“Dammit, Jerry!” is a phrase you’re likely to hear at least once every episode or two as employees of the Pawnee Parks Department vent their frustration on poor Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir). Heading into its sixth season on August 27, the Amy Poehler-led NBC show “Parks and Recreation” has been able to stay alive – despite ratings woes – due to critical acclaim, devoted fans, and the best ensemble comedy cast on television. Part of that cast is O’Heir, who plays the aforementioned Jerry, the punching bag of the office. I recently spoke with Jim to talk about what it’s like to be the character everyone loves to beat up on and what his favorite Jerry moments have been in the first five seasons.
It’s been kind of clear that in earlier seasons of “Parks and Recreation” there was this bit of uncertainty where you didn’t know if the show would be on the air for another season. Now we’re sitting here on the brink of the Season 6 premiere and you’re the only show that is familiar in this revamped NBC Thursday night lineup. What do you think has been the biggest factor in the its staying power?
Two things, in my mind: One is, critically, we’ve been really well received. The buzz is really good. But of course, that doesn’t equal ratings. But I think what NBC has realized is that we might not have the Nielsen ratings, but our numbers are pretty big when you include all the young people that are not watching it at home on their televisions with their Nielsen box. They’re watching it on Netflix, Hulu, on their iPads, their cell phones. I really believe they realize we have a much bigger audience than we are given credit for. I think with critics we’ve been adored, and I take no credit for that. That is absolutely because of writers. We have the most awesome writers. Mike Schur is our leader and between him leading the writing and Amy (Poehler) leading the rest of us, it’s really perfect. And I’m really grateful and appreciative that the network…they basically cleaned house last season. We could have easily been one of those they just were like, “Well, we’ve done what we can. You’re not going to do huge numbers. We’re gonna restart clean.” I couldn’t be more appreciative that they’ve kept us on air. I’d like to think it’s because of the quality of the show, the reviews, and young folks.
Kind of piggy backing off that and the young people, it seems like this has been a show that the internet age has really embraced, be it on Twitter or Tumblr or anything like that. Do you think that factors in? How do you feel when you see stuff on Tumblr that’s almost completely dedicated to your character, for example?
I’m constantly blown away by that. I’m amazed by it, I love it. Someone said, “Do you have a Wikipedia page?” and I said “I don’t know. What’s that about?” Well, it says that I do, and somebody has gone through the trouble of finding out facts about me that I forgot. I was reading about certain plays that I’ve done that I forgot that I did. I’m amazed by it. The dedication of the fans…after every episode there’s new Tumblr pages, new Instagram pages, it’s incredible. The kids are brilliant. I don’t know how they do it but I love it and I’m amazed by it.
Going back to the uncertainty factor, I had read an interview with Mike Schur (creator of “Parks and Recreation”) a while back that said that he had grown to like the uncertainty because it brought about really good ideas. What about as a cast member? Is it difficult having that bit of uncertainty?
Well, yes, for two reasons. One, an actor wants to work. When you’re on a show that you’re a regular on, it’s lovely. The toughest part is that at some point, “Parks” will go away. All shows go away. They have their run then they’re dead. It’s not just going to be a show ending for us. We’re six seasons in and everybody still has so much fun together. We laugh all day long. It’s gonna be a loss. It’s gonna be a personal and emotional loss that’s gonna be tough to deal with. I personally would love if they said, “Oh, just so you know, you’ve got another two seasons guaranteed.” But we’ve never had that. We never know what’s happening. So Mike’s theory is always just to keep writing, even if it’s writing yourself into a corner. If we get more episodes, we’ll figure it out and we’ll make it work. So for them, I know they have fun with that. As an actor, I would love the security of a “Modern Family” or one of those shows where you know, “Oh, we have another four or five seasons. We know we’re safe.” Even this season, all the critics and everybody were saying, “The only one that’s for sure is ‘Parks and Rec,’” which is fun to read. It would give me a little peace of mind. Then I’d be like, “Well, that means nothing.” We’re ratings challenged according to Nielsen. I don’t think that truly we are. I think young people are watching us on all the other devices, but networks do what networks do. It’s all about money and dollars and ads. When I started hearing who they were canceling this year I was like, “Oh my god!” So, to get the pickup was huge. Huge! There are still no guarantees. We’re up against “The Big Bang Theory” this year, which is the No. 1 comedy on television. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I think NBC realizes the challenge we’re up against and hopefully they’ll give us some breathing room. So, to answer your question: it’s great [the writers] like it like that, but I want security. I want to know we’re coming back.
