Starpulse Q&A With Jay Johnston: How the Mustachioed Half Lives
November 14th, 2007 4:19pm EST
Jay Johnston was used to strangers approaching him in public. After all, he was a prominent writer and actor on the cult HBO sketch series Mr. Show with Bob and David. Plus, he's had his fair share of encounters with the homeless and jerks who want to pick a fight with him simply because he's six foot five. But the oddest reactions Jay's received were the result of growing out a mustache during the first season of The Sarah Silverman Program for his role of Officer Jay McPherson. Suddenly, Jay found himself the victim of behavior he deemed to odd and annoying to endure and vowed to wear prosthetic whiskers from that day on. In this Starpulse exclusive, Jay Johnston explores the unbearable annoyance of having a mustache, what's so rare and special about the casts of Mr. Show, Morel Orel, and The Sarah Silverman Program, and reminisces about the time he was mistakenly arrested for being a murderer.
What you and the casts of Mr. Show, Moral Orel and The Sarah Silverman Program do is very rare in American television, which is that you are the same group of people working together on each other's projects.
Yeah, I think that is something that's come about in the last 10 years. I think that's actually the nature of what you intend to do when you get into this business anyway, which is called networking. But that happens in every business of course. And the cool thing is that out here, every time you work together with someone again, I imagine, and I think the laws of nature would say so, you're a little smarter, a little better, and you can work together better. Unless you hate each other and think you're both motherf--kers.
And, similarly to quite a bit of British TV, you not only write but act in the shows as well.
I completely am jealous of them for that, and then I look over here and it's the same way with us, except that they get to do their shows on network and we're usually working in cable. So in America it's more of a cable environment that holds up the drifting vagabonds of comedy. The Sarah Silverman Program is especially great because we're able to improvise a bit and talk about the lines and the story and everyone's.
How much do you improvise on Sarah's show?
Occasionally lines are improvised, but generally we stick to the script.
When it comes to your work on Moral Orel, do you find yourself drawing on your own experience attending parochial school?
Actually, it was a boarding school for wayward girls that they sold to somebody who ended up kicking all the chicks out and turning it into a private school. It was only six blocks away from my house, which made it not quite a boarding school. Actually, it wasn't parochial either. I did go to a junior year of high school at a parochial school and that place was a nightmare, man. I didn't know shit about religion and I still don't, but the fact of the matter was I only barely got through a year there before I was kicked out. I got in a lot of trouble.
What sort of trouble did you get into while you were in school?
Oh, just hijinks, this and that. I falsely got arrested for attempted murder, which was not quite true. It was the old mistaken identity routine, but it was a nightmare.
Basically, seven of us went out into the woods built a bonfire, brought some beers, having fun, doop-dee-doo blah blah blah. These cops were driving through the forest on these roads that we couldn't see, which surprised us because we thought we were in the middle of nowhere. I had just moved to the suburbs after being kicked out of school in Chicago, so I did not know the area at all. I'm out there at this parochial joint and we're having this bonfire and the cops start coming through the woods. The woods get lit up, and we all scatter. Then more and more cops come and ambulances too, and we have no idea what's going on. We're Running around, I get separated from the guys, and now I have no idea where I am and I'm all alone, so I ended up running roughly 10 miles into town. Turns out a couple, someone broke into their house and shot the guy in the neck and tied the wife up and got like 40 bucks and got away. We had boots on and flannels, like real hillbillies, so most of us fit the description of the suspects. But nobody matched the size of the feet, thank God, so they let us off. Later on, those naughty criminals were eventually caught, after a year and a half and a world spree of burglaries. It was two guys and a chick. And that woman was me!
You mentioned mistaken identity. Are you ever mistakenly identified as Bruce Campbell?
No, but I have to say, any mention of him in reference to me makes my little heart sing because I love him. I think he's fantastic; he's one of my favorite actors.
A rumor that I had heard is that they were thinking about re-doing Evil Dead, and they had considered you for the part of Ash. Is there any validity to that?
Absolutely. I think that's the best idea ever. I'm just dusting off my stump and ready to go.
Were you approached about this role?
No. (laughs) A resounding no. Make it happen, man. Put it out there, it'll someday settle in the form of dew.
You mentioned you were kicked out of school in Chicago. What happened there?
It was a mistaken identity situation once again. (laughing) No, it was possession and then they thought I was dealing. It was ridiculous. My dad thought it would be best to move to the suburbs and go to a parochial school after that.
