Have you ever made a decision – the best, most well-intentioned decision – and then silently screamed as the consequences paved your way to hell? I’m pretty sure every member of the human race has experienced a decision backfiring with a bang or a roar, or worse, just a whimper.
Stories of decisions gone wrong can be funny, relatable, terrifying, profound, bloody, and infinitely memorable. The movie Middle Man hits all of these notes.
Middle Man stars Parks and Recreation’s wonderful Jim O’Heir, who is a Chicagoan and Second City alum. Add Emmy-winner, too. Just a few weeks ago, he won the Award for his guest appearance on The Bold and the Beautiful.
On Parks and Recreation, Jim was a beacon of big laughs and decency, from fart attacks to allowing himself to be called by the wrong name (“Jerry”), because someone misheard “Garry” and he was too polite to object and then it went on too long to correct (by the same logic a lot of people think my name is “Tammy”).
Jim’s character in Middle Man is Lenny Freeman and while Lenny possesses the same common decency as Jerry/Garry, he lacks the common sense. He doesn’t lack for dreams. His big monster of a dream is to be a stand-up comedian. Problem is, he’s not that funny, he’s never availed himself of the open mics in his hometown Peoria, and he’s stuck in an accounting job.
Then his ship comes in. Okay, it’s more of a big boat of a car, a ’53 Oldsmobile to be exact, that his mom leaves him when she dies. With this inheritance, he has the means to drive cross country to Vegas where, he believes, he will become an instant sensation on Monte Guy’s Stand-Up Stand-Off television show.
But there’s one hitch. And that hitch is Hitch. As Lenny drives, happily listening to classic comedy on cassettes, cribbing bons mots from bathroom walls, intent on his goal, a man named Hitch begs a ride. In one of many consequential decisions, Lenny picks him up. Will Hitch facilitate those comedy dreams or capsize them completely?
As Lenny and Hitch careen through the desert, they leave a bloody body count in their wake. Stopping in the middle of the parched landscape to do some mics at the Yuck Stop, Lenny uses his life’s new frightening fodder as material. The audience loves it and suddenly, laughter and respect are his.
What price fame? What price laughs? What is the weight of our decisions? These are some of the timely themes of Ned Crowley’s screenplay (he also directed), which he actually wrote years ago with Jim in mind as the star. Ned and Jim were comedy colleagues in Chicago and have been good friends ever since. The film also stars Andrew J. West and Josh McDermitt (both from The Walking Dead) and Anne Dudek (Mad Men, House).
Fresh off the festival circuit where it won multiple awards, Middle Man opens today in select cities, including Chicago.
Jim kindly spoke with me by phone about how an unexpected phone call took him from radio in Rensselaer, Indiana to Second City and beyond, and why you’ll be thinking about Lenny Freeman long after you leave the theater.
Teme: Congratulations on the Emmy!
Jim: Thank you. It could not have been a bigger surprise. As an actor, there are awards out there, but you never think you’ll get one. So it is really exciting. Even the fact that you mentioned it, it’s like, “Oh my God, that’s right, I did win one of those.” It’s still surreal.
Teme: I read how as a radio host in Rensselaer, you got a random call saying you should try out Second City. Did you ever find out who placed that call?
Jim: It’s so crazy. I have no idea. It was just this random call, “Can I talk to Jim off the air?” and the secretary set it up. The person said to me, “I drive through here and I listen to you. You’re funny. If you ever find yourself in Chicago, I think you’d be a good fit for Second City.” I absolutely don’t know the name and I so wish I did. That person steered me to a career that wasn’t on my radar at the time.
Teme: That’s a great story. What would you say is your craziest or best memory of doing comedy in Chicago?
Jim: After Second City, I ended up with a group of like-minded crazy people. We formed a comedy group called “White Noise.” There were three girls and three guys [including Ned Crowley]. We all hit it off and had the same vision of what was funny and what was edgy at the time.
To me, the craziest stuff was the reviews. This is a quote that has been in my brain for twenty-something years: “Jim O’Heir seems like a nice enough fellow that he should be embarrassed to do in the privacy of his own home what he’s doing on stage.” What a slam! But I loved it.
We had a lot of crazy nights. We did live comedy shows, so we were always dealing with people in the audience who had been “over-served.” We were also very lucky because we got a following relatively quickly. Once word of mouth takes off, you’ve got ticket sales and you can create other shows. We ended up doing four different shows together and to this day, we’re still dear friends.
