After scoring success with hits like Cobra Kai and Origin, YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red) is launching a new comedy series, Champaign ILL. The series stars Adam Pally and Sam Richardson as members of a hip-hop entourage who are forced to find their own way in the world after their best friend and meal ticket, Lou (Jay Pharoah) is killed in a tragic accident.
We spoke with Adam Pally about the foundations of Champaign ILL and he shared some insight into building an unusual comedy protagonist, as well as building a friendship with his co-star, Veep and Detroiters star Sam Richardson, among several other topics. He shares his comedy inspirations and explains what makes YouTube different from – and similar to – traditional television networks.
All ten episodes of Champaign ILL debut December 12 on YouTube Premium
Tell me about Champaign ILL.
This is a show from me and the creators of Happy Endings, David Caspe and Daniel & Matthew Libman. We decided we wanted to work together, and we were looking at a bunch of different ideas, and we really related to this character that wasn't necessarily "the guy," but was next to "the guy." Those guys tend to be the most entitled. Once we nailed that down, it became about this hip-hop entourage, because we thought that would be a really funny place to play entitlement.
"Entitled" is a great word to describe Ronnie. It must be so freeing, as a comedian, to get to play a character who is so jolly and fun to watch, but also so overtly unlikable in some ways!
I think the fun thing about playing a character like Ronnie is that it's very true to life; nobody is likable all the time. Good people do unlikable things, but that doesn't make them bad people. It was awesome to get to do that.
How do strike the balance of making viewers want to watch him, but also making him someone we want to see fail?
That's an interesting interpretation. I think, if anything, you want to see him fail because that would be more fun to watch. I'd say that's a positive to me.
I was on the floor during the gambling scene in episode three.
That was one of my favorites. I really love that episode.
You and Sam Richardson have an amazing chemistry. I already see you two as an iconic comedy duo.
Wow, that's high praise! I think the world of him. I learned a ton. Just the way he reads a line is so funny to me. It was amazing to work with him.
He told me that you knew each other but you weren't close before the show, and I almost didn't believe him. What's it like, as an actor and a comedian, building up a rapport with a new co-star?
It's always different. I think you have to remove expectations in both positive and negative. All of these relationships happen organically. You have to just let it happen. Sam and I got to know each other, and we were like, "oh, we have a very similar upbringing," in a lot of ways; different in others, but we were able to just click in right away as if we were going out on stage to do an improv piece.
The third star, he doesn't have as much screen time since he dies in a tragic and hilarious moment, but what was it like bringing Jay Pharoah into the show?
Jay has such a wild, different energy from me and Sam. It was so nice to understand that that is, usually, what it's like with a friendship like that. I've been in a lot of dynamics where I've been one of three, and everybody brings their own thing to it. Sometimes, when you're a duo, you kind of share a mind. It was exciting to have someone who's so naturally funny and talented, my God! The impressions and the voices, they had me on the floor all night.
Jay has only a few scenes in the first three episodes; will he have a bigger role going forward, in flashbacks and visions and things like that?
Yeah, he comes back quite a bit. It's always fun and surprising. I've watched most of them in a sitting, and you start to get this real, heavy feeling in your chest every time you think Jay is going to show up, because it means so much.
You come from an improv background, and the show has these great outtakes at the end of every episode. There's definitely a lot of improv on the show. You have such a great, biting sense of humor. I particularly enjoyed the Peter Berg joke in episode two!
That's a Libman Classic. Happy Endings certainly had a lot of Libman Specials, as well.
Tell me about having a safe environment on set? Do you ever feel you might get in trouble? Or do y0u feel free to experiment?
I definitely feel, sometimes, like I could get in trouble. I try to feel free, and hope that if I were to get in trouble, I would be able to apologize honestly. I don't know if any of us are free of trouble, eventually, in that way, but I would hope that I would be able to see and know if I were doing something wrong.
Do you feel some sets are more open or safe than others when it comes to taking those kind of creative risks?
No, I would say that's an excuse for when people do something wrong. I think, again, you have to know what your moral compass is, and what you're doing; if you do cross that line, you have to take ownership of it. Being on a more comfortable set, you still have to be the same actor. I certainly don't want to provoke. I only want to entertain.
And you do. I'm always entertained when I see you on television. You've been around the block! From Happy Endings on ABC, to Making History and The Mindy Project on FOX, and The President Show on Comedy Central, now you're on YouTube, which is sort of a new player on the scene. Do you feel like it's different than working with other networks, or is it, on the set, day to day, just making a show?
Some stuff was different, but I've really only worked on network TV in that way, for the most part. For me, the major difference was getting to shoot ten episodes of the show before anyone sees it. You're not adjusting to the ratings or the comments; you're just making the thing you want to make, and then you see where the chips fall. That's a new thing for me, and I was excited by that. I was excited to not have to worry about the pressure of the outside. You can just focus. But then, at the same time, they were a lot like a regular network. They have development executives who said "no" and all that stuff. I would say it was a really good working relationship. I don't know what their plans are. I don't know how Google runs YouTube, I don't know what goes on in Silicon Valley, but I know we made a great show, and I love it, and I'm really proud of it.
Who are some of your acting heroes, inspirations, who were some of your favorites growing up?
My number one is Gene Wilder. I love him. I think I know every line to every Gene Wilder movie. And I really like Steve Martin. I think Steve Martin has a real eye for beauty in his comedy, which is... A lot of his comedy is not going for a laugh, but it's really beautiful. Like, L.A. Story is a beautiful movie, and Bowfinger is amazing. Steve Martin is up there. I love Howard Stern. He's one of my big comedic idols because, I don't know, the important things matter to Howard, and the unimportant things don't. I don't know, there's something about his comedy that was very much a north star. And then, I guess, Amy Poehler is probably the next voice I hear in my head when I'm thinking, is this going to be funny? I think, would Amy laugh at this if she was watching me on stage when I was 19? Those are my big heroes.
It was so great to talk to you, thanks so much for your time.