An interview with Jason Mantzoukas ’95 from “Parks and Rec”

By GREG SWARTZ

Did you know that Dennis Feinstein from “Parks and Recreation” went to Middlebury? This summer, Greg Swartz ’18 interviewed Jason Mantzoukas ’95, the comedic actor who played Feinstein, about his years at the college and his experience acting in some of the funniest shows on Netflix right now. 

The interview has been lightly edited for brevity. 

In 2018, I graduated from the college with a theatre degree, and have since moved to LA to pursue TV and film. After many college nights spent binging “The League” when I should have been writing papers, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing fellow Middlebury alum Jason Mantzoukas. To this day, he’s still making me laugh with scene-stealing roles in shows like “The Good Place” and “Big Mouth.” I reached out to him to discuss his time at the college, his career and his thoughts on navigating the industry.

 

On the Otters

MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS: What was your performance history like before coming to Middlebury?

JASON MANTZOUKAS: Once I got to high school, I started playing in bands, and I would say all of my first performance opportunities were exclusively as part of bands. I probably didn’t do anything on stage as an actor or any kind of comedy until maybe junior year of high school. There was a class variety show, and I wrote sketches with a couple of other comedy-minded people. So that was my first exposure to doing comedy. I didn’t do plays or anything like that. And then when I got to Middlebury, Otter Nonsense Players had just started and that was a huge, meaningful period in my life of learning improv and doing sketches.

MC: Did the Otters do sketches while you were at Midd? Or was it primarily improv?

JM: I would say we did like 98% improv, but every once in a while there would be some sort of pre-written opening number or sketch. But it was very much an improv group. I feel like when I was there, there wasn’t a sketch group or anything like that. I played in a bunch of bands; I was in a jazz band for a while. When I was at Middlebury, it was at the height of jam bands, you know? Like Phish was still a Burlington staple. Phish played Middlebury so much when I was a student because they were a local band. But as a musician, that wasn’t really my forte, so I ended up playing in a lot of jazz ensembles, and I spent a lot of time working at WRMC.

MC: Do you think your background with jazz and music has had an impact on your comedy career? Do you view those as related at all?

JM: I do, in as much as they are the experiences of my life. I wouldn’t say they’re a map, like here are things to do to be a successful comedian. In how my life has unfolded, all of these components — for better or worse — are the raw materials that inform how I’ve developed my comedic point of view, my work ethic and so on. What made me a bad student then or what made me procrastinate in writing my honor’s thesis is the same thing that makes me procrastinate writing a script I owe somebody. So for better or worse, all these things are inextricably linked to who I am as a person.

MC: Right, and I guess you just become better equipped at playing into your strengths and learning how to deal with your weaknesses.

JM: Yeah, exactly. And as someone who is primarily an improviser, that idea of “Yes, and.” That idea of not just agreeing to things, but also in order to move something forward, you have to kind of give more. You can’t just say yes to everything, you have to add something to it. That “and” gives momentum, it’s an engine that keeps driving you forward.

MC: When did you realize comedy was the thing? That this was what you wanted to do?

JM: I don’t think I really had a moment of epiphany or some kind of “aha moment.” I guess once I started doing Otters, I thought this would fit well with how my brain works, and it did. If I had any kind of “aha” moment, it was just once I started improvising. It felt very natural. Even though I wasn’t very good at it, it felt like this was what I wanted to figure out.

MC: Did you learn a lot about yourself as a comedian during those years with the Otters?

JM: I don’t think so, but hm … That’s a good question. I mean sure, probably, but I think for the first few years of improvising, really you’re just getting your arms around improvising itself. I think you really are just trying to get an understanding of what it’s like to walk onstage with nothing — no props, no characters, no lines, no understanding of what the scene we’re about to do is — and getting to a level of comfort that I still trust what we’re going to do will be satisfying, interesting, and funny, hopefully. So while I certainly was developing my comedic point of view or persona, that was happening in the background, and I wasn’t really aware of it. It’s not really until I’m in New York at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre that I feel like I really start making active choices about my comedic point of view on a larger scale.

MC: It makes sense that you have to learn the form and feel comfortable with it before you can find your place within it.

JM: Yes, and I think it takes a long time. In jazz as well as comedy, it takes a long time to find your voice and hone in on it. I think a lot of the time in the beginning, we sound like other people. We sound like people we like or want to emulate. And I think in the beginning people are faking it until they make it.

MC: Did you do any plays or any theatre in the Hepburn Zoo while you were at Middlebury?

JM: Yeah, I did one play because one of the other Otters wrote it. It was Dan O’Brien, who is Jessica St. Clair’s husband, and he is an incredibly talented playwright, and he’s published a number of amazing poetry books. So we did a play called “The Last Supper Restoration” that was then performed at the Kennedy Center. It was a very lauded play he wrote, which was very exciting. But that was the only play I did, and it was really only because we had developed a good rapport and relationship spending years doing Otters shows.

