Jim O’Heir, best known for playing Jerry Gergich, the lovable object of mockery on Parks and Recreation, has made a surprising jump to star in the new indie dark comedy, Middle Man. O’Heir plays Lenny, a straight-laced accountant with dreams of becoming a standup comedian. But Lenny has a big problem – he is not funny. Nonetheless, when his mother suddenly dies leaving him nothing but debt and her ‘53 Oldsmobile, he quits his job and heads to Vegas in search of fame. But along the way, a mysterious hitchhiker (Andrew West) lures him into a desert-town killing spree with dark and twisted results – as the bodies pile up, Lenny becomes funnier and funnier on stage.
In the world of standup comedy, a Middle Man or “middler” is someone who comes on stage after the opening act and before the headliner. As Middle Man director Ned Crowley describes, “They are usually someone who has lost the hope and optimism that a fresh naïve opener still has. We all know middle men (and women) in life; people who are trapped in their jobs or relationships, with no hope of moving forward to their goals or backward to their innocence.” Middle Man the movie craftily explores our society’s obsession with fame and increasing taste for caustic comedy. O’Heir and Crowley have been good friends for thirty years, since their days performing at Second City. Crowley wrote the film with his friend in mind nearly a decade ago, but it took O’Heir’s rising profile to get it off the ground. I talked to O’Heir about his early days in comedy, life after Parks and Rec, and his personal relationship to fame.
How did you get started as an actor? Did you always know that performing was for you?
Never. I was the kid in high school who saw the plays and it always looked like they were having a lot of fun, but I was too afraid to do that kind of thing. I went to college and then became a DJ at Loyola University and then worked at a little station in Indiana. Then one day on the radio I got a random call from someone who said, “You’re really funny, I think you’d be great doing comedy at Second City.” And I didn’t think anything of it until about six months later. That call kind of stuck in my head. So I signed up. And my first time on stage – I don’t know what it’s like today, but in those days you worked on the real stage – the stage that John Belushi was on, like iconic people were on that stage. I remember the first day getting up on stage and getting that first laugh. Something clicked in my head – and kind of my heart too – I remember thinking, “You will do this forever.” But I had no idea that meant it would pay my bills forever, I just knew that I loved performing, I loved being up there and getting a laugh. I thought it would be community theater, I thought it would be favors for friends, I never knew it would be a career. We formed a comedy group called White Noise with puppets and blood – it was crazy. And then we took it to LA and it became kind of a cult show and I got representation right away. I love going to work. I really consider it one of the biggest gifts of my life.
What were some of your day jobs on the road to success?
I mean, I never waited a table because people don’t like sweat in their food. But for some weird reason I can type really fast; the last time I was tested it was like 112 words per minute. So that helped pay my bills. I would take whatever hourly job, word processing, data entry. That way I could keep my evenings free for theater and commercial auditions. So I did a lot of typing my fingers to the bone. I remember my dad saying to me when I was young, “If you ever get drafted, just tell them you can type.” So typing really saved my ass.
Did you want to be famous? What was it like when you garnered some fame on Parks and Rec?
It’s an interesting question. I remember when I was in the world of comedy in Chicago, I would hear people say, “I just want to be a star.” But I never felt that way. I just loved the work. So I never ever thought of wanting celebrity or fame or any of that. My goal, my hope was always that I’d make enough money to pay my bills. The dream would always be get a series, let it go for a long time, let it go into syndication, and then you can do whatever you want to do. And one day I looked back and thought, “Wow, I did that.” But even the word “celebrity” – it’s all so weird for me. One friend of mine kept calling me that and I told him “Ugh, please stop saying that about me.” So he went to the Webster’s dictionary and looked it up and read the description and said, “Well, does that fit you?” And I said, “Well, I guess yeah.” But it’s weird. And because of Parks, people come up to me all day everyday – which is awesome – people cry and…I find it so odd, but then just have to think, well, there’s people that I’ve been so excited to meet too, so I guess I understand. I don’t know. I should probably go into therapy because I don’t know if I’ve accepted anything yet. I’m a nut job.
