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Anyone who’s watched television at some point over the last 16 years has most likely witnessed the acting talents of Chicago-born and Second City-trained actor Jim O’Heir. His IMDB page, with listings from “Maintenance Guy” in The Drew Carey Showto “Husband” on Star Trek: Voyager and “Maynard’s dad” on Suite Life Of Zack And Cody, shows a slew of guest spots on recognizable television shows and films. In 2009, O’Heir cemented his place in TV history when he landed an at-the-time ambiguous role on Greg Daniels and Michael Schur’s sitcom about a small parks department in Indiana. Not since Tigger kicked down Eeyore’s stick house has any character suffered as much loving abuse as O’Heir’s Jerry Gergich on Parks And Recreation.
Come June 22, O’Heir will share screen time with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in the dark comedy Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. Before that, there will be more Parks And Rec. O’Heir spoke to The A.V. Club about just how much he loves Chicago, life in the parks department, and why he’d never do stand-up.
The A.V. Club: What can you tell us about your role in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World?
Jim O’Heir: In Seeking Friends, I am a sheriff of a little town. Basically what’s happened is the characters that Steve Carell and Keira Knightley play, they are arrested because I have a deputy who is just too gung ho. The premise is that, at this point, the world is coming to an end, [and the deputy] is still taking his job real serious. He ends up arresting them.
So I’m the voice of reason. I make sure that, once they’re put in jail, things are taken care of and they can safely get on their way with their dog. I actually have to drive them to where they’re going, because their car is messed up, and that kind of stuff.
AVC: How did you get this role? Was it a long audition process?
JO: You know what, it wasn’t. I auditioned once for a different role, and I got the call for it. It turns out the director is a huge Parks And Recreation fan. Between the audition and her already being sort of a fan of my work, it was boom-boom-boom. I only auditioned once, which is nice, especially for a feature. It’s always nice when that happens.
AVC: Are you finding that happens more often as Parks And Recreation continues to succeed?
JO: It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, yes. There are phone calls that I don’t know would have come in without Parks And Recreation. On the other hand, there’s some stuff, when I’ve submitted for it, they’ll say, “He’s too recognizable from Parks And Recreation.” Not that I would ever take any of it away, because I’m so happy to be on Parks that it’s obviously my priority.
It’s a lovely thing for an actor just to get called to be offered something. Some days there are calls because somebody saw me on the show and wanted me to read for them. Or, my people will pitch me for something, but they’ll say, “No, too recognizable from Parks.” Especially with TV [roles]. A lot of TV shows do not want recognizable faces from other shows, which I can totally understand.
AVC: Had you worked with Steve Carell before getting this part?
JO: It’s so funny. I had not worked with him in L.A. at all, but one of the last things I did in Chicago was some beer voice-over that we both worked on together. I said to [Carell] that it was Miller Lite. We did two or three spots. That was the last time I had actually seen him, which really made no sense.
Well, I shouldn’t say that. I’m lying right to your face! We both, at the time, went to the same Catholic church. So I saw him and his wife once or twice there. Other than that, it’s weird that we never really ran into each other, because we have a lot of the same circle of knowing people. The Chicago connection is strong. But, no, I hadn’t actually seen him or worked with him. The last time was 1994 in Chicago, and 2011 in Los Angeles.
AVC: Your Parks costars Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman spent time in Chicago as well. Had you met or worked with them before?
JO: I had not met Nick, and we always joke because it makes no sense. Nick and I can sit and talk about a hundred people we mutually know. I mean we’ll just rattle them off. “Oh yes, yes, I was at this party.” The odds are, Nick and I had been in the same room many times, but neither one of us can place an actual meeting, talking, or any connection from the past—other than we’re sure we have been at the same places.
As far as Amy goes, I never did. That’s also a little strange. Amy starred in Upright Citizens Brigade with Matt Walsh, who I worked with all the time in Chicago. It’s strange how we missed each other here and there. When I came to L.A., I went to a Hollywood Christmas parade with a bunch of people, and Amy was one of those people. It didn’t amount to anything. [Laughs.]
AVC: So many successful comedians and actors spend time in Chicago, but ultimately end up leaving for L.A. or New York City. Why do you think that happens? What ultimately made you leave Chicago?
