104 Years of Comedy with Sarah Burns and Adam Pally

"I want a human to touch me! Will you touch me?"

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Slow Learners premiered at Tribeca this year, this week opening for a theatrical run. It’s notable for two reasons: 1) It’s directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, documentary filmmakers (probably best known for 2009’s The Art of the Steal), who are also married to one another, taking their first venture into narrative land; and 2) it showcases two exciting up-and-coming comedic talents: Adam Pally and Sarah Burns.

You may recognize Pally from the beloved—Who else was devastated when it was canceled?—Happy Endings as well as The Mindy Project and such films as A.C.O.D. and Iron Man 3. Burns was featured on the FX show Married, as well as on HBO’s Enlightened and (throwback!) Starz’s Party Down. Pally and Burns play Jeff and Anne, respectively, friends and co-workers who have the worst luck with both finding love and also getting laid. To rectify this, they decide to makeover their former awkward selves, embarking on an adventure to embrace their inner douchebag and sometimes-slut in pursuit of regaining their confidence with the opposite sex.

Paste sat down with the two to chat about their start in comedy, working on Slow Learners, and all the mistakes and successes and Counting Crows references in between.

Paste: Adam, you’re from here in New York. Where are you from, Sarah?
Sarah Burns: I’m from Long Island. I’ve been arrested and it clicked!
Paste: You’ve been arrested?
Burns: Why am I telling you this!?
Adam Pally: Of course, Burns!
Paste: I mean, my first question was going to be “Where did you guys get started?”
Burns: I got started in prison.
Pally: I would say most of the press doesn’t know that you are a fucking maniac!
Paste: Tell me: exclusive.
Pally: If you hang out with Burns there’s a chance that you will end up in jail!

Paste: So both of you are from the area. Did you get started in the comedy scene here together?
Pally: We met a while ago at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. We were there right at the time that it didn’t even have a home. We met in this cool way that we knew that we were going to be working together doing improv.

Paste: Everyone does UCB now! It’s sort of this right of passage. Was it that for you—a requirement if you ever wanted to be at the level of TV and film that you’re at now?
Burns: It had to happen for me. I started out thinking I would go to SNL. I couldn’t not do what I did.
Pally: The only difference, when we started, I don’t want to date ourselves…
Burns: 1911.
Pally: In 1911, I don’t think it was a right of passage. You had to seek it out. People didn’t know what it was. Back then, when you saw long form improv you’re like, “Whoa they’re doing a play!” Then there was such a small group of people doing it. Now, it’s so big and so huge that it’s cool to do it. I remember people thought it was like Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Paste: Who came up with you at UCB?
Burns: Oh, Aubrey [Plaza]!
Pally: Donald Glover, Bobby Moynihan, Aziz Ansari, Rob Riggle.
Burns: Ben Schwartz!
Pally: Gil Ozeri. Ellie Kemper and I were in our first classes together.

Paste: Was there anyone that you were like, “Oh my God, this is the funniest person I’ve ever met”?
Pally: Yeah, almost everybody I mentioned.
Burns: Chris Gethard.
Pally: I met Donald Glover when he was 18 years old and he had just moved to New York. Donald would come over and write sketches and you knew within a second of meeting Donald, you knew this guy was the funniest, most charismatic—this dude is like Eddie Murphy! He can do whatever he wants.
Paste: Ellie, Aubrey, Aziz, some of the actors from that list of people—I just see them doing the same thing over and over. You two are consistently playing different characters.
Pally: Yeah, you’re right. We have more range than those people. I think that they would agree.
Burns: I know Aziz would be the first to admit that we’re better than him!
Pally: I’ve talked to Aubrey so many time and she’s said, “I can’t even be in the same room as you because you’re so good.”
Burns: She won’t make eye contact. She kneels at our feet. But no, it’s pretty rad. I met Aubrey when she was still a teenager and [recently] I was walking through Times Square and she’s like on a Gap ad! It makes the world feel small and, like, cozy.
Pally: And possible! To us, a lot of those people broke before I did and when someone like Aubrey or Ellie or Bobby hit…I know Bobby got on SNL the same year we drove 12 hours to Montreal talking about what he was going to do for his audition.

Paste: Tell me about your SNL auditions!
Burns: I was a personal trainer for cats. “You’re cats with the dangling bellies—no more!” I have three cats and they all could use a little ab work.
Pally: I did one. It’s infamously horrible. You know the Counting Crows, Adam Duritz? I did a political talk show as Adam Duritz but I would ask a question, [he prompts Sarah] “Tell me about the new Republican candidates.”
Burns: You know Mark Cuban…
Pally: [In a whiny Duritz voice] Yeahhh…
Burns: And also…
Pally: Yeah…and that’s all I’d do for like an hour.

Paste:b> Pally: I made Seth Myers do it but it didn’t work. When I did his show [later on] I told that story and he was like, “Don’t it’s not going to work.” And it bombed, too!
Paste: Try it on Jimmy Fallon!
Pally: I should come on dressed as Adam Duritz.

Paste: With Slow Learners, what made you intrigued by the project and the filmmakers?
Pally: I think the fact that they had only done docs was the big safety net for the movie. I felt confident that they knew what was funny about found footage, that they could gather our footage no matter how dispersed it was.
Burns: I met them for dinner and I fell in love with them. I believed in them so much. They brought their baby that was like a second old. They’re humans! And I was like, “This is going to be fun.”
Pally:They’re a married couple, they have a baby—it was wholesome!

Paste: Especially after ya’ll have worked in TV so much recently, was this a breather?
Burns: I love doing films because it’s like an adventure. TV is a well-oiled machine and indie movies are bananas.
Pally: I always have a hard time with that question because I really don’t even think about [whether it’s a] movie or TV show. To me: Is it funny and do I feel like I can do something interesting with it? And, do you like me? I still feel that way! If you like me, yeah I’d love to do it! I just want to work.
Burns: I want a human to touch me! Will you touch me?

Paste: If you guys are saying the film was very improv and you had free reign, did you have anyone to reel you in?
Burns: We have such a great shorthand.
Pally: We have played a married couple a couple times, once in Monogamy. Also, everybody that we cast, they’re improvisers but they’re good improvisers and know the difference between running their mouth and then actually figuring it out. You didn’t need to be reigned in.
Burns: Like Mary Grill. Her mind is so quick and sharp. Catherine Reitman, Kate Flannery, Reid Scott…
Pally: Pete Grosz.

Paste: The cast was definitely a support for you both. Did the directors just cast these people and throw the script out the window?
Pally: Yes. I’d say that’s pretty much how it went. I like wine-movies where you open a bottle of wine with your wife—like a comfortable blanket. I wanted to do one. The directors showed us this and then were like, “Throw it out. Do whatever you want and use it as a spine.”

Paste: Given you both have already come up with exciting people, is there anyone you still really want to work with?
Burns: I’d really love to work with Wes Anderson!
Pally: You’d be great!
Burns: Actually, Jason Schwartzman said that! He said, “You should do one!” I really want to! I love his world. And I want to be on Portlandia more than anything in the world. Then, I’d die!
Pally: I want to do a play. I know that sucks. I don’t know, I always thought I was the type of actor made for a Neil LaBute play. But that’s hard to get people to see you as one way. That’s a dream of mine to be living at home here and taking the train to your play, working eight nights a week.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.