John Lutz, an actor known for 30 Rock and writer known for Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Seth Meyers, made quarantine a little more bearable with Mapleworth Murders, a hilarious short-form collaboration with fellow actress and writer Paula Pell.
The twelve-part show, which originally debuted on Quibi a full year ago and is now a Roku Original, stars Pell as Abigail Mapleworth, a mystery writer who solves crimes in her small town with the help of her niece Heidi (Hayley Magnus) and little assistance from two bumbling cops, Gilbert Pewntz (Lutz) and Chief Billy Bills (J.B. Smoove).
Pell, Lutz, and Smoove all earned Emmy nominations for acting in a short form comedy or drama series. Awards Radar had the chance to talk with Lutz about the genesis of this project, attracting top-tier talent, and his other great acting and writing work.
Q: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination!
A: Thank you, it’s a nice surprise.
Q: So this is number eight, but it’s your first for acting. How does that feel after so many years?
A: It’s pretty mind-blowing. I didn’t expect it at all. It’s cool because it’s also a project that I wrote with Paula, so it was a really fun experience and it’s nice to see that actually some people liked it too.
Q: What was the genesis of this project?
A: Basically, I had writer’s block, and my wife Sue Galloway, she’s also a performer and an improviser, she was like, you love Paula. You should go think of Paula ideas and she can be your muse. And so I went off and came up with a bunch of ideas. It took me basically fifteen minutes, came back to Sue and said, what about like a Miss Marple-type thing? Agatha Christie? And then she said, well, what if it’s more like Murder, She Wrote, and then it just all immediately clicked together because you can immediately visualize Paula as that type of character. And then I pitched it to Paula and she graciously said yes to do it.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to do this in a short form format?
A: No, it started off at Comedy Central and then they passed on it. And then when Quibi came along, it just kind of naturally fit that mold because you could have cliffhangers at the end of each short episode. So it actually worked out better for us.
Q: I feel like there have to be similarities between short-form like this and variety show sketches. Did you find that to be the case?
A: Sometimes, because most of the people who are in it were from SNL or from 30 Rock and all had sketch backgrounds. So you can have somebody like Maya doing a song and dance routine at the funeral with a stripper pole, it becomes a little sketch, like when she’s spinning around on it and doing splits and all that kind of stuff.
Q: There are so many terrific cameos on this show. Is there anyone you were particularly excited to get or that you didn’t think you’d be able to get that you did?
A: It was just a blast because we got to play with all our friends. There were a few people that I didn’t know before this, like Wanda Sykes was awesome to get, and she came in and she just was super funny doing her part and it was crazy to have her come in for just like half a day and nail her part and then go and just be like, that was Wanda Sykes. She came and did our stupid little show. It was amazing. So that was fun. I’m trying to think. Oh, and we got Andy Samberg, but I know him, so no biggie.
Q: Is half a day the extent of the time commitment you needed from these stars?
A: We worked around it. We figured that a lot of people, their schedules would be crazy, and so we tried to write parts that were bigger, like Maya’s part is bigger, she was in a bunch of episodes, Jack McBrayer had a bunch of episodes, but somebody like Samberg, we wrote really short stuff and he gets killed off. We pitched it to the people who had bigger time commitments that they would be killed immediately, so I think that was the carrot to get them to do it.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to star?
A: I always wanted to perform with Paula, because Paula and I, when we worked at SNL, when we would write together, we would pretty much perform the sketches as we wrote them. And so I knew that I could play this Barney Fife-type dumdum sheriff’s deputy really well, so I thought it would be fun, and then Paula came up with the idea that I was always hitting on her and madly in love with her even though she’s completely and fully a lesbian. But he’s going to wait it out, he knows it’s going to happen someday. So it’s just fun to play off of Paula in that dynamic.
Q: And there was never a chance that she was going to return his affection in any draft or version of this show?
A: Oh, never never never. I mean, she would say continually, she’s not a fan of the kickstand. But I always knew that it would happen someday in my character Gilbert Pewntz’s head, but never. She wouldn’t go for it.
Q: Who do you think is more incompetent, Gilbert or Billy?
A: I think Billy is, because he actually is in charge of Gilbert, so he’s doubly responsible for how bad they are.
Q: What can you say about J.B. Smoove as an actor and working with him?
A: The best. We knew him from SNL days too, and we just knew that if we give him these lines, he would make them funny, but then he could also go for a good fifteen minutes. I think the first time you see him, he’s talking about maraschino cherries in the chocolates and he would improvise for like ten minutes about eating chocolates, and it would be hilarious every time, and we were just kind of like, we don’t have so much money, you have to only improvise for ten minutes. You can’t do these half-hour riffs. We had a lot of fun cutting his stuff up because it was just all gold.
Q: I think my favorite part of might have been when he just couldn’t remember Heidi’s name eight or nine times in a row. What can you say about Hayley Magnus?
