Ken Marino on Killing It in Karaoke, Talking to Strangers on the Phone During Quarantine and Returning to ‘Party Down’

Whether on ‘The State’ or ‘The Other Two,’ the comedic star has a knack for playing fools and failures. He tells Cracked about his rock band, the secret to maintaining creative friendships and why he’ll never stop people-watching
Ken Marino on Killing It in Karaoke, Talking to Strangers on the Phone During Quarantine and Returning to ‘Party Down’

Few actors nail their characters’ essential patheticness as well as Ken Marino. In movies like Wet Hot American Summer and Wanderlust — or television shows like Party Down — the 54-year-old comic star has zeroed-in on a particular strain of clueless white doofus, elevating them into a cautionary tale of American male mediocrity. Marino is a good-looking dude, but unlike other handsome actors who subvert their attractiveness by playing dummies, he has this rare ability to contort his face until all we see is the insecurity and disappointment — almost as if the hunky exterior is some cruel joke being played on this otherwise nobody of a person. His characters may be vain and talk a good game, but give ‘em a second: They’ll reveal their rank incompetence and human frailty in no time. It’s never not hilarious.

Click right here to get the best of Cracked sent to your inbox.

I’m happy to report that the real Ken Marino is nothing like his on-screen persona. Speaking over Zoom from Los Angeles, he’s thoughtful and warm, without an ounce of goofiness or arrogance to him. Whereas the people he plays are often putting on airs or uncomfortable in their own skin, Marino exudes a relaxed confidence. He’s currently promoting the new season of The Other Two, which made its HBO Max debut earlier this month, but this whole year feels like an unofficial celebration of the man: Party Down returned after 13 seasons, and he’s part of the starry ensemble of the upcoming holiday film Candy Cane Lane, which also includes Eddie Murphy, Tracee Ellis Ross, Robin Thede, Nick Offerman, Jillian Bell and Chris Redd. He’s busy, which is good, because he likes being busy. Too much downtime drives him a little crazy. That aspect of the pandemic was hard for him, but as you’ll see in our interview, he found a creative way of dealing with that problem.

It is perhaps both a blessing and a curse for actors to be defined by an iconic role. Sure, the character makes them immortal, but it also means they’ll never escape it — the part clings to them for the rest of their lives, casting a shadow over any new work, forcing comparisons that are never flattering to the roles they take on afterward. I suppose some would point to Ron, Party Down’s glorious train wreck of a human being, as Marino’s signature moment. But as good as Marino is essaying that nincompoop, I’d argue that it’s the breadth of characters he’s played that are his finest achievement. If Marino is in something you’re watching, that probably means it’s funny — and not just funny in a blandly agreeable way. His humor can be sharp, odd, expertly broad. It’s not just because he’s tall that you notice him — he plays guys who want to stand out, although that usually just means they end up embarrassing themselves.  

From his time as a sketch performer with the State, which came about when he was in college, he’s been studying people, trying to figure out what makes them tick — seeking out aspects of them he can steal for future characters. He doesn’t just think about line delivery or wardrobe — he thinks about how his characters move through the world, how they carry themselves. Next time you watch something with Marino in it, notice how his body is always telling you something about the person he’s playing. Maybe they’re defeated. Maybe they’re trying to puff out their chests to compensate for hidden self-doubt. Maybe they’re just huge klutzes. Before his characters even speak, you know them from the way they stand in a room. 

Over the course of an hour, we talked about everything from Marino’s first starring role — it was in a third-grade Bible play — to what he learned being (briefly) in a dance company in high school. But no matter the topic, what emerged again and again in what he told me was the importance of making a connection and being curious about people. These qualities have served Marino well — and probably explains why he’s happier and way more well-adjusted than the luckless bastards he portrays. 

You’ve got a lot of cool stuff coming out this year between Party Down, The Other Two and that forthcoming Amazon movie Candy Cane Lane. Has it seemed like an exceptionally busy time?

