Jack McBrayer On Working With Puppet Dogs And Oscar Nominees

Comedy Features Jack McBrayer

I almost insulted Jack McBrayer yesterday. It would’ve been an accident, but still. This a guy I look up to, a fellow Georgian who’s made it big, and a crucial part of one of the best sitcoms of all time, so insulting him is the last thing I’d ever want to do. He sounds exactly like his characters, though—he doesn’t exaggerate his natural Georgia accent or high-pitched voice as Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock or on the new Adult Swim sitcom The Jack and Triumph Show. He sounds as sweet and Southern and disarmingly polite as he does on TV. He said “God bless” like three times during a ten minute call! So when I was talking to him on the phone I almost said that he seemed just like the characters that he plays. He probably wouldn’t have been insulted by that, and he’s clearly drawing on some of his own upbringing and personality in his comedy, but literally twenty seconds after I almost said that he talked about how his characters usually aren’t intelligent. He straight up called them stupid. Use the transitive property and it would’ve been like I was calling Jack McBrayer stupid. I realized how rude it would’ve been to equate the real man with the weird, gullible man-children he plays on TV.

Jack Mlicki, his character on The Jack and Triumph Show, which debuts tonight on Adult Swim, is like Kenneth Parcell if he was corrupted at an early age by a vulgar, immoral dog puppet. McBrayer costars with Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog in a show that combines a traditional sitcom setup with typical Triumph live remotes. (You can read our review of the first episode here.) Despite the studio audience and kitschy set, the humor is Bible black, with Triumph cruelly exploiting and insulting Jack (and Oscar nominee June Squibb!) every week. It’s a dark, hilarious show, and McBrayer’s clearly excited about it.

Paste: How did the show come together?

Jack McBrayer: Both me and Robert Smigel had worked with Conan O’Brien way back in the day on separate little projects. I was just coming in as a bit player for their comedy sketches, and Smigel had been head writer for years and years. But it wasn’t until the Wiener’s Circle bit in Chicago in 2012 that we actually worked together. So from that came a very popular kind of viral video segment and we were able to pitch that as a sitcom as pretty much an Odd Couple kind of thing. The oddest couple of all.

Paste: And there’s that new Odd Couple that just started last night with Tom Lennon and—

McBrayer: I heard about that! God bless. I guess there’s room enough in this world for any sort of strange pairings.

Paste: You mentioned the Chicago hot dog bit. How is working with Smigel and Triumph in this sitcom context different than the traditional Triumph remote stuff?

McBrayer: I have to admit, I kind of like the structure of having a sitcom. We shoot in front of a live studio audience, which is different than what 30 Rock did. So we’re able to play off a crowd who are hopefully laughing at the jokes. And even if they’re not laughing we’re able to tweak some things, or cut a line, make adjustments to get that immediate reaction, which is very valuable. I do appreciate that structure, because those remotes can get a little hairy, if you ask me. Also I think I’m starting to realize crowds make me anxious, which, oh thank God we were able to shoot in New York City, there are no crowds there!

Paste: After working on 30 Rock for so long, was it weird at first to hear people immediately respond to what you do?

McBrayer: I have never heard anyone laugh at anything I’ve said. [laughs] No, my background is from improv and I was at The Second City in Chicago for many years, so I’m no stranger to performing in front of a crowd and hopefully hearing them respond positively. But this was the first time I’d ever done it in a filmed environment. In a TV situation. Because 30 Rock, God bless, we’d do it and do it and do it…plus there were so many technical aspects to that too. So you do kind of do it in a vacuum of sorts. But doing it in front of a live studio audience, you definitely can tell if they’re enjoying it. Or not!

Paste: Talking about the remotes, was the New York Comic Con remote in the first episode of Jack and Triumph shot like a normal Triumph remote?

McBrayer: Yes sir! Very much like that. It’ll be a camera man, a sound guy, Smigel, me and then like two writers who have pages and pages of jokes, and are like, “okay, let’s see, what do we have for William Shatner? Okay, Lucy Lawless, what sort of Xena jokes do we have?” It’s very much like the one other Triumph remote we’ve done. I guess people don’t realize, we’ll go up and do something and then we’ll try some alts—for example with the Wiener’s Circle I went up and ordered hot dogs at least twice, and then they just cut and pasted what the best versions of that were. So nothing’s scripted, but I think eventually people get the gist of what is going on.

Paste: So when you did the New York Comic Con bit from the episode, do you just work with who’s there and then try to get their approval afterward to air it later on?

McBrayer: We do have a production assistant there with a stack of waivers to be signed. But here are some TV secrets: sometimes we are politely asked to leave the premises on some of the remotes. Nothing horrible, and everyone ends up okay, but I don’t think anybody intends for hurtful humiliation. It’s all in fun, and any participants kind of realize what they’re getting into when they’re talking to a puppet dog. I don’t think they think this is some kind of news broadcast and now they’re being insulted.

Paste: There’s some pretty dark stuff in the first episode. Is there anything you wouldn’t be willing to put your character through for a laugh?

McBrayer: Oh boy. Well, sometimes that’s out of my control. They have me doing some pretty ridiculous stuff for some of the upcoming episodes. Having to say things I would not normally say. There’s one remote that we did—it’s no secret that I hate cold and I hate winter with all my heart. And in one of the remote they had me standing in two feet of snow in a bathing suit and flip flops. For an extreme amount of time, sir! So daddy earned his paycheck that day.

Paste: What’s it like working with June Squibb?

McBrayer: I love her! I love that lady. I am so grateful and surprised that she agreed to join us. But I enjoy every single minute I get to spend with her. She makes me laugh and she’s just a kind, normal person. And she’s game for anything. We give her some ridiculous scenarios and things to say and she’s like “alright!” She’s a pro.

Paste: It’s crazy to see somebody who just had an Oscar nomination a year ago show up on an Adult Swim show.

McBrayer: Oscar nominee June Squibb! Arguing with a puppet dog! That’s our show.

Paste: Is it weird talking to Robert Smigel’s hand as your day job?

McBrayer: Sometimes that makes it easier.

Paste: He does still do all the puppetry, right?
McBrayer: Absolutely. He is very much involved with that. Strangely enough, the part that takes the longest, the part that makes me roll my eyes the most, is he is just hell bent on using as many props with Triumph as he can brainstorm. So we spend so much time figuring it out. “No, no, bring me the paw that curves to the left. Bring me the paw that can extend to three feet.” There’s all this technical mumbo jumbo, and I’m like, “urgh! Just pick up the coffee cup with your own hand!” But it does look hilarious when Triumph is putting on his own bifocals, that kind of thing.

Paste: This pairing makes perfect sense. The comic personas of Jack McBrayer and Triumph are perfect complements. And your persona is so well-defined. Would you want to branch out and play a character that wasn’t like your standard character?

McBrayer: Of course. I would never shoot down any opportunity to challenge myself or stretch myself. I do know that right now I still enjoy playing these sweet and stupid characters and I know that I can hopefully deliver, so I’m not in a place of misery quite yet. But I would never turn down an opportunity to try something new or something scary or anything like that. We’ll have to see. And the director would have to know that it is a crapshoot. There’s a chance that gamble doesn’t pay off!

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.

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