it’s been on the air. Philipps talked with The A.V. Club about the evolution of the show, its relationship with fellow comedy Community, and the Carlos Jacott/Noah Baumbach sitcom you’ll never get to see.
The A.V. Club: Cougar Town has evolved a lot. What did that feel like as an actor, that creation process?
Busy Philipps: It happened really organically. It wasn’t like [co-creators] Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel sat us down one day and were like, “Okay guys, we’re gonna change the show.” I think when you get into filming a television show, if you’re able to have writers and actors who can roll with the flow and play on the show’s strengths, you’re going to have a better shot of having a show that works, as opposed to having people who get bogged down in the pilot or in what they thought the show was going to be. What Bill brings in his years and years of successful television experience is that quality and that ability to see what’s working in the show and what isn’t, and they just started writing for that. And it was due in large part to the chemistry that they saw the seven of us cultivating offscreen as well as onscreen. And I always think that the kiss of death for a show is a really, really fantastic pilot, because then there's just nowhere to go.
Television is about building, and I feel really lucky that ABC believed in the show and saw where it was going. And now with the support of stuff like A.V. Club and Entertainment Weekly online and Vulture, we’ve gotten this core audience. And I hope that more people check it out when we re-launch, because the show is really good and really funny and has a lot for a lot of different people. It’s not as polarizing as maybe the name or the pilot may have made it seem.
AVC: Was there a moment when it really started to click for you?
BP: Yeah, about the third or fourth episode of the first season. We were just trying to get our groove. In fact, there was a scene on the beach with Christa [Miller] and Courteney [Cox] and myself, where Bill came over and was like, “I love this; I just love the three of you talking.” And, you know, we started to feel like the show was getting its footing, and then towards the end of last season we really got our groove. And this season just flew by. I was laughing the other day while I was brushing my teeth because I thought of an episode that hasn’t aired yet that we shot a few months ago, and it was cracking me up just thinking about it. Jules [Cox's character] has an issue with the Pledge Of Allegiance... I don’t want to give it away, but some of the stuff that the writers have come up with this year is just really creative and funny and cool. I really like our show. I’m an avid television watcher—my husband and I have more shows on our TiVo than anyone I know—and at the beginning of the show I was nervous, but by the third or fourth episode, I was on board.
AVC: Do you think your character has evolved?
BP: I think she definitely has. One of the reasons why I do television is the ability to create a character and watch them grow. I think Bill and Kevin are incredibly sensitive to that, and they try to give us a chance to have our characters grow and expand. And that’s more fun as an actor than saying the same dumb thing over and over again. And that’s what makes really successful shows. You get to know the ins and outs of these characters. This year my character had her heart broken, and then you got to see a little bit of a softer side to her.
AVC: It often seems like Bill Lawrence’s shows will have huge supporting casts that come in for an episode or two here or there, like Carolyn Hennesy as Barb or Bob Clendenin as Tom. Is it nice to have that bench as backup?
BP: Yeah, like the extended family. It certainly takes pressure off you, although I have to be honest with you, towards the end of the season, I said to Kevin, “I feel like Bob is getting all the funny lines; let’s bring it back to the main cast please.” But Bob is just so funny, and to have people like that who can come in and out of the show just makes the show richer and makes the world richer. It makes it feel like you’re actually watching a real group of friends and extended friends and neighbors. We love having those guest stars around. And it also speaks to Bill that most of the crew has carried over from Scrubs sand some of them from Spin City. It’s just a feeling of family, and we mess around and just be funny.
AVC: One of the things that I’ve noticed is that Laurie could come across as crass, but you keep that from happening.
BP: I think the secret to a lot of that is in the sweetness of the delivery, you know what I mean? Ultimately, I think that Laurie is a very sweet character who maybe just didn’t have the best upbringing. And also, you just have to figure out how to turn them and make them not as horrifying as they may be. I was talking to Kevin one time, and I was like, “Really, I can’t do that, I just can’t make that work.”
AVC: What was that?
BP: It didn’t make it in the show. It was just too far. It was when we were packing up my ex-boyfriend’s house, and there was a skull, and I said something about how it was a Nazi skull that Dale’s grandfather had found in World War II and now Dale keeps it to smoke stuff out of—like smoke stuff out of the bullet hole. I was just like, “I can’t. I don’t even know how to do that.”
AVC: George Wendt on Cheers complained about how gross the near-beer he had to constantly drink was. Does all the fake wine you have to drink taste okay?
BP: It’s mostly grape juice. Courteney doesn’t like the grape juice, because she thinks it’s too sweet, so she drinks non-alcoholic wine, which I think is disgusting. But occasionally, if I’m really hungry, I like drinking the grape juice in the morning.
AVC: One of the things that has kind of developed this season is your chemistry with Travis, who’s 19 on the show. Is that something that you find odd at all?
BP: I think it’s really funny. And it’s another example of Bill and Kevin writing to the actors moreso than the characters on the show. Because Dan and I, in real life, are not that far off age-wise, so we had a very organic chemistry on camera because we hang out a lot offscreen. So it seemed kind of creepy because of the characters, but in real life we are buddies. I don’t know. They had initially said that this past season that we just shot, that something would happen with us. But I just felt like it was too soon. I mean, he is like 19 on the show, but my character is not yet 30, like 27 or 28. Now that I think about that, it’s kind of a stretch. But listen, if Dan Byrd can play 19, I can certainly play 28. But anyway, maybe next year. They kind of allude to it in the season finale.
AVC: What’s coming up this season?
BP: Well, Bobby and Laurie start a business venture together selling cans, and it's sort of like the blind leading the blind. But in spite of themselves, it’s successful. It turns out Penny Can is really fun and addictive, which I know is true. Have you ever played it?