COURTESY PHOTO
Alumnus writer Greg Swartz (far left) performing in a Middlebury Discount Comedy show in college.

MC: So how did you end up getting an agent or a manager, whichever you got first?

JM: It was all based on a sketch show that Jessica St. Claire and I wrote called, “I Will Not Apologize.” She was also in Otters with me, and when she graduated, she came to New York and started doing UCB with me. We were on the same Harold team for a while. We started writing sketches together, and then we wrote a sketch show, which was our big, transformative break. At the time, there was a comedy festival that HBO ran in Aspen, Colo. That was the festival you were chasing for sketch comedy because it would put you in front of development people, agents and managers. It was where you went to get signed.

MC: But they don’t do that anymore?

JM: They don’t. Partially one of the things that replaced it, I think, was the Internet. I remember, years later, probably right at the beginning of YouTube, I remember the guys from Derrick …

MC: Oh yeah, Derrick Comedy.

JM: Right — Donald Glover, DC Pierson, Dominic [Dierkes] and those guys all did sketches. They were all in a group at UCB, they were all in an NYU improv team. Then they kind of split off and started doing sketches, but they were doing them for YouTube. And I remember somebody saying, “Oh did you see that Derrick sketch? It’s been viewed like a million times.” And I remember thinking, “This is a shift. This is a moment.” You know, I had been doing this for 10 years, and these guys put up one video that had been seen by vastly more people in a couple of months than had seen every single performance of mine put together. If you put together 10 years of sold-out shows across multiple venues, we couldn’t even touch a million views. So that, I feel like, suddenly made it possible for casting directors, managers, agents, to literally just watch a video online as a way to access and discover young talent. And I think that has proven to be the case.

MC: In that moment when you had that realization, did you find that exciting or infuriating?

JM: Oh no, I thought it was exciting. I mean I was already too old for it as a platform.

MC: I don’t think so.

JM: But I remember being like “Ooh, I wish I had this.” I wish we had been able to make short films and sketches that could have lived somewhere and found an audience. I would have loved that. But I’m very glad I did it the way I did it because I’m really grateful for the years that I was just doing shows. For me, live performance is the backbone of my whole career, and I’m grateful for that. I think that history of having all those hours onstage makes me a good performer on set, it makes it very easy for me to walk into a guest-star role on a show, it makes me very comfortable on a performance level. But that being said, boy do I wish I could have put up sketches on YouTube, that would have been amazing.

 

On otherness

MC: I want to ask you about casting because I thought you might have a unique perspective on it. It’s a divisive topic right now in the industry, and I feel like your point of view is interesting because you’re Greek, but you present as pretty ethnically ambiguous. What are your thoughts on the nuances of modern casting and who can portray who?

JM: I don’t really have, like, a very nuanced breakdown of it. You know in the period that my career has unfolded, it’s changed. Early on, I would only get auditions that were for some version of “other.” A lot of the roles that I auditioned for early on were accented roles. I auditioned for a lot of Middle Eastern parts, a lot of Indian parts, a lot of parts that had real heavy accents to them. You know, I play a Middle Eastern character in “The Dictator,” I play a Latino character in “The League.” Now, to be honest, I don’t think any of that would happen.

MC: Just within the past few years casting culture has changed so much. Do you think that’s been something you’ve needed to overcome? Or do you think that’s been an asset to you? Have you given it much thought?

A casting director pulled me aside once and said, “Look, I don’t want you to get discouraged, but it’s going to take you a long time to work because you don’t look like anything people are looking for.”

— Jason Mantzoukas '95

JM: I mean, I think about it in about as much as I think a lot of casting specifically is about how you look. And so I think that if you’re an actor, you have to be aware of how you look and how that is perceived. It took me a long time to have a successful acting career, really it took me over 12 years to get real work consistently. But in that time, I had a successful writing career, and some of the most interesting and important realizations I had from a casting perspective for myself as an actor were when I was working with casting directors to cast shows that I’d written. Things that I wasn’t an actor on. And that’s when I realized casting can be very reductive, especially for unknowns, which I was at the time. People are really only considering “What does this person look like? Did I picture that when I was writing this?” or the casting director’s thinking, “when I read it, did the description describe this guy?”

And for me, for all intents and purposes, the answer was no: They weren’t picturing me, they weren’t looking for me, they didn’t want me. I couldn’t get hired that way. A casting director pulled me aside once and said, “Look, I don’t want you to get discouraged, but it’s going to take you a long time to work because you don’t look like anything people are looking for. You are not handsome enough to be the lead of the show, but you’re too handsome to be his schlubby fat friend. And you are too ethnic to be the lead of the show but not ethnic enough to be his minority friend. So I can’t hire you either way; you’re falling through the cracks. But somebody’s going to hire you at some point, and then everybody’s gonna get it, and then you’ll work forever.” And that’s kind of what happened with “The League.” Once I got that, people kind of “got it.” And I think that role was incredibly helpful in terms of demonstrating my skill set.

