From “Happy Endings” to “FUBAR,” Adam Pally’s goal is to “find the unexpected” chaos in each role

Adam Pally knows that you think of him as the wild guy. In almost all of his roles, from the loveable, slovenly Max on “Happy Endings” to the titular interloper of 2023’s “Who Invited Charlie?” The 41-year-old actor and performer always seems to gravitate toward havoc. It’s a bit of typecasting that stems partly from reality. Recollecting his improv years during “Salon Talks” (which we filmed on June 20 before SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA in its labor strike), Pally begins an anecdote of his early years by saying, “If you liked to party after a show, which I don’t know if you can tell by the way I look, I do . . .”

In the Arnold Schwarzenegger Netflix series “FUBAR,” Pally plays a similarly off-the-rails character, a shady operator known only as the Great Dane. But the home owner and middle-aged father of three is also a gifted storyteller, musician and character actor. “Chaos can be thought of as a negative word, but it also means that things are happening that are unexpected,” he said. “To me, that’s where the real meat on the bone is.”

During our interview, Pally opened up about what he learned from working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, why in spite of appearing in multiple blockbuster franchises he doesn’t have a “dream” role and how he’s figured out how to party hard when “I still have to go to work in the morning.” Watch Adam Pally on “Salon Talks” here.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about your “FUBAR” character, the Great Dane. Who is this guy?

The Great Dane is a weapons expert, family man, who got caught up in a Turkish prison and is trying to ride his sentence out. He’s fast talking. He knows what he is doing is illegal, but he’s made a deal that you can pull the thread on anything and it’s kind of illegal, from the clothes we wear to the phones we use. They call him The Great Dane because he looks like a dog, not because he is Danish.

You get to do action with the G.O.A.T., Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yes, I do action with the G.O.A.T.

You do a lot of physical stuff in your comedy. What did you learn from doing action with Arnold Schwarzenegger

“I don’t dream about getting the call for anything because most of my career is self-generated.”

I think you learn from everybody. You take a little from everybody, and Arnold has one of the best on-set demeanors and vibes of any actor I’ve ever worked with, especially someone so ubiquitous and from my childhood, a true hero and millionaire. Those people tend to have a lot of things around them that makes it difficult to get to know them, and Arnold is just out there sitting on the same apple box that you are, talking about the Italian food he had last night. You can tell when you watch the show that everyone feels good when they’re around him, and I think I learned how to do that from him.

And you get to work with some other people in comedy. You’re back with Fortune Feimster.

Fortune. I can’t get away from Fortune, even in my personal life. I love Fortune. We’re old, old close friends, and if she called me to be in the middle of the country tomorrow, I would be there.

You tend to get cast as the guy who comes in and creates chaos with all these other actors, who are also known as chaotic, like Ben Schwartz or Fortune. What is it about your background in improv that speaks to this approach to a role?

You learn how to act in the moment, and so you look for things. Chaos can be thought of as a negative word, but it also means that things are happening that are unexpected. To me, that’s where the real meat on the bone is, because anybody can take a scene that’s written and say it verbatim, but to find the unexpected in it that maybe even the writer didn’t know was in there and then go with it and make it all OK, that’s the common thread.

When I talked to Reid Scott earlier this year, he talked about improvising with you on “Who Invited Charlie?” and finding that sweet spot of going off the leash, but also being disciplined with the director. How do you create that balance when you’re working on a set with people who have different degrees of comfort with scripted work and improvisational work and physical work?

It’s just trust. You just have to really trust the people you’re working with. Sometimes it’s blind. Sometimes you’re just like, “Well, put me in a position, and I’ll do what you say.” Sometimes you have more of a thought to it, and so there’s a conversation, and sometimes it’s yours, so it runs the gamut. It’s just trusting the process and the people. 

I continue to work with the same people because I trust them. More importantly, they trust me, which is worth its weight in gold that a Sam Richardson or a Ben Schwartz or Fortune Feimster continue to work with me. I think it’s because they trust me that I’ll have their back too.

You’ve been at this for 20 years. You are not the college student creating chaos in that college-aged guy way.

No, it’s not cute anymore.

You are a family man. You are a homeowner. You are a serious adult.

I am a homeowner. I have a mortgage.

How do you see yourself evolving now as an actor and a performer? You are now in a different stage in your life. What does acting mean to you now?

It means more to me now. Especially over the pandemic and then the years that ensued, and even the years before a little bit, I just realized how much I enjoy working and enjoy being on a set and enjoy taking a project and throwing yourself into it and working with people. I really like the collaborative nature of it. So it means more to me because if I’m working, I want to cherish those times because I don’t know how many more times there’ll be. Not that anything’s wrong or anything.

“I’m hoping that the studios will pay the writers and we can get back to work.”

An actor’s shelf life is small, and there are actors that go through droughts of years at a time without working. I never know when my number’s going to be up as far as people wanting to work with me. I feel like any chance I get to work, I really, really relish it now. In a way, when I was younger, I was happy to do it, but it was like, “Yeah, that’s what I do.” Now, I feel so lucky to do it.

I’ve heard you talk about moments in your career where you thought, “Is this it? Is my career over? Am I going to be able to come back from certain things?”

