“He’s like a tiny prisoner. He’s a huge superstar who’s a prisoner.”
A couple of years into their tenure as writers on Saturday Night Live, Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider got an opportunity to witness firsthand the absurdity of childhood fame. Justin Bieber, then an 18-year-old transitioning from “child star” to “troubled former child star,” was hosting the show for the first—and, to date, only—time; five years later, Bill Hader and Jay Pharoah mutually agreed Bieber was the single worst-behaved guest of their respective tenures. But Kelly and Schneider saw something richer, and slightly sadder, than just a spoiled youth acting out. “Looking from the outside, he was still a kid, and he had been thrust into the spotlight so young,” Schneider elaborates. “So much of how he interacted with people had been informed by that.”
The two writers insist Bieber isn’t the basis for ChaseDreams (Case Walker), né Dubek, the tween sensation at the center of their new Comedy Central series The Other Two, premiering Thursday night. (They did, however, work a Scooter Braun anecdote about Bieber getting sick from a crash diet of raw egg whites into the pilot.) For one thing, Chase is hardly an enfant terrible, or at least he isn’t yet. After going viral for the playground ballad “Marry U at Recess,” Chase remains an earnest 13-year-old in over his head, making for a richer contrast with his much older siblings Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke).
“It’s not just that they’re jealous,” Kelly explains of the family dynamic. “It would be easier if ‘Oh, if he’s famous, then he’s a little shithead.’ They can just be like, ‘Our little brother sucks. We hate him.’ But it’s better that they care for him, that they’re protective of him, that they love him, that they are proud of him, and they secretly are a little envious.”
Not unlike the Dubek family, Kelly and Schneider are navigating a transition of their own. After six seasons at SNL, one spent sharing the duties of head writer, the duo have segued from the grueling rhythm of live television to the equally grueling, if more protracted, effort of launching their first scripted series. “There was a little bit of, not a depression, but getting off a roller coaster, like a fun ride. It’s still and quiet, and you go to bed a little earlier,” Kelly says of leaving SNL in 2017. “But once we started getting into the flow of this show, it was fulfilling in a completely different way. You didn’t have to just be responding to the news. You didn’t have to write something in one night and then have it just be on TV. You could take time and really think about what you were writing.”
The result of that process is a confidently hilarious debut, combining the joke density of a comedy boot camp with the emotion audiences expect, even from a show with 11-year-old influencers. Each of the Dubeks carries their own baggage to the funhouse mirror of Chase’s newfound fame: Cary is a struggling actor—like, staged-flash-mobs-for-tourists struggling—still not entirely at peace with his sexuality; Brooke has never found a direction in life after she gave up dancing, drifting from apartment squat to dim-witted boyfriend; their mother, Pat, a Midwesterner fond of embroidered pillows and Shonda Rhimes’s Year of Yes, was widowed a year prior under circumstances the show leaves mysterious. (Pat is played by Molly Shannon, the star of Kelly’s deeply personal 2016 dramedy Other People.) Misanthropes in close proximity to the success they crave but can never quite reach is a time-tested source of laughs, most recently on Hulu’s Difficult People. The Other Two preserves the sharp, show-business satire allowed by such a setup while adding an element of grounded, genuine drama.
“[Fame] is the backdrop, but we primarily wanted this to be a show about family and the relationships within a family, and that’s just kind of the catalyst,” Schneider says. “We always wanted, like, ‘What would Cary be dealing with this year, in general? What would be coming to a head for him?’” Kelly adds. “‘What would Brooke be dealing with? What would Pat be dealing with as a single, widowed woman? What are all those things they’d be doing in a year? Let’s add fame to it.’ We almost tried to think the show could work without the fame.” But once it’s there, the full-length music video for “My Brother Is Gay (and That’s Okay)” justifies itself.
Kelly and Schneider knew of one another before they were independently hired at SNL in 2011, though they hadn’t worked together closely. “I remember finding out who got hired with me that year and being excited because I knew Chris, and I knew he was super funny,” Schneider recalls. It didn’t take long for the two to realize they shared both a comedic sensibility and what Kelly calls a “meticulous, overthink-y, very Type A” work ethic. “We tended to like the same versions of sketch comedy, like taking small specific things and blowing them up,” Schneider says. “We were drawn to kind of the same types of pieces, which were a little smaller, a little slightly darker, a little political or timely or topical.”
By their second season at the show, the two had formed a partnership and worked together almost exclusively. “At SNL, it’s such a crazy schedule that once something starts working for you, you’re just like, ‘Well, I’m only gonna do that ’cause I don’t wanna stray and then [have] it not work,’” Kelly says. And the more Kelly and Schneider collaborated, the more in sync they became. “I would say my sensibility grew with Chris’s,” Schneider admits. “We kind of came into [SNL] knowing what we liked, but we were young. We were in our mid-20s.” Their shared sense of humor, frequently enacted with cast members Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, came to include such pieces as “Dance of the Snowflakes,” “Dyke and Fats,” “Bern Your Enthusiasm,” and in a crucial precursor to The Other Two, a viral series of female-led music videos, starting with “(Do It on My) Twin Bed.”
