In “Game Night,” the second season finale of People of Earth, Gerry Johnson (Luka Jones) invites everyone from the StarCrossed experiencers group over to his girlfriend Yvonne Watson’s (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) place for some fun. Little do they realize, it’s all part of a trap designed by Eric the Cube (Peter Serafinowicz), the aliens’ new leader, to decimate the human baggage leftover from the original mission. Gerry, himself an avid fanboy of all things extraterrestrial, wasn’t abducted until the very end of season one. When season two picked things up in July, however, it quickly became evident his role would take a darker, more prominent turn.
Ever since Gerry eagerly tried to befriend visiting reporter Ozzie Graham (Wyatt Cenac) in the pilot episode, Jones has successfully established the blueprint necessary for his adorably bumbling character’s sinister segue. This is a difficult feat to accomplish, considering People of Earth‘s stellar ensemble cast, but prior training in comedy improvisation and dramatic acting at revered places like the Upright Citizens Brigade and Steppenwolf Theatre Company rendered this possible. And if you’ve ever visited Jones’s Twitter page, you may have noticed another feather in his cap: a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Southern California. It’s why show creator David Jenkins calls Jones their “gentle, hulking existentialist.”
I reached out to Jones to chat with the 42-year-old actor about his past life in academia, his decision to pursue acting while simultaneously finishing his dissertation at USC, and his work on People of Earth. Jones happily agreed, though I wasn’t at all surprised when the professional questioner seemed more intrigued by our mutual experiences in the ivory tower. “Interested in hearing about your experience in academia,” he wrote back.
“I know more people than not,” Jones tells me during our subsequent telephone conversation, when I admitted to quitting halfway through my own PhD dissertation. “You figure out if you want to do it while you’re taking the forever that it takes to get a PhD. A lot of times, the coursework is cool but you can’t — not ability-wise, per se — motivate yourself to write a book, basically. Some people just don’t want to do that, even for a dissertation. I was like that, and I barely made it through. Almost embarrassingly, I put that I had a PhD in Philosophy up on Twitter because, at the time, that was my big accomplishment. I figured I wasn’t going any further than that.”
Jones began picking up more paid acting work while in the midst of completing his qualifying exams and beginning the dissertation. A quick spot on How I Met Your Mother and several commercials led to his first big break, the short-lived NBC sitcom Best Friends Forever. It only lasted six episodes, but it was enough to encourage him further.
“I think I want to do this instead,” Jones recalls thinking at the time. He tried to balance the two separate lives at first, but quickly discovered this was “almost impossible” in practice. A former Communications Studies major at the University of Kansas, Jones describes his past self as a “really bad student” who was simply “enjoying the social aspects” more than anything. Performance never really entered the picture then, and Jones only decided to move to Los Angeles when he saw the names of friends working as production assistants on major films flash across the screen. He ultimately rejoined the academic ranks at California State University, Los Angeles and USC, but acting was never too far off his radar.
Additional work in the Christina Applegate- and Will Arnett-led sitcom Up All Night, small spots on Modern Family and Casual, and minor film roles in Her and Dean carried Jones along once he completed his dissertation in 2013 (titled “Merely Verbal Disputes in Philosophy”). The transition to full-time acting was now complete, despite his otherwise scholarly credentials, but that didn’t prevent Jones from pursuing work that — like academic philosophy before it — also “felt really good on my brain.” And while dramatic acting training at the Atlantic and Steppenwolf Theater companies in New York and Chicago helped propel him along, it was his experiences at iO West and the UCB that solidified Jones’s standing as an improv comedy performer.