07 January 2013
Neely: When last we “talked” and the holidays intervened in terms of continuing a record of our conversation, we were discussing “funny.”
Jason: And that was the other lesson for me with “Lords of the Playground.” It’s not edgy; it’s funny. People like things that are funny; it doesn’t have to have an edge to it. We fought that battle with each other. What are these dads like? You have to be careful because they’ve got to be good dads. We don’t want it to be edgy. Also we don’t ever want to see the kids. That was the other thing. It’s not about the kids; it’s about the dads. It’s always a battle for me personally, Neely, because I’m not an edgy writer. When we did our two man show at Aspen, it was compared favorably to Carol Burnett. People ultimately were looking for something that was sharper edged and hipper. That’s not what we write. I think people respect the fact that it’s funny or clever, but I don’t think we get a lot of points for sharp and edgy. That’s fine with me, but not necessarily marketable.
Neely: Well, I find that very ironic because, in the end, funny is funny is funny. Actually, if you just look at “Modern Family” and “Big Bang Theory,” the two most popular comedies on TV, neither one of those is edgy and both of them get better ratings than the next highest rated comedy which would be “Two and a Half Men,” which is edgy and crude.
Jason: I don’t know. Jim Parsons is not edgy but I think the rest of the show borders on edgy.
Neely: Do you really? I think it borders on very smart unless you think smart is edgy.
Jason: But there’s a lot of sexual innuendo and sexual puns and things like that I tend to stay away from. And I think some people mistake puerile for edgy. But that’s all that “Two and a Half Men” is.
Neely: But that’s my point exactly. I rarely find those “Two and a Half Men” elements in “Big Bang Theory.”
Jason: I don’t even know how you define edgy anymore. I guess, offensive – in some way it’s going to offend somebody, even if it’s funny. I’m a huge fan of “South Park,” and it’s very edgy. They’re putting Mohammed in their cartoons. It’s a huge deal. They try to walk that line and push it forward. And that’s not what I write. I write something completely different. I write Dr. Seuss parodies and I write Rocky and Bullwinkle.
But again, I really do believe that people watch things because they’re funny, not because they’re edgy. It’s because they’re funny. I think that’s the majority of your audience. So it’s hard to sell that and at the same time, I’m not trying to do anything different. This is the kind of stuff that I do and I think there’s a place for it and I’ll continue to pursue it. Anything that I write has some heart to it. “Lords of the Playground” was from heart and I think that’s one of the things that’s attractive about them.
What do television people want more than anything else? Something that somebody else already likes. The best way to get something on TV is to do something really derivative. And it’s the same thing with comedians. The bigger venues they book, the more hits they have on YouTube, the more likely they are to be taken seriously. Build an audience and then people take you seriously. I’m hoping that’s what’s happening with us with “Lords of the Playground,” but then maybe not. That was one of the reasons I thought CBS was a big leap for us. Nobody knew who we were; we hadn’t put anything out yet. So, hopefully, maybe now people will start knowing our writing a little more.
Neely: Sort of going in the same direction, but how would you characterize the roles you play?
Jason: How would I characterize them (laughing)?
Neely: Could you?
Jason: I think I have two things where people use me. They either use me as really sweet or really evil. (laughing a lot). I shouldn’t say even evil, it’s more slimy. My character on “The Practice” was Machiavellian…
Neely: …and Presbyterian.
Jason: …he pursued things very strongly; he was very much a pit bull. But his heart was always in the right place. He always felt that he was doing the right thing; that he had a moral code that he was following. There was nothing conniving about him, which I loved. So my characters were either sweet and well-meaning… I just played one like that on “Smash.” I played a director on “Smash” who was just trying his hardest in the face of difficult circumstances to get his show to work. It’s against all odds, but he’s trying his best; he’s being walked all over. And then two weeks later I went out to Dallas to be on “Dallas” and play a really conniving lawyer. So that seems to be my spectrum (laughing).
Neely: How did you get started in the business and what were your goals starting out?
