The Light from the TV Shows: Jack McBrayer gives thanks for ‘The Middle’ and other post-“30 Rock” roles

It’s been a few years since Bullz-Eye last chatted with Jack McBrayer…and by a few years, we mean more than half a decade: the previous occasion was when both the second season of “30 Rock” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” – both of which featured McBrayer, in case you’ve forgotten – were making their DVD debut. Since then, “30 Rock” has taken its final bow, leaving McBrayer without a full-time TV gig, but lord knows the man hasn’t been lounging around doing nothing. In addition to a very high-profile role in last year’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” either his voice or his actual physical being have turned up on Adult Swim’s “Childrens Hospital” and “NTSF:SD:SUV,” Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” and, to bring this intro in for a landing, ABC’s “The Middle,” where, as part of his recurring role as the dentist for whom Frankie Heck works, he’ll be turning up for the annual Thanksgiving-themed episode, airing on Wednesday at 8 p.m.


Bullz-Eye: Well, I was able to watch the Thanksgiving episode of “The Middle” this morning, thanks to the kind folks at Warner Brothers, and I’m happy to say that it lives up to the high standards the series has set for its holiday episodes.

Jack McBrayer: Oh, good! I haven’t even seen it! [Laughs.]

BE: So how did you find your way onto “The Middle” in the first place, coming off of “30 Rock” as you were?

JMcB: Well, I had been a fan of the show from way back. I’m friends with Neil Flynn, who plays Mike Heck. I’ve been a friend of his from way, way back. From Chicago days. He was in Second City. We were at Second City at the same time: he was performing, I was in classes. And, of course, Patricia Heaton we’ve all known for years and years. And the show in general just kind of struck a chord with me, growing up in Georgia, in a small town, with parents who were overextended and always tired, and, you know, we’d eat cereal for dinner and…it all hit home to me! And, also, I happen to know a couple of the writers. Robin Shorr is a writer over there. So I think when they knew “30 Rock” was over and that some of the cast members would be available, they were, like, “Oh! What can we do?” [Laughs.] So I was happy to say, “Yes!”


BE: So, uh, what was your familiarity with dentistry prior to taking on the role of Frankie’s boss, Dr. Goodwin?

JMcB: [Laughs.] Well, I go to the dentist… But also I think I have a little O.C.D., and I think part of it just manifests itself in my dental hygiene, ‘cause I will scrub and scrub and scrub. I mean, like, Lady Macbeth kind of scrubbing. But also, in a way, that’s my meal ticket! That’s my bread and butter right there! So I am no stranger to a dentist, and, also, I’m not afraid of going to a dentist, because I know that they’re gonna make me feel better and look better. So I am not afraid!

BE: How quickly did you and Patricia Heaton find your chemistry in the boss/employee roles?

JMcB: Well, it took me a few minutes, but she is such a pro, my goodness. What was strange for me was that I’ve never really played anyone in a position of authority before, so it was one of those fake-it-‘til-you-make it moments for me. But Ms. Heaton could not have been a more delightful co-star, and it was very easy. Also, because I’ve been able to come back for subsequent episodes, now it’s just like hanging out with buddies, which I really, really enjoy.


BE: As far as the takes themselves, do you have an opportunity to do any sort of improv, or do you try and stick pretty closely to the script?

JMcB: I always try to stick to the script, for a couple of reasons. One, you know, is to respect what the writers have worked so hard on, but two, on “30 Rock,” the script was like the Bible, so you do what it says! Whenever they offer up the opportunity, then of course I’m going to jump at that chance. But I never presume that I’m going to be able to do improv, and I never improvise to “improve” the writing. I mean, that’s just rude. [Laughs.]

BE: Yeah, I actually talked to Neil earlier this year, and even with his deep background in improv, he said that he almost never improvises on the show, just because the writers are already doing such good work to begin with.

JMcB: And it’s absolutely true!

BE: For this Thanksgiving episode, you got the chance to work with both Jerry Van Dyke and Marsha Mason.

