“You are immortal,” whispers the barista to Alison Brie as she hands her a steaming mug of antioxidant-rich tea. At Café Gratitude, a vegan restaurant on Melrose, drinks are named after affirmations. It’s an exceedingly Los Angeles conceit—even regulars like Brie admit it’s a bit silly—and while her immortality is still uncertain, Brie is at least having a very good year. The doe-eyed, petite actress already stars in two critically adored television shows, Mad Men and Community, and she’s about to hit the big screen, summitting the Mt. Olympus of comedy typography: a Judd Apatow production. This one is called The Five-Year Engagement. It stars Jason Segel and Emily Blunt as a long-suffering engaged couple—like The Breakup in reverse—and features Brie as Blunt’s younger sister, Suzie. As Brie heads to our table to ingest her own immortality, I lean in to the barista and say, “I am gorgeous.” “You are gorgeous,” she answers and hands me green lemonade infused with kale.
Though only 29 years old, Brie has quickly come to represent a certain feminine ideal of comedy—quirky but never irksome, relying neither on Liz Lemon’s klutziness nor on Sarah Silverman’s potty-mouth misanthropy. Brie is just plain funny. She’s had nearly three decades to practice.
“When I was a little girl, I was always trying to make my family laugh,” she recalls, breaking into a wide smile. “I would perform little SNL-type skits with my sister. My signature sketch was about edible wieners. Picture me, a skinny little eight-year-old girl in Pasadena wearing a trench coat. I’d break into the room and open the trench coat to reveal a hot dog between my legs, and I’d burst into this advertisement. ‘You’re walking down the street and you get hungry, and you don’t have anything to eat. New edible wieners! It’s your wiener, but you can eat it!’” She sips her frothy brew between laughs.
In between appearances as Toto in a local Jewish Community Center production of The Wizard of Oz and, later, working gigs as a clown at birthday parties, Brie found she had a talent for making people laugh: namely, herself. It’s a trait that has served her well on the freewheeling set of NBC’s Community. “[Community co-stars] Donald [Glover] and Danny [Pudi] make fun of me because they say, ‘You just have this amazing ability to make yourself laugh regardless of how funny the joke actually is.’” Brie says. “I literally bring myself to tears because I’m laughing so hard.”
Though Community is a scripted comedy, it is one that leaves plenty of open space for improvisation. Over the last three seasons, Brie, along with co-stars like Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs, have become adept long-form improvisers and comedic collaborators. This, in turn, has allowed for a free and easy set. “If you’re not shooting for some big laugh with every word that comes out of your mouth, then there’s less disappointment,” Brie reflects. “It’s more like a delightful surprise when something really funny does happen.”
“To deliver any kind of joke, you have to get the joke,” says Brie. Thankfully, Community members do. “I feel like the scripts were so funny already, and then the cast developed our own language, just like in any circle of friends. I feel bad now for guest stars that come on the show, because it’s like we’re talking in quotes from the show that we’ve changed and morphed into some other joke. It’s like an inside joke of an inside joke. How is anyone able to penetrate this at all?”
If the slang and shorthand of the cast has rendered the comedy of Community illegible to guest stars, the semi-obscure references can seem even more inaccessible to some viewers. (Community fans worry that Season Three may be the show’s last. And sadly, that decision lies in NBC’s hands.) But for many, it’s that tangible insider quality that makes the show compelling. “What keeps people coming back to watch the show,” says Brie, “is that these people are constantly growing and changing, and that those relationships are evolving. You can go see stand-up and laugh, and that’s fine, but it’s the story that should keep you coming back.”
If the Community set resembles the basement theater of Upright Citizens Brigade, the vast machinery of AMC’s Mad Men is a stately penthouse apartment. Brie, who plays Trudy, the ambitious young wife of upstart ad man Pete Campbell, calls the feeling “a bit more quiet and focused.” Actors are given weeks with the script as opposed to the fast turnaround of Community. “Mad Men is so much more about the subtext,” she says. Not that that subtext can’t be funny; it’s just that its humor is found after the fact. “When we’re shooting the material on Mad Men, it seems like it would never play into comedy,” she says, “because the circumstances in any scene are usually so serious and are taken seriously when we shoot them.” Take, for example, a scene in which Trudy laments the fact that she and her husband Pete (played by Vincent Kartheiser) can’t conceive. This, one might imagine, is a set-up completely devoid of any humor. In fact, on set, director Matthew Weiner stressed the sadness of the moment. Brie was instructed to dab her tears away with a napkin. (The tears were real. Though known for comedy, Brie has done drama. Her Ophelia in a Rubicon Theatre production of Hamlet was called “deeply moving” by the Santa Barbara Independent.) It was only later, when she watched the scene cut together, that Brie realized it was “hilarious.” “You’re looking at these two people, and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, they’re ridiculous.’” Pete and Trudy are the only people taking Pete and Trudy seriously. But, of course, that’s part of the genius of Mad Men. “It’s just written in there, and these characters are just that way,” says Brie.
Both Annie and Trudy, the twin roles for which Brie is best known, are perfectionists: they’re driven to please others. But in her role as Suzie in The Five-Year Engagement, Brie plays against type—an “irresponsible party girl,” says Brie, to her uptight, permanently engaged sister, Violet. “It’s really the most flighty I’ve ever played,” she says, even though it still falls firmly within the wheelhouse of hilarity. Though Brie has found her place in the comedic world, she’s still interested in exploring her range and knows she can’t be an ingénue forever. She confides an interest in trying action, an urge that arose after shooting Community’s action-heavy paintball episode. Her attitude seems to be that if she has fun filming something, the audience will have fun watching it. It matters little to her if she trades on her stunning good looks—which situate her somewhere between cherubim, girl next door, and hippie chick—or if she subverts it. Sex appeal is fleeting; comedy is forever.
“A big part of comedy to me is looking stupid and being comfortable looking unattractive,” she notes. “Comedy comes before vanity.” When I ask about her evident sex appeal, she claims she’s “middle-of-the-road attractive” and worries less about the sexualization in comedy. “Being objectified, if it’s for the sake of the joke, is not such a terrible thing,” she offers. “We do it to the men on our show, and we do it to the women.” Whether Brie veers toward the Cameron Diaz/Jennifer Aniston School of Hot Comedy or follows the Amy Poehler arc; whether she forsakes comedy altogether for ammo, guns, and glory or the thrill of the theater (with three syllables) is anyone’s guess. Happily, she has an eternity to decide.