Talking to Jim O’Heir About Playing Jerry on ‘Parks and Recreation’
Chicago native Jim O’Heir had steady work as a veteran character actor in Hollywood until he finally caught a break in 2009 with a role he was born to play: Parks and Recreation’s put-upon government employee with the hot wife, Jerry Gergich.
It’s a testament to O’Heir’s portrayal of lovable loser Gergich that the character has gone from bit player in the NBC comedy’s early days to frequent source of the show’s biggest laughs. Even though Gergich retired from the town of Pawnee at the end of last season, Parks’ producers found a way to bring him back for Season 6.
I recently caught up with O’Heir after shooting an episode of Parks in Indianapolis to talk about his start in comedy, improvising with the best in the business, and why he doesn’t take vacations.
How often do you guys shoot on location in Indianapolis?
This has only been the second time after we did it last year. We did an episode where we did all the guys’ bachelor party. We ended up in Indianapolis at the Colts stadium and it did so well not just for us but for the NFL. They called us this year and said, “You guys, come back!” So, we’re doing our second episode there next week.
Tell me a little bit about your start in comedy. You were trained at Second City?
Yeah, I did radio before I did any of that in a city in Indiana called Rensselaer, and then from there, I went and I trained at Second City. While I was there I got involved with a group — there were six of us — called White Noise. It was between Second City and White Noise that I really, you know, found my passion. I found what I wanted to do. To act, to improvise and to try to be funny, and it really solidified it for me. We did four different shows in Chicago and, for their time, they were pretty amazing shows. Nowadays, everyone incorporates video and all this kind of stuff, but we did video, animation and puppetry during the days when that wasn’t really done. So we did some pretty cool stuff.
So was it a variety show?
The first one was a sketch show. Just a bunch of comedy sketches. We tried to have a theme where one scene would lead into another. It was called “Singin’ in the Brain.” But then the second show was called “The Book of Blanche” and that was a story that was pretty awesome about an old woman who falls into a television set looking for her pug, her dog. It was all these different TV and film situations. As much as there were different themes, it had a common thread of this old woman named Blanche. She was also thrown into a cartoon so you know, crazy stuff. And then in the third one – “Stumpy’s Gang” – we used amazing life-like puppets who were mutant and would spew blood, and they should have been disintegrated ‘cause they were this genetic mistake, essentially. But there’s this crazy guy who is a janitor, which is the role I played, and he would use them for his own crazy puppet show. And so that was the show that brought us to Los Angeles. It was a cult hit in Chicago. Literally, the people would be lined up along the block wearing little beanies on their heads because that’s what my character wore. It was awesome!
Was this back in the ’90s?
That was back in ‘91 and then it kept going. We did a normal run and then the theater moved it to a midnight show, which was a brilliant idea. It was a bit of a must-see, and it actually it has one of my favorite all-time quotes from a reviewer who said, “He seems like a lovely enough man, but what Jim O’Heir does onstage he should be embarrassed to do in the privacy of his own home.” It was awesome.
And that didn’t faze you at all?
No! Oh my God. It was an honor! Because, in all honesty, it really was crazy. There was blood and violence and people would walk out.
Would you all write and direct and act together? Did you have specific role?
It all depended. “Singin’ in the Brain” was the six of us with everybody doing their thing — everybody, through improv, just creating. The second show was “The Book of Blanche.” It was compilation of everybody but mostly Patrick Cannon and Ned Crowley. I would say they were definitely the main idea guys. And for “Stumpy’s Gang,” it was written by Patrick Cannon, who had done the concept years before he met any of us.
Are any of those guys from White Noise still involved in performing or comedy?
Well, Ned is major creative director with an ad agency. The others are not so much involved. You know, a couple became moms and had kids. I think I’m the only one actively pursuing performance, but there are a couple of them who still have a foot in the industry definitely.
White Noise sounded like it was very ahead of its time.
It really was! And I’m not saying it as a bragging thing; it was just a connection to a video guy and a lot of other things that fell into place to make it happen. Pat found a guy who was going to school for animation, and he said “Sure! I’ll do this for you guys.” He wanted a challenge, and we didn’t have to pay him which was lovely because we didn’t have the money. It was really, for its time, I think it was really cool! We were talking, it was late ’80s, so that was not being done in the late ’80s.
When when you were doing radio, were you doing comedy? Was it a straight talk show?
I did like a midmorning show at a little station in Rensselaer, Indiana, and it was very much a farm community, so we would do pig reports and trading posts where people would call in and say, “Well I will trade a pig for a head of cattle.” I worked 60-80 hours a week, and I made 120 dollars a week. I mean, it was really, the old expression “I paid my dues.”
Sure. And what made you decide to give comedy a shot?
I’ve told this story before and people ask “Well who was it?” but I don’t know who called. But I got a call at the radio station, and it was someone who had been driving through that area and had been channel surfing. And he listened to me for a little bit, and he was like “Oh, I just want you to know that I’m involved in Second City. I really think you’re funny. You should consider trying to get involved with that.” And at the time I was like, “Oh thank you, what a nice random call, blah, blah, blah.” But then, as time went on at the radio station, it really was just so daunting. I know that acting can be just as tough and just as poor, but there was something in my gut that told me ‘”Just go, take some classes, see what it’s about.” So I quit the radio station, I moved to Chicago and I would say within a month I said to myself, “Holy crap. This is just rocking my world.”
