Hollywood loves to exploit the odd couple formula, from cop buddies to romantic mismatches to the quirkiest original couple of them all, Felix and Oscar. United States of Al not only embraces these sitcom tropes, but also subverts them. Created by The Big Bang Theory Chuck Lore, United States of Al follows Riley (Parker Young), a Marine veteran who returns to civilian life in Ohio. He returns to live with his family and brings his friend from Afghanistan Al (Adhir Kalyan), who served as an interpreter in Riley’s unit. Cue fish out of water comedy, dating advice and parenting jokes. The show also tackles many heavy topics. Riley suffers from PTSD and is in the process of divorcing his wife, Vanessa (Kelli Goss). Al also has to take care of his family members stuck in his war-torn homeland. Heart full to bursting, United States of Al delivers laughter and tears.
Parker Young recently spoke to CBR about how the concept of the comedy and his character hit close to home, Riley’s messy divorce, and balancing humor with serious subject matter.
CBR: You have already served your country in the television series enlisted. When it came to you, what was so special about the script of United States of Al?
Parker Young: That’s a bit of a long answer. I moved to Coronado to raise my daughter. I had a little girl three and a half years ago. I have family that lives there. I thought I would get out of LA and raise him closer to his family. When I was there, I became very close with a group of guys who were on the Seal teams. It is a unique community. It’s a small place in a part of San Diego. There are more seals than anywhere in the world. There were a few unique situations. I met these guys. They were a little hesitant to trust this stranger and take me on as a buddy. One thing leading to another, they became my best friends.
I was between shows. Imposters I just left and had plenty of time ahead of me. I was about to have a girl. My wife gave me lots of permission to go on adventures with my friends and enjoy the last days of my life. I got to watch some of these guys transition into civilian life. Two of my buddies were leaving the Seal teams. What you’re thinking would be this easy transition, “OK, it’s your job. Now it’s not your job. Now you can go do something else and enjoy your life.” It just wasn’t. There was a lot of alcohol and drug abuse for some of them. It was surprisingly difficult. I have seen firsthand how difficult it is for veterans to find out what this next chapter of their life will be and to deal with various post-traumatic stress and brain injuries and this loss of identity.
So when this script came into my life and I read the role of Riley, it mirrored so closely what my buddy was going through. I immediately gravitated towards him. I remember reading it with my buddy who was like, “Dude. This is your life, dude. How crazy I’ve been able to see this for real in the last few years. Now, there’s this sitcom about what you’re going through,” which I loved. When you think of PTSD, you think of those heavy movies and shows. It was an opportunity to shine a light on the veterans experience, but in a very ideally fun way – a family show that people could sit down and watch. I felt really honored when it was finally decided that I was the guy.
I told you that would be a long winded answer. There was a moment where I was like, “Man, this is too crazy. This is too coincidental. How many actors have dozens of Navy Seal acquaintances and some are my best friends? What kind of actors have these relationships?” For witnessing it… My buddy goes into rehab or tries various alternative therapies, just trying to figure out how to make sense of what’s going on in his head.
I wrote this email. I didn’t even know who I was going to send it to. I just wanted to send it to the producers, to Chuck Lorre. He said, “By the way, guys, I love this script. It means so much to me for so many reasons.” I detailed what attracted me to this project. “I know we do a fun comedy. At the end of the day, you just have to pick the right guy for the job. I want you to know what that means to me.” At the eleventh hour, I decided not to send it. I was like, “You know what? It doesn’t matter. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I’m just gonna let them meet me and the work that I do in the room is about himself.” I never ended up sending it. After I got the job, I was able to share with them whatever I wanted to share with them beforehand.
This series is a comedy, but it weaves real-world issues with a message. How hard is it to be funny and serious at the same time, without sounding too preachy?
It’s a hard thing to try and navigate, exactly to your point. These are heavy and serious situations. We are talking about mental health. There’s this statistic that 22 veterans kill themselves every day. It’s stunning and breaks my heart. Trying to navigate these storylines while giving them that comedic twist is a huge undertaking. I feel so grateful to be able to rely on these absolute masters. I work with Chuck Lorre, David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari. It seems like Chuck can walk that tightrope as well as anyone.
What an awesome thing to do. These are real circumstances. These are real things that real people experience and stories that I think need to be told. My God, it’s more fun when you can tell a story and smile while laughing and crying at the same time. What a great way to communicate a message.
The show’s success lives and dies on the dynamic between Riley and Al. What was the first sign that you and your co-star had that chemistry?
Oh man, I love this guy. I love him so much. I don’t even know when we realized it. I think it was very early. Maybe it was on test before I even got the part. We met and we had this beautiful connection. What’s so funny is that we’re so different, but we complement each other so well. It’s in our personal lives, which also translates on camera. I can’t remember when I realized it, but I certainly can’t remember a time when I didn’t have the chance to work with this guy.
It is so hard. You take a bunch of random actors, a bunch of selfish comedians, throw them in a room and ask them to play nice… Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It really worked in this particular case. We are having a lot of fun. We are not competitive with each other. Sometimes guys fight for more screen time. We just support each other and make each other shine as best we can.
Looking ahead, what can you tease about what’s in store for Riley and the gang?
Riley and Vanessa try to make it official and divorce. We write the papers. In doing so, it arouses a lot of emotion. We end up making mistakes and end up in bed together. We continue this fun arc of having a little affair. This raises even more emotions and questions. “What is it? We’re going to divorce, but now we’re doing this?” More excitingly, Al decides he’s ready to lose his virginity. There are a few fun hiccups along the way. He asks Riley and my dad for advice, and we don’t really give him good advice. Things don’t go as planned, but eventually he loses his virginity to an American girl. It’s hilarious and it gets him out of his narrow, narrow path of focusing on school and work. He is a little distracted by this new opportunity.
In a sequence from this week’s episode, Riley teaches Al the art of kissing on a boxing glove. What’s it like filming these awkward but comedic moments?
It’s awesome. I feel grateful to go to work every day and try to figure out how to make things funny and make people around me laugh. That’s hilarious. There are definitely awkward moments. I just have to put myself there. I tend to be a guy who likes to push the envelope a bit and find where my comfort zone is and lean outside of it. I also like to push people out of their comfort zone. Whenever we get something awkward and weird, I feel like home. This is very fun.
I don’t know how you managed not to crack during this scene.
He was definitely on the verge of not being able to keep it together.
Watch United States of Al airs Thursdays on CBS.
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