Adam Pally on Not Being as Funny as His Wife, Getting Chewed Out by Network Executives and Doing a Travel Show with His BFF
Adam Pally is back in America. He’s been gone for four months filming in London for Knuckles, the live-action series that’s a continuation of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. You may remember that in those films Pally plays Wade, the none-too-bright deputy who’s pals with James Marsden’s Tom, but in Knuckles his character will take center stage, teaming up with Knuckles (Idris Elba) to learn how to become a warrior. The show is set to be an action spectacle, but when Pally speaks to me over Zoom, he’s very much just dad, rocking sunglasses and wearing a hoodie. It’s the Monday after Father’s Day, and he’s happy to be with family, Hollywood the furthest thing from his mind.
“It’s not much different than a regular day,” he replies when I ask about yesterday’s festivities. “I spend a lot of time traveling, so Father’s Day is just a day that if I’m home then we get to be together. We’re not a big celebratory family like that, but we got together and hung out by the pool and had a barbecue. Very low-key.” He got his own dad a Lululemon gift certificate — “he really likes their clothing” — while his own three kids got him “a nice card that was kind of like, ‘Welcome home, Dad.’”
“Low-key” is also a great way to describe his vibe during our conversation. “I have to apologize, I’m sure I’m not a load of laughs in this interview,” he says near the end, but he has nothing to feel bad about. True, in his work in film and television — not to mention on stage and as a guest on late-night shows — he often exudes an unpredictable, occasionally prankish energy. At 41, this proud New Yorker remains boyish, his mischievous grin making you wonder if he’s gotten away with something, and whether it’s on the recent Arnold Schwarzenegger series FUBAR or his own reality travel show 101 Places to Party Before You Die with longtime friend and fellow comic Jon Gabrus, Pally projects an unpretentious air that’s endlessly appealing. Over Zoom, he’s unconcerned about being “on” and just focuses on being present.
When Pally was first making his name, he focused on improv, the art form whose lessons have stayed with him. He’s branched out since. Perhaps you know him from the short-lived but much-loved sitcom Happy Endings, or his stint on The Mindy Project. But comedy nerds will always adore the man for his amazing one-night stint as the host of The Late Late Show: He and sidekick (and improv partner) Ben Schwartz commandeered the airwaves on January 30, 2015, creating an anti-talk show that remains the stuff of legend. It’s hard to find clips of it online, but the ones that survive are comic gold, forever cementing Pally as a master of deadpan deconstruction. CBS was furious at him, but as you’ll see, he got the last laugh.
Despite his apologies to me, Pally was often quite funny during our virtual time together, but more often he was just mellow and honest, opening up about how he perceives himself — as far as he’s concerned, his wife is far funnier than he is — and talking about what it’s like to be part of cult shows that never found their audience. He’s always loved comedy, but that doesn’t mean it ever gets easier. “I don’t know if the analogy is like a brick wall,” he says, “but you can go over it, you can (go) through it, you can go around it. You just keep trying to get over that brick wall to a point where you can harness your natural ability with the stuff you’ve learned and go, ‘I can get over that brick wall whenever I want.’”
Below, he discusses being a self-described punk who hates confrontation, why he gets so excited dreaming up bits for his talk-show appearances and what comedy and horror have in common (even though he doesn’t like horror movies).
Acting is such an uncertain, feast-or-famine profession. Does knowing you’re solidly part of the Sonic franchise provide a little comfort?
I don’t know if you ever really know that you have something in the future. I started off in the Sonic franchise — not unlike Iron Man or Star Wars — just doing a bit part, and it grew and grew, and now I have my own TV show, so it’s been great. I am so thankful to that franchise to have me in it and to keep letting me grow with it, which is really nice. But I don’t know if I ever go, “Well, I know I have Sonic 5 coming up.” I don’t know if I ever feel that kind of job security.
Obviously, you keep busy with a lot of different projects. I’m enjoying your current one-man grassroots Emmy campaign for your truTV series 101 Places to Party Before You Die. How’s that going?
