“The Good Place,” was a hit before it even premiered. With comedy superstars Kristen Bell and Ted Danson as its stars, the NBC series is not only funny, it’s transforming the landscape of what a 22-minute sitcom can be: The typical tropes and jokes are gone, and this high concept comedy is so entertaining, it’s easy to not even realize that we as viewers are subconsciously exploring an ever-deeper conversation about morality.
Created by Mike Schur — the genius behind “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” — this is a show in which each episode deserves many watches. It’s nearly impossible to catch all the jokes first time around, or fully understand the underlying theoretical — and practical — messages in each scene.
Screener got to sit down to lunch with William Jackson Harper, the Brooklyn-based theater actor who plays Eleanor’s (Kristen Bell) soulmate Chidi on the series. Even Harper admits to needing extra research to soak in all the philosophy his character’s so knowledgeable about. We asked him about what it’s really like working with the “Frozen” quadruple-talent threat that is K-Bell, what he does for fun, and [no spoilers!] grill him on all the seemingly endless questions we have about show’s layered storylines.
SCREENER: How hard is it to keep a straight face while filming with Kristen?
William Jackson Harper: Honestly, I am spending a lot of time just trying not to freak out. This is a big opportunity for me. I spent most of the filming [saying to myself], especially with her: Just stay in the scene. Don’t freak out. That’s Kristin Bell. Don’t freak out. Stay in the scene. That keeps me from breaking.
What have you learned from working with her?
I’m a theater guy, that’s my medium, and so watching her operate with this medium, it’s a real clinic. She’s so present in every single moment, all the time. She’s just locked in. She can go and handle business — because she’s a full-on entity — and then come back and do a scene. And I’m like, I have to match that. She comes in, and locks in, I have to be as focused as she is to make this work.
What’s the vibe on set after they yell ‘Cut’?
We have a lot of joking in-between takes. [But] the nature of this piece — the tone shifts from being an investigation of morality, to really high-concept comedy. So I spend a lot of time in between takes trying to make sure that we’re walking the line of truth as clearly as we can.
Any in-depth ethics conversations?
No, but I mean… I read these articles online, but they are so dense! I make it halfway through and then I’m like… Nothing landed. Nothing stayed. Thankfully, Mike and the writers distilled the stuff down, so it’s very clear — but when I try to get a more nuanced understanding of [what Chidi is saying], I get totally twisted up. And I just go back to the Cliff’s Notes that the writers provide for that script, so I can make sure I really understand.
Is there a lot of improv happening?
There isn’t a ton of improv because the writers have done such a fantastic job of writing very specific moment, and specific jokes, that work best when you lean into it, render it as closely as you can. Every now and then, there’s room for a little improv, but usually internal improv, it isn’t as effective as what they gave us.
If you were in the Good Place, have you thought about what your house would look like?
Yes! I have a weird thing — if I can’t see where all the walls in my house are, I get a little bit freaked out. I think New York has Stockholm Syndrome’d my sense of space and what a house should be. [In Los Angeles], a ‘meh’ kind of place to me — it’s a palace. You have a backyard! And a patio!
My place in New York is 350 square feet and I share it with my girlfriend. But I feel comfortable there! I come out here, and there are rooms around the corner, and it’s like, No! There’s someone back there. Waiting. They’re going to get in bed with me at night and kiss me [pointing to his temple] right here…
That’s a very specific fear…
[Laughing]. A “Good Place” for me… Actually, I love Eleanor’s house on the show. If I could take the clowns out and put in some other decor, I could do that.
What 5 favorite foods would always be in your Good Place?
Number one: Tacos. Sushi. Apples. Some serious gourmet New York style pizza. Brussel sprouts — people are doing some wacky stuff with those, and it’s serious.
So you have soulmates on “The Good Place.” What if someone was married on Earth? Will the series touch on that?
I don’t know.
I can’t tell if you’re being coy… The characters all have yet to take pause and really deal with the emotional aspects of their death. This has to happen at some point, right?
There are so many different places it can go. The world is wide open. It’s not bound by normal rules. There’s so much you can unpack, emotionally and aesthetically. There are lot of things that I don’t know where it’s headed.
What do you do when not filming?
I wrote a play, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with that. And lots of other theater workshops. For fun, I love to play the drums… poorly. I have a band, a bunch of theater nerds — we got together and we’re like, Let’s play rock music for three hours and never take breaks. We call ourselves The U.S. Open.
What other TV shows do you watch?
I’m watching “This is Us,” because it’s so good. Sterling [K. Brown], I have seen him in a million different plays… Chris Sullivan, Ron Cephus Jones — all [these] theater guys that I’ve worked with — they are just killing it on this, show and it makes me so happy.
Have you ever sung ‘Love is an Open Door’ with Kristen?
I don’t. I should. I’m going to learn it. And maybe I’ll just sing it at her?
And kiss her on the temple?
“The Good Place” returns in January, and airs its fall finale Thursday, Nov. 3, at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.