The actor: As a member of the early-’90s sketch troupe The State, Ken Marino is known for comedy, but his all-American looks have also landed him periodic guest appearances on dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Dawson’s Creek. In his comedic roles, however, he’s turned his innate charm on its ear, whether he’s playing a gay demon in Reaper, a pathetic catering manager undergoing a midlife crisis in Party Down, or the arrogant Dr. Glenn Richie on the Adult Swim series Childrens Hospital, which was just renewed for a fourth season.
Childrens Hospital (2008-present)—“Dr. Glenn Richie”
Ken Marino: I met Rob [Corddry] doing The Ten, which is a movie David Wain and I wrote and produced. Then we became friends. When he was putting together this web series, I think he just reached out to people who were his friends, and according to him, people he wanted to work with. I was one of those people. So it was nice, because a lot of the people working on it were friends, or friends of friends, and it was just a fun little project to do.
The A.V. Club: Did your approach change because it was a web series, with 10-minute episodes?
KM: Well, I think the web series actually was under five minutes. I think there were like, three-to-four-minute spots, and then the series itself is 11 minutes long. It didn’t affect how I performed it. I mean, the show is not really that concerned about continuity. It just tries to lay in as many jokes as possible within that genre of TV that it’s commenting on.
AVC: What changed when it was picked up for Adult Swim?
KM: Well, I think the budget did get a little bigger, but I’m not privy to who the money was passed off to, and how much money was passed off. I know everything was dealt with with suitcases full of cash. That’s all I know.
AVC: You shoot in the old Scrubs hospital, right? And that used to be a working hospital?
KM: It was at one point, and now it’s a contaminated, disgusting, filthy hospital that is carrying around lots of terrible diseases, or at least it feels that way every time I walk in it. I feel like I’m inhaling some sort of asbestos-AIDS cocktail.
AVC: So even though they slap a coat of paint on everything, it’s still gross?
KM: Let’s be honest. Paint doesn’t cure everything. Windex does. But I don’t think they got Windex all over that place. It’s just, you know, sometimes it’s hard to concentrate on doing your part when you’re looking at weird bloodstains on the ceiling and wall. But quite frankly, I’m a professional and I rise above it.
AVC: You don’t know if those are from some sick patient or if Zach Braff just had a cut on his finger.
KM: That’s right. Well, that’s with his habit, it was Braff’s habit. Actually, it was [Rob] Huebel. It was basically Huebel. While we’re shooting, he’s always shooting up and then cleaning out his needle.
AVC: When guest actors like Kurtwood Smith come in, are they just going, “What the hell is going on here?”
KM: No, I’m pretty sure that Kurtwood was told it was just a That ’70s Show reunion. And then when he got in, we locked the doors. But you know, he came in and he was thrilled, and he was ready to play. And I was like, “Really, you got Kurtwood? That’s awesome.” Because I was just thinking of RoboCop and all the awesome character things he has done.
AVC: Had you seen any of these shows that Childrens Hospital is making fun of?
KM: Have I seen them? I’ve been on some of them. If you’re scanning my IMDB page, you’ll see that I’ve paid some of my bills by either guest-spotting or doing arcs on shows of that ilk.
Grey’s Anatomy (2006)—“Brad Ackles”
KM: I got shot. I jumped through a window. I had a big glass gash that they were dealing with, and I was some sort of asshole restaurant manager who fired a guy, and then he came back and shot up everybody in the restaurant. And I jumped out a window. I think that was my storyline.
Private Practice (2009)—“Mr. Larsen”
KM: My daughter or somebody had clunked me over the head, and I had to get some sort of prosthetic for my head. So there was a tube coming out of my head, and they were draining some sort of fluid out. So mostly that show, I was drooling. You get paid the same rate either way.
AVC: Whether you’re drooling or not?
KM: That’s right. And I was thrilled about that, because less lines to remember.
AVC: There’s elements of Dawson’s Creek, which you did, in Childrens Hospital. When you look at it, can you sit there and pick out which show is getting parodied in a scene?
