‘Best in Show’ Star John Michael Higgins: I Wouldn’t Play a Gay Man Again Today
John Michael Higgins tells “The Last Laugh” podcast about angering David Letterman, getting typecast as gay, and playing a new Mr. Belding on Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” reboot.
John Michael Higgins never set out to be a comedian, but he was so good at it that it stuck.
“The only reason I’m still working as a comedian is because I have never approached the job of comedy as a comic,” he says on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “I just play the scenes. I just play the need and the bigger the need in comedy, the funnier it is.”
The 57-year-old character actor may not be a household name, but he has an unmistakable face—especially for fans of his work in Christopher Guest’s films, starting with Best in Show. In that movie, Higgins played the younger and more flamboyant half of a Shih Tzu-owning gay couple with Michael McKean, a part he doubts he would be asked to play today.
But 20 years after that film’s release, he has somehow transformed himself into the comedy world’s go-to over-the-hill white guy. Which is how he ended up playing the new Mr. Belding—AKA Principal Ronald Toddman—on 2020’s big Saved by the Bell reboot, streaming now on Peacock.
“I’m basically a dunk tank clown,” Higgins says of his latest role. “I’m the butt of a lot of debasements. I get my status lowered a lot, you know, as all great comedy does.”
It was the new series’ showrunner—and former 30 Rock writer—Tracey Wigfield who offered the part to Higgins after casting him as a similarly out-of-touch news anchor on her short-lived, but brilliantly funny sitcom Great News.
“I told her toward the end of Great News, if you call then I’m coming,” says Higgins, who got his big break playing David Letterman in the 1996 TV movie The Late Shift. He calls Wigfield’s work “the best television writing” he’s ever had the pleasure of performing. “Her consistency and her ability to write jokes, that is exciting for a comic performer like myself,” he adds. “But what’s really exciting is how deep the laugh can be, because it’s about basic human needs, indignities and things like that.”
“I think she uses me as a bit of a punching bag,” Higgins admits. “I am an old white man and I’m finished. It’s over. The tide has receded and I’m standing there naked. And I’m really happy to deliver that in the later part of my career.”
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
What David Letterman thought of his performance in ‘The Late Shift’
“He made no bones about what he thought of my performance. He said it every night on the show and beat me up really soundly, which was surreal. Because when I took the job I was a stage actor with very little money. I was living in New York. I was eating ramen and suddenly I was being attacked by one of the most famous rich people alive every night. My friends would call me up and say, ‘Did you hear what he said about you last night?’ And I hadn’t even finished the movie yet! I actually don’t blame him. He’s a private person. He didn’t like the project. And I was the easy target because it didn’t matter what happened to me. In hindsight, I don’t have much animosity or blame for David Letterman. He’s a public person so he should expect to have some kind of representation in the media, which he does. He just didn’t like this one because it showed him at home. He doesn’t want to be seen at home, I don't blame him. I don’t want to be seen at home.”
On his hesitancy to play a gay character in ‘Best in Show’
“Chris [Guest] called me up and he says, ‘Listen, I want you to do this movie about dogs up in Vancouver.’ And I was like, great, that sounds really fun. And he said, ‘There’s a gay couple in the movie and I want you to do that.’ Because I had just done this gay character for this other thing. I had done a long series of gay roles on stage in New York. And I have nothing against gay at all. It’s just that as an actor, you want to move around a lot. I had just done four projects. And it’s not like gay people are all the same. I want to spread my wings a little bit or take a break and then do it again. It was also a slightly different time. The atmosphere now is very different. So I doubt that I would even be cast as a gay character because it would seem not PC or something like that. There are so many great actors out there who are gay. It would feel funky these days, I think, and it probably should.”
What he learned from working with the late Fred Willard
“It’s a great loss. And a big influence on me, on my own comedic career. And to some extent, I can’t say I’ve inherited a mantle, but I’m very much in his wake and his footsteps because of the types of things I‘ve been doing. There’s a great line that Martin Mull said, which is Fred didn’t use his turn signals. And what that means is that he was an incredibly positive performer. And that was always in contrast to the absolutely ridiculous things he would say. You would have to constantly be squaring the two. He looked like a painting of a pedestrian. If you gave an 11-year-old a pencil and said, draw a man, they would draw Fred Willard. So it was beautiful to watch him work. He was a very gentle, a very lovely, warm person. Shy, as many great comedians are. And he had a very high bar for himself. He wanted everything to fire. I can’t imagine what kind of a pickle that would put him in. He rode it very well. When I give myself a high bar, that everything has to be great, it’s wearing. It’s very hard to sustain and Fred did it. He put that bar up and he cleared it every single time. It’s a great career.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Stand-up comedian Jessica Kirson.