Kathryn Hahn on 'Happyish' and Finding Her Inner 'Fartist'

Cringe-comedy MVP on her Showtime series and what she finds funny: "I like going for the sweaty laugh"

Kathryn Hahn as Lee in 'Happyish.' Credit: Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME

"We Went to School Together, Right? I think that would be the movie people recognize me from the most." Kathryn Hahn is cracking wise; check her IMDb film stats, and you will not find any such title listed among her credits. But when the 40-year-old actress gets stopped on the street, that's the go-to line people use — the old chestnut you trot out when you recognize someone famous but can't quite place him or her. "It's only started happening recently; I find it hilarious, but it drives my husband crazy," she says. "I get 'We loved you on SNL' a lot as well, and I have to say 'Thank you, I’m not Ana Gasteyer, but I hear you and totally appreciate it, she’s amazing!'"

Even if you couldn't place her face, trust us: You've definitely seen Hahn steal scenes in movies by going for the uncomfortable comedy sweet-spot. She's the one singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" while getting it with John C. Reilly at Thanksgiving dinner in Step Brothers; the pregnant woman who accidentally gets fisted by Sacha Baron Cohen when she goes into labor in The Dictator; the suburbanite awkwardly feeling up Jennifer Aniston's breasts in We're the Millers; and the Type-A nightmare of a political consultant who keeps dropping TMI tidbits in the last few seasons of Parks and Recreation. (She's also the female rabbi who gets pulled into the Pfefferman's family feuds in the Amazon hit Transparent, which starts filming its second season in June.)

And though her latest high-profile project, the Showtime series Happyish, could ultimately nip the were-you-in-my-math-class questions in the bud, the show about a couple frustrated by professional instability and middle-age malaise does not necessarily feature a gentler, tamer Hahn: Within the first few episodes, she goes on a rant about Dora the Explorer that ends with her flipping the cartoon character the bird. Though, as she's keen to point out, that's child's play compared to the cartoon coitus required of her costar Steve Coogan. "I mean, he does fuck a Keebler elf," Hahn says. "Not just any Keebler elf — a topless, geriatric one. I got off lucky."

Taking a brief break in between production duties, Hahn spoke with us about Happyish's revival after its original star Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away, why the uncomfortable laugh is her comfort zone and finding her inner "Fartist."

You were involved with Happyish early on, right?
Pretty early, yeah. [Showtime president] David Nevins sent me the script to read about three years ago. No one was attached to it then, and I had no context for what it was about or who [showrunner] Shalom Auslander was. I just thought, Oh my god, this is so brave and risky. And then realizing that Shalmo never scripted anything before — his background was as a memoirist — I just thought this is great, he doesn't know what rules there were to break. Okay, I'm in. Then about a year passed, and Phil came on.

You're talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman?
Yeah. We'd shot a pilot with him, and he was ready to jump into it. And then...I mean, it was devastating. Just devastating on all levels. We were grieving, and there was a long period after he passed away where we didn’t know what the future was going to hold for this. Eventually, we started to look at it again, and then a fire got lit once Steve Coogan became interested. It became a slightly different thing with him; any comedy nerd worth their salt is obsessed with Steve, including me, so we able to get it going.

He's as fearless as you, cringe comedy-wise.
He'll fuck a Keebler elf, yup [laughs].

And you flip off Dora the Explorer.
We hit the Dora stuff and a lot of Doc McStuffins jokes, which is another show my kids were really obsessed with. Such a vaguely porny name, Doc McStuffins.

"Growing up in Ohio, that’s the best comedy training ever. You can keep your Groundlings or your Second City, people. I got Catholic school in Cleveland Heights, bitch!"

