Wyatt Cenac & Ana Gasteyer on "People of Earth" and Taliban Dance Party

What begins as a chat about their TBS comedy turns into an exploration of fertilizer, Elon Musk, and alienation.

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 12, 2016 11:30PM (EST)

Alice Wetterlund, Wyatt Cenac and Ana Gasteyer in "People of Earth" (Ian Watson/TBS)
Alice Wetterlund, Wyatt Cenac and Ana Gasteyer in "People of Earth" (Ian Watson/TBS)

One piece of data that wasn’t captured in last week’s exit polls was the number of Americans praying for extraterrestrial intervention to save us from doom. Indeed, a person can’t be blamed for wishing to escape off-planet, given the way the planet’s general tenor and direction.

Watching a few episodes of TBS’s “People of Earth,” though, may not leave you so convinced that salvation lies in outer space. Some of the Earthlings who have made contact with them participate in a support group called StarCrossed that meets regularly in a church located in a small town (not-so-coincidentally) called Beacon.

In the course of trading stories about their abductions they realize that there are three separate types of aliens who attempt to mollify them by assuring them that they’re special. A journalist named Ozzie Graham, played by comedian and former “Daily Show” correspondent Wyatt Cenac, visits them, intent on writing them off as crack-pots. Soon enough, with the assistance of group leader Gina Morrison (Ana Gasteyer), Ozzie realizes that he may have more in common with them than he originally thought.

None of them realize they’re stumbling around the edges of a conspiracy of aliens intent on total world domination – that is, if they can get their act together. Turns out that alien races are just as fond of bureaucratic structure and process as humans are. They may even have brought it to Earth with them.

There are a lot of reasons “People of Earth” sounds like a show that one can easily write off. Basic cable comedies tend to have a low bar for success and quality, and if hit comedies about aliens are few and far between -- “A.L.F.” and “3rd Rock From the Sun” notwithstanding – great comedies about abductees are pretty much…can you think of any worth remembering?

Cenac and Gasteyer probably had their doubts coming to the project as well. But when they sat down recently for an “interview” – those quotes are intentional, which I’ll explain in a moment – any misgivings they may have had were long gone.

“There is good DNA in this from the producing side, with Greg Daniels and Conan [O’Brien, who executive producers the comedy along with Daniels] and  [creator] David Jenkins, Norm Hiscock and everyone on the writing staff, Emily Heller and Nick Adams -- just a bunch of very talented people on that side,” Cenac enthused.

“It also has a very quality group of performers,” Gasteyer, a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, added.  “There's not a lot of cheese in this group. It doesn't feel like a, with all due respect, canned television cast. …I can say as a woman in particular, I look around at my female colleagues and feel that they're really good and smart and interesting.”

Now a bit of context regarding that “interview” designation. Sometimes when you sit a pair of performers down, they riff with one another with such vigor and dynamism that it’s almost impossible to interrupt.  Yet, when the performers are intelligent and creative and professional enough to elucidate the subject about which the reporter is writing and they’re incredibly entertaining, the best thing is to sit back, leave the record button pressed down and allow the magic to happen.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview conducted prior to the show’s premiere, which begins with an examination of the show’s creative DNA from the pair’s perspective and goes boldly forth from there.

Gasteyer: …We all have a lot of history, sort of randomly. You know, we've all been around a little bit. You know, Wyatt worked with Greg (Daniels], Greg worked with “Saturday Night Live”. Norm Hiscock and I wrote “Martha Stewart's Topless Christmas” together his one season on “Saturday Night Live”. So, there's a lot of interplay with a lot of pedigreed comedy talent. It's also a very intellectually curious group, and everyone's interested in the alien thing in a very real, and not ha ha, funny way.

Cenac: At the end of the day, too, everybody, as far as I can tell, seems to be enjoying the process. If everyone is enjoying the process then that hopefully will translate on screen. I think there are probably some turds in the world that started as turds, but everyone was having fun and--

Gasteyer: So the fun organically polished the turd.

Cenac: It did. The turd then just became fertilizer for fun, and so, to me, I think that's--

Gasteyer: A turd. It's beautiful.

Cenac: Yeah. I think that's the way-

Gasteyer: It's a beautiful metaphor.

Cenac:  Even shooting the pilot, that was something that I felt like I was always aware of: Are people enjoying this? Because, if they're not, if the makeup people are grumbling: a) they are grumbling for a reason, but b) it's that thing of, "Oh okay. That may come out in some way. That may make its way on screen somehow." That energy will somehow filter out into the whole process.

Gasteyer: Listen, we're talking about turd fertilizers here.

Cenac:   Yeah. Turdilizers.

Gasteyer: Turdilizers.

Cenac:  We should start a company called Turdilizers.

Gasteyer: About taking turds and making beautiful flowers.

Cenac: Yeah.

Gasteyer: My goldfish died last year. Horrible. He passed right after Christmas, but he had gotten very, very big. My husband panicked and put him in the freezer, because we were going to, you know, have the old burial ceremony later. When we remembered that he was in the freezer, my mom was re-potting some of our plants and chopped him up and put him in the geraniums, and they are huge.

Cenac:  Really?

Gasteyer: Circle of life man.

Cenac:  Nice work.

