When Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair created High Maintenance in the fall of 2012, they were interested in portraying contemporary Brooklyn, and the people who make the city special, by exploring the connections and experiences forged through weed. But the show had a practical purpose, too, one other than getting high: It was built to be a calling card. Sinclair, then a struggling actor being typecast more or less as a creep, needed a role that would showcase his fuzzy charm. And Blichfeld, then a casting director for shows like Naked in a Fishbowl and 30 Rock, had a long list of similarly talented, overlooked actors who just needed the right part. It’s rare that you get such a two-birds, one-stone scenario.
In both respects, the show was a success. Since moving from Vimeo web series to HBO half-hour in 2016, High Maintenance has taken the torch from Louie, Girls, and Broad City as the most prominent prestige chronicler of modern New York. Sinclair’s chummy weed-delivery man, The Guy, has become a beloved television character, and Sinclair himself has become a Brooklyn fixture (he’s recognized a lot), if not a Hollywood-conquering presence. And many of the actors Blichfeld originally had in mind have appeared on the show and, in the process, gotten impressive reels that catalyzed their careers (think Greta Lee or Chris Roberti).
As have many actors Blichfeld and Sinclair had never even heard of when they first created High Maintenance. In the years since Blichfeld and Sinclair exhausted their Rolodexes, High Maintenance has become virtually unparalleled at finding and showcasing up-and-coming New York talent. In recent years, the show has arguably helped launch more careers than Saturday Night Live.
If someone is making noise in Brooklyn’s thriving alternative comedy scene in particular, it’s usually only a matter of time before you’ll see them toke up in High Maintenance. Four of GQ’s seven 2019 “new kings and queens of lol” (Catherine Cohen, Patti Harrison, Julio Torres, and Mitra Jouhari) have appeared on the show. Gary Richardson, Jo Firestone, and Aparna Nancherla have all made appearances, and this season will introduce viewers to superlative Brooklyn oddballs like Edy Modica and Ruby McCollister.
But Sinclair and Blichfeld aren’t interested in coronating the Next Big Thing so much as they’re interested in highlighting the work of sui generis performers. While there are fewer barriers than ever for aspiring actors thanks to the rise of Peak TV, the industry can still feel utterly unbreachable. For unorthodox performers in particular, High Maintenance has become something of a haven. Being cast gave Modica—who specializes in a gonzo grotesquery (her instagram handle is @doodiehole)—assurance that the time she spent honing her voice was well spent.
And being cast similarly disabused the actor-comedian Larry Owens (who calls himself “fat jon boyega” on Twitter) of the notion that “I was too fat and ugly to be on television.” On High Maintenance, his look was an asset rather than an obstacle. As the show has expanded beyond episodes set in Blichfeld's and Sinclair’s friends’ apartments, its creators have placed increasing weight on portraying a representative Brooklyn. Casting director Andrew Femenella says he allocates time in preproduction to simply meeting people from communities where he doesn’t have relationships. “The ethos of the show has always been that it exists out of a desire to lift up overlooked and underutilized people,” he says. “When it comes to people who are never given opportunities to be on television—let alone audition for television—we want to make sure they feel supported.”
Owens’s example is instructive. A fixture of the off-Broadway theater and Brooklyn comedy worlds, he’d been on the show’s radar for a while. After the creators caught him in the musical A Strange Loop, they found the perfect part for him. He stars in Sunday’s Season 4 premiere, as a singing telegram delivery person who’s overworked and overcaffeinated. It was a chance for the producers to inject theater into the show (he does “Happy Birthday” dressed as a chicken and Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” dressed as a heart), and for Owens to play a character right in his wheelhouse (hilariously sassy). “High Maintenance was the best thing to start with because of how fully it used me and how amazing all of the people are,” says Owens. “There was an incredible amount of freedom, but there was just as much guidance.”
Owens’s experience on High Maintenance was a fairly typical one for an actor on the show. In the early going, Sinclair and Blichfeld primarily wrote characters with specific actors in mind. They’ve since shifted to a more traditional back-end casting process, led by Femenella, in which they write stories and find actors later. But they continue to prize character over plot, and try to keep things loose and play to actors’ strengths. “Sometimes we get an idea that we like a lot, and then we go to cast it and we see an actor who, just by virtue of being themselves, totally changes our story or our conception of who the character is, so we work with what they're giving us,” says Blichfeld. “When someone shows us what we want and then some, that's the gold we’re panning for,” Sinclair adds.
For most actors, the process enables their best work—and leads to more of it. For Britt Lower, who played The Guy’s adrift bohemian girlfriend for a few episodes last season, playing a character close to her “voice and essence as a person” helped her “feel very grounded in my approach to the character.” It also contributed to her landing a part in Ben Stiller’s upcoming Apple TV+ show, Severance. Heléne Yorke, who played Lainey, an abusive friend in a codependent relationship, says her initial appearance on the web series, “for lack of a better word, made me seem cool”—and led people in the industry to want to meet her.
And the show’s embrace of lesser-known actors isn’t actor charity: Because recognizable actors tend to ruin the illusion that High Maintenance’s New York is an authentic one, most of the actors cast have to be relatively unknown. (When famous types like Hannibal Buress and Jemima Kirke show up, they’re usually playing themselves). A single episode of High Maintenance requires roughly the amount of casting as entire seasons of other half-hour comedies: A typical High Maintenance season might outnumber another show 200 to 25. It’s practically its own industry—or, as Owens calls it, a “Law & Order for millennial actors.”
Of course, there’s a critical difference between the two New York ensembles. In Law & Order, a man who sings in a chicken costume would probably be a murderer. In High Maintenance, he merely gets to kill.