It’s not going great — thanks for asking. No, it’s good. I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ve learned that, like that quote from Air, the destination is not the journey — the journey is the journey — and so just getting to make that show was the best ever. Unfortunately, it got caught up in a bunch of corporate mergers, but it’s kind of “the little show that could” in some ways. The response has been great from fans, so while I don’t know if we’re going to get an Emmy nomination out of it, it’s nice to be considered.
I don’t even know, technically, who owns the show anymore because HBO is now Max and truTV is Warner’s. I know that whoever (owned) it probably doesn’t work there anymore, so there’s not a lot of hands on deck for us as far as an Emmy campaign goes — not that there would be anyway for a reality series. But the series is special and it’s funny, but it does also hit you — I think it hit everybody in the heart — and I hope that it would resonate just to get any more eyeballs on it.
Was the original pitch just “Me and Jon Gabrus are friends, and we want to go to lots of fun places”?
We were placed on our first improv team together when we were 21, so we had known each other and toured together for a long time. In that, you get to know someone pretty well. We shared an interest in these types of shows like Bourdain, Action Bronson — if there was a cooking show, a food show, we were into it. Jon guests on Nailed It! all the time — we love that stuff. When we were younger, there was a British series called The Trip that was a big inspiration for us with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. We thought to ourselves, “Well, maybe there’s a way where we can take the heart of The Trip, where it’s two friends learning about each other on a work trip, but we can infuse our speed with it.” One critic said, “They set out to make The Trip, and they ended up making Americans tripping,” and I thought that was very poetic. (Laughs) I liked that.
Was traveling something you’ve always loved? Did your family travel a lot?
We didn’t do a ton of traveling. We didn’t have a ton of money, so the family rarely would all get on a plane and go somewhere together. It wasn’t until I was older that I really found my love for traveling, (which) is something that show business brings you: the opportunity to immerse yourself in another place, even if it’s a short amount of time. When you’re working in a city, you get to feel a city’s rhythm and you learn things about it. I think that was the goal of what we were trying to do: give you a feeling of what each of these cities’ vibes felt like.
Along the way, the series also becomes this interesting look at masculinity, getting older and friendship. Was that always part of the plan? Or did it just happen?
We didn’t try to overthink much, but a lot of the bits were planned and it’s improvised to a point. You can’t improvise everything, especially when you have millions of dollars of equipment and crews and shot lists and things to get. You have to be nimble on your feet, but also you have to think like an improviser with a comedy writer’s mind where you’re like, “Oh, this bit will work in the next scene. This bit will work here...”
It’s one of the things about the experience that I liked — it kept you really comedically alert throughout the entire filming process. If you’re improvising a bit, (you think,) “Did we get it on Jon’s side so it’ll cut together? Do we get it wide?” Your filmmaking sense comes in, and you’re like, “Well, how do I heighten this bit?” You’re super-engaged the whole shooting process, and at the same time, you’re hanging out with your best friend and drinking. (Laughs)
You talk to your wife a little while you’re on the road during 101 Places. Was she game to be included in what you guys were doing?
My wife is funnier and quicker than me and Jon. She’s a blast to (riff) with. I think our relationship is based on the fact that she’s so funny. We have our own rhythm and language — we almost talk to each other through jokes. My kids are really funny, and they all have really good timing. My family is a fun time when they’re not freaking out about something. (Laughs)
What makes your wife funnier than you?
She was born funny. Her parents are funny. She is sarcastic and witty, and I think it takes a special person to be with someone like that. I love that about her — I love that humor is her base language.
Did she ever consider a career in comedy?
