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‘What We Do in the Shadows’: The Secrets Behind TV’s Funniest Show

Jun 13, 2023


We traveled to the vampires’ dilapidated Staten Island mansion—which is in Canada—to discover what it is about this series that is so ludicrously and battily (get it?) hilarious.

Senior Editor, Obsessed

On the side of the road in Toronto, just past Yorkville Village’s tony shopping thoroughfare, is Staten Island’s ugliest house. If you time it just right, you might be able to pass the dilapidated monstrosity as a coven of vampires are being flung through the air, bouncing off the house’s aging siding as they engage in violent combat with a coterie of demons, werewolves, and fellow bloodsuckers. This past year, if you were lucky, you might even have witnessed the most unusual, borderline-disturbing kickoff to a Pride Parade there’s ever been, taking place right there on that lawn.

It’s fitting that the outdoor set for the FX comedy What We Do in the Shadows—the decrepit Victorian structure where four vampires and a creepy doll inhabited by one of their ghosts live—is so mundanely just…there in the Canadian city. Now in its fifth season, with new episodes airing Thursdays, the Emmy-winning series follows the undead clan as they attempt to blend in with the New York City borough where they’ve lived for the past century. It’s a fool’s errand, considering the quartet’s raunchy, uninhibited instincts and their obtuse lack of self-awareness (not to mention that they are dressed like obvious vampires). Then again, these people are nothing if not fools—fools with supernatural powers.

Spun off from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 film of the same name, What We Do in the Shadows is filmed as a The Office-style mockumentary, infusing the ordinariness of everyday life with the outrageousness of vampiric quirks.

An episode may, for example, feature energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Prosch) suffering a gruesome death and being reborn as a baby with a grown man’s face, vampire Laszlo (Matt Berry) making topiary sculptures of vulvas in the garden, or Laszlo and Nandor (Kayvan Novak) facing off against—and killing—the actual Jersey Devil while on a trip to the Pine Barrens. Another finds Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) shopping for dresses for the doll version of herself at a Staten Island mall’s Build-a-Bear. Then there are episodes like the one in which the group thinks they’re invited to a party for a neighbor’s unveiling of his “Superb Owl”—only to learn about something unfamiliar (and comparatively boring) called the Super Bowl.

The result is a series routinely assigned variations of the superlative “the funniest show on TV.” It’s been nominated twice for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmys and the Critics Choice Awards, is currently nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy at the Television Critics Association Awards, and was The Daily Beast’s Obsessed choice for the Best TV Show of 2022. That, five seasons in, the series maintains its buzz and somehow keeps getting funnier is astounding, as our critic Nick Schager wrote in his review, noting that “FX’s hit comedy hinges on the push-pull between its protagonists’ desire to evolve and their wholesale inability to be anything other than their clownish selves.”

Clowning is What We Do in the Shadow’s signature. So, too, is the fact that, as often as they are sitting in their library teasing each other and shooting the shit, the vampires are rigged to harnesses and causing rivers of blood to flow as they zoom through the air in elaborate fight sequences. The show is unabashedly goofy and ridiculous—see, again, vulva-themed topiary—but also unexpectedly profound when you least expect it. (It drives an emotional stake to the heart, if you will.) That’s especially true in Season 4 and across the currently airing Season 5, as the put-upon human familiar—shorthand for vampire servant—Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) comes out of the closet and is warmly accepted by his makeshift vampire family, who typically begrudge his presence and patronizingly call him “Gizmo.”

To learn how What We Do in the Shadows accomplishes this tricky balance of comedy, action, pathos, and utter lunacy, we traveled to the Toronto set when Season 5 was filming last November—to talk to the cast, writers, production department heads, and the legendary Paul Jones, who designs all of the show’s prosthetics. What we learned is that everyone involved is just as surprised that they’re pulling it off as viewers are.

“We’re doing all of this in a half-hour, with a half-hour TV’s show’s budget,” showrunner Paul Simms said. “Sometimes when we’re all grumpy and stuff, we’re like, ‘Do people understand how much we’re getting out of the same budget as another show that’s, like, six people in sweaters sitting around a living room?’”

(Warning: Some spoilers ahead from the Season 5 premiere of What We Do in the Shadows.)

In every conversation with nearly every person we spoke to on the What We Do in the Shadows set, the answer changed roughly seven times as to whether the series works because it is as simple as any “pals hanging out” sitcom on TV, or because it is so outlandishly ambitious with its production and effects.

“At this point, it really is just Friends with fangs,” Prosch said. Minutes later, he discussed the specifics of what it took to play a rebirthed version of his character from infant through adolescence and back to middle age, employing technology that was pioneered by the 2006 Wayans brothers comedy Little Man to put his grown-up face on a child’s body. The assessment of the show’s success changes slightly.

“When you're dealing with the fantasy of vampires or the metaphysical, you’re allowed to do insane stuff,” he said. “The story arcs are [robust] enough for people to buy into the Jim and Pam-style storylines. But I think that the sillier, more ridiculous episodes are what entertain people. I think that’s really huge on our show, that we can get away with both.”

The playground for the silly and ridiculous is impressive to behold—and more meticulously crafted that one might expect.

The vampires’ house itself is practical in every way, from the fully functioning apothecary cabinet built for a Season 5 storyline, in which Laszlo performs experiments on Guillermo, to Nandor’s coffin bed, which was built to fit Novak’s 6-foot-1 frame. (“Want to climb in?” production designer Shayne Fox asked, eliciting the fastest “No!” we’ve ever reflexively uttered. Something about laying in a coffin in a vampire’s house, even a fake one, seemed like begging for bad karma.)