Well, it will be fun for your fan base who identify you so strongly with your role on Parks and Rec to see you in this dark movie.
And you know Sydney, that was the point. I did 125 episodes of Parks and Rec, which was a gift. To get a seven-year run was amazing. But one of the things that happened was that people saw me for seven years as the punching bag, the lovable, laughable Jerry Gergich. Which was awesome. But I’m an actor. So it just seemed like I needed to do something to get out of that Hollywood box and prove myself. We’ll see if it has that effect. I’m proud of how it turned out. I can finally watch it without cringing at my performance. We had a screening with a bunch of standup comics and that was the first time I watched it without cringing.
You and writer/director Ned Crowley met doing improv in the ‘90s.
Ned is a genius. He helped bring down my performance and make it more subtle. We’ve known each other for thirty years. He knows me, he knows my actor bullshit, and he knows that there is more that I can do as an actor than what I’ve been doing for the past seven years.
Did you get into trouble together in your early days at Second City?
Oh yes. There were six of us. Three guys and three girls. We had left Second City and formed this group. Every weekend we would do these shows, then we would go to the bar, get ripped – none of us were into drugs - Crowley’s eyes would roll back in his head – we were young in those days. All six of us to this day are still close and in touch. Once Ned and I got the green light to do the movie, we sat down and said “This movie can’t be more important than our friendship.” We’ve seen each other through different bosses, marriages, everything. So we would check-in once a week and ask, “Are you hating me?” And just make sure we were still okay.
Did you receive any unusual direction from Ned while working on Middle Man?
Yes, he is an ad guy, so it’s mostly commercials he deals with. He was different than anyone else I ever worked with. He taught me, and I think I taught him too. He knows good camera, he knows good lighting, he knows how something should look. But since he was used to working on shorter stuff, sometimes he would nitpick on really small details. So we would tease him about that.
Did anything surprising happen while shooting out in the desert?
The most surprising part is that I’m alive. That was my biggest surprise. You know the ‘53 Olds, the car? It’s almost like its own character in the movie. There was a day that I was sitting in that car – it was 107 degrees – with Andrew West, the DP, the sound guy and the director. So there were five guys sitting in this car with the windows rolled up and it was 107 degrees outside. And I sort of thought, “Wow, I’m going to die in here today.” But the sad part was, I was kind of like, “Okay.” It will sort of be the thing like “Well, he died doing what he loves.” And then a pathetic thing – you know, I’m used to working big budget stuff with big trailers and perks. But when you do these indies, there’s none of that. We would open up our car doors and stand behind them to change our clothes. But Andrew West was great. He was just so brilliant in this film. He’d just come off of a big JJ Abrams pilot. He was so gung-ho to just do it. He was just so awesome to be around even though it was so hot. He was just so perfect for the role.
How did you prepare for the role of Lenny?
There was a guy I knew many, many years ago – I would never say his name – who was starting to do standup and he was just really bad. I thought about him. And then the tough part about filming is that you don’t shoot in order. So because Lenny basically has a breakdown, the film begins one way and ends another. So my challenge was to always figure out where Lenny was in the story in terms of his mental health. And then I’ve never done standup – everyone assumes that I have, but I haven’t – I think it’s terrifying and I give standup comedians all the credit in the world. I was really proud because when we did the screening for standup comedians, they all were on board with how that came across in the film. Because if you don’t believe Lenny’s standup, the film doesn’t work.
Do any of the themes in the movie about fame and comedic depravity resonate with you personally?
Well, what people don’t know about me is that my first go-to is blue, dark humor. I did a talk at Florida State and there were about 300 young people there and a lot of people came up to me afterward and said, “Wow, you talk dirty.” I do tend to go toward blue, dark humor. But because I played Jerry, who was the sweetest man in the world, no one expects me to say, “Oh, go fuck yourself.” But anybody that knows me, that’s exactly what they expect. I love a good dirty joke. I love busting balls, I love having my own balls busted. I have this poker crowd and if you ever heard what goes on there you think people would be sobbing with all the hurtful things that are said. But everyone is laughing and joking. For me, it’s really the darker the better.
Photo by Cullen Tobin.