WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA
January 21, 2019
STRANGERS: Jane Lynch & Kate Flannery
LOCATION: Hugo’s Restaurant, 8401 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, California
THEME: Two iconic comedic actresses talk about teaming up for musical revues
“This won’t do,” says Jane Lynch. She’s staring at the blinds by our table at Hugo’s Restaurant in West Hollywood, eyeing the sunlight sneaking inside through the gap between the window frame and the bottom of the wooden slats. She worries the rays will heat our seats, making them uncomfortable for our lunch interview. She fiddles with the blinds for a few seconds. They won’t lower.
I offer to help, but Jane is already off to another part of the restaurant, returning with a bemused waitress as her backup handyman. They play with the blinds some more, bringing them down a notch but still leaving a gap. Jane concedes it’s the best that can be done. We sit.
I tell Jane I’m impressed at her take-charge attitude, as I’d have gone the passive route and sat in the sun, overheating. She smiles. “Oh, I jump up, I get what I need man. I hang out with people who are very big energies, bigger than mine. In fact I feel like a fading flower.”
Then, barely taking a breath, she asks, “So, you write a blog?” And for several minutes she quizzes me about my life, my job, and Dining With Strangers. I’m meant to be the interviewer, but she’s asking all the questions.
She talks in a quick, assured clip but it doesn’t come across as the aura of dismissive authority that she’s known for from performing stern characters like Sue Sylvester in Glee. And we’re not here to talk about Glee, nor her countless other television appearances including hosting Hollywood Game Night. We’re not even discussing her well-known film roles, from her improvisational genius in Best in Show to scene-stealing roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Role Models, and voice over work in films like Wreck-It Ralph.
Instead, today’s chat is to learn about something that began in 2013, when Jane first teamed up with comedic actress Kate Flannery, perhaps best known as Meredith from The Office. Since then the duo has honed a double (and sometimes triple) act touring the United States performing musical revues. They recently completed a 36-stop trip for their show A Swingin’ Little Christmas! and later today they’ll rehearse for Two Lost Souls; their cabaret with a 1950s swing flavor.
This interview came about because in December I saw them perform the Christmas show in Washington, DC, alongside their friend Tim Davis, who was the musical arranger for the hundreds of cover songs on Glee. I handed them my Dining With Strangers contact card saying they could either use it to get in touch or to use it as kindling, and thankfully they chose the former.
Cut to January and I’m on a trip to LA, and honored that Jane and Kate agree to lunch to talk about working together.
From the start, Jane is wonderful company, cracking jokes, naturally inquisitive, engaging and charismatic. For someone so famous — and I’ll overhear other diners whisper her name during our lunch when they recognize her — she is incredibly open and charming.
But where’s Kate?
It’s about 15 minutes after our planned meeting time of noon. “This is not like her,” says Jane, frowning with concern. “She’s not flaky. She’s spontaneous and unpredictable, but not flaky.”
Jane calls Kate, I hear one side of the conversation. “Hey honey, it’s Jane . . . we’re having lunch at Hugo’s, did you forget? . . . That’s all right. Where are you? . . . Don’t rush, take your time.” She grins slightly. “He’s talking to me and he’s getting a little bored with me.” I laugh along.
Putting her phone down, Jane explains there was a calendar mix-up and Kate thought the interview was next week. And she says to expect much apologizing when her partner arrives.
“Well, I’ll tell you all about Kate,” Jane says. “Kate is Irish Catholic and polite, so every other word out of her mouth is sorry. When she sits down count how many times she says she’s sorry. She says sorry when there’s no reason for her to say she’s sorry. She gets what she wants but with 150 sorrys. You almost hate when she’s done something wrong because the sorrys are going to go up.”
They met in the late 1980s in Chicago at the Annoyance Theater comedy group, and also crossed paths at the landmark improvisational Second City venue. “We didn’t bond immediately, but we were in the same group of friends so I knew who she was, and she was fun, and we’d be at parties together and do shows together,” says Jane. But it wasn’t until they were both living in Los Angeles that they started performing as a couple, doing duets at charity functions and other events.
“We weren’t fast friends” at first, she adds, “But we became closer over the years, and then in 2013 we started doing See Jane Sing together, and we’ve become inseparable.”
See Jane Sing was a musical revue with plenty of jokes thrown in, spanning a broad range of genres from pop to swing and jazz, with support from Kate and Tim. Although Kate and Jane continue to have busy careers, they still find time to work on shows together – the Christmas tour was their second, and Two Lost Souls is their third, which premiered at New York’s Café Carlyle in September. They’re putting the show on again tomorrow night at LA’s Largo at the Coronet.