KM: I will say this: My approach to Childrens Hospital is to approach it like I’m doing Dawson’s Creek. And by that, I basically tape a picture of Katie Holmes’ face or [James] Van Der Beek to every actor I’m working with. I mostly do Van Der Beek, because it riles me up a little bit more. I get a little bit more titillated. Hey, let’s face it, when you’re working with The Beek, you get excited.
Dawson’s Creek (2001-2002)—“Professor David Wilder”
KM: I think it was season five, and I think they went six or seven seasons. I’m not sure. Something like that. But yeah, I actually did most of my scenes with Katie Holmes. I don’t think I had any scenes with Van Der Beek. There might have been one. But we had a romance. I was her junior professor and she was a new student at the school. And I know I quoted a lot of Flaubert and spoke in long paragraphs. You know, one of the things that I—and I don’t remember a lot of things, I don’t remember most things. I certainly don’t remember lines that well. But when I auditioned for it, the first scene that I auditioned for was this gigantic monologue about Judy Blume. And I still have it in my head. So you say something negative about Judy Blume, and I’ll tell you the line.
AVC: “Judy Blume’s books all stink.”
KM: “Hey, don’t knock Judy Blume. Without her, my younger self would never have been able to decode the random acts of madness perpetrated by the fascinating creature known as the teenage girl.”
AVC: Why does that line stick in your head?
KM: Because when I read it, I was like, “There’s absolutely no way that that line will stay. But for the audition, the only way I’m going to be able to say it is to just repeat it over and over and over and over and over again until I get in there, ad nauseum until it sticks in there, because I don’t even know how to say a line like that. So I’ll just say it as fast as I can, because it’s like this long, run-on sentence.” So I did, and then it just stuck in there. I can’t get it out of my head. Then on the day of shooting, I was like, “All right, let me see the changes that they made, the revisions. They’re gonna shorten this line.” And they didn’t. And I was so thankful that I had crammed it into my head during the audition, because I had to say it, like, 20 times while we shot at different angles. But I’m not good at remembering lines. It’s like when you see a horrible accident. It’s just stuck in there. That being said, I had a great time on the set, and I loved the part, and I had a very nice time. But that line in particular, it just still bugs me when I think about somebody saying that.
AVC: But you can recite that line at the drop of a hat, so if they have a Dawson’s Creek reunion, you’re in good shape.
KM: What I do is, I go to Hollywood parties, and I bring a book, I bring Wifey with me. And then I hope that somebody says something negative about Wifey or Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret or Blubber, and I go, “Hey don’t knock Judy Blume. Without her, my younger self would never have been able to decode the random acts of madness perpetrated by that fascinating creature known as the teenage girl.” And then that usually makes the person I’m talking to kind of walk away. I’m usually escorted out of the party. And brought immediately to Michelle Williams’ house.
You Wrote It, You Watch It (1992)—Various characters
KM: The interesting thing about You Wrote It, You Watch It was that that was basically how we got our own show on MTV, The State. What we did was, I think it was David Wain, they had the show that Jon Stewart did. And he got his own show out of it, his own talk show on MTV. But basically, they were doing this show where people write in letters and then Jon reads them and then they reenact them. And we’re like, “How about we shoot people telling stories, and then we reenact the stories and intercut it with the person telling the story?” They said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” So we did a bunch of them for free and presented it to them, and they were like, “Oh yeah, that’s great! Why don’t you do a little segment for the show?” So we wound up writing, producing, and acting it as The State. Because we were a group in college at the time, New Group, and we changed our name to The State, because it had a lot more flair.
We did our own costumes and hair and makeup, and we edited it, and then we just handed them these finished products. I haven’t seen them in a while, but I did watch them recently, and some of them are still pretty funny, I think. We look like we’re 9 years old, which is no shock. And creatively, you know, we just got together and did stuff that made us laugh. I consider that our freshman year of comedy college. We were just thrown into this thing, and we decided “Okay, we’re going to just do these video sketches, basically, like early YouTube stuff.” That’s the way we taught ourselves how to do comedy for TV. So that’s why I think we have a specific voice that some people very much enjoy and perhaps others don’t.
