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John Michael Higgins on Playing the Gay Ex in Happily Divorced and Singing on the Set of Bad Teacher

Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images
Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

A woman named Fran is married to a guy named Peter. After eighteen years of marriage, he rolls over in bed one night and tells her, “I’m gay.” The woman is played by Fran Drescher, whose ex-husband, Peter Marc Jacobson, did pretty much the same thing. Now he’s producing her new TV Land show, Happily Divorced, which explores what happens after a woman gets this sort of unexpected information, especially when the “after” is during a recession, when neither of the principals can afford to get a new place. John Michael Higgins — the sometimes-singing scene stealer from such films as Best in Show, The Break-Up, and Yes Man — gives a subdued performance as a man who’s just figured out he’s gay. Vulture talked to Higgins ahead of tonight’s premiere about playing a string of gay characters (he’s straight), the impromptu vocal group he’s started with Jane Lynch, and the reason he won’t be starting one with his co-star in the upcoming Bad Teacher, Justin Timberlake.

Were you friends with Fran before this, or a fan of The Nanny?
I’ve been a fan of hers all the way back to Spinal Tap! I didn’t know her before, but now we’re completely in love — as comedians. It’s one big giant honeymoon. I’ve watched some of The Nanny, but I watch very little television, or at least anything scripted. It’s an occupational hazard.

Because it affects your improv?
I never draw on popular culture. I just don’t have it in my head. Half of every laugh is the surprise, like in Best in Show, there was a deleted scene where I met a guy named Jack, who had an uncle named Jack — a pair of Jacks. So I said we were a pair of queens. So while I just don’t reference Lady Gaga or any of those go-to things, I try to add texture to the scene with the element of surprise.

Yet your character on Happily Divorced is into Glee. Or is that just a nod to your guest stint on the show, the way the West Side Story reference was for your castmate Rita Moreno?
That definitely sounds like what’s going on. In an episode we shot the other day, I was called an elf [Higgins played an elf in Fred Claus], so every now and then we’ll have some fun.

What are some of the problems that arise when two people who are no longer married still live together?
How about forgetting which bed is yours? I’m sure that happens all the time. One issue we have is that the very reason I can’t get out of the house is the money, and to make money, I suggest selling the only valuable thing we have, which I don’t think we need anymore — her engagement ring — which of course dredges up all sorts of filth. And Ian Ziering is going to come in as a therapist for Fran’s support group. He’s a pleasure to work with, and I don’t doubt that he’ll be back.

Do you and your wife ever get a kick out of how you’ve played all these gay or ambiguously gay characters — in Best in Show, Raising the Bar, this?
Oh, she’s used to it! The way we say it in our household, “Gay pays!” I can’t tell you why I keep getting asked to play gay characters, but I never really considered “gay” as an adjective, as a playable thing. Maybe it’s an element of the character, but it just describes a preference.

Like playing Catholic.
That’s a great way to put it! I’m going to steal that. Like Peter, he’s a guy who’s just figured it out. But when Christopher Guest asked me to do Best in Show, he wanted a very extravagant gay character to some extent, and then after I did that, people would call me up and ask for more. Also there’s a tiny bit of — I wouldn’t call it prejudice — but some other people aren’t as willing. They treat playing gay as if it were of some lesser importance. Tell that to Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, and that was 30 years ago! Still, I need more than “gay” — I need someone to play. I’m not going to play an attitude.

Will this new show give you a chance to do any a cappella?
They don’t even know I do that! I’m always happy to do that. That’s how I relax. I love singing with my castmates. A lot of the Christopher Guest regulars — Jane Lynch, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and me — we have a singing night in Los Angeles. We started a quartet while we were making Best in Show, with Jane as soprano, Catherine as alto, Eugene as bass, and me as tenor. And then Christopher heard us doing it, and that was part of the reason he thought to do A Mighty Wind. He already had part of the idea because of the Folksmen, but this just added to it.

I really am a lot like that guy in The Break-Up. You know that song at dinner, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”? It was supposed to be a hip-hop song, Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.” But it didn’t make the joke work. It needed more of a harmonic structure. Some songs just work better.

Did you sing with Justin Timberlake on the set of Bad Teacher, or Scarlett Johansson on We Bought a Zoo, which you also have out this year?
Justin is a professional; I would never dare to sing in front of him! Although Jason Segel and I definitely crossed paths, and he’s a good singer. And Cameron [Diaz] and I would dance a bit, off-camera. We were always doing silly things half the time. We Bought a Zoo was a more musical set. Scarlett loves to sing — she’s like a Mynah bird, she can imitate anyone — so every now and then, we’d get a good pop vocal going on. We’d make up a lot of stupid songs, joke songs, like a little piece Scarlett would write to sing to Matt [Damon] and he would sing something back. Nothing serious. And that’s how we communicated. Scarlett would sing, “It’s a really hot day,” or “I’m hungry for lunch.”

So you’re Wally in Bad Teacher, Walter in We Bought a Zoo. Sounds like almost the same guy …
That’s my son’s name, too. Strange! I think this must be another specialty of mine … I’m the principal in Bad Teacher, and they’re hiding things from me, and I’m the inspector in We Bought a Zoo, and they’re hiding things from me again! I’m the gay person who gets things hidden from me!

Do you think you’re the dude version of Jane Lynch, as a scene stealer?
[Laughs.] I’d hate to steal anything, but I’m honored to be in that company. I started doing a lot of classical theater — Shakespeare, Shaw — and it’s very odd that I became that guy who comes in from the left, does something ridiculous, and leaves. But I am really happy with that. I do miss sometimes being onstage, because when I do film and television, it’s usually so brief and funny. It’s what they want from me: give some texture, and bang!

What’s it like, as a comic, going up against the likes of Ed Helms, Vince Vaughn, or Steve Carell?
Steve and I are actually developing a pilot for USA. I’d be a very, very square insurance adjuster. It would be a sort of one-hour procedural with comedic tones, like Psych. We’ve written several drafts, but haven’t shot anything yet.

Can you tell me if your character will sing?
Oh, you bet! I wouldn’t let that go by.

John Michael Higgins on Playing the Gay Ex in Happily Divorced and Singing on the Set of Bad Teacher