JMcB: I absolutely did, and that was an absolute highlight for me. It was a highlight for me! Jerry Van Dyke, you know, you just know from way back, and Marsha Mason is such a classy lady. Like, just a class act. Just being able to sit around the table with them all week long and hear their stories… It was really fun! It was really insightful.

BE: In the case of this particular episode, the family dynamic is key to the plot, which provided you the opportunity to sit back and react to the goings-on more so than actually participate in it.

JMcB: Absolutely. I was happy about that, too! [Laughs.]


BE: Do you have any Thanksgiving dinner horror stories yourself?

JMcB: No real horror stories. I’ve had some fun Thanksgivings, though. I was telling someone else, all my years in New York when I was there for “30 Rock,” because I wouldn’t go home to Georgia for Thanksgiving, I happened to be in the right circle where I would be invited to celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s house for Thanksgiving, where he was cooking for about 30 people. So I got to eat at Bobby Flay’s house for Thanksgiving for the past six or seven years.

BE: That is not a bad deal.

JMcB: That is not a bad deal. No, sir. [Laughs.] So I’ve actually had some fun ones. And I’m excited about this Thanksgiving because I get to spend it in Los Angeles! So it’ll be a warm Thanksgiving…and that has been a rare bird for me!

BE: You’ve obviously kept busy since “30 Rock,” but do you have any interest in trying to find another full-time gig, or are you just enjoying the opportunity to branch out a bit for a change?

JMcB: Well, actually, I’ve been pleased with how the year’s gone. I honestly thought I’d feel a little squirrelly or, you know, be a little stir crazy not having just a steady job, because seven years… As an actor, you just tell yourself, “Don’t get used to this, don’t get comfortable,” but after seven years, you’re gonna get used to having a steady job and a steady schedule and a paycheck and all that kind of stuff. So I will have to say that this year I’ve been okay in just doing enough little jobs to keep me occupied and keep me feeling creative, so that I didn’t feel the need to be, like, “Oh, I’ve got to get a TV show!” or “Come on! I’ve got to get a movie!” or anything. I’ve been very pleased with just getting the gigs that I have been able to get. I’m still open for anything down the line… [Laughs.] But this year, as my first “unemployed” year, I was definitely okay with this.

BE: You can’t say it’s a bad year when you get to play Steven Seagal.

JMcB: [Bursts out laughing.] You saw that! Yep. Dead ringer.

BE: At least. I can’t imagine anyone pulling it off better.

JMcB: Yeah, right. [Laughs.]

BE: So what was your reaction when Paul Scheer… I mean, did Paul just call you up and say, “I want you to play Steven Seagal on ‘The ArScheerio Paul Show’”? Was that how it went down?

JMcB: Absolutely it did. If Paul Scheer asked me to walk over broken glass, I would do it, no question. We’re buddies from way back, and…the question for me was, “How do you want me to play it? Do you want me to be Jack McBrayer? Do you want me to do a Steven Seagal impersonation?” He said, “Just do your thing.” I said, “Okay! [Laughs.]

BE: Most people first started taking notice of your voice-acting abilities when you played Fix-It Felix in “Wreck-It Ralph”, but you actually started your Disney voice-acting career a few years earlier than that, playing Irving on “Phineas and Ferb.”

JMcB: That is correct! And that started out as just a little guest spot, but if anything, it taught me… It was a trial by fire. I didn’t know you go in a booth and you get to say it three times in a row or all this kind of stuff. I didn’t know the etiquette, if you will, of voice acting. But now that I’m kind of getting the hang of it, I really, really enjoy it. And it’s been good to me, too! [Laughs.]

BE: No kidding. You’ve racked up credits on some of the best animated series out there in remarkably short order: “The Simpsons,” “Archer,” “Bob’s Burgers”…

JMcB: I know! And I love it! [Laughs.] I’m real, real pleased with how that turned out!

