Jake Johnson On Going ‘Off The Rails’ For His Netflix Comedy, ‘Hoops’

When we hopped on the phone with Jake Johnson earlier this month to talk about his new Netflix animated comedy Hoops, we spent a surprising amount of time developing a drinking metaphor to sell the show’s signature brand of funny.

We won’t spoil it here, but it has a lot to do with bourbon, a no-nonsense, honest kind of spirit that a coal miner, or someone who works in a hole, would enjoy.

It’s a very Jake Johnson kind of drink, or at least, the kind of liquor his characters like New Girl’s Nick Miller and Stumptown’s Grey McConnell might prefer. You either like it, or you don’t. That goes for the whiskey and for Johnson’s new series, which follows a middle-aged basketball coach whose dreams of glory hinge on a team of talentless high-school athletes.

Created by Ben Hoffman, the show sports an all-star lineup of comedic voices including Rob Riggle, Natasha Leggero, Ron Funches, Cleo King, A.D. Miles, and New Girl alumni Max Greenfield and Hannah Simone. It earns every bit of its TV-MA rating and it might not be for everyone, but then again, that’s why Johnson likes it so much.

We chatted with him about getting back to work on Stumptown, New Girl’s quarantine fandom, and the Hamilton snub that keeps him up at night.

How are you holding up during quarantine?

I’m trying to figure out things to do. I’ve built a little office in my backyard. I’m trying to train my dogs, but the truth is, I’m dying to get back to work.

Have you heard anything about Stumptown and when you guys might start filming again?

Yeah. I just talked to Dave Rosemont, a line producer, and right now it’s with the unions and the studios to get everything signed off. But it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of testing and a lot of zones. So everybody is going to be very separate from one another.

Maybe, and hear me out, you just go full Jake Gyllenhaal in Bubble Boy? Just get everyone stuffed into a plastic bubble suit?

[Laughs] I actually texted Cobie Smulders about trying to get all the actors and the crew in a bubble, like the NBA. It’s super hard to do.

Speaking of quarantine, is it weird for you to see how many people are becoming New Girl fans now?

I’ll be honest with you, I’m not really on social media very much.

Good for you.

I’m not communicating with anybody, so the way that I found out New Girl was really having a resurgence was the last day and a half of press [for Hoops]. What I will say to the people who are finding the show, ‘I’m glad. I appreciate it.’ I wish they found it two years ago so we could still be making it.

Yeah, we could’ve really used those ratings in the last two seasons.

And that’s what it is. We were in a spot where we had established what the show was and how to make it. We all knew what it was at that point, and the network, in their defense, was really trying to be cool. They gave us eight episodes in season seven, but they really did that to show respect to the few fans we had. So you guys are about 24 months late.

Hoops is about as far from New Girl as you can get. Are you a big sports fan or did creator Ben Hoffman just rope you into working for him?

I used to be a pretty big fan but yeah, I got roped in by Ben. What really pulled [me] in on this one was Chris Miller and Phil Lord, who are also producing, and I liked the idea of doing an R rated animated show that, really, there was no message. It was just for the bits. That’s not something that ever comes my way, where it’s just a stupid comedy for the sake of being a stupid comedy.

So there’s no hidden meaning here.

No, it doesn’t mean anything. There’s no message to it. There’s no statement to it. If you don’t like the comedy of it from the first minute, you’re not going to like it later. It doesn’t grow. It doesn’t change. It reminds me of sitting like backstage at a comedy theater and doing bits and the bits never evolve. It’s just really meant to get funny people, trying to be funny.

It’s straight-forward. Like a shot of bourbon.

That’s right. And if you don’t like it, you’re not going to like it. So there’s no reason to keep watching it. But if you like that first shot of bourbon, you’re going to love your sixth shot of bourbon.

And you also might have a drinking problem.

You’re having a fun Tuesday, yeah.

Did you play any sports in high school?

You know, I played sports until two things happened at the same time that got me uninterested: puberty and marijuana.

A lethal combo.

Yeah, it kind of hit in high school for me. The idea of being on a sports team with a coach yelling at me during practice really lost a lot of value.

So the ranting this guy does on the show, you weren’t channeling any past trauma? You haven’t gotten yelled at like that before?

Well, I have, but it was always my bosses. [Laughs] No, honestly, I really wasn’t channeling much of anything for this. Ben Hoffman was always in the booth and trying to make him laugh is a fun thing to do. For New Girl, it was trying to make Liz Meriwether laugh, which was always fun. For this, it was trying to make Ben laugh. So those crazy rants would make him laugh and it was really fun to do.

This show was born from a presentation you guys gave to MTV years ago and it didn’t get picked up, partly because it was so graphic. Did you have to water anything down for Netflix?

So the opening scene of the pilot where he’s yelling at the ref and then the scene where he’s trying to get the high school kid a prostitute are directly from the presentation.

Were you worried it would be too raunchy, even for streaming?

Well, I kind of feel like because the cold open of this show was coaches screaming at all the players, it’s very clear what this show is. If we lived in a world where there were four channels and a limited number of shows, I would be very cautious because I would think there are a lot of people who aren’t going to like it. But when you have so many options, once you kind of set the standard for what this show is, you kind of have to stay at that level or you’re cheating the people who like it.

That was our train of thought, it was, ‘This is the tone of it.’ You don’t start with a shot of bourbon and then end with a margarita.

You did end up recruiting some New Girl cast members for this thing, though.

A lot of the casting was me. I tried to kind of use my producer muscle by bringing in people I really like to work with, from Max [Greenfield] to Hannah [Simone]. I like working with the same people over and over who I know are really funny. Honestly, a lot of the jobs that I do are for the actual day at work and for me, the actual day at work was recording with these people. And so I would much rather record with somebody who I felt was really fun to come and work with as opposed to somebody I don’t know.

So you guys were all in the booth together for this?

That was the best part. Sometimes we had multiple people in there at the same time. We tried to maximize the improv.

I’ve seen the virtual Comic-Con panel you guys did for this show. How do you keep everyone in line at work?

You don’t. You kind of go off the rails. I think that’s the point, though.

On a serious note, you played Aaron Burr in the first episode of Drunk History, which I recently rediscovered on YouTube. Does the success of Hamilton just absolutely eat away at you at night?

[Laughs] Man, that is a great question. Yes, yes it does.

I thought so.

Because I feel so deeply offended that I wasn’t included. And I just hope… I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to get in any trouble here, but I just hope that one day my performance as Aaron Burr finally gets the credit that [Lin Manuel-Miranda’s] version of Hamilton has gotten. That’s all I’m going to say.