So you draw at all-
For Moral Orel? No, you have to understand, with Moral Orel Dino Stamatopoulos, who is the show's creator, writes most of the scripts. And then Scott Adsit, who co-produces with myself, he and I go in with a bunch of writers and poke around the script and try to punch them up a bit. Generally speaking, though, Dino's scripts are so insanely great that you don't have to do anything. So what happens then is Scott goes on the floor and directs things, and we have another director Chris McKay this year, who is pretty much going to be doing Scott's job because Scott's doing whatever that show is… 30 Rock. So Dino produces it and does almost everything. All I do, pretty much, is some voices now. I occasionally throw a joke in here or there, but mostly the thing I do is just voices
When it came to your own indoctrination into the world of comedy, how were you first exposed to it growing up?
Well, I watched Monty Python when I was a kid in Chicago. I discovered it on my own and was enamored with it. I didn't really consider much of anything after that. Then I went into straight theatre in Chicago. When I was in college, I was encouraged to try comedy as Second City, but I wasn't interested. Finally the chairman of the board said, "You f--king better." I did it and I had a lot of fun; I surprised, even. I got hired there for a couple of years and then I quit because they wouldn't promote me. Then I moved out to LA and put up a show. The whole time, when I went to college, Dino was a year or so ahead of me. Scott Adsit, Andy Dick, and Andy Richter, were all people I sort of knew. I met them once or twice. Dino I knew maybe the most and when he went off and started writing for The Ben Stiller Show and Conan, I thought was excited, because I'd always looked up to him and thought he was a great writer. I finally got to work with him on Mr. Show. And after that I was able to work with him on Moral Orel and it's just an amazing experience to work with a guy you've looked up to for so long.
And when you were growing up, what were you like in school outside of being a troublemaker. Were you a class clown?
Yeah, pretty much. I had trouble keeping my mouth shut sometimes. Especially if you were someone who took too many pauses when you spoke. My yapper was basically the bane of my existence. I grew up in the city and for some reason I wasn't into sports. I still don't know the rules of basketball, football, baseball. I know the basics, but just wasn't into it. I don't think I was a huge asshole, I just liked to f--k around and have fun. Which still haunts me to this day. Actually, last night a friend of mine called me and said "My car's booted," and I had to go into the valley and rip it off his car. I have a collection of boots that I've collected over the years.
How many boots are in your collection?
Six, but it should be seven. The cops took one when they took the vehicle. You should never store your stolen boot in your vehicle.
Are you able to reveal the secret to debooting a car?
I don't know if you know my size, but I think the key is that I have long arms. You just put your foot under the axle and pull on it and pop it off. Sometimes you can scratch the tire, but if you're willing to get rid of the boot then that will be of advantage to you.
So what were the different ways you got laughs out of people when you were growing up?
Wow, interesting. I think physical comedy is something that's been ingrained in me since I was pretty young. I'm not sure why. Also, I think that the fact that I have a rubber face played a big part in it. My feet are enormous and who doesn't like that? Usually I got laughs by knitting very fast, or- I don't know man, that's a tough question.
Maybe you did impersonations.
Not really. I think you're shaped by your parents' wit andI realized early on that that's what I appreciated. My grandfather was so goddamn hilarious, but he was very silly. My mother is silly and very smart, she's an English teacher. And my father's a lawyer and he's very dry. So I think I have a wonderful mix of being sometimes witty, sarcasm other times, and often goofy.
Do you think that your height might have played to role in the formation of your humor.
Yes, it did have a play to role. I think you meant role to play.
Gotcha, see there's where the smarts are really just boiling under my head. I was about 6'1 when I was a freshman in high school and I looked like I was about 28, so that helped me get into just about every amount of trouble there was around. I was always hanging out with seniors. Even before I was in high school I was hanging out with high school kids, which is not always the best thing. Also I was a master of the nunchuck.
How did you develop that skill?
In the East.
So were you taking karate then?
(Laughs) I am a master of the invisible nunchuck method of pantomiming nunchucks.
Since you were tall and looked much older than your actual age, were you buying alcohol for the younger kids?
(Laughs) The younger kids like myself? Yes. "I'd like to buy this for a minor, if I could. Me." That's funny.
But you were doing that?
No. I mean, I was doing that for myself and my friends, so maybe in essence, yes. I suppose yes is a better answer.
Did you ever get in trouble for that?
No, I don't think so. I got in trouble for everything else that that leads to, of course.
Outside of theatre, what sort of creative outlets did you have?
(Laughs) "Mm-hmm." "I see" Actually, I ended up working on my Dad's property when I was growing up on the weekends. I was cutting trees and grass and this and that, which led to working construction and learning trades like that. So when I moved to LA and I didn't have any money, I just worked on as famous a person's house that I could find that happened to be a friend of mine and had a nice enough of a house that it needed to be maintained. I did that for a couple of years before Mr. Show started happening.
Was there ever a time when you attempted stand-up?
