John C. McGinley on Stan Against Evil and Hating the Word 'Douchey'
To say that John C. McGinley is excited about IFC's Stan Against Evil is an understatement. He got charged up when the show presented at New York Comic Con in October, loving the fact that one of the larger rooms at the Javits Center was jam packed. "F--k yeah. Are you kidding me? What did we have, 1600 people there? That felt like a hit off-Broadway play to me," he told me a few weeks ago. The audience there knew him mostly as Dr. Perry Cox from the long-running Bill Lawrence comedy Scrubs; one audience member asked McGinley to call him a girl's name like Cox used to do to J.D. (Zach Braff) on the medical comedy.
But then another audience member said, with affection, that most of McGinley's characters were "douchey," and it rubbed him the wrong way. "It hurt my feelings. Plus, I hate that word. I hate it. I hate it."
McGinley's passion extends to Stan, whose Season 1 finale airs Wednesday night. He plays Stan Miller, the ex-sheriff of Willard's Mill, New Hampshire, a town whose sheriffs tend to die at the hands of the demons of the people executed during witch trials in the 1600s. After his wife dies and he loses his job, a new sheriff, Evie Barret (Janet Varney), comes to town, and she reluctantly asks Stan for help in defeating these demons.
Here's my wide-ranging conversation with McGinley, including his respect for Stan creator Dana Gould (The Simpsons) and regret over the cancellation of Ground Floor, which ran on TBS for two seasons.
How many people do you think were at the Comic Con panel for Dana? How many people do you think were there for you because of Scrubs?
I think demographically, because it was a horror thing, I would put 80% show. Then you can kind of check your ego at the door. People I think clamor for funny horror, because as you know, straddling those two tones of funny and scary is frickin' hard. Landis did in An American Werewolf in London. If you make it too funny, you invalidate the threat, or the consequence of the monster. If you make the monsters too scary, and your protagonist can't laugh when the gallows humor should be there, then you missed it. That was the tone that Dana and I were just obsessed with. Obsessed with.
I like that all of these monsters and witches are just another annoyance to him.
I think it's an annoyance, I also think, as I tried to say in that large room, this is a guy who in a 24-hour period lost his wife of 30 years and his job of 27 years. He's injured. For those of us who love shrinks, you go and you work on loss processing. Well, Stan doesn't have a rabbi or a priest or a shrink, and he doesn't have the tools or the wherewithal to do loss processing, so he's left to his own devices to try to sort out the wreckage. Reconciling that stuff ... I don't know what your track record with loss is, but it's hard. That's his entry point. Then you want to pile witches on top of that? That's just delicious.
At the panel, you said you approached Stan not from a comedic standpoint, but from an emotional standpoint. The emotion shines through in his face when he's talking about his wife. When you talked to Dana about this was he surprised that you wanted to approach it that way?
Well, first of all, it's a great question. The only way to position actors doing excavation on scripts, if you're lucky enough to be with the writer/director, is to make sure and give them credit first. The fact of the matter is that Dana put this on the page. I didn't. Dana put this level of injury that this guy is exposed to on the page. Now, he may have glossed over it in a grander scheme, but that's what I connected to. I told him, I said, "I can do the funny stuff in my sleep," you know, you've got a guy [in Dana] with a pedigree from The Simpsons. I said, "If you put that stuff on the page, I can deliver that for you." He's a horror junkie. I said, "But we've got to explore [his relationship with] Claire."
The reason is, because my hero's Norman Lear, and what Norman did with Archie was that he gave Archie Edith. Archie's an incomplete man without Edith, and the only reason he can be an equal-opportunity disparager is because of Edith, because we know that he loves that woman. He loves her, and that's where his soul is. Unless we see Stan's love for Claire, then he's just another jackass, and I have no interest. Billy Lawrence, the way he drew up Cox... You want Cox as your doctor, bottom line. If you come to Sacred Heart, you frickin' well want Cox as your doctor. If you work backwards from there, what he's teaching these kids isn't how to tighten a bolt on a bicycle. He's teaching them how to save goddamn lives. With that as the mandate, yes, he can teach with a spoonful of dirt and a teaspoon of sugar.
I largely find that when you come with your authentic truth, borne out of what a writer put on the page, how could you as the writer, which you are one ... How could you not be flattered by the love and the depth I'm bringing to your page? That's where Dana and I started to dance together.
Is that what you're always looking for now when you take on a character at this point in your career?
Yes, and when you make me one of the producers on the show ... because I'm really good in post-production. I had a post-production company in the Brill Building in New York for 15 years, and so I'm very comfortable in post. When I'm not allowed to participate in post, you're squandering a huge asset. That I could tinker in post made me super comfortable, because in post is a lot of times where you can find tone, whether it's in music, or effects, or who we stay on when a joke is landing. I'm just very comfortable in post.
The answer is yes, that's what I'm looking for, but if it's not there, I'm perfectly comfortable not participating. Mostly because of what Billy Lawrence afforded us, the whole ensemble in Scrubs. If you minded your Ps and Qs and were smart with your money, you should be able to turn down a lot of C-R-A-P, and I do. It's not that fun when you're trying to inflate a balloon that's leaking every single day on the set because there's nothing on the page. You've got to be Felix the Cat with a bag of tricks every morning, and it's like, "Dude, get somebody else."