Going back to the first couple seasons of the show, did you ever envision yourself becoming such an integral part of the cast and such a beloved character?
You know, as an actor you dream that would happen. I auditioned for Ron Swanson and they always had Nick Offerman in mind because nobody else could do what he was doing with it and he’s Nick Offerman and he’s brilliant. When I first started, my agent said to me, “I don’t know, you might want to think about it. You could become just a background [character].” But in my brain, these are the guys who created “The Office.” And look what happened to Stanley and Phyllis and Kevin. These are characters that have become beloved. And to me, it was a no-brainer. I had hoped for it, but never knew it would happen. At any point they could have said, “Nah, this isn’t happening.” They literally didn’t know what to do with me. They liked me, they wanted to cast me, but they had no plans for me when the show first started. They just said, “Put him at a desk. We think he’s funny. Let’s see what happens.” So the hope was always there. Was there security in it? None, beause I did not become a regular until Season 3.
I think I had heard that it wasn’t until the Season 2 episode “Practice Date” where everyone in the office was trying to dig up dirt on each other and you have that line about not knowing you’re adopted, which is one of the funniest things ever in the show…
(Laughs) That was a game changer for me because that’s when they realized that’s who Jerry was and [writer] Dan Goor deserves all the credit in the world because that was his baby. That’s when they realized, “OK, Jerry is the punching bag of the office.” That was such an awesome thing to happen for me really early on.
Obviously, like you said, your character is the punching bag of the office. Has that always been an easy role for you to embrace?
Yeah, I’m fine with it. You know, some people are like, “You have to put up with so much.” I’m an actor. It’s who I’m playing. When they yell cut, we’re all equal and buddies and pals and there’s no weirdness at all. Some people ask, “Are you worried that you’re caught in that trap when the show’s over?” I can’t control what’s going to happen later. Time will only tell. I’ve done a bunch of other stuff so hopefully that will be out there. I did have something happen recently where I was up for something and the director called the writer and the guy said, “Oh, Jerry from ‘Parks?’ I don’t see him doing this role.” Well, he said, “I’m sending you some links to some other stuff he’s done.” And then the guy was like, “Oh god, he’s perfect.” So if people think of me just as Jerry, it could be a little tough. But if they realize I’m an actor playing a role, I love it. I love Jerry. Maybe a little too nice at the office for my taste, but he’s a great guy. He really is a sweet guy.
Do you think it’s important for the writers to implement these moments of small victories for Jerry – basically showing that he seems to be the most content person alive so scenes don’t ever veer into being mean spirited?
Absolutely. Without it, Jerry would not still be there because you cannot have a character where everything is just horrible even when he goes home. No. 1: if all the other characters are too mean, you’re gonna hate them. But as it turns out, Jerry has, by far, the best life out of all of them. He doesn’t care about what they do at work. He goes home to a family that just adores everything about him. They literally love everything about him. Mike (Schur) has always said that if it was just Jerry getting beat up, beat up, beat up, then goes home and gets beat up, beat up, beat up, it would be too much. It would just be too much. And the other thing is even though I am a punching bag, no doubt…there’s an episode where they were going to do some cuts when Adam Scott and Rob Lowe’s characters joined the show, and Amy’s character Leslie says, “Oh no, we can’t do it without Jerry Gergich.” And so they have his back when it counts. Every office needs one, and Jerry is the one.
