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Then and Now

How Jillian Bell's Improv Skills Have Made Her A Scene-Stealer In TV And Movies

The "Workaholics" and "22 Jump Street" actress on fear as motivation and creating "Idiotsitter" with her best friend Charlotte Newhouse.

How Jillian Bell's Improv Skills Have Made Her A Scene-Stealer In TV And Movies
[Photo: Ron Batzdorff, courtesy of Comedy Central]

From Curb Your Enthusiasm to Workaholics to 22 Jump Street, Jillian Bell has consistently crafted standout roles for herself in other people's star vehicles. She is such a gifted scene stealer and improv performer that Jonah Hill famously told the press he was quitting show business after acting opposite Bell in 2014's 22 Jump Street—Bell played Mercedes in the film and hit Hill's Schmidt with a barrage of brilliant ad-libbed putdowns—because she was the funniest person he had ever met, and he felt like she had exposed him as a fraud. Hill was being jokingly dramatic when he said that, of course, but the movie star was also paying Bell a legit compliment.

Anyone who knows her work would agree that Bell has long deserved her own project in which to further showcase her talent, and she now has one in the form of Idiotsitter, which she co-created and co-stars in alongside her best friend Charlotte Newhouse, whom she met when the two were performing at the Los Angeles improv company The Groundlings.

The series premieres on Comedy Central tonight, and Bell is cast as the idiot on the show—an out-of-control woman child who is placed under house arrest in her parents’ mansion. Newhouse plays the Harvard-educated sitter who isn’t thrilled about the idea of babysitting for an adult but can’t say no to the money.

Here, Bell, who can currently be seen in the film The Night Before, takes Co.Create through some of the highlights of a career that has included a writing gig at Saturday Night Live and roles in two of director Paul Thomas Anderson's films, The Master and Inherent Vice, and she also talks about why she is so thrilled to have created Idiotsitter with her best friend.

Jillian Bell in Idiotsitter

PLAYING IT SAFE WAS NEVER AN OPTION

Bell can't remember a time when she didn't want a career in comedy. "I always knew I wanted to do comedy. I loved making people laugh, especially my family," says Bell, who grew up in Las Vegas.

She got an early start on her comedic training—her parents enrolled her in an improv class when she was just eight years old. "My mom and dad thought it would be a great place for me to go and sort of be creative and wild because I was probably a slightly annoying child," Bell says. "It was a cool place for them to put me for a couple of hours where I could really use my imagination."

After high school, Bell enrolled in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but she only stuck it out for one semester before leaving school to move to Los Angeles to try to get into comedy. Bell had promised her parents she would return to college after a few months in Los Angeles, but she never went back. "I didn’t really have a backup plan. I'm not good at really anything else," Bell says. "So I was really, really putting all my chips on this one."

In Los Angeles, Bell began taking classes at The Groundlings, and she doesn't know where she would be without the training and support she got there. "I learned everything there. I learned the right way to improv. I learned how to write for myself and for others. I developed characters. It taught me everything," she says.

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: THE FIRST BIG GIG

When Bell was cast on as a crop-top wearing assistant in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm while still at The Groundlings, she was excited yet terrified. "I showed up one day, and they walked me over and introduced me to Jerry Seinfeld and then told me, 'He's about to be in a scene with you,' " she recalls.

Being thrown into a situation that required she tap into her improv skills—the show was outlined, not scripted—with the likes of Larry David and Seinfeld was a great learning experience for Bell, and she rose to the occasion. "People always say if you're acting with someone who's better than you, it makes you better, and that's so true with comedy as well," she says.

As for having to wear the midriff-baring tops her character favored, "I think every girl would be a little uncomfortable if they're not a size two playing that part," Bell says, "but it was bold and daring, and I feel like I tried to live up to it with everything else I’ve done in my career. It's good to do something that's a little bit scary."

Bell in WorkaholicsPhoto: Adam Newacheck, courtesy of Comedy Central

NEXT: THE SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE AUDITION

Saturday Night Live regularly mines The Groundlings for talent, and Bell was invited to fly to New York City to audition for the iconic series after SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels saw her perform as part of the improv theater's Sunday Company.

