Even though we’re thousands of miles and four time zones away from each other, when we’re planning our talk over Zoom, Jake Johnson emails the following suggestion: “Let’s have a drink and enjoy ourselves.” If you know Johnson’s work— as the self-sabotaging bartender Nick Miller on New Girl, as the voice of the lackadaisical Peter B. Parker in the Spider-Verse films, or as the inspiration behind the idea for the show Drunk History—having a cocktail or two with the guy sounds like the exact right way to go. Johnson has made a career out of playing a very specific sort of good-hearted, well-intentioned, but usually stunted guy that, well, you’d like to have a beer with. So you’re having a drink with Johnson, but you’re also having a drink with the sort of character he plays. Johnson has carved out a niche for himself as one of the best Chicago Guy actors of his generation. He’s typecast himself, and he’s just fine with that.
“People go, Your characters seem to be similar, and yeah; those are the people I’m obsessed with. Those were the people of my childhood,” he says.
The Chicago Guy isn’t any one thing, but in order to be considered a Chicago Guy, you have to meet a certain set of criteria. First off, you don’t have to be a man to be a Guy. Joan Cusack, for example, is arguably more of a Chicago Guy than her brother, John. You don’t have to live in Chicago anymore—Johnson doesn’t—but growing up in Cook County, Illinois, or within about 25 miles of it, is important. So is the accent. You don’t have to speak like one of Bill Swerski’s Superfans, necessarily, but your delivery should be some variation on the area’s version of the Great Lakes way of speaking, with vowel shifts and flat “A”s—maybe a little Southern, if your family came up during the Great Migration. Joe Mantegna, Melissa McCarthy, and the talk show host Sherri Shepherd all have great takes on it. The Chicago Guy is usually the funniest person in the room, like Hannibal Buress or John Mulaney. They’re the kind of person who is generally beloved all over even though they’re very much of a specific place: John C. Reilly is a Chicago Guy. Robin Williams was born and raised there until moving to Detroit when he was 12, while Vince Vaughn moved to the Chicagoland suburbs from Minnesota when he was 8 and can claim Chicago Guy. As for the reigning king of the Chicago Guys, that’s easy: Bill Murray. A close second: Bob Odenkirk, a Chicago Guy who played one of the greatest Chicago Guys in television history, Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman.
But every character Johnson plays, in some way or another, is a Chicago Guy. There are people who can play the role of Southern Guys or New York City Guys, but you don’t always know where they’re from in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line, and they might say they’re from Brooklyn or the Bronx, but they’re actually from Cherry Hill, New Jersey or Westchester. Some people might hear Tim Robinson and think he’s a Chicago Guy, but he’s from Detroit. I thought Sarah Sherman was a Chicago Guy, since I first heard of her from Chicago friends who knew of her from the local comedy scene, and her accent had me fooled—but she’s an adopted Chicago Guy who is originally from Long Island. John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, and more recently The Bear’s Matty Matheson have been mistaken for Chicago Guys, but they’re all from Toronto. (Aside from some members of the supporting cast and guest stars like Odenkirk and Mulaney, it’s worth noting, none of Mattheson’s costars on the Chicago-set The Bear are actually from Chicago.)
Johnson was born in Evanston, a suburb that touches up against Chicago’s most northern point. Nick Miller, his New Girl character, was from Chicago, and the show is filled with Bulls and Bears references. On the show Minx, it isn’t stated that his character, a sweet-talking, flashy, do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-job-done porn-magazine publisher, is from Chicago. But the guy’s name is Doug Renetti; if you grew up in the Chicagoland area, you’d swear that’s the name of a guy who had a commercial for the lowest prices on mattresses in all of Cicero on Fox 32. Johnson saw a lot of guys like Nick and Doug growing up, and he’s made a nice career out of using their influence to become one of the best everyman types working in film and television today.
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