Dec 2, 2015
Jon Glaser Is a Park Slope Renegade
Somehow, Jon Glaser has never seen Renegade. Once I tell him about the existence of long-haired basic cable hunk Lorenzo Lamas’s long-running early-90s action drama, the actor flips up his laptop and searches, eyes widening at each new bit of info returned: “Holy fuck.”
As a specimen of pure, macho-dude confidence, Renegade seemed like something Glaser, a master at playing unrepentant assholes, would cherish. In the low, faux-jerk voice that’s become familiar to fans of hip animated shows like Archer, Bob’s Burgers, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, he reads the show’s synopsis aloud, dead serious when not giggling: “Framed for the murder of the woman he loves, Reno Raines teams up with fellow bounty hunter Bobby Sixkiller, to clear his name and avoid capture. And if he helps a gorgeous woman with a problem along the way? So much the better…”
A YouTube view of the show’s epically dated opening credit sequence follows. Glaser screams “fuck yeah!” as Lamas delivers a roundhouse kick, then pauses the show to mimic Lamas’s nonchalant head nod.
“This is making me think about when I got an iPhone after I had a Blackberry, and how I’d wasted several years of my life not having this phone,” he says. “Now I feel like, how could I have never watched this show?”
To be fair, he has been busy. When Glaser’s show, Delocated, wrapped up in 2013 after a three-season run on Adult Swim, he went on The Tonight Show to promote its final episode. Seeing no reason this appearance shouldn’t be just as dumb as his previous late-night guest spots, he grabbed a couple mismatched wardrobe items from his past stage shows and went forth. The neon hoodie he wore belonged to an American Apparel-clad performance artist character. He paired it with some sweatpants covered in Coors Light print, usually worn by a sobbing, alcoholic song parodist character he called “Beer Joe.” He told Jimmy Fallon the ill-considered costume clash was a uniform for his next TV project hero, “Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter” (his lower half representing the “Silver Bullet”). “It was an arbitrary joke,” says Glaser. “I don’t know if that was clear to you. It was not a legitimate idea that I was pitching. It was non-existent.” In spite of all that, Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter premieres this December 7th, on Adult Swim.
“I knew that [Adult Swim] would see it. At the time, I thought I could see them getting in touch and saying, ‘I know that it’s a joke, but it sounds funny. Could that be a show?’ That’s basically what happened,” says Glaser. “It’s really one of my favorite parts of [Neon Joe], that it came from a nothing joke.”
The new show will play out in 30-minute episodes over five consecutive nights. It has the feeling of B-TV events from the 1990s, a Stephen King miniseries quickly advancing through plot-points of nefarious conspiracy, or a chintzy but high-concept cable drama led by an antihero who plays by his own rules. Glaser swears he didn’t set out with specific targets for parody in mind, instead letting each production decision inform what the show might eventually turn into. A desire to film upstate instead of the city gave the show a “small New England town with a dark secret” vibe, so he started thinking of the setting as a version of Amity Island of Jaws-fame. Costume and make-up choices—adding enigmatic facial scars and an eye patch, plus a two-tiered buzzcut hairdo and a silver bullet earring—gave the character the whiff of the dark and mysterious drifter inside the silly, day-glo outerwear. It all makes little sense on paper, but the show treats its outlandish plot twists and lo-fi gore with deadpan gravity. “Everything for Neon Joe is motivated by how stupid it could be,” says Glaser.
Teasing out a character intended to disappear after a one-off late-night gag into one who can carry multiple episodes, or even seasons, of a TV show isn’t new for Glaser. Being hired as a full-time writer and occasional on-air performer for Conan O’Brien’s spectacularly weird Late Night show in the late-90s was his first big break. The cast of random, sublimely dumb characters Glaser and the show’s writers (including future stars like Louis C.K. and Bob Odenkirk) created and performed existed in the last vaporous, pre-Internet times when something weird you’d seen stoned in a dorm room the night before wasn’t available online the next morning as confirmation that you’d really seen it. Glaser appeared as “Wrist Hulk”, a man with the Gamma-irradiated power of the Incredible Hulk, but only in his wrists. He turned corporate mascots Ronald McDonald and the Gorton Fisherman into raging assholes. He was a black-bodysuited guy with “Pubes” written on his chest, his mere presence ruining otherwise pleasant situations. “Oh, it was the greatest,” he says. “It was like a dream job at the time.”
