LOS ANGELES — Cocaine has disrupted countless Hollywood productions, and that was the case not long ago on the set of Showtime’s new comedy “Black Monday.” But this time, it was its absence, not its presence, that was the problem.
“I need my coke, sorry,” Regina Hall said, an oversight that brought an elaborate wedding scene to a halt. Clad in a sequined denim bridesmaid dress and an enormous pink hair bow, Hall chatted with her co-star Don Cheadle as extras milled about and someone ran to fetch her nose candy (actually a mix of comparatively benign powders like B-vitamins and starch). At a cluster of monitors, the showrunners Jordan Cahan and David Caspe pondered whether key bumps were wedding-appropriate, even in the baroquely dissipated world of 1980s Wall Street.
“Maybe just a cigarette?” Cahan said, and soon a production assistant was handing Hall a fake cigarette instead of a vial of fake cocaine.
These are the sorts of behind-the-scenes decisions that arise on “Black Monday,” an outrageous new comedy, beginning Sunday on Showtime, about a ragtag bunch of traders running a long con on the street’s blue-blood establishment. (Think “Bad News Bears” meets “Trading Places,” with lifestyle cues borrowed from “The Wolf of Wall Street.”)
Cheadle is Maurice “Mo” Monroe, a stock market schemer overseeing the Jammer Group, an underdog firm that includes Hall’s Dawn Towner, the head trader, and Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells), a wide-eyed Wharton grad getting a quick and very dirty education in the ethics of high-level finance. (Lesson 1: There aren’t any.)
The degenerate staff is rounded out by Horatio Sanz, Yassir Lester and Paul Scheer, whose puffed-up schlub of a trader manifests multiple flavors of self-hatred.
The multicultural makeup is the most obvious early sign that “Black Monday,” which is executive produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (“Superbad” “The Disaster Artist”), is up to more than just filthy jokes. (Though those are definitely core to the enterprise.)
In positioning a firm whose racial diversity “would not have been allowed at that time,” Cheadle said, against cartoonish Wall Street Brahmins — Ken Marino plays a pair of vapid twins who are supposed to be the Lehman Brothers — the show aims to satirize the monotone culture of high finance and, by extension, American halls of power.
“We joke that the show’s about how far we haven’t come,” Caspe said.
“Black Monday” is also a tightly plotted murder mystery. The show, which styles itself as a gonzo secret history of the run-up to the 1987 stock market crash of the title, opens with a body plummeting from a Wall Street skyscraper onto Mo’s “Lambo” (a Lamborghini that has been converted into a limousine). The first season reveals the story of both crashes: the identity of that body as well as what caused the cataclysmic market plunge.
And while the show’s dialogue, especially, is defined by broad vulgarity, beneath that surface is an experiment in skewering a benighted milieu without indulging in the very things that made it appalling.
“It’s a full package that I’ve never quite seen, where there’s that many facets that can all be used together,” Goldberg said. “But it’s extremely funny.”
Whatever its facets, “Black Monday” will live or die on the strength of its jokes, which range from profanely inventive à la “Veep” to shock-jock puerile. (Aficionados of gleefully crass Apatowian one-liners will be delighted; others might be taxed. Reviews have been mixed.)
The show’s tireless commitment to the laugh feels almost radical, given prestige TV’s current preference for emotionally trenchant comedy. Showtime’s other half-hour shows include “SMILF,” about a struggling single mom, and “Kidding,” about a grieving kids TV host.
“It’s been a lot of dramedies,” said Gary Levine, a Showtime president of entertainment. “We were anxious to have that harder comedy.”
Cheadle said: “These guys are joke whores — they’re always trying to get in as many as they can.”
Caspe is best known for creating the cult favorite sitcom “Happy Endings” — his wife Casey Wilson, one of the stars of that show, also stars in “Black Monday.” His father and grandfather were commodities traders, and “Black Monday” is inspired by the stories of debauchery he heard growing up.
“My dad told me about leaving work and passing this wave of prostitutes on their way in as he was walking out,” Caspe said. “Guys betting $10,000 on which person across the office is going to go to the bathroom first — just crazy, crazy [expletive].”
Showtime passed on the first version of the show he developed with Cahan (“Champaign ILL”), a friend from childhood. (“The timing was wrong,” Levine said, noting that “The Wolf of Wall Street” had just come out and Showtime had recently debuted the pulpy hedge fund drama “Billions.”)
