New Girl’s Jake Johnson
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Over the past year or so, New Girl has slowly become one of TV’s breakout hits, changing from a cute show about a cute girl into a weird show about a bunch of weird friends. One of those friends is Nick, the delightful curmudgeon and “regular guy” played by Chicago native and Second City alum Jake Johnson. As the show’s first season comes to an end tonight on Fox, The A.V. Club talked to him about training in Chicago, loving the Cubs, and how all these young whippersnappers trying to make it in Hollywood are ruining the entertainment industry.
The A.V. Club: You’ve done comedy in New York, L.A., and Chicago. How does Chicago stand up to those other two, scene-wise?
Jake Johnson: I would say it’s the best.
AVC: You think?
JJ: Yeah, for sure. I lived here, and then I went to New York and did Upright Citizens Brigade back when it was in the original theater in 2000—when it was in the first porn theater, I think on 26th, the old strip club. And then I did that with a buddy of mine who’s out of Chicago too. We did that for years out there. We had a show, we came out here and did the Chicago Improv Festival, and performed at the Second City at the Skybox. So then I went to L.A. and did UCB and improv out there. Out of all the cities, I think Chicago’s got the best city.
AVC: We talked to Matt Walsh a couple of weeks ago, and he was saying that he feels like Chicago’s a good place to start, and you can do whatever you want, but then you have to go to L.A. or New York to really work.
JJ: What I will say about that, what I do agree with, what I think Chicago is amazing for, is to get tons of stage time, figure out what you’re doing, figure out who you are comedically. It’s a lot harder, and I think you can book jobs and start a career from Chicago, it’s just a lot harder because there’s less opportunity. In L.A., if you’re in improv, and you’re on those stages, all the big agents and managers and producers are watching those shows. They’re not flying to Chicago to see the show. People are booking jobs off the stages in L.A. who aren’t more talented than the guys in Chicago. But the most guys book out of L.A., and the second is New York.
AVC: That gives you more room to play around and figure out who you are and what you want to do.
JJ: I feel like L.A. is more of a showcase, and Chicago is a pure comedy scene where you’re doing comedy for comedy. You’re doing comedy actually for the audience that’s there. Most nights in L.A., and I was mostly doing stage stuff, they’re always showcases. It’s all pomp, it’s very regular. It’s not regular people in the crowd; it’s all suits, and you are performing to get a job, not to have the best sketch show you’ve ever had.
AVC: If you’re a fan of comedy here, you have a chance to see some weirder stuff, because if you’re performing in L.A., you don’t want to alienate someone who’s come to see you one time.
JJ: It’s true. You’re not going to see the weirder stuff as much in L.A. because it’s not the place for it. It’s not like an experimental theater scene out there. You perform out in L.A. to get noticed, to get on TV and movies.
AVC: So when you were growing up, were you like, “I want to be Bill Murray, Chicago comedy icon?”
JJ: First, I wanted to be Chris Farley. When I was growing up, Chris Farley was still on the stages and fun to us. In my house, John Belushi was king. I didn’t grow up when he was—I was born in ’78—the reruns of Belushi in Animal House, and knowing he was at Second City, he was viewed as a king in my house. Murray was second, and then Farley. But there was that lineage of—Del Close was quoted in my house, like, “You’ve got to be a good scene partner. If you make the other guy funnier, then you’re even funnier.”
AVC: What kind of house did you have where you were talking about Del Close as a kid?
JJ: My brother was an improviser. He’s now a lobbyist, but he used to perform improv in the city when he was in high school, and one of the funniest guys I know to this day. He stopped liking the game of it, but we would have the big talks about who’s actually good and who’s a hack. Even though they’re famous, they suck, and this guy’s not that famous, but good. We would dissect Phil Hartman, because Phil Hartman was the best. He never got the credit, but he was the best. Somebody next to him was getting all the laughs, we would dissect how they’re actually hacking, but the audience likes them more. That was my brother and I.
AVC: It’s about longevity versus immediacy. Like, who’s still working from SNL in the ’90s?
JJ: You have people who will be killing you, but as they’re killing you—you’re having a moment. The culture’s behind you, but you’re not that good. That guy next to you that is giving a quieter performance is actually better, but they’re not getting the laughs. They’re overselling. I was a really big comedy nerd up until, I think, my late 20s, because it got obnoxious being a comedy nerd. To me, it just does. I would be snobby about every little thing, and [now] I’m like, “Shut up! Nobody cares!”
AVC: It’s amazing how universal some of the comedy nerd growing-up experiences are, like everybody would tape Saturday Night Live and watch it.
