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Lake Bell and Ken Marino in Childrens Hospital

Lake Bell of Childrens Hospital

The star of the medical spoof talks winter comedy camp, the show’s fourth season, and directing her first feature film

Aug 09, 2012 Lake Bell Bookmark and Share

For four seasons, Childrens Hospital has quietly been one of the smartest—and possibly most offensive—comedies on television.

A spoof of medical dramas such as ER and Grey’s Anatomy, the show takes place at a children’s hospital—located in a Brazil that looks suspiciously like Los Angeles—where a clown attempts to save dying patients using only the healing power of laughter, and every doctor seems to have an alter ego. Few ensembles could pull off the outlandish plots that this show throws at its cast in each episode, but this hospital is staffed by some of the most twisted actors working in comedy today, including Rob Corddry, Lake Bell, Ken Marino, Erinn Hayes, Malin Akerman, Rob Huebel, Megan Mullally, and Henry Winkler.

While it’s difficult to convey the full strangeness of Childrens Hospital to someone who hasn’t seen one of the show’s 11-minute episodes, this blood-soaked season four promo clip—featuring music by The Shins—should give new viewers a good idea of what to expect:

Lake Bell, who stars as Dr. Cat Black on Childrens Hospital, spoke with Under the Radar about the show in advance of its fourth season premiere tonight (August 9) at midnight, on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block.

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): Childrens Hospital has to have one of the most highly-concentrated groups of funny people working together on television.

Lake Bell: I concur, I concur! [Laughs.]

Is the environment on set as fun to be part of as we’d imagine?

Honestly, you cannot speak to one person on Childrens Hospital, crew or cast, who’d deny the fact that we all have an astonishingly good time in a way that’s… not right. It almost veers to the other side of amazingness, and then falls over on the other end, and becomes horrible again. You feel so guilty that you’re allowed to get paid, no matter how modest it is, and be part of this. We’re all really good friends at this point. It’s our fourth year, and we’ve been in this, like, comedy camp together. We all get together around the holidays, that’s when we shoot it. Because, you know, you’ve got your real job, and then we get to go play with our comedy family during the holidays, in December and January. That’s really a fitting time to shoot it, because it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like camp; like a summer camp, but in the winter. It’s winter camp. Winter comedy camp.

The shooting schedule sounds very quick, but also relaxed. How does that compare to other TV and film shoots you’ve been on?

The biggest difference in production is that we barely answer to a network. Usually on TV shows or movies there’s a studio, or a network, that’s heavily breathing down the neck of creative. It’s nobody’s fault that it’s that way; it’s their investment, and you get why they’d want to monitor their investment. Because we’re on Adult Swim… Adult Swim, by definition, is for sick people [laughs]. It’s for the irreverent-minded, so it’s a very free creative environment that is very comedic, but also incredibly politically-incorrect. Really, the main difference is that you don’t feel that sort-of omniscient presence of, like, “the man” coming from some office somewhere saying, “You can’t do that!” Literally, there’s nothing on Childrens Hospital that would be network- or studio-approved.

The continuity is very loose on the show.

Very loose.

Characters and plotlines can be shuffled in and out without really betraying the show’s bizarre sense of reality. Your character was essentially able to die for a few episodes one season so you could work on something else, and other actors have been able to disappear for a little while they had conflicts.

We transcend death here on Childrens Hospital. [Laughs.] [Rob] Corddry and everybody on this show, we love to remind people that all of the characters are somewhat interchangeable, and that logic is something that we just don’t adhere to. When we were getting interviewed at Comic-Con, sometimes reporters would ask, “So, what’s your character arc like this season?” It’s, like, can I just write “N/A” for that? It’s not applicable? It’s not total sketch, but it’s sort of somewhere between sketches and just comedy. I think part of the reason we can do the show, and why we can have a cast like that, is because we are very loose with our continuity and logic. If someone has to go do something, they can go do it. It’s certainly fun for us, and production’s super-respectful of everybody and their “paying jobs.”

Aside from the great regular cast, the show has so many wonderful guest stars coming in and out, in almost every episode. [Nick Offerman, Michael Cera, Jon Hamm, Sarah Silverman, and Nick Kroll, among many others.] Have any of those guests been particularly fun to work with?

They have! I mean, Jon Hamm recurs on the show, and he’s a friend of all of ours. He’s been consistently hilarious, and super-playful, and very available to us. I think he, and Sarah Silverman, and Michaela Watkins, these are people that are buddies of ours. They come on and add to the comedy camp aspect of things. I will say, this season we experimented with using the core cast a little bit more. We were more playful with the concepts, and the different genres, and were really irreverent with the core players, which is really fun for us. Because, you know, sometimes we want to do all that fun stuff, that’s why we’re there. That said, we have some really funny guest stars this year, but it’s less than last year, for sure.

I understand that you started with more of a theater background, and I know that Rob Corddry had been doing Shakespeare before he got into improv comedy. Do you think there’s anything about that dramatic, theatrical training that helps you perform as comedians in roles as bonkers and off-the-wall as the ones you have in Childrens Hospital?

