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The Ugly Truth about John Michael Higgins

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

The Ugly Truth about

John Michael Higgins

by Jay S. Jacobs

John Michael Higgins is not quite sure how he became Hollywood’s go-to guy for wacky comic fireworks.

Certainly, a twenty-year run-in theatrical drama would not seem to be the kind of training ground for a guy to come in, tell a saucy speech, do a few jazz hands and then exit stage right.

However, that is the box that Hollywood has Higgins in right now – and as much as he enjoys his comic supporting roles, he would love the chance to stretch out more and use all of his acting skills.

2009 has been a typically busy year for the actor – he co-starred in the sitcom Kath and Kim and has done supporting gigs in the movies Fired Up! and Still Waiting. Just opening is the new hit Katherine Heigl/Gerard Butler romantic comedy The Ugly Truth and in the wings is the upcoming Couples Retreat with Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell. He also gets a nice dramatic arc on the series Raising the Bar and even has been doing a set of quirky commercials for DirectTV.

Right before the release of The Ugly Truth, Higgins was nice enough to sit down with us and talk about his unique spot in show business, his feelings about comedy and drama and how a job he can barely remember has been seen by more people than probably anything he has ever done.

I recently saw you on Jimmy Kimmel Live and you said something interesting that I hadn’t really realized. Before you played David Letterman in The Late Shift you only really got hired in dramatic roles. Since then, you only do comedies. Why do you think that shift has happened?

Boy, I wish I knew how. I’d reverse it. (laughs) I don’t know. I think the Letterman job was a strange one, because I played a comedian…

But it was a serious movie…

It was a totally serious role. If you watch it, I don’t really do anything. If I were playing David Letterman, a truck driver, and the lines were exactly the same, everyone would just say, “Oh, this is a dramatic role.” I think because I played a comedian and they associated me with that and the skills that seemed to take, like impersonation, mimicry or comic timing. I have to do monologues as the character – they just associate those skills with a comedic actor, I guess. I had certainly done a lot of comedy. Not much on film, mostly on stage – although, I’d even say the serious stuff outweighed the comedy on stage. I did that for twenty, twenty-five years or something. It all came as a bit of a shock, I have to say. I mean, I’m happy. I like doing comedy, but I never would have seen it coming that I would do it to the exclusion of anything else.

Would you like the opportunity to do some more drama again?

Oh, absolutely. I like comedy, but I would like to vary my work. I try to do it as much as I can, anyway, even though I’m just doing comedy. But I like new things. I like them to be as different as possible. I think there is an impression that my career is very rangy – which it is – but it’s been more rangy for the people who know what I was doing before people knew who I was.

You are probably the only actor alive who has played both David Letterman and Donald Rumsfeld (in a play). What do you think that says about your career?

Well, you can even get them further apart. Most people are astonished that the guy who played Letterman was also the gay dog handler [in Best of Show]. I don’t see David Letterman doing that. I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to do things as different as Donald Rumsfeld and a gay dog handler. It’s what keeps me interested in my own work, basically. I think as an actor I’m more of a problem solver than I relish the idea of jumping up and down in front of people making faces. Once I solve it –it’s like doing a crossword puzzle. I figured it out and I want to go on. I want the next crossword puzzle. (laughs) So I feel like if someone said “gay dog handler” I would consider it a puzzle of some sort and I go figure it out. Now what immediately happens in Hollywood is that if I do one good gay dog handler, well then, I get five offers to be gay dog handlers – and I couldn’t be less interested.

Well, speaking of the gay dog handler, you have sort of hit a mother lode in the comic world – you are part of the Christopher Guest reparatory company. I interviewed him when For Your Consideration was coming out and he said that it takes a very specific type of actor to make his films – many very talented actors just would not fit in. How did you start working on the Guest films and what is the improvising experience like compared to a normal role?

Well, he and I first worked together on a pilot that he and Gene [Eugene Levy] were doing for HBO called DOA, which was the grain for For Your Consideration which would happen many years later. It was the Dorkman/Orfkin agency, and he and Gene were two agents. Gene actually played the character he played in that pilot in For Your Consideration. I can’t remember his first name, but he was Orfkin. (The character’s name was Morley Orfkin). I did that for Chris whenever that was, sometime before Best in Show. (The pilot aired in 1999). The show didn’t get picked up to go to series, but he called me shortly after and he said, “Well, we’re making this movie about dogs up in Canada. Would you like to do that? I said sure. He said, “You’re going to play a gay dog handler.” At the time I was actually – I mean I love Chris and I’d do anything to work with him – but I had just done a prominent gay role on the stage, and I had done sort of a controversial gay guest starring role on a television show and I just felt kind of gayed out. (laughs) I didn’t really relish the opportunity, except to work with Chris again. So of course, I did it and I can’t be more grateful that I did. Then we just kept working from there. And, you know, improvisation – I had a very long history in the theater. I started when I was nine years old or something. I had done everything. I started as a mime, actually, and then moved on into various other things. So I had lots of skills. I could dance. I could do physical comedy. I could do these things that strangely come into use a lot in my work. You would be surprised. I’m surprised, every day. I spent a long-time doing improvisation shows, cabaret type improvisation shows, in the old days when I was a teenager and, in my twenties, and just as a journeyman actor – just doing things.

In college, you were an a capella singer, which you were able to use on A Mighty Wind…

I was. A Mighty Wind, I wrote the vocal arrangements for that. I wrote the vocal arrangements in The Break-Up. It’s odd how often these little skills can be handy. Improvisation was never something that frightened me. I have an affinity for it. If I’m on my game, I can be pretty good. So, I’ve always been happy to work with Chris. I think he and I have a sympathetic understanding of what’s funny. If anything, we see it the same way. We’re less interested in the laughs than in everyday behavior – which can make people laugh. Something they recognize, as opposed to a joke or something like that. I’m honored and always challenged and thrilled to be in Christopher’s little stable. I love those people and love to work with them. I’m very fortunate.

I also have to ask you about your experience on Seinfeld – because you had a rather classic guest role on the series [He played a guy who dated Elaine with a shaved head]. How did that come about and what was the show like?

Well, (laughs) that was interesting because at that time it came up that they had this guest star for Seinfeld. They needed the actor to actually shave his head. For real – they weren’t going to do it with a bald cap. It’s a daunting task working – and there are many actors who don’t work who would love to shave their head and be on Seinfeld, but the working ones (laughs again) – it’s hard to get employed once your head is shaved, unless you want to play something that you are probably not right for, like a biker or something. So Marc Hirschfeld, who was casting that at the time – he went on to run networks and everything after that – but he thought of me. I’d known him a long time in New York, and I think he thought of me for the very reason that we’re talking – that I was able to go gonzo in the funniest and strangest ways. Be unrecognizable from one thing to the next. He thought I might actually relish the idea of shaving my head and trying something silly like that. So I went in and did that. The whole thing was a moot point anyway. My hair grows like a weed. It was right before Thanksgiving and by the time I was eating my pumpkin pie four days later, my hair was back. (laughs) So it didn’t really matter. But I loved being on Seinfeld. I knew Jason [Alexander] a little bit from New York. It was really fun to be on that show. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that it would be some kind of classic where people would stop me in the grocery line or something and talk about the episode of Seinfeld. But that’s television for you.

You have also made a bit of a specialty in doing quirky supporting roles now. Do you enjoy being a supporting actor who comes in and does something odd then disappears?

Usually the guy in the middle, the main guy, you have to shave off the rough edges a bit. You’ve got to make it all the way through, and people have to find you sympathetic and all that. You’re right; I have in the last couple of years become this kind of specialty act. I come in from the left. I do something bold and comic. Then I exit stage right and you never see me again. It’s some memorable thing. Now at this point it’s designed to be a water cooler moment or a YouTube moment. It’s sort of my specialty now. Again, I have no idea how that happened to me. I don’t know why that should happen to me. Given what I was on the stage – I was always the lead guy, and mostly in tragedy – Shakespeare and Sheridan and all that stuff. I was playing Hamlet. Now I’m the fool who comes in motley and gets the bucket dumped over his head or something. (laughs) It’s what Hollywood wants from me, apparently.

Last year you did the sitcom Kath and Kim – and frankly, I thought you were the best part of the show. You have done many recurring roles on series, but I believe that was the first series you were a regular on.

Yeah, it was the first series regular I’ve been on that actually went to series. (laughs) I’ve been a series regular on countless pilots that didn’t go to series. But as far as something that stayed on for more than six episodes, that I was one of the main characters, yes, you’re right.

Did you like the stability of a regular series gig, or did you miss the opportunity to pop in and out of different roles?

No, I really enjoyed it because I’m a family man now. It’s nice to be stuck in town with a regular schedule. I feel like I know when I’m going to see my children and stuff. That’s all very attractive as far as being a series regular. I’m sort of doing this thing now on Raising the Bar on TNT, which is thankfully a dramatic role. I’m happy about that. That’s had a similar schedule, so I’m pretty pleased with that. I feel like I’m getting to see my family more. I liked doing Kath and Kim a lot. I enjoyed doing that character. He obviously came out of me somehow, so I find that character funny – his take on life and his enthusiasm and optimism in the face of his blithering stupidity. (laughs) Obliterating stupidity. I found that really fun to play. It’s interesting that in a series like that you can actually go – and I had not had this experience – to find yourself going deeper and deeper into this character. Unfortunately, on television the characters usually start out much shallower. The deeper you dig – by the time you have done the character a year or two, you may get to the level of depth that is presented in the first scene of a Shakespeare play. (laughs) So, it’s not that one gets deeper than another. They sort of even out by the time you finish three years of television, I think.

You recently did a pilot with Henry Winkler, Missi Pyle and Jill Clayburgh. What was it about and is there any word on whether that series will be picked up?

Right. No, they passed on it. They went with some other things. I really enjoyed that. That was great. Some of that show I found quite funny. I love working with Henry. I worked with him in Arrested Development and he and I really get along. Jill was great. It was a really nice experience. I wish it had gone. It’s always the pilots you wish had gone that don’t and the ones you hope go away do. (laughs)

You were saying on Jimmy Kimmel that you are death for a TV series – once you come on the show is doomed. How do you think that you will avoid being the Ted McGinley of the new millennium?

Yeah. (laughs) I don’t know. I love Ted, too. He’s the nicest guy in the world, but I think he feels like I do, that there is some curse on me, that I’m a show-killer. I get out there, even as a guest, and a few months later it’s gone. Then you know, maybe that points to another issue we were talking about earlier, that I’m some sort of flashy object – some kind of desperation move (laughs again) that producers use to wake their audience up or something like that. I often feel like I’m used in that way.

I really liked Fired Up, but I have to admit I found it a little unlikely that a plain woman like Molly Sims could be lucky enough to win over a man like Coach Keith.

(Ironically) Yeah, that was completely unbelievable. I told the producers no one is going to buy this, that he would have gone with Molly. They said, “Oh, it’s just a movie. People have to suspend their disbelief.” So, you know, I took it for the team. I had to make out with Molly a little bit.

Well, you have to do what you have to do. Do you still do jazz hands?

Oh, sure. Jazz hands is a skill that shows up in all my jobs.

Speaking of which you have The Ugly Truth coming out. I haven’t seen it yet. Are you Katherine Heigl’s love interest, too?

Uh, yeah, up until Gerard Butler shows up. (laughs)

So tell me a bit about your character and the film.

