There’s product placement that literally shoves the product down your throat, and then there’s Easy to Assemble, Illeana Douglas’ IKEA-sponsored series that gently incorporates its sponsor into a semi-absurdist workplace comedy. The second season got a red carpet premiere last night at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles; I spoke with Douglas on Tuesday via phone as she drove to a rehearsal for the in-show band Sparhusen, as well as at the post-screening reception last night. An edited transcript follows.
NewTeeVee: What was the inspiration for creating the series that eventually became Easy to Assemble, Supermarket of the Stars?
Douglas: There are so many actors and not enough work for them — so I started to think, what if you hired actors to perform in the supermarket? Because as the venues for entertainment change we’re going to have to find different places to entertain, because actors are always going to want to act. They’ll open up a tent and do magic tricks or act, because actors are not going to stop acting.
NewTeeVee: Do you feel like there’s a metaphor in that for actors finding work in the web series world today?
Douglas: It’s interesting. When I originally thought of this idea, a lot of people said that’s far-fetched, you know, Jeff Goldblum in your supermarket, and of course now it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
NewTeeVee: It also wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Jeff Goldblum on a web series these days. The new season has a great cast, including Keanu Reeves as a Swedish music producer in the spin-off series Sparhusen. How did you bring him onboard?
Douglas: He was in the band Dogstar with Rob Mailhouse, who worked on our music [and also plays Paul in the series]. So they’re good friends.
NewTeeVee: Also, Justine Bateman’s work on the show, playing a fictionalized version of herself, is fantastic. Have you thought about breaking out her 40 and Bitter talk show-within-a-show as a separate series?
Douglas: Yeah, we definitely want to do that, depending on what happens with the third season and our sponsorship.
NewTeeVee: So why did you decide to move the second season to My Damn Channel?
Douglas: Rob Barnett, the president, takes it very all personally, and he cares about the artists and we get to have ownership. A lot of places don’t allow you to retain ownership, which is really unfair, because when you do these web shows it’s obviously a bit of a sacrifice financially. Plus, they had all my favorite people: Harry Shearer, Wainy Days and You Suck at Photoshop were actually my favorite shows on the web.
NewTeeVee: So what do you consider to be your goals for this and upcoming seasons?
Douglas: To continue to work with IKEA, because they’ve been so fantastic, and to bring in other companies as possible co-sponsors to the show. Another dream company would be Volvo because they are also Swedish, and they seem to have good ethics and good morals. That’s really what we are looking for.
We consider ourselves on par with the Joffrey Ballet or anyone else really out there who is struggling to survive as an artist. That’s really our goal — to be able to pay our rent, keep going, and keep our fans happy. I really consider this kind of entertainment as akin to public television — we’re going to need some help to keep artists alive in our society.
NewTeeVee: How do you approach juggling the sponsorship angle with the need to create art? Is it key to like and approve of the sponsor?
Douglas: Well, it’s a case-by-case basis, depending on the company. Obviously, there are some companies I wouldn’t want to work with. It depends on how much input that they let the artists have, how much of it is about the product. IKEA really seems to work well with me.
It’s also about identifying what you like about the brand. IKEA reflects a lot of ideas that I really believe in. And I find the behind-the-scenes workings of that company absolutely fascinating.
NewTeeVee: How much of Easy to Assemble is based on reality?
Douglas: Oh, many many things. Our executive there, Magnus Gustafsson, has a lot of input in terms of the script, keeping things truthful. Usually the things he tells me are much funnier than anything I have thought of. I’m always really surprised and delighted by some of the Swedish expressions.
NewTeeVee: Is all the Swedish on the show really Swedish?
Douglas: Oh, yeah. Although last year we got a lot of heat because we cast a Norwegian to play a Swede and they were like, He’s not Swedish, he’s Norwegian! There’s a lot of precision with the Swedes. That’s another one of our goals: to take the show to Sweden, meet people, work there. I’ve never been there — I’m dying to go there. Because yes, I’ve become obsessed with the culture and the land.
NewTeeVee: You clearly find Sweden to be a really good source of comedy. What in particular do you think drives yourself toward that?
Douglas: You know, I’m not really sure. I grew up Italian; I never really thought much about the Nordic countries. But when I started doing the show, I started doing a lot of research. I guess their socialist mentality, a lot of their philosophies about not standing out…They have a twinkle in their eyes, and they like to swim in very freezing cold weather. Their music is incredible. I just think they’ve got it going on.
NewTeeVee: What would you consider the Swedish influence on Easy?
Douglas: Everything Ingmar Bergman’s done. I mean, I know our show is a comedy, but in terms of my homework, he and Peter Sellers are my guiding influences for what I want to do. Because it’s a subtle comedy, kind of like Chekov. It’s not like there are big jokes there; the humor comes out of the situation. That’s what I’m aiming for.
NewTeeVee: How do you to approach balancing web and other film and TV work?
Douglas: It’s definitely challenging, but luckily I have a laptop and just bring it with me everywhere. Anytime I get exhausted, I think about how lucky I am to even be making a living. And I try to think: What would Ingmar Bergman do?