Creighton Continues Commanding Creative “Jack”-Pot

Posted: April 12, 2011 in Comedy, Entertainment, Film, New York City, Uncategorized, Webisodes

The very first unofficial “Web series” was produced in 1995, by a company called Bullseye Art; three years later they scored a nearly-overnight success with the animated program Miss Muffy and the Muf Mob. The Internet was still brand-new at the time, and the idea of YouTube as a means to broadcast oneself was merely a gleam in technology’s collective eye. Since then, Webisodes of all genres have gathered glittering success, from the most amateurish to the most polished and professional, and some have indeed garnered worldwide attraction with thousands of regular viewers. One, however, which has taken the Internet in general, and New York’s theatre community in particular, by storm in the last three seasons, is the comedy Jack in a Box.

The brainchild of creator and star, Michael Cyril Creighton, tells the often side-splitting story of Jack. He’s a chunky, bespectacled, fuzzy-faced and horribly-unhappy gay actor, forced to spend his nine-to-five workday trapped in a TicketMaster-ish cage. Jack can always be found fielding such questions on the phone as, “Do you have any tickets left for Cats?” while providing snappy answers to the callers, fending off anyone who’ll disturb him while eating bagels or cupcakes or taking a much-needed ciggie break, getting into hilarious situations with co-workers, and dealing with his cloying mother Bernice and drunken Aunt Heidi (portrayed respectively and brilliantly in recurring roles by Broadway personalities Mary Testa and Alison Fraser) as well as a lecherous female agent (embodied to the hilt by actress Lusia Strus). The show has also featured guest-star appearances by such personalities as theatre star Julie Halston and Queer as Folk co-star Randy Harrison, and a poignant performance in the Season One finale by veteran actress Marylouise Burke as the elderly Prudence. And the show proves so engaging, and so addictive, that it’s pointedly clear why it won awards at the 2010 New York Television Festival. Comedy fans love it for its script; theatrefolk love it for its recognizable situations; full-figured people (gay or otherwise) love it because they see themselves in Jack’s daily struggle, and people of all types love it simply for the delicious escape it provides. It should be noted that the show has also popularized the term “Squeezies!” as a synonym for “Hugs and kisses!” upon saying goodbye to a friend or relative. The series just unleashed its twentieth episode (arguably the best yet, entitled The Surprise), and will release three more after a hiatus in May before getting geared up for next season.  (Those interested can catch it on YouTube, Google, or on the show’s official website, http://www.jackinaboxsite.com).

In real life, however, Creighton is a very nice, almost-unnaturally polite, actor and writer of thirty-two who hails from a loving family on Long Island (where mother Denise, a schoolteacher, recently won an award from the Long Island Press as Educator of the Year), graduated from Emerson College, and is ensconced in a blissful domestic partnership. Given this dichotomy between on-screen character and the person who brought and brings him to life, The Andrew Martin Report was thrilled for the chance to interview Creighton, and really try to understand the brain behind Jack’s business, so to speak:

AM: Where did you get the concept for the show?
MCC: I knew I wanted to make something for the Web. For a few years I had been doing video podcasts for VH1’s Best Week Ever blog, which was a blast. The Web has always been very good to me, as far as a tool for getting my face/writing out there. So when that project ended, I started writing a short film about a guy who worked in a box office. Then I decided to shoot the first episode (which was just me), which was originally just going to be a teaser for something I’d make later (I’m a procrastinator). But the response was overwhelming…so I just kept making episodes.

AM: Why is everything shot with hand-held cameras instead of stationary ones? Was that a creative decision, was it budgetary, or both, or neither?

MCC: I give a lot of credit for this to Marcie Hume, who shot and edited the first two episodes and the fourth episode. I told her I wanted it to look sort of like a documentary, and have the camera work accentuate the awkwardness of the episodes. When she moved to London, I started working with the amazingly-talented Jim Turner, who’s taken on the role of co-producer and co-director. He picked right up where Marcie left off, and brought his own unique style to it as well. I’m very lucky to have both of them on my side. I do not know how to use a camera…so I’d say things like, “Make it look zoomy and jump-cutty?” and they’d know what I’m talking about. They also got me over my pathological fear of being shot from my left side. “Get over it.” And I did.

AM: Do you do all the casting yourself, both for the supporting characters and the guest stars? Are they friends of yours? Are they just people you’ve admired and wanted to work with? Are they people you’d worked with before, or knew from Emerson?

