After stealing comedic thunder from the goddesses in her 2000 debut as the foul-mouthed Jewish princess Jenny Brier in Sex and the City, Kat Dennings made an impression on the show’s creator, Michael Patrick King. So when King offered Dennings a shot at playing a free-spirited New York waitress in the CBS series 2 Broke Girls, which he cocreated with Whitney Cummings, choosing between film or TV was a little easier for the actress. Kind of a Laverne & Shirley for the millennial set, the series finds Dennings is right at home as Max Black, delivering one-liners in the style of Bea Arthur, Megan Mullally or even Fran Drescher. In fact, since her early teens—and without any acting lessons—Dennings has vamped and deadpanned, a natural talent that’s given her the opportunity to work with director Judd Apatow on The 40-Year-Old Virgin and play a supporting comic-relief role in Marvel’s Thor franchise.
You’ve distinguished yourself as a comedic performer with your deadpan cadence. Did you nurture this over time?
That’s really interesting—I’ve never thought much about that. I guess it’s just how I am. But I know for a fact my older brother Geoffrey is also very much like that. And I worshipped him as a kid, so I give him a little credit.
What was that first Sex and the City audition like?
I was 13 or 14 then, homeschooled, lived in the woods and didn’t have TV. So I had no idea what this show was. (The audition) was six pages of sides; I read it, and Michael said, “Come back tomorrow. Memorized.” And I looked at him, and I was like “Fuck it, I will!” So in the cab on the way back to Penn Station, there was a building covered in the Sex and the City poster, and I thought, “Damn! I just sassed that guy, and this is such a big deal!”
You were joking around?
I was messing with him, but also I was sort of challenging him. Like, “I can do that too.”
Did Michael see you in another project prior to 2 Broke Girls that reminded him of you?
I guess. I’ve never asked. I’ve heard him talk on panels so that’s how I get my information. Maybe Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?
Tell me about the genesis of 2 Broke Girls.
I think the waitering part and Caroline’s (Beth Behrs) jobs are based on Michael’s experiences. The hoarders episode happened to Michael, as well as the one where we went into this guy’s apartment and found naked pictures of him. The cupcake shop and its demise are based on his sister’s experience. And he loved that as a device, which is really smart.
In discovering Beth Behrs, did they test a number of girls with you?
I was in Florida shooting a really dark film. They called and asked if I could fly back and read, and I’m like, “I’m in Florida. I’m getting raped in a tub. I’m not in a good spot.” And they said, “We get it. Just watch her Funny or Die stuff.” However, they needed to see us together. We got in front of CBS to test, which was one of the most terrifying experiences. I’ve done it a few times. Ninety-five percent of the time no one laughs. You know when you watch those SNL auditions and no one laughs? It’s like that. This was the last step in Beth’s hiring process. Michael loves telling this, but we left that test, and I put my arm around her instinctively.
You were initially inspired by Fran Drescher for your character and then threw that out.
When you start putting someone in the character instead of yourself, it’s muddled. Before we shot the pilot, I was so nervous. It’s a live audience. I watched Jack Black in High Fidelity, and his performance made me feel brave. And I watched The Nanny because she was the only one I could think of who was sort of like that tough Jewish Brooklyn girl. But again, that’s someone else’s character, and I have to develop my own. I kind of ended up imitating my mother because she was a poor girl from Queens who was cool and tough.
Does your delivery of zingers on the show come naturally?
Well, I’ve learned the best way to do it is not to think about it. We’ll get to the show and we’ll do a take, and then the writers rewrite everything. Eighty percent of what airs was given to us the second before we said it. And that’s where they do their best work and gauge what’s funny off the audience. You’re discovering the jokes at the same time as everybody else.
When you read scripts, can you tell the difference between material coming from a male versus a female writer?
Jhoni Marchinko is a legendary sitcom writer, and I can tell her jokes from when she was on Will & Grace. I can tell her flavor on stuff. I mean, Pat (Walsh) and Michael and the male writers are brilliant, but we’re writing for two girls all the time, so having women is essential. Also we have a lot of gay writers, which is a really important voice for our show. It’s just such a perfect melody with all these different instruments.