Yeah, I tried it twice in LA and I stared at my feet the whole time. It didn't work out very well. Yeah, I'm not really into stand-up. It's terrifying to me, so I don't want to do it.
So once you moved to LA, what were you doing in terms of performing before you met comedian and Best Week Ever panalist Paul F. Tompkins?
I was going down every week and doing Improv with Second City alumni down in Santa Monica. That was fun and interesting. It's always great to feel like you're a part of some community. I moved to LA not knowing anybody except Andy Dick. And then I went down there and started meeting a bunch of people that I had heard of, including Bob Odenkirk, who was doing some performances once in a blue moon. It was pretty cool, but that was about it, then I started doing performances with Paul. And you know who hooked us up was Adam McKay, who is the director and co-writer of Will Ferrell's movies, such as Anchorman.. He knew Paul when he was growing up in Philadelphia and then Paul and I met up because he called me and called Paul and said, "You guys will get along good together." And then we just bumped into each other the night after I left a message on his machine. We were very tight for a while and did a lot of fun work together.
And at the time did Paul already develop his fixation with wearing fancy suits onstage?
Did that rub up on you in anyway, rub off on you?
Yeah- I caught that too, those aren't the same thing (laughs) Yeah, it did in a certain way. I think when you're onstage, and we were doing stuff similar to The Snuz Brothers , my physical comedy shorts on SuperDeluxe.com. We would wear suits because it lends a certain, what do you call that shit where you're grown up? (laughs) A maturity to it in a sense. You have somewhere to fall from. When a guy in a suit gets some shit splattered on him, it's a lot worse than if a guy in a t-shirt and jeans gets some shit splattered on him. And I don't mean literal shit, although that would be hilarious too. Yeah he had the suits and it did rub off on me. Up. Not to this day, though. I don't wear suits all the time. Mostly tank tops, halter tops.
So when it came to working on Mr. Show and as early on as Second City, did you find that being paid to be funny changed the nature of being funny?
Yeah, it makes you wet your pants more. You don't know if you're doing the right thing. But the fact of the matter is, as soon as you hear the laughter and the clap-ter and then you get a few chicks' phone numbers, everything is all right.
How did you deal with that sort of stress?
Go out there to fail, basically. Imagine the worst is to fail, right? So you go, "Alright, I'm going to go out and fail. f--k it." And then you're always pleased because if you fail, you've won. And if you don't fail, you've won, see?
Sounds like a terrific attitude to take.
(Laughs) Also, always carry a knife on you. No matter what.
So you'd mentioned earlier in the interview that you had some projects that you're working on. What are some projects that you're working on or thinking about.
Certainly the Superdeluxe series of shows. There's Life 101 , which is just little life lessons that are done with a voiceover teaching yourself how to do things.
, and there's about 7 episodes of that, and then there's 3 Snuz Brothers episodes that are up now, the newest one having gone up only a few days ago. I'm working on Silverman, of course. Eric Hoffman, who works with me on The Snuz Brothers, is also working on an Adult Swim show with me, which hopefully they will get into the next time around a pitch goes. It's called Guy Suave and I want to do it more than anything in the world and hopefully we're going to be able to pitch it to them again soon. They loved the show, but there was some problems with some legal aspect of it. I guess some hoodlum stole a few of the words out of the script. It's a tough neighborhood out here in Hollywood. You've got to understand. (laughing)
Are you able to reveal the details of Guy Suave?
I can reveal the story details, certainly. Basically, he's a homicidal super spy. So it's a way over the top James Bond thing. Not where he's the coolest, sexiest guy, but rather where he's the most aggressive, violent, vile person who happens to be a super duper spy. He'll escape the scene in a helicopter with two hundred guys with machine guns chasing after him and then he'll fly away, come back, turn upside down, cut all their heads off and then go home. One of my favorite lines is said after he blows up the island with all the bad guys on it, jumps into a speedboat, waits for it to blow up, and then in the back of the speedboat under a tarp is some movement and he rips it open with a gun, pointing it in the person's face. It's a young girl in a bikini. And she knows the island's been blown up and he's killed everybody and she says, "Oh, Guy Suave, you're not going to kill me, are you?" And he says "No, I'm going to f--k you and that's going to kill you." (laughs) It's like word porn or comedy porn. Although there's nothing graphic it's just vile as shit. And it was just really fun to write it with Eric and we worked on a couple of scripts and it got held up for whatever reason. Hopefully we'll get back into that soon and get it out there.
And how has the writers' strike affected the different things you're involved in?
Fortunately and unfortunately, I haven't worked as a WGA writer in like 5 years or something. It just has not been in the cards. The thing is, every writing job I do now is nonunion, although they should all be union. But the fact of the matter is it's just not easy to get those jobs. I mean you can work to get money or you can work to try and do what you want. So I'm in the latter direction of, "well, I don't really need that much money right now. I just want to do these projects." Of course if something really high paying came around I would take it. Basically I'm saying that I would write on a pile of turds for an audience of flies.
