Jon Bass Interview: Making it Big Time in Hollywood, FL and Book of Mormon

Actor Jon Bass talks with us about Comedy Central's new series, the big shoes he filled on Broadway and getting slapped by Ben Stiller.

This is my apology to Jon Bass. The actor was the lead in a Broadway show in which I sat nearly on top of the stage. He’s since landed appearances on HBO’s Girls and The Newsroom, two shows I regularly watch. So when he showed up on Comedy Central’s manic new serialized comedy, Big Time in Hollywood, FL, a long overdue IMDB search was in order.

Coincidentally, I realized was in attendance for one of Bass’ early Broadway performances to write our feature on Book of Mormon. No longer an “Oh, that guy!” actor to me, Bass’ professional life continues to evolve as he landed a role on the latest in a string of must-watch Comedy Central series.

On stage and screen, life isn’t getting any easier for Bass. He had massive shoes to fill when he was pulled out of the Book of Mormon national tour and was eventually one of the replacements for Josh Gad on Broadway. After graduating from Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s hit musical, Bass found a home as a regular on Big Time, though he really has to work for it. He’s already been kidnapped and bitch-slapped by Ben Stiller’s Jimmy Staats, a recovering addict turned pretend drug dealer. When Cuba Gooding Jr. shows up as Cuba Gooding Jr., a real addict and crazy person who coaxes the series’ main characters Ben and Jack into criminal activities, it’s Bass’ Del who has to deal with the repercussions.

From executive producer Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Productions, Big Time’s concept is a meta take on the shaky Hollywood aspirations of Ben (Lenny Jacobson) and Jack (Alex Anfanger), who bring their buddy Del (Bass) along for the ride. We suggest reading the backstory behind how series creators Anfanger and Dan Schimpf (who also directs) brought the idea to life.

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In the mean time, Bass spoke with us about the expectations of stepping into the Book of Mormon spotlight, how Big Time is making the latest trend in comedy weirder and wilder, and what it’s like to get slapped by Ben Stiller.

Den of Geek: As I was watching the first episode of Big Time in Hollywood, FL, I couldn’t put my finger on where I had seen you before. Upon further review, I realized I saw you play Elder Cunningham in Book of Mormon on Broadway. Did it take some time for you to shake the feeling that you were replacing Josh Gad and find your version of the character?

Jon Bass: Yes. There was one guy before me then I came in off the national tour as a stand by and took over the main part on Broadway. The first two months of me doing the show was me being like well they want this one thing and so I’ll give that to them and I’ll try and put my spin on it. Then Trey Parker came to rehearse with me and he pretty much said drop everything and take out everything that you’re doing, we don’t want you to feel like you have to do an impression of Josh Gad because that’s not what this part is. He wanted me to be myself and that’s what I did and it was life changing.

If you’ll allow me to be a South Park fanboy for a second, what’s it like having Trey come in to specifically work with you?

It was the craziest thing. I was a huge South Park fan. I was actually a bigger BASEketball fan. I remember I used to watch BASEketball over and over and over again. It was very dream come truey, to have Matt and Trey want to work together. I got a masterclass in comedy from two of the most genius comedians of the 21st century.

Let’s switch gears and talk Big Time in Hollywood, FL. How’d you get involved with the show?

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Alex Anfanger, who plays Jack and is one of the creators, and I were reading together about three years ago, before Book of Mormon and before he did Next Time on Lonny, and we both cracked up at each other. Three years later he called me up and asked if I wanted to audition for a show he was doing on Comedy Central and I said ‘yes please.’

For those yet to watch the show, your character, Del, doesn’t get a ton of screentime in the first episode. Del is essentially a punching bag early on in the series. Every friend group has that one guy who just naturally becomes the punching bag, but how does the character evolve over the course of the season?

In the second episode I get beaten up by the cops and the next time I see those cops I’m fearful of them. By the fourth episode, you start to see Del’s sunny disposition start to get screwed with. Del’s just a guy who is constantly looking for the good in life. He’s looking to make people happy. With Ben and Jack being the people he’s the punching bag for, he’s happy to be that. He loves Ben and Jack and gives them what they need because they are his family.

Things start to happen outside of Ben and Jack, and I don’t want to ruin anything, but the series goes bananas. It gets so wild. If you love the first and second episode, once you get to episode five you’re going to be hooked. My character goes on a crazy arc. Ben and Jack go on their crazy arc. We all have these A, B and C stories that just get weirder and wilder and sicker.

The creators and Lenny Jacobson, who plays Ben, and I did a marathon. We watched all ten episodes at once. It’s just so much fun to see where everyone went. I’m so excited for people to catch on.