JJ: We all watched Mr. Show. When I first saw Bill Bungeroth [Second City director and member of The Uptown Sound], actually, he and I used to take road trips, because we obviously were beatniks too. That was the year when comedy was getting cool, in the late ’90s, and you wore cool plaid shirts if you did comedy. We were in our early 20s, right around that era, so we were ready to read On The Road, take a road trip, and talk Bill Murray. Our buddy Lucas, from Minneapolis, had Mr. Show on VHS, and we watched Mr. Show, and we were like, “Whoa!” Went back, first thing we did was start a sketch group—he, myself, and a guy named Oliver— that’s the group we performed with. We were called The Midwesterners. We moved out to New York, performed at UCB and all theaters in the backroom, and just blatantly copied Mr. Show and the way they would do transitions.
AVC: Everybody was doing that.
JJ: We all were. We all copied the same shit. It’s really funny because there was a new generation, and this is why I say I’m not a comedy nerd anymore. The new group made videos. We didn’t do that. I still don’t know how to edit. I’m still a dinosaur. So the new kids, their sketch shows would be like multimedia presentations. And I would think like, “No! You have to be pure!”
When I first started doing sketch shows in New York, we didn’t have a website. We didn’t have Twitter. We had postcards and went on the subways and handed them out to people and tried to get 20 people, because if we got 20 people, we didn’t owe the theater money. We would go to 42nd Street and do bits, and hand people a flyer to our show. Now people make videos, and they go do a live show and it’s packed, but they just present their videos. That, to me, is not my experience. When I started getting angry at theaters for this, I realized that I’m an old man, and the game changed. And I’m not changing with it. I stopped doing the stages. The new generation is not my group. I respect them, but these kids are not doing what I think is the good stuff onstage.
AVC: There’s this idea—maybe from the Nerdist podcast—that if you go and see YouTube comedians, they’re not funny. You have to put in the man hours to make it work.
JJ: I totally agree. I have a big theory on that. There’s also sketch groups who make their name doing videos in their basement, and then Hollywood gets all excited because they get 3 million views, and they give this kids deals, and these kids make films. But if you make something, and it happens to hit, that’s awesome. But when you’re onstage, and that’s what makes Chicago the scene to see, is, I have bombed so many times onstage, and I have succeeded so many times onstage, that you start figuring out what it is you do that works and how it works and why it works.
When I go back to New Girl, [Liz] Meriwether rewrites constantly, but every once in a while there will be a bit that’s not working on paper, so she’ll say like, "Okay”—and let’s say my character and Zooey’s character are in a car—“It’s just not working.” It comes to certain point where the director and Meriwether say, “Let’s fuck around and find it.” If I had just done videos, I would say, “I know how to edit this and get a laugh.” But my laughs always came from, “I’m onstage, and I’m playing a heavyset puppet, and the joke’s not working, and I got three more minutes alone because it’s a solo character, and I have to get laughs.” So you figure out what you do that audiences like, and I can apply that directly. I don’t think this new generation has that. Maybe it’s because I’m rapidly becoming an old man, but I think, “Fuck you, you guys don’t have it.” But I think every generation looks at the next generation and thinks, “They’re missing something.” I think this new generation is missing heart in full [laughs].
AVC: Having to hand out flyers sounds pretty awful.
JJ: It sucks. It sucks.
AVC: It sounds like the “I had to walk to school uphill both ways” of comedy.
JJ: And then we would do a show—Oliver and I used to do the Midwesterner shows that Bill directed—we did shows in Times Square in the porn theaters where nobody would show up but the lighting guy, but we’d still have to do the show. So we did sketch shows for like, two people.
AVC: That seems potentially less funny than doing it for no people.
JJ: We’d cater to two guys’ weird sense of comedy. We did all the festivals. We went to Seattle and San Fran and Chicago. We’d drive, show up. We didn’t have the Internet to build hype. I love the way it was then. And what I love about Chicago is, people are still doing it that way. If you through the classes at iO or Second City or UCB in New York or L.A., you’re grinding. I think you can’t take that away. Make the videos, have fun, but get onstage and work for it.
AVC: It probably gives you an advantage to being in L.A., if you have to audition for stuff.
JJ: That’s all you do. Well, for New Girl, you have auditions, and then you have a final audition, what they call testing, and nowadays, they’re trying to do the testing on video. I think it’s an experiment that’s going to fail. I think networks are going to eventually not do this, but—I say this again like an old man, but—you tested in front of a room full of people on our show. The guy who plays Schmidt, Max Greenfield, and I, we ended up auditioning together because we auditioned at the same time, and they liked us together. We’re very different guys, so it was a natural opposite next to Zooey. We would have to get on basically a stage, next to executives, and perform. Kids now are getting shows—man, this interview, I really sound like an old man, but it’s how I feel, fuck ’em—literally, this pilot season, a lot of guys got recast at the table read. And I read this theory on it that because a lot of these kids booked jobs from a video audition. Let’s say we were the casting directors and we wanted you, well we’ll keep shooting you until you give us the take we want. That’s not how it works on the job. On the job, you’re running out of time, you’re covered, you better get it in three takes. And if you get nervous and you’re not pulling it off, we’re all fucked. So it’s like, no, make somebody go in front of the room full of executives and make them earn that job.