Well, in terms of compared to the COVID years, it’s significantly busier. It’s weird: It doesn’t seem busier in terms of day-to-day work, but the fact that everything’s coming out is exciting. I mean, Party Down, I think we wrapped it two Februarys ago and then it came out this year — I was champing at the bit waiting for it to come out. And The Other Two, that turned around faster than usual, so both shows were released pretty close to each other. I’m super-proud of both of them. I think they’re two of the strongest comedies out there — I feel very lucky to be part of them.

You strike me as someone who likes keeping busy. How hard was COVID in terms of feeling unproductive?

Probably much like it was for everybody who wasn’t making bread. It was maddening, and it was confusing and scary for a while, and tedious. I do like to work — I like to create stuff. I don’t like big gaps between jobs, because I start to lose my mind a little bit. So, yeah, it was difficult.

I started calling people up during lockdown. On Twitter, I just said, “Hey, if you want me to give you a call, DM me.” And then they would send me their phone numbers and I would talk to 10, 15 people a day — just about how they’re doing, how they’re coping, what’s going on, food they’re cooking, just telling each other jokes, whatever. I did that for a while, which kept me a little sane.

It almost sounds like an improv exercise of having a random conversation with a stranger, with no idea where it’s gonna go.

I just like talking to people. I like interacting with people — I feed off that. I don’t consider myself awkward or somebody who doesn’t want to spend time with strangers. I like learning about people and discovering new things about people. So it’s just really a matter of me starting to ask them questions about themselves, and then you can feel when they open up and relax — then, all of a sudden, they’re throwing stuff at me, and we’re having a nice conversation.

I think it was helpful for the people I was speaking to, but equally as helpful to me. It was a nice little break in the insanity that was happening at the time. Sometimes the conversations were light and fun, and we would make jokes about stuff. People who wanted me to call sometimes would talk to me about projects that they’ve seen me in. But then there were other times when we just had deeper conversations about people not seeing their parents or their loved ones — or somebody getting sick or somebody passing away. I spoke to a lot of people who were nurses or working at old-age homes or firemen. I spoke to people all over the country — it was very therapeutic for me.

Afterwards, I would always try to find a GIF or a meme that represented our conversation, and I would send them one to be like, “This is what we talked about.” It was nice.

This need to stay busy — were you that way as a kid, too? You’ve just always had this desire to be creative?

I think I need to constantly keep moving — I’m like a shark, I suppose. I get a little antsy when I’m not moving. That’s why I think when I met all my friends from the State back in college, I found a great outlet for the energy and the creative electricity that I needed to shoot out — otherwise, I would explode. I got very lucky meeting all the State cats.

Was sketch comedy something you loved growing up?

No, I always wanted to be an actor. Very early on, in third grade, I was at a summer camp where there was a play. It was a church camp, and we had to do “The Prodigal Son.” I clowned around a lot, so they made me the Prodigal Son. (In the story) there’s one son who goes away and walks around, and the other son who stays — the father splits up his wealth and his property, and one son is responsible, the other one’s a fuck-up, but then he comes back and the father celebrates him coming back. So, we did that play as a third-grader.

I was joking around in all the scenes — that was my first acting experience — but the day of the play, I got so scared that I locked myself in the bathroom. But my sister talked me out — and then I came out, and everybody started laughing at stuff I was doing and applauding. I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. But now, come to think of it, hindsight being 20/20, they might have just been laughing and clapping just because I finally came out of the bathroom, and not because they were really enjoying me. But the die had been (cast) at that point.

Am I reading too much into the idea that the Prodigal Son and Party Down’s Ron have certain similarities?

I think there is probably a connection (to the Prodigal Son), who goes off and is fucking up and then trying to come back and clean up his act. Ron is certainly somebody who, time and time again, has fallen off the wagon, been a fuck-up — and then he’s constantly trying to set the sail straight and get it right. He is forever optimistic.

