Ed Helms (R) performs with Margo Price
Photo: Elli Lauren Photography
Facing Lockdown, Ed Helms Is Spreading The Joys Of Americana, Bluegrass And Comedy With His "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour" Online Series
In mid-March, famed actor and comedian Ed Helms was busy working on his new TV show "Rutherford Falls," an upcoming comedy series, scheduled to debut on NBCUniversal's Peacock streaming service, in which he was set to write, co-executive produce and star. The writing for the show had begun, and he and his team were on course to begin production around the third week of the month. Then on March 19, at the height of the early coronavirus pandemic scare, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a sweeping statewide stay-at-home order, essentially shutting down the state, including the Hollywood entertainment complex. Helms was stuck, but he wasn't down for the count.
Now quarantined inside his Los Angeles home with his wife and young child—"We're on toddler watch all the time," he says—Helms is keeping very busy while facing his own version of the "new normal" taking shape around the world. The writers' room for his new show has gone completely virtual since the California lockdown. His production company, Pacific Electric Picture Company, is juggling multiple projects in development. And all day long, he's taking phone calls and video Zoom meetings. Lots and lots of Zoom meetings.
Still, even with a stacked schedule and a curious toddler eating up his time, Helms felt he needed to do his part to help those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. So he did what he does best: He strapped on his guitar, turned on the camera and started singing and cracking jokes.
It's all part of "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour," Helms' newly launched limited web series benefiting MusiCares' COVID-19 Relief Fund and Direct Relief. Launched April 22, the online variety show, streaming every Wednesday now through May 13, invites some of the leading and emerging artists from the wider American roots community to perform intimate shows directly from their homes. (Of course, the show also features hilarious cameos from some of Helms' comedy friends.)
The first two episodes featured big-name artists like Lee Ann Womack, Ben Harper, Yola and Billy Strings, among others, while future guests include Rosanne Cash, Langhorne Slim, Mandy Moore, Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi, Valerie June and more.
Hosted each week by Helms, a vocal advocate of bluegrass and American roots music and culture and a master banjo player, "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour" is his way of bringing a smile to fellow fans and newcomers during these troubling times.
"I think that what makes the show really fun to watch is the really warm and benevolent energy of these musicians," Helms tells the Recording Academy. "They're just some of the most wonderful people. That is a big part of who we want to showcase, just because we want the show to feel good and to be a really positive experience for anyone."
Amy Reitnouer Jacobs echoes the sentiment. As the co-founder and executive director of The Bluegrass Situation, Helms' own bluegrass- and roots-centric music and lifestyle website and the show's presenting partner, she's worked with the comedy giant to build out the show's diverse lineup week after week. She likens the task of curating an eclectic artist roster to "a beautiful chess game."
"At the beginning of this process, I was just so happy to be putting my creative energies into a good cause and over the moon to be raising money for these two amazing charities and supporting our artistic community at the same time," she tells the Recording Academy via email. "But over the past few weeks, I've also recognized how rapidly our industry is changing and how different everything is going to look over the next couple of months. It's clear that the way we present and intake live music is going to be one of the biggest paradigm shifts, long after shelter-in-place orders are lifted. So maybe in some small way, what we're starting here can continue to build in the hope of working toward a new, or at least temporary, norm."
The Recording Academy chatted with Ed Helms to discuss the benevolent vision behind "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour," his dream lineup for the show and the new creative challenges, and benefits, he's facing while working in quarantine.
How are you, man?
I am doing really pretty well, all things considered. I'm feeling pretty lucky that my family is healthy, and I'm staying pretty busy.
Speaking of your family, have you or your family been impacted directly by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes. I had a TV show about to start production. It's [now] completely on pause except for the writing. So now our writers' room has gone virtual, and that's been an adjustment, but thankfully a successful one. We're getting a lot of work done. My immediate family is all healthy, which I'm extraordinarily grateful for. But I have some very close friends dealing with some really tough situations and it's ... been a bit of a ... reality check or something.
In terms of "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour," how long did the show take to come together, from idea to actual series?
[Laughs] Really fast ... I think part of the emotional toll of this quarantine is a real feeling of impotence ... Amy [Reitnouer Jacobs, co-founder and executive director of The Bluegrass Situation] and I were talking about what we could do. [With] The Bluegrass Situation being a music entity, MusiCares felt like a really natural fit. I hosted their gala a couple of years ago. I'm a big fan of that organization. And then more directly on the medical front, Direct Relief was also just a no-brainer because they're doing incredible work [to make] sure frontline workers are properly protected and supplied.
But then the question was, "Well, how do we do it?" Well, let's just leverage our resources and our network and try to do something that'll get some attention and draw some viewership and then ask for money. And then from that conversation to actually putting it together—Amy started booking the music acts right away, and our first episode was up maybe two weeks later.
Things got really scary in the U.S. in mid-March, with the pandemic and shutdown starting to spread throughout the country last month. "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour" launched April 22. Was there a moment or event that truly sparked the show and pushed you to launch it and get involved?