“It’s just the greatest gig,” Jane says with pride. They put the show together with their friend and musical director Tony Guerrero (whose band also provided the music for A Swingin’ Little Christmas!). “If it weren’t for Tony we wouldn’t be able to do it — we can send him a YouTube song that we want to do in like a 1940s or 1950s version and he orchestrates it with amazing music.”
The success of September’s show led to performing roughly 10 nights at the Largo, and in May they’ll be on the road for one gig in Minnesota and another in Wisconsin. “There’s no rhyme or reason as to where, my agent points the direction and I say okay,” explains Jane.
The script for Two Lost Souls is resting on our table, which Jane has brought ahead of a planned rehearsal tonight. Jane points at the paper and the highlighted sections for Kate. “I have to hand this to her because I sent this to her and I just know she didn’t print it out,” she says, with the joking exasperated sigh of a friend who knows her companion’s habits. “And she probably won’t read it, she’ll just glance at it because she’s much more loose and spontaneous than me. And that’s kind of our personas on stage: I’m holding down the fort and she’s kind of going off into crazy land.”
What’s their process for developing a show? Jane shrugs.
“It doesn’t really feel like a process,” she says. “It’s more like, oh, we haven’t met in a week, we should sing. It took us about three months of meeting” to devise Two Lost Souls. “The hardest part is choosing what we’re going to do, we sit there staring at each other with no ideas, and then we just start writing a bunch of stuff down; songs we want to sing — I send her songs, she sends me songs, then we cull it down to, I think, we have like 18 songs. The stuff that gets my brain in a wad is the patter in-between [the songs]. I want to make sure that’s solid because it’s comedic, you want your timing to be right, and I’m more precise and kind of persnickety about the beats. I like to build a cage around the show and play within those limits. Kate is much more free.”
The show’s title comes from the song of the same name that Kate suggested they perform. “I said it’s fantastic, and I think it’s the name of our show too,” Jane says. “There’s really no theme to it except songs we love to sing, with our little buffooneries inbetween.”
For example, the show includes arrangements of songs from the Barry Sisters, a Yiddish double act that performed from roughly the 1940s to the 1970s. Kate turned Jane on to the sisters’ rendition of “Far From the Home I Love” from Fiddler on the Roof. In the play it’s a heart-wrenching slow ballad, but the Barry Sisters gave it a rollicking folk beat, peppy and with tight harmonies.
Two Lost Souls also features one of Jane’s favorite Andrews Sisters songs, “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein,” which is another Yiddish tune that the Barry Sisters also performed. “So we combined both their arrangements into half-English, half-Yiddish by two Irish Catholic girls,” says Jane.
“Kate and I are both heavily influenced by our parents — who are mostly dead, though her dad’s still around, he’s 96 and an amazing guy – but it’s the music they grew up with, she really latched onto that, and I really latched onto that with my parents; they would sing songs together in harmony, war songs from the early 40s up through Benny Goodman and Mitch Miller and some musicals. I don’t know if her parents sang so much, but they loved music and we loved the music our parents loved.”
And then the door to Hugo’s opens and in darts Kate.
I wave and she hurries over to our table.
“I’m so sorry!” she exclaims as she sits down — just as Jane predicted. She’s dressed all in black, with a tiny black bow tie pinned to the left breast of her jacket. Just like Jane, she radiates friendliness. They immediately pick up the relaxed back-and-forth of good friends.
Jane reassures her good friend: “Hey honey, don’t worry about it. I told him you’re not a flake.” And then she slides the highlighted script across the table. “This is yours.”
Kate reads over it for a second, then has an a-ha moment. “Oh! For the show!” She laughs. “I thought you meant a script for this conversation.”
They chat about the upcoming rehearsal, and Jane’s work listening to tapes of their practices. “I gotta tell you, I was dreading it because I don’t the sound of my own voice. But then I started listening to it and immediately I did this” — her mouth stretches to a broad grin, and she leans toward my voice recorder — “I’m smiling with smug self-satisfaction. Because we’re so good.”
“I’m very excited about it,” says Kate about the show. “It’s like visiting an old friend.”
Kate’s sitting to my left, across from Jane and away from the window and sun (I’m in the literal hot seat). She tells us she’s just returned from a trip to Albuquerque where she was performing in a benefit. “What was the benefit for?” I ask.
“Who cares?” shouts Jane with a joking theatrical roll of the eyes.
We all laugh, then Kate follows up saying it was “to benefit me. I’m not endorsing anything.”
Jane nods, then points to the black bow tie on her friend’s jacket. “That’s in honor of Rose Marie, who was a wonderful actress on The Dick Van Dyke Show. She passed away last year, we got those at her memorial. She always wore a black bow on her hair after her husband died.”