Delocated presented a fully realized version of one of his memorable Late Night characters, a black-masked celebrity impressionist hiding out in the witness protection program. The joke was that his masterful celebrity impersonations were ruined by the voice modulation meant to protect his identity; its flat tone made his Jack Nicholson indistinguishable from his Jimmy Stewart. To develop that one-use gag into the central figure in an ongoing show, Glaser tweaked the concept, invented a world for the character to exist in, with family members in jeopardy, and Russian mobsters in pursuit. He filmed a proof-of-concept demo for network execs that displayed a deeper, but still ridiculous, life. It’s ultimately what got the show made. “There has to be more than just a joke to make it beyond the sketch,” he says.
Around Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood that’s been his family’s home for the last 8 years, Glaser’s most often recognized for recurring roles on high-profile shows Parks and Recreation and Girls. His Parks character, the loathsome Councilman Jeremy Jamm is a classic Glaser dick—horrible yet ultra-confident in the absence of any real justification. His arrival in the show’s later seasons gave Leslie Knope’s irresistible force of friendship and public service an unmovable object of transparent corruption and selfish self-satisfaction. The smug, unearned confidence of the true douche is one of his key comic modes. “The nerve of someone that’s such an asshole is just fascinating in general,” says Glaser. “It’s very liberating and fun just to be a dick without any real ramifications.” As Laird, Lena Dunham’s beanie-clad ex-junkie neighbor on Girls, the actor showed a range for playing an entirely different sort of creep. Unlike Jamm, Laird’s perpetually overwhelmed by events, and too damaged to confidently to bluff through.
Glaser flinches through the more grounded role with a deep, watery-eyed vulnerability that lets him be just a tiny bit lovable.
Beyond those recurring roles, he’s been slyly ubiquitous in bit parts on some of the best TV shows of the era. He appeared as Micheal J. Fox’s protective door man sparring with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He was a joke-stealing comic in a nightmare-logic episode of Louie. On Inside Amy Schumer, where he also works as a writer, he showed up on camera as an anthropomorphic embodiment of cock-blocking in a chicken suit. He had a featured role as a jerky men’s magazine editor in Schumer’s hit film comedy Trainwreck this past summer. Deep-cut properties like the twisted kids show Wonder Showzen have earned him intense cult adulation, but it’s been almost impossible to have even a passing interest in smart, contemporary comedy and never see Jon Glaser being gloriously stupid within it.
He’s much humbler than he appears on screen. When I go down his impressive list of IMDB credits, Glaser uses his perfect, smug Hollywood phony voice to shrug off any suggestion of grand import. (“Heh heh heh… goin’ down the ‘DB.”) “It’s nice to be able to do a bunch of things and not get so massively recognized, which is my preference,” he says. “I mean it happens and it’s rarely a big deal. I don’t mind it, but it’s not something I necessarily want everywhere I go. I think that’d be difficult.” He cites John Mahoney, aka Martin Crane, aka Frasier’s dad from Frasier, as a recognizable but not super famous “that guy” comic character actor role model. Mahoney popped up in small, enduring films like Say Anything and Barton Fink before a soft sitcom landing late in his career. Given the cavalcade of noxious buffoons Glaser’s played, it’s a surprisingly low-key aspiration. “He’s an actor that I thought, what a cool life. He’s so good, so well-respected, and gets to do all these cool things. Then, of course, you get on a famous sitcom, you get some good money.”
For now, Glaser is a working Brooklyn actor in a perpetual cycle of pitch, produce, and promote. The walls of his small Tribeca office are lined with poster boards filled with pinned note cards with sometimes filthy but always surreal gags scribbled on them. Filming Parks, he’d fly back and forth from Los Angeles, but leaving the city for good has never been a real goal. He’s an actor who can still make New York work for him.“I don’t know, I still feel like, no matter what, there’s just more out there,” says Glaser. “I’ve been lucky to be able to stay here. With Delocated it was just three seasons, but that was over the course of five years. My wife and I talk about it all the time. ‘Should we move there, is this stupid?’” But he’s gained enough ground to have his weird New York-centric pitches heard, has a pilot or two in development for the year ahead, and will likely show up as some horrible guy in your next favorite show in the meantime. And if Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter takes off, he’s left it open-ended enough to make some more. He’s already created a ridiculous action hero character from nothing but a hoodie and some beer-themed sweatpants. He can, for sure, find increasingly ridiculous ways to take him out on the road. “Season 2 is gonna have a Renegade kind of flavor.”
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