Last season there was an episode called “Jerry’s Retirement” where Jerry formally retires from his job at the parks department. When you heard about that episode or read the script, was there ever a concern that they were getting rid of your character or lessening his impact on the show?
Hell yes. We get the script the night before the table read and I open it up and it says “Jerry’s Retirement.” Like, holy crap! Wouldn’t somebody call me and tell me I was leaving?! It was funny because as soon as they handed me that script, within 10 minutes, there were two emails. One from Mike Schur and one from Morgan Sackett, our producer both going, “Don’t worry! Jerry’s fine! Jerry’s not going anywhere!” The reason they even addressed it was for the past four years, we’ve been mentioning how Jerry would have two years until he retires. So they were like, “We have got to address this. It’s just something we have to do.” But I will take joy knowing Jerry isn’t going anywhere. Though I will say, technically, the network had till the end of June to pick up your contract for the full season. And I kept saying, “Man, until I get that pick up…”
Do you have any personal favorite moments of Jerry’s, be it someone ragging on him or Jerry having moments of redemption or anything like that?
I love when Jerry is with everybody. I love when we do group scenes; love when we’re all out together like when we did the hunting episode. I love all of that. Of course I love the episode where I got mugged, even though I wasn’t really mugged. I had fallen trying to get a burrito. I like to do physical stuff. I got to lie in that creek. It was awesome. I caught myself on fire. They let me do that myself. It was awesome. They always have stunt people and I’m like, “No. It will not look real if someone else is doing it, you know?” So I love when Jerry gets to do any of that crazy stuff. I love when Chris Pratt’s character Andy – cause he’s, you know, just half a marble away from being an idiot – will call him the wrong name. I love anything where Andy is mocking Jerry.
I think my personal favorite was what I mentioned with the digging dirt game and also in the “Telethon” episode, you’re playing this beautiful piano piece and Leslie interrupts and says, “Enough of that racket.”
Jerry is so freakin’ talented. I paint. I play the piano. Wait till you see what I’m doing in the Halloween episode we’re shooting. Jerry is so incredibly talented and no one gives a crap. In that one, I even do magic and she’s like, “Oh, that’s terrible.”
Just judging from interviews of people talking about the show and watching behind the scenes videos and gag reels, it seems like “Parks and Rec” is an amazing place to work. What is that environment like for you being around the cast and crew?
We shoot a single camera show so depending on where you are, sometimes you don’t have to be there. You’ll have days off, or it’s not like a multi-camera show where you rehearse Monday through Thursday and you tape on Friday. When I get the schedule on the Friday before the following the week, if I have days off, I would rather be there, than not be there. It’s because it’s the most joyous place because not only do we get along so well even after all these years, but the crew is incredible. They’re my dear friends. Many have been to my home. It’s nothing but laughter, ball-busting, a couple of pranks, and yet, good quality work.
I asked this question to (fellow cast member) Retta so I’ll ask you as well. Is there a particular actor on the cast that really makes you break the most?
I would say definitely Chris Pratt. He’s crazy and funny and really smart. Of course his character Andy isn’t, but Chris is smart with his comedy. When Amy breaks, I break, because Amy’s laughter is incredibly infectious. I would say as far as making me break, it would be Chris Pratt.
That’s kinda what I figured. Lastly, I’ve seen that you’ve done a couple sketches for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” so I was wondering how that came about and what that experience has been like?
To be honest, I don’t know how it came about other than they knew of me. The first time I ever did it they were doing a sketch about Abercrombie and Fitch, who were not allowing or wanting fat people to wear their clothes. So they probably were thinking, “Who are big actors out there?” So we did that and we had so much fun that the next week I did another one. Then the next week I did another one. And then I was a guest on his show and sat on the couch last Friday. So I don’t really know how I got on their radar, but we’ve been having a blast. It’s been a lot of fun.