John McEnroe is a tennis legend, a broadcaster, an author, and a guy who occasionally makes cameo appearances in TV and film. He is not an Indian-American teenage girl. That’s what makes him such an interesting choice to serve as the narrator of Never Have I Ever, the Netflix series co-created by Mindy Kaling about Devi Vishwakumar, a high schooler played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan who’s coping with the trials of adolescence and the loss of her father.
While quarantining at his home in Malibu, McEnroe spoke to Vulture about how he got this unusual narration gig, what he’s been binge-watching during the pandemic, and whether or not he was familiar with the phrase thirst trap before he had to say it on a Netflix show. (Spoiler alert: He was not.)
Before we start talking about Never Have I Ever, how have you been dealing with the pandemic? What are you doing to pass the time?
I’m one of these type-A guys, so if I can get some type of work out in, it helps me not go crazy. But you know, I’m lucky. I’m in a spot out in California, in Malibu, where I certainly have the ability to do some of the things that I could normally do. And I have some of my children around with me, which I hadn’t anticipated or expected. One of them was off in Spain for a semester. Another one was at law school in New York City. From that standpoint, it’s been good to see a lot more of my younger kids. A couple of my older kids live out here as well, so I’ve been able to see them sometimes. It’s just a crazy, crazy situation.
Have you been binge-watching any television?
I’ve been watching the Jordan thing, The Last Dance, which is pretty amazing. I’m lucky, I have a sauna where I live, so every time I’d go in there for the first four to six weeks, I’d put Joe Exotic on.
Is Tiger King good sauna viewing?
It was amazing sauna viewing, I gotta be honest. It took me a lot longer to watch it then I’m sure some other people, because after 15, 20 minutes max, you’re fried. You’re so hot. But it gave me something to look forward to.
I’ve read that you ran into Mindy Kaling at last year’s Vanity Fair Oscar party and that was when she first mentioned narrating Never Have I Ever to you. What was that conversation like?
My wife and I were walking in to get a photograph taken from someone who does that every year, Mark Seliger. He’s a great photographer, a bit of a friend, and he does these cool photographs. As we were walking in, Mindy was walking out and was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s you. I have this idea for a new show I’m going to do and I have this idea of you being the narrator.” I’m like, what? It was one of those left-field shots, completely.
I was assuming that it was going to be like what I did in the Adam Sandler movies, or what I did on 30 Rock, or what I did when I did in the one episode of Curb. I thought it would be a cameo-type thing, one-shot deal, and that would be that. I didn’t realize that it was going to be in it, in a way, as much as I was. So when I did see that, I was like, well, okay, this could be cool. I mean, who the hell knows if this is going to work? Certainly she’s got great history as a writer and has had a lot of success, so it seemed like something that would be worth trying.
At what point did you understand that you were really going to be narrating the whole show?
When I started seeing scripts. They started sending a number of them to me and I’m like, wow, there’s a lot of lines here. I wasn’t used to that. So that definitely threw me for a loop. But actually I liked it because, I mean, I read my own [audiobook] and I thought that [narration] would be something that I could do.
These were done over a month or two. While you’re actually doing it, even though sometimes you’ll laugh and have some fun, it’s not the easiest thing. Even though I am used to pronouncing names from people all over the world, when you’ve got a couple seconds and you’ve got to get that right, you’ve got to flow basically. It’s not like you get this unbelievable endorphin rush as you’re doing it. If anything, it wears you out a lot quicker than working out.
Devi is obviously different from you. She’s an Indian-American teenage girl. As you were going through the process, were there aspects of her high-school experience that you nevertheless related to?
Number one, I didn’t read the script start to finish. I haven’t watched an episode from start to finish. I have a hard time watching myself, even listening to myself. I’ve never listened to, like, Let’s go over your commentary and see what you could have done better. I’m like, no, I like to be myself.
You know, high school’s a tough time for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. There’s a lot of things that people can relate to, even if they’re not Indian-American. She’s a hothead. I’m a hothead. You can find similarities in your own life where you go through those times where it’s so awkward and difficult. My high school growing up wasn’t bad by any means, but that’s not the time I go back and go, That was the greatest time of my life. It was a time where there was a lot of feeling that awkwardness.