In a recent L.A. Times piece, you and the rest of the Party Down team talked about odd jobs you’ve had. You mentioned that you worked with your dad, who was part of a port-a-potty company, but I was interested in your other job, which is that you performed with a dance company in high school.

That wasn’t a job that lasted long, but it was certainly something I did, and it was an experience that I experienced. You can tell I was very popular in high school (Laughs): I took dance classes, tap-dance classes and some other classes at the Dot Mackey School of Dance a town away from where I lived. Somebody there was like, “Hey, we’re going to go to bar mitzvahs and different parties, and we wear costumes and we get people to get up and start dancing.” So, we were dance fluffers. (Laughs) I don’t even know what we were called. 

I did that three or four times, but that was a bridge too far in terms of me making connections with people — I didn’t want to be in crazy costumes pulling strangers up to dance with them. That was a little beyond my comfort zone. But I learned something that I think is important in terms of performing, which is just dive into the deep end and not judge yourself. Don’t get in your own way — just go for it. You could always pull back, but ultimately you want to try to be free and open to any sort of craziness that wants to come in. So when you show up to a party in a crazy costume and you’re supposed to pull everybody up to dance, I think you just have to let the insecurities go and just go for it. I feel like that’s what I try to do anytime I’m doing something. I don’t second-guess myself — I just go instinctually with what I think might be good and what I might like.

I wanted to talk a little about The Other Two. Have you met a lot of Streeters in your time in show business?

He is a combination of a bunch of different people I’ve met in the industry, and then just some sort of fictional idea of what I think that guy is. It really is about the writing of that character — it’s such great writing that that’s the ultimate key to it. But, yeah, I’ve had managers and different people in my life who I’ve taken little pieces from.

Have any of those people come up to you and said, “Hey, that’s me you’re doing”?

It’s possible that people think that — nobody’s ever said it to me. But I definitely use elements of different people that I’ve crossed paths with in this industry. I try to infuse little moments of that insanity — or what I thought at the time was madness — or just weird character traits. I try to infuse that in him in little bits and pieces. It helps me stay in that guy’s head.

Are you the sort of actor who’s always collecting aspects of behavior by observing people?

Oh, for sure — I’m always watching. One of the things I used to do when I went to NYU, we were all at acting school, and it was a very actor-y thing to do, but we would go out to the park and people-watch. (We’d) look at people’s different things that they do and how they behave and how they interact with each other. I always found that interesting, and I’ve never stopped doing that. I like watching people’s behavior, and I was stealing little moments and going, “Oh, I could use that if I play a character who’s a little intense or a little fragile…” I could use not just something somebody says or how they react to something, but also this physicality of things that people do. I guess it goes back to calling people up and talking to them on the phone: I just like to hear different people and how they react to different things.

The Other Two is about modern viral stardom. Do you ever think, “How would I do if I was starting out now in this new entertainment landscape?”

It would be super-scary today and I’m not sure how I would handle it, but I have thought about the fact that the State — when we started out after we graduated college — the first thing we did was these little produced pieces. We went out with David Wain’s camera, and we would intercut people telling stories, and then we would interact and act out those stories. That was You Wrote It, You Watch It that Jon Stewart was a host of. That’s the kind of stuff that now so many people can do — everybody has cameras, and it’s so easy to do. Back then, it wasn’t as easy to do, so you needed a little bit more luck and drive and knowing the right group of people. We were making YouTube videos before YouTube videos were being made, which is interesting to think about.

I guess if we were that young now — or if I was that young now — I’d probably try to start putting out sketches and writing things and getting it out there. I’m an old fart, so I don’t even know why people get views and why people get hits. I don’t quite understand why it happens or why things go viral, but if I was younger today, I hope I would know a little bit more about it. I would try to seize that opportunity.

I was rewatching some of The State recently. Beyond being impressed by how funny it still is, I kept thinking, “My god, these guys are so young.” Do you ever look at the show now and wonder who those kids were and what they thought they were doing?