“I was just thinking of Rose and put it back on,” says Kate. Then she playfully nudges me. “You’re too young and un-American to know what we’re talking about.”
With the three of us reunited, we talk about the tour for A Swingin’ Little Christmas! that saw Jane. Kate, Tim and Tony Guerroro’s band busing around America. “I loved it,” says Kate, “Although I felt very cool, and very old. I think I had four beers the entire trip.”
They praise many of the small towns they visited on the tour. Kate says, “I probably wouldn’t get on a plane to go to Athens, Georgia, but I had a good day there” — and the positive reaction from audiences in the festive spirit. “There’s kind of a mystical vibe at Christmas, it’s a great time to see towns putting their best food forward.”
Or, as Jane succinctly puts it, “I was in a good mood the whole fucking time.”
We’ve ordered food for Kate before her arrival, and it’s delivered just minutes before she shows up. So the three of us are able, more or less, to eat at the same time.
Jane, who says she and Kate are fairly regular diners at Hugo’s, is eating chicken breasts sautéed with mixed mushrooms, garlic and herbs, finished with Marsala wine, cream and butter and served with mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli.
Kate’s having the Very Green Casserole: broccolini, spinach, asparagus, zucchini, with garlic and herbs in a tomato-basil pesto sauce. It’s topped with a veggie patty and melted goat and mozzarella cheeses and served with organic mixed lettuce.
And my lunch is a basic staple, Eggs Benedict — poached eggs on toasted English muffins with Canadian Bacon and Hollandaise sauce and served with Breakfast potatoes. The food is as good as Jane and Kate said it would be, though I didn’t try their dishes.
While we eat, I joke with Kate that I need to ask her the same story about how she met Jane to make sure their tales line up. She confirms first meeting Jane in Chicago, and the benefit where they first performed “Far from the Home I Love” together. “We stole the show,” Kate says.
“I don’t think we got enough love after because everyone was so damn jealous,” adds Jane.
Kate tells me how they would frequently run into each other at award ceremonies where The Office and Glee were sometimes up for the same prizes. They developed a friendship that led to Jane asking Kate to join her in performing See Jane Sing and the more recent shows. Kate’s a fan of late 50s and early 60s jazz, and tells how she and Jane bounce song ideas off each other.
Nodding, Jane chips in to say that for Two Lost Souls they had one lunch that produced a list of roughly 25 songs to choose from, and then they scratched off the ones they won’t or can’t do. “I don’t want to do West Side Story,” says Jane. “But we had a great idea to do, and could still at some point, songs from guitar mass.”
This gets Kate’s attention. She smiles knowingly.
Jane continues, “When we were growing up, they started guitar mass in Catholic schools and some of those songs are a riot, trying to make songs about ‘eat his body, drink his blood’ sound like” and here her voice perks up as she starts to sing at the table, Kate joining:
Sons of God: Hear His Holy word,
Gather around the table of the Lord
Eat His Body, drink His Blood
And we’ll sing a song of love
Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleluia
“Someday,” says Kate. “We’ll try to offend the pope.”
Until the day when they rile the pontiff, they’re focused on helping each other make a success of their shows. As I chat with them, their different personalities are clear, and not too far off what they show on stage – Kate as the more laid-back one, Jane the take-charge one.
“I think we can wax philosophical about ourselves,” says Jane. “We’re so secure in who we’re playing, what our role is as a duo — I’m going to compare ourselves to some greats now, so please forgive me — Burns and Allen; they knew who Burns was and who she was.”
Kate chips in, “Lucy and Ethel.”
“And Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis,” Jane continues. “We have that too, we know who we are and we know how to set each other up from the truth within the personas that we play.”
So what are those personas?
“Sometimes I say I’m the sheepdog that knocks everything down and Jane’s like the nun that’s cracking me on the knuckles,” says Kate.
“But there’s affection, so when I crack her knuckles, it’s like, I’m sorry I did that.”
“I can take a shot, it’s all good,” Kate replies with a laugh. “I love working with Jane, but one thing that always scares me is I feel she has more faith in me than I have in myself.”
Jane waves away the comment with a “oh please” hand movement, but adds that of course she has faith in her partner. “That’s a thing we all say to ourselves that’s habitual, I don’t know if I’m good enough or if we’re going to do this,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll say we have to beat this out, we have to get this script right, and she’s like, ah, we’re fine. So we serve each other well.”
Kate agrees. “When we were on WGN Chicago doing publicity, we had to fill a minute with music. We could have done 10 minutes. And that’s just trusting what we know about each other. That’s the beauty of working with someone so long, we have a little secret language going on.”
