When the show is called Nightcap with Jimmy and you’re Jimmy’s best childhood friend, life is good. “I pretty much roam around the halls and do whatever I want… It’s called being a producer. It’s super fun,” Todd Mitchell tells HR in an online promotional clip from Pop TV’s hit scripted comedy series, Nightcap (Wednesdays at 8P/7c).
This season, actor/comedian Don Fanelli, who plays Todd, has been upped to series regular on Ali Wentworth’s outrageous Nightcap, a fast-paced 20-minute comedy about life behind the scenes of a “number five in the ratings, but number one in our hearts” late-night talk show.
The New Jersey born and raised talent considers himself lucky to have grown up in a state with so much to offer. Don rather fondly recalled being exposed to some of Jersey’s rougher areas while he was still a kid. Conversely, he also had friends with a “little bit of money,” which allowed him to experience an entirely different scene.
“New Jersey is the most densely populated state, so you’re around a lot of different folks. I got to grow up in a kind of melting pot,” Fanelli reminisced. “I wouldn’t really have wanted to grow up anyplace else. I love New Jersey. I love the accessibility of the city, but I also love that you can get away from things by going to the suburbs. It’s just a great place to be a kid and explore. I never really remember being inside, I was always outside with friends exploring and having that freedom. There’s a rough-and-tumble Jersey pride.”
Professionally, Don has been sharpening his comedic edge for years. On television, he has appeared on such acclaimed shows as Inside Amy Schumer, 30 Rock, and the Late Show with David Letterman. On stage, Fanelli has written and performed with many teams at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre — The UCB Theatre is an improvisational theatre and training center that was founded by the Upright Citizens Brigade troupe (Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh).
“I think for comedians, a lot of the work is behind the scenes,” Don noted. “I’ve been at the UCB Theatre for seven years, performing pretty regularly with great, great people. I’ve learned from great teachers and I was a teacher there, as well. In fact, one of my students, Jacob Wallach is also on Nightcap, he plays Randy Wolf. People don’t know how much work you have to put into this. But it’s not about, ‘Dude, you don’t know how much work I’ve had to do to get to this level,’ it’s more like, ‘Thank you, it’s very nice of you to acknowledge anything that I do.'”
Don told Entertaining Options that he toes the line between being an introvert and being an extrovert. Starting back in elementary school, he always loved being on stage, but never really seriously considered acting or comedy as a career option.
“There was a series of kind of backwards events that led me to acting,” Fanelli revealed. “I was an engineer for a little bit. But that didn’t work out, so I went through a bunch of odd jobs. One of my dad’s friends was an actor in the ’80s. He was the one who brought me into the UCB. He said, ‘Do this for eight weeks, get up on stage and see if you like it. It’s the easiest way to do it. You don’t have to learn lines, just get on stage and see if you like it.'”
After realizing that he did, indeed, like being on stage, Don went to The William Esper Studio, the world’s foremost studio dedicated to Meisner-based actor training. Sanford Meisner’s approach to acting is based on emotional impulses and instinct. He asserted that good acting originated from the heart, not the head. It was at The William Esper Studio that Fanelli met instructor José Santana. José wasn’t the first to recognize Don’s talent, but he was, however, the first to offer him the career roadmap that was instrumental in getting Don to where he is now.
Admittedly, the character he plays in Nightcap can be a bit of a jerk. But somehow, Fanelli makes him likable.
“There’s a fine line between a caricature and an actual human being,” he explained. “This guy means well and he just wants to be part of something — we can all probably relate to that. He just wants to do well, but he always ends up doing it very poorly. But wanting to do well is what keeps him human. There’s a lot that goes on in his head, a lot firing off, but sometimes all that comes out is a puff of air. It’s like when a car is starting and you hear the engine ramp up, but the exhaust pipe just goes ‘Poof.’ That’s Todd.”
In the second episode of Season 2, “Match Game,” Jeff Hiller (Morning Glory, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Ghost Town)plays Phil Miller, a security guard being bullied by his superior, a nasty, foul-mouthed woman named Marlene, who is played by Shannon DeVido (The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Difficult People). Todd tells Phil not to worry, he’ll put Marlene in her place with words because “sometimes they hurt more than the worst nuggie in the world.” In the hilarious verbal showdown, things don’t quite go as planned and Todd winds up a quivering mess — hunched over, withdrawn, and rocking in a corner.
“Shannon was awesome to work with,” Don expressed. “So funny. I could watch her make fun of Phil (Jeff Hiller) all day.”
DeVido reciprocated, saying, “Don is a seriously funny person on and off screen. He was nothing but kind and supportive in our scene. Watching him and Jeff Hiller working together, and improvising on screen was like a master class in comedy.”
Fun Fact: Originally, Shannon auditioned for a different role that ended up being cut from the show. When they brought her back in to audition for Marlene, it was a perfect fit. “It’s fun to play someone super mean because you get to get all your aggression out, and in the current political climate, it’s not too hard to channel.”
When asked what it was that made him the right choice for this particular role, Don replied, “The simplest answer I can come up with is… I can play dumb smart. Overthinking things seems to create some sort of a barrier. I’ve just always gravitated towards simple, empathetic people… because those are the kinds of people you really prefer to be with and share things with.”
Then there was the improv.
“At my first call back, I walked in and Ali took the script right out of my hand and she threw it on the ground. That actually put me at ease because I knew she wanted to have fun. I decided that I was just going to go on this ride with them. I was prepared in my training for that moment, I was present and ready to go anywhere the other people in the scene wanted to go.”
“When you audition for something,” he added, “a lot of the times, you don’t know what they’re looking for — I don’t think they even always know what they’re looking for. It just happens and feels right. Or, they go in looking for one thing, but something else happens. I really don’t know what it was on their end, I was just happy that I got a call back.”
Now that Don has found the character, Entertaining Options asked, ‘What makes Todd, Todd?”
“I do a lot of research… up to a point. If I know too much, I’ll be one step ahead of the character and I’ll start to anticipate. But if I don’t know anything, I’ll be behind. I try to stay in the moment, this place of happy ignorance. And that’s Todd. Preparing doesn’t even make sense for him, he just believes you’ve got this thing to do, so you do it.”
“I think that’s a lot of what life is,” Fanelli concluded. “You can’t prepare for everything, so you just commit and go along for the ride.”
Ali Wentworth’s Nightcap (Lionsgate/Dakota Pictures/Trout the Dog Productions), airs Wednesday nights 8P/7c on Pop TV.
Look for Don as Angelo in the “Storm-y Weather” episode of the new season of Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black!