We didn’t know any better. I think that’s why we had a little success: We were so confident in our ability to create some sort of sketch or joke. There was nobody saying, “You can’t do that, that’s not right, that’s not funny.” We were this insular group that just made each other laugh. We were like, “If we make each other laugh, we don’t care what anybody else thinks. As long as we’re making each other laugh, then there’s value to it and it’s funny.” We came up with that very early on.

We all were very competitive with each other, in a very positive way. It was like a rock band at the time. We just thought our shit didn’t stink, and we just kept pushing forward, because we thought we could do it, for whatever reason — I think it’s because we kept pushing each other. But also, I recognized that group was super-talented. There were some really incredible people in that group. Even when I was young, I was like, “Oh my god, Kerry Kenney is ridiculously talented.” Tom Lennon, Mike Black, David Wain, Joe Lo Truglio, just person after person. I was like, “I want to be with these people and try to create with these people.” We did it as long as we could, and then we burned some bridges and then we didn’t get paid anymore.

Speaking of burning bridges, you’ve mentioned that Louie’s brilliantly inane catchphrase “I wanna dip my balls in it!” was meant to be a “F-you” to MTV, which wanted you all to do more recurring characters on the show. But what did the executives think when you mocked them with that sketch?

What I remember is they were like, “Great, now do some more.” And, of course, we were like, “Wait a second…”

So, a little context. MTV gave us a list of four or five things that they wanted us to do for our sketch show — which, of course, we immediately were like, “We’re not doing any of it!” And then, of course, we did all of it. But one of them was “More rock ’n’ roll references” — or more MTV references or MTV parodies. (Another) was recurring characters. And at the time we were like, “We don’t want to do recurring characters. Everybody else does recurring characters — that’s a sellout.” I guess we thought a lot of shows that did recurring characters went to that well too much. 

But they asked us to do them, so we came up with this character who was going to say the stupidest catchphrase and then people would celebrate it. It was just sort of an F-you to recurring characters. So, we did Louie and he says, “I wanna dip my balls in it!” It’s a weird sketch, but it seemed to work. We’re like, “That’s that — we’ll never hear back from MTV again. They’re not going to say anything to us after that.” But they’re like, “Hey, some more of the Louie sketches — let’s get some more of those.” And we’re like, “There’s nothing to do. There’s nowhere to go with it.” But it challenged us, and we wound up writing a couple of really good ones. One of my favorite recurring ones is “Louie at the Last Supper,” where he shows up at the Last Supper and the disciples debate whether his comic stylings (are) funny or not. I enjoyed that one.

I like imagining a whole whiteboard of different terrible catchphrases you were deciding between.

No, that one was just based on something I said to David Wain, because David Wain would walk around with his hands down his pants a lot in the office. There was a jar of peanut butter at his desk, and he opened it and started eating his peanut butter (with his hands). I was like, “Why don’t you dip your balls in it?” And then we just kept saying that, and we’re like, “That’s the catchphrase! That’s the catchphrase that they’ll tell us to never do again.” And then they did tell us to do it again.

In the oral history of the State, David Wain mentions that he and Craig Wedren just hit it off with you immediately when you first met. What bonded you three at the very beginning?

It definitely was a shared sense of humor. There was this excitement — I mean, I met them my first day of college (when) it’s sort of restarting your relationships with people. You’re an adult now — you’re out on your own and you’re meeting people. There was just a connection with Craig and David that I immediately was like, “Oh, these are my people. These are the type of people I want to spend time with.” And I didn’t have as much of (that) in high school, so when I found them, I felt like I knew them forever. It’s like when you meet the love of your life — you’re like, “Oh, this is right.” I think that I met the comic and creative loves of my life that day — or some of them.

It was really a gift that never stopped giving. I just was hanging out with David and Mather Zickel last night and Craig Wedren yesterday. We were all singing in David’s garage. We’re a middle-aged-dad jam band, and we do covers.

How did that band get started?