Teme: How did you know when it was time to move to L.A.?
Jim: Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t know that you do know when it’s the right time. It’s a huge jump. In Chicago, people knew who I was and I’d get the occasional commercial booking. If a TV show was in town I’d get some work and I was doing lots of theater.
White Noise had done a show called Stumpy’s Gang. Stumpy’s Gang was this crazy, crazy show. It had puppets and it had blood, and on stage it was mostly me, although it wasn’t a one-man show because the puppets were operated by the other cast members. It was a 90-minute, one-act, wild ride.
It became a cult show where people would line up around the building to see it. Then we went to doing it at midnight and it became a hot show to see.
Around that time, everyone was talking about it being pilot season in L.A. It sounds scary, but everybody talks about it. So we said, “if there was ever a show that’s so crazy that it could work in L.A., it’s Stumpy’s Gang.” We did some fundraising, we put a budget together and we said, “Let’s give it a shot.”
So my plan truly was to go to L.A. where we would do Stumpy’s Gang from October through November, and then I would do pilot season and then I would be back living in Chicago. But we got to Los Angeles, the show ended up running for four months and I got a pilot that first season.
So I had to make the decision. I decided acting is either a hobby or a career. If it’s a hobby, that’s great, but it means I have to do something else to make a living. So I said “I have to give this a shot” and I never looked back. But to this day when I land at O’Hare, that’s home for me. My family is there and Chicago is still where my heart is.
So how did I know it was the right time to move out here? I don’t know. Maybe something in my gut was telling me. It was nice to come out here with the show because it immediately gave me recognition. Agents and managers would come and see the show, so it made it less tough to get representation, which is one of the difficult things to do.
I don’t know that there’s ever a right or a wrong time. I’ve had people say, “If you had come out here earlier maybe you would have even done other stuff.” Maybe yes, maybe no. I look at it as I came out here exactly when I should have because that’s just the easy way for my brain to accept it.
Teme: Do you have a favorite memory or episode from Parks and Recreation?
Jim: I do have a few favorite episodes, but the gift of Parks and Recreation, and I can tell you this with all my heart, was the gift of laughter and fun for seven years. There was never actor craziness. There was never producer craziness. It was just a group of people who got together and laughed and played and did, I think, good work for seven years.
One of my favorite episodes was “The Hunting Trip” in season two. It was the first time we all left the office together and were out in the world. We went because Leslie Knope said she belongs with the guys hunting. Then Ron Swanson gets shot in the head and it’s a crazy episode. I love it because you got to see us outside of the work atmosphere. I loved all the episodes we did outside the office. That said, I loved all the ones we did inside the office, too. But outside we got to travel together and because we all got along so well it was like a mini-vacation.
I also love any of the “Harvest Festival” episodes. I had my own episode where I was mugged supposedly, but I really wasn’t, and then I had the fart attack episode. There are a lot of [favorites].
Actually, after we have our interview, I’m having lunch with Retta who played Donna on the show. We always go back and forth too, because we’ll rehash a million different things. But there were so many wonderful moments of just being there with those people that every episode really does have something special in it. The scenes when we were in the conference room, those were the best because there was so much joking around between takes that it was just nothing but laughs.
Teme: I can imagine that! With Middle Man, I have to say, I have all these overdue library books I’m supposed to be reading but since I saw the movie I can’t focus on anything else because I can’t stop thinking about the movie!
Jim: Wow, I love that.
Teme: It was interesting and funny on so many levels. First, I thought it’s a movie about stand-up. Then I thought, no. It’s about comedy and about fame in general. Then I thought, it’s about life and the weight of our decisions and how our decisions sometimes make us stuck. What would you say?
Jim: Those are all great thoughts. I thought all of those exact same things. It is about stand-up, but ultimately it’s about decisions. One bad decision. Lenny made one really bad decision when he picked up Hitch. It was the decision that changed his life.
He made that terrible decision and now there are people dying, but he is getting laughs. It’s that question of what’s most important? Is fame the ultimate goal? Is fame more important than anything, even people losing their lives? Then he falls in love. Is love more important than fame? It’s all about decisions and Lenny made some bad ones.
All the things that you said have gone through your mind, I love it. I think all of those things are part of this film.
Teme: Did any part of the Chicago or the stand-up scene generally inspire the movie?