And they say their shows are crafted to ensure everyone on stage gets applause, there’s no attempt to steal the spotlight. “We don’t count how many laughs the other person gets,” says Kate.
“Yeah, her laugh is my laugh,” adds Jane.
“What’s fantastic about Jane” is her willingness to experiment with their act, says Kate, despite her friend’s fame and being known by perhaps a large chunk of the audience from Glee. “And to be clear, Jane is a really big star, everyone knows who she is, you can’t walk down the street without recognizing her,” she says. “I was on a famous show but I don’t have that burden.”
“It’s also a joy” her partner interjects.
Kate continues, “That’s why I feel it’s nice, it’s like there’s a tennis game going on, I’m learning from her all the time, and I do learn from you because you embrace whatever you do. Some people get very weird when they when they get very famous. And we know people who have and it’s kind of a bummer because they kind of become a prisoner” of what made them famous.
Jane concurs. “They walk around holding on to some status in their mind that they believe is out there, but oh my god that is nebulous and could be crazy making.”
I ask Jane what she learns from Kate in doing the shows. The answer is almost instant: “The spontaneity. And trust. Even though sometimes you say you don’t trust yourself on stage,” she says, looking at Kate, “I completely trust you. And I don’t trust everybody. Sometimes you have to be on the lookout and hope they let you finish your joke because they don’t have the chops or they’re not concerned. But I completely trust that she’s rolling with me. It’s one of the most…”
“…symbiotic?” asks Kate.
“Yeah, symbiotic is the word, experiences, and I love it.”
One of the reasons they travel the country with their cabaret act is a desire to keep the tradition of live performances of their preferred songs alive. “I feel there’s such a need in the world of live music, we’re losing so many people, all these legends, and they kind of need us just because we’re an infusion of that energy, we’re honoring it but also doing our respectful spin on it,” says Kate.
But many viewers might not know that Kate can sing, and for those that haven’t seen Glee they might only know Jane from her comedic acting roles in films and other television shows. I wonder whether either of them has a preference for singing, acting, or comedy.
“I can’t pick,” answers Kate.
“I can’t pick either,” says Jane. “But I kind of look at what life is bringing to my doorstep, and it seems to be the live stuff and animation. Hollywood Game Night I never know if I’m going to do another one because we’re not on a regular schedule, but we’re on the bench always ready to come in as the utility player, and that’s fine with me. I kind of just take it as it comes.”
She pauses and smiles. “So I don’t have any ambitions is what I’m saying.”
Nevertheless, Jane remains busy with her many film and television appearances, including a recurring role as a Borscht belt comic in Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (she’s filming more scenes soon). “She’s got a shtick and a catchphrase, ‘Put that on ya plate,’ and then in real life she’s this very erudite, smug self-satisfied kind of upper class lady, so I get to play two different things.”
Jane says her work calendar isn’t as packed as in previous years, and that’s by choice. “I’m home a lot, I drink a lot of coffee,” she says. “I don’t have that burning white hot ambition that I used to have as a kid — a kid, I mean when I was in my 40s — I couldn’t wait for the next job, what’s it going to be, will it be big? I don’t have that at all anymore.”
Kate meanwhile continues to perform her monthly comedy show The Lampshades, in which she and her partner Scot Robinson play lounge performers. “It’s kind of like going to the gym, do it once a month and work out,” she says. “I have too much energy, Scot doesn’t have enough, that’s kind of the whole thing. These characters are trapped in a dying lounge act and the jokes get lower and wider if you know what I’m saying,” then gives me a knowing wink.
Other projects she’s working on including voice work for the Cartoon Network, a Hallmark Christmas movie last year, and more. “I’m all over the place but I kind of love that.”
“It makes me wanna take a nap,” says Jane.
Our lunch is drawing to a close, and I’ve heard them say nothing but good things about each other. So I ask a last question, whether there are any drawbacks of working together?
“No,” Jane says instantly. “We know how each other works, and we accept it, and it’s great.”
“Sometimes on the tour you can get sleep deprived,” says Kate, clearly struggling to think of any negatives. “But then people also understand the language of sleep deprived.”
“There’s really nothing, we’d be making shit up at this point,” adds Jane.
I tell them my day job back in Washington, DC, is a journalist covering the federal government, so in the spirit of fake news I’ll just make up quotes anyway. They laugh.
“Jane seethed…” she says, imagining the falsehoods in the article.
Her partner plays along: “Kate showed up passively aggressively late…”
One last joke, the two playing off each, getting a kick out of making the other laugh. It’s the droll routine they play on stage, but I’m learning this alluring duo isn’t an act off stage. They might sing about being lost souls, but in each other they’ve found the perfect partner.