Talking The “Impenetrable Joy” Of Charles Boyle With Joe Lo Truglio
"Charles is a little bit more out there than I am -- but I'm a bit of a weirdo myself."
Charles Boyle has a Diane Wiest infection. And Joe Lo Truglio is telling me all about it.
“Well, it begins with being just naturally a funny little weirdo. That’s the first advantage I have in creating Charles Boyle, is that he’s just a couple of steps left of centre of me. Charles is a little bit more out there than I am — but I’m a bit of a weirdo myself.”
You’d know Joe Lo Truglio as the actor who plays Charles Boyle. He’s talking to me in the lead up to Brooklyn Nine-Nine season 7 dropping — a pretty amazing run, especially for a show that was famously cancelled, and later resuscitated.
Immediately I flag to Joe that I want to talk to him about comedy, about the nitty-gritty of it, the real nerd stuff.
I want to do this for a couple of reasons — I think Boyle is one of the most interesting comedic creations on TV right now, and I also know that Joe Lo Truglio’s career has been steeped in comedy, that he’s been deeply involved in sketch comedy and a bunch of my favourite weird comedies, like Wet Hot American Summer.
So, I figure he’ll PROBABLY enjoy talking about funny nerd shit — the clanking insides of the laughter machine, the gears and hooting whistles that move Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
I’ve asked Joe Lo Truglio if there are any “rules” of comedy that he tries to adhere to when playing Boyle, and he immediately picks out the Diane Wiest sketch as a pertinent illustration.
This cold-open of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is infamous — a lot of people think it’s one of the funniest amongst the show’s many funny openings, while others think it’s pretty stupid.
Hot news, it’s both.
To refresh, the gag is that Boyle thinks it will be very funny to rhyme Wiest with yeast, and delivers the “joke” to a stone faced Peralta. The show, usually whip-fast, gag-a-minute affair, unexpectedly allows us to sit in the discomfort in this moment, as the camera pans back and forth from appalled Jake, to expectant Boyle.
“Um, well, the thing that’s coming to mind, and I wouldn’t say it’s just with Charles Boyle, but with our show, and I think with comedy in general, is to keep it [comedy] moving. Pacing is so important and I often find that you can’t go wrong the quicker it is. It also allows when there are pauses or breaks, for those breaths of air to really land even more effectively,” he explains, noting that this rule manifests in the cold open in question.
“…you’re cutting back and forth between Jake and Charles much longer than what’s normal in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And I think it works and it’s so funny because you’re not used to those silences and I think that’s a result of being used to a different type of pacing, a much quicker opening.”
The sketch continues in this vein, until finally, as the tensions reaches its highest, Boyle cracks and yells “like YEAST”.
That’s the funny moment — the fact that this strange man commits so wholeheartedly to such a terrible joke, and then can’t wait to explain it. Explaining jokes — never funny. An irony I’m very aware of right now, as I sit here explaining a joke.
It is stupid, but masterfully crafted through performance to also be very funny.
Impenetrable Joy, The Charles Boyle Story
The style of humour used to infuse the weird little homunculus that is the character of Charles Boyle is worth talking about. Boyle has always been the most fascinating character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine to me, because he’s an example of a fairly rare type of comedic device.
Boyle is aggressively low status, stepped upon by almost every single other character — yet at the same time widely beloved.
Low status is defined as a character who is subordinate to the higher-status character, “accommodating his or her actions to the other’s cues”. It’s extremely Boyle, who cheerfully and furiously maintains his subordinate nature. In fact, he’s so strident about being beta, that he’s essentially the power-bottom of low status characters.
It’s a difficult balance to promote. Often, the way low-status characters retain their loveableness is through stupidity, think Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation or Jason Mendoza from The Good Place.
But Boyle is a detective — an objectively smart person. And capability is part of the tone and mission of Brooklyn Nine-Nine — they are all people who are good at their jobs, and love being good at them, even if they are often absurd creations of whimsy and delight. It wouldn’t work if he was stupid. You just don’t see that kind of mix often.