Is having an improv background helpful when working on a show like Parks?
Well, it’s definitely helpful. And I’ll tell you, the writing on the show is so strong. We get way more credit for improv than we deserve because our process is, after we shoot a scene if the actors are happy, if the writers are happy, if the producers are happy, then we can then do a fun run. And in the fun one, we basically have the outline of the scene and see what we can bring to it. So we have fun, we laugh our asses off and have a great time. The thing is the writing is so strong that it’s almost always the writing; it’s almost always the scripted stuff that stays in the episode. And not because it’s the producers doing the cuts; they would be happy to put the funniest stuff in there. Their stuff is the funniest. But when I’m on a set with someone with Amy Poehler, who is a brilliant improviser, I certainly can’t match Amy’s abilities but I like to think I can keep up.
You speak the same language.
Exactly. That is a huge thing. There’s nothing better than when you’re doing this improv scene and you get people to laugh and then you get Amy Poehler to laugh and then you’re like “Ah, I nailed it!” It’s amazing. And Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio), I’ve never seen a brain like his when it comes to improv. He’s just brilliant. Completely brilliant. So it’s a little intimidating to say the least to be around these people, but, you know, I like to feel I deserve to be in the ballpark with these guys.
I’ve interviewed other people that have been involved with Parks, and they said they couldn’t think of a more fun show to work on.
A lot of people say that about the show, and maybe people think it’s about the press or whatever, but we’ve become the show that actors want to be on because the word is out this is an amazing set. We always think, “Damn, will we ever find this again?” Because every show comes to an end, who knows when? This season could be the end for Parks. Or next season. Who knows? No one ever knows until it happens. That being said, everybody still has such a great time with each other. It’s a special place a real special place.
So how is your role gonna change now that Jerry has retired? Obviously you’re still involved.
Oh yeah, Jerry’s there. I think, maybe episode three or — well I’m in all the episodes — but I think on episode four there is a reveal of why I’m there. I can’t reveal it because it gives away a big story line. You will see why Jerry is back.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that your fart attack was one of my favorite all-time TV moments.
[Laughs.] Don’t feel embarrassed at all. That’s a badge of honor, my friend.
For a scene like that and other scenes, a lot of the humor comes out of your reactions. Jerry is so unflappable in the face of the abuse he takes. Does it require several takes to get the right reaction? It has to be very difficult to not lose it.
We lose it a lot, so just know that. We were shooting a scene – I can’t tell you the scene because it reveals something – but we shot a scene the other day where there’s something serious going on and I make an entry. We literally were four takes in before nobody broke up because Jerry makes this ridiculous entrance that makes— anyways, you’ll see it and it’ll make sense when you see it. But you get through the laugh and you just go for it. I really believe that Jerry is — at least Jerry believes this — that they think the world of him. As much as they shit on him and as much as they use him as a punching bag, there are episodes where they have his back and they come to his rescue. And they also realize that Jerry has the best life out of all of them. He has a family that adores him, he has a large penis! He has everything! I mean, he really has a lot going on. So, you know, sometimes I think they’re just jealous. [Laughs.]
You’ve done a lot of acting, does writing or directing interest you at all?
I just wanna act. I don’t have any directing cravings in me. Amy has directed, Nick [Offerman] has directed, I think other cast members have directed this season. I have nothing in me that makes me want to do that. I just don’t have it. As for as writing goes, I’m not into pen and paper writing. I’m not super talented at that. But as a collaborator, I can be useful. Ultimately, I’m an actor. I just love getting into the script. I love figuring out what I’m going to do with it. Especially now because I could have had an opportunity where I could have dipped my toe into directing or whatever. Some people were like, “But you gotta do it! How could you say no to that?” I just have no interest. That’s how I said no. I mean, maybe I’ll regret it down the road I don’t know. But I don’t think so because I have no interest [Laughs]. Honestly. And I love a good director.
Any other projects you’ve got coming up? Are you getting a lot of comedic roles coming your way?
It’s so funny ‘cause over the years, you’re trying to get into this audition and that audition and you feel you’re close, but ultimately, they had extended the offer out to somebody else the whole time. Well now, I just get offers, and it’s really nice! Over the hiatus this summer I was in four television films, so there’s a bunch of stuff coming out. There’s a web series. Yeah, it been busy and it’s been amazing, and I’m also at that stage where I had a couple of vacations planned during the hiatus and I couldn’t take any of them because I couldn’t turn down the work. I was just like, “Offering me work? How does an actor turn down work after so many years of trying to get work!?” And I’m sure there will be vacations down the road. I’m also so happy when I’m on a set that’s it’s not like going to work. I love what I do. Going to a set is awesome for me. I dreamt about that when I was much younger, and I do it. So that’s my vacation.
Parks and Recreation airs Thursday at 8pm on NBC.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.