The Popdose Interview: Jack McBrayer

Written by Popdose Interviews, Television

Actor Jack McBrayer (Kenneth on NBC’s 30 Rock) e-mailed me recently, panic-stricken and presumably sweaty. He was convinced that the recent writers’ strike had made people forget who he was. “But Jack,” I said, “the last new episode of 30 Rock aired in January, and the next new episode airs Thursday, April 10, 8:30 Eastern, 7:30 Central. Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”

“The public is fickle, Robert — I have to get my face back out there.”

“But you’re in Mariah Carey’s new video for ‘Touch My Body,'” I reminded him. “I saw it advertised on VH1 at the end of February, and I watched it on YouTube just the other day. Don’t worry. Everything’ll be alright.”

Unfortunately, nothing I said could calm him down. But four hours and a couple hundred e-mails later, Jack and I came up with a solution that would please everyone — a Popdose e-mail interview. Hooray!

Jack and I grew up in the same town — Macon, Georgia — but when he was 15, his family moved 60 miles north to Conyers, the home of Holly Hunter and a scorching outbreak of syphilis back in the ’90s. After graduating from the University of Evansville in Indiana in 1995, Jack moved to Chicago and studied improv and sketch comedy at the Second City and ImprovOlympic Theater (now known as iO); he was hired for the Second City Touring Company in ’97 and two years later was a writer-performer on the Second City e.t.c. stage. Then in 2002 he packed up his bags and headed to New York City, where he made regular appearances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in various roles.

Jack’s next move was to Los Angeles in 2004, where he played a waiter on two episodes of the late, great sitcom Arrested Development, continued improvising at iO West, and in 2006 costarred in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, followed closely by his breakout role as Kenneth the NBC page on the 2007 Emmy winner for best comedy series, 30 Rock. On April 18 he stars in the latest Judd Apatow-produced comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which he plays the newlywed husband of Maria Thayer (Strangers With Candy).

Before Jack and his family moved to Conyers, he and I shared good times and youthful lung capacity in the Macon Boys’ Choir during the 1984-’85 school year. Unfortunately, I don’t think we talked to each other that much, seeing as how he was a sixth grader and I was a third grader. Nevertheless, my first question for the southern scene stealer was …

What do you remember about me in the Macon Boys’ Choir? Take your time reminiscing. Use lots of adjectives.

Good Lord, I just looked over all the questions. This is a long interview. I don’t know, maybe you were … nice? I would say “efficient with your words,” but time seems to have changed that.

You’re not the first person to be jealous of my typing skills. At the beginning of Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” video, you do your impression of her glass-shattering vocal range. Did the lessons imparted by our former choirmaster, Blossom Burgamy, help you to hit those high notes?

I thought our teacher’s name was Ms. McElroy. No, I’ve been making those dog-whistle noises for years, mainly to annoy my sister. Plus, I can’t think of any song we would’ve sung that could incorporate the aforementioned high notes.

If I remember correctly, you were the guy who said “All abooooooard!” at the beginning of “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” but it’s true that you didn’t imitate a castrato to do it. As for “Ms. McElroy,” that name doesn’t ring a bell — check your quarter-century-old facts, Jack. Did you write or cowrite any songs for the Second City Touring Company or at Second City e.t.c. that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m afraid I’m not as musically inclined as you are painting me to be, although I did work with Peter Grosz [writer for The Colbert Report, actor in Sonic commercials with fellow Second City alumnus T.J. Jagodowski] in creating a TourCo scene called “Castanets” back in 1998. It was a song … in which I did not utter a sound. No lie!

How did your role in Carey’s video come about in the first place? Were you approached to do it during your writers’ strike downtime?

Pretty much. It was in February. I got a call from the director, Brett Ratner [the Rush Hour films, X-Men: The Last Stand], and they asked if I could get on a plane the next morning because Mariah Carey wanted me to be in her music video. It was so surreal. Apparently, she’s a big fan of 30 Rock, and of comedies in general.

How long did it take to shoot your part?

We shot all of the scenes over one weekend, so two days. We were at this ree-diculous mansion in Beverly Hills. It had 16 bedrooms. Sixteen bedrooms! Just crazy …

What else did you do during the writers’ strike? More improv than usual at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York?

I was definitely doing a lot of improv. That was pretty much it. I guess I could’ve done something to help society as a whole, but that’s just not my thing.

“Touch My Body” recently became Carey’s 18th number-one single, meaning she now has more number ones than Elvis. Don’t you think she should give you a shout-out for contributing to her little slice of history?

I’m not sure that the video had anything to do with the song reaching number one, but Ms. Carey has been very kind in her interviews. Please, leave her alone, Cass.

You don’t own me. I know you worked as a temp in Chicago when not performing around the country with TourCo. Did you also work as a waiter there? Or was it just your work as a waiter at Po’ Folks in Conyers that prepared you for your role as a waiter on Arrested Development?

