Ensemble television comedies can never serve every member of the ensemble equally. There’s always going to be a central character, and a few vital supporting characters, and then those members of the group whose presence is important to the narrative but whose purpose is mostly to redirect attention to the stars. They’re there to set up jokes and situations, but they’re almost never the direct focus of any story lines. And even when they do come into play, they’re usually pushed aside fairly soon so the action can once again focus on the core characters. What this means, though, is that those tertiary members of the ensemble have to be completely dependable. They don’t get catch phrases or become breakout hits; they don’t get to save the day, or win in the end, or change the course of the story. They have to fully inhabit their character and role, as committed to one line as the star is to every scene. They have to be engaging enough to warrant your attention and generous enough to cede the floor to bigger stories. And they have to be funny, too. This is incredibly hard to pull off, and the best supporting player in modern sitcom history is Jim O’Heir, the beleaguered Jerry from Parks and Recreation.
Jerry is the butt of a thousand jokes. He’s a hard worker who’s consistently underutilized and overlooked by his colleagues; he’s a nervous public speaker; he’s prone to making mistakes on even menial tasks; he’s simple, shy, well-meaning, and wildly codependent. He’s so deferential that it turns out his name isn’t even Jerry, but Garry — the misnomer came about when his old boss accidentally called him “Jerry” on his first day, and Jerry didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings by correcting him, so he just allowed himself to be called Jerry for decades. Jerry’s an amateur painter, a loving husband and father, and generally pleasant even when he’s being mocked at the office. He’s comic relief on a sitcom, someone just there to add jokes. Only a few stories have involved Jerry directly, and they’re usually about how his colleagues are going to accomplish their own goals while he just putters along. In “Jerry’s Painting,” he paints an image of a centaur to hang in City Hall that’s subconsciously modeled on his boss, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), but the episode’s plot is primarily about Leslie’s desire to use the painting as a way to make herself feel more confident and assertive in her own life. She gets embroiled in a minor scandal over the painting’s nudity and promptly makes the battle all about her; when Jerry protests, “It’s my painting,” she cuts him off. Or there’s “Park Safety,” in which Jerry reports being mugged in the park before copping to the fact that he actually fell and hurt himself while reaching for a burrito he’d dropped in a creek. The episode is mostly about his coworkers attempting to be kinder to him and then, in the end, returning to the habit of ribbing him so they can restore balance to the office.
This is a thankless comic role. It needs someone to show up, be pathetic but likable, and remain engaging no matter what’s going on around him. And actor Jim O’Heir knocks it out of the park every time. The show is built around Poehler’s character, and other performers have enjoyed breakout success as their characters become pop culture heroes: Nick Offerman’s bearded landsman Ron Swanson, Aziz Ansari’s swaggering Tom Haverford, Chris Pratt’s lovable goofball Andy Dwyer, Ben Schwartz’s cartoonish Jean-Ralphio, Aubrey Plaza’s dour but generous April Ludgate. They’re all designed to pop in some way, so it’s no surprise they have. And those performers are all wonderful. But O’Heir is doing fantastic, hilarious, detailed supporting work in a way that’s always funny but never flashy, and that’s often harder, and certainly less acknowledged.
O’Heir has to walk a fine line: he has to act simple but not moronic, kind but not ignorant, self-possessed but not proud, cooperative but not dynamic, dedicated but not robotic. In other words, he has to present himself as the possible subject for mockery but still walk and talk and act like a real person. One of the show’s many strengths has been its ability to create a world that feels populated by real characters, and O’Heir’s work as Jerry is no different. You never doubt that he’s really a lifelong civil servant, unironically excited about notarizing things and willing to do whatever the team needs done. Jerry isn’t even smug or entitled about being married to a beautiful woman (played by Christie Brinkley), even in the series finale, as his life becomes increasingly wonderful. Rather, he’s genuinely loving and happy.
That’s what it really is: the idea of being genuine. Parks is shot as a mockumentary that lets its characters make jokes directly to the viewer in the form of talking-head interviews or sly glances right at the camera. But Jerry never does this. When he does talk to the camera, it’s simply and honestly, like the time he talked about how he’s looking forward to relaxing with “a stack of mystery novels” after retirement, or his discourse about how his annual hunting trip is his one opportunity for guy time, or his poignant defense of his pointillism after his coworkers made fun of it. Jerry is never, ever too cool for the room, and that’s thanks to O’Heir’s total commitment and comic skill. He is the game day player, the long-ball hitter, the constant presence, the consummate pro; the one who has the guts to look foolish. He might not have been the star of the show, but it’s impossible to imagine the show without him.