No, she went to the School of Visual Arts — her art was always kind of comedic, but she marches to her own drum. I always admired her (because) she doesn’t need… You know, comedy is needy. We’re needy — we’re hard to be around, we need so much. Think of what we do: We want people to pay us millions of dollars to laugh at us. It’s truly a needy, needy profession. We’re not philosophers — that’s all bullshit. There’s a hole that we’re trying to fill with attention. The best comedians are the ones who are able to know that, channel it for something good, and the worst ones are the ones that go around telling you that they’re geniuses. I look at my wife in awe that she’s funnier than anyone but doesn’t need anyone to know.
Is there something nice about being married to someone funnier than you? Does it keep you grounded?
I’ve never been the funniest in my career. I probably have never been the funniest in my life. I don’t know if that’s the prerequisite to do what I do — to be the absolute funniest. Luckily, I was always collaborative and involved in places where I was almost the least-funny involved in the project. What that does is it lets you go, “Oh, I see how the thing works, and now I have to figure out how I work within the thing.” It makes you more collaborative, and it makes you less defensive. I don’t think I’ve ever been the funniest.
So when you’re starting out at Upright Citizens Brigade in the early 2000s, did you try to hide the fact that you thought you weren’t as funny as the people around you?
No, I think they knew it. I mean, I performed my whole life (as part of the improv trio Hot Sauce) with Ben Schwartz and Gil Ozeri. I chose that — I wanted to perform with those people — but it’s very apparent every time we get on stage that of those three people, I’m the least funny. But that’s not my worth — I do what I do, they can’t do that. But if you were to be like, “Who’s the funniest?,” I can’t stack up to Gil Ozeri or Ben Schwartz — they’re gods of humor. I’m lucky enough that they saw in me someone that could roll with them.
I performed with John Gemberling for years — I’m not as funny as John Gemberling. I used to perform with Bobby Moynihan — I’m not as funny as Bobby, I never was, but I think Bobby and I always got along on stage because we were able to be like, “Oh, this is how we work together.” I wasn’t looking for what Bobby had, and Bobby wasn’t looking for what I had. The biggest challenge is learning that ease.
What can you do that, say, Ben Schwartz can’t do?
It’s whatever it is in that moment. Ben could sing the same song I could, but in the context of what we were doing, we would do it differently — he would never try to do it like I did, and I would never try to do it like him. There are people that would be like, “Well, I can do it like that and I’ll be flashier, I’ll be better” — I never had that.
That’s what you’re taught improv is — the sum is bigger than the parts, that’s why it’s harder. I always looked at stand-up and thought, “Man, I wasted my life. If I had just started doing stand-up instead of improv, who knows where I would have been by now?” The first 10 years of my life on stage, I was one of eight — whether or not you’re good or bad, you’re one of eight other people on that stage. What you have to learn to do is say, “The show is more important than whatever happens to these eight people. Let’s just do this thing good.” It’s like team sports in a lot of ways — I always really liked that. Moviemaking now, it’s the same thing, but higher stakes.
I had a healthy ego because I had a healthy self-esteem. I was never panicked about, like, “When’s it my turn? Why isn’t it me?” I just wanted to be involved, and I knew to get involved, you had to learn how to do something really well.
Being a team player but also having a healthy ego and self-confidence in your own talent — I’m interested in how you strike that balance.
Kobe Bryant was part of a team, right? A lot of people would (say) he was the best teammate ever. I want to be the best teammate ever, but I just always wanted to do what I did in the context of the team. I’m not saying that I didn’t want to be great — I always wanted to be great. I just always knew that the people around me were great and that I couldn’t stack up in that way.
I probably will always be obsessed with this, but I wake up every day being like, “What can I create or do that is my voice? What is it about me that is funny? What am I putting out? How is this representing me honestly?” I still struggle with that every day. (Laughs) I’m trying to create stuff that’s funny and good and doesn’t feel derivative.
Did you ever try stand-up?
I’m working on a one-man show right now, but it’s less of a one-man show and more just like a revue, almost like cabaret. But I never did stand-up. I had a hard time doing a one-man show — I tried to do it when I was younger, but I really had a hard time by myself. I like being part of a team — I like having that feeling of camaraderie.