AVC: On that same note, people are getting picked up from their Twitter feeds and getting writing jobs.
JJ: Yeah, it’s crazy. But, I don’t know. I can’t hate too much because everybody’s got to get theirs somehow. It always changes.
A lot of people are starting to get real opportunities because they’re writing really funny jokes. The show’s saying, we want a joke writer, this person has a million people following them.
AVC: That’s not to say they don’t deserve it. They could be great writers.
JJ: It’s just different.
AVC: It is different, but there’s a danger there in losing the process by just having people jump into the industry from Twitter or Vimeo.
JJ: I think process is the perfect word. I think [it’s a] process because I didn’t get paid as an actor until I was 28, so when I see a kid who is 19 and who’s got the six-figure deal to develop something, and then we’re doing something together where we’re doing an appearance or a press thing, and there’s 18 people watching us, and they get nervous, I think, “The fuck?” Wow, man. Just relax. You didn’t do this for 10 years. When you come back to a place like Chicago, and you have all these comedians performing night in and night out, it’s not to me just a purist thing. I still think that’s the right road.
AVC: It doesn’t seem like 22, 23-year-olds really move to New York like they used to. That’s the whole premise of that show Girls, really. But you have to do it. It sucks. It’s not cool. Being out there on 42nd Street is not fun. It blows.
JJ: It’s not the way it looks in TV and movies. It actually sucks.
When I moved to L.A., I didn’t know anybody. I wasn’t in the union. I was a waiter, I worked on boats, I worked in a casino. Not the cool working on boats, either. I was a bartender on a boat. The people who come out and start working because they’ve got a job to come out, a lot of those people say, “Man, L.A. sucks. It’s all for business. It’s all for show business.” Well, you’ve missed it. Just like there’s a process in L.A. or New York, a part of L.A. is that the business is a weird bubble that you're not allowed in until you’re allowed in. If you’ve come and you’re let in, it’s just a different business. It’s like The Wizard Of Oz. You’ve got to fight to get there, so that when you’re there, appreciate it, but realize that this is a ridiculous circus. I’ve seen it on both sides, and I don’t think this new generation, the ones that are coming through, are doing that in the same way.
AVC: Do you think that being from the Midwest helps you have that kind of perspective?
AVC: It makes you more humble.
JJ: I think being from Chicago and the Chicagoland area helps a lot. Lamorne Morris, who plays Winston on the show, is from Chicago. We had a different guy on our pilot, but then we started auditioning for this new character. When I found out Lamorne was from Chicago—apart from his skill, because I think he’s an unbelievably talented actor—I was fighting really hard for him because I knew he was a regular guy, the business of it wasn’t going to get to his head, he wasn’t going to get weird, he was going to show up on time, he was going to work. I knew he did Second City, so he was going to work with actors in his scenes. So I made it very clear that—I don’t have any say—but I made it very clear that he was my pick. I think it’s great. When I find out someone is from Chicago, I have a different respect for them. Especially when I know they grind it. Bill [Bungeroth] comes out to Chicago or L.A., and he’ll bring different buddies of his from Second City Main Stage or ETC, and when they come out to L.A., they’re starting over, but I have no doubt these guys are going to land. Because I’m like, “I know you’re new to this scene, so you’re getting humbled, but two years later, you’re going to be just fine. Because you get it. You grind it. You know how to perform. You know how to work a room.” But we’ll see. This is a new era of people coming through, and maybe they will pull it off.
AVC: I think the people I respect working the most in L.A. are the people from the Midwest. Melissa McCarthy is from the Chicago area, and she has worked so hard doing nothing for so long.
AVC: Grinding for years. She was an intern on Singled Out because her cousin is Jenny McCarthy.
JJ: I was a PA on Pop Stars 2. It sucked. But I feel like if you don’t need a grind—for me, everybody’s different. I’ve got a little bit of piss and vinegar, and it really comes out with that.
AVC: Where did you grow up?
JJ: ’Burbs, North Side. Got family in the city and the ’burbs, and my mom and I started moving towards the end of high school. We started bouncing around a little bit, but I went to New Trier, and I was living in Evanston. I didn’t realize, but my mother was a very savvy lady, and we said I was living with a neighbor. And at the time I just thought, “Okay.” And when I got older, I was like, “Very smart of you, Johnson, very smart.”
AVC: Growing up in Evanston was good because you weren’t in the city, but you could get on the train so fast.
JJ: In high school, we lived a few blocks from Howard Street, so I could feel that, but I could also feel like I was in a John Hughes movie.