David plays drums, and he decided that he just always wanted to get people to come hang out in his garage and sing songs. So he set up a whole thing in his garage (and) invited different people. People came and threw out songs, and we just started singing the songs and trying to figure them out. I was obsessed with it and I like singing, so I was there every time. Then, San Francisco Comedy Festival heard about it and they’re like, “Do you guys want to come and do a show here?” So we did a rehearsal show at Dynasty Typewriter in L.A. and then we went to San Francisco Comedy Festival, and we did an hour-and-a-half show of covers, and it went really well. 

We did jokes between the songs, but then we straight-up played the Cars’ “Bye Bye Love” and “Born to Run” from Bruce Springsteen and “Nothing From Nothing” by Billy Preston. We were doing real songs, and we had a real band. Some of the people in the band are legitimate musicians and professionals, so there was enough of those guys to help guide Dave and I and some other people who are not professionals. I get to live out my, I guess, deep-down desire of being the lead singer of a band.

It’s the old truism about comedians wanting to be rock stars, I suppose.

My wife and I are big karaoke fans, and so throughout the decades we had a karaoke room in our house. We invite people and we go out to private-room karaoke bars and we love that. I feel like I’ve put in my karaoke time, really done my research on what songs I’d like to sing live.

What’s your advice for someone who’s nervous about doing karaoke? How do you get comfortable up there?

The first thing you want to do is not sing at an open-mic place where you’re not with just your friends. Don’t go to one of those — go to a private room and go with people that you love and have a good time with. Then, pick an easy song and maybe sing it with somebody. Usually, everybody’s very supportive. As long as you commit to the song and not just make fun of it and try to do the best you can, it doesn’t matter whether you’re good or not: Everybody’s going to be like, “Yes, you’re doing it!”

(Karaoke is) great. To be able to just belt something out — or just sing something — you’ll get the bug real fast and be like, “Oh, I want to do that again.” Some people don’t like it at all, but I think once you start doing it, it’s just cathartic. I don’t like the big rooms — I like the small rooms where you can just sink into some songs and settle back and everybody’s just having a nice time. Expectations are low — low stress — but it’s delightful.

It’s been more than a decade since Party Down last aired. During that time, did you ever ponder what Ron’s been up to all this time?

My guess was he still was grinding it out and trying to succeed in the Party Down world. I know he broke off and tried to do Soup ‘R Crackers, and that was a big swing for him. But then once he came back, I think in my head he was not going to leave Party Down again — he was going to just try to work his way up the corporate ladder and get to a place where he maybe owns it or something like that. And, in my head, he never would get there — he would take one step forward and 17 steps back. He’d fall off the wagon a number of times and then clean his act up, cut his hair and start again, roll up his sleeves and try to be Good Ron.

When this season was finally starting to come together, did you offer your two cents about what you thought had become of Ron?

When you have somebody as incredibly gifted as (co-creator) John Enbom, there’s a certain trust there where you’re like, “Whatever you come up with is the right answer.” There’s no point where I would’ve gone to John and be like, “I don’t know if this is where he landed — I think he would’ve landed somewhere else.” That’s not my job to say. I rely on John — these characters are his characters, and wherever he says they belong is where they belong. But it did line up with my head where I thought Ron would be, so it was great.

Ron is very funny, but I’ve also always felt really bad for him. He is a deeply sad character, especially now that he’s middle-aged. Obviously, this comes from the writing, but how do you balance what’s incredibly pathetic about that guy?

Like you said, it’s in the writing — and the tone of the show has always been a darker tone. There’s a sadness to that whole show, and Ron is the poster child for what the tone of that show is. I’ve always felt like if you can tap into the truth of what Ron’s going through, the comedy is in the text. So I just always tried to (go) as extreme as it got — whether it was Ron’s gigantic penis not working or Ron getting food poisoning — and tap into some version of the heightened truth of it and then trust that the text is going to keep it all tonally in the right place.