When you would appear on Conan O’Brien’s show, you’d dress up in a crazy costume and really commit to the bit. You’d go on other shows and just kill it — you’re a great late-night guest. With that world kind of going away, it feels like a lost art.
I always looked at those things as, like, you have five minutes on television and they’re going to give you five minutes — take them. People like Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd, people I look up to like that, they always (do) something that’s memorable and special because it’s for them in a lot of ways. I tried to do that as much as I could, more when I was younger because I had the energy. But I still like to cause some trouble.
I grew up at an age where late night was the ubiquitous form of comedy. I loved it, and I always thought when Andy Kaufman would go on Letterman — and when Bruce Willis would go on Letterman in the 1990s and ride in on a bus — it was just so fun and funny. It created this dangerous thing of like, “This person is going to be on, I want to see them.” I would be like, “Oh, Tom Hanks is going to be on Conan!” I always wanted to create that.
Seth (Meyers) is an old friend of mine who I’ve improvised with for many years, and I know what he likes and I know what he doesn’t — I know how to do it there. But then James Corden was a different beast — he liked things differently — and then Conan is his own thing. So you just have to evolve with it. I’ve never done Fallon, which is really funny to me, but everybody has their own show and you have to respect the show. I would never pitch something to Kimmel that I didn’t think Jimmy would like because it’s his show — he wants it to be a certain way. Most of my bits end up flaming out on Kimmel.
But that’s one of the things I like so much about your bits: The fun is often the spectacular flame-out that occurs. You seem to relish watching them implode in real time — and then forcing everyone to experience the train wreck together.
I think you need context to anything. One of the things that comedians do when they do something like that on a talk show is that they want to present the third rail to the audience so they can see what the stakes are. There’s truly low stakes on a talk show: What’s going to happen? Your story’s going to go bad? Conan’ll cover it — he’s a genius, he’s so funny. Andy (Richter) will cover it. There’s nothing that can happen. The only thing that could go wrong is a huge meltdown. And so the persona I created with Conan is to show the audience, “This is what it’s going to look like” — the potential (for the bit) to go horrible is there, and I’m riding the line and potentially touching the third rail of late-night talk shows. That’s what makes it fun and dangerous, and I like that.
Comedy and horror are so close together — they’re the same thing in a lot of ways. I don’t even really like horror movies, to tell you the truth, but the way you scare someone and the way you get someone to laugh are the same thing — you’re surprising them.
I loved Jack Nicholson as a child, which was probably too young to be into Jack Nicholson, but we had an old copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Easy Rider. I don’t know why (my parents) had all these movies, but I loved them. Even The Shining — it’s a likable character. (Laughs) He’s struggling, and you feel for him. He does end up (trying to murder) his family, but it’s context.
Yeah, from a certain perspective, Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is comedic.
Oh my god, he’s so funny. In Knuckles, I had to do a lot of stunts and action, and I’m kind of new to that. In order to get myself revved up before a take, I would jump up and down or do some push-ups, and my algorithm must have realized that — it showed me a clip from Jack Nicholson right before shooting the “Here’s Johnny!” scene. He’s all revved up, and he’s like, “Woo! Aah! Aaahh!” It’s so fucking funny, and you realize that performance is comedic.
In 2015, before James Corden took the reins of The Late Late Show, CBS had different personalities guest-hosting the show for one night. You and Ben Schwartz delivered an incredible episode that mocked all the showbiz-y conventions of the format. It’s hard to find online: Will we ever get to see it again?
My producer on that is this guy Nick Bernstein, who’s a legend, who was the producer for Letterman and Conan and then Corden. It’s really up to Nick.
That show was super-meta — we told the audience exactly what was going on. It would take a real brave executive to let an artist tell the audience exactly what was going on for an hour right now. They don’t do that anymore. (Sarcastically sincere) Corporations are people.