JO: First of all, Chicago is awesome. I go back there two or three times a year. When I fly into O’Hare or Midway, it still feels like home. It’s tough, though. The problem for me was it’s either going to be a hobby or a career. It’s tough to make your living as an actor in Chicago for a couple of reasons. One: Very few films are coming into town. When they’d bring films into town, they’d bring L.A. actors or New York actors to shoot them, which would drive me crazy because some of the best talent you’ll ever find is in Chicago. Move to L.A. to get a job in Chicago, because they’ll end up flying you back to shoot something there. [Laughs.]
The occasional commercial work is there, theater, some industrials. But as far as making a living—in other words, it’s all I did—I felt I needed to [move] to L.A. or New York. New York would be theater, because their theater pays a lot different than it does in Chicago. Of course, out here in L.A., for television and film work, this is the mecca. Love it or hate it, this is where it all happens. I actually do love it here. Chicago still feels like home. I always say, if everything that happens here were in Chicago, I wouldn’t have left for a million dollars. Chicago is just the greatest city ever. Ultimately, my reason is I just didn’t think I could make a sustainable living there.
AVC: You were a disc jockey in Indiana when Second City in Chicago sought you out. What was in your act that made it so enticing?
JO: I literally have no idea. It was this silly, little radio show in Rensselaer, Indiana. My sign-on in the morning was, “Jim O’Heir on the air in Rensselaer.” It was just corny. Everything about it was corny. Maybe they took that as my trying to be corny. I don’t know. I got a call, “There’s a program at Second City we think you’d be good for. Blah blah blah.” It intrigued me enough to take the opportunity.
The station that I was working at was craziness. You’d work unbelievable hours for no money—which is fine, you’ve got to pay your dues. Something [inside] was like, “Yeah, [Second City] sounds right for me.” I was able to move back in with my folks, so financially I could handle it, and I would travel back and forth downtown.
AVC: Had you thought about improv or acting before then, or did you plan to stick to radio?
JO: I never did. To this day, people from my past will go, “When the hell did this happen?” [Laughs.] I sort of know when it all turned. It was when I was working with a certain group of people around Second City. But no, I did the radio, and that was sort of out of nowhere. I went to Loyola University and worked on their radio station. At that age, you’re 19, you’re floundering. You’re just trying to see what works, and what doesn’t work. I know there are some people that have their goals and know what they want to do. I was not that person.
The radio station [at Loyola] seemed really cool. Then my mother called me, “There’s a place called Midwest Broadcast Academy, and they’re going to be holding auditions for their classes.” So I did that. I learned a lot about radio there. Basically, I learned how to do it, how boards worked, and more of the mechanical stuff. They helped me put together a reel. That reel went to [secure] that job in Indiana.
When Second City happened, that’s when I realized I want to be onstage rather than behind it. I want to be in front of people. I did all the classes there. Then I went to the Players Workshop of the Second City. There I met a group of people, and we just clicked. We started doing shows on our own, writing shows, creating our own shows, and producing. I knew then this was a passion. I was in a group called White Noise. When we began, that was a turnaround for me. In the mean time, I got agents in Chicago and [started] going out on auditions. I loved that whole process. When the work would happen, that was exciting.
AVC: While that was happening, did you become a person with definable goals, like you described?
JO: I sort of developed them then. I realized what I would love to do. Whether they’re obtainable remains to be seen. I definitely found my niche. It’s a huge blessing. Most people I know aren’t doing what they love. They have their jobs, they make their money, they pay their bills. It’s all great. But they haven’t found their passion. That’s when I realized what my passion was. Then the goals came.
I set my goals on the acting world. I’ve always been a TV junkie. I had fantasies of, oh my God, one day being at the Emmys or something. That happened, which was awesome. I always thought that the dream is to be on an Odd Couple show. It’s not all on your shoulders. Everyone gets a piece of the pie, and that’s happened.
Now my goals are loftier, of course. Now I want to do more film. I love television. I would never turn my back on television. There are probably people, who I think are snooty, who are like, “I don’t watch television. It’s all garbage.” Blah blah blah. I love television. I think it’s amazing. [Laughs.] I would love to be on television, and if that was for the rest of my career, that would be fine, too.
AVC: Do you ever consider going back to improv? How about trying stand-up?
JO: Stand-up, I can tell you right now, will never happen! There’s nothing more frightening. God love ’em; God love the stand-ups. I did it for a brief, brief, brief time. I did it maybe five times when I was in my early 20s. It was, for me, horrifying—literally horrifying. I can guarantee you that won’t happen.
Improv. That scares me now too, only because I’m lazy and I haven’t done it for so long. If I got back into the swing of things, I’d definitely go back into doing that. I’d have to warm myself up, because I think that’s a muscle: the improv muscle. It has not been exercised in a while. But I do believe I have that muscle. I would definitely go back to that, but would never do stand-up. Put that as the headline of the damn thing: “He’d never do stand-up.”