Jim: Neither Ned nor I are really part of the stand-up world. People often say to me, “Oh, you must do stand-up.” I don’t. I think it’s terrifying. But Ned and I are both fans. We’re fans of the people who do it, your Louis C.K.s, your Chris Rocks. These are geniuses.
For me, the stand-up world has always been something I’ve been very afraid of. When I shot the scenes as Lenny doing stand-up and he’s terrified, that was legit. I didn’t have to reach real far for that because that’s exactly how I would react. At the beginning where he’s bombing, that’s the worst.
Teme: Then he started getting laughs when he began telling the truth.
Jim: Which gets into, what is worth the price of fame? Now people are laughing their asses off. They’re applauding. They stand up now when he walks into the room to do his routine. But the price he’s paying is that people are dying around him.
My impression of Lenny is that maybe he went with a cousin to high school prom. He didn’t have girlfriends. He didn’t have relationships. But now he’s getting laughs. He’s got a girl who seems interested in him. Everything has changed.
Teme: He went from being isolated to being able to connect.
Jim: Totally isolated. He’s a simple, simple man.
Teme: He meant well.
Jim: He means very well, but has no life experience.
Teme: How did you get into character and was it difficult to get out of character? Lenny seems like he’d be hard to leave behind.
Jim: Every actor has their own process. I can come and go. I can do a heartbreaking scene and when they yell “cut,” I can joke around with the crew and the cast. I don’t take it home with me. That’s just not part of my process.
That being said, before a scene I always took time to myself to get into Lenny’s mind frame because he is an odd dude. I really do love him, as much as he made some terrible mistakes.
Teme: I liked him, too. It’s easy to empathize with making a bad decision which has a domino effect and then before you know it, you’re really deep into it.
Jim: Yes, he has a big decision of whether the comedy is worth everything going on around him. But Lenny has a heart of gold. He is the type of guy who will take a spider and throw it out the door before he’s going to kill it. He really is a wonderfully sweet guy. Put people in a tough situation and you never know how they’re going to handle it. He didn’t handle it well.
Teme: What was your favorite thing about playing Lenny and what was most challenging?
Jim: You never shoot a film in order. You could be shooting the finale on day two. You have to keep in mind where you are. That was my biggest challenge; being in the moment of what was happening at that moment. We could shoot a scene where Lenny’s laughing and joking and the next scene he has just found out that Hitch has killed somebody. Those are two different emotions, two different worlds.
Also, I come from the comedy world, so my first instincts can be bigger than they should be because I’m thinking about going for the laugh. Ned made sure that didn’t happen. I said to Ned after the third day, “I don’t think I’m doing enough. It doesn’t feel like I’m giving you what you’re looking for.” He said, “Let me show you something.” And he showed me the dailies from the day before and he said,” This is what you’re giving me. It was all there. It was simple and yet from the heart and that is where I had hoped to come from.
Teme: I never thought about jumping around in shooting order. That must have been a challenge because Lenny is on quite a roller coaster.
Jim: Even on Parks, we never shot in order. With a comedy it’s easier because you’re always in the same mind frame. Whereas Lenny took a journey.
Teme: What do you hope the audience will leave with?
Jim: What people have come away with is what you said, that you keep thinking about the film. I love that. I want people to question who Lenny was and who Hitch was. I’ve heard people say they think he was Satan. That was not our intention, but people are certainly welcome to that theory.
I want people to think about how in this day and age everybody can be a YouTube star or a Vine or Facebook star. There’s a price to pay for all that. There’s a price to pay for fame. Lenny is a perfect example. Is it worth that price?
Teme: That’s a timely message. Fame does seem to be the means and the ends these days.
Jim: Yes, definitely.
Teme: What else would you like people to know about Middle Man?
Jim: The work that Andrew J. West does as Hitch is as good as anything I’ve ever seen in the movies. He hits every beat. He scares the shit out of you, but you can still laugh with him. We have Josh McDermitt from The Walking Dead who used to do stand-up, so he knows that world, and Anne Dudek who has done a million different shows. I was blown away by the cast.
Everyone came on board because of the script because believe me, there was no money. I love actors who work because they see a quality script and want to bring it to life. Everybody in this film does that and I couldn’t be prouder of that.
Teme: Yes, it’s so memorable. I keep seeing the scenes and everybody’s faces playing in my mind.
Jim: That’s why I love that you said you’re still thinking about it. That, I think, is the greatest praise.
Middle Man opens today at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago and at AMC Showplace Cicero 14, 4779 W. Cermak Rd., Cicero.