Human ray of sunshine Jack McBrayer is bringing some of the boundless optimism he showed as Kenneth Parcell on 30 Rock to Apple TV Plus with Hello Jack! The Kindness Show. The new series is very much in the tradition of good-hearted children’s programming like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, promoting compassion but with an extra dose of silliness. When McBrayer steps out of his house in the fictional town of Clover Grove in the opening credits, he does so with the intention of helping everyone he meets. Things might not always go as planned, but there’s always some valuable lesson or insight to be gleaned.
The series, which premiered on November 5, has an inclusive cast and, courtesy of OK Go, some of the best original music featured in a kids’ show. (Try not to bop along to the opening theme.) McBrayer didn’t set out to become the heir apparent to Fred Rogers, but he did grow up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, along with other classic children’s shows. The A.V. Club spoke to McBrayer about his influences, as well as what makes him “half genius, half cartoon,” for our latest round of 11 Questions.
Jack McBrayer: Way back in the day, my dad was a camp counselor at Camp Stillwater, right outside of Macon, Georgia. He couldn’t just leave the kids at home. We then became campers at Camp Stillwater, and it was just a day camp, it wasn’t a sleepaway camp. But I will never forget the arts and crafts, the canoe trips.
And it’s one of those things, if I went back, I’d be like, “This isn’t even a lake. This is an algae-filled pond.” But when you’re 7 years old, making those—I’m sure they were terrible—little arts and crafts that your parents then have to hold onto for at least a year. It was something that we all did probably out of financial necessity but it stays with me. Gosh, I wonder if I still have one of those T-shirts. I don’t throw things away very often now.
2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn?
JM: I think rejection might be a quick answer to that question, because as an actor, rejection comes frequently and with great force. It took me a little while to be okay with that. Failure is part of what I do. I don’t seek it out, but I have to know that if I try something and it doesn’t succeed the way I envision it, that doesn’t mean it’s all over for me. It just means I need to figure out either how to do it differently or what is the next thing to try.
3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or get into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?
JM: I have to be honest with you. I had never really tried vodka before 2020. Now I drink it readily. [Laughs.] Especially during the summer I was like, “Oh, vodka kind of goes with anything.” So I was having a vodka-lemonade. I was having vodka-Kool-Aid. I’m a grown man who would make my own Kool-Aid to have a vodka-Kool-Aid by the pool. I was like, “Yep. I have figured life out. I cracked the code.”
But if that’s too weird, I also got very much into organizing my house. I took all my old letters and cards and notes from all the way back to even middle school and I scanned them. So now I have them electronically. I have them filed away on my desktop. Now I can get rid of the paper and then my neighbor won’t call me a hoarder.
AVC: I appreciate your responses, because I think a lot of people felt like they had to be productive in spite of everything that was going on. I was going to learn to make bread and I never did.
JM: No, I know. I was like, “Oh, I could have mastered the piano.”
4. What restaurant do you not live near, but make a point to hit every time you’re in the right town?
JM: This is a little hometown goodness for you. Every time I go back to Conyers, Georgia, there’s a Mexican restaurant that we go to called Los Charros. Honestly, it just reminds me of growing up in Georgia, because with all due respect to Georgia Mexican food, it might not be the most authentic Mexican food, but it holds a very dear place in my heart and in my memory. So, oh, I could eat that cheese dip with a spoon. It’s so good. It’s so good.
AVC: What do you usually get when you go there?
JM: Number 43 with rice—that’s the steak burrito with rice. We get an order of cheese dip. And now that I’m a grown-up, I’ll treat myself to a small margarita. I am nothing if not consistent.
JM: Well, gosh, what’s it called when you can just go from one place to the next? Is that a teleportation machine? Could you imagine? As much as I’m like [mock complaining], “Oh no, it takes me five and a half hours to get to New York,” which in the grand scope of things, that’s pretty amazing as it is. But could you imagine just pressing a button and—boom—you’re in New York? So, I think teleportation machine.
Here’s something, and I know there’s no way of doing this, but sometimes, you’re like, “Where did I put that Post-it with the phone number for that restaurant that I was supposed to meet Ashley at for her birthday? Where is that Post-it?” I need some machine that can just tell you where anything is. It could be for that Post-it or for loose change. It could be for lots of things. I’m thinking pretty small. I’m thinking chump change here, but we can go bigger with this. Help me out.
AVC: It’d be like those things for finding your keys, where you whistle or there’s a little beeper? I think the technology kind of exists. We just have to apply it differently.
JM: [Laughs.] Yeah, we just have to put it on every Post-it I’ve ever written.
JM: Tim Conway. Yeah, no question about it. He was one of my comedy heroes growing up. I got to work with him on 30 Rock way back in the day, and it was absolutely everything I could have hoped for. Then we stayed friends afterward. So yeah, Tim Conway. Now, I never got to meet Don Knotts before he passed away, but I have since met his daughter. So between Tim Conway and Don Knotts, those are my comedy heroes. Tim Conway did not disappoint, not even a little bit.
AVC: You’re at a level where I’m sure people are very excited to meet you for the first time. Have you ever had somebody tell you, “This was everything I hoped it would be,” or conversely, “You’re nothing like what I thought you’d be like in person?”
