Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo on ‘Barb and Star,’ the Antidote to COVID Blues

This article appeared in Variety, published on February 12, 2021. Interview by Rebecca Rubin.

Apeculiar thing happened after “Bridesmaids” premiered a decade ago and became an undeniable box office smash. Hot takes popped up around every corner of the internet and across the pages of newspapers and magazines, offering up one astute observation: Women can be funny!

It was especially confusing for Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay and had long admired the likes of Gilda Radner, Goldie Hawn, Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin — comedians who knew their way around a joke while also, you know, happening to be female.

And yet, the reaction to “Bridesmaids” — a “chick flick” starring Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy that’s equal parts raunchy, smart and touching — presented that staggering conclusion with a reverence usually reserved for scientific breakthroughs.

“As a genre, there’s comedy and then there’s female comedy,” Mumolo recalls. “We didn’t know that until ‘Bridesmaids’ came out. We’re like, ‘What?’”

After “Bridesmaids” grossed almost $300 million worldwide, the powers that be in Hollywood were eager to cash in on the phenomenon. Studios fast-tracked a wave of female-oriented comedies, such as “Trainwreck,” “Bad Moms” and “Girls Trip,” in the hopes of replicating their own hits.

“It’s great that more things got greenlit,” Wiig said. “But on the other side of that it’s like, ‘Why the fuck weren’t you greenlighting it before?”

Wiig and Mumolo spent the next few years on separate creative projects — Wiig appeared in Sundance indies such as “The Skeleton Twins” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” and more recently in the big-budget superhero sequel “Wonder Woman 1984.” And Mumolo has popped up in movies like “This Is 40,” “The Boss” and “Bad Moms.”

So it’s only fitting that “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” the first movie to reunite Wiig and Mumolo since “Bridesmaids,” adds another entry to the pantheon of “female comedies.” The film, which debuts on demand this weekend, centers on lifelong best friends who leave their small town for the first time to vacation in Florida. After arriving in the Sunshine State, the characters find themselves caught in the crosshairs of an evil plot to destroy the tropical paradise.

The absurdist “Barb and Star” is a tonal departure from the grounded humor of their first collaboration. However, “Bridesmaids” did lay the foundation for their characters in “Barb and Star.” While refining the script for “Bridesmaids,” Wiig and Mumolo found themselves obsessively riffing on material for the mother of Rudolph’s character (portrayed by Lynne Marie Stewart). Her speaking parts were eventually written out entirely, but that didn’t stop them from creating long stretches of dialogue about the marvels of Costco (name another store where you can buy nice pants and a pot roast — we’ll wait), most of which had nothing to do with the movie.

“That planted the seed,” Mumolo says. “When we were really loopy, Kristen was like, ‘Oh my god, our next movie, if we get a chance, we’ll be the women.’”

Brimming with evil lairs, villains and spontaneous musical moments (led by one Jamie Dornan), “Barb and Star” has the wacky energy of an Austin Powers movie rather than being a spiritual sequel to “Bridesmaids.” “We wanted to go in a more of a direction of silly. Something where we weren’t overthinking,” Mumolo says. Wiig chimes in: “That’s our sense of humor.”

“It’s the same sense of humor,” Wiig clarifies, “but they are very, very different. We want people to enjoy this on its own. I don’t think there was a deliberate, like, ‘Oh, this has to be really, really different.’”

With Midwestern accents and neatly coiffed hair, Star (short for Starbra) and Barb (just Barb) are the kind of women who like to kick back with a warm bowl of hot dog soup after a long day of working a joint shift at the local furniture store. They can talk ad nauseam about Chicos and love a good pair of culottes. In short, they are women you might not give a second look if you saw them on the street. Yet one could easily envision the two at the center of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, as neighbors to — say, Gilly, Target Lady, or any of the other nutty characters that Wiig created during her seven years on the late night show.

“I don’t know if alter ego is the right word, but we can slip into these these voices and these characters so easily. It feels like we are these women sometimes,” Wiig says.