I did actually work as a waiter in Chicago for a short while. But my stints on Arrested Development did not really require table-waiting experience. You know that people on television are pretending stuff, right? Like, William Shatner was not really in outer space …

Of course he wasn’t. Shatner was a cop. And now he’s a lawyer. Did you audition for the role of the waiter the first time you were on Arrested Development? I saw a lot of Second City actors on that show over the course of its three seasons. The casting director seemed to seek you guys out.

I actually did not have to audition for the role of the waiter. The casting director is Allison Jones, who is a champ at casting comedies. She is a big fan of Second City, and she does some of the choicest shows and movies around: Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, Talladega Nights, etc. I owe that lady a whole lot.

Either through their guest appearances on 30 Rock or through the movies you’ve done, which famous folk have impressed you with their work ethic or their general attitude on the set?

Everyone has been really fantastic (well, almost everyone). I have to say that Tim Conway was a flat-out treat. [He guest-stars on the April 17 episode of 30 Rock.] That guy is a class act. Such a gentleman, and so super funny. He tipped the hair, makeup, and wardrobe people on his last day on 30 Rock. I love that guy.

What got you into comedy in the first place? You didn’t do community theatre in Macon, but you were a theatre management major in college. Did you like theatre but not necessarily acting?

I did plays in high school in Conyers, but I never imagined I could support myself with that stuff. That’s why I studied theatre management to have something to fall back on. Ends up I hated it.

Did you grow up liking sketch comedy and shows like Saturday Night Live, or was that just something you discovered you had a talent for much later on?

Besides The Carol Burnett Show and The Electric Company, I really didn’t watch too much SNL until I was in high school. But after I saw a live Second City show when I moved to Chicago, that’s when my epiphany happened: “Oh, people actually do this kind of stuff for a living! I want to do that, too!”

You’ve had roles in Talladega Nights, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and the upcoming Forgetting Sarah Marshall, all produced by Judd Apatow. A lot of people wonder where the script ends and the improvisation begins on the sets of his films. How did the process work on the three films you’ve done?

Oh my God, this interview is long. Hands … cramping …

I only have 27 more questions. Quit complaining.

The Apatow movies are soooo fun to do. He will do about two takes as it’s written in the script, and then we’ll do about seven takes saying absolutely anything we want to. That man will burn through some film! But it is so much fun. It’s really like an improviser’s dream.

To call attention to your part in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I’ve been going up to those posters that say things like “You do look fat in those jeans, Sarah Marshall” and “I had sex with your mom and it was awesome, Sarah Marshall” and replacing her name with yours. Do you approve?

No. No, I do not. Mainly because of the vandalism aspect.

You’re no fun. Is there much room for improv on 30 Rock?

Honestly, there is very little improv involved. For one thing, the scripts are pretty spot-on, so why would we want to tinker with that? Also, since the show has to stick to such a tight schedule (less than 22 minutes per episode), there’s really just very little time for anything else.

You said on iO West’s site three years ago that when it comes to improv, “I insist on having fun … Nobody is holding a gun to my head to be doing this, so I damned well better be having a good time.” The few times I’ve seen you perform onstage, you certainly look like you’re having fun, which makes the audience have fun.

I agree. Also, this is not a question.

I thought you would pontificate or something. My mistake. You also said, “I’ve always been inspired by cartoons. Maybe it’s just the fact that anything can happen in a cartoon.” The more I do improv myself, the more I enjoy the “anything goes” aspect of it. Some people in Chicago take improv very seriously, which I can appreciate, but if I’m watching it I want to laugh, and I love when shows look like they could go off the rails at any second, just like in a good Looney Tunes cartoon.

Once again, not a question.

I thought I could trick you into pontificating the second time around.

I will say I am so glad I started my improv career in Chicago because there is such a reverence for it there, but sometimes it can be taken sooooo seriously that all the fun is squeezed out of it. So I’m glad I learned to appreciate it as an art form as well as appreciate the fun and joy that can be found in it.

In the Chicago comedy community you were known as an incredibly nice guy, and when I hung out with you briefly three years ago at the Chicago Improv Festival, I found out the rumors were true. Would you like to say anything right now to dispel your Tom Hanks-like image?

This is truly the longest interview I have ever been a part of.

Okay, now you’re just being rude— … Oh, I see what you did. Nicely done! Jack, you’re approaching your mid-30s, but you still look so gosh-darn boyish. Are there any addictions you’d like to take up to ravage your Dick Clark-ish glow?

I am part robot and part magic. I am actually a thousand years old. I am impervious to time. I also moisturize.

Okay, see, that time I did ask a question, but you didn’t answer it. I’ll dig deeper you once said that you drink a Mountain Dew before every improv show. Do you have a similar routine before every scene you shoot for 30 Rock?

I am still addicted to Mountain Dew, although due to slowing metabolism, I’ve had to switch over to Diet Mountain Dew. It tastes like poison, but I truly need it. And strangely enough, I do not like coffee.

So in the recent episode of 30 Rock in which Kenneth became addicted to coffee, were you drinking a substitute, or did you have to tough it out with the real thing?

They gave me chocolate milk with whipped cream on top. I mean, I’ll choke down coffee if I absolutely have to, but I just don’t like it.