JJ: Literally. It was pretty nice. It was kind of an ideal way of doing it. The fact that the Murrays were from Wilmette always made it feel pretty cool. Like, that’s Bill Murray’s stomping ground right there, man.
AVC: Did you see Bill Murray on Cubs opening day this year?
JJ: He threw the first pitch beforehand, then he ran the bases and slid home.
AVC: People were like, “Aw, I can't believe that he did that.”
JJ: Who said they can’t believe he did that?
AVC: Random people on Twitter. They were all like, “Oh, what a ham.”
JJ: No, it’s great.
AVC: He can do whatever he wants.
JJ: He’s Bill Murray, man! He’s the man.
AVC: A couple of years ago, for the air show, he skydived. They do that every couple of years, like Vince Vaughn did it once.
JJ: Vince Vaughn is another Chicago guy I have a ton of respect for.
AVC: He doesn’t work very much, and good for him. He can do what he wants to do.
JJ: The work that Vince Vaughn has done in his career, he can do whatever he wants for the rest of his career. The same with Owen Wilson. People will hate on those guys for, “Aw, they did this kid movie.” And I’m like, “Fuck you, man. Did you see that movie? Did you see the stuff they’ve done?” When you do the performances that Owen Wilson has done in his career, or that Vince Vaughn has done in his career, then you can hate on their new stuff. But if Vince Vaughn wants to do one movie every two years, then fine.
AVC: He has enough money. He’s fine.
JJ: Some of the work Vince Vaughn has done, I will watch sometimes and think, “You asshole.” He’s so good! All these new guys, talking fast, they’re all copying him. All the guys who do the slow, weird drawl are all copying Owen Wilson. At least of my generation. The new guys, I don’t know who they’re copying. But the way we all copied Mr. Show? We’re also all copying Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson and those guys.
AVC: Do you ever consciously draw from other actors when you work?
JJ: There was a stretch early on when I did Al Pacino from back in the day. What I really love about them is you can view them very comedically or very dramatically, and he made such ridiculously bold choices. It’s why sometimes you can rewatch even his best performances. Like Scent Of A Woman, for me, is equally funny as it is good, that I could watch that in a mood, and everything he said I’m like, “That’s the dumbest performance that I’ve ever seen!” And then I can watch it again and go, “That’s the best performance that I’ve ever seen.” And I think the boldness of those performances, as an actor…
AVC: You bring Pacino to New Girl?
JJ: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]. In terms of TV, I look at John Goodman from Roseanne, in terms of Nick Miller. When I booked the job, I was talking to Meriwether, and I think Nick has gotten way weirder from the beginning.
AVC: The whole show has gotten way weirder.
JJ: I think what happened with it is, and no one to fault for it, but you start with an idea of how you want the show to go, and then your real personalities come out. I wanted to be John Goodman from Roseanne, but I’m not. I’m a very weird guy. The writers start writing for the bits you do in the writers’ room. You’re all hanging out, they’ll start writing to your wheelhouse. So all of us are weird, and it’s a weird group of people and our writers are weird. So the show keeps getting weirder, which I like.
AVC: But that's good, though. It makes it more real in a way. Your show has gotten more conscious of what it is. It’s spinning. It’s not just, “Zooey’s so adorable,” but more like, “What are the consequences of being adorable?”
JJ: I agree. And I think the Lizzy Caplan stuff was the start of that. I think when they brought Lizzy on to play Julia, and Lizzy and Zooey really got along well. And they like each other, but they’re so different types, that I think Meriwether got really excited that now we have Lizzy, I can write a story where I can quite literally comment on how these are two different types. I think everybody had a lot of fun doing that, and we’re enjoying it more and more.
AVC: It’s like, good for him man. He’s fine. He has enough money.
JJ: If you can, that’s awesome. All those moves. If you get a 1-800 number, and that’s how you get work, awesome. If before the first pitch, and you can run the bases, awesome. You’ve got to earn that. If I went out to throw out the first pitch and I ran, people would be like, “Is one of the guys from New Girl running the bases? That guy sucks!” But if you get to the point where you’re Bill Murray, you can do whatever the fuck you want!
AVC: Would you want to do the seventh inning stretch at a Cubs game?
JJ: That’d be a big honor.
AVC: You haven’t been asked?
JJ: I haven’t been asked. Season three [laughs]. I would’ve flown in for it. But I’m also a diehard Cub fan. I grew up watching Harry and Steve. One of the reasons I can’t—no disrespect to Len and Bob—Cubs baseball is really different. For me, it’s not just Harry, I was a Steve Stone guy.
AVC: Do you watch it in L.A.? Do you get WGN?
JJ: I get WGN, yeah. But I can’t. It’s just different. And I can’t believe we let Steve Stone go to the White Sox. There’s been a few things the Cubs have done where I’m like, “You guys! You're hurting my feelings!”