BACKSTORY: A Californian who headed to New York to join the Upright Citizens Brigade before making waves in TV
FROM: Danville, California; now lives in Los Angeles
YOU MIGHT KNOW HER FROM: Broad City, Comedy Bang! Bang!, or Inside Amy Schumer, to name a few shows
NOW: Appearing on HBO’s dramedy Barry, and in her breakout role on NBC’s The Good Place as Janet, an afterlife guide with infinite knowledge of the universe, but no idea how to navigate her developing feelings
“I’m hanging out with my dog right now,” Carden says. “These days are very chill. Like, I wake up and think, ‘Hmm, I guess I’ll do pilates today.’ Not a lot going on. Seeing friends and chilling, for real.”
Carden has earned the respite. Not many can claim supporting roles in two of the most morally complex comedies on TV. Chipper, snappy, and sharp, Carden has carved out a niche for herself by bringing complexity to characters whom you might not expect it from. She excels at broad physical comedy and pratfalls, but she also brings a vibrant heart to all of her performances.
“There’s something really lovely about Janet and Michael, these non-humans who are changing alongside people who are really growing and learning and helping each other.”
Take Janet, her role on The Good Place. Set in the afterlife, Janet was introduced in season one as not much more than an affable, heavenly version of the Microsoft Office Assistant paperclip, quick to offer help and then disappear. But when it’s revealed that—season one spoiler alert—the show’s human characters aren’t in The Good Place at all, but rather The Bad Place, Janet and her demon boss Michael, played by Ted Danson, find themselves outside the boundaries of their “programming.” The thrust of the show is whether or not its human characters can learn to become better people; in many ways, Janet and Michael find themselves trying to accomplish the same goal.
“She’s sort of evolving,” Carden says. “She’s getting in touch with these weird emotions she’s never felt before. There’s something really lovely about Janet and Michael, these non-humans who are changing alongside people who are really growing and learning and helping each other.”
Though Carden doesn’t often get to employ her improv background on the show, which is tightly scripted (“we just don’t do it,” she says of on-set improvisation, a hallmark of creator Michael Schur’s previous show Parks and Recreation, because “the writers are too goddamned good”), the show’s cosmological flexibility has allowed Carden to shine by playing alternate versions of Janet, like Bad Janet, or what she calls “Baby Janet.” “They’re all the joys of my life to play,” Carden says. “I love every color of Janet. But I did have a lot of fun back in season one with the newly rebooted Janet, figuring out what a tree was. It’s fun to play dumb, for sure.”
The Good Place shines by being dumb in deeply heady ways. With its constant references to the ethical concepts of thinkers like Kierkegaard and Kant, the show genuinely explores an ever-crucial idea: What do we, as people, owe to each other?
“It’s hard to talk about these emotional, big ideas when we’re just talking about a sitcom on NBC, but there is something about the show,” Carden says.
The Good Place is a series about growing, and it’s inspired more than a little reflection in Carden, whose main goal right now ties directly to her comedic skill: She’s working on being present in every moment.
“So often you look back on something and think, ‘Oh, that was really great,’” Carden says. “And maybe you’re looking to the next thing, or focusing on what little thing is wrong instead of looking at the big picture, and you forget to enjoy the thing as it’s happening. The last couple years, I’ve been trying to focus on enjoying the day to day.” FL