Jay R. Ferguson Didn’t Expect to Do Comedy, But He’s Excelling at It Anyway
If at first you don’t recognize Jay R. Ferguson by name, you may still instantly recall him by his beard. For many it was during his days at Stan Rizzo on Mad Men — the free-spirited art director at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce who was often joined at the hip with Peggy Olson in late night meetings — that Ferguson began a regular presence in people’s homes. He didn’t always have that signature beard on Mad Men, and he doesn’t sport one in the new sitcom Living Biblically, but Ferguson’s face and name are becoming more “household” by the day.
A regularly working actor for 20 years prior to his first appearance on Mad Men — a part that could originally have only lasted for a couple of episodes before stretching into five seasons — Ferguson has seen his career turn in unexpected directions since that life-changing role. “I kinda lost hope that there’d ever be that moment for me, and that was fine,” says Ferguson. That moment came and the changes included not only receiving more offers, but in seeing those offers delve further and further into the comedy world, something he says he never expected. Since Mad Men’s memorable finale in 2015, Ferguson spent two seasons on the underrated ABC sitcom The Real O’Neals, plus appearances on The Mindy Project and the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV show.
He still hit those dramatic acting muscles, including a recurring role in the Twin Peaks revival, but he jumped right back into the sitcom realm as a movie critic who decides to live his life strictly by the Bible in Living Biblically, which premiered on CBS last night. He doesn’t have the beard at the moment, but given the premise of the show, maybe they’re saving that for season 2.
Living Biblically is based on a book by A.J. Jacobs, so what was your relationship to the book like after you read it?
In terms of the character specifically, there were only little nuances that you could borrow from the book, because really, we’re just using the premise of the book and maybe some of the situations that he got himself into. A.J.’s experience was based on this experiment that he did for a year — he went into it agnostic, came out of it agnostic, and that was kind of his story. This is more of a story about somebody who made that decision, not for the purposes of writing a book about it, but for other reasons. That’s how we start our story. But certainly I don’t hesitate to point and reference the book all the time. A.J. came to a couple of our tapings, we got along great, and he had a lot of wisdom to give me and the project overall. Always very thankful for his support.
You’ve made references in the past to your family having “deep South Southern Baptist” roots, so how do you think that could translate to this show, where you have to poke fun at the Bible time and again?
[laughs] I don’t know, I think I’m really lucky. My family is so awesome and they’re incredibly biased when it comes to most of my projects. There might be people at their church that feel differently, but hopefully not. Look, the title is very polarizing, people haven’t seen it yet, they don’t know what we’re trying to go for, so they’re gonna have preconceived notions and ideas about what they think it’s gonna be. But I really believe that even the deepest of the Southern Baptists will be able to watch this show and enjoy it. What we tried to accomplish is that people who believe in many different things or believe in nothing at all will be able to watch a show like this and enjoy it.
Your previous sitcom experience was on The Real O’Neals, which also dealt heavily in religious tones and the Catholic church. Just pure coincidence, or is there ever any orchestrating into something like that?
Totally a coincidence, but it certainly didn’t go unnoticed by me. I thought it was quite funny. Really, it fell out of the sky, and I was under the impression that I wasn’t gonna be hopping onto anything anytime soon because the O’Neals was still going on. Then Johnny (Galecki) came to me with this project and I loved the script, I thought it was really funny. I got along great right off the bat with Patrick Walsh, the creator. Went out and got the book, read the book, saw what they were trying to go for, and thought it could be really funny but also really heartfelt and an opportunity to have a little bit of a bigger message possibly. It’s very exciting to come onto something that’s trying to take on something as humongous as this topic — certainly a touchy one for many people.
You’ve had a lot of work in the drama world and have the look of a leading man, but in recent years have traversed in the comedy world quite a bit. Did you ever think that would be the case early in your career — that you’d be a regular in the sitcom or comedic acting circles?
