A Couple of Pops With Jake Johnson, An Old-Style “Chicago Guy” Actor for Our Moment

This story was featured in The Must Read, a newsletter in which our editors recommend one can’t-miss GQ story every weekday. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

Even though we’re thousands of miles and four time zones away from each other, when we’re planning our talk over Zoom, Jake Johnson emails the following suggestion: “Let’s have a drink and enjoy ourselves.” If you know Johnson’s work— as the self-sabotaging bartender Nick Miller on New Girl, as the voice of the lackadaisical Peter B. Parker in the Spider-Verse films, or as the inspiration behind the idea for the show Drunk History—having a cocktail or two with the guy sounds like the exact right way to go. Johnson has made a career out of playing a very specific sort of good-hearted, well-intentioned, but usually stunted guy that, well, you’d like to have a beer with. So you’re having a drink with Johnson, but you’re also having a drink with the sort of character he plays. Johnson has carved out a niche for himself as one of the best Chicago Guy actors of his generation. He’s typecast himself, and he’s just fine with that.

“People go, Your characters seem to be similar, and yeah; those are the people I'm obsessed with. Those were the people of my childhood,” he says.

The Chicago Guy isn’t any one thing, but in order to be considered a Chicago Guy, you have to meet a certain set of criteria. First off, you don’t have to be a man to be a Guy. Joan Cusack, for example, is arguably more of a Chicago Guy than her brother, John. You don’t have to live in Chicago anymore—Johnson doesn’t—but growing up in Cook County, Illinois, or within about 25 miles of it, is important. So is the accent. You don’t have to speak like one of Bill Swerski’s Superfans, necessarily, but your delivery should be some variation on the area’s version of the Great Lakes way of speaking, with vowel shifts and flat “A”s—maybe a little Southern, if your family came up during the Great Migration. Joe Mantegna, Melissa McCarthy, and the talk show host Sherri Shepherd all have great takes on it. The Chicago Guy is usually the funniest person in the room, like Hannibal Buress or John Mulaney. They’re the kind of person who is generally beloved all over even though they’re very much of a specific place: John C. Reilly is a Chicago Guy. Robin Williams was born and raised there until moving to Detroit when he was 12, while Vince Vaughn moved to the Chicagoland suburbs from Minnesota when he was 8 and can claim Chicago Guy. As for the reigning king of the Chicago Guys, that’s easy: Bill Murray. A close second: Bob Odenkirk, a Chicago Guy who played one of the greatest Chicago Guys in television history, Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman.

But every character Johnson plays, in some way or another, is a Chicago Guy. There are people who can play the role of Southern Guys or New York City Guys, but you don’t always know where they’re from in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line, and they might say they’re from Brooklyn or the Bronx, but they’re actually from Cherry Hill, New Jersey or Westchester. Some people might hear Tim Robinson and think he’s a Chicago Guy, but he’s from Detroit. I thought Sarah Sherman was a Chicago Guy, since I first heard of her from Chicago friends who knew of her from the local comedy scene, and her accent had me fooled—but she’s an adopted Chicago Guy who is originally from Long Island. John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, and more recently The Bear’s Matty Matheson have been mistaken for Chicago Guys, but they’re all from Toronto. (Aside from some members of the supporting cast and guest stars like Odenkirk and Mulaney, it’s worth noting, none of Mattheson’s costars on the Chicago-set The Bear are actually from Chicago.)

Johnson was born in Evanston, a suburb that touches up against Chicago’s most northern point. Nick Miller, his New Girl character, was from Chicago, and the show is filled with Bulls and Bears references. On the show Minx, it isn’t stated that his character, a sweet-talking, flashy, do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-job-done porn-magazine publisher, is from Chicago. But the guy’s name is Doug Renetti; if you grew up in the Chicagoland area, you’d swear that’s the name of a guy who had a commercial for the lowest prices on mattresses in all of Cicero on Fox 32. Johnson saw a lot of guys like Nick and Doug growing up, and he’s made a nice career out of using their influence to become one of the best everyman types working in film and television today.

One of them is his uncle Eddie. “We used to hang neon signs together,” Johnson says. As we talk and drink for over an hour and a half, I feel like I’m sitting at a bar with Johnson and listening to him tell stories of the kind of working-class heroes that used to be more of a fixture in popular culture. He uses the term “guys who ripped cigarettes” no less than five times, and always mentions the popular Chicagoland pilsner, Old Style, instead of saying “beer.”

Uncle Eddie was an influence on Johnson. Maybe not exactly a positive one, but not a negative one, either. “I dropped out of school for a little bit and I was working with him and I really thought, This is what I'm going to do. But the problem was I couldn’t hustle people the way he would. I'm not as good at it. I didn’t know how he’d be selling this weird guy on Clark Street in Rogers Park to give us $800 to put up a sign and we'd leave with 200 bucks cash. And he would give us a smile and be like, It's business—we're going to do a sign. And I'd be like, Are we ever actually going back and doing that?

In his latest movie, Self-Reliance, which is also Johnson’s directorial debut, he once again plays a guy who lives in L.A., but there isn’t any mention of the Windy City. Still, there are the familiar hallmarks of Johnson characters (lonely, aimless, stuck on a failed relationship), and the movie—which Johnson also wrote and co-produced—does have a very familiar Chicago Guy quality to it. Johnson plays Tommy Walcott, who seems fine being stuck in a rut at his middle-of-the-road office job until he’s offered the very strange (but also somewhat plausible, in our-everything-is-content society) opportunity to participate in a dark-web game show where he can win a million dollars if he survives being hunted by assassins for 30 days.

The catch is that the assassins can’t kill him if anyone else is around, which forces Johnson’s lonely guy to ask people to spend time with him. As Johnson sees it, Tommy’s story is one of “massive personal growth.” As plain and simple as that sounds, Johnson points out, “That’s not, like, the way we do movies now. The arc has to be, ‘Not only did he change, but he's running for president.’ At the end, he’s the greatest human on earth—and you go, ‘OK, but he was literally a piece of shit 93 minutes ago.”

Personal growth is exactly how Self-Reliance earns a spot in the Chicago Guy canon. The characters in the best films by Chicago Guy John Hughes all became better people in the end, while John Cusack plays a hitman who finds “a newfound respect for life” in Grosse Point Blank and a manchild record store owner who finally decides to grow up in High Fidelity. Maybe most famously, there’s Bill Murray as weatherman Phil Connors, forced to relive the same day until he gets it right in Groundhog Day, another film written and directed by another Chicago Guy, Harold Ramis. There’s also a bit of non-Chicago Guy Owen Wilson in what Johnson does. He says seeing the 1996 Wes Anderson feature debut Bottle Rocket was a big moment for him. “When I saw Owen, I thought that's the exact tone that I like: dramatic, comedic, ridiculous. It's grounded in reality. I feel so sad for him. He's definitely going to end up in jail. I want to cry for [Wilson’s] Dignan, but he’s also the funniest guy.”

But before seeing Bottle Rocket in a friend’s basement when he was still a teenager, there were Chicago Guys. “The family story—which I have no memory of—is my dad left when I was two and a half,” Johnson says. “I was born in ‘78 and I was always a bad sleeper. And as my mom says, she would find me watching TV and at times I would watch SNL back in the day. And when my dad left, supposedly I didn't mourn, but I also didn't get it. But when John Belushi died and I saw it on the news, my mom said I had a little 3-year-old nervous breakdown. I kept crying about Belushi. Mind you, they look similar. My dad's Hungarian Jewish, Belushi was Albanian. It’s that weird mix of Chicago faces where we all sort of look similar.”

There’s another thing that shows up in a lot of Johnson’s best characters. His New Girl character’s father, played by the late, all-time great Chicago Guy Dennis Farina, was a con man who was never around; Tommy’s dad in Self Reliance left when Tommy was just a kid. Johnson’s story isn’t that different. His own parents divorced when he was 2, and Johnson’s mother raised him and his siblings; his father was absent in his life until Johnson was a teenager. But Johnson knew where his father was.

“He owned a Chevy dealership on the South Side of Chicago. My brother and I have this big comedic regret that if he had raised us and stayed in the group, we would be running the dealership and doing local used-car commercials,” he says with a laugh. “When we eventually got close with my dad, we asked if he had dreams of us running it, and he said, ‘It was always there.’” Johnson was blown away by that. “We literally could have been those guys being like, [in a classic Chicago Guy accent] you want a Tahoe? You want to let me take care of you?”


There are plenty of Chicago Guy writers past and present, but in my mind, the essayist and television writer Samantha Irby is at the top. She’s written plenty about being from the Chicagoland area (like Johnson, Irby was also born in Evanston), but it’s the way she writes that ties her to all the Chicago Guys I mentioned, especially Johnson. They both excel at loveable self-deprecation in a way that anybody, no matter where they’re from, can relate to. It hits closer to the everyman than, say, the classic New York nebbish who has had a Harper’s subscription since they came out of the womb and talks about their shrink like a colleague, rather than a doctor treating them for their neurotic tendencies.

I once asked Irby why she thought the Chicago Guy has been such an important part of American culture for so long, but has sort of flown under the radar. She suspects it’s simply because nobody was paying attention to the city since New York City and Los Angeles tend to control the culture, but added, “For the longest time Chicago was synonymous with Da Bears and that whole, uh, vibe.” Irby told me she didn’t want to sound defensive, but as somebody who grew up in a Midwestern city, she saw how people assumed Chicago was “full of fat guys who say ‘jagoff’ (my kryptonite, tbh), and sure maybe the food scene is alright but they don't have culture like cities on the coasts,” and that it boils down to “ the pervasive idea about the middle west is that we're all bumbling yokels who don't know what art is.”

Feeling that way does breed something in you, and Chicagoans, whether they stay local or move to another big city, have been known to carry a chip on their shoulder that ends up informing their work: Take it or leave it, this is what I’m giving you. In his mid-40s and happy where he’s at, Johnson has sort of mastered the very Chicago Zen and the Art of not Giving a Fuck philosophy. “In terms of what I’m trying to do with the stuff I’m making, is if it means something to a certain group of people or a single person, then that’s enough,” he says. “It doesn’t have to mean something to everybody, and I feel like at least that’s changed for me. When I started this business, that was not the goal. The goal was everybody should like it. If everybody loves it, that means you did a good job; if everybody is mixed on it, that means you didn’t. I truly don't care anymore. Everybody's got a different opinion. So I could make this movie, half the people could not like it. Some critics could murder it and that used to really hurt me. But what I've learned is we just don't see things the same, my friend.”

Originally Appeared on GQ