In the third episode of the first season of "30 Rock," a star was born. Jack McBrayer, playing wide-eyed naif Kenneth the Page, took a role that had initially seemed a throwaway part and made it one of the funniest on TV. Playing against Alec Baldwin, as hilariously Machiavellian Jack Donaghy, McBrayer was the perfect foil: earnest, naive, cheerful, a man-child so guileless that Donaghy can only assume he's a genius. In one of the episode's final moments, as Kenneth the Page wobbles away on his bicycle, Donaghy leans over to Tina Fey, playing show-runner Liz Lemon, and whispers in his whiskey-cured baritone, "In five years, we'll all either be working for him … or be dead by his hand."
And hey, it's possible. You could argue that, in a cast of narcissists, neurotics and megalomaniacs, the true protagonist of "30 Rock," which premiered its third season on NBC Oct. 30, is Kenneth Ellen Parcell, a truly decent human being incapable of the sarcasm and irony that erode the lovable but deeply flawed Lemon. McBrayer's scenes with Baldwin -- not to mention his scenes with Tracy Morgan, as the off-his-rocker star Tracy Jordan -- have become nothing short of classic television, the most gratifying comic exchanges on a network since "Arrested Development." Not bad for a kid from Georgia with a funny accent.
For the past two seasons, as "30 Rock" struggled to find an audience that even remotely matched the volume of its critical acclaim, McBrayer has become something of a cult figure, starring in a music video for Mariah Carey's No. 1 hit "Touch My Body." (She's a fan.) McBrayer, outfitted as a computer tech in full-on "Revenge of the Nerds" mode, makes a house call to Miss Carey's luxurious mansion, which kicks off a hysterical daydream of soft-focus S&M and over-the-top bedroom antics. (A unicorn is involved.) McBrayer also stars in the Web series "Livin' 'Neath the Law" on Will Ferrell's Funny or Die site. In a series of mock infomercials, he goofs on his golden-boy, milquetoast appearance by offering gangland tips on "keeping your bitches in line" and ripping off a drug dealer. ("Use your shiv, a broken beer bottle or a box cutter to give him a 'telephone scar,'" McBrayer chirps, while standing in a playground.) He has inspired both MySpace tributes and glorious praise. He has his own bobblehead doll. And consider that, at one point, the highlight of McBrayer's résumé was winning employee of the month at Applebee's. (As he wrote me in an e-mail, confirming this accomplishment, "Applebee's store #38 in Conyers, Georgia. July of '94. JEALOUS MUCH?!?!?")
I met Jack a few years ago (a friend of a friend, lucky me) and what struck me about him in person, aside from his Southern politesse and honest-to-goodness kindness -- were his good looks. I would not tell him this to his face (though if I did, he would blush ferociously), but for someone who plays "that nerd on '30 Rock,'" he is a handsome guy. He has radiant skin, beautiful eyes. He's in pretty good shape. When someone spotted him in New York City last January, they wrote in to Gawker Stalker, "Saw Jack McBrayer sitting outside at the Bone Lick Park barbecue joint at Greenwich and 7th Avenues, looking way hotter than he does on '30 Rock.'" Defamer even called him "the hottest man on TV," though perhaps it was kidding. What it wasn't kidding about is the fact that he is one of the most interesting characters on television, and if hotness were measured in pure joy per screentime, well, he'd certainly be high on the list.
I spoke with Jack McBrayer over the phone.
I've been asking people what they were curious to know about you. What do you think they said?
Is he really like his character? Is that it?
And what do you tell them?
That you look like your character.
Ha. And I sound like my character.
Exactly. But really: How do you articulate the differences between you and Kenneth?
I think that I, Jack McBrayer, am somewhat of a people pleaser, and I do enjoy being good at my job. But I would never endanger my life with gullibility or naiveté.
Where did that character come from?
Tina [Fey] had known me for several years from Second City in Chicago, and so she knew what I was capable of doing and what my style was. Honestly, she kind of wrote the part with me in mind.
In fact her husband, Jeff Richmond, was my director at Second City. He works with us on "30 Rock" now. He's a producer, he does all the musical compositions, and he also edits.
Ooh, Tina Fey's husband. What's he like?
He's the best. He's just as weird and quirky as you would think Tina's husband would be. But he's also immensely talented and super-nice. I mean, it's because of him that I have this job.
I'm wondering, when did you figure out that you were funny? You studied something else in college.
I was studying theater administration. It sounds really exciting, but let me assure you -- it's fucking boring.
Let me assure you, it sounds boring.
Well, I stand corrected.
And what did your parents say when you told them you were going into improv? That must be every parent's dream, right? Send your kid to college, and he wants to become a comedian.
Honestly, they were like, as long as you're paying the bills and you're happy, we don't care what the hell you do. I could be a prostitute and they'd be like, do you have good insurance? [Laughs] But, really, they were just more interested in their children being self-sufficient and happy with what they do. Which I was able to do eventually.
One of the most striking things about you -- besides your winning smile, of course -- is your accent. I'm wondering, have you ever tried to lose it?
No. Well, I have to try for some auditions, but I'm just not good. I would go on auditions where it was like, "This movie is set in Michigan," and I was like, "Oh, well. I'll see you in the unemployment line!"