I would do a one-man show. You know, a funny one-man show. That’s different than stand-up. I give them so much credit. I think there’s a certain breed that can do stand-up. I am not of that breed.
AVC: What is it about a one-man show that’s less terrifying than stand-up?
JO: With a one-man show, you’d be up there talking. Say you’re telling stories; no one’s looking for a laugh every 10 seconds or the big payoff. Well, I guess they’re looking for a payoff, but not so much the big laugh, the continual big laugh. Here’s the thing: With a one-man show, you could have people laughing one second and crying the next. It could be more from the heart. With stand-up, it’s the laugh. That’s what people are there to do. They’re there to laugh. There’s a lot of pressure.
I’m not a great leader with material like that. At least, I don’t think I am. I’d do better if I played with the audience. I think that would be where I could be spontaneously funny, but not jokey funny. That would be more improv-like. If a gun was to my head, if the world was going to come to an end if I didn’t do it, I’d do stand-up as the conversational stand-up. “Where you from?” Then I’d just go from there [with] that type of stuff, talk to the audience.
AVC: Would you consider writing any of these hypothetical acts?
JO: I wouldn’t even write it! I’m getting hives just thinking about it. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did your experience at Second City influence the way you approach script acting?
JO: The thing about Second City and the improv community is that you learn how to be in the moment. I think that’s a huge part of it. When you’re in improv, you don’t know what the next moment is. It’s improv. I can force it, but that doesn’t work. You learn those rules pretty quick.
I try because now, with a script, you do know what’s going to happen. You can sort of fall into it that way. Where you’re just following a little path. I think as long as you can keep yourself in the moment, that’s the biggest lesson I learned. With everything I do, that’s where I try to come from.
AVC: How often do you get to use your improv skills on Parks And Rec?
JO: We get so much credit for being this [show]. “Oh my God! The stuff you’re coming up with!” It is the writers. We have unbelievable writers. They are geniuses in my mind. After we [shoot] what’s on paper, and we do it a bunch of times until everyone’s happy, we do a “fun run.” It’s improv. Whatever the hell you want to do. We’re basically going off the script as far as where the story’s got to go, but anything goes. That is some of the craziest stuff you’ve ever seen. There’s been times when people ended up naked, and, of course, terrible language; 90 percent of it never makes it into the show.
Sometimes it does. Sometimes there’s a gem that comes out of it. When you’re dealing with someone like Amy Poehler—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stronger improviser than Amy, which is a little intimidating—she also makes you bring up your own game. She can steer it in a certain direction, and it can be amazing.
AVC: What was the audition process like for Parks And Rec?
JO: I heard Amy Poehler was getting a show. I try to follow the trades, so I heard this was happening. I told my manager about it, and said, “I have a bit of a connection with Amy, if you want to pitch for it. Anything you can do to get me an audition.” I originally auditioned for Ron Swanson. Now we know, no one can do that other than Nick Offerman. I knew going in that someone at my level was not going to get Ron Swanson. They’re going to look for a different type.
My opinion on auditions is that you never know who’s going to be in that room. You never know what they’re going to be casting next year. Every audition is super important, because you never know what it could lead to, if the show gets picked up, and they remember you for a guest spot.
I did the audition. I thought it went well, but two weeks passed by. You write that off because there are auditions where you never hear. I get a call about the role for Jerry, and they [asked] if I’d audition for that. So I’m thrilled to be going back, and when I get to the waiting room, there are all types of people waiting for my role. I went in, and in the room is Greg Daniels, who created the American version of The Office and King Of The Hill, which is one of my favorite shows as well as The Office. They even said, “We don’t know who Jerry is,” but they wrote a scene, and that was that. About a week later, they offered me the role. They wanted the people handling me to know they didn’t know where they were going with this. They said, “We don’t want you to think you’re an extra, but for the first couple episodes that might be how it feels. It’s up to him, if he wants to give this a shot.”
In my mind, because of The Office and how those characters surrounding the lead became so prominent, it was a no-brainer. I haven’t missed an episode since the first one, and we’ve done 68 of them. As the seasons have gone on, we’ve found out who Jerry is.
AVC: Considering that the show’s creators offered you the role while admitting they didn’t really have a plan for Jerry, how did you prepare for the role?