I can imagine that would wear on you at a certain point.
Not only wears on you, but you start to become a casualty of redundancy. You start to rely on that bag of tricks you have, that finite number of eccentricities that you can bring to a set to salvage things. I think when that's the verve you're bringing to the set, when that's the action, when you want to salvage the page today ... That's just a recipe for mediocrity. What Dana put on the page in Stan, just like what Billy put on the page in Scrubs, it's an invitation to elevate. It's the antithesis of mediocrity. It's already at B plus/A minus. Now, if you are capable of adding half a grade, we might be able to get this thing to an A. Maybe. Maybe.
Is that why the "douchey" question really bothered you? A lot of the questions there were like, "How was Stan like Dr. Cox? They seem very similar." You were trying to take pains to say, "They're not similar."
They're not. Cox is half a genius. What bothered me was that that's lazy thinking, and I have a horrible prejudice against people who were born with all their chromosomes in the right place and that they exercise lazy thinking. I just have a horrible bias.
When people do lazy thinking, I'm just like, "Wow, I wish [my son] Maxy [who has Down Syndrome] had gotten a full deck like you, because you're not using yours." Then I have to check myself and not say mean things. I didn't say anything mean. I didn't say anything.
With the first two episodes, we see Stan --
Wait till you see episode 8, you're going to s--t a brick. It's one of the best half-hours of television I've ever seen. It's as good as Archie delivering the baby in the elevator in All in the Family. Go back and watch Archie ... Not delivering the baby, but holding the Puerto Rican baby at the end of that episode when they're stuck in the elevator together. It'll give you a chill. Then Carol's left with the baby, and he starts to weep, and ... Forget it. Forget it.
Where is this story going? It feels like we're exploring Stan's relationship with Evie this season.
Yeah, I feel you. The first season is largely about Stan and Evie and figuring out just what the frick we're going to do about this situation we're in. I love actors, I teach actors, and I'm kind of an actor geek. I want actors that have the tools they need to get through a narrative, and the one tool you can give yourself is "What is this guy doing?" for this 110 pages of a film, or 60 pages of a TV episode. What is he doing? What would be the greatest thing ever? For Stan ... Usually you want to give them an aggressive verb like "solve," or "save," or "reconcile." For Stan, I gave Stan the über-objective ... that's called an über-objective ... and for Stan, I gave him the über-objective that he wants to get into his La-Z-Boy recliner. That's it. Every day, that's where he wants to be, and anything that takes him away from that, that means he's not doing what he set out to do. It yielded profound dividends. I was right. I was taking a big, fat chance on that, and it really, really ... It was spot on. Because he's exhausted, and he's hurt, and he's lonely, and he's injured, and he ... There's no one to talk to anymore. He wants to watch the History Channel and just have 10 beers, and just ... He lost his wife. He's been fired. He saw a witch at a funeral. What the f--k?
It's kind of the whole Danny Glover, "I'm too old for this s--t," kind of attitude.
One hundred percent, and that's delicious. Usually you want to have some courageous über-objective, that you're going to save the world. I don't want to save the world, I want to get in my chair. It's f--king genius.
How juicy is it to say some of Stan's lines in a world where we're now so politically ... I don't even want to use the term "politically correct," because I think that's been co-opted.
I do too.
How juicy is it to say these lines, knowing that in 2016 ... Even as opposed to when Scrubs ended in 2009, or even two years ago when Ground Floor ended ... These lines are so not what people say in 2016?
Beyond delicious, and because I wanted to be able to lay into them, that's why ... I worked backwards with Dana on this ... That's why I wanted us to explore how injured this guy is. If we find out about his love for Claire, and being fired, and being without a rudder now at 57, now we understand why he's disparaging people. It's not at people's expense, it's all at Stan's expense. Now we can laugh. We know Archie's a jackass in All In The Family, and it's at his expense. When Sammy [Davis Jr.] comes in and kisses him, that's at Archie's expense. It's great. This stuff all has to be at Stan's expense.
Like the argument about Starsky and Hutch being gay?
Correct, but he's also telling his truth. He's not winking at the lens. That show impacted him, because the guy had a sweater with a belt around it. That's a clear signal that those characters were gay. That's not good or bad. He's not disparaging them, he's just saying, "That was a gay cop show." He tells her, "You're a cop. Look at the clues, figure it out!" He gave it some thought.
Right, and he insisted on getting that argument out, even though Evie wanted to just find out what was going on with these witches.
Well plus, she's a woman now in a position of authority, which he cannot assimilate.
You're just not going to even believe the rest of the season. Dana can write his ass off. These guys come along, these young Norman Lears, like Billy Lawrence and his generation, and then Dana behind him. When they ... It's just so delicious.