The State (1993-1995)—Various characters
KM: It’s absolutely surprising to me how well The State has held up as far as people liking it and having fond memories of it, considering it’s a sketch show. I think one of the things that helped its mystique is, it never came out on DVD or video or whatever. It couldn’t, [because] there were licensing fees. It’s also flattering, and it’s just nice to see that people still—it meant something to them. [Michael] Showalter talks about this: I think why it meant something to so many people is, we were not that old when we were doing it. We were in our early 20s, so it looked like just a bunch of friends getting together and doing stupid comedy. I think a lot of people related to that. It felt like we were them.
AVC: Did it always have that vibe?
KM: We always felt that way. We had that goal; we had that mission. We wanted to create something, and it just so happened that the type of personalities that were in that group, there was drive.
AVC: What were the group’s ambitions beyond the show?
KM: Well, when we first started, we got together as this comedy group in school, and we quickly realized that we enjoyed working with each other, and we kind of inspired each other. It really was our comedy college, you know? So as we started doing shows in school, we were excited about what we were doing, and we wanted to continue doing it. We thought blindly, or maybe naïvely, or stupidly, that we could really do this. We could really do something with this group. That, I guess, arrogance or confidence helped us enormously in the beginning. We got our show. We got You Wrote It, You Watch It out of that. But at the time, we really thought we could do something with the group. I think that one of the problems was, we didn’t know specifically what we wanted to do with it. We wanted to do movies, we wanted to do a show. Maybe we weren’t as focused as we should’ve been, but we were certainly ambitious and aggressive. But we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted. Or we were sure, and then we’d change our mind. But once we started working professionally and getting a whopping $300 a week from MTV, we were like, “Hey, we could do this professionally, let’s continue.” When the money stopped coming in, you know, we had to all break off and try to survive on our own.
AVC: Your profile is littered with projects that either you or other members of The State have done, including Childrens Hospital. Is it easy to just call each other up for these projects, or is something else usually going on?
KM: You mean like some sort of underground blood pact that we made with each other? For me, I’ve said this forever, which is that the 10 people that I worked with on that show were some of the funniest people I’ve ever met. And we grew up together, and I still love all of them; we’re all still family. We’ve been, I think individually, all very lucky to be able to continue doing what we want to do, which is make comedy, and act, and write, and perform. When you are working on something, you want to go to the people that you have a shorthand with, and that you trust, and that you know can do it, and you don’t have to worry about that. So if I’m producing something with Dave, or I wrote something with Dave and Dave’s directing, we always think about our guys and our gal first. And I think they think the same thing. You want to work with those people as much as you can, or I certainly do. So I’m doing it. So those are my—what do you call it in army terms? My platoon. We went to battle, and I would like nothing more than to just keep working with them and creating things until the end.
AVC: There are always these rumblings that there’s going to be a reunion, especially when any two of you get together on a project.
KM: Well, you know, there’s always rumblings of that. The group has never stopped working in smaller groups. There hasn’t been, you know, a one-month period where somebody wasn’t working with somebody else. That’s just how it has been. As far as a reunion, we did a reunion, actually. We wrote all new material and performed it at UCB, and then at the San Francisco Comedy Festival, we had a reunion show and we did all our material. It was a really good show, and they videoed it, and the audio didn’t work. So they have the video of it, but not the audio. Which I was so bummed about, because I was, “Aw, that was a good one!” That was fun getting it. That was the first time that everybody got together in the same room in 15 years, or something like that.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)—“Victor Kulak”
KM: Usually what happens is, somebody will write something as an individual or in a small group. That was written by Mike Showalter and David Wain, and then they reach out to certain members if there’s parts that are right for them, and say, “Please do this.” That’s what happened on that. You know, when Dave and I wrote The Ten, our goal was like “Okay, let’s try to get everybody in The State in there.” We did, except for Mike Jann, who wasn’t around. So we had to just have a picture of him. But every member of The State is in The Ten. And then Wet Hot, I think they got a good percentage of everybody, but not everybody.