JM: Well, usually people are quite effusive. In the early days, when 30 Rock was just starting, people were like, “You’re that guy from The Office.” [Laughs.] I was like, “No.” Or, “Oh man, you’re the guy from Studio 60.” I was like, “I see where you’re going.” Nobody’s ever been rude necessarily. I was actually just hanging out with some people that I was just meeting last week, and the first thing this one young lady said was like, “Oh, I didn’t know this is what you really sounded like.” She thought I was a phenomenal actor, that I put on my hillbilly voice for just special occasions.
JM: Oh boy, I don’t know where to begin. I worked in a factory right after high school. We manufactured swimming pool liners, those big vinyl sheets that go into the bottom of your swimming pool—in the middle of summer in Conyers, Georgia, in this un-air-conditioned factory. It was pretty grim. Also, this is back in the day where I think minimum wage was $4.15. So, that was what I was doing. It was pretty grim. Part of my job was to go under these giant storage platforms and just sweep up lots and lots of rat crap. Look at me now!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of hard work. I’ve done all sorts of things. That one might have been the worst, but also I was young. What did I know?
JM: It might be a bit cliché, but I love the 1950s sitcoms, like Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best. There’s something to that very squeaky clean, peachy keen mentality. But then there’s a part of me, too, that wonders how would I have done if I was one of the Tenenbaums from The Royal Tenenbaums or something like that. I think I could be the well-adjusted Tenenbaum, but what would my idiosyncrasy be? How cuckoo would I end up in that family? But then, I also got my own family like that.
AVC: How much did those classic sitcoms influence your new show?
JM: Well, I’m not going to lie. It was inspired by Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which he’d been doing, gosh, if not the official show, but from 1968, I remember him doing at least specials with Daniel Tiger, his puppet. Yes, I have been a television watcher for a very long time. [Laughs.] I love my parents, but they were always so busy, so a lot of times, television was my babysitter.
So, I did get to envision myself in these worlds and really just find, I don’t want to say comfort, but you’ve got to kind of be in those worlds for that amount of time. So yes, I’m a fan of nostalgia, as long as it’s not crippling growth. In fact, when we were developing Hello, Jack, we made so many references to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and other just gentle children’s programming that we wanted to capture.
9. What’s the first piece of art or earliest piece of media that inspired you to go into your field?
JM: I’ve always been a fan of cartoons, and I think I can actually link my love of cartoons to my discovery and love of improvisational comedy. We’re creating these scenarios and characters, these situations and these worlds, where kind of anything can happen. Even gravity doesn’t necessarily have to dictate how things play out. So, cartoons definitely got me started. But then, as I grew up a little bit, I will never forget watching—going back to children’s programming—Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, of course, but also shows like The Electric Company, which I think is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.
I found Electric Company to be this fun, I don’t know if the word is irreverent, but I knew it was a children’s program, but I also felt like I was in on some jokes. That was my first exposure to, I guess, what we could call sketch comedy, where this same group of players were performing as different characters and different scenes, and there were songs. It really was eye-opening and kind of inspiring for me. So when I think back to my Second City days in Chicago, even back further, I’m like, I wonder if I was led to this by such things as Electric Company.
Did you ever watch it? Do you know it?
AVC: Yeah, I like to think that Rita Moreno taught me how to walk into a room by shouting, “HEY, YOU GUYS!” It’s how we should greet people, right?
JM: Right. Just scream, “Hey, you guys,” into their face. Perfect. For me, it would be [pretend-shouts], “HELLO, JACK!” “The Kindness Show.”
AVC: The exclamation point is there in the title!
JM: It would be rude to ignore it.
JM: Oh boy. Well, there’s a lot. I mean, of course, you’re going to have your Tina Feys and that kind of thing, but does it have to be a famous person?
JM: Oh, then I would have to say T.J. Jagodowski. He’s a dear, dear friend from the Chicago comedy scene. We performed together for years and years and years. You would recognize him from the Sonic commercials with my other friend Peter Grosz. But T.J. is hands down the funniest individual I know. And I think I am also drawn to people who have a gentleness and a kindness in their comedy.
AVC: You’re good friends with Alexander Skarsgård, who seems like he likes to joke around a lot, too. What’s his sense of humor like?
JM: Oh, he is stone-cold funny. The dude is secretly funny. Everybody wants him to do this brooding vampire or whatever, and he’s just a goof. He is delightful, and we turn into teenagers whenever we’re hanging out. It’s just, he’s so silly and just a delight.
I’ll tell you who else I have met and worked with and gotten to know that I’m so pleased: Blake Griffin. When he was with the Clippers, we worked on a commercial together and he is so funny. He’s just naturally funny and I would say he’s funnier than a great percentage of the people I went through Second City with—he just got it. I wish he was good at other things, I really do. [Laughs.] At least he’s good for a punchline.
AVC: You do own a café in your show, so this could be one of the specials.
JM: If I’m being honest, I’m just a fan of ham and cheese. Let’s do whole wheat bread, ham, pepperjack cheese—see what I did there? I am half genius, half cartoon character. [Laughs.] So yeah, ham, whole wheat bread. You know what? Let’s put some Doritos in there, too. Like, in the sandwich. I mean, that unexpected surprise—that kind of embodies me.
AVC: There’s that nice crunch, too.
JM: Exactly. I’ll shake it up a little bit.