Jason: My dad worked for IBM and did community theater at night. So I started doing that as a kid, just getting my hands dirty doing anything I could – whether it was running lights or helping build sets, or acting or whatever I could do. We did that together for years. When I was maybe 13 or 14, I did a TV series called “Power House” for PBS. It was shot in Washington D.C. where I grew up and we did 16 episodes. For the time, they were really high quality productions and good stories meant for pre-teens. I probably knew from the time I was 8 years old that I had been bitten by the bug and that this was what I wanted to do, so I just kept doing more of it. I went to high school and college, got out and worked in theater in Washington D.C. for six years and then I moved to New York.
I know it’s really cliché, but my goal was always to be doing as much of this as possible; doing it enough so that I didn’t have to worry about whether I was going to be doing it anymore. I really always wanted to do it and that’s what I’ve been doing. The down times are the hardest part for me because I always feel as if I need to constantly be doing this. I guess part of the impetus for writing something like “Lords of the Playground” is that I found myself with nothing to do.
I had been two years on Broadway doing “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and I was burned out. And I thought, “Wow! I have no idea of what I want to do.” I’d always thought that being on Broadway was exactly what I wanted to be doing and then I realized that boy, it’s not fulfilling anymore just to be doing two years of a show. I don’t enjoy that. So what do I enjoy about it? What do I like about it? Of course I like working; I like being on TV. But I’ve also found that the further along you get in your career, the more people you find inserted between you and what you want to do. It’s just the nature of the business. It’s the director and your casting people; and then it’s your agent and the casting people; then it’s the producers and executive producers and networks. Whatever it is, it’s more and more people needing to give you the stamp of approval to do this. So I started to take it back and say, “No one has to be in charge of whether I do this. Someone can be in charge of whether I get paid; someone can be in charge of whether I get to do it in front of a large group of people. But acting? Just being an actor? Anyone can do it. You don’t have to wait for anybody. So I’ve always had that in the back of my head and always been somebody trying to create projects, whether it’s directing, writing, performing, filming, improv… I’ve always been creating experiences for myself that I like; creating in order to keep myself entertained that way. I’ve always wanted to do as much of it as possible and it’s led from there. It’s been a long process of one thing to the next.
Neely: I was so excited to see you in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” You played in that one with your brother. I wasn’t aware he was an actor (and he looks like your twin, so that worked for the role). Had you two ever acted together before or since?
Jason: We haven’t acted together since but we used to do a lot of stuff together when we were growing up. Neither of my parents were performers professionally and although my two sisters are creative people, they don’t perform. But my brother and I, we were close enough in age that we had a real closeness in personality and also a sibling rivalry growing up. So we sort of force pushed each other forward. We’re very different in our personal lives, very different people; but he and I have very similar timing and similar tendencies with comedy through the years. We had very different paths after high school. My brother was a singer for a long time in wedding bands, then professionally in an a capella group and traveled the world. He didn’t follow the path of the actor as much as I did; and I didn’t follow the path of the singing as much as he did. We were really funny together; we had a very Smothers Brothers-style to our comedy.
But we got to do “The Drowsy Chaperone” together for a long time, 8 shows a week, doing what we do well, which is this kind of vaudevillian timing thing that we really bonded over growing up. He’s still performing and I’m still performing and we both have kids; it’s not as easy to find those opportunities.
Neely: Then last year you were in the Ethan Coen one act that was part of “Relatively Speaking.’ Interestingly, you played a psychiatrist in that one and then played a psychiatrist in the Woody Allen one-act that was part of the same trilogy. I suppose if there had been a psychiatrist in the Elaine May piece, you’d have done that too!
Jason: You gotta wonder about that (both laughing). What vibe am I giving off? (more laughing) I think that was a very lucky break for me. I was cast in Woody’s piece and then an actor dropped out of Ethan’s piece and I was able to get that role as well. I was so happy to do both for completely different reasons. Ethan’s piece was a really strong two-man acting experience. Being directed by John Turturro was also a treat. Shift to the Woody Allen one act, and as he put it to the entire cast, “There’s no subtext. It’s just jokes.” So it was literally just a matter of going out and trying to nail the timing of the jokes the way that Woody would like to have it. Very different types of psychiatrists in very different types of plays.