AVC: I have not. Who’s the best at that on set?
BP: Christa is really good. Josh is really good. Brian is really good. I don’t know about Ian. We aren’t in that many scenes together. And they really try to do a rotation. In the first season, they built it so that any of the characters could be in a scene with anyone else and you would know how they would act and how they would interact. And I think they have been really successful with that. Bill loved Penny Can, and if he’s on set when there is Can, then it’s impossible to get any sort of direction or notes because he is trying to make shots from across the room. It has really become more of a hindrance to shooting than anything else.
AVC: I’ve heard that Bill Lawrence has a “no asshole” policy on set. Does that work? Are people actually polite to each other?
BP: Like I said, most of the crew has worked together for many, many years. So it has a feeling of family, so on any given day we could be giving one of the guys on crew a hard time—they give me a hard time sometimes—but people aren’t jerks on our set. And if someone was, it would be really obvious because of the camaraderie that the rest of the crew and cast has. Bill and Randall [Winston, Lawrence’s long-time co-producer] don’t hire people who are assholes, and if they are, they don’t stick around for that long.
AVC: You say you watch a lot of other shows. What are some that you’re enjoying right now?
BP: Oh my God, I’m obsessed with The Killing. How great is that girl? My husband watched Big Love—apparently she was on Big Love and she played twins in the compound, and she was just really fantastic. You know, she’s married to Alan Ruck, who was on our show, to bring it back to Cougar Town. [Laughs.] But I’m obsessed with The Killing. And just within the first three episodes that I’ve seen, the acting is so pitch perfect. It’s really well-written, as opposed to some of the other procedurals that are on television now, where they treat the bodies as props, you really get a sense of the tragedy when someone is murdered. For some reason, that really resonates with me. I feel like that’s what’s really missing from some of these procedural shows, is the heart, and The Killing just has so much heart. But also as a parent it’s really hard to watch.
AVC: Do you sometimes wish you could do those darker dramas? You do a lot of comedy.
BP: For sure. When I started at 18, I didn’t know that comedy was what I’m best at. I mean, I don’t even know if it is what I’m best at, but it’s not easy for a lot of people, and it’s easy for me so I get these parts. But certainly in my early, early career in the late '90s, I did a lot of these dark independent movies that have never seen the light of day and hopefully never will. Maybe things will change, and I’ll get an opportunity. But right now it’s all about Laurie Keller.
AVC: So what are the comedies you’re watching on TV right now?
BP: I love Parks And Rec. Amy Poehler is incredibly talented and funny. And Adam Scott. I’m a little obsessed with him. Adam Scott and I did a table read for this NBC pilot like 12 years ago—it was before Freaks And Geeks—called The Acting Class. Carlos Jacott wrote it with Noah Baumbach for Imagine Entertainment. And NBC hadn’t committed to making the pilot and Nia Vardalos was at the table read, and I don’t remember who the other younger people were, but I remember Adam because I remember thinking, “Oh boy, this guy is really funny.” And of course NBC decided not to do the show. But that’s how I got the audition for Freaks And Geeks. That’s a tangent that you maybe didn’t need. But it’s a neat story, right? So anyway, Parks And Rec, 30 Rock, I’m obsessed with 30 Rock as well. I still love The Office,and I’m interested to see where it will go next year. I love Community. And we have a nice show-to-show synergy with them. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you see the episode where they talked about Cougar Town?
BP: Yeah, the My Dinner With Andre episode. It was amazing. And Danny Pudi should be nominated for an Emmy for that episode. That’s what’s always interesting; people think that I am these characters that I play. And in real life there are definitely certain aspects of my personality that I bring to the table, but Danny Pudi is really not autistic. If I could wish for anyone to get nominated for an Emmy, I think it would be Courteney Cox and then Danny Pudi.
AVC: It looks like you’ve also been doing a lot of guest work. Are there any shows you’re particularly proud to be a part of?
BP: Those one-time roles are something I get offered a lot, and I usually don’t say no. I’m a sucker for them. How I Met Your Mother was really fun because I know all of those guys. I’m obviously friends with [Jason] Segel and that was just really fun to just go do that one episode. I would have liked to do more. But they wanted to give me one and that’s fine. [Laughs.] ER was another example of something that I was just offered. It was really fun and interesting to be part of a procedural where the medical jargon is very much part of the deal. And I was lucky because I have a very easy time memorizing. Linda [Cardellini] was telling me, it’s always funny when people come in—a lot of times they wouldn’t give you past a three-episode deal in the beginning just to see if you can do the medical stuff. It’s harder than people would think, especially on a show like that where you have to get it all right while you’re intubating and whatever. But that show was really fun.
And then my friend Josh Friedman wrote that part for me on Sarah Connor Chronicles because I was knocked up and couldn’t work. And he was like, “What if I wrote this earth mother sort of in opposition to Sarah Connor, would you come do like five episodes?” And I shot the last episode exactly one week before I gave birth. But that was nice. I was just working with my friend and I loved that show and was so excited for him. I’m sad that show didn’t last.
AVC: So you recently had a big reunion for the Freaks And Geeks cast at this year’s PaleyFest. Are those people you see often, or was this sort of the first time seeing some of them?
BP: The main cast—Rogen, Segel, Franco, Linda, Martin Starr, John Daley, and Samm Levine—I actually see with some frequency. I’d say a few times a year. And I think the same is true for all of them. But I hadn’t seen Sarah Hagan in a long time, and I didn’t even recognize Natasha Melnick, who played Sanders. I run into Judd [Apatow] and Leslie [Mann] a lot, and I see Paul [Feig] out and about. I definitely see them. At this point, it feels like my very small high school class.