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Jay Baruchel talks his strange new show, internet “nice guys,” and Japanese penis monsters

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Actor Jay Baruchel is likely best known to American audiences as an actor in comedies, thanks to his work on the TV show Undeclared and in films like Knocked Up and This Is the End. If not that, then Americans probably know him for his voice work as Hiccup, the main character in the How to Train Your Dragon films. He's also been very effective in dramas like Million Dollar Baby. Seeing his name in the cast all but guarantees a blast of quirky, nervy energy.

He returned to TV in January 2015 as the lead of his first regular series since Undeclared, FXX's Man Seeking Woman. The deeply weird show charts a young man's attempts to navigate single life through offbeat, over-the-top situations that usually turn the tables on Baruchel's character, who desperately wants to be a good guy, but is undone by so many of his own worst impulses.

The series hovers between sitcom and sketch comedy, with each episode opening up to multiple bizarre scenarios. The character might, say, date a literal troll, or head into a military command center to plot out a text to a girl he's interested in. (See above for that particular sketch.) It's an interesting take on very familiar material.

Baruchel sat down with me in Pasadena, California, to talk about what appeals to him about the project, what the Canadian comedic sensibility is, and internet nice-guy syndrome.

Todd VanDerWerff: It seems like your character's often the butt of the joke. The scenes are always very careful to turn it back around on you, to say, "This guy's the real idiot."

Man Seeking Woman

Jay Baruchel in Man Seeking Woman (FXX)

Jay Baruchel: Yeah. You've got to be as devoid of vanity as possible. Vanity is not a good look in comedy. It's not a good look anywhere, but especially in comedy. It helps that I'm around Eric [Andre], who's the most fearless comic in the world. You just want to be awesome.

On this show, anyway, we all think what we're doing is so good, and we all believe we're kind of on the best show on television, and knowing that makes it way easier to take your clothes off and get jizzed in the face or whatever the fuck has to happen.

TV: This also seems to be about the balance between being a good guy and wanting to get laid.

JB: One hundred percent, yeah.

TV: That experience is so universal, but you find some specificity in there, too.

JB: The two aren't mutually exclusive! A human being needs both physical and emotional interaction and companionship. Someone to go home with, as well as someone to wake up next to. Some people want just one. Some people want just the other. But most people at different times, at turns, want either, myself included.

We all draw on shit that we went through, because the fun of our show, ideally, anyone that watches it, regardless of their gender or their sexual orientation, will see themselves in it. It's all universal. Dating, being single, being bummed, being rejected, being horny, is not the exclusive domain of any one sex or sexuality. This is pretty universal shit. So there's a great deal of group therapy on our set. We can't all help but complain and vent about what we're going through.

TV: It's also very timely. Especially on the internet, you see these "nice guys," who are saying, "I don't get girls. It's only the dicks that get girls." Does that theme play off stuff you've felt in your life?

JB: Most people that say that, I think, are incredibly myopic and look at one aspect of their life without acknowledging all of the other shit that they might be doing wrong. I think every guy goes through that period where it seems like every girl wants an asshole and that assholes win constantly. But the older I get, the more I realize that's just not true.

I think if nice guys finish last, I think they don't just finish last with girls. I think they finish last in everything. But I also don't know that they always do, and I have to say that the older I get, the more I'm sort of being rewarded for being a good person, I like to think!

It sucks. It definitely sucks in the moment, when it's happening.

TV: This is set in Chicago, but you film in Toronto. You, yourself, are Canadian. What do you best like about getting to work back at home?

JB: I get to be close to my friends and my family.

When I was a kid, I never wanted to sleep away at my friend's house. I never wanted to go to sleepaway camp. I always found a way to be home. I'm a homebody. I'm a creature of where I'm from. So to be able to do something like this — which is so labor-intensive for three months and takes so much out of you — getting to be in my country and to watch my team play hockey three nights a week, getting to eat at my favorite restaurants, getting to watch my news, getting to see my friends, getting to be an hour away from my family — it makes it way easier.

TV: There are many in the industry, especially in Los Angeles, who wonder why so many things film in Canada to double for the United States. How do you feel about that practice?