Bell didn’t get cast, though, and she was disappointed. To her surprise, she got a call a couple of weeks after her audition about possibly being a writer for SNL’s 2009 season. She flew out to New York City to meet with then head writer Seth Meyers, was told she got the job that very evening and started working on the show the next day.

But Bell didn’t stay with SNL beyond that one season. When she went back to Los Angeles for the summer, she was offered the role of socially awkward office manager Jillian Belk on the Comedy Central series Workaholics, and she couldn’t resist the opportunity perform. "You know, honestly, I always wanted to be in the cast of Saturday Night Live. That was always a dream of mine, and when it didn’t happen, I had to go back to what I truly love, which is performing and acting," Bell says. "Workaholics was a blessing that appeared, and from there on out, I had new dreams and new goals, and I feel that it has now turned out for the best. But I do appreciate my experience [at Saturday Night Live] and what has come from it."

EXPANDING INTO DRAMA

While she is trained as a comedic performer, Bell has had small parts in two Paul Thomas Anderson films—first The Master, then Inherent Vice. "He watched Workaholics and asked me to come in and audition for this role in The Master, and I was lucky enough to get it," says Bell, who says it was a privilege to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix work.

How does working in drama compared to comedy? "I could be in a scene with Jonah Hill or Seth Rogen and feel fine, feel very comfortable, but doing anything in a drama is something I want to do but is definitely terrifying for me because when I'm doing a comedy, I can tell I'm doing well if I can hear the cameraman snickering, trying to hold in a laugh," Bell says. "With a drama, I don't know how to judge, what to base it off of, if I'm doing a good job."

That said, Bell wants to do more and bigger drama parts in the future. "Just like I said about Curb Your Enthusiasm, being challenged in some way is good, and drama is challenging in a different way. I think it's important to push yourself and not get too comfortable," she says, "and it's really important for me to try to step away from doing the same role over and over again. Even in comedy, I'm doing my best to try to pick characters that are different from the last thing that I did so I don’t get stuck in one thing."

Scene from 22 Jump StreetVideo: courtesy of Columbia Pictures

THE IMPACT OF 22 JUMP STREET

Every successful performer has that one job that makes them known and propels them forward in a big way, and, for Bell, it was 22 Jump Street. "22 Jump Street was just a game changer for me," she says. "It was the first movie where I felt like I had a substantial part, and I started to get more recognized because of it. So that changed my life, and I just felt really proud of the work."

Improvising with Jonah Hill was a real treat, says Bell, who took notice of how professional and encouraging both he and Channing Tatum were with the entire cast. "I was not shocked, but I was just surprised by how supportive everybody was of each other. It wasn't like, 'Okay, now it’s my turn to say something funny.' Everybody was trying to make the best film possible."

Bell had actually seen the first film—21 Jump Street—twice in the theaters. "I saw it once by myself, which is very nerdy to admit," she says, "but I love the movie. I thought Phil and Chris [Phil Lord and Christopher Miller], the directors, did such a good job of making this action comedy that still had so much heart to it."

IDIOTSITTER: MAKING SOMETHING FOR HERSELF

Comedy Central had been asking Bell if she had any projects in mind for awhile, and she was keen to create something with her friend Newhouse. "I just thought there would be no better project than writing one with my best friend and being on a show together," Bell says.

She also wanted to make a show with two females as the leads, noting, "I haven’t gotten to do a lot of anything where it's female driven."

So she and Newhouse pitched Idiotsitter to Comedy Central, sticking with the project even when network executives weren't convinced. "They liked it, but they weren't sure about it as a TV show. So we did it as a web series, and we sort of just used it as a way to show Comedy Central what the look of the show and the feel of it would be, what our chemistry was like, the cast we would get and the writing," Bell says.

Bell and Newhouse have been writing partners since they first met at The Groundlings, and Bell values their creative partnership. "Charlotte and I have such a close relationship. We literally call each other our husband, and we sort of share a brain in a weird way," she says. "It's like we're two totally different people, but when we get together to write, it's like we have this weird little brain child—I'll start a sentence, and she finishes it. We just get each other. We're on the same level when we write and to have someone to bounce ideas off of or motivate me when nothing's coming, it's a necessity for me right now. I love it, and I love that we have each other."

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