AVC: Did it feel like summer camp when you guys were shooting it?
KM: Absolutely! I mean, we all shot at this camp in Pennsylvania, and we all just stayed there in the nurse’s quarters and the cabins they had there. So we were living there as if we were at camp. On top of that, it rained I think 27 of the 31 days we shot, or something crazy like that. We were all bonding, just hanging out. Actually, I think we were in the nurse’s office, just drinking and smoking and playing a lot of music at night. Then we’d go during the day, and do the same thing that night. Because there was nothing else to do but sit and watch the rain come down and get to know each other. And you know, I made some wonderful friends on that movie.
AVC: What is it about the movie 10 years later that people still connect with? Is it the people who were in it, because it was a lot of members of The State?
KM: I think it’s something else. I think it just connected with people. I think the humor was fresh, it was refreshing to see something like that, and I think that’s why it wasn’t loved by the mainstream audiences when it first came out. But then people kind of latched onto it and saw what Dave and Sho were trying to do. And then there’s just heart to it, and I think people kind of latch onto that, too. You know, everybody’s gone to camp, and the way Dave shot it, and the way Sho and Dave wrote it, even though it’s absurd and meta and ridiculous at times, there is a warmth and a heart to it that is undeniable.
The Ten (2007)—“Dr. Glenn Richie”
AVC: What’s the difference between the Glenn Richie you created in The Ten and the one that’s on Childrens Hospital?
KM: I think we just folded in the name because we thought it would be funny, because I was playing a doctor in The Ten. “Let’s have a little inside joke.” The logic of it makes absolutely no sense. And Glenn Richie in The Ten was a pretty… well, he thought he was funny, but a pretty terrible guy. The characters on Childrens Hospital are, I guess, pretty despicable too, but maybe a little less so. Other than the name, I don’t really try to recreate the character from the movie.
Party Down (2009-2010)—“Ron Donald”
AVC: Was it weird shooting the show knowing that at the end of each season, you were going to have to look for other work elsewhere?
KM: It was weird. I mean, the original pilot we shot was shot because Rob Thomas and Dan Etheridge and Jon Enbom and Paul Rudd had written this script years ago, that they were trying to shop around. And it didn’t go, for whatever reason. You can read about the history of that. I don’t know the exact specifics of it. Then Veronica Mars got cancelled, and Rob Thomas was like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna shoot this pilot myself, and then we’ll shop around the pilot.” And he asked myself and Adam [Scott] and Jane [Lynch] and Ryan [Hansen] and a couple of other people to shoot it at his house. We shot it at his house for nothing. I think we all got paid like, $100 a day or something. Then it went away, and everybody was still looking for work and auditioning for things, and we didn’t know what was going on with it. Then about eight months later, maybe even a year later, they called up and said “We sold it to Starz.” And it was such a fun time, it was such a wonderful project, and the people involved were so nice that I talked with Adam and we’re like, “Oh, yeah, let’s do this! If you’re doing it, I’m doing it.” I remember saying that, or Adam saying that to me.
So we did it, and the only way they could cut a deal with us was, “Okay, we can’t pay you that much, so we won’t lock you into anything more than a one-season contract.” Because we weren’t getting paid much, it was a smart thing to do for us as actors. It was tough for them, because if they got picked up again, they had to renegotiate again. So that was the tough part for them. And then after we shot the first season, we all loved it so much, we wanted to do it again. But again, we all had families. You know, Jane just happened to be in third position when she shot Party Down, meaning that she had shot two other pilots prior to even shooting the series Party Down. So it wasn’t like she got Party Down and then got something else. She was already locked into Glee and something else that didn’t go. So when Glee got picked up, that was it. She was already contractually obligated to do Glee. And that was great for her. I mean, it was a bummer that we had to lose her, but…
AVC: If the show had been picked up for a third season, would everybody mostly have come back?
