John Ross Bowie of The Big Bang Theory and Speechless fame released his memoir No Job for a Man on last Tuesday, November 8. Here, in an interview with Awards Daily and in his very funny book, he opens up about his complex relationship with his father about acting, time with his band, dealing with needing depression medication, and how improv helps him in his acting and why it works for him but may not for others. Also, he talks about how, for certain age groups, (myself included) Simpsons quotes are a universal language.
Awards Daily: What inspired you to write this book now?
John Ross Bowie: I had been thinking about writing something about my dad anyway because he died right before I became a father myself. Which was a pretty intense circle of life juxtaposition. But I was thinking something more like a personal essay that I would post on media. Then an agent reached out to my manager at the time saying, I’ve been looking at this guy’s Twitter feed. I’ve been looking at his work. I wonder if he has a book in him. We got to talking and coalesced from there. I was not the sort of person who went out to agents and said, I have a book in me. I must tell my story. I am Proust. It was nothing quite that egomaniacal. It took me years going back and forth. Do I want to write this? Is this too vulnerable? But I think at the end of the day it’s an interesting story that a lot of people will relate to. Or at the very least find it entertaining, the very individual relationship I had with my dad.
Awards Daily: A huge part of the book is your complex relationship with your father. His indifference at times but being proud in his own way. Did writing the book help you figure him out more?
John Ross Bowie: It helped me figure both of us out a bit more. I am really hesitant to say it was therapeutic. That feels like such a cliche. But if you write down the major events in your life it will start to make more sense to yourself. And the people around you will start to make more sense. That will in general make you feel a little less crazy. The book is called No Job For a Man because that is a quote my father used a bit too often about the acting profession. But at the same time he was the person that got me interested in film, TV, theater. He was a massive fan of those things. He would let me stay up late and watch old movies with him and watch sitcoms with him. We went to the theater together. I got a lot of culture from my dad. But he was from a generation of hard-working immigrants that thought actually doing that kind of work was frivolous. It was something he consumed but did not participate in. He was the child of hard-working Scottish immigrants and there just wasn’t a lot of time for play as an adult. So I think he had a great deal of conflict in his own life about the choices he made. Then when he saw his son go off in a completely different direction there was a little bit of resentment, a little bit of regret. He had a lot of complicated emotions. The book is not some kind of Mommy Dearest slam piece. My dad was not pulling some “you’re no son of mine” nonsense. He was proud in his weird waspy way. But it was just a very complicated road with him. And I feel like again it’s such a singular relationship that I think people will relate to it or, at the very least, find it interesting.
Awards Daily: That complexity comes through with him being happy to see the family name in the movie credits and even took that quote from actor Spencer Tracy.
John Ross Bowie- He did attribute that quote to Spencer Tracy. Who I’ve always found to be a limited actor. I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead. But I’ve always found him to be kind of a limited actor. Weird old drunk who loved Katharine Hepburn and cheated on his wife constantly but didn’t want to divorce her because that’s a sin. This is not in the book, maybe this shouldn’t even be on the record. I had issues with Spencer Tracy right out of the gate. But there is a moment in the book where I appear in my first movie called Road Trip from 2000, and he is very dismissive of the film and my role in it. And look, the film is not great cinema, although it is directed by eventual Oscar nominee Todd Phillips. But what struck me about his reaction to it was that he was very moved to see the family name scroll up at the end of the film. There was a way he was sort of making it about him and the family. While still managing to dismiss the fact no matter how meager artistically the film might appear, getting a film role is no easy feat. Getting a role where you actually say something in a movie is not an easy thing to accomplish. But he was infinitely more impressed when the family name was scrolling up at the end.
Awards Daily: Another large part of the book was being in your band Egghead with the idea that you guys probably never would have become big but you still had a following. Is punk music still something you want to do with a band or no band?
John Ross Bowie-That’s an interestingly phrased question. I think what Egghead was trying to do was get to a place where we could do that for a living, and that’s a tall order. It was a tall order then, and it’s an even taller order now, to make a living in the music business. That said, we adopted that do-it-yourself work ethic that served us very well in our time in the band. We released our own 7 inch, we had a party where we folded all the 7 inch sleeves and stuffed them into the plastic and mailed them out to wholesalers and to people who had directly mail ordered. We booked our own tour, there’s a lengthy section of the book about a fun, adventurous but misbegotten tour of some of the eastern United States. A lot of that sense of do-it-yourself and putting yourself out there even if you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing has definitely seeped into my acting career. There is no way I would be doing what I’m doing for a living had I not had the naive audacity to be in a punk band for a while.
