TORONTO, CANADA. After a morning spent slipping and falling, for comedic effect, on the ice of a suburban hockey rink, “Man Seeking Woman” star Jay Baruchel is eager to talk about his new FXX romantic comedy.
The Powers That Be, however, are not cooperating.
We're in a small Baptist church that has had its basement retrofitted into a “Man Seeking Woman” production hub and, at the moment, a high-profile guest star who I can't currently reveal is shooting in front of a green-screen in the room next door. A door is closed, but Baruchel is excited about his first regular TV series gig in nearly a decade and a stern AD keeps peeking in to “shush” the source of loud vocalizations, ignoring that the noise is coming from the guy who's first on the call-sheet.
This is not what a guy who spent the morning stumbling and bumbling on freshly zambonied ice wants to hear and Baruchel feigns silence he's time he's interrupted and then his volume rises as he talks with a small group of reporters about the work he's getting to do on “Man Seeking Woman.”
“I just have always adored slapstick… Rowan Atkinson and Michael Richards were kinda my two heroes for most of my life, to be honest,” Baruchel says. “There was also a bit of Darwinism to it as well, because it was my means of self-defense. I was the same size as every other kid until I hit Grade 7, so as a result, I was raised that if a kid talked s*** to me, I talked s*** back to him, if he hits me, I hit him back. Then they kept growing and I stopped. And after a year of getting into fights with kids twice my size, I realized I wasn't gonna win any of them, so to keep them from beating me up, I beat the s*** out of myself. I would just fling myself into lockers… And they just left well enough alone after a certain amount of time.”
Baruchel parlayed this theatricality, with much more productive results, into acting. The Ottawa-born, Montreal-raised Baruchel co-hosted “Popular Mechanics for Kids” with Elisha Cuthbert and, after a couple movie roles including, most prominently, “Almost Famous,” Baruchel went through several years in which American networks seemed determined to turn him into a star. Judd Apatow's “Undeclared” has developed a reputation as a star-spawning classic, but back in 2002, it was just a low-rated show on FOX's cancellation heap. Jenji Kohan went on to create “Weeds” and “Orange Is The New Black,” but “The Stones” got only three episodes on CBS in 2004. And The WB's “Just Legal” also aired only three episodes in the fall of 2005.
With movies like “Knocked Up,” “Tropic Thunder,” “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” and “This Is The End,” Baruchel has rebounded rather nicely, parlaying his new-found clout into writing, producing and co-starring in 2011's “Goon.”
“Man Seeking Woman” brings Baruchel back to TV and he insists nothing has changed.
“It's the same s*** at the end of the day,” he says. “There's more people. It's easier to get famous now than it used to be. I come from a time when I remember when 'Check the gate' at the end of a shot actually meant checking a gate. They used to shine a flashlight in there. I still remember when mags would run out. I still remember when the only way to get known was to pound the pavement and audition and now you can turn on, not even a video camera, you can turn on a still camera because they all have video cameras on them, shoot yourself, put it on YouTube and you have your own sitcom. So in that respect it's different. But it's still the same s***. There wasn't like a conscious decision to return to television. My criteria is: Is it something that I'd pay money to see? Is it something that I'd enjoy doing? And it met those criteria and it just so happen to be on television.”
So what drew him to Simon Rich's adaptation of his short-story collection “The Last Girlfriend on Earth”?
“Simply, it made me laugh. It just made me laugh. For whatever reason I'm a bit of a bit of a snob when it comes to sorta quote-unquote 'funny s***' and I rarely read or see anything that makes me laugh,” Baruchel says. “And when I read the first script, I was blown away at how unique it was and how definitive it was and how it was clearly one guy's voice and not 100 cooks, white-washed nothing. It's that rare thing where you get to actually make some art on television and this just doesn't happen very often and so when I read it, it read like the best short film I'd ever seen and that was just reading it. When you read a script that you dig, for me it's kinda like when you meet a girl that you think is cool and you're like, 'Oh, there's no way that this girl's single' so it's, 'Oh, there's no way that this part isn't cast already and there's just no way that this is actually happening.' I just found every reason to sorta second guess it and for whatever reason, they wanted me and I'm so bloody thankful for it.”
Baurchel's “MSW” character, Josh Greenberg, is spending a lot of time falling down in the episode that's shooting on this chilly November day and Rich referenced Buster Keaton as a touchstone when we spoke about the role, but the actor correctly notes that with that comparison comes both physical comedy, but also depth.
