On a recent Friday evening in New York City, a group of writers and comedians assembled in the SoHo offices of The Onion for "Whiskey Friday," an informal drinks and conversation gathering created by features editor Joe Garden.
Similar to the Algonquin Roundtable, only with less cribbage and more naughtily re-captioned "Family Circus" cartoons, the event attracts a variety of New York comedy stalwarts, as well as the occasional visiting dignitary. This particular session had the distinction of counting actor James Urbaniak among the attendees.
Urbaniak, who is perhaps best known as the voice of Dr. Rusty Venture on Adult Swim's "The Venture Brothers," is one of those actors who flies under the radar of the mainstream, while being an iconic celebrity amongst fans of indie films, off-Broadway theatre and alternative comedy.
He got his start in the '80s in New York City, performing with various theater companies, including the experimental Elevator Repair Service which is still around today. Eventually making his way into the independent film scene, Urbaniak starred as Simon Grim in Hal Hartley's "Henry Fool," and went on to enjoy rave reviews from film critics and comic book geeks alike for his portrayal of R. Crumb in "American Splendor." Before moving to Los Angeles five years ago, he originated the title role in Thom Pain (Based on nothing), receiving a Drama Desk nomination for his performance.
His auspicious appearance at The Onion on this recent evening was thanks to the actor's return to the stage after nearly six years for a revival of Tom Stoppard's Travesties at Princeton's McCarter Theatre.
For someone who plays socially awkward characters with such familiarity, Urbaniak is overwhelmingly genial and engaging. Quick and generous with a laugh, he has the ability to make everyone around him feel welcome, even important. After observing him gleefully cackling over one particular anecdote, a friend whispered to me in an awe-inspired tone, "Oh my god, Dr. Venture is laughing."
I caught up with him a couple weeks later at lower east side dive bar and comedy venue, Luca Lounge, to chat with him about a variety of things, including being a "character" actor. Urbaniak admitted that he doesn't particularly mind if that's how he's perceived: "Those are the parts I tend to play, the character-y parts, which are famously the most fun. I'm not usually the square-jawed leading man... Even though I have a somewhat square jaw, Hollywood doesn't see me that way."
While he certainly has a recognizable face, its his voice that has made him a hero of geek culture. Adult Swim's cult hit "The Venture Brothers," now in production on its 5th season, has brought Urbaniak legions of fans, and along with them, requests to leave messages in the voice of Dr. Venture on their friends' cell phones. I chatted briefly with Urbaniak about what he does in these situations with adoring -- sometimes famous -- fans:
Asked if he ever geeks-out himself over his heroes, he explained: "The most starstruck I've ever been was about a year and a half ago in LA, I met Eric Idle of Monty Python fame. I've met a lot of famous people and I'm consistently relaxed and happy to relate to them as peers, but I swear to God, it was like meeting a Beatle, and it was all I could do to keep from being a blubbering mess."
While Urbaniak may be a household -- or at least dorm room -- name to some, for others he's a bit harder to place. In fact, there's one musician in particular he's often mistaken for:
Since he's a veteran New York actor who now makes his home in Los Angeles, I couldn't resist the urge to ask Urbaniak to compare the two cities: "The greatest thing about living in Los Angeles has been meeting a new circle of people who are as funny and creative and delightful as anyone I know in New York. But as a city per se there's no comparison to New York. Sorry, Los Angeles. It's nice, I've gotten a lot out of it, but New York is the best. That's a fact, it's not an opinion."
Among those funny and creative people Urbaniak has worked with in LA are the cast and writers of the monthly "Thrilling Adventure Hour" show at Largo, where he regularly performs alongside the likes of Paul F. Tompkins, Paget Brewster and Samm Levine, to name a few. Written by the aptly named Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, the show is a staged production in the style of old-time radio featuring serial segments, commercials and jingles.
One could argue, however, that Urbaniak is as much a citizen of the Internet as any particular place. He was an early and avid LiveJournal-er, having since transferred those energies over to Twitter and Tumblr. He uses the social networking mediums to weigh in on politics and pop culture, as well as craft the occasional absurd one-off gag:
Bell Biv DeVoe update: That girl is no longer poison, she is now president of her PTA and has a successful handcrafted jewelry business.
— James Urbaniak (@JamesUrbaniak) March 14, 2012
When asked about his interest in occasionally stoking political flames on Twitter, Urbaniak explained: "I've always been a political junkie. I communicate with people on the left and right, I'm interested in both sides. And my discussions tend to be very civil. I try refrain from getting really angry, and if someone gets angry with me, I usually try to diffuse it with a joke."
Christmas has arrived again. Our war on it has failed once more. Next year, fellow liberals! NEXT YEAR!!!
— James Urbaniak (@JamesUrbaniak) December 25, 2011
These days, Urbaniak seems most passionate about the opportunity to take on the role of Henry Carr in "Travesties," which runs through April 1. Urbaniak describes the character as "an upper class twit who doesn't have much interest beyond his trousers and the works of Gilbert and Sullivan."
When I asked what he loves about theater as opposed to television and film, he explained that its the immersion in the material that makes it such a great experience for an actor, as well as the rehearsal period and the social aspect of working with the cast and crew.
"There's a wonderful camaraderie that I enjoy very much. Just sort of hanging out with the cast and production people and director. That didn't really happen in Thom Pain because it was a one man show. The cast party was just me writing into my LiveJournal with a plastic cup of wine."