MC: Right, and you were finally able to be seen for what you bring to the table comedically.

JM: Yeah. And that’s a show that’s completely improvised, so it’s really the purest version of the tool that is the sharpest in my shed, which is improvising. That show happened to display the thing that I am the best at compared to, you know, I’m not the best dramatic actor, I’m not super facile with accents and all that stuff. But people’s first exposure to me happened to be a show that allowed me to improvise and have the point of view of this wild, chaotic character that I’d been playing on stage for 12 years by that point. But again, it took 12 years to get there. So by the time I get on the show, I’m 36 years old, you know?

MC: When considering a role, do you read the script and say “Oh this is funny, I’m going to do this” or do you think about the direction you want to take your career as a whole?  

COURTESY PHOTO
Mantzoukas played recurring roles as Rafi in the comedy series “The League” and Nuclear Nadal in “The Dictator.”

JM: I’m always thinking about my career. I’m always making choices to do things that are meaningful to me in some way, shape or form. I only want to do things I think are very funny, very well-written. But I also might choose something because it offers me an opportunity to flex a muscle I don’t normally get to flex or be seen how I’m not normally seen. For example, even though it’s basically the same type of character I’ve played a million times, I did “Dirty Grandpa” because most of my scenes were with Robert De Niro. I mean yeah, I would like to do that.

MC: Hard to say no to that.

JM: Yeah, I would just like to do that. I’m always making decisions from the point of view of cumulatively building an entire career. I want to be able to look back on it and for each choice to have hopefully lead to more choices.

 

One more story

JM: There is no way to do [life]. There just isn’t. Like, there isn’t a way, you know what I mean? I talk about this movie “Touching The Void” a lot in relation to this business and success in this career. I don’t know if you’ve seen it?

MC: I haven’t, no.

JM: OK, it’s a documentary about these guys who are climbing a mountain. And they’re young guys, they’re cocky, and they’re like “we’re gonna f*cking be the first guys that have climbed this route to the top of this mountain.” It’s very technical ice climbing, very difficult. It’s the ’80s.

While they’re doing the climb, one of the men breaks his leg, which is essentially a death sentence for them. So they immediately stop and begin this very complicated process where the healthy man will lower the broken-legged man on the length of rope that they have. Then the broken-leg man anchors himself to the mountain, and the healthy man climbs down to meet him. They do this for days. They’re running out of food, they’re in white-out snow conditions — they can’t see each other. Then without knowing it, the healthy man accidentally lowers the broken-legged man over the edge of the mountain so that he is now hanging in space. But they can’t see each other, they have no way to communicate, they have no technology, they don’t have anything. So the healthy man, after sitting for hours, has no option but to cut the rope. And for the rest of the movie — because the two men are still on camera, you know they’re both alive — is about how they survive. The broken-legged man falls down to the ground into a crevasse, and continues to have a catastrophically-broken leg. And he says in the documentary, “If I had thought to myself, ‘I have to get to basecamp, or I’m gonna die,’ I would’ve just curled up in a ball and died right there because I didn’t know where I was on the mountain, I was inside of a crevasse, my leg is broken, I have no help and nobody knows we’re here.” That was the other thing, nobody knew they were doing it. But he says, “Instead, what I decided was I set myself accomplishable goals. In the next hour, I’m gonna get to that rock. And if I can get to that rock in the next hour, I will survive.”

The reason I talk about this a lot in terms of this business is because you have to make the hundreds and hundreds of smaller accomplishable choices that ultimately will get you in striking distance of Saturday Night Live or a writer’s room or whatever. The thing that for a lot of people is a hard pill to swallow which is that you have to really get comfortable with not knowing. Not knowing if it’s gonna happen for you, not knowing when it’s gonna happen if it does and you have to be okay with the fact that if your goal right now is “we’re gonna put on a sketch show,” make that the best fucking sketch show you can. Like really get everything out of it you can. And when that sketch show is done, figure out what worked, what didn’t, how can we change it for the next one, how can we re-calibrate, what are the successes and failures of this? And make the next one better, and make the next one after that better still, each thing getting better, each thing honing what it is that you do. Because you’re not just going to get air-lifted from inside the crevasse to basecamp, nobody’s going to come save you. You are the only person. It’s only you.

The author, Swartz, co-founded Middlebury Discount Comedy and the college’s monthly stand-up open mic. He currently makes sketches with Real Adult Humans on YouTube.

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