Mr. Mean Guy

‘Marry Me’ Proves Ken Marino Is More Than Just an Asshole

Ken Marino played an asshole in Party Down, an asshole in Role Models, and an asshole in Burning Love. Now he’s playing the romantic lead in a NBC sitcom—and killing it.

Colleen Hayes/NBC

Marry Me has the best opening scene of any new TV comedy this season. And Ken Marino, who stars in the new NBC sitcom, knows it.

The series begins with Marino’s Jake and his girlfriend, Annie (Casey Wilson), returning from a vacation to celebrate their sixth anniversary, on which she thought he would have proposed to her. Jake tells her that he’s tired and needs a nap, when really he is going to get the ring and propose to Annie right there in the living room. But thinking that Jake saying he’s tired means the trip is over and the opportunity for him to ask her to marry him passed, Annie begins pacing the kitchen, ranting and raving about Jake, their relationship, their family, and friends, unaware that Jake is on bended knee the whole time.

“I have been in full hair and makeup for two weeks. I painted my nails in the unisex bathroom of a Mexican tour bus. And for what?” Annie says, peeved that she wasn’t proposed to. “Did your garbage friend Gil get in your head again?” she asks. “Your friends are garbage people.” Then there’s the final blow: “It’s your mom, isn’t it? She doesn’t like me, does she? Guess what. Don’t like her!”

When her tirade is over, Annie turns around and sees Jake holding a ring—and also sees “garbage friend Gil,” Jake’s mom, and the rest of their family and friends that Annie had just wittily insulted, who had been hiding there to surprise her after Jake pops the question.

“I read and auditioned for a lot of pilots,” Marino says. “And one of the hardest things about a pilot is you have to lay all this pipe and all this backstory and set up the characters, and by the time you do that you’re halfway through the pilot already.”

Think of all the comedy pilots you watch that lazily begin with the main character doing a voiceover that introduces all of the characters and the plot set up, or all of those now-comedy classics that survived despite having terrible pilots (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and How I Met Your Mother are some recent examples).

But Happy Endings veteran David Caspe, who created Marry Me and wrote its pilot (and who is also married to star Casey Wilson), managed to find a way to introduce the show’s leads, supporting characters, and reason for existing (a couple that’s been together for six years attempts to recover from a botched marriage proposal) in a succinct three-and-a-half minute monologue that a) doesn’t feel like wordy or boring exposition and b) is really, really funny.

“He nailed it,” Marino says.

Beyond its brilliant opening scene, though, there’s plenty of reason to tune in to Marry Me, chief among them the chemistry between Wilson—who is in her comedic element here with the whiplash-fast dialogue that was once the signature of her sitcom alma mater, Happy Endings—and Marino, a longtime scene-stealing character actor who is proving his worth here as a leading man. And proving that leading men can still be funny, too.

A veteran of the cult-legendary comedy troupe The State—a sketch comedy group that gave birth to a short-lived MTV series in the mid ‘90s and, ever since, dozens of comedy collaborations between its members, which include Michael Ian Black, David Wain, Joe Lo Truglio, and Thomas Lennon—Marino has, of late, carved a very specific niche for himself in Hollywood.

“Lately, certainly in Role Models and Wanderlust and even Children’s Hospital and Burning Love, a lot of the things I’ve played have been the asshole, or the dimwitted asshole, or the narcissistic asshole,” he says. “So it’s nice to take a break from that for a second and show a different side of me, or create a different character who doesn’t rely on just being a prick. You don’t have to be an asshole to be funny. Though it does come easy.”

In fact, a recent profile of Marino written in Paste Magazine celebrates the actor’s casting as the straight man in Marry Me with the headline, “No More Mr. Mean Guy.”

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But Mr. Mean Guy’s career very nearly took a different direction entirely.

Marino moved to Hollywood in 1998, after, he says, “The State stopped making any kind of money to pay rent.” In his first four years in Los Angeles he was cast in three different comedy pilots that were picked up to series, all in roles that would be considered the straight, leading man, and all sitcoms that were canceled before a full season even aired.

Then Wet Hot American Summer came out, the 2001 cult-classic comedy about counselors at a summer camp that’s best known for featuring some of the industry’s biggest current stars in one of their first movie roles—Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and Elizabeth Banks included.

“I played a slightly more extreme role than usual,” Marino says. “And I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is the kind of thing I want to do: Work with funny people and create characters that are slightly more extreme.’ So I started leaning into auditions where I could do that and try to get parts where I could be more extreme, whether it be more neurotic or more of an asshole.”

As it turns out, he was really good at it.

“Then all of a sudden those doors started opening up more,” he says. “So I kind of moved away from just going for, lack of a better word, the straight man, the leading guy in the comedies, and playing more extreme characters in Party Down, or Children’s Hospital, or all the assholes I’ve played in movies of late.”

Jake in Marry Me is a marked departure from the kinds of roles that have become his bread and butter lately, Marino concedes, but he took the role because, after watching Happy Endings (which he also had a one-episode guest spot on), he trusted that Caspe would still be able to make the good guy funny.

In fact, “trust” is just one way of describing the relationship between Marino and Caspe. “True love” might be another.

When asked whether he ever felt like he was the third wheel spending all of those hours on set with married couple Wilson and Caspe, Marino starts riffing. “When we did the pilot it did get a little weird because I started to have some pretty strong feelings for David,” he says. “I’d text him. Ask him out for a coffee. Sometimes I’d hang outside their house at two, three in the morning, until Casey came out and told me to go home. And then I’d go home and hope and pray that Marry Me would get picked up so that Dave and I could spend a lot more time together.”

Joking aside, Marino says he actually enjoys watching the newlyweds work together, as it reminded him of working with his wife, screenwriter Erica Oyama, with whom he created the Bachelor parody webseries Burning Love. Oyama and Marino just celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary. How did their engagement compare to Jake and Annie’s mess of a one in the opening scene of Marry Me?

Marino had planned it all out. They would take the red eye from Los Angeles to New York for a quick visit, and they were going to stay at his buddy Joe Lo Truglio’s house. Lo Truglio had picked up the ring that Marino chose and hid it in his sock drawer, so that Marino could take it with him when he and Oyama walked to Central Park the next afternoon, where he planned to propose.

But then Marino checked the weather, and saw that it would be raining all afternoon.

Flustered, he then had to cajole his sleep-loving girlfriend out of bed after just a few hours of sleep and force her to walk to Central Park when it was clearly drizzling outside, where he then did pop the question at the bridge where he had planned.

“We have all these great pictures where it was drizzling on us,” he says. “Cinematically, talk about a romantic comedy. That’s what you want.” But in reality? “It wasn’t a movie. It was just a moist proposal.”

But as that scene in Marry Me proves, it could’ve been much, much worse than a simply “moist” proposal.