You also have to use a lot of a teen-girl lingo. Of the different phrases that were thrown at you, was there one that you had the hardest time wrapping your head around?
Pretty much all of them. My youngest daughter turned 21 in March and I have a 24-year-old girl and a 29-year-old girl and a 34-year-old girl. So I have four girls. My 34-year-old [step-daughter] I met when she was 9, but she’s been with me the past 25 years. You learn a lot of things. I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to lingo and the ability to do things online. So it’s been like, what in the hell are they even talking about? What does this mean? Because I just wanted to make sure I understood what I was saying.
At one point, you have to say “thirst trap.” Was that something you were familiar with?
Definitely not familiar with. Sometimes I get razzed by my kids. “You don’t even know thirst trap?” No, I don’t know it. But you know, that’s okay. I know some other things, but I don’t know the lingo today. That’s what ends up being funny. It’s like, Call Mindy up. She’ll explain it to you. She’s the one that wrote it.
At one point, some of the girls are talking about which Hogwarts house they would belong to, and then you say, “They’re all Hufflepuffs.” Are you into Harry Potter enough to know what that meant?
Um, no. That meant absolutely nothing to me. I think I saw the first or second Harry Potter movie with some of my kids and I fell asleep. I can’t remember which one it was. Some of my kids are great readers, but I’m like, how the hell do they read this? That isn’t really my thing. The fantasies and all these crazy things that go on and witches and on and on. That made absolutely zero sense to me.
You actually appear on camera in the finale. How’d that happen?
I thought it was funny when they said, “How about if you’re, like, a surfer guy?” You could tell by the way I carried my surfboard at the end that I hadn’t done a whole lot of surfing. I wish I had done that one a few more times because it looked pretty bad.
Well, I didn’t notice and I watched it a couple of times.
Good, don’t watch it again.
Have you had any conversations with Mindy about a second season or doing more narration?
You know, we texted about, “Hey, this is great and unbelievable and congrats on some good reviews.” But there’s been no conversation between us about either of the things you just mentioned. Although, I mean, the ending is a bit of a cliffhanger-type thing. It’s up to her, obviously, if she wants to do it. I think it seems like the stars are aligned, if you will, to do another one and it’d be great to do another one. But that’s up to her and Netflix.
But you would be up for it?
I’d be up for it. It’s not often where you do something and people are like, “Hey, great job!” you know, pretty consistently. Or, “I didn’t expect this.” From that standpoint, I must say it’s been nice. I can’t lie about that.
Before I let you go, I’m wondering what kind of conversations you’ve been having about tennis. The U.S. Open is still supposed to happen as scheduled and Roland-Garros was pushed to September, but I’m sure there’s a lot of discussions about how to play under these circumstances. Do you have a sense as to whether those tournaments will still happen?
Honestly, I have no idea. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect something like this to happen. Then the idea of, Let’s play the U.S. Open without fans. You’re like, what? That’s how desperate it’s gotten. On the one hand you get it. I’m a sports junkie myself. You’re like, is there any live sports anywhere? You don’t even care what it is. I watched cornhole for a half-hour the other day. It’s live. They’re wearing masks and there’s no one in the stands for a cornhole tournament. I like to play a little cornhole, but … wow. I don’t know if it’s a scintillating sport on TV.
On the other side of it, a lot of people are hurting and struggling and the world economy seems to have gone down the tubes, at least for the moment, hopefully not for long. For New York City, they get a lot of revenue from the tournament. All the people from all over the world coming in and staying in hotels and etc., etc., which you’re not going to have.
I know the players have to be jonesing. I feel for the people that thought they had a chance to win the French Open or Wimbledon. The U.S. Open and Wimbledon, to me, are the greatest tournaments we have and [Wimbledon’s] canceled. I mean, that’s just like a total gut punch. Right now, everyone’s just praying, obviously, that they get a vaccine or a way to be able to treat this more effectively. There’s just no way of knowing right now.
This interview was edited and condensed.