It’s no surprise that many of the countries that have handled the current pandemic the best are run by women, and so it should also come as no surprise that the hilarious 2020 sendoff comedy special, Yearly Departed, now streaming on Prime Video, was also exclusively run by women. I spoke to one of those women, head writer Bess Kalb, about the entire experience: the writers’ room Zoom, the COVID-conscious filming of the special, and the group text that is still going — and with quite the name, at that.
Yearly Departed, despite all that 2020 had to offer, clocks in at under an hour long and is hosted by Phoebe Robinson, featuring eulogies on topics ranging from casual sex to pants to TV cops, delivered by some of our finest living comedians including Tiffany Haddish, Sarah Silverman, Natasha Rothwell, Natasha Leggero, Patti Harrison, 2020 Queen Ziwe, and Rachel Brosnahan who also serves as an executive producer on the project with Paige Simpson, her producing partner at Scrap Paper Pictures. “Something that was very important to all of us was that this would not just be women in front of the camera, but a group of women behind the camera in every aspect of production, to give positions of power to a broad and diverse coalition of women,” Kalb explained. “We had a female director, female cinematographer, female composer, female editors, female DP, female assistant director. There just weren’t men involved in Yearly Departed.” No men at all? “There was a couple of gaffers,” she explained of the on-set crew. “Some sound. Our prompter was a guy. There were a few, but it was a female set. The entire executive production and directors, writers, producers — that was all women,” she stated, with only the exception of the “lovely” David Jammy at Done+Dusted.
Kalb, who spent eight years writing at Jimmy Kimmel Live and is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, said, “I have never been, in any industry that I’ve worked in, in a room that is completely run by women with just women. It was astounding. And to be on a set with just women was just such a normal, great thing. Everyone was just really capable, really considerate. We pulled off something impossible, I think because it was a group of all women. I hope that the way that Yearly Departed looked, behind the camera and in front of the camera, just becomes more and more normal. That it’s not a radical thing to do.”
Kalb likely knew she was onto something great very early in the process, as when she looks back on it now, she admits, “The writers’ room was the best part of the show for me.” She’s quick to make sure she hasn’t hurt any feelings with that statement, adding, “Everything about the show was great, there were also incredible moments with the production. This was a uniquely warm and gratifying experience as a comedy writer, especially as a female comedy writer. But for me, the writers’ room was the highlight of my day every day,” and one that continues in the form of a group chat, likely one of the most coveted text chains to be a part of. Since many of the women had previously known each other, worked together and considered themselves friends before embarking on this project, Kalb says the writers’ room Zoom sessions served as “group therapy about the year, where we would naturally be having these conversations anyway. This was a way to come together with people who I really admire and respect both as people and for their comedic perspectives. It was a way to complain and air our grievances, and in doing so, maybe give voice to other people’s grievances and make them laugh.”
And while 2020 has generally given us way more WTF, FML, and FFS vibes than LMFAO, ROTFL and LOLs, Yearly Departed had no shortage of material to work with when it came to singling out the topics that would earn eulogies. “There was, unfortunately, an embarrassment of riches with this one,” Kalb said. “2020 gave a lot of material. Not necessarily a lot of comedic material, but certainly a lot to bury, a lot to say goodbye to. There was a Google Doc at one point that, I think, was 10 pages long with potential eulogy topics for this. This could have been a 10-hour special. But thanks to our brilliant director Linda Mendoza, it was just under an hour.” Part of that was because they weren’t going for Weekend Update or late night monologue-style jokes. “This is an opportunity to laugh at what we have collectively shared. This was an opportunity to find something that one of these women said that might be relatable. See yourself in them, and realize that you weren’t so alone in this experience.” As head writer, that meant Kalb was responsible for deciding what made the cut and had a pretty good idea of what would be included once she presented the project to the streaming service. “We actually came to Amazon with the pitch of these eulogy topics. There were a few jokes for each eulogy that are actually in the special. We had it pretty mapped out. I think that the selection of topics was done in an effort to make sure that everybody felt represented, and a diversity of opinions were represented.” And even with the break-neck pace of news this year, Kalb feels pretty great about what they settled on, though if she had to add one last topic? “If we were shooting this now, I might do a eulogy for conceding gracefully.”
A comprehensive list of topics is touched upon, if not via full eulogy, then certainly in a scrolling list at the end, or mentioned by the special’s host. “Phoebe Robinson’s such an incredible comedian and host of the show, there’s no one who could preside over this with the kind of authority and wit that she has,” Kalb said. “In her opening monologue, she has a run of this list of things that happened this year. I was panicking after we had shot it, going, ‘No, Megxit didn’t happen this year. That was like, what — 2018?’ No, that was this goddamn year. I would say it’s a year that too much happened, and hopefully we can get back to uneventful years where there’ll be an occasional reboot that no one likes. That’s what we can complain about.”