Netflix makes their originals in a way that promotes binge-watching whereas traditional networks needs to make shows that are appealing week to week. Despite being on cable, was this show created with the idea that this will probably be binge-watched somewhere?

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Yes, 100 percent. Our show is meant to be binge-watched with ramen noodles in a college dorm. I have a friend who is one of the writers on Orange is the New Black, and I think he put it the best way: “It took us a year to make a cake and you guys ate it all in one sitting.”

That’s sort of what I want people to do with this show. It’s going to be tough because we have to go ten weeks and hopefully we get the audience that I think the show deserves and they go to their friends and it gets a crowd going. I hope people eat our cake and I hope they eat it fast, because I think that’s the way this show works.

Big Time is promoted as Comedy Central’s first serialized show and from the first few episodes it already feels like something we’ve rarely see on television when it comes to comedy. Was that something you were able to recognize when you first saw the script?

I can’t even tell you how immensely excited I was to do a show that was going to have a full arc. From an actor’s point of view, and from a fan of television point of view, it could not have worked out better. From the actor’s side, you get to play a character that has a full arc in one season instead of doing the same thing every week. From a fanboy point of view, I get to be on a serialized comedy, which there are so few of and they’re only getting better and more interesting.

I think there’s a renaissance of serialized television right now. It’s sort of the ‘it’ thing. There’s a few comedies coming up now, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Last Man on Earth, that are so good and so serialized and I think people crave that story.

People talk about Mad Men and Breaking Bad as the end of the Golden Age of TV, but we could be coming up on the Golden Age of TV Comedies.

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We had The Office and Parks and Rec with the feel that we were playing around with reality TV and now comedies are becoming more and more cinematic.

Is Big Time a show that could have worked on network television?

This would have never worked on network. There’s no way. I don’t know, I mean Last Man on Earth made it to network with good ratings and that show is so bizarre. Maybe networks are taking bigger chances and for the most part, I think our is at the right home.

Some of the best comedy comes out of a show’s setting. Yet, besides the title being significant to the main characters’ aspirations and lack of success, Hollywood, FL seems like an odd place to set a show if its not about seniors waking up at 7 a.m. to go to Denny’s. How does it play into the storyline and the humor of the show?

I think the reason that we chose Hollywood, FL is that we wanted somewhere that is nondescript. These two brothers who are reaching for fame are never going to find it in Hollywood, FL. Besides that, it’s a backdrop for the story. It’s not exactly Breaking Bad, where New Mexico became a character within the show. It’s more just there to allow us to have a nowhere place so we can put our story on top of it. If we get a second season we’re hoping we can film in Florida because we found that there were things we wish we could have done that are just not possible in Los Angeles.

From the handful of episodes I’ve seen, I have to agree about your bananas assessment. I was enjoying the first episode and the ending totally blew me away. Can you take me through the final scene of the premiere? It had to be a blast filming it (For those who haven’t seen the premiere, go watch it right now and come back to this part).

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It was very messy — lots of moving parts. It’s just a testament to our director Dan Schimpf. He shot a web series for peanuts and through the graces of God he has allowed to shoot this pilot with Ben Stiller. I’ve never seen a more level-headed person who was just calm and collected with all these extras and guns. You’re looking at [Dan] thinking you’re 28 years old and you are running a whole room. It was magical to watch and it made me never want to be a director.

He’s one of those people you meet and you know he’s meant to be a director. Whatever it is, he’s got it. Ben Stiller was so cool and everyone was having a blast, but the real credit goes to Dan Schimpf.

In that final scene you got to play alongside one of those classic over-the-top Ben Stiller characters. That had to be pretty special.

I had this moment where we were watching the playback on the screen and I was watching Ben Stiller and I was thinking to myself ‘he’s a really good actor.’ Then I was like wait this is fucking Ben Stiller who I’ve watched for the last 20 years of course he’s a good actor. There is a point in the script where I get slapped by Ben Stiller. Before that scene we’re just sitting there and I have my hands tied and we’re sitting there talking about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He’s like ‘I just saw Ferris Bueller, it’s a really good movie and I haven’t seen it in a while.’ Then Dan called action and he just slapped me. This is my life now.

With so many great shows on television, something we try do here at Den of Geek is steer people in the right direction. If this entire interview does not convince the reader to tune in, can you give us one final plea? Why should you go watch Big Time in Hollywood, FL?

Because you don’t want to be one of the assholes who can’t say I started watching it in its first season.

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Thanks, Jon! 

Big Time in Hollywood, FL airs Wednesdays at 10:30 on Comedy Central.

*Images courtesy of Comedy Central