“It's a word that's thrown around too much these days, but you've sorta gotta be truthful,” he says. “For me, the sorta height of creativity is to be able to do something that super-funny and super-depressing in the same beat, a sorta Peter Sellers things. That's not anything close to a comparison. That's just a lesson I've learned. They're each better for having each other. On their own, in isolation, each means less. So no one cares about a sad-sack Eeyore if there's nothing funny going on and no one cares if an asshole's falling on the ground if there's nothing interesting about it. So the two together are a pretty good formula, I think.”
While we're in Toronto shooting and Baruchel's presence guarantees a certain amount of Canadian intonation to the dialogue, “Man Seeking Woman” is set in Chicago. Baruchel played a part in getting production to Canada, but he says he didn't fight to get the entire world of the series relocated.
“Yeah, it's an American show, written by an American, produced by Americans for an American network,” he says. “Listen, this is Simon's show, so those decisions are his, right? When I made my movie, it took place in Canada. And, furthermore, it's not for me to step on that. It's his baby. So just like I wouldn't want someone telling me that 'Goon' has to take place in the States, it's none of my business. It's not my place to tell him it should take place here. The fact that we're doing it here is big enough and I think that it can be rightfully called our own, because the crew is 99 percent Canadian and we employ a great deal of Canadian actors and we're bringing a ton of money and work and tax dollars to the city of Toronto. So I think where it counts, it is. But yeah, as much of a patriot as I am, I'm also a big defender of creative freedom and if he wants to set the show in Chicago, that's his call, not mine.”
Baruchel is a patriot and because I'm sitting with a couple Canadian reporters as we talk with him, the conversation remains focused on his home and native land.
“I like to think of myself as an artist from Canada,” Baruchel says. “Therefore, I wanna keep creating in Canada. In any other country in the world, it would be taken for granted. If I was in Mexico and I said I wanted to make movies in Mexico, no one would be like, 'Why?!?' They'd be like, 'Oh yeah, of course.' In any other country. But we have that strange, most Canadian of traits. It used to be, 'You're nobody till you're somebody in England' and then it became, 'You're nobody till you're somebody in the States.' I think, without caveats, I think you just create where you're from and create where you want to be. The fact that I fact that I got to combine the three loves of my life — Cinema, Canada and hockey — into one adventure was huge. So I will spend my life working here. And this isn't to say that I might have a story to tell that takes place elsewhere. That doesn't mean I'll make it elsewhere. I'll probably still make it here. But it might take place… That's the thing, I think what makes a Canadian project Canadian is something we all have to kinda figure out, because it doesn't always have to be Laura Secord running through the forest. I think if someone is from Canada and they create in Canada and the money and the tax dollars go back into Canada, that's Canadian art.”
Baruchel chafes at the notion that indigenous Canadian-produced comedies have a questionable reputation and quality.
“It's weird,” he admits. “I think that there's less resources here than they have to play with in England or in the States. That being said, I think that the system we have here, you're allowed complete freedom, for the most part. So this is the system that gave the world 'Kids in the Hall' and gave the world 'The Trailer Park Boys.' They're on the ninth season, for f*** sake. That's something to be proud of. That's something to cherish. And that's proof positive. 'Corner Gas,' that's not my cup of tea, but they got seven or eight years out of it and as loyal a fanbase as you can find for any show.”
Baruchel continues, “I think it becomes more apparent because there's less of us and we make less stuff, right? I don't know know that the ratio's any lower or higher up here. There's just 35 million of us versus 300 million. If you were to do a running tab of all the crap shows on American television, it would be a phonebook. And there are some very good ones too, right? But I just think because there's less and we do less, that there's we more attention focused on it, so we have this kinda weird self-hating thing about all of our s*** and we've been kinda predisposed to think it look looks like crap and it's boring and all this different stuff and I think that, yeah, there might be something to that, but I don't think it happens any more often here than it happens anywhere else. I just think we do less therefore it seems like we make more crap. But going back to Wayne & Shuster for God's sake. We've always done cool s*** up here. We've always done crap, but we've always done cool s***. But I don't know that that distinction is different than anywhere else in the world.”
Yes, this is the first and only interview I've ever been a part of that referenced Laura Secord and Wayne & Shuster.
And yes, my recording ends with a whisper, as presumably shooting has resumed again.
“Man Seeking Woman,” which feels very Canadian, but is also kinda American, premieres on FXX on Wednesday, January 14.