Inside ‘The Jack and Triumph Show’ with Jack McBrayer
Playing the lovable but slightly creepy Kenneth the Page on NBC’s 30 Rock from 2006-2013 brought Jack McBrayer to fame, but he’s delivered that trademark sunny Georgian charm to tons of onscreen roles and television appearances. McBrayer has long served as a reliable supporting player on both the improv stage and television screen, but tonight he’s the star alongside a brash plastic dog puppet with a flair for pop culture-grounded insults. The Jack and Triumph Show, a brand new Adult Swim series from the minds of Robert Smigel and Michael Koman, boasts perhaps the ultimate yin-yang comedy pair: Smigel’s poop-obsessed Rottweiler Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is the perfect complement to McBrayer’s infectious good-hearted cheer. Ahead of tonight’s premiere, I spoke with McBrayer about what we can expect from the show, how he first met Smigel, and why The Jack and Triumph Show is the perfect multi-cam comedy for a live studio audience of live studio audience haters.
Congratulations on the show! How has it been prepping and shooting and getting ready for the premiere?
Well, it’s been kind of crazy — super fun, but kinda bananas. The show is a half-hour multi-camera sitcom in front of a live studio audience and that’s something I’ve never done before, so I’m still learning the ropes of that. But also — and this might just be weird to me but nobody else — the show shoots in New York but it’s set in Los Angeles, so it’s pretty much the exact opposite of every other TV show in the world. So now I’ve had to come back to New York, and, you know, brave New York! [laughs] It’s been a while. But it’s all been great, and it’s fun. I’m working a different muscle than I’ve been able to use. Well, with that being said, I have been able to perform in front of live audiences before between Second City and doing improv things and even the live performances on 30 Rock.
How did you and Robert Smigel first meet?
Through a Conan bit. Well, that’s the first time we had worked together. Conan would use me as a sketch player for all his comedy bits, and Smigel of course was at Conan from day one, and so we knew of each other just through backstage at Conan whenever we were doing bits at the same time. But we didn’t even work together until the Wiener Circle segment in 2012 when we went to Chicago. [lowers voice] …and the rest is history!
How did you get the sketch player gig at Conan?
I had moved from Chicago to New York to do a play back in 2002. So I was done with Second City and just trying out New York City for the first time, and at Conan there were a ton of writers who had come from Second City in Chicago — your Brian Stacks, your Kevin Dorffs, Jon Glasers, Brian McCanns — so many writers who were familiar with me from those Chicago days. So when they heard that I was in New York they were like “Oh, let’s use McBrayer.” Because they knew how important it was for people just moving here — that is an expensive town…if you’re not aware, New York is expensive. [laughs] And so we were all just happy to have any sort of work, and so those writers would just put me into bits.
The Jack and Triumph Show is multi-cam, but it also has the man-on-the-street segments Triumph is known for.
Yes, absolutely. That was important. I think Smigel really wanted to include elements of those man-on-the-street things, because that’s really what people know Triumph from, and also he likes the challenge of trying to incorporate some of those that were specific to the plot of the episode. He really enjoys that challenge as well.
Is there anything in particular you learned at Second City that helps you when you join Triumph for the man-on-the-street scenes?
The main thing we learned in improv at Second City is to be present and to listen and to react, not just come in with your own idea and just barrel through it. It’s a give-and-take, and you know, that even happens in your day-to-day conversations and I think it’s especially important in a more presentational kind of situation. And those things of course are very strange and a little stressful, so I think I’d prefer the safety of being onstage with several improvisers but I’ve definitely utilized some of the skills you learn from improv to go do the remotes.
I loved hearing you talk on Conan about how Tina Fey based a lot of Kenneth Parcell on you. Oh wait, before I ask this question, I just want to tell you that from time to time I rewatch the 30 Rock clip of Moonvest telling Kenneth “Gimme your fingernails!”
Oh my God…
That’s a clip I come back to all the time.
[laughs] It’s just the best. So on 30 Rock you played some version of yourself, and you’re doing the same on this new show too. What’s that like?
I think people kind of “get” it at this point. It is fun for me and I do like doing it, and I know I can do it. I would never turn down an opportunity to challenge myself or stretch myself, but I’ve definitely enjoyed playing a heightened version of myself because I mean, come on, I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I’m not as dumb as Kenneth!
I want to ask you more about the format of the show. I grew up on sitcoms in the ’90s so I was used to studio laughter, but once I really got into The Office and 30 Rock later on, I just couldn’t go back to multi-cam.
It’s weird, right?
It really is. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a show yet that pokes fun of the multi-cam format like this ones does.
People seem to either really hate multi-cam comedies or not mind them. What do you think?
Now, see — and I’m sure I’m quite a bit older than you — but we grew up on the laugh track sitcoms. And one that I actually refer to quite a bit when I talk about Jack and Triumph is ALF. For one, because there’s a puppet behind the couch for half the show, but also because it was a live studio audience sitcom. Now, one interesting thing is I do really enjoy getting that immediate feedback from the audience, and you know, when they’re not laughing we’ll change the joke or cut the line or we’re allowed to make some tweaks. But also, I guess enough popular sitcoms are still on right now that incorporate a laugh track, between Big Bang Theory in Two and a Half Men and that kind of thing, that that is not dead.
But I understand completely what you’re saying — especially, gosh, you might not remember there was a period on NBC when they did a three-hour comedy block and every single one was single-camera. It was like us and Scrubs and Outsourced and The Office and Parks and Rec…I mean, it was three hours of single-camera and no laugh track, even the biggest fan of comedy could get a little bit fatigued by that. So I think having variety in some sense might be important, but I do understand what you’re saying. This show kind of seems like we’re winking at it, and in a way we are — it’s pretty throwback and has a retro feel to it — but there’s enough irreverent humor in there to make it a little more contemporary.
The fact that it’s self-aware of its own format is, for me, the key to what makes it so great.
I think so too! I think there’s even some times when Triumph looks right into camera — I mean, with those dead puppet eyes — but he looks right into the camera and gives a take. That’s old school. [laughs]
The Jack and Triumph Show premieres on Adult Swim tonight at 11:30pm.