By RODNEY HO/ email@example.com, originally filed Thursday, June 16, 2016
Conyers-raised actor Jack McBrayer, with his strong Southern accent and goofy smile, provides a very specific naive likability in his roles, from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” to “30 Rock” to the Adult Swim comedy “The Jack and Triumph Show.”
His off-camera persona is very much the same. He’s self deprecating. He laughs a lot.
But he is also an improv veteran, starting in Chicago, where this style of comedy has thrived for decades. He’ll be coming back to town this Saturday for the Atlanta Improv Festival at Village Theatre for a Q&A and improv performance. (Buy tickets here.)
“This is the first time I’ve ever done improv in Atlanta,” McBrayer said from his home in Los Angeles earlier this week. When he left Conyers at age 18 in the early 1990s, Atlanta had no established improv comedy shops. Whole World Theatre opened in 1994, followed by Dad’s Garage in 1995 and the Village Theatre in 2008.
“I have seen some of the Atlanta improv players before,” McBrayer said. “I’m excited to hang out with them and see what the vibe and style is in Atlanta. I love it. I don’t judge. I’m excited there’s such a good scene now.”
Village Theatre created the Atlanta Improv Festival last year and now has more than 25 shows planned over three days starting Thursday and ending Saturday.
“Jack is doing us a huge favor doing our festival in his hometown,” said Mike King, the festival organizer.
McBrayer said thanks to his Kenneth the Page character on “30 Rock” over seven seasons from 2006 to 2013 “people thought of me as this very sweet, goody goody.” So when he would do improv and start cursing or being crass, “I think it was somewhat jarring to people. It was during the advent of Instagram and social media. People would be all up in arms.”
At first, he said, “I was a little uptight about it. Then after a point, you know, I’m not going to stop doing improv just because people expect certain things from me. It did require a little letting go. I appreciate and enjoy and need the freedom to do whatever character is required during an improv scene.”
During improv, McBrayer could play a pro wrestler, a topless trailer trash dude and a beaten-down housewife all in the same night. Nowadays, he works regularly with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in L.A. “I can be an animal, an inanimate object. You can pretend you’re falling off a cliff for four or five minutes. There are no rules!”
He’s flying into Atlanta Thursday night to meet up with some old friends and hang with family. His other siblings and many relatives live in the metro area. His parents are still in Conyers. “I’m the only one who was asked to leave Georgia,” he joked.
He has warm memories of his time growing up in Conyers. For a time, McBrayer waited tables at Po Folks (now Folks Southern Kitchen) and Applebee’s in Conyers. “I got better tips at Applebee’s,” he said. “Also, if an order got messed up or a customer didn’t want something, then the servers would descend on the leftover food like Scooby Snacks. It was like we’ve never eaten before and we’d eat with our hands. There was no shame. We were like zombies from those fast zombie movies.”
“I am a firm believer that everyone should wait tables,” he added. “It teaches you a lot about yourself and how to deal with others and strangely, to be a decent actor.”
I noted that many actors become Uber drivers nowadays instead of waiting tables. But McBrayer said he wouldn’t qualify because his car is too old: he drives a 2004 Hyundai Accent he bought from an Enterprise Rental. “It’s fine with me,” he said. “It lets me do my business.” If he isn’t trying to attract attention, a 2004 Hyundai Accent works just fine. Besides, he said, “I’m a relative nobody in this town.”
McBrayer’s schedule lately has been lighter than normal. So he is now tan. “I’m the color of a bran muffin,” he said. “Unemployment plus a swimming pool, that’s my dream.” Yes, he does have a home with a pool.(“Thank you Tina Fey!” he said.)
Improv, he said, is more a hobby than a money-making venture. (The Atlanta Improv Festival is paying to fly him in and keep him in a hotel but not much else.)
Acting pays the bills. He said he just met with a former “30 Rock” alum to brainstorm ideas. “You try to drum up work however you can wherever you can,” he said.
His last regular series – Adult Swim’s 2015 “The Jack and Triumph Show” – featured him and the infamously nasty puppet created and voiced by Robert Smigel but only lasted one season.
“It was just a mixture of different things” in terms of why the show didn’t come back, he said. “The creative vision of the show might have bee a little more ambitious than we were able to pull off creatively and financially. A lot of moving parts didn’t come together.”
McBrayer plays a recurring dentist character on ABC’s “The Middle” and shot the third season of IFC’s ‘Todd Margaret” in London for a few weeks last year, a comedy created and starring fellow metro Atlanta native David Cross. McBrayer played Doug Whitney, a character embodied by Spike Jonze the first two seasons.
Cross “gave all the actors so much freedom to do what they do best,” McBrayer said. “He was great a steering the ship. He made us all feel like contributors. It was fun.”
And he recently shot a Verizon commercial with Judah Friedlander and Jane Krakowski reprising his role as Kenneth from “30 Rock.”
“Tina [Fey] okayed it,” he said. “We didn’t want it to be weird or sad.”
And he played architect Der Scutt in the Funny or Die mockumentary “Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal” starring Johnny Depp as Trump.
“I’d never get another opportunity to work with Johnny Depp,” he said. “It was me, Johnny Depp, Christopher Lloyd as his character from ‘Back to the Future,’ Patton Oswalt, Alfred Molina and Alf the puppet… It was the most surreal thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I was cracking up every minute of it.”
Atlanta Improv Festival
Q&A with Jack McBrayer: Ask Him Anything!
He will also appear at 9:30 p.m. with Quartet
349 Decatur St. SE