Time has no meaning anymore, which is why “Christmas in July” became “Christmas in March” with Syfy’s The Pole, a new animated series from Matthew Bass and Theodore Bressman. The “pole” of the title is the North Pole, home to longtime married couple Santa Claus (Bobby Moynihan) and Gretchen Claus (Jillian Bell), their children Jack (Timothy Simons) and Harry (SungWon Cho), and untold numbers of elves and talking animals. But the Pole is no mere winter wonderland—it’s a place of great unrest, both in the Claus home and at the toy factories, where the elves have only the strictest notions of morality. This Santa wishes delivering billions of toys in a single night were the worst of his problems; instead, he has to settle labor disputes, contend with a dick pic scandal, and thwart the coup coming from inside his own home.
Santa’s eldest son Jack, who’s making his own bid for the candy cane throne, is a lanky schemer who doesn’t care about being liked. It’s the kind of role that Timothy Simons, who played Jonah Ryan on Veep for seven seasons, has become known for—though the actor says it’s through no conscious decisions of his own. None of that abrasiveness is present in his guest star turn on Dickinson season two, where he plays Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who only inspires Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) to get over her writer’s block. Ahead of The Pole’s season-one finale on April 21, Simons spoke with The A.V. Club about Santa’s dick pics, whether he’s motivated by fame, and how, intentionally or not, he’s inspired some unlikable characters.
The A.V. Club: Animated shows weren’t held up by the pandemic the same way the live action stuff was, but it really feels like The Pole popped up from from one day to the next. It was announced six months ago, now it’s out in the world. How did you get involved?
Timothy Simons: I’ve known Teddy [Bressman] and [Matthew] Bass, who write and showrun it, for years. I met Teddy back in 2011. We had mutual friends. Back then, we just kind of connected over our mutual love of mid-‘90s NBA, and we’ve just been tight since. He’s really funny, and then he started writing with Bass. He and I started developing an animated show at one point; that got put on the back burner once those guys started getting crazy busy. I’ve just always known and liked them. They called me and said that they had written this with me in mind and asked would I want to jump on? And of course the answer is yes. We’ve tried to work with one another for years. It was a great excuse to spend a lot more time with those guys.
AVC: Even though it’s an animated show about the North Pole, the show definitely digs into some issues, like labor disputes and political scandals, that are surprisingly relevant. Is that something you typically look for in projects?
TS: The short answer is yes. I don’t want to ever close off something. I am somebody who, I love high-minded things, but I also don’t ever want to lose sight of the idea that things can also just be funny and straightforward. I don’t necessarily want everything I do to always have a biting commentary behind it. I want to definitely leave the door open for something just being funny. But my preference, in what I both consume and hope to do, that is generally the thought process involved in it. I like there to be a larger commentary and a larger thought process behind it, even if it is an animated show about Santa’s dick. I definitely prefer it to have at least one more level past Santa’s dick.
AVC: You mentioned that the creators had you in mind for the character Jack. He’s a schemer, but he also sees himself as somebody who’s defending the good or “nice” people, defending certain standards of morality. What do you think it was about you that might have inspired that character?
TS: Well, I guess because I’m someone who has managed to defraud and scheme my way to the middle, maybe that where they were going. [Laughs.] Of course, they could have written this with somebody else in mind and then just told me they wrote it with me in mind, as some sort of outward flattery just to get me to sign on like that. It’s definitely possible. I want to leave the door open for that. It’s funny, because I try to live a good life. I try to be nice to people, but usually, it’s “Hey, we wrote this with you in mind,” and it’s just the worst person that’s in the show. That seems to be a running theme. “Hey, we wrote this with you in mind.” And it’s just the lowest, shithouse, awful person you’ve ever read.
But I do think that it is fun. This is a long-running theme, or a long-running idea. I certainly didn’t invent the idea that bad guys can be fun to play. You just try to look for something human in the terrible—something human, albeit misguided in the terrible thing that the person is fighting for. Even if it’s terrible, they think they’re doing the right thing. They do enjoy their life, even though outwardly it is not a way you want to live. I don’t know, I guess that’s what I try to bring to things like that.
AVC: Without putting too much thematic heft on an animated show about, in part, Santa’s dick, as The Pole goes along, it really does question the very strict ideas of morality involved in the whole naughty and nice system. If you’re good, you’ll get things. But if you do one bad thing, you’re written off for the whole year. It’s a very strange thing to teach your kids.
TS: Yeah, and of course, as a parent I also deal with that. Because we’re not religious, but Christmas morning is fun and you get presents. And also my kids–of course I love them, but they are terrible, and yet they still get stuff on Christmas morning. I don’t want to take that away from them. But no, we are always trying to figure out what is the right balance of letting a kid have fun and believe in something, while also trying to teach them that you have to work hard in your life. And also, yeah, what do you do? The nice list and naughty list, what’s naughty and nice changes.
AVC: There is a line in one of the episodes that gave me some Veep vibes. There was a long tradition of insulting Jonah Ryan, and in The Pole, there’s this crack about Jack, where somebody describes him as a “creatine Krampus.”
TS: That’s a pretty good catch, because I actually was, at one point, referred to, or likened to a Krampus in Veep. I don’t know if that was an intentional call, or again, maybe this is just one of those things that I bring out in people. They’re like, “Who does that guy remind me of that?” It always ends up it’s the fucking Krampus. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but yeah, boy, working in this industry does not lead you to feeling pretty good about yourself.
AVC: Do you find that voiceover work suits you? Because for some people, it can be a really isolating experience and for others, it’s really liberating.