KM: Well, you know, the reality is, Adam wanted to do Party Down, and we just weren’t getting any sort of answer on if it was going to go or not. We weren’t even getting like, a 5 percent chance that it would go. So Adam got this other opportunity [Parks And Recreation], and he called me and we had this long talk, and he’s like, “It’s not a question of choosing one or the other.” The third season didn’t exist, and it didn’t seem like it was going to happen at all. But I know Adam would have loved to have done the show; even talking about Parks And Rec, I know he was like, “I think I could do, like, three or four and we could figure something out.” I mean, he loved the show and he loved that character. We would have figured something out with Adam, because Adam wanted to do it.
AVC: Do you guys think there might be some unfinished business with that show?
KM: You know, Rob Thomas and Dan Etheridge and Jon Enbom have been talking about some sort of deal that’s close, where they feel pretty confident that we’re gonna do a movie now. You know, things can fall through all the time, but at this point, they’ve come out and said that it looks good. And so I feel confident to say it looks good. But that being said, anything can happen. I would love to do Party Down again. Party Down was one of the most magical, special experiences of my professional career. Also special in my personal life too. I made really good friends, and I had just a great time, and it was a great part. You know, I don’t get to play parts like Ron Donald that often, if ever.
AVC: Which side of Ron did you like better: the uptight side who wanted the soup franchise, or the risk-taking, drug-addled Ron?
KM: I like both Rons. I enjoyed both of them. But ultimately, I loved going back to the straitlaced Ron. Because he was just so tortured. And the pot-smoking Ron was just sad. Where the straitlaced Ron was sad and pathetic. [Laughs.] I loved that guy.
KM: I think that show had a fresh voice, and had a fresh angle, and had a really cool, fun cast. And they were smart. It was a smart show. And so people grabbed onto that, because it wasn’t the same thing. So the people who watched it and got into it loved it, because it was original and fresh. And so you know, that tends to be the case, with shows that aren’t directly up the middle. The shows that have a little more edge, or a little more point of view, there’s a rabid audience for that. A small but rabid audience. So when it goes away, they’re like, “Wait a second, why are you taking away that fresh, original thing?” And the big-business people are saying, “Because it’s not making any money.”
AVC: When you see a part that calls for a gay demon, do you think, “I’m perfect for that?”
KM: Well, I wasn’t that aware of the show when they had offered a part to me. What was exciting about it was that they were talking about Michael Black and myself. So that, going back to The State guys, that was an exciting job to me, you know, to go do some stuff with Mike, because I don’t get to do that much with Mike anymore. So whenever there’s an opportunity, you know, I’d love to, because I love Mike as a person, I love Mike as a performer. So that was the reason I was like, “Yeah, hell yeah.” I had read the scenes and the part, and I recognized that it was smart writing. It wasn’t that much of a stretch to play a gay demon. I am, you know, both gay and a demon. Don’t tell my wife.
Veronica Mars (2005-2007)—“Vinnie Van Lowe”
KM: Yeah! Veronica Mars was great. That was an exciting one, because they brought me in for one episode, and then they just kept bringing me back in. They were planning, I think, to make me the sheriff of Neptune in the season that wound up not getting picked up. I was running for sheriff at the end of the last episode, and they thought it would be nice. So that was kind of a bummer, because I was having such a fun time with that part, and those guys are awesome. But out of that came Party Down, so I can’t complain about that.
Men Behaving Badly (1997)—“Steve”
KM: That was my first big series out here, and it was hard. It was a hard one. But it got me out here, and I never left L.A. For that reason, it’s awesome.
AVC: What was hard about it?
KM: To go from working with a group of people in a sketch-comedy show on a small network where it was all about just creating funny stuff, to being on a network show, and the pressures of that, and getting to know the new people who were involved in it. There was a learning curve for me. But it was an education.