Do you have any plans to do any stage show? Is that something you think about still?
No, actually I don't. I love to perform. I'm doing a benefit at the end of the month with the cast of the Sarah Silverman show for the Friends of Arava Institute, which is a Jewish foundation that finances kibbutzes. They asked me to do it and great. I'll be happy to do it. Laura Silverman and I are hosting, and she's a hot piece of tail if you know what I'm saying, honk honk!
And are you going to be hosting as yourselves or the characters that you portray?
You know, that's a good question. It's going to have to be as ourselves because I'm not going to put on a fake mustache for this goddamn thing. I don't care how much charity they think I have in my heart.
You would never just wear a mustache out and about just to elicit some sort of response out of someone?
Here's the thing: there's a reason why it's a fake mustache. The first season I grew a real mustache and I got so much shit all the time, and this was before the show was even on, for f--k's sake. People would stop me in the street and say, "Oh, hey" Like this bum came up to me and said, "Hey, could I get some money- Ooh, I didn't know you were a cop, I'm sorry, I didn't mean nothing" I'm like, "I'm not a cop, sir. Come back, I'm not a cop!." It was ridiculous. And you go out at night to a restaurant or a bar and people come up to you and go, "Nice mustache" "Who the f--k are you- Why are you talking to me? I've never met you in my life and you're telling me I have a nice mustache? What do you mean by that? Is it sarcastic? Are you for real?"
So people were just treating you differently because of the mustache?
Yeah, it was insane. I went to a bar one time and the bartender said "Oh, hi, great mustache" Then she goes "Here here here!" and pulls out of her wallet a card and gives it to me. It said Mustaches for Kids. I politely asked, "What in the motherf--k is this? "Oh, it's a charity event. What you do is you shave your mustache and then you have 2 weeks to grow the best mustache and then you get sponsored and the money goes to these kids." Was this for kids with no mustaches or what? Where does my mustache end up? That's all I want to know. And it's a real charity event!
It sounds like by growing a mustache you get the same sort of treatment as if you were famous.
(laughs) Just between my nose and my lip I'm famous. But I get shit from people constantly anyway, and not because of my work in TV. People like to start fights with me, and push me and hit me. It's not as fun as I make it seem to be me.
Is it because you're tall?
Yeah, because of that and also I have a large sized cranium. I'm just saying that if there's an asshole around I'm the first one he's talking to.
So how would you say you compare to your character on the Sarah Silverman Program?
Very little. Even though I make myself sound like a bit of a monster in some regards, Dino has always called me uptight. I don't consider myself quite that, but what he means generally is that I have an affinity for propriety and proper manners. Not anything extreme like you have to slap me with your gauntlet before we have a duel at dawn, but rather that you just treat people a certain way, like opening doors and other chivalrous things. That kind of energy transfers itself totally into the character. He's a guy who just thinks things should be done a certain way. And he gets really really pissed off when they don't get done that way, like when Sarah speaks to him the way that she does or when she makes fun of him. It's something that blends well with her character. She needs to make someone go say, "You can't do that anymore!" and then she says one more thing and the guy can't say anything. He gets on his high horse and then gets knocked on his ass again by her. I think that's great because a lot of times on that show she gets to say things and people just accept it, but my character gets to say, "Why, I don't think that's correct!"
So, how many fights do you get into?
They're really not carried to fruition anymore, which is wonderful because I'm not into that sort of thing. It's just that at bars people will sometimes seek out the big guy to f--k with or sometimes I'm the one breaking up fights. It's not as romantic as it sounds. It's just the fact that trouble will find me or if people are in trouble they'll come to me because I have a reputation for being helpful in those sort of situations. It's a funny thing. No city that I've ever been to has had more homeless people than LA. They're just all over the place. So walking downtown, I will get approached or be at by maybe two people every block, which is more than I want. Maybe it's due to the fancy way I dress or my colorful scarves.
What sort of things do people yell at you?
Stuff like "What are you looking at?" Not that I'm looking at them. Or "Hey hey hey, you over there, hey."
These seem like very aggressive homeless people
Because there are so many of them and they're all vying for attention. It's like going into a strip mall where everyone acts like a car salesmen. They're all going to be like "Hey, come on, man. Come to my place!"
It's interesting because for someone who's been involved and continues to be involved in really great television, you seem to get approached more often by crazy homeless people, strangers who want to pick fights with you, or people who want to talk to you about your mustache.
(Laughs) Well, people do approach for those other reasons, but I usually just punch them out because I don't understand what's happening.
Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer