On a January 2016 appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, actor and comedian Jason Mantzoukas was quizzed by Meyers on which characters in his impressively packed filmography could be classified as ‘scumbags’. For anyone familiar with Mantzoukas’s work, they’ll be extremely aware of how prevalent that trait is throughout his career: From the demented detective Adrian Pimento on Brooklyn Nine-Nine to Pawnee’s most questionable fragrance salesman in Parks and Recreation to the potential war criminal that is Rafi in The League. Even the characters who aren’t, in Mantzoukas’s own words, true untethered monsters are more likely to be pieces of sh*t than forces for good. At their most benign, the Jason Mantzoukas type is nowhere near ‘normal’ (Maximum Derek).
It is very easy to gravitate towards Mantzoukas as a performer because of the roles he is usually typecast as. With his wiry beard, curly hair and expressive eyes, he can make mania hilarious. He’s not quite chaotic neutral but his unpredictability can be felt with every twitch, cackle or honk of enthusiasm. There’s a real sense of danger with a Mantzoukas type, something that’s most evident when he is being himself (or at least the exaggerated comedic version of himself we see on talk shows and hear on podcasts). He’ll push the joke, making it crass and shocking and so very impolite, but his energy is so infectious that we cannot help but laugh. Often his most hilarious moments have nothing to do with shock but the sheer delight of the surreal or a mundane moment repeated into nonsense. Think of how many of us can’t see the title of the film Geostorm without going into hysterics of laughter in memory of Mantzoukas’s pronunciation. GEOSTOOOOOOOORM!
In real life, Jason Mantzoukas is obviously not much like the Jason Mantzoukas he’s become defined by. On podcasts like Crybabies, he gets candid about his emotions and comes across as warmly relatable. Thankfully, he’s not the dirtbag of TV series past, but that clear divide makes both him and his work all the more appealing. It’s not all that hard to play a douchebag on T.V., but doing so while remaining genuinely funny and being positioned on the right side of morality is another feat altogether. There’s a reason we were never able to shake off those feelings of unease with people like TJ Miller, and it wasn’t just because of what we would later find out about their alleged behaviour. Nick Kroll is also very good at performing this tightrope walk: Be the douchebag but never let the audience forget that, as fun as that can be, it’s a bad thing. It helps to know that these men are generally considered super cool guys in real life, but in terms of the performances themselves, we get enough of the details to feel safe with the parts, even as they go haywire.
Rafi may be the ur-Mantzoukas type, a character so despicable that you wonder if your hysterical laughter is just a way to hide your genuine panic. On The League, a show populated with frat-boy lunacy, Rafi is the guy who acts as a warning signal even to the other creeps that there is no such thing as too far for some. Think of a monstrous act and Rafi has done it, probably while experiencing some form of sexual excitement. Rafi, like many Mantzoukas monsters, is pure undistilled id. He’s constantly screaming and coming and committing heinous crimes in the name of loyalty to his nervous friends. It’s not so much that he’s on the verge of snapping; rather, he snapped a long time ago and realized how much he loved it. Mantzoukas is frequently praised by his contemporaries as one of the best improvisers in the business - news that will shock nobody who has ever listened to his podcast appearances - and The League is like his own personal stage for such skill. He’ll take it too far but the mania isn’t necessarily cruel. This isn’t the ‘take no prisoners’ approach that pretends all targets are equal. There’s far more skill on display here, and the joke is always on Rafi. He contains the madness to himself, but lets the energy spread enough to keep everyone else on their toes (think of how much fun it is on How Did This Get Made? to hear Jason needle June into making one of her nonsense theories about a movie).
The best way to understand Mantzoukas’s appeal and that of his persona may be through the role where we never see his face. As Jay Bilzerian in Netflix’s raunchy animated comedy Big Mouth, Mantzoukas gets to perform the origin story of essentially every Jason Mantzoukas character who precedes him. Jay is familiar to Mantzoukas fans - very weird, super horny, part of an incredibly depressing family life - but where he differs from, say, Rafi or Feinstein is in his growing up. You get to see the toxic home, abusive siblings and poisonous misogynist father who turn boys like Jay into men like Rafi. His ideas of sex are caricature, even by the standards of a show with sex pillows and hormone monsters, and draw disdain and pity from his friends. It’s funny to imagine an adult Mantzoukas character as a borderline animalistic weirdo, but Jay is that way for a reason and may end up worse as an adult because he has nobody to stop him. Indeed, that kind of heinous woman-hating self-loathing seems to be the preferable option for Jay’s father, an infamous divorce lawyer (also voiced by Mantzoukas). Yet there is hope for him. Jay has friends, albeit ones who often view that relationship with reluctance, and by the end of the second season, he has come to terms with his bisexuality (though, of course, f*cking pillows). There’s a route out of this seemingly inevitable path for him, and therein lies our hope and panic. When we are so entertained by the persona he might have as an adult, it becomes a little harder to root for another option, fictional character or not.
Mantzoukas doesn’t talk much about his private life. We know he’s allergic to eggs and loves the Harry Potter books and studied music alongside improv and that he dated Connie Britton for a couple of years. Otherwise, he’s consciously enigmatic about himself (he is still not on Twitter). It’s something of a rarity in an industry where building up close relationships with fans and keeping your joke game tight on social media is an expected part of the business. However, this is what keeps the Mantzoukas character so fresh: You truly believe he could come out of nowhere at any given time and dominate the moment. You hunger for it even though you know it’s probably going to leave you wondering what the hell just happened. Which promises great things for his upcoming appearance in the 3rd John Wick movie as a character named the Tick Tock Man.
And yes, he’s still hot as all hell.
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