MCC: I do all the casting. Most of the cast were friends first, and if they weren’t, we’ve become friends since shooting. Some are people I’ve done plays with. Some are people I know from the stand-up world when I used to dabble in that. Quite a few are alums of the NY Neo-Futurists, of which I was a founding member. All of them are people I’ve admired, and continue to admire. I know some people steer clear of this, but I always like to write with someone in mind. So I’m pretty lucky to have a lot of muses in my life. Funny ones. I feel very honored to have worked with every single one of my guests and co-stars.

AM: So, you didn’t initially have any aspirations to get it onto network/cable?

MCC: This was always intended to be a Web series. When I first started making it, I was still figuring out my voice as a writer and my persona on screen. And the Web is a great place to try that stuff out. Sure, I’d love to turn this into a traditional TV show, but right now I’m satisfied with how it’s going on the Web. I don’t feel like the Web is a consolation prize, if that makes sense.

AM: What is the process for writing the scripts?

MCC: Here’s an example. In play format:

Michael: Hey, Lusia! When do you leave for LA?
Lusia (takes an inhale of a cigarette): In a week, honey.
Michael: Can we shoot something this week, then?
Lusia: Sure, honey, but I’m subletting my apartment.
Michael: OK. I’ll write a different apartment into the episode.
Lusia: What’s it about?
Michael: I have no idea. But it’s gonna be vulgar. And you have to wear a mini-dress.
Lusia: Perfect.

Sometimes it’s fast and furious, like that. Sometimes I spend a lot of time thinking about an idea, taking notes, and then when I finally sit down to write an episode, it goes real quick. I try to write two at a time and have an outline for the episodes that will come after it. Things change, though. Whole ideas get thrown out. There are definitely episodes I have written that never got made, and were replaced with ones I wrote really quickly, to work around an actor’s schedule and/or my facial hair. The Buzz Cut episodes in Season Two came about because I knew I was going to have to buzz my head and have a mustache for a play I was doing with The Debate Society, Buddy Cop 2. So I planned accordingly. Luckily, I worked shooting around the mustache, because I had little interest in Jack looking like a Village Person. But, yeah, I have no rules, when it comes to writing. I just try to write bold characters, who say off-but-believable things.

AM: Where did the term “Squeezies!” come from?

MCC: That’s secret.

AM: And how does your family feel about the show? In particular, how does your mom feel about the character of Bernice?

MCC: My family is, and always has been, very supportive. The MOTHER is not based on my real mother, although there are definitely parts of her that are inspired by my real-life mom. For example, that character makes me laugh. So does my mom. The age difference between me & my real mom is not very significant, so I wanted to make sure to cast appropriately. Her singing into the phone IS based on my grandmother. She does that often, or will just hold the phone up to the radio if one of “our songs” is on. That’s always comforting, to be stressed out at work, get a call on my cell and hear “You Are My Sunshine” blaring, all distorted, on the other end. Some of the characters are composites of many people in my life, rolled into one. A lot of them are purely from my imagination.

AM: Other than your guest stars in recurring roles (Mary Testa, Alison Fraser, etc), who have been some of your favorite one-timers?

(from left): Mary Testa, Julie Halston, Alison Fraser, in S. 3 Ep. 20, "The Surprise"

MCC: Everyone is my favorite! Seriously! However, I have to say that Marylouise Burke’s performance in the Season One finale is one that is very special to me. It’s always been important to me to mix Jack’s hard and cynical side with some real depth and sensitivity, and that particular episode was really hard to write. I was very nervous about shooting it, because it meant so much to me. There are times in my real life when I’ll be having a horrible day, and it just takes one sweet older lady to melt my cold, cold heart and make me smile. Marylouise brought so much to that role. A really beautiful, gentle performance. She also happens to be incredibly funny, so that helped, too. I’m crazy about her…and the character of Prudence.

AM: What are the differences between you and Jack?

MCC: For the most part…I am happy. So that’s a difference. And I’m not that crazy about cupcakes. Oh, and I just got new glasses. So. We are totally different.

It can only be said that both Michael Cyril Creighton, and Jack in a Box, are a golden-frosted cupcake in the bakery of life. If you’re unfamiliar, tune in. And if you’re already a devout fan as are so many, continue to savor the sweet cream icing.

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Comments
  1. Stephan says:

    Love it. Very funny stuff.

  2. Jeannine says:

    I am a huge fan of Michael Creighton and “Jack in a Box”– and love it when his talent is not only recognized but celebrated! Great article!!

  3. John says:

    This is an amazing series. I’m especially fond of Suze and Jack’s agent Gloria Bixby.

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