So Caspe submitted “Black Monday” as a writing sample for another job, where it caught Goldberg’s eye. “I said [expletive] that, let’s make this,” Goldberg recalled.
Backed by the powerhouse producers Rogen and Goldberg, the project was revived at Showtime and pitched to Cheadle, who, won over by the story and mash-up of genres, signed on as star and executive producer.
“It’s outrageous and satirical and at times poignant — we’re walking a line, clearly, and that’s always risky,” he said during a break from shooting. “But, ultimately, if you’re going to try to do something, let’s try to do it in a new way.”
Most of the poignancy, at least in the early episodes, comes from Hall’s character’s struggle to be taken seriously both at her job, where she’s surrounded by misogynists, and at home, where her husband (Kadeem Hardison) and parents want her to stop working and start having babies.
The unapologetically wacky “Black Monday” is a tonal swerve from Hall’s recent films like the police brutality drama “The Hate U Give” and last summer’s low-fi charmer “Support the Girls” — her performance in the latter is a wild-card contender for an Oscar nomination. But Hall brings a welcome ballast to the series as the modern ’80s woman Dawn, patterned after her mother.
“Everything I’m doing, I remember seeing my mom do in the ’80s,” she said on the set, bow flapping as she emphasized her points. “They put on pantyhose every day and they did the damn thing.”
She caught her reflection in a nearby mirror. “I forget I have this [expletive] bow on,” she sighed. “This is not one of Dawn’s best outfits, this bridesmaid debacle.”
Wardrobe is only one aspect of the show’s shameless wallowing in the aesthetic lowlights of 1980s chic, one that some actors found more rewarding than others. “I look like James Spader in “Baby Boom,” and it’s everything I wanted as a kid,” said Rannells, whose callow yuppie Blair is caught between his spoiled fiancée (Wilson) and Mo.
Other examples include the aforementioned Lambo, the obligatory brick-size cellphones and ample interior design indulgences, like Dawn’s mauve and black lacquer dream of an apartment.
The writers treat low-hanging ’80s fruit like piñatas, stuffing the scripts with broad jokes about designer jeans, Michael Milken-era finance and the wonders of primitive technology. In one episode a screenwriter shadows Mo as research for a film he’s working on with Oliver Stone. In another, the traders marvel at the realism of Nintendo’s Duck Hunt as they snort white lines off the gray plastic gun.
Indeed, the guiding philosophy seems to be when in doubt, add more cocaine, even down to the cinematography. Rogen and Goldberg directed the pilot episode, establishing a frenetic visual grammar designed to “feel like you’re in a room with a lot of people on cocaine, and trying to keep up with what they’re talking about,” Rogen said.
The show was shot largely on anamorphic 1980s movie lenses, Rogen said, to channel the look and feel of comedies from the decade. (In one visual Easter egg, the firm’s trading floor includes a replica of the Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice flip dot display from the end of “Trading Places.”) Showtime itself even got into the act, and will air “Black Monday” with vintage intro bumpers.
“It’s a thrilling dynamic when the marketing people are blowing your mind instead of making you want to kill yourself,” Goldberg said.
Others parallels were trickier, reflecting that whatever the object of its satire, “Black Monday” will be judged by more modern sensitivities.
The series is most interesting when it deals with the day-to-day marginalization of its outsiders: Mo as an African-American CEO; Dawn as an underestimated woman; other characters as closeted gays in a time of shameless homophobia. But as seen in other depictions of the time, like the relentlessly hard-R “Wolf of Wall Street,” in practice the difference between parodying a world and indulging in its abuses can be slim to the point of meaninglessness.
“It was a really difficult line to draw, because you want the era to feel authentic, but the last thing you want to do is offend the people the show is about,” Cahan said.
So while the pervy traders of “Black Monday” obsess over strip bars, no actual female nudity appears in the series. A gay slur is uttered early in the season, but it’s used to identify a villain and also spark a character’s growing acceptance of his sexuality.
“I won’t know if we walked the line correctly until we see some response to the show,” Caspe said. “Which is terrifying.”
But how smoothly will the more serious stuff mesh with Lambo jokes? The creators take comfort from that previously referenced Oliver Stone movie — 1987’s “Wall Street,” of course — which mined awards and acclaim from ’80s excess. “That’s an Oscar-winning drama and Gordon Gekko has a robot butler,” Caspe said.
“What was nice about ’80s Wall Street is the world itself is so broad,” he added, “that we get to do pretty big comedy while still being totally within reality.”