As Emmy-winning costume designer Laura Montgomery showed off one of her most prized creations, a lavish tartan gown with an exquisite structured bodice and a mini-me version created for the Nadja doll, we were shocked at the revelation that it was used for a scene that lasted mere seconds in Season 4, when Nadja arrives home from her trip abroad. “I was like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ because it was such a short scene,” Demetriou said. “I was like, ‘Can I please wear it again?’ They said, ‘No, it’s your traveling dress.’”

Then there’s the massive workshop housing Jones’ prosthetic department, a hall of horrors lit by fluorescent lights. (Bad lighting: perhaps even more terrifying than the creatures.) There, all the monsters previously created for the show are displayed on shelves like prized, unsettling trophies. There’s a snarling werewolf so real looking that we involuntarily yelped when we got closer; a smorgasbord of rats, bats, and one Jersey Devil; and the bust of the Baron, looking sickly and sinister, with his arms outstretched as if he’s bestowing to everyone in the room a new spate of nightmares.

On the table in the center of the workshop were the oddities Jones was currently working on, including a goblin with pointy ears—help!—and fangs so real-looking we wouldn’t get within striking distance of the creation. There was also a buffet of animatronic, half-human and half-animal critters that we can’t spoil the specifics of, but which were aptly described by Simms as “these weird Island of Dr. Moreau-like things.” Surveying all his bizarre children, Jones said, “Literally every facet of my job, I’ve done on the show, from a fake nose to a dinosaur…literally. I’ve been doing this for 34 years now, and this is without doubt my favorite project.”

And just feet from him was fans’ favorite What We Do in the Shadows scene-stealer: the porcelain doll hosting the ghost of Nadja’s human form, affectionately referred to as “Dolly.” Watching remote controls operate Dolly’s face and limbs was unbelievably adorable (puppeteers also help create her movements on set). “When I first saw it, honestly, my womb fell out my bum,” Demetriou said. “It’s so awful because you just ignore the human [puppeteer] in the green suit, and you’re like [wails in adoration] at this inanimate object.”

Still, even when the series finds Dolly demanding to temporarily switch body forms with Nadja, so that she may experience what it’s like to get absolutely railed by someone for the first time (as happens in Season 5), everyone agreed that the beauty of the show is in the marriage of how normal and relatable the interactions between these characters can be. This remains true, even when the circumstances, surroundings, and motivations are ludicrous.

“Any [actor] who’s doing anything as fantastical and preposterous as this has to prepare themselves for tennis balls on sticks,” Berry said, talking about the unusual nature of employing so many special effects in a comedy series. “But what I like about the show is that what you’re seeing is sci-fi, but it’s happening within a documentary,” therefore making the vampire antics seem almost perfunctory—vampires exploding into a puddle of blood and guts, through a lens that makes it seem business as usual. There’s a surprise element that goes along with that approach, too, he said. “You don't expect to see a five minute fight in the middle of a situation comedy.”

“I will take a montage of people falling over over any other comedy, even the best written comedy,” Demetriou said. “People slipping accidentally while being really confident. Being really sassy and falling over is one of my favorite things.”

As much of an extreme dichotomy there is between the stunts and the more traditional sitcom elements of the show, What We Do in the Shadows has another trick balance to pull off: that of the touching, more human moments of growth, and the flamboyant, cartoonish nature of a bunch of bawdy vampires who are stuck in their centuries-old ways.

“Nandor is a reformed pillager and warlord,” Novak said of his character, who in this new season attempts to fly to space on a dare, nearly burns to a crisp while falling back down to Earth, and lands on a Pride Parade float butt naked with his hair frizzed out like a Troll doll. “I don’t know how he got so goofy.”

There are the running jokes illustrating how farcical these characters are, like Berry’s musical pronunciations of everyday phrases, as if they are arpeggios in an aria. There’s also Demetriou’s penchant for adding about 10 additional vowel sounds to simple words like “mall,” and her booming, egregiously off-key singing voice. (“Matt always describes it as if Kate Bush has been hit over the head with a rock,” Demetriou said of her singing.)

But a show that is just incessantly playful wouldn’t work. There are real stakes (heh) that are at the core of fans’ and critics’ investments in the series. Laszlo stepping up to become a father figure to Baby Colin Robinson in Season 4 marked a real evolution for the character. Guillermo coming out to his family made devoted viewers cry, because they had spent so long wondering how and when he would finally do it. Even the tension underlying Season 5—Guillermo’s transition into a vampire only half-worked; what will happen when the rest of the vampires find out?—carries with it real emotional heft.

“There are these moments that really tug at your heartstrings,” Guillen said. But, added Kristen Schaal, who plays The Guide, “Their morals are nothing we should ever live by. They’re demons.” Guillen laughed and agreed, then continued: “They forgot what it’s like to be human. I think being around other humans who are still living, who are mortal, reminds them, ‘Oh right. I remember when I had those feelings.’”

These are vampires who treat gathering a coterie of Staten Island virgins to sacrifice at the Bi-Annual Vampire Orgy like it’s a typical Tuesday afternoon chore, but who may also—brace yourself to say “aww”—love each other in believable ways, even if they’ll never admit it.

“I think, generally, when shows go longer, they either become more sincere, more serious, somebody gets married, or a child is born, something like that,” said writer and executive producer Sam Johnson. “Or they just become even sillier. I think we did both.”

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Senior Editor, Obsessed

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Friends with fangs”Warning: “I don’t know how he got so goofy”