There’s so many corporate overlords in that stuff, and they truly hated it. After it was done, I started getting a bunch of emails from friends being like, “Oh my god, that was hilarious.” Then, I got a message from my manager who was like, “CBS wants to meet you on Monday.” I was like, “Hell yes, dude! This is (my big break).” When I got called in, it was not that at all — it was them being like, “Do you have any interest in working in television? Do you know how much money you cost us?!” They showed me complaints — people calling in real time — and telling me that I wouldn’t work at CBS. I was like, “Okay, so that didn’t go well.” (Laughs)
Were you thinking, “Oh shit, I fucked up”?
No, I don’t think I fucked up. I was just like, “Well, that’s unfortunate that they didn’t get the joke. Am I really not going to be able to work here again?” It was more like that: “Whoa, man, I guess I miscalculated the network anger. I thought I was going to be heralded as a genius and given millions of dollars. You’re telling me you didn’t like when I talked about the movie Bangkok Dangerous for 10 minutes? That didn’t do it for you?” (Laughs)
You’re left with that feeling like when a bit doesn’t go well. You’re left with that sinking feeling. That was what I felt in that office that day. But those people aren’t there anymore — I work at CBS all the time. I love it there. (Laughs)
Outside of CBS’ reaction, did that episode help your career?
It didn’t help me — I think it hurt me more. I think people are scared. I don’t know what my reputation would be — I would never want to know — but I do think that there’s a certain thing where people are like, “Well, let’s just cast someone that’s not going to do anything to make it different than what the project is.” Sometimes, it’s like a negative attention.
Which is ironic since being part of a team is something that means a lot to you.
I would like to hope at this point my work has spoken for itself, but probably not. I don’t think it ever does, and you’re consistently having to prove yourself. Every actor has that: I’m like, “Oh, people are scared of me,” and then I’m sure other actors are like, “Oh, I wish people would let me run free.” But there’s no reason to complain about anything — everything’s good.
When you were on Colbert in 2018, you made a crack about doing Upright Citizens Brigade and being at the New School at the same time. The implication was that you got a lot more out of UCB than this prestigious acting school. Do you still feel that way?
If you were to ask me at the time, I would tell you that the New School did nothing and it’s bullshit. But now, I know how to edit on a Steam Deck. I know how to write a screenplay from all aspects of a hero’s journey — I read Joseph Campbell. I know Stella Adler. Do I use all those things on a daily basis? No, I don’t. Do I use improv on a daily basis? Yes, I do, but if you’re talking about what makes me special, I think maybe I am one of the small number of people that knows how to do both and can mix them together to get a truly unique result. As I sit here at 41, a day after Father’s Day, I would say to you that both were essential — but if you asked 21-year-old me in McManus’ Pub at one in the morning, I would say, “New School can fuck right off.”
In that same Colbert segment, you told a great story about Jennifer Lopez being on Inside the Actors Studio and you being one of the students in the audience, and deciding to use your question to jokingly ask her out. It’s really funny, but how much did you embellish it on Colbert’s show? Were you really kicked out of the room?
I wasn’t thrown out, but they definitely didn’t use (my) question in the (aired episode). You can see me if you scroll through the questions when they cut to the audience — you see me a bunch of times. I did get a talking-to as everyone was pouring out and the joke (hadn’t) hit that well. It was maybe some of the formation of me intentionally bombing, but it was more just that awkwardness of “Oh, this kid’s trying to do a joke and this is a serious-acting thing.” (Laughs)
Who gave you a talking-to? Was it James Lipton?
It was my professor: “What were you thinking? Why would you do that?” I still keep in touch with him — he reaches out to me from time to time when I do something stupid or noteworthy. (Laughs) His name is Dr. William Pace, and I love him dearly.
You’re getting reprimanded at Inside the Actors Studio. You’re getting reprimanded by CBS…
I’ve had a lot of talking-tos.
You don’t mind it?