But the situations are tragically funny. Because of my sketch background and the comic influences I have in my life, I like physical humor, and so I always try to infuse that into anything I do. Just to go back to what we were talking about with NYU and people-watching, you’re not always watching what they’re saying or their behavior and how they’re reacting to somebody — you’re watching, physically, what they’re doing. Over the years, I would try to look at and find physical things that people did that I thought were funny. I just think that it’s important to act with everything: In a comedy or even in a drama, you want to make sure that your whole body is in the scene. What happens in the space that you’re in, physically, as opposed to just what’s coming out of my mouth or what’s in my eyes? I like physical comedy, and so I always try to find one little moment in a scene where I could do something with something other than my face.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about a performance in terms of physicality — Ron lumbers through the world in a certain manner, and you emphasize that in the way you play him.

I always try to get to the set early and look in the space to see what I can use that is not taking away from the story that we’re telling, but that can elevate what my character’s going through. A doorframe or something on a table — I would do stuff in Party Down where, when he is high and he’s in the bathroom, he’s trying to get the soap to come out, but he’s high, so he is just hitting the soap while he is still talking. If I’m wearing a Walkman, there’s something that you can do with it. That’s always part of my process — to try to figure out what’s funny with the environment and my body, on top of the text and the scene with the other person.

I just like to physicalize myself and do something physical within the scene. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work. But I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at figuring out where I can fit it in — and doesn’t make the show runner or the producer go, “Hey, stop doing that.” (Laughs) Now they go, “Hey, that was great — do that again.” There’s a scene in the Nazi episode this season where Zoe’s hitting trays out of my hand and I’m trying to get the trays out to serve them, and she doesn’t want to serve the Nazis. So we did it a bunch of times, and I was just supposed to finally grab the trays and leave the kitchen. But then I was like, “Can I do one more?” They’re like, “Sure.” And so she didn’t knock the trays out and I’m walking out, and instead of making it a big deal, because the scene crescendoed into us yelling at each other, I just slowly stared at her and started to walk out. I was like, “Oh, I could use the doorframe” — he’s just so locked into her that he just fucks it up himself. 

I did that one time as just a thought of one extra take, and I remember Enbom and (co-creator) Dan Etheridge coming in going, “We don’t normally (like) when actors say, ‘Can I get one more?’ but that one really worked.” (Laughs)

A lot of your characters could be described as clueless, entitled idiots. Is that a pattern you notice — or something you respond to when choosing roles?

When you read some white male asshole blowhard character, you’re like, “Okay, I know how to lean into that. I’ve experienced that — I know men like that.” I get excited to mock and shine a light on some of the privileges that we white men have — some of the stupidity that comes along with the majority of this country. But I don’t know if I break it down much more than that. (Pointing to himself) I am a certain archetype — and within that there are sub-genres, and I recognize most of those, and I do like to play in those areas.

What you do really well is that, because you’re tall, white, broad-shouldered and handsome, viewers would assume that your characters are successful — but instead, they’re often failures. They feel like they should be better off than they are, and it drives them crazy.

Ron definitely thinks he deserves more than maybe he deserves because of how he looks and who he is. And I don’t think he’s even aware of that, but that’s part of the tragedy of Ron: I don’t think he’ll ever be aware of that. You root for Ron, but you’re also like, “All right, take it easy, Ron. If you just take a step back, everything’s fine.” But then I like to lean into the real assholes who really think they deserve everything because of who they are and what they look like — stuff I’ve done in Wanderlust and things like that.

Yeah, you do seem to enjoy playing dicks.

It’s always fun to play a part where your job is to make people hate you and like the main character more. The way I serve the story is for you to loathe me, so I accept that challenge and I am happy to bring it. I think I have found ways to make that work. But for me, it always comes from ultimately not just winking at it or making fun of it, but finding a sad truth to it.

Journalists often ask celebrities about their secret to a long-term marriage. You mentioned the guys in the State as being a creative love affair. What’s the secret to keeping that going?