No, never. Never did I think that that was gonna be my trajectory, but I’m very grateful and thankful that it’s happened the way it’s happened. I certainly don’t have a problem with it. The irony is that this — I don’t know what to call it — newfound little nuance that I can put on things that make it humorous to people, I don’t know when it happened. I’m pretty sure it happened during Mad Men, but it wasn’t due to me or me discovering anything, it was me getting great material and really great writers doing all the work for you, which gives everyone this false notion that I possess some sort of talent, when the real truth is I’ve just been really lucky to be around very talented people. And that has had a very beneficial residual effect on my career and it led down this road of comedy, which I’ve really been having a lot of fun with.
Speaking of Mad Men, when I think of the finale, my first thought is not Don Draper, Roger Sterling, or Pete Campbell, but the relationship of Peggy and Stan. Did you ever think that would become the case?
It’s settled down a little now. But certainly at the time when it was all going down, yeah, it was fun to be a part of, it changed my life, my career, my everything. I’m very grateful for that experience, and anybody who ever wants to talk about it I’m always willing to because it was one of the highlights of my career.
Okay, then I am curious about what it’s like to have a life-changing role like that. You were a regularly working actor prior to Mad Men, but it does seem like that part changes your offers, your popularity, your life. Was that the case from your side? Is that how you see it?
First of all, the short answer is: Without a doubt, yes. It was the game-changer for me. It was that moment. It was the game-changer, there’s no question. I had been at it for a while before that happened and really it never — I kinda lost hope that there’d ever be that moment for me, and that was fine. I was still happy, periodically working, and lucky if I got to be a part of something that was really good. Most of my stuff had been just kinda so-so, and even when I got Mad Men and started on it, it was only supposed to be a couple episodes that season and then I was under the impression that was all I was gonna do. People like my support team, my manager and agent, were telling me “This is gonna be a really good thing for you.” At that point I was probably so jaded and discouraged that I didn’t believe it was gonna be that way, and then it really was that way.
It was around that time that Mad Men was ending that you started on The Real O’Neals. There was a lot to like about that show and it had two seasons on the air. What do you remember from that, and what did you learn from those two years?
It was a single-camera show so it was very similar in terms of the format of the things that I’d been doing and used to, so that was pretty much the same. I can say that I loved the show, I thought it was a great show, I thought it was an important show. Of course I wish we could have gone on to do more because I think the show still had a lot to say, but I’m grateful for the time we had, you know. The odds are always against you in this business, especially in television. It’s very hard to get a show on the air and very hard to get picked up for a second season, and we did that on the O’Neals. I think to be proud of that and to know that from the response we got from the audience, there were a lot of young people out there and it possibly had a positive impact on their lives. Whether it was kids coming out to their parents or whatever the case may be, I think that’s wonderful. We had a job to do, we would have liked to have a little more, but we did what we could do with the time allotted, and people remember the show fondly so I’ve got nothing but great things to say about it.
What would you say you’re most proud of with Living Biblically so far?
The core of it really for me, first and foremost, it’s a comedy show and our job is to entertain and make people laugh. I also love the opportunity that we have to maybe just kind of highlight and illustrate how, no matter what you believe, just practicing the fundamentals of kindness can have a real impact on our society — on ourselves, on the people that we’re around, and the residual effect it has on them. If anything, that would be it wrapped up in a little nutshell.
You also work with some veteran heavy-hitters in the cast here, like Camryn Manheim, David Krumholtz, and Ian Gomez, plus Lindsey Kraft as your wife. What’s it been like to be around this cast?
So incredibly blessed, man. I can’t believe that. I hit the jackpot with the cast, for sure. We all bonded immediately, instant chemistry for everybody. Everybody shows up to work with a smile on their face and wanting to be there, missing each other when we’re not there — it’s just a great, one-of-a-kind experience. It’s the kind of family that you want to keep working with for years to come, so I’m really hopeful that we get that opportunity, because we’ve got a lot still to do together and have such a great time working with one another.