Michael McKean is one of comedy’s best character actors and has been for decades. “A straight man who can do a joke,” in his own words. In a pre-streaming world, McKean’s work as a comic foil was practically inescapable on cable television: Airheads, Coneheads, The Brady Bunch Movie, Clue.
Beginning with his work in Laverne & Shirley, McKean’s been a steady TV presence, his guest appearances on shows like Friends living on in perpetuity thanks to syndication. And more recently, McKean drew critical acclaim as Chuck McGill on AMC’s Better Call Saul, yet another professional peak and an impressive addition to a lengthy career that, of course, includes This Is Spinal Tap.
Last night, McKean also popped up in The Good Place as Doug Forcett, one of the show’s most intriguing and yet, up until now, unseen characters. Doug, a stoner from Calgary, is well-known in the show’s universe for his “92 percent correct” understanding of the afterlife. Previously, only a portrait of young Doug had been shown, hanging in the office of Michael, the bureaucratic demon played by Ted Danson. Played by McKean, he’s fixated on earning enough points to enter the good place. It’s consumed his whole life. Ahead of Thursday night’s episode, “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By,” Vulture sat down with McKean in Culver City to talk about Doug, his character’s accidental celebrity, and the show’s “compelling” philosophy.
How’d you get cast to play Doug Forcett on The Good Place?
It was one of those things. I got a call, “You know that show, Good Place?” And I really do like the show. I watched the first episode, thought it was great, then I kind of lost touch with it. I was off in the U.K. for a while; it was on. Then when they called, I was filled in. I’d forgotten who Doug was — the picture on the wall!
It’s kind of the Divine Comedy, in a way. Its ideas are no more outlandish than most religions. [Laughs.] It’s equally accurate, in other words, to what the truth actually is, and the fact we’ll never know it. But we have some very clever writers telling us what this is about, and their cast really informs the writers. In an ideal situation — your writers will be watching what happens on the screen, and letting it inspire them as to where things are going to go. That’s certainly what Better Call Saul does, and it’s really ideal.
Do you know if Michael Schur and the Good Place writers are Better Call Saul fans? Did that inspire your casting?
I have no idea. If Better Call Saul hadn’t happened, they might’ve thought of me anyway. Just because I’ve got comedy chops and I’ve been doing it a long time. And I’m not a complete disaster to work with, generally. [Laughs.] I say generally.
When you read the script, did you see any similarities between Doug and Chuck?
No, I don’t think that way because I didn’t create either one. And because it’s really not my business. It’s certainly not Doug’s business what Chuck McGill got up to. We’ve got two fictional creatures here. If they don’t interact, I don’t interact them. I don’t see what that would get you.
But to me, both characters self-impose rigid guidelines for living on themselves, to the detriment of their happiness or mental health.
Never occurred to me. Only overlap I could see is both thought they were doing everything they could. Chuck was battling demons only he could see and feel. Doug is living in the real world, but he began putting aside everything that might harm his chance of the next life. I don’t think Chuck McGill believed in the next life. He seemed like a singularly uninspired person from a spiritual point of view.
Law was his religion.
He was someone who fancied himself an expert at being alive in the real, logical world.
So this episode takes another left turn at the very end, when Michael, Janet, and the group don’t return to Doug’s hideaway to feed stray wolves. Will we ever see Doug again?
I just got off the set of Veep last night. I saw David [Miller], the DP on Good Place as well as Veep. He said, “Well, you might show up again!” It really hadn’t occurred to me. But sure! You know, Doug Forcett has to die, too.
You’re part of the show’s universe now.
Their main cast is so strong. I remember doing a play at the Taper two years ago, and Will Harper [who plays Chidi on The Good Place] came up to me. I’d worked with him in All the Way in Cambridge, then New York. He said, “I just did a pilot.”
And you’ve worked with Ted Danson for decades.
Well, not really for decades. I worked with him in the late ’70s — he did a Laverne & Shirley episode — and they shot Cheers over at Paramount, so every time I’d run into him or George, it was, We got to get you on the show! You gotta do the show! I never did Cheers.
But you did another Ted Danson show after that.
It was called Help Me Help You. We were in a rock band called Pink Freud, all shrinks. We were also crossroad dads for a long time. Our paths would cross at school functions and stuff.
Back to The Good Place, Doug seems to be a comment on utilitarianism. Did you see the role as a riff on living the monastic life?
No, because he’s so overboard already. It’s so hard to compare it to anyone else’s behavior. The fact that he’s testing makeup products on his face so animals don’t have to, the only way you can relate to it as an actor is to find a spark of ridiculous selflessness in yourself. Everyone can find that. We’ve all made strange concessions to others. He’s a solo artist, can’t imagine anyone hanging with him for very long. He’d drive them insane.
[Doug] is absolutely unshakable. When Michael says to him, “You know, you can relax a little bit. You don’t have to do this all the time.” It’s like, “No, I really do.” Because it’s what he feels. He also might be — if he hadn’t taken a big stab of psychedelics — one of those OCD guys. Just one of those guys who have to go home and polish the fruit at the bottom of the bowl.
You’ve worked in TV a long time. Did you ever think you’d see a network show grappling with such heavy philosophical concepts?
You know, I always knew they were capable of it. People like Norman Lear have tried to do that. A mistake people make when they try celestial satire like this is, they go Clarence the Angel. But that’s not what this show is. It’s really a show about systems, how they keep rebooting and reinventing the town. It never doesn’t make sense. And without preaching to us, it keeps letting us see different angles on realities we are faced with. It’s compelling in a really comic way.
One last question: Any predictions about Kim Wexler’s fate on Saul?
Oh no. This year, I did two cameos — two very short shots, I think in the cold opens. But I don’t really know. Listen, I’m a Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould fan. And Tom Schnauz and Gennifer Hutchison, the whole gang. I want that stuff told to me like everyone else. I don’t even want to know the ends of whodunits.