Neil Flynn's best known to TV audiences for roles on 'Scrubs' and 'The Middle,' but the Waukegan native busy beyond those roles, as one-fifth of the 10-year-old improv troupe Beer Shark Mice. Flynn returns home with the troupe for TBS' Just for Laughs festival June 16 and 17. Photo provided.
Who says comedy is a young man’s game? Waukegan-native Neil Flynn, an alum of iO and The Second City, was 40-years-old when he finally found a national audience as the sarcastic janitor on hit comedy series “Scrubs.” Now he’s in the shoes of another same blue collar character, playing Mike Heck, patriarch on ABC’s recently renewed sitcom “The Middle,” about a family of lovable misfits trying to get by in a small Indiana town. But this week, the L.A. resident is back in Chicago with Beer Shark Mice, the acclaimed, decade-old long form improv troupe consisting of many Chicago-native actors as well as David Koechner from “Anchorman.” Beer Shark Mice is one of many star attractions at this week’s TBS-sponsored Just For Laughs comedy festival.Before heading home, Flynn talked about how growing up in Chicago helped find a niche playing blue collar comic characters, his family’s take on being in a family sitcom, and how his work in Beer Shark Mice has affected his day jobs.
Chicago Beat: So do you think growing up in the Chicago-area, you know with Chicago being a very blue collar city, do you think that upbringing in the Midwest impacted your ability to create relatable blue collar characters?
Neil Flynn: I think so. I think definitely. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up anywhere else. The way I grew up, you don’t get away with acting like you’re better than anybody else. People don’t like it if you show off how rich you are or how smart you are. If you’re rich and smart, just be rich and smart and shut up about it. I think we’re all shaped by how we grew up, and if nothing else, it makes it easier to play the roles that are like adults I knew growing up. I wasn’t around country clubs or golf courses, so I don’t even know how those people act. Not to say I couldn’t play those parts, but this is easier.
CB: What did your parents do and how many siblings do you have?
NF: I grew up with six kids in the house. My dad worked in traffic management, as he explained it to me, otherwise it’s hard to explain, shipping basically. And Mom has always worked at various things. I want to say secretary, but I don’t think that’s what they call it anymore. She’s been an assistant to someone in a bigger office.
CB: So what does your family think of ‘The Middle?’ Do they give you notes? And does being on this show take you back at all to your family life in the Midwest?
NF: I haven’t spoken to anyone in my family since I hit it big. [Laughs]. They kind of hate me at this point. I think they really enjoy it and what I think they enjoy a whole lot is they can watch the show, and they do, with their own children. ‘The Middle’ is one of the shows where you can. I like that. I like that about the show. It’s a pretty clean show.
CB: You’re coming to Chicago again to perform with your improv troupe Beer Shark Mice at TBS’ Just for Laughs festival. What will that be like to come back to the city and perform live?
NF: I’ve always loved Chicago, especially in the summer, I make a point of spending some time at Wrigley Field, it’s always a great atmosphere, until, well, let’s just end it with it’s always a great atmosphere. When there are too many people that have had too many drinks, sometimes its not so great. But I still feel like Chicago’s home, and I intend to live there again some day. But in the meantime I love going back and to perform there and to eat there. I would take five random places in Chicago to eat at before I would pick any place to eat in Los Angeles.
CB: So you do want to move back in Chicago? Just because it’s what you know. You could stay in L.A., but why would you want to come back?
NF: Because it still feels like home. I still have family there. When I’m in Chicago the trees look familiar, the way the back porches look from the El train. I like that.
CB: Why have you been in Beer Shark Mice for so long?
NF: We’ve folded the tents lately in that we stopped performing a couple of months ago. Not to say that we never will again. We’ve been at it for 10 years or so, and doing about six or eight months out of each year. And it’s always a great time because we’re good friends and we know each other very well on stage and off, so it’s very easy to perform together. We always know where the other person is heading. It’s very fun and it’s a weird thing to be with the same group for so long and to be successful on stage for that long. So it’s fun to do. I’ll do it as long as I feel I’m good at it.
CB: How did this all come together? Did you all meet at Second City?
NF: No, I don’t think I met any of them at Second City. They are all Chicago guys. Most of us were at ImprovOlympic [now known as iO] at some point, there’s some Annoyance Theatre connection there. We were all in Los Angeles and came together one day and said, ‘Let’s do a show.’ And no one told us to stop. It’s been great that we’ve been able to do it all this time, there’s a spot always waiting for us, and for a while it’s always sold out. It’s just been a pleasure.
CB: Being in the troupe, has that impacted the way you perform on TV? Did you do a lot of improv on ‘Scrubs’ and do improv on ‘The Middle’?
NF: We improvised a lot on ‘Scrubs,’ basically never on ‘The Middle.’ But it definitely does you good in terms of keeping you sharp. The skills aren’t directly transferrable to working on camera but it keeps your brain active.
CB: Not improvising on ‘The Middle,’ is that just because you’re working with a different group of people, or do you feel improv isn’t as appropriate?
NF: I think it has to do with the character exclusivity. A little bit the style. ‘Scrubs’ was a little looser. Moments needed a joke, and it didn’t have to be joke that was in the script. Not everyone improvised, but [star] Zach [Braff] and I were encouraged to play with the scenes, and if you could make it funnier, everybody wins. So sometimes I would say something unusual or critical or strange, so I could change the lines and use my inclination. There’s no call for that on this job, and that’s fine. It was a different role. If I was playing Hamlet, I wouldn’t ask the director if I could improvise. It’s fine the way it is.
By: Pieat Levy.