In many ways, it's odd that Mary Lynn Rajskub got the part of Jack Bauer's smartass tech guru on 24. For one thing, Rajskub started out as a painter-turned-performance artist. She got into comedy via performance art, a background that unsurprisingly helped land her a gig on the beloved sketch show Mr. Show for its first two seasons. Until 24, Rajskub had a fairly typical career, full of small parts on a variety of TV shows and films, including a few clunkers. Despite her scene-stealing role on an action show, Rajskub excels most in comedy. She performs regularly in L.A., and recently took her show Turns Out I'm Funny on the road.
The A.V. Club: What's involved with this show?
Mary Lynn Rajskub: I used to do comedy before I was on 24. I used to go to art school for painting, and then I did performance art, and then I started making fun of performance art. Well, I always say that, but I think I was doing it in earnest, but then people started laughing at me. Every time I tried to explain myself earnestly, people laugh. I don't get it. Every time I try to speak my mind, man, people are laughing at me and shit! [Laughs.] It's me trying to convey my impression of the world, so it's mostly observational, personal. Me trying to figure stuff out.
AVC: What kind of performance art did you do?
MLR: Truthfully, mine was always performer-audience-related. At first, I was just goofing around with my friends and we would do some esoteric wacky stuff with trash dipped in paint and wrapped in newspaper and try to act like we were selling it at a fish market. Another guy would jump from the sides of buildings off to a tree, and that was his performance art. This other girl climbed on top of the rafters, and that was her piece. This guy had a bread machine, and he was like "We're eating the bread!" and was like nodding and smiling. And then come to find out he put plaster from the wall into the bread. That was his piece. I don't mean to give performance art a bad name or anything; I think there are people that are legit. I think I just got frustrated painting—I love painting; I actually tried to be an artist, but it's sensitive, and then you have an object. And what do you do with that object? And then repeat and repeat, blah blah blah.
AVC: You've had experience with some duds too, like the Kelsey Grammer sketch show and Good Morning Miami. Did you know they were duds when you were working?
MLR: Yeah, thanks for calling them duds, by the way. God! Well, as an actor, I don't know if it's quite this way for me anymore, because I'm a little older and wiser, Kyle. But you kind of just go out for everything and sometimes things look really crappy, but turn out okay, and sometimes they look really good but end up really bad. That Kelsey Grammer sketch show was just bad; someone should have talked me out of that. But I did another sketch show called The Downer Channel that was a really cool comedy sketch show that didn't make it. But a lot of sitcoms I don't really agree with it fundamentally. Sometimes it ends up being fun, though. Just because you don't like the whole show, you can do something fun within that. The only thing that gets really scary is auditioning for the pilot, and then you get far enough that you get to the network, you have to sign a contract before you audition for the network, and that contract can be like for seven years. Then you're like, "Oh shit, if this thing goes, and I'm seriously miserable " One time I did this pilot called Shasta McNasty, and I remember Paul Thomas Anderson—if I can namedrop a little bit—he was like, "Shasta McNasty, Mary Lynn? Really?" but then what ended up happening is I did the pilot. We were roommates with three guys who would look out their window at girls having sex across the way; that's how they spent most of their whole day. [My part] was like, "You guys, c'mon man." I was so miserable and stuck out so badly they recast me—I think they thought I was funny at first when they cast me. The girl they recast was, like, in her underwear. So I think I've been lucky so far when something's not right.
AVC: 24 worked out well, obviously.
MLR: Yeah, definitely. It's been a pretty dreamy part from the get-go, because I didn't really watch the show. My mom was a fan of the show [and kept saying], "I really think you should go in." I really didn't get it. The creator had seen Punch Drunk Love, the Paul Thomas Anderson movie. He was like, "It's great, I want to have a character like you." He had pictured the character as a bitchy overbearing sister. When we started, I knew I was sticking out in it. Actually early on, up until like four episodes, I started to try to match the cadence of everybody in the show. My boss was like, "What are you doing? Are you trying to fit it or something?" I was like, "Yeah." "Well don't. You stick out, and we like it."
AVC: How much time does 24 leave you to do extracurricular stuff like this?
MLR: Actually more than you think. A lot of my stuff is on the computer. They go off to all their locations, with helicopters exploding and people falling into the ocean, and I'm just at a computer. We can get done in a couple days.
AVC: Are you tech-savvy in real life?
MLR: No, not at all. Maybe less tech-savvy now. See what a good actress I am? I'm just typing over and over, "You're a good person, Mary Lynn! Hang in there! You can do it!"