‘Speechless’ actor John Ross Bowie makes his stage debut in Neil Simon’s ‘23rd Floor’
John Ross Bowie, best known as Sheldon Cooper’s arch nemesis Barry Kripke on “The Big Bang Theory” and superdad Jimmy DiMeo on “Speechless,” isn’t a big fan of downtime. A few days after wrapping Season 2 of “Speechless,” he was already in rehearsals for a revival of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” running through April 22 at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank.
Despite Bowie’s years in the business, he had never acted in a professional play before, an experience he describes as “multicamera sitcom acting without a net.”
Fortunately “Laughter,” Simon’s look back on his experiences as a writer on the 1950s TV variety show “Your Show of Shows,” is set in a world Bowie knows well. He spoke by phone for this edited conversation about the intersection of stage, screen and life.
You’re a few weeks into the run of “Laughter.” How do you think it’s going?
The play was written in 1993, set in 1953, so a lot of the references are not exactly of the zeitgeist right now. We have a Jack Benny joke. There’s a line about how foxy Lana Turner is. And it’s the only time in my career that I’ve ever peeked out at the audience and gone, “Oh, good, we got an old crowd.” The matinees have been phenomenal.
So the demographic of the theater audience is working for you.
There’s such a sweet nostalgia running through the play — and also kind of a dark nostalgia, because there’s a lot of talk about [Joseph] McCarthy and the blacklist, and it makes it both a wonderful time capsule and a cautionary tale for 2018. McCarthy was going after the entertainment industry and segments of the mainstream media that he felt were a threat to the republic. And that doesn’t appear to go out of style. I’ve said too much.
Is it true that this is your professional stage debut?
That’s actually correct. I didn’t go to theater school, and when I decided to commit to acting in my late 20s, I got pretty lucky pretty fast on TV.
But “Speechless” has given me the flexibility to commit to a four-week rehearsal and a four- or five-week run. For my first play, I thought it probably wouldn’t be wise to hurl myself into the deep end and do, say, Iago, or one of the brothers in “True West.” Maybe we walk before we run.
Neil Simon is sort of the Rosetta Stone for sitcom acting. He didn’t create those rhythms, but it can be argued that he perfected them. You hear his cadence in “Big Bang Theory” and all the other multi-cam sitcoms that I’ve worked on. So it felt like a full-circle movement. It’s a dream come true.
Tell me about your character, Brian Doyle.
Brian’s the lone gentile on staff. Much reference is made to this — it’s not like I’m finding subtext. He’s an Irish Catholic in a room that in real life was populated by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and Carl Reiner. He’s also a relentless smoker, and not a well man. He enters coughing.
I was just sort of innocently reading the script, like, “Oh, I’m so drawn to this character for some reason, probably because he’s funny. La, la!” About a week and a half into rehearsal it dawned on me that he has a lot in common with my father, who also tended to use his humor as a weapon and died of emphysema.
It’s dangerous to call stuff like this therapeutic, but it does make me feel a little closer to my dad. It’s 11 years he’s been gone now. I’m sorry. You called to talk about a Neil Simon play, and I’ve gotten super heavy on you.
Did you do any research into the real-life model for Brian, “Your Show of Shows” writer Tony Webster?
I did. I’ve been a fan of “Your Show of Shows” since I was a kid — and here’s a music cue for you — my dad and I used to go to the Museum of Broadcasting in New York to watch old episodes together. But I had not heard of Tony Webster, and it turns out the reason, and this is a recurring joke in the play, is that he sold out really quickly. He went out to California and wrote some of the less impressive work that TV was putting out in the ’60s, like “Car 54, Where Are You?”
He died a little on the young side, and his last credit was “Love Boat.” Instead of taking a massive chance on his own work the way Reiner or Brooks did, he just glommed on to whatever sitcom would pay him and cashed his checks. I’ve been a journeyman actor for 16 to 17 years now, and I understand the urgency.
Barry on “Big Bang Theory” is a kind of supervillain, while Jimmy on “Speechless” is such a patient, wonderful guy. How does Brian compare in terms of good and evil?
I’d like to think that they are three purely distinct inventions of the actor’s craft, but you know, I’m not Daniel Day-Lewis. The characters fall on a spectrum, I think, and Brian probably lands somewhere between Barry and Jimmy — almost exactly between those two opposites.
You’re also a comedy writer. Have you ever thought of writing a play about your own experiences behind the scenes?
If I did write something like that, I would want it to be fairly fresh and unique, but the issues that are elucidated in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” haven’t really gone away. The network still doesn’t want your show to be too esoteric or too smart. The more we do “Laughter,” the more I realize how evergreen it is.
One last thing: Your last name is pronounced “Bau-ie”? Rhymes with “Maui”?
It is, I’m afraid, yeah. Sorry to be difficult.
Do people get it wrong?
Oh, always. I take it on a case-by-case basis. If it’s just, like, the person at Customs, I let it slide. If it’s someone I think I’m going to be hanging out with for any extended period of time, I will politely say, “Actually it’s not a big deal but I pronounce it ‘Bau-ie.’ ” Again, I’m not trying to be difficult. If you’ve really got a problem with it, I guess you could take it up with my late father. Apparently that’s the proper Scottish pronunciation. When I’m over in the U.K., they get it right immediately.
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