Until we have those uneventful years to look forward to, we have this special to hold us over, one that may look simple and sleek, but proved to be incredibly complicated to shoot within COVID-conscious guidelines. One of the best parts of the whole special is the behind-the-scenes look at how it was all put together that plays during the closing credits (including one super funny outtake of Haddish dancing that Kalb admits provided them a solid half-hour of laughter). “We filmed this in a COVID safe, COVID compliant way with this incredible physical production company, Done+Dusted. They are the maestros of COVID productions,” Kalb said, pointing to their previous productions this year which include the Emmy awards and the #GraduateTogether special with the Obamas. “We were so lucky to be able to work with them on this. We had three separate stages, so all of the women were never together at the same time. We had one stage for somebody delivering a eulogy, another stage for the audience, and another green screen soundstage of these pods where people would sit behind a green screen backdrop and react to a eulogy on a monitor. This was a shoot that took place in a dingy funeral home set that could have been Avatar with the amount of VFX shots that were used to composite it together.”
Kalb has been in strict quarantine since March, noting that she has a young child and parents whose health she has to take into consideration, and said of the shoot, “This was the only place that I have been in a non-medical setting. I felt completely safe. I was initially really nervous to go anywhere and then when I saw just how masked, tested, shielded, and distant everyone was, it quickly became a place where I was able to get creative and start doing punch-ups, to do my job and not have to worry about COVID. It was really exciting to be on a set, working with my friends and working with people I admire, and having this normal bubble that existed over the course of a few days. Then we all just went back to lockdown.”
One of the truly impressive feats Yearly Departed pulls off are the surprise cameos, especially that of award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown who appears (on the ground, no less!) for literally seconds, to help punctuate a joke. It’s a brilliant move, but not one that was easily executed. “If we wanted to have cookies in a shot, that was three meetings about COVID compliance,” Kalb said, explaining that every frame was shot very specifically. “So for that cameo, this is somebody who is just a saint and a gentleman and an angel for doing this. We were so nervous going out to him, because we were like, ‘This joke is written for him.’ It is a blink and you miss it cameo that requires two weeks of quarantine, a COVID test, another COVID test, this whole process to do it. He read it and he was like, yep, I’m in. He showed up, he was in his own suit. He did a great job. It was a service to humanity. He did something good for the people.”
The other noteworthy cameo is one you’ll have to discover on your own, but one that Kalb said serves as “an act of god. There’s no way to explain it. If you had told 15-year-old me that I would be in a room with her, I would pass out. When I was in a room with her, I almost passed out. This was somebody who is so talented and can do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and she just liked the idea of the project. We were so fortunate that she was so on board and so game to do what we had written. And delivered in the way that only she iconically can. I feel very lucky that every single person who was in the special was in the special, and she is no exception.”
That sentiment also extends to Brosnahan, who Kalb worked closely with throughout the process and describes as “not only the most talented person I know — including my son, who is a genius at 15 months old, he identifies colors — but Rachel is so talented, so unfailingly kind and empathetic and compassionate. She knows what it’s like to be in front of the camera. She knows what it’s like to be written for. To bring that perspective to her producorial world, it just makes her this all-knowing being. She was able to come from a place of deep understanding of the entire process to be such a maestro. She was also involved in every single aspect of production. Someone like Rachel Brosnahan, who is this famous actress, could lend her hand to a project and show up on the shoot day, and that would be plenty. Rachel was somebody who was designing fonts for the logo and [figuring out where] a music queue should come in in the edit.” Not only was she involved in the whole entire process, even spending time in the edit bay with Kalb, but she also packed up an RV with her husband and dogs to drive across the country (and back!) from New York to Los Angeles to work on this special. That’s some true dedication! “In terms of a production partner who sacrificed and brought it and delivered, and did it with such grace? She’s unmatched. May we all work for somebody and with somebody as dedicated and professional as Rachel Brosnahan someday,” Kalb stated.
Though everyone involved made their own unique contributions to the project, really, which comes through loud and clear when you watch it — just as loud and clear as it is to hear Haddish repeat the word “fuckpod” during her eulogy. “That is a word that I had said zero times before Yearly Departed“, Kalb said. “Now, the name of the writers’ text group includes the word ‘fuckpod’ in it. As a manager, I was not the one who came up with that name,” she clarified with a laugh.
And now that Yearly Departed has premiered and 2020 is coming to a close, Kalb is busy working on writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of her book and feeling hopeful for what 2021 has to offer. “I am looking forward to having these kinds of conversations in person. Just sitting next to anybody in person. Hugs from my friends. The end of Zoom is what I’m looking forward to. Although I’m not looking forward to pants. I will keep in quarantine from the waist-down, even when we’re all vaccinated.”
View original post