JO: There wasn’t much I could do. It’s funny, because so many people said, “You need to create something, you need to create something.” Because I’m not getting screen time, what am I creating off of? I was really nervous about the whole thing. Greg Daniels has said in interviews since [concerning O’Heir’s Jerry and costar Retta Sirleaf’s character, Donna], “With good actors, I put them at a desk, and we’ll find out what happens.” Literally, he would put them at a desk.
I was getting pressure, not from the show, but from friends: “You’ve got to come up with something. You need to do this. Go to the writers.” I didn’t have the power to do any of that. It just happened. The episode where we’re finding dirt on each other, it was revealed that I had an adoptive mother and never knew it. The minute they saw that, however I played it, they were like, “That’s who Jerry is. He’s the one who’s the punching bag. He’s going to be that guy.” [The writers] did it on their own. There’s been some great Jerry lines since then. I was very nervous. I kept thinking, if nothing happens, Jerry will be cut. There’s no reason to have him here.
AVC: Has that direction changed the way you play Jerry?
JO: In my mind, Jerry is a super, super sweet guy. He doesn’t have any malice, other than for the library. Even when he gets slammed, Jerry takes it and moves on. My approach to [that] is that I never allow any of it to hurt. I can get a little winded by it, but five minutes later, Jerry’s ready to be a part of the group again. That’s just how I always approach it. I don’t think I can show too much hurt, because we don’t want people to think these other characters are vicious to me. Ultimately, there’s great love for Jerry in that office. There have been many episodes where they’ve shown that they have my back. That’s important. Jerry knows that he’s a part of Parks. Also, he has a different agenda. He’s toward the end of his career. He just wants to get through. He has a wife and a beautiful daughter. He’s just looking forward to the time he can stop going to the office and sit on his butt, reading a book and smoking a cigar.
AVC: You seem to have a pretty good sense of humor about yourself. Have you always been that way?
JO: Yeah, I think I have. I’ve always been a big guy, whether it’s been a fat kid, a fat young adult, or a fat adult. I was always sort of... I guess the term would be “popular.” I never dealt with a lot of name-calling or any of the bullying you’d think a fat kid might have to deal with. There were certainly instances here and there, but in general, I never really did deal with that.
I’ve mostly been a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Certainly there are times when things get to you, where you wish things were different. You wish you could do this. You wish you could do that. We all had those things. In general, I am a pretty happy guy. Life brings you terrible things. My mother passed away this year, and that, of course, is beyond horrible. Life throws stuff at you, but in general, I try to be an upbeat guy.
AVC: From the outside, it seems you really bring that into Jerry.
AVC: You mentioned you originally read for Ron Swanson. How would, and did, you act that character?
JO: A little bit like what Nick [Offerman] is doing, only in the sense that it’s written a certain way. There’s a way that kind of seemed obvious, but as you get to know Nick Offerman, he’s so much like Ron Swanson. Not in his beliefs, but in his attitude and how he presents himself. I would say I was a bit of a taskmaster. There was a scene I had there with Leslie, and I think when I look back, I was probably too gruff with it. Nick is playing it gruff when he needs to, but generally he’s got the heart of gold. He watches over Leslie. I don’t think I went overboard, because they liked me enough to bring me back to read for Jerry, but I think I went too harsh, if I had to look back on how I did that.
AVC: On Parks, you don’t do as many talking heads as, obviously, Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, or even some of the other supporting characters. When you are on camera, how do you go about making it memorable?
JO: That’s funny, because we just did this whole, huge panel show [PaleyfFest] where that came up. I hadn’t really thought about it. Someone went, “Wow, Jerry doesn’t do a lot of talking heads.” So it wasn’t on purpose or for a specific reason. It just is the way it played out. I do love them. You get to do 20 different takes. You get to go crazy. You get to try a whole bunch of things, which is awesome.
But as far as trying to make it memorable, I can’t say I do anything specific. Only because I don’t want to do something different that wouldn’t be Jerry like to begin with, just for the fact that I’m doing a talking head. I wouldn’t want to draw different attention to Jerry that wouldn’t be the character we’ve gotten to know.
AVC: What are you up to now?
JO: We’re all waiting to see what’s going to happen with Parks And Recreation. We finished [shooting] our fourth season [in March 2012]. Now we wait. We wait to hear if we’re going to get a season five. That sort of decides what’s going to happen. If we get season five, and we’re all very hopeful we will, then the main priority will be back in July. If not, it frees me up to do other television projects. In the meantime, I keep auditioning for films, things like that. We’re on hold until we hear what happens.