comedy round table

Five of Hollywood's top comedic television performers, from left, Mindy Kaling ("The Mindy Project"), Don Cheadle ("House of Lies"), Jake Johnson ("New Girl"), Jon Cryer ("Two and a Half Men") and Matt LeBlanc ("Episodes") gather at The Times to talk shop. (Kirk McKoy, / Los Angeles Times)

Comedy is hard, in large part because it's supposed to look easy. Carefully crafted sentences must be delivered with both precision timing and a sense of spontaneity; a double-take that looks rehearsed is just embarrassing. The performers who joined The Envelope's comedy panel this year represent the ever-widening range of the genre — from the indestructible "Two and a Half Men" to the darkly R-rated "House of Lies" — but all are masters of comedic effortlessness.

When many were mourning the death of the sitcom, Jon Cryer, and his character Alan Harper, helped keep CBS' "Two and a Half Men" in the top spot even while former costar Charlie Sheen imploded and threatened to take the show with him (mercifully, he didn't.) Matt LeBlanc, who rose to fame in "Friends," which generated audiences so large the numbers now seem mythic, has, for two seasons going on three, played a version of himself on "Episodes," Showtime's delightful comedy about…making a television comedy. Mindy Kaling, formerly on "The Office," struck out on her own this year, both writing and starring in "The Mindy Project" (Fox), which dares to hope the rom-com is not dead. Jake Johnson is one of three men who have helped turn "New Girl" from a star vehicle for Zooey Deschanel into a strong and hilarious ensemble comedy; as Nick, he also may wind up eventually getting the Girl. And Oscar nominee and Iron Man compatriot Don Cheadle recently migrated to the small screen as the mendacious and sexy management consultant Marty Kaan on Showtime's "House of Lies;" last year, he won a Golden Globe for his performance.

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Of course, whenever you put a bunch of comedians together, there's always a risk — things could turn into a smart-mouth smack-down or they could just sit there, staring at each other, daring someone to expect them to be funny. Fortunately, these five were funny and generous, insightful and just plain smart about topics ranging from the importance of Twitter to the embarrassment of shower scenes.

Here is the transcript of that May 1 conversation with L.A. Times television critic Mary McNamara; it has been edited for length:

It is very hard for a comedy, even harder than a drama, to survive. What do people come to get from your particular shows?

Don Cheadle: I know why I enjoy it, and I know what I get out of the show. It's the kind of thing that I haven't seen before on TV and explores a world that I knew nothing about — management consulting. And I've since met a lot of them who say, "Your show is nothing like [what we do]" ... [Laughter.]

I certainly hope not. Why did you choose to go comedy and television?

Cheadle: I never had a demarcation line between the things that I would and wouldn't do. I just responded to the script; I thought it was really funny; I couldn't anticipate where it was going. The network was really kind to me and allowed my production company to come on and be a part of it. So it was a no brainer, really.

Jake Johnson: Our show works really because of Liz Meriwether. She's our writer and creator and she's got a very clear voice with everything. And having Zooey start it off, Fox really launched it on her shoulders. They put those "adorkable" photos everywhere. They were everywhere.

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That was a mixed blessing, "adorkable".

Johnson: You know, it was. For all the downside you could say about "adorkable" people knew it. It's like people tuned in to watch and to see what the hell "adorkable" was.

Jon Cryer: And she's it.

The show kind of shifted, became more of an ensemble. Was that the plan or did it just happen?

Johnson: You know, signing up to do a show called "New Girl" you're hoping it's an ensemble. [Laughter.] Honestly the writing changed pretty early. Max Greenfield, who plays Schmidt, really kind of blew it out, so we all kind of knew like, "well, everyone's gonna get a shot on this."

Mindy Kaling: Well, I think if you watch the show, you're probably someone who—I mean I love romantic comedies...

Really? You should discuss that more on your show. [Laughter.] Because that's a really good motif.

Kaling: Almost ad nauseam, I would even say now that the season's over. But so many romantic comedies are just so bad. And so I thought it would be great if it was just funny, you know? I liked that in "The Office" there was like a central love story but it was a comedy show. I think that's why people like ["Mindy"], and the cast is awesome. Like ["Mindy" costar] Chris Messina I think is not someone who people would've thought necessarily would be really funny. I feel like I turn on the TV and I see him getting tortured in Syria. [Laughter.] And I was like, "No, this guy, this guy's hilarious." We've gotten really fun guest stars. But, you know, this is a first-year show and we are not a hit show, we're like wannabe, so I'm still learning.

Cryer: Are you running the show? I mean you're running the show?