A: She was the best. She auditioned. She was the only part we didn’t really have in our heads of who it was going to be. And so we had auditions and the second I saw her audition, I knew that she was the part. She just had the quality we were looking for to play off of Paula. And also the fact that she’s super skinny and tall and Paula is short and a little round, it looks really fun to play off of those things. Also, the fact that she was from Australia, we were thinking that we might have her do an American accent, but then the second we saw her audition it’s like, no we want her to stay herself so that you can have her very dry comic timing that worked great off of Paula.
Q: This show premiered last year on Quibi, which of course didn’t make it as a network, but then it was acquired by Roku. First of all, can people still watch this show somewhere?
A: Yes, as of the 13th of August on Roku. It’s finally coming out. I know they did some stuff with Reno 911 and a couple other Quibi shows that are already on Roku and then this is their second rollout of the Quibi shows. So now I have to figure out how to get a Roku. People always ask us where they can see it and it’s like, finally!
Q: Does that mean there’s a chance we’ll get a season two?
A: I hope so. I think Roku has to see how it does on their platform, but if they do like it, Paula and I are ready to go. We have like three or four episodes already that we didn’t do, and she lives up here now, in upstate New York, so we can just film in her house.
Q: I also think that, unlike a lot of Quibi content that marketed that you could watch it portrait or landscape, this is not as gimmicky, this is about the story and the fun. I think you could do very well on Roku. Watching on the phone isn’t as important, right?
A: I always liked it better horizontal, because that’s the way you’d see on TV. We shot it and our set design and the costumes and everything was so good. Our town had the feel to it, and whenever you went to that vertical angle, you lost something. So I like it better that you just watch it one way. So I hope they’re not going to do it vertical on Roku. That would be crazy.
Q: Do you have a recommended viewing pattern for people who haven’t seen the show yet? How many episodes at a time?
A: Honestly, every three episodes is like a story, so it’s kind of like one episode of TV. You could watch them all and be done with it, and it’s like watching an hour and fifteen minutes of television. It’s like a movie. So I would say either watch just one or watch them all. Don’t do it half-assed.
Q: You played a writer on 30 Rock, but you weren’t actually a writer on that show, right?
Q: It’s confusing though, you admit it, right?
A: I was confused. Because I was still writing at SNL at the time. So what would happen is, I would be writing at SNL on a Tuesday night, we would do an all-night writers’ night, then I would get on the train and go to Silvercup to shoot 30 Rock as a writer playing Lutz on that show. Then I would leave there and go back to SNL for a table read, then go back to 30 Rock, I mean Silvercup – see, I’m even getting confused. I was just going back and forth, there were times where I didn’t sleep for like two and a half days straight, going back and forth between the two. And everything at 30 Rock looked like it was at 30 Rock. The rugs were the same, the elevators looked the same. It screwed with my mind.
Q: Due to the fact that you played a character who has almost the same name as you, do you find that people who meet you get you confused with that actual character?
A: Sometimes they’re surprised that it’s my real name and then I have to let them know that I am not completely like the character, because that character was a little messed up. But yeah, they also can’t believe that I’m married to Sue Galloway. So that always messes with their minds too, that Sue Laroche-Van der Hout and Lutz are actually married.
Q: You’ve worked on other great series like Seth Meyers and SNL. What’s the secret to writing a really memorable and funny sketch?
A: Oh boy. It’s a very good question because it eludes me very often. I think it’s when, at least for SNL, you could get the cast member to shine and then also get the host to shine. The cool thing about SNL was that you always had a new host each week, so you can always write to those people. When I wrote for Will Forte the dancing coach scene with Peyton Manning in the locker room, it was fun because Forte was able to dance like an idiot and be hilarious in the sketch by himself, but then you also gave Peyton something fun to do, because he got up and danced with him. So then they’re both having a good time, and when the host is having a good time, then the cast members have a good time and then that usually ends up being a good sketch.
Q: You made an Audible comedy called Escape from Virtual Island. What was that process like, and will you do it again?
A: I will never do that again. It was like 360-some-odd pages of script. It was insane. It was super fun. And it’s really funny because almost all the same people that were in Mapleworth or 30 Rock, they were the voices for this. So it was fun. The recording part of it was very fun. The writing part, I had to force myself just to write like ten pages a day because It was me writing it by myself. It became an exercise in just how to how to crank pages out. So, I’m glad I did it, because then when you write a Quibi, which is ten minutes long, that’s cake!
Q: What do you have coming up next?
A: Well, right now, I’m just focusing on Late Night with Seth Meyers and then hopefully after Roku has Mapleworth on for a while, hopefully we’ll be able to do another, fill out the season and then another season of that, because Mapleworth Murders was literally the best working experience of my life. So I would love to do it again. And Paula would disagree. She hated it. That’s not true. Not true at all. This is the only time I can actually make fun of her because she’s not here.
Mapleworth Murders is a Roku Original that is now streaming on The Roku Channel.