James Urbaniak is a character actor. In fact, you’ve maybe come across him playing some miscreant or sycophant in one of your favorite television shows without even realizing it. He’s perhaps most famously known for providing the voice of ultimate underdog, Dr. Rusty Venture, on Adult Swim’s The Venture Bros., but is slowly moving into the spotlight.
He fills the crucial role of Grant, Forrest MacNeil’s Machiavellian producer, on Comedy Central’s Review, but most recently he’s been staring in Julie Klausner’s Difficult People on Hulu, playing the role of Arthur, Julie’s (relatively) straight-laced, PBS-supporting boyfriend. With Difficult People’s second season beginning this week, we got the chance to catch up with Urbaniak regarding his history of playing ne’er do wells, Klausner’s unique writing style, and whether his character on Review is the Devil.
DEN OF GEEK: Difficult People, aptly enough, is full of characters that have such extreme personalities. What’s it like being the somewhat moral sounding board and straight man amongst this mad house?
JAMES URBANIAK: Well I appreciate that question because in my career I tend to play oddballs, psychopaths, murderers, red herrings, pervs, weirdos… And I’m sort of the straight man in Difficult People, which funny enough is a bit of a stretch for me. Julie Klausner who created the show is an old friend of mine—I’ve known her for many years—and she wrote that part with me in mind. I think she knew because we have a history, and are old friends, that we could land as a couple, but also that it would be funny if I were the more grounded partner and she is the sort of manic, crazy one. So I find that refreshingly challenging to be normal—relatively normal—he still has his quirks.
You and Julie do such a good job at portraying more of a modern, evolved sort of relationship, even in terms of its incorporation of Billy. Is it nice to be depicting a relationship that’s a little harder to define and different rather than some overdone, simplistic sort of thing?
I think that Julie really writes with a lot of detail and insight about relationships. You know she wrote a book about being a single girl in the big city. It’s a great book. And even though her character on the show is in a long-term relationship, she’s still writing about a lot of similar concerns; the same dynamics of relationships — long relationships and short relationships.
I think she writes in a way that I haven’t seen before. When I read the scripts I find that the writing is deeply relatable. She’s very sharp about that. She’s hilarious and the show is very funny, but she also has something to say. I think that’s part of why the show’s so good because it’s funny, but it is grounded in that very real emotion even though the characters are ostensibly these nasty, difficult people of the title.
You mention writing; I’m a big fan of your fictional narrative podcast, Getting On With James Urbaniak. There’s such a unique style and charm to something like that. Are you hoping to continue going on with it?
I am! I’m definitely doing more Getting On. I have a few more scripts in the can and then I’m waiting to record. That show is on Feral Audio and I’m very proud of that show, but I got sidetracked by another project, which is actually for Earwolf for their Howl Channel. My writing partner, Brie Williams, and I are writing a 10-part serial for Howl. All of the Getting On With James Urbaniaks are kind of one-offs, but this is recurring characters and a ten-episode series with a whole story and through line. It’s called, A Nightfall Tomorrow and it’s sort of a comedic noir mystery set in Hollywood in the ’80s.
Awesome! Do you have any idea when that will be coming out?
Yeah, we’re actually recording it now. We started recording last week. We finish next week and are editing over the summer, and then it’s going to premiere in September. We’ve got some great people in it. Andy Richter just came in to record a part. Weird Al is doing a part. Lots of wonderful actors and comedians in LA like Lauren Lapkus, Molly Quinn. A wonderful actress named Andrea Parsons is playing the leading lady and I’m the main guy and the two of us get up to hijinks and mysteries in post-war LA.
The Venture Bros. is another program I love to death and have been following since its very beginning. Is it kind of crazy to look at the journey that show has been on? It’s ballooned in such a tremendous way from its humble beginnings.
Yeah, it has been, and it’s amazing how long it’s been on the air. I think the pilot was like 12 years ago but the show just completed it’s sixth season. The show only has six seasons but it’s been on a dozen years because the turnaround takes so long. The production takes such a long time.
It almost feels like an urban legend at how it comes and goes so quickly!
Yeah! Sometimes people don’t even realize that a season has started because it’s been gone for so long, but there will be a seventh season and I’m told we’ll start recording that in the fall. The audience for that show is wonderful. I think you could definitely still call it a cult show. But in my experience people either absolutely adore the show or they’ve never heard of it. There isn’t really any middle ground. You’re either an obsessive fan or you don’t know anything about it.
You play a rather integral role on Andy Daly’s Review for Comedy Central. Without exaggeration, I think that’s one of the most brilliant, hilarious shows of all time. Can you say anything at all about the short, final season that’s happening? Has it been written yet?
Well as a matter of fact, I wrapped the series yesterday! So they’re currently filming the rest of the mini-season. It’s only three episodes so it’s essentially feature-length summation. I won’t give anything away, but they allow the show to end on its own terms and I think the final episode is brilliant. I’ll put it this way, the episode sort of ends with Forrest in his purest state, with all that that implies.
That’s the perfect tease. The finale of the last season was just unreal. You know, there’s a good deal of people out there that think that Grant is the Devil? What do you have to say to that?
I know! Well, I buy it! That was never discussed literally. I’m certainly a Mephistophelean figure. I’ve often thought that when shooting that show. Grant is just so resolved and has become such an expert at manipulating this poor man, Forrest, that he is demonic. He’s a human being, but it really doesn’t make a difference. His intent and his intensity are demonic. There’s certainly a tradition—even Iago and Othello, for that matter—of the guy who whispers in the other guy’s ear as he watches gleefully as awful things happen. I guess that is a classic sort of dynamic—be it Rob Lowe and James Spader, too. Grant’s definitely a bad guy.
I can’t wait to see how it ends. Lastly, do you think that this season of Difficult People is trying to say anything different than the previous one? What do you hope that people take away from it?
I think it’s just expanded the world and characters. Expand is the word I would use because it just pushes it all further. We also see a little more of their emotional underpinnings and backstories in a way and I think the show gives all the characters credit as characters, rather than just sitcom devices. That’s something that’s there and continues to be there. Very excited to be a part of that show.
Difficult People’s second season premieres Tuesday, July 12, on Hulu.