Mad About Joel
Years ago, back when people kept “online web journals,” a friend of mine started an awesome site—sadly, now on permanent hiatus but still searchable for hours’ worth of down-the-rabbit-hole “research”—called fametracker.com. Its most-famous section was called “Hey! It’s That Guy!” in which they featured…well, those guys. You know. That guy! He was in, like, a million things. Him! Essentially, it was an homage to the largely unsung, but often hugely talented, cadre of lifelong, jobbing actors who somehow manage to get regular work, do a great job, and stay out of the headlines while living normal lives. That section could have been built for Joel Murray—even after 20 years in L.A., there’s just something likeable about the guy. Something real, and funny, and humble. Something…familiar.
The youngest of nine kids raised in a boisterous Wilmette home, where, “if your arms weren’t long or you couldn’t grab fast enough, you didn’t eat much,” Joel spent his early years sitting at a dinner table “trying to make my dad laugh—with food in his mouth.” It was a hard audience, admittedly, but the crucible must have worked its magic, because out of that home came Joel, brother Bill Murray, other brother Brian Doyle-Murray (who wrote Caddyshack, among other films), and sister, Sister Nancy, who tours the world in her show about Catherine of Siena. The busy actor, golfer, and family man made time in his shooting schedule to sit down with Sheridan Road and talk shop.
On Second City
“I was amazed by the guys that were ahead of me—like Jim Fay and John Kapelos. I thought they were all so amazing, so brilliant, and I would never be that good. But, you know, you keep doing it, and keep working at it, and the next thing you know, you are the guy on the stage. I went through a great time with good people. I was with Bonnie Hunt originally, and Mike Myers when I first went on the mainstage. Then, there was kind of a regime change—Del Close came back to direct and he handpicked the company. It was Tim Meadows, me, and Chris Farley, and Dave Pasquesi and Holly Wortell, Judy Scott and Joe Liss.”
On Dharma & Greg, Chuck Lorre, and the whole Charlie Sheen business
“I am standing in the backyard of the house that Dharma & Greg bought—119 episodes, five years, six blocks from my house. It was one of those things where you know that it’s not going to get better than this. It was such a great time. The characters were all so well-defined. You just knew them, and anything they said therefore ended up being funny. That is the key to sitcoms, I think: When you have really well-defined characters, the comedy ensues.
I was scheduled to do a three-show arc as a detective on Two and a Half Men, before the shutdown. But it was great to be there that week. Working for Chuck is fun, and the whole crew on that show was the Dharma & Greg crew, so I knew everybody there.
Charlie—I have worked with him a few times and I have known him for years. He is a pretty nice, level guy. I don’t really understand what the heck had gone down or what he was doing—or how you walk away from that job. You know, there is no easier gig in the world than working 20 hours a week, making $2 million an episode. And he walked away from it. I don’t…I will never understand that.”
On Monsters University
“You don’t audition for Pixar. They call you and say, ‘We would like you to do this part,’ and you are a fool to say no.
It is so much fun. Pixar is just the happiest place in the world. They have swimming pools, and soccer games break out at lunch, and badminton and volleyball, and people have little hidden panels in the back of their office and there is a bar behind it…that kind of thing. The whole place is based on the idea that you’ve got to have a certain amount of fun every day, because you’ve got to do this thing right. Everybody there that got in early knows how good it is, and how good they have it, and all the people that got in late know what great stuff they make and how happy and lucky they are to have a job there. Everybody is just happy as a clam. They are all nice and, you know, that shows on the screen.”
On God Bless America and Bobcat Goldthwait
“I’ve known Bob since One Crazy Summer, the first thing I ever auditioned for. He was having back surgery, so I brought him over some dinner one night, and I gave him the first three seasons of Mad Men, because he said that he had always meant to watch it. I didn’t think anything about it—he was just a friend who was sick. So, he was watching the episodes with his wife and all of a sudden she said, ‘Joel could play Frank [the lead in God Bless America].’
He sent me this script—and it is a great script—and I read it, and I called him back, and I said, ‘It is fabulous, now what are you thinking about? Do you want me to play the guy in the office, or the boss or something like that?’ He says, ‘No: Frank. The guy.’ He offered me the lead. In his last movie, he had Robin Williams as the lead, so I didn’t expect him to be going for Joel.
I think it is really good. It’s definitely the best thing I’ve ever done.”
On the blizzard
“I was here! I was working on Shameless, which is on Showtime, with William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum. We came back and shot a week of exteriors during the blizzard, which was hysterical. The line producers were saying, ‘Yeah, there’s snow coming, so we’ll just, you know, we’ll just start a little bit late.’
I said, ‘You have no idea what 24 inches of snow is going to be like. You are not going to pave the parking lot. You are not going to be able to plow the parking lot. You are not going to have any place to put the amount of snow we are talking about.’ They didn’t believe me.”
On being a Chicagoan in L.A.
“I still think of Chicago as home. People ask where we’re from and we always say Chicago. I have been in L.A. 20 years now, which kind of amazes me, but because I was in Second City, there are so many alumni that live out here that we have our own group from Chicago to hang out with. It makes it pretty nice—we hang out with a normal crowd. But if you want to have people over for the Bears game on Sunday, you can’t tell anybody until Friday, because you might end up with 55 people showing up.
When we go back, we drive the kids up, literally drive them up Sheridan Road—and you drive by Baha’i Temple and up Lake Street in Wilmette or through Winnetka or Kenilworth. My kids are like, ‘Oh my God, this is so beautiful.’ But none of them have ever really been there in the winter. We used to go back for Christmas, but they have never been through, you know, hitchhiking on Lake Avenue to Loyola when it is 5 degrees outside.”
On Mad Men
“I had actually seen the show two or three times before I had auditioned for it, so I already loved the show before I even had an audition. I went in to read for Matt [Weiner], and he said, ‘You have this sadness about you.’ I’m not really that sad—I just naturally look that way. The next thing you know, I’m working on this show that I loved and doing a scene with Elisabeth Moss who plays Peggy, and I am in the scene and I am staring at her, going, ‘Wow, she is great. Wow, she is amazing. Oh crap, I got a line coming here in about two seconds.’"
It was pretty surreal to all of a sudden be on this show that I loved, and to be a part of the phenomenon that it has become. The attention to detail that Matt Weiner has is amazing—you know, when there is a mention of an AA meeting in the basement of a church on some street corner, sure enough, people will comment on the message board saying, ‘Yeah, I used to go to that AA meeting.’ It was actually there.”
On The Artist
“It is weird to audition for a silent movie. I just showed up and the director talked out the different scenarios and we acted them out. It was funny, because there were French actors, and English actors, and people were saying things even though it is silent, so I am sure the lip readers will be confused.
The film pays homage to Old Hollywood, and it is shot so beautifully. I knew it was going to be something special when I was working on it. Each frame of the picture was so well-composed—so full and beautiful. I got a chance to see it at the Egyptian last week on a big huge screen in a theater that probably showed movies in 1920. When I saw the premiere, it blew me away. I couldn’t believe how good it is. And my name is actually on the poster. I said to the director, ‘Thank you so much for putting my name on the poster. That is crazy. I am in it for about three minutes.”