Sure, I would love to get the band together. It’s up to the guitarist, frankly. I’ll say that on the record. Galvin, come on man, I know you got a newborn but she’s not a newborn, she is five now! Let’s do this! Anyone within the sound of my voice, I think Egghead should get back together for at least a couple of gigs. Some of the ideas that punk rock gave me were the sense of self-reliance and craving different opportunities. Those have served me very very well. Even when I’m working in a big impersonal town like LA.
Awards Daily: Another part I found very fascinating was the introduction of your future wife Jamie Denbo at an improv class berating her partner. You then mentioned later that her being in the industry–unlike a lot of Hollywood couples–has really been helpful for you guys. How have you made that work?
John Ross Bowie: It is not always cake. There will be times where people will think, wouldn’t it be adorable to cast Jamie and John as husband and wife? And we say, Yes, that is adorable, it is also a childcare nightmare. We have a 5 a.m. call on Curb Your Enthusiasm, what are we going to do with our kid? We only had one at the time. So there are certain challenges that come with that and yet we both share a good sense of humor and an ability to laugh at ourselves. And a deep understanding of the vagaries of the crazy business we have chosen. She has transitioned from acting to writing of late, she has been writing for the past few seasons on Grey’s Anatomy. Which is nice steady work, which is great. We have been very fortunate in a sense that she’ll have a really steady gig while I’m jobbing around. Or I’ll do three years on Speechless while she’s bouncing around. So there’s always somebody here at home who can take care of the kids but also can listen to whatever issues you bring in from the day. There is someone who understands how odd this business can be and knows what a page one rewrite is, who knows what it’s like to be stuck in a sound mix, or have a guest cast member who can’t get their lines down and everyone’s going into meal penalty. There are so many little details that would be hard to explain if my wife were an accountant. So I’m incredibly grateful that we share that vocabulary.
Awards Daily: Speaking of vocabulary, throughout your book you use Simpsons quotes or Simpsons references as a universal language among some of the people you meet. Do you think that is something that will still be with us in the future with the show getting more stale and not being watched as much now?
John Ross Bowie: Not as many people are watching anything, let me say that. Everyone’s audience has shrunk the past few years. I will say that one quick thing. Number two point I want to make is Broti Gupta wrote this year’s season premiere and it was excellent. Very, very strong episode. Three, the thing about The Simpsons and why it is such a motif in the book is because I am 51. That show started when I was in college in the middle of my freshman year and after that, a couple of months later, Twin Peaks started. I bring those up because suddenly TV had the opportunity to be cool again, and to work in TV was a more noble goal than it might have been ten or five years earlier. Because there was all this great writing and these incredible voices coming about. This was years before people started using terms like prestige TV or the second golden age of TV. Then it came full circle because my first gig in LA I was surrounded by Simpsons writers. It was created by a Simpsons writer named Richard Appel.
The other thing is there is something so smart, snotty, and anti-authoritarian about The Simpsons so it was a lingua franca throughout punk rock. Every stop on every tour people would just naturally toss around their favorite Simpsons quotes. It was such a weird secret handshake, but a secret handshake that everyone seemed to know. I know it feels a little weird, and it’s going to feel even weirder for people younger than me, but you cannot overstate the influence that The Simpsons had on people my age or around my age who were coming up as consumers of popular culture in the late 80s early 90s. There was something so revolutionary about the work they were doing and suddenly we were all thinking to ourselves: my God, TV can be really good. TV is not just Dynasty; there is incredible stuff going on television. What if that is a goal? Something you could work towards? Then I have gotten to meet some of my favorite Simpson writers. It has been incredible.
Awards Daily: I’m about 10 years younger but Simpsons quotes come out daily in my house.
John Ross Bowie: There are so many great moments. I specifically quote Homerpalooza, written by Brent Forrester. See, this is the kind of nerd I am. I can tell you who wrote some of these episodes. That’s where Homer goes to the alternative rock festival and there is that great exchange “Hi Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins.” “Homer Simpson, smiling politely.” The best. Phenomenal. So good.
Awards Daily: A less pleasant thing that you get into in your book is your depression and your need for depression meds. I appreciated how truthful you were about what the meds do specifically. I’m also on antidepressants and it was nice to read. Was that difficult to get into, or did you just feel it was that important to get in there?
