You may know Jason Mantzoukas by his signature look. His mass of dark, curly hair, deep-set eyes, and scraggily beard are undeniably conspicuous. His wild style has bolstered television roles in The League, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place. He also appeared in the Amy Poehler/Will Ferrell film The House.
While Mantzoukas would gladly shave the beard and cut the hair, he has never been asked to.
“I would totally change for a role,” he says. “There have been a number of parts [where] I have offered to, but they’ve said no.” Practically speaking, his appearance works well with the loose cannon characters he’s portrayed. The “lovable maniac” has become his calling card, and while his characters may be wacky and unhinged, he himself is charming, articulate, and accomplished.
Mantzoukas was born in Lynn in 1972 to William and Cynthia Mantzoukas. His family moved to Nahant by the time he was four years old, where he lived until heading off to Middlebury College in Vermont. “Nahant is such a quintessential, beautiful New England town. It is Norman Rockwellian in how idyllic it is,” he says. “When I visit my parents now, it’s the same house I grew up in. I sleep in the same bedroom I grew up sleeping in, which is bizarre and also quite lovely. “
Nahant occupies just one square mile of land area. Mantzoukas reflects fondly on the inherent charm and quirkiness of being raised in such a small, insular community where generations of families have lived for years. He recognizes how drastically different his young life experience was compared to his post-college days in New York City and Los Angeles, California, where he now resides. “The juxtaposition of living in a small town [and] then moving to New York was huge in terms of a different kind of life,” he says.
The performance bug first hit Mantzoukas in high school. Then, he was into music, and drums in particular. In his junior and senior years, he and a friend took part in the school variety show. They joined forces to write and act out a series of comedy sketches inspired by shows like Saturday Night Live, The Kids in the Hall, and Monty Python. Acting and comedy came naturally. “I was a funny kid, not necessarily a class clown,” he says, “but a funny, outgoing, gregarious person.”
As an aspiring performer, Mantzoukas was drawn to ensemble productions. He nurtured this passion by joining the New York City chapter of the Upright Citizens Brigade improvisational theatre. Formed by Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser, and Matt Walsh, UCB was setting the New York City scene for improv/sketch comedy. “I went to see a show and it was the funniest show I had ever seen,” Mantzoukas says. It was here that he introduced his crazy but cool guy persona that audiences have come to know and love. “I started playing these kinds of vulnerable, charming maniacs,” he says. “People who are really unpredictable, wild card characters, but who have a degree of emotional availability and vulnerability that make them somehow endearing.”
After about ten years of taking any audition he could get, Mantzoukas secured his first significant role as Rafi on The League. He became so good at playing outrageous characters (like Rafi) that casting directors came looking for him for more of the same. “I have great fondness for all of the loveable maniac parts,” he says. “I like that I still get to play, lean in, and find different ways to play crazy, funny weirdos. I like that when they write a weirdo like Derek on The Good Place, I’m the person who gets that call.”
The opportunity to play more subdued roles, like the love interest in a romantic comedy called How to Be Single, has come up, and that is something Mantzoukas welcomes too. Whether he’s a good guy or a kooky guy, on television or in movies, Mantzoukas is open to all possibilities. “I feel glad that I’m not stuck anywhere,” he says. “That I get to do different stuff is very lucky.”
Mantzoukas is an actor, writer, musician, comedian, podcaster, and voice-over artist. What’s next? “I want to do more of the things I’ve been doing,” he says. “I want to have a career and do this forever. There are people I look at whose careers are so impressive because they are slow and steady, continuing to do good work.”
Right now, you can see Mantzoukas in a leading role as Richard in The Long Dumb Road. Released in November, this is a story of two mismatched travel companions on a road trip through the American Southwest. The part challenges Mantzoukas with an emotional arc, while maintaining his beloved brand of chaos. To anyone watching on the North Shore, Mantzoukas says, “If I’m around, I’ll pop by. We can watch it and talk about it.” He’ll even venture into his high school’s rival territory of Marblehead—as long as he’s promised a stop at his favorite sandwich shop, Mino’s Roast Beef.
For more from Mantzoukas, you can hear him as the voice of Jay on season two of the Netflix animated series Big Mouth. You can stream full episodes of the CBS All Access cop comedy No Activity, in which Mantzoukas plays the criminal, Marco. Catch up on season one of the comedy I’m Sorry (on various streaming services), in which he co-stars as Kyle, and keep an eye out for season two on TruTV. And in 2019, you can catch a glimpse of Mantzoukas in theatres in John Wick 3: Parabellum.
You might also enjoy his Earwolf movie review podcast called “How Did This Get Made?” In 2017, Mantzoukas and his podcast co-hosts included the Wilbur Theatre on their tour, where he warmly remembers attending concerts and shows as a teen. He was happy to be back home.
“To go to that theatre and stand on the stage was exciting and cool to me,” he says. “Boston is a great city to do comedy live. There is something about the Boston crowd that is rowdier and more engaged.”