With Billy, Billy not even trying hard lets Cox talk about, at JD's expense, Cox sets it up and then JD takes the bait. That time when he's talking about a cotillion. JD takes the bait and he says, "Why? Are you insinuating that I'm gay or something?" and Cox is like, "No, I was talking about a cotillion, but if that's where you want to take it, we'll go there." John McGinley gets to say the word "cotillion" a couple of times on national TV with 12 million people watching him. The word "cotillion." You could go through your whole life and not say the word "cotillion." It's genius, and Cox just throws it away.
The same with Dana, who's a TV geek just like I am. We're both kind of birds of a feather as far as our consumption of TV growing up. The TV was never off in my house. Starsky and Hutch is a good example. Stan goes in and just throws that line away, "I haven't been in here since that gay cop show was on." That's the reference point of him entering this room. He just threw it away. He didn't put it up on a billboard. I call those "tosses," just toss that. Then Janet takes the bait, and okay, now we're in. The hook's in her gums, let's go.
Dana's SAT-wise, I'm sure he got like 1600, and he's also this super crafty New England kid.
Are you fairly confident that IFC would lean towards giving it a second season that would explore a little bit more?
I don't know about that. All I can tell you is that Stan, good, bad or indifferent, the way it's rendered is exactly the way Dana and I wanted it to be. We wrote it so meticulously, the tone in post. At one point there was some exec saying that when Stan comes home from the office, the jail, for the first time, and he touches Claire's key ring, they were like, "That's too sad," and I'm like, "Well, that's staying in the show, just so you know." When he can't finish telling his daughter about why he's never been in the sewing room, and then he excuses himself and walks out of the frame and has nothing to say but a voice cracking, "Oh, goddamn it," they were like, "That's too sad." I'm like, "Well, that's where the first episode is. And that will yield dividends. You're going to have to trust me."
Who are these people that are saying that?
Doesn't matter, but I won. Dana and I cut the show exactly the way we wanted it.
No notes from the executives?
No, tons of notes, but ... Of course there were notes, it's their money, but it's our vision. We cut this thing right to the notes that we wanted to play.
It's funny as hell. Stan's sense of loss, and his injury and damage mostly dissipates after the fourth episode, but that's okay, because now that's a fertile field for us to go back and visit whenever we want. In episode 4 he's on to trying to pick up the pieces a little bit.
What's the most shocking episode?
The time loop, the finale in Episode 8. The whole thing's a time loop. Evie has to perform something, and any time she doesn't, she goes back, and there's a time loop she can't get out of. It is just great TV. It's 21 minutes and 35 seconds of just water-tight storytelling. It's funny as hell, the monsters are insanely scary, and it's what the first seven added up to.
Going back to Ground Floor real quick...
Oh, you're breaking my heart.
That show was improving quite a bitby the end of the second season. A lot of Bill's shows do that.
[Groans] I agree.
Why do you think TBS dropped it?
I know exactly why. Here, I'll shoot myself in the foot. There was a regime change, and when you have shows that are improving, but aren't smash hits like The Last Ship I guess is a hit for them ... When there's a regime change, whoever the new head is, they can't take credit for stuff that was preexisting prior to their watch. To validate you paying me all this money to come in and run your network, I have to generate hits. I can't be living off the group before me's hits. Ground Floor was chugging its way up to that 2 million number, and .... Ugh. That one caught me off-guard. It was going to be just so lovely. Skylar [Astin] being the son the guy never had, and ... That one really hurt.
That ensemble, I fell in love with them. It was kind of a gas doing it live. I had just done Glengarry. One of the first things I did after Scrubs was I went and did Glengarry with Al [Pacino] and Bobby [Cannavale] and Richard [Schiff] and everybody on Broadway. It was the greatest experience of my life, creatively. I was just breathing fire coming off of that thing, and bang, you put me in ... If there's such a thing as ... and there is ... for actors being in good live theater shape, I was in good live theater shape coming into Ground Floor. We shot it, those 4 cameras in front of about 400 people on Thursday nights. I was in really good live theater shape, and it felt like falling out of bed. The timing of it was perfect.
If Bill called you up tomorrow and said, "Hey, I got something for you," whether it's a one-off or another series-
Billy was nice enough to invite me onto all those shows, and I just ... I'm not comfortable doing that. It's kind of a trap for actors. You have to be the baby chick that gets the worm, and so you have to act the most egregiously. That makes me throw up, and so I don't ... I did Burn Notice, I did an eight-episode arc down in Miami on Burn Notice, but that's different. I don't like to do ... Not anymore. Not anymore.
Is this the type of thing where if Bill calls you up, you're like, "I'm in"? Or you're still like, "Let me see what's going on with that"?
If Dana or Billy wrote something, it's good. You've got to remember, Billy and I spent 11 years of our lives together. There were years there when we were doing 24 episodes a year, one year 26, where I definitely was spending more time with Billy and that ensemble than anybody else on the planet. It was single-camera, the week started out with 12 hours, and then before you knew it, it was Saturday at noon, and you were wrapped. Then your call time was 5 a.m. Monday morning. There are casualties in your personal life as a result of that, so the trade-off better be pretty great, and it was.
Stan Against Evil, Wednesdays, 10/9c, IFCAlertMe