TS: I actually do really enjoy it. It’s a skill that some people have that I marvel at. Basically, the people I know that do this well, and have done this for a long time, I marvel at them, because it is a skill that is so immensely hard to do. I don’t think that I’m great at it. I’d like to think I’m getting better at it, the more that I do it, and I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunities to do it, because of course, work has been hard to find in the last year. And with things like this, they bring some stuff over and you set up a recording booth in your closet and try to make sure the kids and the dog are quiet while you’re working, so that that doesn’t end up in the show. I think it’s fun and it’s silly, but it is definitely a transition from on-camera work because on-camera work is sort of a lesson in making it smaller and smaller, and in voiceover work, it just doesn’t translate unless you push it. You’re always doing things and you’re like, “Oh, that seems big. That seems like too much.” And then you hear it back and you’re like, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like anything,” if that makes sense. It definitely is a challenge for me, and so I marvel at people that are able to do both of those things seamlessly.
AVC: You also had a guest role in Dickinson season two, where you played Frederick Law Olmsted. How much did you know about the show before you signed on?
TS: I had heard of the show. One of our Veep writers, Rachel Axler, had written on the first season, and Rachel’s one of those writers that whenever she works on something, you’re just like, “Oh, that’s going to be good.” So I knew a little bit about it, going into it. And actually since shooting it, I’ve kept in touch with Alena Smith, who showruns it, and just had to admit to her that I had been putting off watching it. I have not yet seen the episode that I was in, because I hadn’t been able to start it. During this quarantine, I started it and I love it. I think it’s one of the best shows on TV right now.
And again, this is not me trying to big-up a performance I had, because I still haven’t seen myself in it. Maybe that’s going to ruin the show for me, but no, I love it. I think it’s fantastic. I really enjoyed that set. It felt very different from a lot of the other things that I had done. It was very earnest and it was sort of like a different thing than I get to normally do, play a person that you’re actually supposed to like. And so I enjoyed it for all those reasons. Now, I just get to enjoy the show, because I’m still on the first season, but I love it. I think it’s great.
AVC: What kind of research did you do?
TS: I was familiar with the name, but I was not familiar with his work, outside of having been in Central Park, and then finding out that he did Prospect Park in Brooklyn when I was staying in Queens, I think. I have a friend who writes for SNL, and he lives right by Prospect Park, so we got together and took a walk through Prospect Park together, and then he ended up having to go to work. The whole idea of that episode [I’m in] was about getting lost in nature, and so I basically just went in, and this sounds very fucking theater school, but I just tried my best to get lost in Prospect Park. I tried to get some sense of what that looked like before, of what it might’ve looked like before it was a park, and why did it appeal to him? Even just get some kind of base for the beauty that he was talking about, why he enjoyed it so much? That was just one of many simple things, just trying to find some sort of communion with nature, I guess. But again, that’s all very drama school, black turtleneck-y.
AVC: That speaks to something the show does really well, which is illustrate the creative process and how it’s different for everyone. One of the big questions Emily asks herself in season two is whether she’s making art for an audience or for herself. Do you ever think about that when you take something on, or are you just kind of thinking about what you can bring to the project?
TS: I will say that I wish I was the kind of person who had the ability to think about their “audience” when taking on a project, but that would also imply that I am a person that has an audience, and that is a step too far for my New England self-loathing roots. I come from a background of “Why would anybody ever want to watch me? This is so incredibly stupid.” I wish I could be somebody who could think about their audience.
But no, I think there was a connection to Olmsted that I really liked, which was actually kind of nice to remind myself of while going through that process, of just the work is the work and you can’t control anything else beyond that. All I could do was try to do the work, and that’s all you can do. Everything else is beyond your control, but what you can control is what we did on set that day. You can control how well you work with the other people. You can control if you’re open to their ideas, if you’re really hearing them. That is something that I really connected with. I do think about whether I have a connection to it. I think about whether or not it’s something that I like and I think I can be successful in. Is it challenging? Is it good for the world? I don’t want to do some garbage that sets everybody back. I don’t know. Those are the things I think about.
AVC: Throughout season two, Emily struggles with the idea of fame. As an actor, what is your relationship with fame? Are there some roles that you don’t consider, because you’re like, that would be too big? Or is there something that you took on because you hoped that it would take your career to the next level?
TS: The truth is I don’t think about it, beyond the fact that it’s sometimes nice to be recognizable, because you go into coffee shops and sometimes people will buy a cup of coffee. The people that work there might be like, “Hey, I like your show. Here’s a cup of coffee.” And I’m not going to lie, that is a great feeling. That’s why we’ve got to get coronavirus under control, because the coffee shops aren’t open, and even if they are, I have to wear a mask, so nobody sees me and will give me free coffee. I just want to say that I’m the one that’s been affected the most by this.
But no, I don’t think about it. Again, this goes back to a thing of why I will never be massively famous or massively successful, because I don’t think about it. I don’t care if something is bad, but will make me famous or would bring me to the next level. I just don’t think about it in those terms, because I guess I just don’t want to live like that. I am wonderfully at the point, and the last year has only brought me further toward this, of I’m not going to spend a moment of my life doing something I don’t want to do, for a reason other than enjoyment. Things might be hard, things might be challenging, and I’m all for that. I don’t know, to do some shit and hope that it might make me more famous, and just for that reason? No. That said, if that’s a side effect of something I do, great. But to do it just for that reason, I would rather have you come over to my house and hold my head in the bathtub. That’s a fun answer to that question.