You've worked a lot with improvisational comedians, but your background was mostly classic theater training, correct?
Yeah, though I was always a class clown type, always fucking around. But I never went the comedy or improv route. I think always just thought it was, you know: improvisation, blergghh! And now having had worked with a number of people who’ve trained in it and understand how it actually works, I'm in awe of what they do. I’m nowhere near that level. But I come from a very funny family; it was a tough dining room table. And just growing up in Ohio, that’s really the best comedy training ever. You can keep your Groundlings or your Second City, people. I got Catholic school in Cleveland Heights, bitch! [Laughs]

So when you walked on to the Anchorman set and you're surrounded by these improv heavy hitters...
Oh, I was terrified. I felt like I was just treading water for hours, trying not to drown. It was just so fast. That was my first entry into it, and to watch people like Will Ferrell and Steve Carell go at it was incredible. The only kind of onscreen experience I had before that was on a TV procedural drama where it’s line for line, hit your mark, and you spend the rest of the morning repeating it. So to walk on to an Adam McKay set where it was anything goes — that was pretty liberating.

The only way I can kind of exist in that world is...I can’t just show up unprepared and then say witty, funny things. I’m just not that bird. I need a detailed idea of who I’m playing, and then when I start improvising, I can draw the funny stuff from that arsenal. And you’re only funny against the person you’re playing against. This is why I love the comedy community so much, because you need that support. You can't just show up and ignore everybody else and then try to be "funny." I mean, I guess you could do that, but it’s not the kind of comedy that I find funny.

The guess would be that you find outrageousness funny, judging by your scenes in, say, Step Brothers or The Dictator.
Yes! [in fake newscaster voice] "Kathryn Hahn, mother of two, will now talk about having both of Sacha Baron Cohen's hands in her birth canal…" [Laughs] What can I say? I lean toward the unhinged. I like people that are on the verge, walking the fine line of having only one foot in reality. One of my favorite films of all time is John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence; it's not a comedy at all, but it informs so much of what I do comedy-wise. Those performances in there are just so raw. So yeah, I love the sweaty laugh. The uncomfortable, nervous laugh — that's such a turn on.

Was that what attracted you to playing the political consultant in Parks and Recreation?
Just to be part of that ensemble was the attraction. The writers on that show knew my funny bone better than I do. I'm sure every actor who played a bit part or a recurring role on the show will tell you the same thing: It was an ideal experience. Look at that cast, where they started five or six years ago and where they are now. You got to watch an all-star team develop in real time!

What was it like to join an ensemble like that after they had four or five years of working together under their belt already?
Oh, they were all just dicks and ignored me the entire time. I had to sit by myself at lunch every day, and….[Laughs] It was great. I miss those guys. Plus there were dance parties every day in the hair and makeup trailer, and I miss those a bunch.

You'd collaborated with Transparent's writer-director Jill Soloway before, on the indie movie Afternoon Delight — so you know she was a huge talent. But did anybody have any idea that the show would end up being this huge crossover hit and cultural talking point?
It's funny, because I knew from working with Jill she was a voice to be reckoned with, and that the world had better be prepared. I knew that she was so good with dialogue, great with actors, and that she would go to uncomfortable places that most people won't. And if I'm being honest, I really grew up making that movie, just in terms of…well, my inclination is always to say, "Don't call me an artist. Call me a fartist."

I'm sorry, did I hear you correctly?
You did. I  said I prefer to be called a "fartist." [Laughs] It's just easier than saying I’m an "artist." In fact, that’s what I’m going to call my silent, black-and-white movie: The Fartist. It will be silent except for one sound effect, which will be used liberally. [Pause] Sorry, what were we talking about again?

Working on Afternoon Delight. You were explaining how you grew up making while making that movie.
Right. My point was, I’d never really felt like I'd had the chance to do something that required me to go some fairly dark places, or that required me to take myself seriously to a degree. And that film did; it felt like it brought something else out. It made me feel like, Kathryn, you can’t just show up and be the class clown this time; you have to bring some skills. And it's because of Jill Solowway — she’s a miracle worker.

No, wait, even better: She's a witch! That's what we kept saying on set. It was like, how do you get people to do the things they do in your series? There has to be magic involved somehow, right? The only comparison I could make to being on that show was when I was studying theater in graduate school and we were doing plays at four in the morning…you’re working so hard with a group of people but you need up feeling so energized, so buzzed. I used to think it was just sleep deprivation but…[laughs]. It’s that sense you get where you’re just working together in sync and everything feels so simple. That's how it is with Transparent. None of us knew it would become a big talking point but it doesn't surprise me that it was a hit. It's such a personal story for her but the way she told it felt like everybody's story. I'm excited to see where it goes.