Much like any relationship, we’ve had our highs and lows, and there have been times that it was not a happy household in the State world. But we’ve all grown and matured, and I can only speak for me personally, but I just will constantly reach out to the people I care about.

Sometimes we as human beings are like, “Wait, I haven’t heard back from that person — I guess they don’t want to spend time with me.” Or, “They don’t care — they don’t have the time or the bandwidth for me.” And then I think about, “Well, that’s not how I think, even though I haven’t called a friend in a while.” So I’m going to actively reach out to the creative people that I not only admire creatively and respect creatively but are friends of mine — I’m going to try to keep that going. I’ve always tried to do that with my State brothers and sister.

I think that’s part of it: to not assume that everybody is too busy for your relationship with them. Just reach out, and if you say, “Hey, let’s get together — let’s think of something creative to do” or “Let’s go get a drink” or “Let’s eat something,” nine times out of 10, the person’s like, “Shit, yeah, let’s go.” All it took was you proactively reaching out. That’s hard for us as human beings, but you reap a lot of rewards when you do it.

The trick is not assuming that, because they haven’t spoken to us in a while, they hate us now.

We immediately go to the most negative place. It’s like when you call somebody and they don’t call back — or you leave a text for somebody and then they don’t text right back — and you’re like, “Oh, Jesus Christ, are they pissed at me? What did I do? They’re mad at me.” Why aren’t they calling you back? It could be just because they got 50 other things they got to do that day and they haven’t gotten around to it. Or they saw the message and then it left their brain for a second. Not everybody functions and works the same way, but we immediately go to the most negative place. So I’m constantly trying to fight that and go, “That’s probably not what’s going on, so let me reach out. Let me try to connect with that person.”

This gets back to your question about the State: I reach out to David or Joe or Mike Black or Tom Lennon and try to connect with them as friends creatively and be like, “Hey, I have these ideas.” The State has been doing stuff consistently since we did (the show) back in ’93. If I didn’t call up my friends, I wouldn’t have been able to do half the things that I’ve done with them over the years, just because you got to keep the connection. It’s scary, but once you reach out, you realize, “Oh, right, we all love each other.” Somebody just needs to say, “Hey, what’s up? Let’s hang out.”

Thinking about your work — The State, Wet Hot American Summer, Party Down — you’ve consistently made great stuff that took a while for people to catch onto. Do you ever think, “You know, I’d like this next thing to be a success right out of the gate”?

I suppose that would be delightful for me to do something and somebody to say, “Wow, that’s great! Let’s celebrate that!” But I don’t know what that would mean in terms of your question. Does that mean there’s financial success? Is there accolades and articles and awards? I don’t know what that means exactly.

What I do know is that, going all the way back to The State, nobody liked when we put that show up. It got negative-two-and-a-half-stars in the New York Post. But we knew it was funny — we trusted that and committed to that a hundred percent. That is sort of how I approach anything I do — I’m going to do what I think is best for the story and for the character I’m playing and commit to that, as opposed to second-guessing that. I think actors sometimes get in their own way: They’re like, “This is my instinct, but I don’t know, it’s a pretty big (swing), so I’ll do that on the fifth take.” My thing is, I’m going to do my fifth-take instinct on the first take, and then let’s see what they say.

The upside of doing a bunch of stuff that’s not a hit is that I’ve gotten to do a lot of really cool projects with a lot of really cool people. I haven’t been locked into anything long-term, so I’ve gotten to do Eastbound & Down, Childrens Hospital, Burning Love, Party Down, Veronica Mars, Reaper. I’ve gotten to spread out into a lot of different places, and I think that’s benefited me. 

Would it be nice to be on something that’s a hit and I can feel like I got the money to put my kids through college and we’re fine? Yeah, that’d be fantastic. But I wouldn’t trade in everything that’s happened up to this point, because everything that’s happened up to this point has been creatively very fulfilling.

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?