The Bluegrass Situation is lucky to have a lot of relationships and access to great musicians, and we just wanted to do something. This just sort of gelled as the idea. But as soon as the lockdown happened, it was clear.
If you're looking for that inflection point, I think it would be really when all the news was flooding in about how overwhelmed Italy was and just what we were seeing around the world. So many countries and communities in so much pain and struggling just to deal with this thing, and a feeling that it was right around the corner for all of us here in the United States, and that there's just a need to try to help.
What do you and Amy look for when you're putting together these artist and guest lineups?
I think that what makes the show really fun to watch is the really warm and benevolent energy of these musicians. They're just some of the most wonderful people. That is a big part of who we want to showcase, just because we want the show to feel good and to be a really positive experience for anyone. So it's just people who are great, who also play great music, if I had to summarize it.
Has it been difficult to get artists and guests to participate in the show?
Not at all. People are so eager to jump onboard and pitch in. Honestly, it's so moving to me [to see] the eagerness that people bring to it and just the enthusiasm. And people are putting a lot of time into these segments. They're shooting themselves in their homes and just getting really great recordings and great performances. I don't know if you've watched the last two episodes, but they just feel so personal and natural and intimate. I've been just incredibly moved by all the participation.
I wasn't sure how it would feel to watch people do a show like this, where people are just playing by themselves and shooting themselves in their homes and at a very lo-fi way. But when I watch the episodes, there's an immediacy there. There's an intimacy to these performances that I think is incredibly special and charming and endearing and uplifting. It's turned out better than I could have hoped. It's so, so fun to do, and I think it helps everyone feel invigorated to be part of a communal effort and a community that's trying to help.
While the bluegrass and American roots music community may not be huge, it does seem tight-knit. Have you seen the bluegrass and roots community banding together during this crisis?
Yeah. Our show is just one example. I think there are so many performers out there that are raising money in all different kinds of ways and supporting each other. We don't pretend to be the definitive voice of Americana, roots—we're just proud to be part of a larger community.
I agree with you. [The community] doesn't have quite the scale of some other music genres, but I think it makes up for that in a really exciting and dynamic vibe internally.
Do you see yourself extending the show beyond the May 13 window? Is this something you would perhaps expand after the quarantine and pandemic?
Well, it's a little early to know. It's a lot of work, and I still have a lot of other projects churning in the background as an actor and producer. But I'll just say this: I love doing this. It has been incredibly fun and meaningful to me, so I think anything is possible.
Besides producing "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour," how are you spending your time in quarantine?
I have a two-and-a-half-year-old, so we're on toddler watch all the time. I have a TV show that's going to be on [NBCUniversal's streaming service] Peacock, and we were supposed to start production the week of the quarantine, so that has paused. But the writing of that TV series is still going full speed ahead. I'm in writing meetings multiple days a week, and those are very long meetings in the virtual writers' room.
Then my production company, Pacific Electric Picture Company, we just have a ton of projects in development and at various stages, and so that's a process of keeping up with scripts and giving notes and lots and lots of phone calls and Zoom meetings. So there's plenty going on, and it's been an adjustment and quite a rapid learning curve trying to figure out how to juggle all this.
But [it] seems to be going really well. Like I said, I couldn't be happier with how "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour" has turned out and the kind of production pipeline that we're still figuring out, but it seems to be dialing in. It's obviously a very simple production, but we just want to make it as good as we can. We're learning as we go [and] trying to have some fun, too.
Has the quarantine or the pandemic affected your creativity or how you approach your art and various projects?
I think working from home on all these things has been both a challenge and a little bit of an exciting stimulant for me, creatively. Whether it's writing a TV show or shooting these little interstitials for "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour," I'm so used to just being in a room with other people [and] collaborating on these things. That produces a certain kind of result that I'm very used to. But being by myself and really just having to crank a lot of this stuff out on my own, it's exhilarating.
A lot of times I wish I had someone to bounce some things off of in a more immediate way before I commit to them. [Laughs] But I don't, so you just have to power through. I think it's an exciting challenge. I do firmly believe that necessity is the mother of invention, and this new paradigm is forcing everyone to be innovative and creative in new ways. It's a terrible situation, but there are some interesting and beautiful things emerging out of it.
Who would be your dream guest(s) to book on "Whiskey Sour Happy Hour"?
I mean, we have a dream lineup. I'm just so overjoyed with everyone that we've got. It's funny because I immediately go to bands. I think of bands like Del McCoury or The Infamous Stringdusters or Steep Canyon Rangers or so many more. But bands can't perform together right now.
So we're kind of having to readjust how we approach booking ... And not every artist wants to perform without their band, or if they're a part of a band. There's nothing that's not happening that I wish were happening on these shows. I think we have unbelievable lineups, and I'm super proud of how it's all coming together. That's a nonanswer for you. [Laughs]