JB: It's a hard question to answer because I get why people get annoyed, but I also think they focus their annoyance at the wrong target. I've seen a lot of bumper stickers on sets here [in California] that is a maple leaf and a circle with a line through it, saying "Keep Work Here." It's hard not to take that as an insult because I have that maple leaf literally tattooed on my heart. So when I see that, that's kind of fucked.

But also, no one gets mad at the studios or the state of California or the producers. They get mad at their counterparts, which is just insanity to me.

I think that a place like Toronto can double for a bunch of different places. We have some of the world's greatest crews. Think about how many funny people Toronto has exported down to the states. Lorne Michaels has been bringing people down from Toronto for 40 years. To me, it's as good a place to shoot as anywhere. I also don't know that this show would make sense in LA. Our show's real offbeat and dark and moody, stuff that Toronto has in spades that I don't know would work down here.

TV: What do you see as the Canadian comedic sensibility?

JB: I know so many people who have, at great length, tried to crack that and figure it out. But in high school, my friend's dad hit the nail on the head, perfectly. It's equal parts American and British.

The two greatest forms in English comedy are British humor and American humor. Because Queen Elizabeth II is literally still our head of state, we [Canadians] grow up raised on British television that never comes down here. We also grow up seeing every American show you guys see. So what we have is this strange hodgepodge. We have the dry, deadpan tradition of the Brits, with the humble, crazier shit that you guys do. So I think those two things have conspired to create a bunch of funny people.

TV: This show plays in the ground between sketch comedy and sitcom. What do you like about getting to play the same character, but in a bunch of completely different, wild situations?

JB: It's super fun. Number one, the show makes me laugh. When I watch it, when I read it, I just laugh. That makes my job on set way easier. I also like the idea of playing this sort of prototype for single people. Each episode is a little bit of a Warner Bros. cartoon, and I'm like the Daffy Duck through all of it. I really dig it.

The other thing is it's really hard to get bored on a show where you have no idea what's going to happen. Any show runs the risk of falling into a routine, or a pattern, and I just don't know how we could.

TV: You mentioned Daffy Duck, and this is definitely a cartoon universe. How do you hang onto the reality of this ridiculous fantasy world?

JB: The key is always to play it as if it's not happening. I think that if we were to own up to the craziness every time it was crazy, we'd run out of steam pretty quickly. The two forms play defense against each other. We can go super crazy because we go so small and intimate and real, and vice versa.

The main job as an actor is whenever you're dealing with a Japanese penis monster or whatever, make sure you're not playing it as if you're dealing with a Japanese penis monster.

TV: How much of the effects and makeup is present on set? How many practical things are you dealing with?

JB: It's constant. We make a movie every week, every four days, really. We fucking work our arses off the whole time. Because it's our show, we always have a stunt team and special effects, makeup and practical effects people, CG people, and all this different stuff. It's rarely just two people chatting in a room. There's always something to it.

TV: There's almost a serialized element to it. All this weird stuff is going on, but you're telling the story of this guy's journey. How much did you know going in? How much did you influence it?

JB: Not a great deal of influence, but the show was mapped out for me the first day I showed up in Toronto. Simon [Rich], Ian Maxtone-Graham, and Robert Padnick walked me through every episode, where we started and where we would end up. I tried to not think about where I'd end up because nobody in real life knows where they're going to end up. You know what came behind you. To make sure that I was always being truthful to the story in front of us, I was just focused on each thing in isolation. I let them focus on keeping the trajectory.

TV: This is based on Simon Rich's writing, but what would do you hope happens if the show runs for a few years?

JB: I hope we keep showing people cool, weird new shit that they haven't seen anywhere else. I hope we keep zeroing in on truths that everybody else has experienced. Half the fun of our show is all the crazy, fantastical shit we can show. But the other half that's so fun is showing people themselves.

If we can keep nailing down these authentic, terrible experiences, while still taking people to crazy, fantastical places, I'll be happy.

Man Seeking Woman airs Wednesdays at 10:30 pm Eastern on FXX, after It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.