BE: So what can you tell me about this movie called “Cooties” that you’re in? Because the cast is pretty ridiculous: Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Nasim Pedrad, Jorge Garcia, Kate Flannery…

JMcB: The cast was phenomenal. The cast was the reason I said, “Yes!” Also, I’d always dreamed of being in a horror movie, but I’m, like, “Aw, come on, I’m just a goofy comedic actor, and nobody’s gonna put me in a horror movie.” And then, of course, this opportunity happened, so I was, like, “Oh, yes!” So that and the fact that this was Elijah Wood’s baby, I was, like, “Absolutely. Absolutely!” I’ve loved that guy from way back. And it was, like, the weirdest, most fun summer camp in the world, ‘cause we were just in this empty elementary school… It was such a treat, and it was so ridiculous. It’s one of those projects where I have no idea if anyone else will like this, but I liked doing it so much, it kind of doesn’t matter to me. [Laughs.]

BE: Have you ever toyed with the idea of trying to go dramatic at all?

JMcB: Uh… [Sighs.] I guess I could try. I just worry about how successful it would be. And I would never want that to be on anybody else’s dime or, you know, on their time, either. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize anyone else’s reputation by, like, saying, “Well, today’s the day I play Jeffrey Dahmer.” [Laughs.]

BE: I would pay good money to see that.

JMcB: I’m just thinking, “How strange that that was my go-to…”

BE: I’m not sure what that says about you.

JMcB: I’m not, either. Oh, boy

BE: Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved, even if it was only a small part?

JMcB: Um…well, this might sound weird to you, but…”30 Rock” didn’t get as many viewers as I think it probably could have. And the reason I say that is because that’s a project I loved doing, of course, and it changed my life, but when I go home to Georgia? Nobody has ever seen or heard of “30 Rock.” They know “3rd Rock from the Sun.” [Laughs.] And they know “Talladega Nights!” But in terms of some of the work I’ve been very proud of, going home to Georgia is not the most well-received in terms of that particular project…with no offense to Georgia!

BE: Of course not.

JMcB: It’s just not their cup of tea!

BE: Was there any character misstep that you thought Kenneth shouldn’t have done, that you thought was simply not Kenneth?

JMcB: Um… [Long pause.] No, the writers were pretty good about just maintaining the integrity of all of the characters. Even when Kenneth had to, like, lay down the law by telling Liz Lemon that, no, she couldn’t bring that show to NBC, or anything like that, he still did it in a kind way, just because, you know, that’s the rules.

30 Rock

BE: As far as “30 Rock” goes, is there anything that Kenneth didn’t get to accomplish that you wished he had?

JMcB: You know, I would never complain about anything, but there are a couple of things that I’m, like, “Wait a second! How did we never address this?” At the end of Season Two, in the Season Two finale, Kenneth was in a Beijing hotel room with a beautiful woman, and then all of a sudden the door gets kicked in, and there’s a gun pointing at him…and that was the last we ever saw, mentioned, or dealt with it! [Laughs.] It’s almost like it never happened! So I do wonder, like, did the writers even have a backup plan? Did I get shot? Was it a dream?

BE: I feel like there’s a Funny or Die video waiting to happen that clarifies what happened.

JMcB: Right? “30 Rock: What the Hell Was That?” by Funny or Die. [Laughs.] But, no, I loved “30 Rock,” I loved how it ended, and…oh, man, it definitely changed my life.

BE: Well, I’ll go ahead and wrap up, but it’s been great talking to you, Jack. As I say, I’m a big fan of “The Middle.” In fact, I also review the show for the Onion AV Club. That’s where I did the interview with Neil.

JMcB: Oh, fantastic! Yeah, I tell you…well, like I said, I’ve enjoyed the show myself for a long time, but I especially like coming from New York to this set and this crew. It’s like a dream. It’s like a paid vacation over there. It’s warm, it’s sunshiny, you come out of the soundstage and you see these beautiful mountains in Burbank. I’m, like, “Shut up!” It is a far cry from the dungeon in Long Island City that we were doing “30 Rock” in. [Laughs.] So, yeah, I’ve really, really enjoyed it myself.

BE: Oh, just out of curiosity, do you ever find people who are surprised that you’re not actually Kenneth Parcell?

JMcB: [Laughs.] Well, I think when they see drinking in a bar, the whole charade goes straight out the window!