Lena Dunham, George R.R. Martin, John Oliver: They've all achieved the dream of a successful show on HBO. But none of them can claim – as brothers Jay and Mark Duplass can – that as kids in the 1980s, they taught themselves to play the network's theme song on acoustic guitar.
Circa 1985, eight-year-old Mark and 12-year-old Jay would station themselves in front of the family TV (in a New Orleans suburb), taking in HBO's menu of age-inappropriate classics of American cinema. "At 3 p.m., with full boobs and relationship rigor," says Jay.
"Popcorn, nachos, Five Easy Pieces," Mark remembers.
"Pizza pockets and Kramer vs. Kramer," Jay responds.
"We were destined to be here," Mark says, gesturing at the stylish conference room in HBO's Santa Monica headquarters, where we are meeting.
"This is our Graceland," Jay declares.
Their ticket through the monogrammed gates of premium cable was Togetherness, an excellent new show they wrote and directed about four overwhelmed adults, all of whom expected to have more of life's answers in their thirties than in their twenties. Mark plays an L.A. sound engineer; Melanie Lynskey plays his wife. They're joined by two unexpected house guests: the wife's ambitious sister (Amanda Peet) and the husband's best friend, an actor just evicted from his apartment (Steve Zissis). Plots range from the sister's efforts to build a bouncy-castle empire to the least-successful attempt at sexual spanking ever.
The January 11th debut of Togetherness means that the nation's small screens will be filled with more of the brothers, not that we had been suffering from a Duplass shortage: For the past five years, Mark has starred in The League (the FX show about fantasy football), while Jay had a leading role as one of the children of a transgender parent on Transparent. The brothers also appear on The Mindy Project as midwives, showcasing their near-psychic chemistry.
The Duplass brothers made their name with five feature films that started out as low-budget mumblecore movies (including The Puffy Chair and Baghead) and eventually attracted Hollywood stars (for Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home). They have collaboratively written and directed all their movies – and all but one episode of Togetherness. The square-jawed Mark has customarily been their on-camera star – a role dating back to childhood, when Jay was the one with enough upper-body strength to lift the camera.
Jay summarizes their career: "We tried to be the Coen brothers, we failed, we gave up on it, and we ended up making movies out of the cave of our own experience. We're always trying to find the subtlest version of something that can convey a story."
The brothers warn their casts in advance that they don't fit into the director mold of overconfident USC graduates barking orders. Mark says, "We don't chew a lot of gum, we don't wear low-riding baseball caps. There's going to be some hugs and some exploration going on, and if you're into that, it's going to be your best experience."
An object in the corner of the conference room has an irresistible gravitational pull: an Entourage-branded miniature ping-pong table. The brothers spent hours playing on their family's ping-pong table, memorizing every spot that was warped by the New Orleans humidity. As he serves, Mark remembers, "When I was 16 and Jay was at college, my dad and I didn't know how to communicate anymore. I was like, 'You're a conservative lawyer, and I'm a liberal artist.' We would play ping-pong so we could be together and not have to talk about anything."
Mark and Jay fall silent as a rally heats up, which concludes with Jay smashing the ball past Mark. Although they made a movie about two brothers engaging in a made-up gauntlet of 25 sporting events (The Do-Deca-Pentathlon), they're not keeping score today – not because they're too mellow, but because they're too competitive and don't want to exhaust themselves jockeying for dominance.
"I have almost zero professional goals," Mark says. "We've gotten so much further than I ever thought we would. We've been financially and critically successful for—"
"Ten years," Jay interjects.
"I do enjoy it," Mark continues, "but I am personally trying to figure out how to be at the Four Seasons buffet of my career and not eat 150 pieces of bacon because I've been trying to get to this bacon my whole life. I still look at the bacon and think, 'I don't deserve this bacon.' "
"The bacon is not even necessarily good for me," Jay adds.
"By the way, this bacon might not be here later," Mark concludes. "So we better eat the fucking bacon while we can."