Yes, I still think that all the time. When you grow through the industry, it’s really exciting because you’re like, “Oh, I’m going from a supporting player to someone they’re putting all this faith in.” And then if that doesn’t work out, even if it’s not your fault, it’s still your thing. It is your face. You were behind it. You were out on the talk shows telling everybody it’s good. You have to learn how to deal with that in a way that is both acknowledging it but not caring about it, and that’s a tricky dance.

Does it get easier as you get older or does it get harder?

It’s case by case. I just heard a quote. It was akin to the thing, “Love is pain,” or “The more you love, the more suffering you’re in for,” and that’s true for me in a job. I tend to love these jobs so much, and then inevitably, they go away. That’s the business. You get comfortable in those feelings of loving something so much and then losing it. I don’t think it gets easier. In some ways, for the ones that you really love, it gets harder.

You’ve been in so many franchises. I can’t think of another actor who’s been in the MCU, who’s been part of the “Star Trek” world, who’s been part of the “Star Wars” world, who’s been part of the “Sonic the Hedgehog” world, and part of “The Mindy Project.”

I’m sure that there’s another one. What about Zoe Saldana? She seems to do all right.

Was there a particular one that you felt really excited about? Is there one that you’re still dreaming of?

No. I don’t dream about getting the call for anything because most of my career is self-generated, so most of what I dream about is thinking up a good character or part that I can write or pitch to friends to write for me, and then we can work on it together. I don’t really spend a lot of my time, maybe that’s why I don’t have them, thinking about dream roles. 

“People will pay money to go see something that makes them laugh because there’s still a magic trick there.”

Again, it’s the people that you do it with. Jason Sudeikis and I used to play basketball together in New York years ago when he was a writer on “SNL” and I was just a struggling actor and improviser. So to be 15 years later in “Star Wars,” to walk out of the dressing room together in stormtrooper things, it’s like me and Jason have that now and it adds to the friendship that we’ve had before.

I’m so thankful to be in all these things. “Iron Man,” I got to work with my mentor and see how he works on set, and not just write funny jokes for him, but watch him command the set and watch Robert Downey just be like, boom, boom, boom, boom. Then you learn that, and you’re like, “Wow.” That movie was directed by Shane Black, which was like, as a film nerd, that was a huge deal for me, so it’s less the thing and more the people.

You do a lot that’s self-generated. You were in LA, New York and in the UK doing your show, “An Intimate Evening with Adam Pally” where you’re doing music and storytelling. Does this live show scratch a different itch for you as a creative person?

I started seeing the writing on the wall a couple years ago that the future of comedy is live. People will pay money to go see something that makes them laugh because there’s still a magic trick there. There’s still something special to that a human can do that’s worth money. Someone makes you laugh, makes you feel something on stage in front of you that wasn’t there before, that’s worth money. I think television and film and all that stuff is worth less money now.

While it wasn’t all economic, it was driven by, “Well, how am I going to survive? What skills do I have? What do I do that’s my magic trick that I can make money on?” It was music and storytelling and comedy. I put them all together and have been doing the show around Canada and the UK and a couple of my favorite cities and really low pressure and small venues, pop-up shows. Sometimes it’s 300 people, sometimes it’s 40 people in a small bar, but it keeps the pressure low, and no show is the same. And it makes me feel, again, I’m that 20-something year old kid in a basement underneath the Gristedes at 4:00 in the morning trying something.

You also just did a travel show. I want to ask about “101 Places to Party Before You Die.” As you get older, that “before you die” part becomes a little more real. The places that you want to go to party are a little different as one gets older. 

Yes, of course. Jon Gabrus, who’s my best friend and one of my oldest collaborators who I did the show with, was saying on the show that, had this show come to us 10 years earlier, it would’ve been way easier to do because partying in your 40s is not the easiest thing. 

The thing that naturally led to the show hitting a chord with people was that it was not destinations that were hard to get to or expensive. They were pretty local to the United States, smaller cities, cities with big airports that are cheap to fly to like Miami and Atlanta. We were focusing on smaller destinations like Portland or Richmond that have a food scene, just stuff that didn’t seem out of reach. 

When Jon and I used to tour as young comedians, you didn’t get to choose, “Oh, I’m going to go party in Buffalo tonight.” That’s where the show was. If you liked to party after a show, which I don’t know if you can tell by the way I look, I do, you know that’s where you did it, in Buffalo. So that was the organic nature of the show. 

Our age resonated with the idea of, I still have to go to work in the morning. I still have to be a dad. I still have to have my career, but this weekend is taking me here with my buddy, and so I’m going to have the best time I can.

When you talk about building a career with people you love to work with, your Instagram bio right now is “Steph Curry is my best friend.”


You are working again… 

With David Caspe, yeah, who is my best friend, the creator of “Happy Endings” and “Champaign ILL.” This is our third go-round together, and this time we enlisted Steph Curry.

No big deal, right? 

That’s one of the things, when people are like, “Stop it. He’s not your best friend.” I’m like, “No, he is not my best friend, but we’re close.” They’re like, “What are you talking about?” It is a shocking thing to hear. 

But yeah, me and David were contestants on his wife’s newlywed game with our wives, and we hit it off with Steph, and we became friends with him. He could play however long he wants, but I think he wants to branch out [with his career], and this show was a natural way to do it. I’m hoping that the studios will pay the writers and we can get back to work.

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