One of the funniest things I’ve seen you do is a scene from 2001’s Second City e.t.c. sketch revue Better Late Than Nader. You and Debra Downing played two extreme southerners. How did you develop that scene?

Deb is from Texas, and we would always exchange tales from the homeland. The scene of course snowballed into huge, broad stereotypes, but there was always a nugget of truth in almost all of it.

Kenneth is supposed to be from Stone Mountain, Georgia, right? And the son of a pig farmer? No offense, but have 30 Rock‘s writers ever been to Stone Mountain? That’s where the laser light show used to happen every weekend, man! We’re stoners, not bumpkins! Tell ’em to get it right.

One of our writers, Donald Glover, is from Stone Mountain. He’s African-American, and he had very different experiences at the laser light show than either you or I.

What, so now I’m the jerk?

I think they didn’t want to make Kenneth from Conyers because they didn’t want it to be too autobiographical. ‘Cause I am JUST LIKE HIM!!!!

Is it true that Tina Fey, who had taught you in a few classes at the Second City Training Center in Chicago, introduced you to Lorne Michaels at a Saturday Night Live afterparty earlier in the decade as “the funniest person I know”? Our friend Eleanor Mixon told me that in 2001. She’s a lawyer now, so you’d better tell the truth, the whole truth, and blah blah blah.

Although I thank Eleanor for the compliment, I’m not sure if that’s exactly how it happened. Ms. Fey was very complimentary, though, and it was one of the weirdest nights of my life.

When you were cast in 30 Rock, did Fey offer you the part based on her previous experience with you and her opinion of your talent, or did you audition?

I definitely had to audition, because although Tina was pulling for me, nobody over at NBC or Universal knew who I was.

Which do you like best: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Conyers, or Macon? You have three seconds to decide.

Yeesh, that one is hard.

Time’s up!

I really like different elements of each one, and I’m not just saying that to sound nice. I love the energy of New York, the weather of Los Angeles, the work ethic of Chicago, the hometown feel (and syphilis) of Conyers, and the personal history of Macon. So I’m afraid there is no “best.”

Have you gotten any acting tips from real NBC pages? Anything like “Real pages would never help themselves to free doughnuts”?

I did get to “shadow” real pages when I was working on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, insomuch as I would sit in the hallway next to the page’s desk before the show. They have truly thankless jobs, but it was kinda funny to see how they’d deal with specific situations that would arise.

My favorite 30 Rock episode so far is “The Source Awards,” from last season, in which you politely told LL Cool J’s Diddy-like character, Ridikolus, that he wasn’t on the guest list for a party being thrown by Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan). Do you have any favorite episodes or moments from the show?

I enjoyed playing poker with Alec Baldwin’s character in season one. I also enjoyed getting addicted to caffeine in season two.

Do you have any input with the writers of 30 Rock about where you’d like to take Kenneth in terms of character development? How much give-and-take is there, and is that even a concern for you as an actor?

I honestly trust the writers so much that it sorta becomes a fun game for me just to see what they have me doing from episode to episode. I never fear that they’re going to make me do something I don’t want to do. I truly feel that they have my best interests in mind.

Our mutual friend from Macon, David Stevens, says you told him that you had to walk the red carpet at some awards show last year and that you swore you’d never do it again no matter how much NBC paid you. But the message board on your IMDB page says you walked the red carpet at the premiere of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Who paid you to do that, Jack? And shouldn’t you be giving some of that money to David? It sounds like he won an unofficial bet.

I have known David Stevens since we were in kindergarten together (no lie!), so I owe him nothing. First of all, you don’t get paid to walk down a red carpet. I did say that I never wanted to do that again. And for the record, I did not walk the red carpet at the premiere of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I went as a guest of Amy Adams, who I became friends with during Talladega Nights, and we were photographed leaving the afterparty together.

Oh. I guess I didn’t check the facts on that one. Now I really am the jerk.

Oh yeah, if David Stevens is reading this, then he’d better never forget who they asked to illustrate the program for our kindergarten graduation. Jealous much?

By the way, you should write our friend Beau Johnson. He says he wrote you a few months ago and you didn’t respond. Sorry to end the interview on a downer, but he complains about it all the time to me in his text messages. So write him back. Those texts add up.

Oh my God, this has been so tedious. I’m actually going to see Beau and his wife and kid in Charleston, South Carolina, this spring when I go down to perform at the Piccolo Fringe Festival. I do a two-man improv show with my pal Paul Scheer [MTV’s Human Giant and VH1’s Best Week Ever], and Charleston is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. (How’s that for taking a downer and making lemonade?)

You heard it here first — Jack McBrayer puts downers in his lemonade. Us Weekly, you’ve been scooped!

30 Rock airs Thursdays on NBC at 8:30/7:30 Central, Forgetting Sarah Marshall opens in theaters nationwide Friday, April 18, and if you’re in Charleston May 30-June 1, you can see Jack and Paul perform two-man improv at Theatre 99. (You can also see me in a show called The Fowler Family Radio Hour the weekend of May 23. I’m just sayin’ is all …) Thanks for the interview, Jack!