June 18, 2014 at 10:18 PM
WESTFIELD, NJ — Jessica St. Clair, co-star/creator of USA Network comedy Playing House, hasn’t forgotten about her home town, Westfield. In fact, she weaves memories of growing up here into the hit show.
Playing House was created by real life besties St. Clair and Lennon Parham, who met while studying improv comedy at the renowned Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York.
The show follows two best friends, Emma and Maggie, who reconnect in their small childhood town of Pinebrook, CT. While Emma is visiting Pinebrook for Maggie’s baby shower, the two discover that Maggie’s husband is cheating on her. Emma decides to leave her high level position in China to help newly single Maggie raise her soon-to-be-born baby. Laverne and Shirley-type escapades ensue.
St. Clair, who graduated Westfield High School in 1994, has fond memories of growing up in Westfield and weaves them into the storyline in unique, and sometimes specific, ways.
The fictional town of Pinebrook is a lot like Westfield, she explained.
“It’s a small East Coast town where everyone knows each other,” she said.
“In one of the episodes, ‘Drumline,’ we break into the Pinebrook JCC pool,” said St. Clair, who then revealed, “We used to hop the fence and go swimming in the middle of the night senior year at the Shackamaxon Country Club.”
She sneaks Westfield into the show other ways, too, like when she drops in people's last names.
St. Clair has been named by Variety magazine as one of the 10 Comics to Watch. In addition to Playing House, has appeared in such movies as Bridesmaids, Enough Said and She’s Out of My League. But her theatrical roots were planted here in Westfield. Her first acting stint was a musical titled Logger’s Lament at Roosevelt School.
“I did a musical every year and played sports every year,” said St. Clair.
She remembers one teacher who encouraged her from a young age.
“Drude Roessler, who happens to be the mother-in-law of USA Network President Chris McCumber, grew up in Westfield. She was my choir teacher,” said St. Clair. "My first production was written by Drude."
Other teachers who she said inspired her were advanced learning teacher Annesly Swicker, English teacher Paula Roy and French teacher Madame Didier, who fueled St. Clair’s lifelong obsession with France, “which emptied my credit card every year.”
St. Clair’s character on Playing House is based on herself.
“One hundred percent pretty much just me,” she said. “People from my high school might be surprised that I’m a comedian. Back then I was just trying to fit in. I would keep some of my humor to myself. It wasn’t until college that I came into my own and became a comedian.”
When she met her “family” at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, St. Clair’s career started taking off, she said.
“Nobody that I knew was in show business,” said St. Clair. “I majored in drama and did improv comedy at Middlebury College, then lived at home my first year out of college and worked at CNN and at night would intern at the Upright Citizens Brigade, basically cleaning their bathrooms. Basically everybody from Playing House is from the Upright Citizens Brigade. Lennon I met from New York. The philosophy of Upright Citizens Brigade is to keep it in the family.”
She compared UCB to grad school, “if grad school was late night at bars, cleaning toilets and learning how to be a comedian.”
There, she met Amy Poehlor, a “kick-ass comedian who is fearless and also really nice. The second I was at the theater, I felt like a fish out of water. She came up to me and said, ‘Oh, hi, I’m Amy, I just wanted to thank you for helping out.’ Not only is she a fearless comedian but she also keeps it classy,” said St. Clair.
These days, St. Clair lives in Santa Monica, CA, with her husband, playwright Dan O’Brien, and eight-month-old daughter, Isobel Kelly O’Brien. She holds Westfield very dear to her heart.
“I miss [Westfield] very much. I wish I could raise my kids there,” said St. Clair. “I miss Mindowaskin Park. Walking around the downtown. Halloween – going trick or treating with that small town feeling. Going to The Brown Cow for ice cream. Feeding animal crackers to the Doberman in front of the shoe repair place. Playing sports there. Sledding at Galloping Hill and Echo Park.”
And, she added, “I especially miss the friendships that I made. My best friend, Brandi Kovac – her mom was the gymnastics coach at Westfield high school. We’ll end up in a Golden Girls situation,” she said.
When writing the show with Parham, St. Clair loosely based the story on her childhood friend who died from Leukemia in 2012.
“My childhood best friend, Kelly Feeney, a food writer for The New York Times, passed away and this show is a tribute to her in some way. She died of Leukemia about a year and a half ago. Her mother is like my second mother. This show is based on my real life friendship with Lennon, but the fact that it’s about childhood best friends, in a small town…it’s the fantasy of living in the town that you have such fond memories of and the devotion that you have to your lifelong friends,” said St. Clair.
The season finale aired Tuesday night on USA, but you can catch up on full episodes by clicking here.