Predictably enough, Rob Riggle isn’t a terribly nice guy in “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life.” In the comedy, based on James Patterson’s bestseller, the comic, actor and “Daily Show” alum plays one of the plagues upon our tween hero (Griffin Gluck): the new boyfriend of his mother (Lauren Graham), who doesn’t like her kids too much. It’s standard issue for Riggle, 46: “I play a nice character every now and then. But the majority are pretty jerky,” he says.
We talked to Riggle about his own unhappy memories of junior high, and how they’re responsible for making him the funnyman he is today.
Even when you play jerks, you manage to make them funny enough that they’re basically oversized children. It makes them almost endearing.
I think that’s one reason [director] Steve Carr cast me. This character had to be a jerk, and it was written in such a way that if it wasn’t played comedically it would have been very dark. I can do that: I can make jerks funny.
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My junior high experiences were among the worst in my life. How was yours?
It was definitely the worst time. I was pre-pubescent. Everyone was turning into young adults. I was not. So everybody got bigger than me in junior high. I was the runt. When you’re standing in a group of boys and they look around, they find the smallest guy real quick. They go, “What are you laughing at, roo?” You’ve got to run for your life or make up something to get them laughing.
So you had the squeaky high-pitched voice?
[Laughs] I didn’t even have that. Usually, you had to go through puberty to have a cracking voice. I was the last person in my class to go through puberty. It didn’t happen to me until before my sophomore year in high school. Then it came in like a storm. I came back to school and people didn’t recognize me. I got my braces off, I grew four inches, I cut my hair — it was good.
Being picked on, though, must have helped your gift for comedy.
Oh yeah, it was a defense mechanism. If I kept people laughing or kept them distracted, then they didn’t want to pick on me. I consider being the smallest person in junior high a blessing, in a way. Not at the time, but afterwards.
Sometimes failure and embarrassment and pain can be really helpful.
The only thing that makes a muscle grow is resistance. I think most of the greatest things I’ve learned and the biggest moments of my life have come through some failed attempt at something. If you get tested, if you get pushed, you find your character grows. You find out who you are and adapt and overcome. By the way, I am not advocating any kind of bullying. [Laughs]
Stand-up is surely one of the greatest tests of that: You get up and die on stage for years until you find your voice.
Yes. It’s the loneliest plan on earth. [Laughs] But it makes you stronger!
Then stand-up comics must be the strongest people in the world.
[Laughs] And probably the most psychologically damaged.
You don’t do stand-up as much these days, right?
I haven’t done it in about three years or so. I’ve got family demands that require my time. And I’ve been lucky enough to work in television and film enough that I can take some time off. Hopefully someday I’ll get back to it.
Speaking of testing yourself, you acted in an upcoming indie drama called “Midnight Sun.” What was it like, trying out a drama?
I’ve played a couple straight roles before, but this is my first dramatic role. It’s like jumping in the deep end; it’s serious drama. I loved it. I studied theater and film in college. I also studied the Method here in New York for many years. I have that side, which I love, and I’ve never been able to take it out for a walk, so to speak. I’m excited for people to see it. It’s something they’ve never seen me do before. As an artist and an actor you have a lot of colors; you want to be able to show all of them.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge