Jason Mantzoukas on “The Long Dumb Road,” Finally Playing a Lead, and the Wonders of Improv

"Comedy always evolves. Taste always changes in what people think is funny."


Is Jason Mantzoukas the funniest man on the planet? He’s been consistently stealing scenes in any number of movies and shows for some time now — as the sleazebag brother-in-law Rafi on The League, the thoroughly unreliable detective Adrian Pimento on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or the emotionally unhinged neighbor Frank in last year’s unfairly-reviled Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler comedy The House. (The latter might have been the most inspired comic performance of 2017.)

Now, Mantzoukas finally gets to play a lead, in Hannah Fidell’s The Long Dumb Road, which closes out the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. As Richard, a hilariously embittered drifter who hitches a ride with an earnest, art-school-bound student (Tony Revolori), the actor gets to indulge in wide-eyed rants, deliver sage life advice, and pine pathetically for lost loves. Their relationship — charming, unpredictable, and constantly on the verge of imploding — is a joy to watch.

I spoke to Mantzoukas at the festival about his big role, his style of comedy, his openness to new experiences, and why the critics who hated The House are so, so wrong.

Bilge Ebiri: The character of Richard in The Long Dumb Road seems so perfect for you. Is that how it was written, or did you get to work with the filmmakers on it?

Jason Mantzoukas: We worked with it. In the script he was a bit more serious — more of a philosophical kind of drifter. I feel like when I came in — and especially when Tony [Revolori] and I got together, because we didn’t know each other prior to this, and we wound up having a very easy comedic chemistry — that changed the tone of the piece. It was our natural rhythm, which was great.

Road movies are often shot in sequence. Did you do that here as well?

No, no, we didn’t shoot in sequence. The reality is that, even though it takes place from Austin to Los Angeles or Vegas, we shot the whole movie in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico. So we didn’t have to travel. And it was really fun, especially when it came to finding those comedic beats or funny moments. Because we’re in a car — we’re either driving or on a flatbed truck on a process trailer — and that just allows you to be in the scene a little bit more. You’re not focusing on like, “Oh, and on that line I gotta walk over there, I gotta turn around…” You really can just be on the road, which I found to be a blast.

With the exception that sometimes it was very difficult to get out to go to the bathroom, it was otherwise really satisfying to have that blocked-off location where we are just allowing for the conversation and the getting-to-know-you and the digressions that we would find. Stuff could happen organically.

Does that also make it easier to build the character? Because this is relatively new for you to have a leading role where you have to have a whole arc and everything. Usually you’re doing supporting parts, or single scenes.

Oh, for sure. Yeah, 100%. By far this is the biggest role I’ve ever had in anything. And the thing about what you were saying about shooting it out of order and stuff is that this is one of the first times I’ve really had to be cognizant of my character’s emotional arc. Because there were times where we’d be like, “Oh, wait a minute. Right now in this scene, how long have we known each other?” We have to remember that if we’ve only known each other for like three hours, we should be more guarded and suspicious than, say, “Is this day three?”

Just from an acting perspective, I really had to try and track the emotional arc of this guy who starts off being very confrontational and very dismissive, and then starts to genuinely open up and become much more vulnerable, to a point where he becomes almost too vulnerable, and then course-corrects in a way that is like not cool. That was an interesting component of this that I’ve never really had to deal with.

Is there a lot of improvisation in a situation like that?

Definitely in a lot of the car scenes. Hannah [Fidell] and Carson [Mell] wrote a great script, and it already had this great relationship between the two guys. But I feel like once we got in the car, we would do the script, and it would be great, but then they would allow us to do a couple more takes and just poke around and see what happens.

Some of it’s in [the finished film], but even stuff that isn’t in there was very helpful in helping us figure out the characters. I feel like a lot of the improv stuff can often just help you find the dynamic between us, the banter, the cadences — even if it never gets into the movie, which more often than not it doesn’t.

Was there anything you did that you were sorry to see didn’t make it into the film?

I’m trying to think. Well, I’ll reverse it, and I’ll say one of the things that I’m thrilled made it into the film was the whole runner about The Fast and the Furious movies. That’s straight up my alley. I’m sure there’s a bunch of nonsense that I think is funny that didn’t make it in, but I love everything that’s in there.

I have to say I thought your performance in The House last year was one of the greatest things I saw in 2017. That film didn’t screen for critics, it got terrible reviews…

Oh, yeah. It’s holding steady at I think 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was an unmitigated bummer. I think it is the least well-performing Will Ferrell movie in history!

I saw it on a plane and laughed my ass off.

Yeah. Everybody did. So many people have sent me pictures from airplanes from the back looking forward at all the screens and like 60% of the screens are The House.

That was a pretty prominent part for you. Was it tough to get that kind of reception?

Yeah. Oh yeah. Oh, heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. Not just because it was for me a huge opportunity — to be the third lead in the big studio movie, especially with people who are idols of mine. I started at [Upright Citizens Brigade] — at the theatre that Amy Poehler founded in the late ’90s. I’ve known her for 20 years. And Will I’ve known for years, and I revere them both, so I was just, like, thrilled to be in it. A lot of great people put a lot of great work in it, and it is devastating.

But if people are seeing it on planes, great. If that’s how people are finding it, that’s how people will find it. It’s going to be one of those movies; it’ll be exactly your experience: “Oh yeah, this is funny.” Chance the Rapper tweeted about it, and that really made me happy because he said what I felt, which was, “Hey, why did this get so trashed? This is a totally funny movie.” And that’s what I couldn’t get either. Do I think it’s a masterpiece? No. Do I think it is a 17% on Rotten Tomatoes? Absolutely not. That seems crazy to me.

Your character in The House is so beautifully drawn because he is at once so out-there but also so identifiable. I feel like that’s something comedy can do that no other genre can do as well — to get you to identify with somebody, and at the same time make you step outside yourself and laugh.

Yeah! If you can connect with people on a level that feels relatable — showing them something that they can see some of themselves in — and then surprise them with something that is atypical to that, the surprise is very rewarding because it’s a catharsis. “Oh, that’s me, that’s me. Oh, that is not me, but I would love to be able to do that.”

And that movie — even though it’s this high-concept movie about starting a casino, blah blah blah, what launches them is not some nonsense about wanting to get rich on a casino. What launches them is that my character’s heartbroken that his wife has left him, and the others don’t have the money to send their daughter to school. Very relatable problems, you know? Now, their fix is a terrible idea, but those are individual depictions of universal struggle.

We hold onto whatever those things are, those things that poke at your soft spots and really get to you. The Long Dumb Road, too, I feel has that. Richard is a character who cannot let go of things. I mean, they go to Casey Wilson’s house. What is holding him back from moving forward is this fear and this nostalgia — he’s in a prison of his own making because he will not let himself move forward for fear of being hurt again, for fear of whatever. What’s nice is watching his walls come down in reaction to this kid.

You came up in the world of improv. For the longest time, especially after the initial Judd Apatow hits, it seemed like improv was the thing. Every comedy seemed to be a lot of improv. Now I feel like there’s a bit of a withdrawal from that.

Yeah. It was a new thing for a while. Comedy changes a lot. Drama is drama is drama is drama. The same things that are in a drama in the ’60s are often the same as the ’70s, same as the ’80s, same as the ’90s, same as now. With minor adjustments for performance level, maybe. But if you look at comedies from each of those eras, wildly different. Wildly different. Like, the idea that we all agreed that The Mask or Ace Ventura was what we all decided was comedy, and then ten years later we all decided The 40-Year-Old Virgin was comedy — that’s shocking. That is a complete shift. And I think we are now, I suspect, approaching another shift.

When the improv stuff took over, I benefited from that. And frankly I very much enjoy it on a taste, [a] stylistic level. But I think that it will change. It’s probably already changing into something else. I’m not sure what. I’m not sure who will be the person, or people, that we all see as leading this. Like Abbi and Ilana from Broad City — are they at the forefront of a new kind of tone, or a new kind of comedy? I don’t know. I love them and I love that show. I’m curious. And I’m excited for what happens next. Because comedy always evolves. Taste always changes in what people think is funny.

Does doing the How Did This Get Made? podcast, in which you and your colleagues Paul Scheer and June Diane Raphael deconstruct and discuss terrible movies, give you a new perspective on film production and reception?

It more makes me think about story and narrative and how you construct movies than it does in terms of production. Because a lot of times the limitations of production are financial. And not in the filmmaker’s control, really. But I find it actually incredibly useful. It is a kind of film school to simply have now watched hundreds of unsuccessful-to-bad movies. And to juxtapose them with each other, and to have these active conversations together with very smart, very funny people. Because we’re not there to tear anything apart or really be mean-spirited. We try and come at it from the point of view of celebrating bad movies, which is for us very fun.

You have to love a film to a certain extent to spend that much time watching it and talking about it and devoting an entire episode of your show to it.

Oh yeah. And there’s somebody who’s keeping a running tally of how much of our lives we’ve spent watching and talking about bad movies, and it is now over a month. It’s like probably closer to three months now — that’s how much of our actual life has been spent watching and talking about bad movies. So, I think it’s pretty wonderful.

I love June and Paul, I love the guests, I love the fans. We have such an active, involved fan base, and they are just as excited about these movies as we are. I love that it provokes discussion amongst people. I love the fact that we affect the Netflix algorithm when we announce a movie. I love that it’s a big thing, and that it’s lasted this long.

I imagine you must get feedback from filmmakers at this point. What’s been the most interesting?

I don’t have any good ones that are that way. Paul and June have a couple of really good ones that I won’t share because they’re their stories to tell, but they are good ones. They are really exciting ones. Of just people you would be surprised are listening, you know? People in the industry. It makes me happy.

I’ll have a meeting with an executive — a film executive or someone about a project or something — and anecdotally they’ll be like, “Oh, and I love the podcast.” I love that I came in thinking we were talking about this, but your knowledge of me includes this other whole thing. They seem separate: My acting career, my podcasting, my writing, they all seem separate. But not really.

I was interested to discover that you spent some time abroad after college, studying music in the Middle East. Do you feel experiences like that inform the comedy that you do?

It doesn’t necessarily inform the comedy I do, but it informs the person that I am. It made me a little more fearless — I mean, the idea of leaving home at 21, and living on my own for two years in countries that I was not familiar with.

Where did you go?

Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Turkey. And then I traveled through Jordan and Syria, but just briefly. That experience was monumental in who I am as a person, and while I suspect that I probably would have always tried to do something like what I’m doing, when I came back I was like, “I’m moving to New York, and I’m doing comedy. It’s done. That’s what I’m doing.” And that’s what I did. I moved straight to New York, and UCB had just started up. I got very lucky timing-wise, and so I just started taking their classes.

The challenge of doing that project abroad and succeeding at it made me fearless, made me feel as though all this was doable. It didn’t seem like something impossible. It made me, like, “Oh yeah, no, I’m doing that.” It still took me a long time to succeed, but it made me very, very confident and comfortable in what I wanted to do.

And also open to new experiences, I imagine. When I mentioned to friends that I was interviewing you, everybody had something else they felt I had to ask you about. “Ask him about The Good Place.” “Ask him about The League.” “Ask him about The House.” “Ask him about Comedy Bang Bang.” Everybody had their own thing they cherished.

I love that. I feel like I’ve gotten very lucky. I came up in a scene, the ethos of which is support. UCB improv, the whole thing, all of it is all about support, all about ensemble, all about group mind, all about “We all do this together.” It’s not stand-up. It’s not me versus the audience. It’s not mercenary at all. And so, at a certain point, everybody started to work, and when everybody started to work, everybody started to use each other.

And I got very lucky that I got to do lots of cool shows because they’re my friends’ shows, and because people like [The Good Place creator] Mike Schur like what I do, and always manage to find a spot for me in what they’re doing. The idea that I get to be on The Good Place is exciting to me because I love that show; I loved that show before they ever asked me to be on it. It’s like the best new network TV show in years. Kind of the same thing with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I feel very lucky that I’m someone people think of when they want to do something that’s weird and crazy but also kind of grounded.

In comedy, it seems actors like to cultivate a type. I imagine the process is different for each performer, but is that a situation where you make a conscious decision: “Okay, I’m gonna be this type of guy.” Or does it happen organically?

I think in my instance it happened organically. I would say that a lot of the characters I play that fall into that category — Rafi from The League, Dennis Feinstein on Parks, Pimento on Brooklyn — are all versions of characters that I’ve been playing onstage in improv scenes for decades at this point. That’s I think partially why I’m so good at them — I’ve been doing them for years onstage. But then I also feel lucky when they say, “Come be on Transparent as a pretty normal person.” I’m always happy when that happens, when I get an opportunity to do something different. Because I now get offered a lot of, “Come be the perverted uncle on this show, come be the weird guy at this thing,” you know. And some of them are great. But more often than not, it’s a version of a Rafi or a whatever. And so it’s a delicate thing. I like a lot of those characters, I’m very fond of a lot of them, but I also don’t want to just be stuck in that thing. You know, a lot of people think, “Oh, he only does that,” because they haven’t seen some of the other stuff I’ve done.

When you write, do you write for yourself as well?

I do sometimes, and I don’t sometimes. I just finished a script for Paramount that’s an adaptation of a comic book called Battling Boy that I would not be in at all.

But when you do write for yourself, do you tend to write a type that you’re familiar playing, or something different?

Oh, no. No, no. The things that I’ve written for myself are more related to the person I actually am — well, not really me, but more related to the person I am than that bigger character, that archetype that I tend to play in other people’s stuff.

So, I was listening to the How Did This Get Made? about the Friday the 13th sequel Jason X. And you noted that while you were watching the film, you wrote down the words, “What is Jason?” And you joked about how it became an existential question for you. But have you actually ever asked yourself that question?

[laughs] “What is Jason?” About myself? Great question. And one of the funny things that’s also related is that my character on The Good Place is frequently having to talk about the character named Jason, so there’s a lot of fun in me as Derek saying my own name, Jason. That was very strange. No, it’s a great question. What is Jason? You can end with that. [laughs]