A few years ago, NBC made the wise decision to greenlight Superstore, a workplace comedy set in a Big Box department store. The show followed the formula of fellow NBC comedy hits like The Office and Parks and Rec, recreating an environment everyone’s familiar with and mining bits of humor from the mundane. But the series elevated the genre a bit by addressing real-world issues like employer-provided healthcare, immigration, gun control, and abortion and it’s continued to do that in its third season, finding that perfect blend of serious and silly.
Colton Dunn plays Garrett, a wheelchair-bound employee with a love for sarcasm and a disdain for pretty much everything else. Dunn served behind-the-scenes for years, writing on shows like Key and Peele, performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and guest-starring on Parks and Rec before landing a recurring role on the network TV series. Now he’s in a new comedy film, Blockers, with John Cena and prepping for the show’s fourth season. We talked to Dunn about being called the “Black Seth Rogen,” the controversy behind his casting, ad-libbing menstrual cycle jokes, and, yes, his resemblance to Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
You’ve been in the business for a while, but a show like Superstore probably means you get recognized on the street a bit more.
I do. Obviously, a lot of my work had been sort of behind the camera as a writer, so I would be out to eat with some of the actors that I would work for and see them deal with getting recognized in public places. Now I’m kinda doing it. It’s a little bittersweet. There are days when it’s great. It’s always fun when somebody comes up and says that they love the show and they think you’re funny. But sometimes there are days where you just want to walk around Target in some sweatpants and an old shirt and maybe not get recognized.
You’ve got to stay fly all the time now.
Yeah, it sucks.
You came up in the Upright Citizens Brigade – a theater that’s given us Amy Poehler, Donald Glover, Aubrey Plaza, and a ton of other talents. Did that kickstart your comedy career?
It completely helped facilitate me working in comedy. I’ve worked with them since ’98 in New York, when we were in a really small theater in Manhattan and I was actually one of the office managers there. And back then it was not very organized. At the end of the night, we would just put all the money in an envelope and put it in a locked drawer. So it’s been really nice seeing the theater grow to the size it is now.
Did you just walk in every day hoping the money would still be there, that you hadn’t been robbed?
[laughs] Well, there wasn’t that much money.
Improv is a staple of that theater. Is there room for improv on the show?
We do a ton of improv on the show. What’s so great, especially now that we’re just finished up our third season and we’re going into our fourth, between the actors and the writers, we all have a good feel of how the characters are and who they are, so when we’re on set and we’re doing a scene, we always run through what’s written on the page, which is always super funny, but then if there’s ever anything that comes up, sort of organically, that we want to add, the writers and directors are always very open to that. And obviously, with people like Mark McKinney and Lauren Ash, just incredible improvisers, there’s always some more comedy to be mined.
Is there a scene we might be surprised wasn’t planned?
There’s an episode where Jonah (Ben Feldman) is trying to help Amy’s (America Ferrera) daughter because she just got her period for the first time. At one point, Jonah’s running around the store trying to figure out how to handle this and he asks me if I know anything about periods. In the script, I just say, ‘No, I’m gonna go order a pizza,’ and I take off. But on one take I tried and to say all of the information that I could find about what the menstrual cycle is, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and kind of memorized it and then did a take where I basically described a menstrual cycle in detail and we ended up using that in the show.
Well good to know since you do have a daughter. You play a limo driver in Blockers, a film about a group of teenage girls planning on losing their virginity at prom. I feel like that’s also preparation for the next ten years of your life.
Oh, yeah, it was great to be in the movie. Hopefully someday, when she’s old enough, we’ll be able to sit down and instead of having that uncomfortable conversation, we can just watch Blockers.
A couple of years ago you wrote a NY Times op-ed about being called the “Black Seth Rogen” by a casting agent. Have things changed in the industry since then?
Definitely. That piece was based off my experience at the CBS diversity showcase, which recently made changes to address those issues. I thought was an important change for them to make, and I think it will really help those actors and performers feel more comfortable in that program.
I think, also, the Time’s Up movement and the #MeToo movements, [are] keeping people on their toes and making sure that we’re working on inclusion and we’re working on excluding lame stuff and people who are being dismissive and demeaning. So I think that things are definitely changing for the better. You know, you see a movie like Black Panther come out and it does so well with the cast that’s made up of a mix of people that normally a mainstream film wouldn’t. It’s great to see and I hope it just keeps changing. It [will be] a great conversation to not have. It’ll be a great day when we don’t have to have this conversation anymore.
Talking about diversity, there was some controversy over your casting as Garrett – an able-bodied actor playing a man in a wheelchair. How do you make sure you’re not exploiting that on the show?
It’s a comedy show, so we’re trying to do all the jokes we can do, but we’re definitely very careful to never exploit the fact that Garrett uses a wheelchair. Hopefully, through the performance people will see that Garrett is so much more than a character who uses a wheelchair.
When you’re putting together a cast like this, you really want to be working on the ensemble and the chemistry between the actors. I think that’s what went into the decision to cast me on the show. We discussed not having Garrett use the wheelchair, but at the end of the day we thought it was going to be more beneficial to have that character represented. What I love about our show is people can relate to it because it’s so real and I think having a character like Garrett who uses a wheelchair, but at the end of the day is just another [member] of the team and one of the coolest guys in the store, I think is a huge benefit for us to have.
I’ve seen you on Twitter baiting the trolls. It seems like something you really enjoy doing. What’s your secret to dealing with a**holes on the internet?
[laughs] Number one: you can mute anybody, which I love to do. If somebody tries to troll me, most of the time I just try to ignore it and go about my day, but if I feel like I want to respond and throw a little shade their way, I’ll do it and then I immediately mute them. So, then they f*cking tweet all day at me but I don’t see them. Twitter’s not a discussion board, it’s just a platform to say your opinion.
Your Twitter profile alludes to this a bit, but how long have you known you were Uncle Phil’s doppelganger?
[laughs] I think the first time I realized it, I went to the store and the guy at [checkout] was like, ‘You look like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ and I was kind of flattered. Like, ‘Oh, wow, Will Smith?’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, no, no! The dad! The dad!’ And then I went online and looked at pictures and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, I guess I do look like Uncle Phil.
One thing I’d love to do is a series that’s basically Uncle Phil while he’s just a young lawyer, making his bones in the business. I think that’d be a fun web series, so if anybody is checking out this article and wants to make Uncle Phil: The Lawyer Series, let me know.