Actor John Ross Bowie brings a lot of hot food to any table he sits at, and he’s sat at quite a few. Even a quick eyeballing of Wiki reveals a person who’s been in a pop punk band, done sketch comedy, co-created TV comedies, and garnered a string of film and TV credits. Long-time fans love to hate him as The Big Bang Theory’s Barry Kripke, a Caltech phyicist who speaks like Elmer Fudd and annoys like Bugs Bunny. More recently, Bowie has a major role in the groundbreaking TV series Speechless, airing on ABC, which has just wrapped up filming for its second hit season.
And now, Bowie sits at yet another big table, live theater at the Garry Marshall Theatre. He plays an edgy Irish writer in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, premiering next Wednesday, March 21. After a long day of rehearsing, Bowie and Laughter on the 23rd Floor‘ s director Michael A. Shepperd still had some energy left over to speak with myBurbank.com.
Bowie drives home the point that Laughter is a laugh fest that packs a lot of relevance. “Anytime you revive a play, you have to ask: Why this play? Why now? Why here?” Because, “It’s funny. It takes place in a divisive time. And a lot of the history of TV occurred in Burbank.”
Laughter occurs in the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, when Hollywood blacklisted some of its leading writers, directors and actors. Apparently, shredding the First Amendment was seen as a great way to fight the insidious, freedom-hating influence of communist Russia. Not the best time for writers (a suspect group if ever there was one) to be pushing the envelope on a comedy/variety show aimed at a mass audience.
But that’s just what Laughter’s motley crew of writers do, fighting a running battle with NBC executives who fear that sophisticated humor will go over the heads of Middle America or worse, be received as vaguely subversive. Or even worse, be funny and subversive. (Make that funny, therefore subversive.) Though Laughter’s battle between the suits and the smart alecs is fought in New York, the battles off stage continued well past the mid-50’s, when NBC established its west coast operations in Burbank.
Shepperd’s diverse cast will give today’s audiences a way to connect with yesteryear’s non-WASP diversity. “Everyone was an outsider,” he continues, “Jewish comedians, fresh-off-the-boat immigrants and women.” Bowie describes his role as “the one gentile Bryan Doyle, a feisty, self-destructive Irish Catholic who’s very confrontational, but fighting with his words rather than his fists.”
So how challenging was it for Bowie to go from channeling Elmer Fudd to doing a New York accent? Bowie unleashes Barry Kripke for a few wascally seconds then deadpans, “Well I grew up in New York, so the accent comes easier. But that clipped toughness is almost extinct now,” he adds, lamenting the today’s blurring of regional speech.
“More of a nasal voice than from the chest,” offers Shepperd, an observation that may help other cast members who didn’t have the benefit of a New York upbringing. Shepperd uses his benefit of having a strong background in musical theater and choreography to add “physical comedy and energy” to Laughter, mirroring the frenetic mental energy of the protagonists.
Maybe the dawn of TV was the best of times to risk it all, to show some guts and to make an enduring mark on popular culture. “So much of what we consider sitcom has its roots in Neil Simon,” Bowie points out. “It set a certain tone that endures to this day.”
Neil Simon was no armchair warrior. Laughter is a thinly disguised version of his time as a junior writer on NBC’s weekly Show of Shows, which ran from 1950 through 1954. Maintaining one’s integrity carried a real risk of losing one’s career and reputation. By the time Laughter debuted in the 1980s, Neil Simon had seen that those early struggles had led to shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Mash, among many others.
The legacy of Neil Simon continues in shows like Speechless, the ABC comedy about the family of “J. J.” DiMeo, a teenager with cerebral palsy (played by Micah Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy.) J. J. can’t speak and so instead communicates by aiming a laser pointer—attached to his glasses—at a keyboard. Early in the first season, The Atlantic had pronounced Speechless “hilarious.”
“The character with disabilities is at the center of the narrative, “ says Bowie, pointing out that Speechless has broken new TV ground. Bowie plays Jimmy DiMeo, J.J.’s dad, who The Atlantic saw as “the peacemaker,” smoothing the waters after his feistier wife (played by Minnie Driver) confronts various insensitive people and bureaucracies.
Two seasons in, Bowie has a more nuanced view of his character. “I’m more like the diplomat but very much working for the home team. It’s a good cop/bad cop relationship, where I assume the good cop role.” But his Jimmy DiMeo character can be feisty as well.
“Halfway through Season Two, I had a very gnarly argument with Minnie’s character about J. J.” says Bowie, adding, “It’s been very clear out of the gate that Speechless is not one of those sitcom marriages where the husband is sad and horny all the time.”
There are occasions when Speechless “can be almost surreal,” as one might suppose when the main character uses a beam of light to make his thoughts known. But J.J.’s challenging life can lead to truly fresh perspectives about the world. Indeed, Bowie shares that J. J. will be expressing his unique vision more and more, ultimately becoming “Stanley Kubrick in a wheelchair.”
As a successful actor already involved with two hit TV shows, Bowie gives the lie to the claim that Los Angeles theater is glorified auditioning. “L.A. theater is very special,” he asserts. “It’s scrappier and low budget compared to New York but sincere and with really hardworking actors. We do it for love.” Bowie agrees that L.A. theater has benefited greatly by an influx of Midwesterners. In the case of Laughter, for example, “there are tons of Chicago people working on the show.”
For Bowie, Laughter is his “first professional run of a play,” in contrast with the readings he had occasionally done. One gets the unmistakable impression of a person continually expanding the boundaries of his craft, together with like-minded others. And that makes the L.A. theatrical scene “very special” indeed.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor previewed at the Gary Marshall Theatre on Wednesday, March 21, and Thursday, March 22. Opening night is Friday, March 23. Continues Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through April 22. Added show Sunday, April 8, at 7:00 p.m. No show Sunday, April 1. Tickets are $45 – $65.