“For some reason,” Mumolo says, “we have been able to speak from the point of view of middle-aged women since we were in our 20s.”

Mumolo and Wiig have been friends for decades, first meeting at L.A. improv group The Groundlings in the early 2000s. They frequently wrote and performed in sketches together until Wiig was hired as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” in 2003. To this day, they prefer to write in the same room, with plenty of snacks in reach.

“We’re lucky in the sense that we think very similarly. When we’re writing, we’ll finish each other’s” — Mumolo pauses, and it’s hard to tell if the signal is weak or if jokes don’t translate as well over the phone, but Wiig doesn’t take what appears to be bait to fill in the blank so she continues — “sentences.”

Neither one can place exactly what makes their partnership so successful. “It’s hard to describe chemistry,” Wiig says. Mumolo adds: “It’s almost like meeting a life partner. You date a lot of people, and then you meet someone that, for some reason, just gets you.”

Judd Apatow, who produced “Bridesmaids” and has had a hand in some of the most successful modern comedies, says it comes down to the details: Wiig and Mumolo approach even the silliest of scenes with an unmatched level of attention.

“I’ve never worked with anyone who has cared so deeply,” Apatow says. “When writing [‘Bridesmaids’], they were hilariously funny, but always served the emotional idea of the film about friendship. I think the movie did so well because it was so heartfelt. Underneath the comedy were a lot of ideas about life and struggle and the search for love.”

Deftly navigating between physical comedy and deeply emotional moments has become second nature to Wiig and Mumolo. But it’s the seemingly trivial, the one-liners that might go over your head if you’re not paying attention, that keep them laughing. Maybe it’s their background in sketch comedy, where goofy accents and theatrical gestures carry a scene, but Wiig and Mumolo thrive in the minutia. They recall having extensive conversations about every square inch of their leading ladies, right down to their stylized up-dos. To the untrained eye, Barb and Star may look similar though that’s deliberately not the case.

“This is probably not interesting to a lot of people,” Wiig says. “But my hair has sideburns that kind of curl under. I had like a lot of volume on top. Whereas Barb’s hair had more volume on the sides.”

Sometimes, they can admittedly get carried away. Lionsgate, the studio behind “Barb and Star,” certainly gave them the freedom to make the type of zany comedy that’s fallen out of favor at traditional Hollywood studios. And yet, Wiig and Mumolo are keenly aware they don’t entirely have carte blanche when it comes to crafting comedic moments. They still needed to lobby for some of the movie’s specific choices, including a scene with a particularly wise crustacean.

“When we went in with our script, we knew there were definitely things in the movie we had to — not defend, but maybe campaign for,” she offers. “Some of the odder choices.”

At one point, Wiig was even going to direct the film. She eventually passed filmmaking duties to Josh Greenbaum, who had directed several documentaries and TV episodes and is making his feature debut with “Barb and Star.”

“Life happens, and you get busy with other things,” Wiig said. “I really wanted to carve out time to make this movie and not think about wearing that third hat. We really wanted to focus on the writing and being in the movie. [Josh] has a very similar sense of humor. We knew he would get us.”

Wiig pitched Greenbaum on the movie over a two-and-a-half hour lunch, describing her vision as “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” meets “Airplane.”

“All three of us have a taste for the absurd,” Greenbaum says. “There’s something so joyful about doing something nobody is expecting and being free enough to take a crazy left turn.” Working with Wiig and Mumolo, Greenbaum says, “feels like being in a room with two little kids — I mean that in the best way possible.”

With their unbridled optimism and affinity for a good shell pun, Barb and Star — and by extension Wiig and Mumolo — certainly feel like the antidote to a dreary, exhaustingly depressing time in American history. They were initially disappointed that the film isn’t playing theaters because of the pandemic. But in true Barb and Star fashion, they’re looking on the bright side.

“Hopefully,” says Wiig, “we can bring some laughter into people’s homes.”