Musical comedy is clearly baked into the premise of a story about a pint-sized pop sensation, but Chase’s fictional hits ended up requiring a slightly different skill set than the deliberately broad parody of “Back Home Ballers.” “At SNL, you write jokes, basically,” Schneider explains. “They have to be full jokes, ‘cause you’re getting an audience to laugh. In this, we just wanted it to feel authentic, like authentic satires of what kids’ songs and pop songs are. We really try to toe the line between like, ‘This is clearly a comedy song’ and ‘Oh, this could actually be real if four words were different.’”
To that end, Kelly and Schneider embarked on an extended deep dive into today’s youth entertainer landscape, particularly on platforms like YouTube and Musical.ly, the lip-syncing app now known as TikTok where they initially discovered Walker. (The Other Two is Walker’s first conventional acting job; in adjusting to the new medium, he picked up Shannon’s habit of heavily annotating her scripts.) There, they gathered inspiration for Chase and his family’s trajectory through the surreal world of pop image-craft. Nevertheless, The Other Two is meant to be Cary and Brooke’s story, not Chase’s; early on, Kelly and Schneider made the deliberate choice never to show the youngest Dubek except through the eyes of his disoriented, amused, perpetually skeptical siblings. Which means The Other Two is uncannily skilled at capturing a very particular part of the millennial experience: total alienation from pop culture made by and for people just a few years younger than you, even as you technically still fall into advertisers’ traditional definition of the youth market.
Often, the YouTube ecosystem and traditional celebrity feel like parallel universes, not in conversation with one another so much as totally separate. “What is it in Stranger Things? It’s just a fully parallel existence happening at the same time, and we don’t touch each other,” Kelly says. “We did this thing where we were giving [Walker] names of people who were very famous to us to see if he had ever heard of them, and he had not heard of very famous people. And then he listed off all the people who are the most famous people to him, and we hadn’t heard of them at all.” Naturally, this feeling inspires a certain amount of fear and confusion, but also sincere, if grudging, respect. “It’s really easy for us to look at that whole culture and be like, ‘What are they even doing? I don’t get this. This is stupid. This is all a bunch of teens on the internet talking to each other.’ [But] the more you realize they created an entire world for themselves and then they’ve become successful in their world, it’s only impressive,” Schneider observes. “If I were to post videos online when I was 13, I would go to jail. They would be so bad.”
Such natural confidence makes for an inherently funny contrast with Cary and Brooke’s struggles. “That’s what we talked about when we talked about the age difference: how weird it is for an 8-year-old to be like, ‘I’m 8 and I’m famous and here’s my brand and here’s what I believe in and here’s who I am and I’m ready,’” Kelly says. “That’s not something we relate to, ’cause I feel like we relate to figuring yourself out in your 20s and failing.” So while Chase enters his first fake relationship and sublets Justin Theroux’s bachelor pad, complete with a motorcycle that’s also a toilet, Cary auditions for “man at party who smells fart,” while Brooke hops from crash pad to ill-advised booty call.
As insightful as The Other Two can be about Generation Z, some of its sharpest jokes come from the obvious point of view of coastal 30-somethings. The show’s influences can be found in its family tree: The writers’ room includes Broad City’s Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs, Difficult People’s Cole Escola, and Search Party’s Jordan Firstman; Yorke may be most recognizable for her previous role in High Maintenance, where Kelly and Schneider first spotted her. Telling references include a brief cameo from Real Housewife Tinsley Mortimer, a fake episode of Watch What Happens: Live with Andy Cohen, and a shot-for-shot parody of the credits scene in Call Me by Your Name, a sight gag that both sent me to the floor and left me wondering how widely such a joke could possibly play.
“We watched it with cast and crew when we did a screening, and I think people lost their minds when that came on. Then I watched it with my mother and brother and it was dead silent. They didn’t know what it was,” Schneider recounts of the same scene. “You can’t please everyone,” Kelly shrugs. “Not everyone is gonna get every joke, so we try to be like, ‘As long as it’s making us laugh, we’ve gotta assume that at least someone else will get it.’” The seeming paradox that going narrow is the best way to go broad proves especially true for The Other Two, which gets at universal experiences like family, loss, and envy through throwaway swipes at Ellen DeGeneres and Antoni Porowski.
Poignance through cynicism is arguably the show’s defining credo. “It’s not just a silly, ‘We’re jealous of our brother,’” Kelly argues. “It’s like, ‘Oh, my brother’s fame has me have to deal with my sexuality or has to deal with who I am as a woman.’” And while Cary and Brooke get swept up, The Other Two takes flight.