Gasteyer: You know, it is. It's an interesting area of inquiry. So, when we started the pilot, and we've continued to, I mean, it's funny, Wyatt sat next to a UFO, who was the guy yesterday on the plane?

Cenac:  I randomly was sitting next to a guy who is making a documentary where he's interviewed a bunch of people who have written about and had UFO experiences. He talked to me about going to the desert and actually seeing UFOs and was showing me clips of this and this is-

Gasteyer: It's like we're all attracting it to ourselves because it's so interesting.

Cenac:   I flew on Turner's dime so they flew me first class. And so this is a guy who's sitting in first class, and Turner didn't fly him, but this is what he's doing and he has enough money to throw it away on a first class plane ticket. You know, I think we tend to write off the people who have UFO experiences solely as, "Oh. It's, you know"--

Gasteyer: Well, you know Elon Musk probably has some stories that he probably doesn't tell most people, so yeah.

Cenac:  Oh. Oh no. That guy. He also believes we're living in a [virtual reality] world, so yeah, I'm not gonna trust anything out of his mouth. That guy's just a rich guy who's gotten lucky a few times. Although I'd be happy to have some of his money -- Elon, if you're listening.

Gasteyer: Same! And maybe get a couple of rides from him…We're not supposed to say this but, I think [“People of Earth”] probably falls more towards "The X-Files" in a way. It's less about exploration but, in terms of tone, I don't think it's a yucka-yucka, you know, setup, setup, joke.

Cenac: There is a conspiratorial sort of story line that hopefully will appeal to some people, but, at the end of the day, I think what it seems like David intended the show to be, and what attracted Greg and Conan to it, and I think attracted all of us to it, is that it's as much an exploration of these people who believe in something and why they believe in it and the idea of belief and what we choose to believe in and how that affects our everyday life. I don't think it's a mistake that these are people who are meeting to talk about their belief in aliens in a church.

Gasteyer: Conversations of faith.

Cenac:  Yeah. At the end of the day, this is as much a show about people questioning their faith in something as it is a show about an alien plot to destroy humanity.

Gasteyer: The other part is that while they believe in something that is not a popular or conventional belief system, they're also kind of aliens in their own culture. You know what I'm saying? So I think it's sort of about belonging too. Which are deep ideas. Comedy is always the root of deep humanity in something I think, especially character-driven comedy, but also they're sort of sweet and profound.

Cenac:  They also have their own bureaucracy to deal with and they have their own crisis of consciousness. I don't know if you listened to the second season of “Serial”. Okay. There's a moment in there, and it gives nothing away, but-

Gasteyer: I just finished number five this morning on the treadmill.

Cenac:    Have you heard the one where they talk to one of  [Army Sgt. Bowe] Bergdahl's kidnappers, or one of the people that were holding Bergdahl?

Gasteyer: Not yet.

Cenac: They wind up getting a conversation with somebody in the Taliban who was tasked with holding Bergdahl and to hear this person talk about it, they are talking about a bureaucracy. The frustrating thing of, "I didn't want to have to hold this guy and he's not eating. And we don't know how to get him to eat, and we don't know how to communicate with him." In this funny moment, they talk about doing a dance to try to make themselves seem less threatening to him, and just listening to that moment, it was such a weird humanizing moment.  The stories I hear, I'm not seeing that there is a humanity behind these people, and--

Gasteyer: It's fascinating.

Cenac:  That maybe, if we were focusing more on that humanity, we might be able to find a way out of this that is much more peaceful than what we're currently engaged in. Maybe. To hear that part in that show, it really, I think, with the alien/human thing that's going on in this show, there was something about that. There is a humanity in the aliens. There is something that is there that is, I mean, we have these art--

Gasteyer: Nothing says comedy like a charming Taliban humanity story. It's so genius.

Cenac: Dance party.

Gasteyer: Taliban dance party.

Cenac:  Why is that not a band name yet?

Gasteyer: I know, right? So with this show…we're following the little branches of those origin stories and there's definitely a larger arc about the aliens and their agenda that is very slowly becoming apparent as well. They're definitely moving the story quickly and I think there is probably a more, I don't want to say nefarious, but there's an uber plan that I love. One of the reasons I love these 10-episode shows is I feel like you can really digest them in a delightful, non-bulimic binge.

Cenac: I would say also, with the first season, it feels like it's humanizing everybody in the show. Trying to get to how did these people get here, what brought them here, digging into that a bit to understanding.

Gasteyer: How far afield are they from where they started?

Cenac:   Yeah, and, to understand and see them not simply as weirdos in tinfoil hats. Hopefully you’ll like all of them and are fascinated with all of them and want to see them as the show continues, alongside the sort of secondary element of the more conspiratorial aspect of it. … That idea of struggling. That these are people struggling in a world where the rest of the world doesn't believe them.

Gasteyer: Like with Bergdahl. I mean, it is weird. I'm fascinated by that idea. The idea that no one would believe you. You just must feel totally suffocated. I mean, I can't even imagine what you'd have to do to move forward with your own little reality if nobody believes you. …I can't imagine having something so primal and off-the-wall happen to you and then to have no one believe you. It must feel really alienating.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alien Abduction Ana Gasteyer Conan O'brien Entertainment News People Of Earth Tbs Tv Wyatt Cenac