Neely: Have you had a chance to see anything in New York right now that you’d highly recommend right now?
Jason: There’s one play that I really really liked. It’s a little musical and it is very little. It’s at the Soho Playhouse called “The Other Josh Cohen” written by two people that I know pretty well – a guy named Steve Rosen and another named David Rossmer. It’s a lovely, fun story that revolves around mistaken identity, a burglary and Neil Diamond (Neely laughs). If I told you anymore, I’d be giving too much away except there are really affecting performers and it’s a musical and the music is fun. And that’s probably one of my favorite things that I’ve seen in a long time. I mean, no, it’s not “Clybourne Park,” but it’s just a treat of an evening. I would highly recommend it to anybody.
Neely: It’s what I found when I spent the time in New York last year, which is that some of the most surprising, entertaining and best acted plays are being done Off Broadway…
Jason: Sure. In little joints like Soho Playhouse.
Neely: What are you reading?
Jason: (mulling for a second) I’m actually reading a book… I’m trying to remember the name of… it’s a book that everybody knows now. It’s about memory and it’s called Einstein… (calling back to Beth) “What’s the name of that memory book that I’ve been reading?” There it is… Moonwalking with Einstein, it’s weird name for it, I have to say. Oddly it’s a book about memory and I can’t remember the title! (both laugh loudly).
Neely: Yes. There is a certain amount of irony in that.
Jason: Yeah, there is; but I really like the book. It’s an interesting story about how memory works. I’m a big non-fiction guy.
Neely: And what are you watching?
Jason: I’m not very good with TV these days. (calling back to Beth again – he’s going to have to read a more effective memory book). At the moment it’s a lot of “Shake It Up” and “Phineas and Ferb” (laughing) – anything my son has on TV at the moment. I don’t have a lot of appointment television right now. I’m a big fan of “Mad Men” when it comes around. And I like “Boardwalk Empire” a lot. But I have to say that my favorite one has been - what’s the name of it? – the HBO Laura Dern/Mike White series.
Neely: I know which one you mean. I’m blanking too… “Enlightened”
Jason: When that was on, I was riveted. And it’s funny because I was riveted as an audience member but also as a writer. I thought it was really well written. I love Mike White’s work and I just thoulght that the relationships and the surprises and the subtleties of certain things… the characters were so broad and yet there was such subtlety and nuance to the story. I thought it was really well done.
Neely: What’s next for you?
Jason: We’re finalizing the Parenting magazine stuff. Once that’s finalized, we’re probably going to get back to work at writing some more episodes of “Lords of the Playground.” That’s one thing and I hear I’m going to be going back to “Dallas” at some point soon, I think; I hope.
And my girlfriend Beth and I are writing a play together right now. It’s a really neat story. I don’t want to give away too much now, but you’d really like the story, Neely. It’s based on a blog post that I read that was just a phenomenal story. And immediately I was like, “Oooh yeah. This is a play. I see this as a play.” It needed to be fleshed out and have more complex development but the skeleton of the story was really interesting to me and vibrated on a lot of levels. That’s been my favorite thing to sit down and do when I have 5 minutes or an hour. I go to a little coffee shop, which there are a ton of here, and I just write. We’re digging through to the characters right not; we’re not even getting to the plot or the dialogue yet. It’s a lot of fun.
Neely: I hope you’ll let me read it when it’s ready.
Jason: Absolutely. I’m really pushing to have a script by the end of the year. I want to have an outline by the end of the month which is coming up. It’s a really neat story but it’s not very funny, which is weird for me. But it’s a really good story and Beth’s a really good writer. So it’s helpful to have her as a part of the team.
Neely: Thanks for spending the time and thank Charlie for me that he let me talk to his dad while he was watching “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
Jason: I will do that. Thank you, Neely. This was really special for me to be spoken to as a writer for a change. It was really nice. Now I’ve got to get Charlie to bed.
Neely: And to everyone out there, check out the rest of the “Lords of the Playground” webisodes on YouTube.