I hate it. I hate it. I hate confrontation. I hate confrontation more than anything in the world. If I could avoid confrontation my whole life, I would. I hate it. It’s just a byproduct of being a punk — you got to deal with a lot of talking-tos. Mindy Kaling once described me as a Jewish Loki, which I think is probably pretty accurate.
You mentioned intentionally bombing: I know some comics talk about how they almost love bombing more than killing. They get this weird thrill out of a bit going wrong. Are you that way?
No, I don’t really love bombing. But there’s a lot of different versions of (bombing). You (could be) subverting the idea that “Here’s a punchline, and the audience is going to laugh at A plus B equals D” — that’s the standard format (of a joke) — then, you can do a lot of things, like, “I’m not even going to do A or B, I’m just going to do D.” There’s so many equations you can do to get to the laugh. In that way, I don’t think “bombing” is the right word.
Bombing bombing is a horrible feeling, and I’ve had it many times. It’s that feeling of anybody who puts themselves out there: Any time you’ve been broken up with, that’s what bombing feels like. You’re being rejected. I hate it, but that’s probably why I ride that third rail so much, because I want to show the audience the context of it. “This is how bombing would be so bad, and you should see that.”
And that feeling of rejection doesn’t get easier over time?
If a filmmaker puts out a movie and it gets a bad review, that’s a bomb. If an athlete goes out in the first round of the playoffs, it’s a bomb. It never feels good. It’s always embarrassing, and it always leaves a scar on your brain. Always.
Some comedians like to really analyze their humor — others like keeping what they do a mystery to themselves. Which kind are you?
I do theorize a lot about it — I theorize a lot about everything — but then I like to throw it away and try to rely as best as I can on not thinking because I’ve thought about it enough already. You know what you have to do, so to dwell on it will only create anxiety. Anxiety and confrontation — if I could live a whole life without ever being anxious or being confronted, god, what a great existence. Unfortunately, that’s not the real world. I’m failing at it constantly and miserably.
You were part of Happy Endings, which is in a special category of comedies that are beloved by a small, passionate audience but never connected with the mainstream. Is there any appeal to having a show like that on your résumé? Or do you think, “Yeah, yeah, but it sure would have been nice if a lot of people had actually seen it”?
I don’t ever think about it like that. I’ve been able, luckily, to work on a lot of great stuff. There’s no rhyme or reason as to what makes money or stays on the air anymore. (Happy Endings) was the beginning of that vibe where it’s like things are coming and going. Just being able to make that show for three years and still having those people as my crew — I mean, I still predominantly work with (Happy Endings creator) David Caspe. My next show is with David Caspe, my last show (was) with David Caspe. We fail together.
There must be a great sense of camaraderie in that: “We know what we’re making is good, so let’s go out and fail together.”
David and I are coming up on our 15th year since Happy Endings working together, and in that time we’ve created three shows. Champaign ILL I think is some of my best work. I think it’s one of the best pilots ever made. I think the series is one of the best from this new kind of limited-series, one-season-type deal, and I think had it been on any other network, it would have still been running. You can say that about Happy Endings and you can say that about Dave’s work, Black Monday or Making History, a lot of the stuff we’ve done.
I feel like, individually and together, there is a camaraderie in knowing that we’re making good work. Whether or not it connects, and how, is so outside of the control of even the people who think they control it. You just got to keep making what you think is good and interesting.
So how does that compare to something like Sonic the Hedgehog, which is massively successful?
In this day and age, it feels very similar. There isn’t, like, a big runaway hit that everybody in the world knows of. If the lead of Yellowjackets was in this room with me, I wouldn’t know what they looked like — that show’s a giant, giant hit. I don’t think (being in a hit) changes much — for me, at least, it hasn’t.
I also have a very unassuming public (persona). I rarely get recognized. I look like everybody’s cousin Josh. I have three kids, and I just don’t call attention to myself in that way. I don’t live in Los Angeles — I don’t go to the Coffee Bean where the paparazzi’s at. I just live a low-key existence in a lot of ways, which may help or hurt. Who knows? I know that I’m lucky to be here.