John Ross Bowie: You know I thought it was important to get in there and it wasn’t that difficult to write about. But you know where it became a hiccup? When I did the audiobook. Recording that part for the audio book just hit me differently and I was taking breaks a lot and the director I was working with was endlessly patient with me. The engineer too. Both of them were super cool. But I said I’m going to do this paragraph, then I’m going to splash some water on my face. Because it was such a dire time. I had a bit of a breakdown in my mid-to-late twenties. Kind of right on schedule. I think a lot of people have those issues around then and the more I looked into it the more I discovered it’s probably a familial thing. That my father had something very very similar and in all likelihood his father before him. But you know, the further you go back the less likely these people are going to seek help. My grandfather, born in 1902 in Glasgow, is not going to go [in a Scottish accent], “I need a therapist!” It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to be on his radar at all.
I consider myself very fortunate that that stigma has been not erased but lessened in the past few years. But yeah, it was challenging to write about, it was really challenging to read out loud. I was very surprised how taken aback I was by it. But I think it is an important part of the story because I do want to erase some of the stigma. When I first went on antidepressants in 1998 I was embarrassed as hell to tell people. I thought I had failed somehow. That’s only twenty-five relatively short years ago. It’s not like I’m some sort of baby boomer who never talks about this sort of thing at Thanksgiving. But even as recently as 1998, six or seven years after the book Listening to Prozac came out, I was still a little hesitant to talk about it. Then a year-and-a-half later Tony Soprano was on Prozac and the cat was out of the bag. But, yeah, it was important to write about and I’m glad it’s in there. I have done a little bit of mental health advocacy work over the years and it just feels good to let people know that they are not alone in what can be a very scary thing to go through. As I don’t need to tell you.
Awards Daily: One part I found interesting was how much improv was really helpful for you in your acting. Is there any advice for those who are interested in improv, or how it helped you and how you think you could help others?
John Ross Bowie: That is a really good question. Improv gave me a set of tools that have served me throughout my acting career. There are some people who get into improv and stay there, and then when they are presented with a script and a director who tells them how to deliver a line, they freeze up. They are, like, this isn’t what I signed up for. I do crazy make up. I don’t learn lines. But if you can take yourself past that hump, improv is an amazing tool to stay in the moment, which is a great thing as an actor. It is a great thing as a human being. Being present and focused and listening, and taking in every little thing that your scene partner is giving you. You have so many great tricks that come with Improv, so many great ideas. The idea of adding information to whatever your scene partner presents. The idea of making your scene partner look good so you in turn will look good yourself. The idea of giving them gifts. If we are doing a scene together and I say, “Hey Ben,” I haven’t started much of a scene. But if I say “Hey, doctor,” it’s a gift I’ve given you. If I say “Hey, officer,” now I’ve got stakes. Oh my god, now I’ve given you a massive gift! You have a great idea where we’re going with this. I’m about to plead my case and you have a sudden authority over me. I love that idea of being able to give people gifts and support them on stage.
The other big thing, there’s a story in the book about something that happened on stage in the show that my wife was in. My wife and I improvised together for two years before we started dating. There was a moment when we were doing a movie parody show with an amazing cast. It was me, Jamie, Rob Corddry, Seth Morris, Brian Huskey–all these great people were up on that stage–and Oscar nominee Will Berson, who I have to give a shout out. He wrote Judas and the Black Messiah. But we had this moment where we were doing this improvised parody of Sleepless in Seattle and I was playing the young boy and I wanted to say that my mom had died of a debilitating disease. Then I flubbed it and said decapitating disease, and it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me on stage. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to anybody on that stage. We were all, like, oh my god, there is a decapitating disease that is going around; this is fantastic. Then the rest of the show was a delight because the thing was highly contagious and everyone’s heads were rolling off. It was wonderful, it was just really really fun, and that’s where I learned that idea that mistakes can be gifts, and what a wonderful thing to carry through life.
Awards Daily: I have nothing else on my end. Do you want to leave our readers with anything?
John Ross Bowie: It’s funny, I’m being interviewed and I still feel like I’m talking too much. Isn’t that weird? That’s the depression talking Ben, that’s what that is. I hope people enjoy the book. I think I have an interesting story, especially if you’re trying to come up in the arts. I want people to know there is no one true path. You do not necessarily have to take mine. You don’t have to temp for five years and then have an emotional breakdown when your band breaks up and then start taking improv classes and move back in with your mom. That’s not necessarily the path you have to take, but it’s one. It is one path and there are several others. I don’t want people to feel like if they’re not taking the exact route to entertainment that they are somehow falling short.