As the always picked-on Pawnee government employee Jerry Gergich, Jim O’Heir is one of best stealth comedic weapons on “Parks and Recreation.” Jerry may have the loyalty and love of his parks department coworkers, but he doesn’t exactly have their respect, and he’s forever the brunt of jokes on a show that’s otherwise earnestly sweet-natured. (With a wife played by Christie Brinkley and three beautiful daughters, it turns out he’s got enough going on at home to shrug off the workplace jabs.) With the NBC comedy making its winter premiere tonight, January 17th, with “Two Parties,” an episode that finds the characters embarking on rival bachelor and bachelorette parties for the recently engaged Ben (Adam Scott) and Leslie (Amy Poehler), Indiewire caught up with the Chicago-born O’Heir to talk about getting a surprise guest appearance from Newt Gingrich and why the Jerry jokes still work so well.
So tell me about tonight’s episode — the Indianapolis Colts are involved?
We’re giving Ben a bachelor party, and the girls are going to give Leslie a bachelorette party. Somehow, between Ann [Rashida Jones] and Chris [Rob Lowe], it turns into a competition. The show’s going to tell two different stories, and I’ll just tell you that hands down, the guys win. We realize a lot of us haven’t had a bachelor party, so the night turns into a bachelor party for all the guys and we end up going different places in Indiana to do what we would consider our perfect bachelor party. In the case of Andy [Chris Pratt], he’s obsessed with the Colts. As it turns out, Rob’s character Chris knows Jim Irsay, who owns the Colts, and say “We can do that.” We take a road trip, and the next thing you know, the guys are in Lucas Oil Stadium, and we have the run of the place. It was unbelievable.
Jerry seems like more of an indoor activities kind of guy.
Ooh, yes. I won’t reveal what it is, but when you see my perfect bachelor party… it’s very Jerry. But Jerry does sit at home and watches the Colts — he’s a born and raised Indianan, so that’s his team. He’s just shocked that this is all happening.
Can you tell me about meeting Newt Gingrich? I saw the clip on NBC’s website, and the encounter seems to be based around a joke about his last name versus that of your character.
You’ve got to understand, it was not planned. We were shooting at St. Elmo [Steak House, in Indianapolis] because Ron’s dream for his bachelor party would be at a place like that. I remember sitting at the table and Chris Pratt was like, “Newt Gingrich was just at the trailer.” I figured he was pulling my leg. Newt came there to have lunch and saw that we were shooting, just by coincidence. Next thing you know, he’s talking to our executive producer Mike Schur. Mike, who’s a brilliant writer, within five minutes has created a scene. 20 minutes later we’re shooting it.
It was so surreal — and it was perfect, because what’s awesome about “Parks” is that we have a lot of politicians on the show, but we’re not political [in the sense of] liberal or conservative. It was crazy, since this year we’ve already had Biden and Boxer and all these other politicians, that he happened to be there at this place at that time. He was totally gung-ho to do it, just ready to go. We did maybe four, five takes, and he got it. The whole day, people kept going “Did that just happen? Did we just shoot a scene with Newt Gingrich?”
As a show, “Parks and Rec” has such a kind heart. That said, even though it happens lovingly, Jerry takes so much abuse. What is it about the character that just screams “target”?
I haven’t had to work in an office for years, but for many years prior I did, and it seems to me there’s always that person. Hopefully it’s not as harsh as what’s done to Jerry. Jerry’s the one who spills on himself, he misspeaks, he uses the wrong words here and there. But as you said, there’s so much heart in this show, and as much as they can be so mean to Jerry, they also have his back.
The first season that Adam and Rob came in, they came in because of budgets, basically saying “We’ve got to clear some people out of here.” [They] say “What about this Jerry Gergich?” And the first thing out of Leslie mouth is “Oh, no, we couldn’t do without him.” What I love about the show, about the Christmas episode where they have the “Jerry dinner,” they’re going to mock him… ultimately, Jerry has the best life out of all of them. Jerry goes home to wonderful wife who simply adores him — she happens to be unbelievably beautiful. Three beautiful kids, he’s super talented, he plays the piano. It just started because Jerry is a clumsy, oafish kind of guy, he’s an easy target.
What makes it funny is that Jerry’s such a trooper. He soldiers on.
We do a table read every week with the producers and writers. You would think that by season five these bits would get old, but one of the biggest laughs in the room is whenever there’s a Jerry slam. Mike has even said “How is this still funny?” But it is. And I think the reason it is is because of Jerry’s good heartedness about it. He’s not taking it in. He’s not seething. He knows what the deal is, and he also knows he goes home to this amazing stuff.
I always said we couldn’t so what we do to Jerry if we didn’t give him such good stuff — in the beginning of season three, we found out that Jerry has a huge penis [laughs], so there’s that. He’s got the wife, he’s got the family, he’s got all these other talents. That’s why I think you can do it. Otherwise, if they wrote him where Jerry went home and things were miserable, it would be just cruel. Jerry can laugh it all off because he’s got it all.
Have you ever stepped back from one of those jokes, said maybe it crosses the line?
There was an episode in season four when Chris Pratt literally said “I just don’t think I can do this.” We were on set shooting it, and I said “Dude, it’s fine.” “But when I look over at you, I also see you, Jim.” “IT’S COOL.” In season two, Jerry says he gets mugged. I do a presentation afterward, I bend over, split my pants and fart. Amy goes “Are you comfortable with that?” And I said “I’m a comedy guy who gets to do a big fart on television. I got no problem. That’s right up my alley.”
There’ve definitely been times where people have asked if I’m okay, if it’s too much. I don’t know what goes on in the writers’ room, because I’m sure they’ve come up with stuff that they’ve thought was too mean, but I don’t think anything I’ve ever read in a script we didn’t do. I don’t think we’ve ever been like, “That’s too much.” They probably weeded out the really bad ones in the writers’ room.
So we know that Jerry’s very well-endowed, he plays the piano, his real name might actually be Gary and he just thought it was rude to correct the coworker who first got it wrong–
It is Gary!
–he makes a beautiful mural… Do you have a favorite detail about the character out of this backstory that’s built up over the years?
It’s that Jerry really has a huge heart. I hope that in real life I have a part of that going on in me. In the show itself — we’re doing a comedy, obviously, we’re going for laughs, but we’re not afraid to end an act break on a serious note. Jerry goes along with the show, because the show has so much heart. It’s not all set up-laugh, set up-laugh.
I love that Jerry does have these talents, and he doesn’t throw anything into peoples’ faces. “We need help!” “Oh, I can do that.” And it turns out he can play the piano like he’s giving a concert, and in an hour he makes a mural that would take someone else months.
Of course, it’s mocked horribly.