“He’s a pleasure to play because he is such a resilient guy and never stays down for very long. There were these little toys back in the 70s called Weeble Bobbles, which I always think of him as, because they were just like these kind of egg-shaped things that… you couldn’t knock them down. They just kept coming back up, and I feel like that’s Charles. That’s Charles Boyle.”
I ask Joe about the joy he finds when playing Charles — because it’s very evident that he has a lot of fun in his performance.
“He’s just so fearless, I feel like, and his cluelessness, it doesn’t come from any type of lack of intelligence but more of this kind of bright sunny filter that he puts on himself,” says Lo Truglio. “And that’s really fun to play, if you just pretend that you have this gauze of impenetrable joy on you in whatever interaction you have, or Charles has.”
And I think that’s true — but I also think that Boyle manages to totter the line between being beloved and still low status by being utterly weird and undeniably joyful. He maintains a ruthlessly low status character through being weirdly subservient, aggressively beta, and by being irrepressibly and upsettingly odd.
The most common refrain to a Boyle line is: “What, NO, why would you say that?”
My favourite recurring weird Boyle gag is when he talks about the most “erotic experience” in the world being to wash a woman’s hair.
“Help me! I’ve gone full Boyle!”
But it’s not just the joy of Boyle that we talk about — it’s the joy of working in comedy in general.
“The joy is really being able to work with people I like to work with. I know that’s an easy answer but it does need to start there because I found in the other projects that I do, whether it’s a sketch group called The State or whether it’s movies, or whether it’s working in other comedies with other groups, it always seems to begin with a trust and a friendliness and a lightness around set that allows you to kind of feel goofy and then being able to kind of make a fool of yourself. So, it really does begin with the environment.”
‘The State’ was both a sketch group and a show on MTV, and most of the people involved went on to do the Wet Hot American Summer films, as well as other projects. I’m obsessed with frequent collaborators in comedy, and I ask Joe about how he got his start in the industry.
“I’ve always been into comedy and even actually more horror and then in school, I went to New York University and there, I was in the film department and wanted to just be a very serious actor and filmmaker, and I’m glad that didn’t happen. I took myself a little bit too seriously and I ended up getting involved in a sketch group there that ended up launching the gangs of my career, certainly after college,” Joe tells me.
“So it began always with being surrounded by people with like interests and making movies with my friends and writing little dumb plays in the living room with my friends. It always came from a place of collaboration, and I think that’s continued throughout my career.”
“What about me? What if something happens to Jake and he never gets to meet my baby? I don’t want to hang out with some stupid baby who’s never met Jake.”
One of the best parts of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is how wholesome the friendship between all the characters are — it’s why the show feels like a big warm hug.
I was keen to see if this attitude translated into real life, if the spirit of collaboration that Joe loves in comedy also exists amongst the cast. Joe Lo Truglio basically confirmed, calling the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine “a family of people that wouldn’t have been in my life otherwise.”
I was also super keen to find out about the relationship between Joe and Andy Samberg, who plays Jake Peralta. Boyle very much plays Peralta’s number two, or “Tinkerbell” as he puts it, and I imagine that requires a lot of comedic collaboration between the two actors. I ask him what it’s like working with Andy Samberg.
“It’s an absolute joy man. He’s a friend. He’s a fantastic comedian and also producer. So, which is to say, when we’re doing our bits and when we’re kind of messing around and playing around, his mind works quickly to see how the joke can work better and without being pushy, or… what’s the word I’m looking for… just pushy. Like he’ll make suggestions for me to try a different way and he’ll often be right.”
“And that’s helpful because I trust him, he trusts me, and so there’s a lot of give and take there that allows us to really become quite large fools, and not worry about being embarrassed with each other because we know we’re kind of looking out for each other in terms of the comedy. He’s really good. He’s a terrific writer as well, so we both are able to really sink our teeth into that.”
Joe has been so enthusiastic this whole interview, extremely game to talk about his love of comedy with me, and his love of Charles Boyle. But it’s when he’s talking about working with his friends that he gets really excited, and I guess that’s the real rule of comedy I take from him — the joy of collaboration.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine season 7 is currently streaming on SBS on Demand.
Patrick Lenton is the Editor of Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.