She plays my producer. I’m a newscaster. Me and Cheryl Hines [Curb Your Enthusiasm] are a co-anchor team that happen to be a married couple as well. I had a really good time shooting that movie. We were often reprimanded for talking when we should have been quiet. It was a lot of fun to do the movie – and the movie came out great, I saw it the other night at the premiere. I was thrilled. I actually don’t ever consume those kinds of products. Romantic comedy – I couldn’t be less interested. I watched it and turned to my wife and sort of made the face like “That was pretty good!” (laughs) “Maybe I should watch more of these things.” Katie is great in it. Gerry is the nicest guy in the world and also fantastic. They had great chemistry. I was happy. I was proud to be in it.

You also have Couples Retreat coming up. I’m guessing you play the counselor in that film? What’s the deal with that one?

Yeah. I’m more along the lines of what we were saying before. I have a couple of short but very flashy scenes as a couples’ therapist. I think that came because Vince Vaughn, who I’ve worked with a few times, he likes to improvise and he and I improvise well together. So he said, “Why don’t we get Higgins in for this therapist and throw the script out and see what happens?” So we shot what they had written, which actually was, I thought, good, fine. I didn’t think we needed to do anything. (laughs) I thought it was funny as it was. But he and I went off on our goose chase and hopefully mined some other stuff. That’s in the mold of what you were saying before, sort of a flashy, supporting comic role.

You mentioned earlier that you are a family man now. Strangely enough, the role you did that may have been seen by more people than any other was in the Epcot ride “Test Track.” Does having a Disney ride get you cool dad brownie points for years?

You know what, I don’t know. I personally have never seen that. I’ve never been there. It’s interesting, if I’m on the edges of the country – in the urban centers – I’ve got nothing. If I step one step into the center of the country, I’m almost mobbed. At 7-11’s or wherever I happen to be, all people recognize me from that ride. I always forget that I had done it. I did it so long ago. I barely remember it. I honestly couldn’t tell you much about it. You probably know more about it than I do. It was just one of those… it was a small job that sort of came and went in a day. You never know. You always have to be careful about those small jobs that come in a day. (laughs) I’m telling you; I walk into a mall in any central state and that’s the one. Everyone wants to talk to you. “You’re the Test Track guy.” So I am.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I think that most people are surprised to find me not a “funny guy.” I can be amusing, I guess, but I’m a rather sober, professorial type. (laughs) I don’t consume entertainment products at all. Films or television – I’m just not interested. I don’t take much interest in show biz at all.

How would you like people to see your career?

I guess I’d have to work on that, because before I even got into doing a lot of film and television, I had had a very satisfying and long and very productive career as a stage actor. It’s been some time now, but I feel that my best work happened in that period. Of course, the nature of that is that I could sell out every night and the number of people that would have seen that performance is just a comically small fraction of the number of people that would see me at the GM Test Track. I would love for people to incorporate those first twenty years into their assessment and I don’t think that will happen. I think the assessment will be if I were to get run over by a steamroller, he was a reliable, journeyman comic actor who could brighten up a few small spots in popular films, you know? (laughs) It’s not quite what I would want, but actually it doesn’t quite matter to me. I know the work that I did all throughout the other part of my career and I would die a happy man. I really did what I wanted to do.

This last question you may have already touched on in the last two answers. Are there any misconceptions you would like to clear up?

Yeah, I guess those were sort of answered in that, but I wonder if there is another one. I guess, on the subject of improv, which comes up a lot, I find improv to be a very useful tool, but not a particularly interesting product. I use it in that way. I think that’s part of the reason that Chris and I have worked well together. It’s not the parlor trick of improv that interests me. It’s what it can find. I’m not a club comedian. It’s not sports for me – who can come up with a better line? It’s what can we find by opening this up for a second? Seeing what’s out there.

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved.Posted: August 3, 2009.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2009. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2009. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2000. Courtesy of Castle Rock Entertainment. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2009. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2008. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.

#6 © 2009. Courtesy of ScreenGems. All rights reserved.

#7 © 2009. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.


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