For the last nine seasons Craig Robinson has played Darryl, one of the most understated characters on TV. "The Office" may be closing out its ninth and final season next week, but Robinson's profile is about to increase exponentially. He has three movies coming out, including the idiots-at-the-apocalypse comedy "This Is the End" (with Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jonah Hill) and "Rapture-Palooza" (playing no less than the Antichrist himself, seducing Anna Kendrick).
But first comes the romantic comedy "Peeples," about an ordinary guy looking to impress his future in-laws — a family so accomplished and wealthy, he dubs them the "chocolate Kennedys."
It is a role that draws on Robinson's strengths as a musical comedian, a talent the North Beverly native honed during his post-collegiate years when he was a Chicago music teacher by day, fledgling comic by night.
Last week he was back home, reliving some of those memories for me. When a nearby publicist indicated our time was coming to an end, Robinson wasn't ready to stop. "No, let's just talk more!"
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q:This is your first lead role in a movie. How did that come about?
A: Tina Gordon Chism, the writer-director, she actually lived this character. The way she tells it, she was dating a guy whose family looked perfect on the outside, but it kept unraveling, all these secrets and stuff.
Lionsgate wanted her to talk to me (starts to laugh) so we met, and, the way she'll say it is that I fell asleep, like hard-core, during the meeting. But it was just a little catnap.
A: I had worked crazy hours on "The Office." Probably a 14- or 15-hour day. And didn't get much sleep before that. And this was the only time she could meet. So how is that my fault?
But then we had another meeting, thank God, and she was telling me about these amazing people who were attached so far — Kerry Washington and David Alan Grier — and from there I was like, "Yes!"
Q: How much of the role was tailored to you and your real-life back-story?
A: The music aspect was put in because of me. He was just a child therapist at first, and then it was like, well let's put some music in there! You know, he's not a fully credentialed dude, but he likes to work with kids.
I used to teach music, K through 8, at Horace Mann. I left to go to LA in 1999, so I was there three years.
Q: What was that like?
A: At times extremely rewarding. At times extremely frustrating. I did OK as a teacher, but some of the kids had to tell me, you know, stop playing around.
As soon as you become a teacher, they tell you don't smile, don't be friends with the kids. And I was like, "But I'm Craig!" I had my moments of being a funny teacher. But when they got me a little upset, that's when I was most effective. "No more of this, now you're about to do this work!"
Some of the kids still reach out and talk about music on Facebook and stuff like that.
Q: I was wondering about that. Did you know your "Office" co-star Ellie Kemper had Jon Hamm as a drama teacher when she was in high school?
A: I did not know that! Wow! That is hysterical. No, I haven't had that kind of experience. Not yet.
Q: You started going to open mics when you were still teaching?
A: That's right. Several nights a week, as much as I could. I would go to the No Exit Cafe on the North Side and people would be there, having their coffee and playing this game called Go. It don't even know what it was, something with marbles. (Go is a chess-like board game played with round stones.)
As a comic, you really wanted to reach one of those Go players, because they didn't care what was going on around them. They didn't want to see comedy. All they wanted to do was play their game, so if you made them laugh, that was awesome.
Q: When did you start incorporating music into your act?
A: There was a place called The Q Club and they had a night called the Heckler's Heaven, where three people in the audience would have scorecards and three people would have rubber chickens. You got three minutes before anyone bothered you. If you get all three rubber chickens thrown at you from random audience members, you had to get off stage. If not, you got to stay up there for another five minutes and the other three audience members would score you.
The first week I went up, Corey Holcomb, Godfrey and James Hannah went up, so I asked that they take my name off the list because these were not open mic comics — these were guys who were destroying Chicago. So I went back the next week and I got up there and started doing my little jokes and I got two chickens, so I said, "OK, that's it for me, I'm going!" I wasn't getting that third chicken.
And then the next week, I took my keyboard with me. And that was all she wrote.
Q: How did that idea come to you?
A: I've always been playing (music), and I've always been silly behind the keyboard. Or I am when I'm in my element. I wrote a funny song called "Can I Have Some Booty?" (which he sings in "Rapture-palooza") and decided to see how that would work out.
Q: Not a lot of people have been able to blend comedy and music. There's Martin Mull —
A: I can't believe you just said that! He was one of the first people I saw do that. When people ask me who my influences are, I say Steven Wright, Sam Kinison, Richard Pryor. And Martin Mull is right up in there.
I want to get "Martin Mull Live at the Roxy" and I cannot find that album. It's not anywhere. I saw him one day at one of his art showings in Phoenix and I was like, "Where can I get it?" He didn't know how to get it either.
Q: What were you like growing up as a kid?
A: I was kind of shy. And I was paying attention — like, observing people. A lot of guys were way funnier than me. There was always somebody cracking up a room and that always appealed to me, but I never thought, "I could do this."
You know how kids talk about each other and stuff? I didn't really start fighting back until 8th grade. And I couldn't believe the response I got! I remember there was this one guy who was talking, and I got him with a comeback and everyone was like, "Dang!" That was one of the first times I made people laugh.
Q: What were you like at home?
A: I would crack silly when we would do road trips to grandmother's house or something. That's what my stage was, in the back seat of the car in the corner. And I would do these characters and would be making jokes just to make my parents laugh. My father was this hard-core attorney. He was man of the house since he was 12 years old, so it's been his way or the highway for many, many years. So to make him laugh was a Holy Grail.
Q: You have a sitcom pilot that you just made for NBC called "Mr. Robinson" that sounds like it's based on your life.
A: I play a substitute teacher that doesn't care that much, and then they send me to a music class and I'm like, "Oh wait a minute — I got this! I can do this."
We've got Jean Smart playing the principal, Steve Little from "Eastbound & Down" playing the vice principal. Larenz Tate plays my little brother in the band with me. And we've got Amandla Stenberg, who was Rue in "The Hunger Games," as one of the students.
It's single-camera. "Office"-style, baby! It was turned in yesterday, so now I'm just in the bubble of hope. The way I think it goes is, if they pick it up, I'll be at upfronts (when the network announces its new lineup). NBC's upfronts are May 13, so I'll know at least by midnight on the 12th if they say, "Hey, get on a plane!" So, we'll see.
Q: Looking back at "The Office," do you have a favorite moment?
A: I remember one episode where I was going in for a raise and Michael Scott (Steve Carell) was trying to negotiate with me. So we just sat there staring at each other, and his line is "I'm declining to speak first."
The first few takes were fine. But by the third take he was doing these silly faces, and I did one of those things where I had to look away, trying not to laugh, but you can still see that I'm about to smile. And that's the take they kept.
Movies on trial
A screening of 1998's "A Civil Action" will be followed by a panel discussion featuring some of the city's top lawyers and judges, debating the real-life case that inspired the movie, about families who sued two corporations for dumping toxic waste. Noon Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
An overworked father bonds with his adopted teenage son during epic canoe trip in "Waterwalk," which spans from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to St. Louis. Based on the true story of Steven Faulkner and his son Justin (from the memoir of the same name), the story is part-travelogue, part-family drama. It screens Saturday and Sunday at the Siskel Film Center, with post-show discussions led by producer Roger Rapoport. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
Ixnay on the wire hangers
For several years the Music Box Theatre has celebrated Mother's Day with one of its more twisted picks: 1981's "Mommie Dearest." Audiences will receive an interactive guide to the movie's most infamous scenes, punctuated by running commentary by the members of Camp Midnight. 2 p.m. Sunday. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
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