As Kenneth The Page, Jack McBrayer steals nearly every scene he's in on NBC's 30 Rock, the Tina Fey-created sitcom about a late-night comedy show. Whether he's running ridiculous errands for Tracy Morgan or facing insults from Alec Baldwin, McBrayer manages to convey a funny combination of hopeless optimism and total cluelessness, and it's made him a breakout character in a show teeming with talent. (At one point, Baldwin's character remarks: "In five years, we'll all either be working for him… or dead by his hand.") The key may be this: McBrayer is actually a lot like Kenneth. They're both giddy to be working in television after years working up to it: McBrayer smiled through plenty of thankless jobs before finding a home at Second City and eventually scoring small parts on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and in Talladega Nights. He recently spoke with The A.V. Club about leaner days, the joys of food, and the respect of actual NBC pages.
The A.V. Club: Your actual voice is much like Kenneth's.
Jack McBrayer: Almost exactly like it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was the character written with you in mind?
JM: Kind of. I knew Tina from Second City in Chicago. I think she had me in mind, which is fine by me!
AVC: How much of the character did you bring to it? JM: I don't know. I'm sure that it's an exaggerated version of myself, but I'll be honest with you, I'm pretty happy to be working. They play off of that a bit.
AVC: Did they treat you like a returning hero last time you visited Second City?
JM: I've gotta say, they did. When I show up, they're like "Right this way, Mr. McBrayer, and your drinks have been comped for the evening." All right! I'll have two Bud Lights! I love free food. I'm an easy date. I meant cheap date, cheap date!
AVC: How do the actual NBC pages treat you?
JM: I get more respect from them than anybody else. People keep asking if I get recognized—I really and truly don't, except by the NBC pages. They're very respectful, like, "Your badge is different," or "Have you ever taken a tour?" I haven't. I'd really like to. Apparently at one point, a website was started, "Here's why Kenneth really wouldn't be a page: 1) He speaks directly to the higher-ups." But everybody's real, real nice. I see those guys when I go over to Conan and SNL. We're not over in 30 Rock a whole lot, but sometimes I'll pop over to say "Hey." AVC: What sort of rotten jobs have you had over the years?
JM: I hope you have a lot of paper. The first job I ever had was at a pool-liner-manufacturing plant. Minimum wage was $4.25, and that's what I was making. It was this huge, hot, un-air-conditioned factory staffed with all women and me. This is in Georgia, during the summertime, so it was pretty ridiculous. The next summer, I was up to $5 an hour, so I thought I was king of the world. Then I moved into the restaurant business. There's this chain of restaurants called PoFolks; it's all home-style cooking, meaning everything's fried—fried green tomatoes, fried okra, catfish. When you're waiting tables, your wage is half of minimum wage, and the rest you make up in tips. But these were "po folks" who were eating there. One time, I chased a couple out of the restaurant who didn't tip me.
AVC: Were you able to work a tip out of them?
JM: A dollar bill. A dollar bill. They had been running me ragged the entire time; they'd clearly never eaten at a restaurant before.
AVC: Did you have Kenneth's positive attitude when you did these jobs?
JM: Yeah! I would do it to the best of my ability, and I always enjoyed the people that I worked with, even at the factory. The factory was all—this is gonna sound bad—white trash. This one lady was getting ready for 4th of July, "I gotta go to the grocery store and make my red, white, and blue cake! I've gotta get Cool Whip, strawberries for the stripes, and I've gotta get 52 blueberries for the stars." And I'm like, "Don't you need 50?" She says, "No. 52. Alaska and Hawaii." PoFolks was kind of the same deal. It really was cheap food, and that was our clientele, but I did enjoy it. Your first restaurant job, you're just thrilled to be able to eat food while you're working. The next summer, I worked at Applebee's, really a step up! [Laughs.] I was employee of the month there, July of '94. You get a little pin, and I got my picture taken. My parents were so proud.
AVC: Were you dreaming of acting the whole time?
JM: I was studying theater management, business stuff. About that time, I realized I really didn't like that, and it threw me into a panic attack a little bit. I was under the assumption that the first job you get out of college is the job you have for the rest of your life. That's how my parents were; my parents have been teachers for as long as I've known 'em. I was worried that I'd gotten into something that I was going to hate. It was actually a relief to have these other jobs that had nothing to do with what I was studying. Right after graduation, I moved to Chicago and worked in another restaurant. That didn't end too well. I got fired.
AVC: Did you do something wrong?
JM: I got fired for giving coffee away. It was just my regulars. I'd say, "Don't worry about it," and they'd put down a dollar tip. Technically I was stealing. Ethically, I was boosting morale! [Laughs.] I was also a temp at a consulting firm for three and a half years. It was real boring, but I made myself indispensable to them, because there was such a turnover with upper management that they needed me because I knew where everything was. And at that point, I had discovered improv, so creatively, I was doing something productive instead of just sitting in front of the computer all day entering data about asbestos cases. Once I got hired for Second City, that was my job-job. But in 2002, I left Second City to come to New York, and was once again thrown into the bowels of poverty. In 2004, I decided to move to L.A. without anything lined up. So through the grace of friends who can hook you up with a job, I was able to, temp again at Teleflora. I was in charge of organizing their storage space. That was the kind of job where the boss gets really busy, and it's like, "Can I give you my kid's Christmas list and you go buy toys?" So I'd go to KB Toys all day. And they'd make me wrap 'em. I had to cater one time dressed as a mover. I had to wear coveralls and pass out crudités, and this was during a heat wave in Chicago. I was about to die! That was like cruel and unusual punishment, but anything with food—I'm a sucker for food.
AVC: When did you get the call to return to New York?
JM: When I was working at Teleflora, I got booked to do Talladega Nights, so I went and did that. That was really my first big break ev-er. I made as much from my per diem during the three-month shoot as I did for the entire previous year. After I returned to Los Angeles, I booked the pilot, then we shot the pilot for 30 Rock in March of 2006. Then I came back here in August, and now NBC pays me in pickles and rubber bands.
AVC: Do they have a nice catering table for you?
JM: They actually do! It's pretty sweet. I will go to town on some yogurt-covered pretzels. I wish they had more Mountain Dew. That's what keeps me focused.
AVC: Maybe if you get picked up for another season, you can request it.
JM: I could just bring my own. It's what, like $2.79 for a six-pack? You get a huge free lunch every day, too. Something's wrong with me that I'm so obsessed with food for payment! I'm from the Depression era!
AVC: You'd better not admit it; they'll start trying to pay you in food.
JM: A mountain of cotton candy for season two!