If you do not know who actor and Chicago native Jim O'Heir is, well, you best get on that because he deftly plays office punching bag Jerry Gergich on one of the very best comedies on television, Parks and Recreation. I had the great pleasure of talking to Jim last week the day after his show scored an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series. (See? Even the Emmys get it. Why are you not watching this show?)
Hammervision: First of all, congratulations on the well-deserved Emmy nomination! How does it feel to be recognized in that way?
O'Heir: Well, it's funny. I wake up to watch [the Emmy nominations] live, even when I’m not on a show that has any chance of being nominated, so I was up watching yesterday when we got the nomination. And I had 150 emails by the time the day was through. It was amazing that Amy got an individual nomination. She so deserves it. I was disappointed that Nick Offerman [who plays Ron Swanson] hasn’t been recognized yet, but hopefully next year.
Hammervision: Since the show was nominated for Outstanding Comedy, does that mean you get to go to the awards ceremony?
O'Heir: We kind of base it on what's happened in the past with The Office people. Nobody really knows if we get to go yet. It’s just the producers that accept the award, so the rest of the cast [that didn’t receive individual nods] receives invitations based on how much room they have at the awards show. We won’t know until two weeks before the show. It’s tough for the women. I was talking to one of my female cast mates, and for a girl, they want to do the whole dress thing and the jewelry. And all I have to do is go get a tux.
Hammervision: How did the role of Jerry develop from kind of a background character to a series regular?
O'Heir: When I auditioned for the show, I auditioned for Ron Swanson. Now, it’s impossible to think of anyone but Nick playing Ron, and the producers always had him in mind. But my audition went well and they wanted me, so they brought me in for Jerry. The producers didn’t know how things were going to play out. They started out with six regulars, so you have to cater to that and establish who those people are before focusing on developing other characters. But they said, "We want Jim, but we don’t know what will happen with the show." They didn’t know how it would play out. So Greg Daniels said to Mike Schur, “Put him at a desk.”
And then during the episode where everyone dishes dirt on each other, Jerry finds out he’s adopted. And that’s who he became – the guy who’s gonna find out things that aren’t good. He’s like Toby to Michael [on The Office], but unfortunately he’s Toby to everybody.
Hammervision: When do you start filming the new season?
O'Heir: We do a read through on Tuesday and start filming the week after that. We wrapped the show in December last year and everyone’s itching to get back at it.
Hammervision: Do you have any Jerry-related spoilers you can spill about Season 4?
O'Heir: I think we’re beginning the season where we left off, sort of. Maybe a little time will have gone by. Tammy 1 may be in the second episode, but I have no idea who will be playing her. I'm sure it will be someone great. I love when they bring new people to the show, like Amy Pohler’s SNL buddies. I love hearing the stories from a show I’ve watched consistently forever. Amy has been pushing hard to get Bill Murray on the show. She wants him to play the mayor.
Hammervision: Let's talk Chicago. How often to you get back here?
O'Heir: I come back at least three times a year. I've never been in L.A. for Christmas. Chicago still feels like home and I don't want to spend Christmas with palm trees. I love the snow and cold in December, maybe because it's all I've known.
Hammervision: What's the best thing about Chicago?
Chicago is definitely the friendliest city I've been to. And it's pretty clean for a big city.
Hammervision: And what's the worst thing about Chicago?
O'Heir: I miss the humidity the least. You're just constantly dripping with sweat because it's so thick. Oh, and the mosquitoes.
Hammervision: What were your favorite haunts back when you lived here?
O'Heir: I came back recently to do a couple of interviews and we tried to go to John Barleycorn. I love that place. But it was closed because we were there too early in the day. I used to live near Belmont and Sheffield and we'd hang out at Guthrie's a lot, playing board games. After we'd finish a show, no one would want to just go home and go to bed and Guthrie's was the place to go.
Hammervision: As a struggling actor in Chicago, what was your day job?
Well, I paid the bills with office jobs in Chicago. I was fortunate. I could type 112 WPM, so I could always do word processing to pay the bills instead of waiting tables, which was good because I sweat profusely and no one would want me serving them food. I worked at LaSalle Appraisal Group, who were great and very generous to let me come and go to auditions when I needed to. And they came to see all my shows.
Hammervision: Do you ever hope to get back to doing theater?
It’s tough to do theater when you’re working steadily. I went to see a friend in a play in ’05 and thought I need to do that again. I did a show for four years. Then Parks came along and it was too hard to commit to a show. I would love to do Chicago theater; it’s in my heart. It’s still a passion.
Hammervision: What have you been working on during the hiatus?
O'Heir: I did a couple of things. I did a guest spot on Parenthood. I worked on a film with Steve Carell and Keira Knightly called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Some of the crew from Parks and Rec worked on the set, which was nice. And I filmed an independent short with Frances Fisher.
Hammervision: You've done a bunch of guest spots on other TV shows. Other than Parks, which of those experiences were most memorable?
Friends was cool because it was the last season and there was a lot of excitement around the show. And there was one time on Boston Legal where I got to play a cross-dressing Santa. But another role stands out for two reasons. I'm an old time television fanatic and I had the opportunity to guest star on Diagnosis Murder with Dick van Dyke. And he was kind and generous and amazing and I got to play this sick, sick piece of crap on the show. It was vile; but when you do comedy, it's nice when they give you a chance to use the drama chops. And then on top of it, [Dick van Dyke] was so amazing and self-deprecating. He was singing in the trailer. Between takes he sat right down next to me and we bullshitted for hours. He told me, "You're an actor, I just entertain." Awesome.
Hammervision: I've got to tell you, Parks and Rec is Hammervison's favorite comedy on the air right now. Which other shows do you like to watch?
I love Raising Hope. Martha Plimpton just got nominated for an Emmy and she's great, even though she's up against Amy [Pohler, in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy category]. No doubt, Amy's the best. I like The Office, 30 Rock, and Community. NBC has some great comedies on the air right now. Also, I like one that gets kind of forgotten about, The Middle. I knew Neil Flynn when we were living in Chicago. When the two of us ended up on a red carpet together, he looked at me and said, "Can you believe we're here?" I'm also a fan of Louie. And I'm still kind of on the fence about Wilfred. I don't want to judge it too soon. The premise is cool and crazy and amazing.
Hammervision: Thank you so much for your time, Jim. Any parting words?
Just make sure everybody tunes in to Parks and Rec. Watch it on Netflix or Hulu. Grab Season 2 if you're nervous about not liking Season 1. One of the best things about this show is that you know there's love in that office. As much as my character gets mocked, when Jerry's in trouble, they have my back. It's a family. Leslie is so concerned about her town because her town is her world. There's no other show out there right now with that kind of heart. One of my favorite things about last season was when April and Andy got married. No other show would've let them get married. Leslie or somebody would've jumped in and stopped the wedding. But our show let them do it because that's what those characters would do. They're irresponsible and in love. The writing is so smart and takes so many risks.
There you have it, folks. Get on your Hulus and your Netflixes and watch Parks and Recreation. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. And if you are, someone needs to A Clockwork Orange you until you like the show. Also, I'm hoping to see Jerry go into business with Jean Ralphio in the future. Just my two cents.