Can I eventually take classes and eliminate my accent? Sure. I guess anybody could. But this is who I am, and this is what I got. And there are millions of people who sound just like me. Millions. It's not like this is some novelty.
But it is a novelty in your industry. I was thinking today, what other celebrities have that heavy an accent? And the only person I came up with was Jeff Foxworthy and the Blue Collar comedians.
First of all, thank you for lumping me in with that group.
Of course. I know you loved that.
I did. I mean, Holly Hunter has an accent, too, but she can hide it a little bit better. She owns her accent.
Oh, good point. If you watch "Broadcast News," she has a heavy Southern accent in a role that has nothing to do with the South.
Exactly. But it's not like I keep my accent out of vanity or stubbornness or anything. Asking me to lose it would be like asking a tall actor: Can you be shorter? I guess there are ways to remove a shinbone or something. But this is who I am. This is what I'm working with, people.
But Hollywood is about that kind of cruel sameness. People probably do remove shinbones. You would know better than I would.
Yeah, because my appointment is next Tuesday.
But it's sort of amazing how unique you are just for having an accent.
And that's one thing I have embraced a little bit. It sets me apart. I also have no chin whatsoever, so that sets me apart as well.
Were you worried when I said there is one thing about you everyone wants to know?
Yeah! People want to know: Where is his chin? Where does he hide his chin during takes? It's in my trailer, smoking a cigarette. [Laughs]
So how much of the show is improvised?
Which is somewhat odd, to hire these improv experts and then keep them to such a tight script.
I think Tina just reached out to people who knew comedy and had good timing and delivery. We can tweak stuff, but very rarely do we just improvise whole scenes, because you can go off onto different tangents, story lines, whatever. We have a 30-minute show, which is really only 21-and-a-half minutes, so you gotta keep it tight. And also, the writers are so good in the first place. We're like, why would we even want to mess with this?
For a while it seemed fashionable to do improv comedy. Like Christopher Guest had all those movies, and then there was a Lifetime show where the actors improved their lines based on scenarios, and it seemed like something that actors really enjoyed. But I've never been convinced that audiences really enjoyed it.
See, that's been a sticky little thing. I love doing improv, and I swear by it, and I encourage people to take classes, and blah blah blah. But it's always been interesting how it doesn't necessarily translate to television. It's just such a shared experience between the performers and the audience, who is right there and watching it created in the same moment. I think that has something to do with it.
Totally, because if I say to you that I want you to build a skit around, I dunno, a halogen lamp, and then I watch you do that, then I feel invested in it, almost part of the creative process, even though I'm doing nothing.
Exactly. Yeah, you're just sitting on your lazy ass, making me do all the work.
Yeah, making you do all the work for that awesome halogen lamp routine.
Which killed, by the way. [Laughs]
But when you watch people improv on television, it's like you are trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Television is a static piece of art. It's like those painful moments when you are caught in a conversation where people are making each other laugh but you aren't in on the joke.
Oh believe me, I've been "not in" on many jokes.
So I was watching Tina Fey on "Conan O'Brien" the other night, and she was saying that this whole Sarah Palin thing is the weirdest thing that has ever happened in her life. What has it been like from your perspective?
For her to do all that Sarah Palin stuff?
For her to look like the vice-presidential candidate, for those two women to be so politically different and yet to have this striking physical resemblance?
Yeah, it is weird, because I think Tina kind of had an obligation to play the role just because of her background with "SNL" and her relationship with Lorne Michaels. At least that's what I speculate to be true. If Sarah Palin happened to look like Catherine Zeta-Jones, I don't think that people would be going up to Catherine Zeta-Jones and saying, "You've got to go on 'SNL' and do this!"
I just imagine her opening up the paper one day and being like, "Oh, shit."
No, I think she was a little late to that party. People were like, "Oh my God, Tina, this looks just like you!" And she's like, "No, it doesn't." And then eventually, after a while, she was like, "I guess it kind of does." I think her little girl, Alice, had something to do with that. She [saw a picture of Palin and] was like, "Mommy!" Tina was like, "Nooo!"
So are you hoping some Cabinet member is a dead ringer for Jack McBrayer?
I'm hoping that John Edwards is not down for the count, because I've got his haircut.
You do! And how much does your haircut cost, by the way? Is it near $400?
Are you kidding? I get mad if I have to pay over $20 for a haircut.
The $400 haircut is still a mystery to me. The only way I can figure it is hair plugs.
Really? No, if he had hair plugs, he wouldn't make his hair look like that. [Laughs] I wonder if it's maybe the product. God, what did they put in that?
Seriously. The teardrops of orphans?
Nah. Those are a dime a dozen. [Laughs]
I was also thinking how working with this cast at this time is so unusual. I mean, you have Alec Baldwin out there promoting a book about family law. I recently read a fascinating profile of him in the New Yorker. Did you read it?
No. I mean, of course, some of that came back to us. But I am not necessarily a fan of the spotlight.
What do you mean?
I'm just happy to have a job, and then after the job I enjoy coming home and hanging out with friends or going to a movie or whatever. I don't want to rock the boat. It's a pretty good boat. Wait, what was the question?
Who are you sleeping with?