Well, it’s interesting. Yeah, Corddry and I both came from classical training. I was in drama school in England, and it was very serious, and it was [in British accent] conservatory training. It was four years long and incredibly cool, but I never think, “Oh, you’re a better actor because you went to conservatory.” I think it was a great experience towards becoming an adult, even, because it’s an endurance race. There are amazing people that are part of our cast and people in the comedy community who haven’t had training. At my school, we had to act like a tree, and do all that sort of artsy-fartsy stuff. At one point I had to embody water coming out of a faucet, and it was like, if I can’t have a sense of humor about this, I don’t know how I’m gonna get through it. I feel if you’re thrown in any kind of absurd situation, it’s always going to give you a sense of humor for the future. Maybe it’s that. I don’t know.

I noticed that you directed the season four premier of Childrens Hospital [“The Boy With The Pancake Tattoo”].

Indeed, I did!

Was it strange to turn the camera around and direct your colleagues after acting with them for all these years?

I’ve definitely been an aspiring director for a few years now. I was nervous about it initially, because we’re all so difficult to manage on set. I love these people, because we’re constantly acting like we’re 12 years old. Being in the cast, and being one of the people production is trying to wrangle, traditionally, I was concerned initially that I would get a razzing or something. That they would kind of be, like, naughty children, and then it would be very difficult to move forward because we only had two days to shoot an episode. I was directing two episodes, but at the same time, so it was obviously very complicated and moved very quickly. To my great surprise—and I was there only because my peers felt confident and believed in me, so that was a good starting place—it was a fun, great experience. What a privilege it is to work with the people that I think are the funniest people in my peer group, and to get to direct them. It’s kind of a dream. It’s like a crash course in directing, as well. I directed those two episodes right before I took on my first feature, which I’m in post-production on right now. It was incredible, like a boot camp. They were so respectful, and so hilarious, and so fun to work with. It was exhilarating. But then it was fun, to be honest, to act in the episodes I didn’t direct, because I was like “Alright, somebody else do this.” Ken Marino, he directed two of them this season, too, so he did the same thing.

You mentioned your debut feature [titled In a World…], which you wrote, directed, and star in, and also features several of your Childrens Hospital castmates. From what I understand, it’s an idea that’s been percolating in your brain for a long time. How’s it feel to almost have the finished product in your hands?

It’s utterly surreal, but in truth, we’re in post-production, and I feel like I’m still at war, like I’m still in the trenches. Shamelessly, I feel very, very proud of myself and the team I made the film with. By the way, Rob Corddry, Ken Marino, and Michaela Watkins are in it; a lot of my Childrens Hospital buddies. Nick Offerman, who guest stars on our show sometimes. They also came out with their time and their talent to do the film. That was really profoundly moving for me. Honestly, it’s a dream come true, every step of it. Again, I find it so exhilarating to direct and write something, and then see it come to fruition. I actually star in In a World…, which is a deep texture and super-complicated aspect to things. I’m thrilled to be in the last few laps, but they’re hard laps. I’m not losing strength, I’m just sort of pacing myself.

As an actor, was it easier or more difficult to play a role that you’d envisioned in your head for so long?

When I would rehearse, I would rehearse with an acting coach, away from my cast and my crew, to treat the script like I’d received it and wasn’t the writer. I found, strangely, that I envisioned it, but I’d under-wrote it, because I was like, “Well, I know what I’m talking about, and I’ll do it when I get there.” But the truth is, when you’re directing and you’re running an entire ship, you have to write down and prepare for all of those things. You have to really stay true to the preparation that goes into creating a character, and a fully-fledged, complicated person that has a real arc and point of view, a clear beginning, middle, and end. That was a real challenge, to police myself.

I’m looking forward to seeing it. From the little details I’ve read, it sounds like a fun story.

It is fun. It’s about the voice-over world, and a two-bit female vocal coach whose father is a patriarch in the voice-over industry. She inadvertently gets injected into that world, it’s sort of an underdog story about her journey trying to be the first woman to say the words “In a world…”. I had the cooperation of many superstars in the voice-over world, who are in the film. It’s a lot of fun, there’s a lot of dysfunction, but it’s very earnest. It’s not broad; I’m not a sketch writer. That’s not my forte, so I don’t attempt that.

And back to Childrens Hospital for one last question. Can you give us any clues as to what kind of crazy stuff might be in store for Dr. Cat Black this upcoming season?

I wish I could tell you, it’s all a blur! [Laughs.] All I can say is, like always, I hope that we never let avid Childrens Hospital viewers down. This season is all over the map and so unexpected, every episode. I hope everyone likes it. It’s a patchwork of genres and experiments. This season we have a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff, where we play the doctors, and then we play the actors who play the doctors. We have some really interesting and weird episodes that play with that conceit. This season we also have a full British episode, built on the conceit that the show has gained such notoriety that England has made their own version. None of us are in it, at all! It’s just British actors, playing us. All of us were pissed, like, “What the fuck? There’s a whole episode without us? This is bullshit! I can do a British accent!” That was really funny. There’s cat fights, there’s sex, there’s nudity, there’s everything. [Laughs.] There’s disease. There’s poop. There’s always poop. I’m really proud of this season, obviously. Another episode I directed has a fight scene I’m very proud of, with Henry Winkler. I think people will really enjoy it. And, obviously, it’s 11 minutes long, so if you don’t enjoy it, it’ll be done in a second. So just hold out.

The fourth season of Childrens Hospital premieres tonight (August 9) at midnight, as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block.


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