Whether you know him for his parade of charming roles in box office comedy hits like Hot Tub Time Machine, Walk Hard and Sausage Party, or his shining turns as the prankster master criminal on Brooklyn Nine-Nine or his defining role as the deadpanning warehouse foreman Darryl Philbin from NBC’s legendary sitcom The Office, you know that Craig Robinson’s got the secret formula for funny. But according to the man himself, you haven’t seen his best until you’ve seen his stand-up.
“This is home base; this is what I do.” Robinson says, revved with real warmth for his run at Houston Improv during Super Bowl Weekend. “I love meeting the people, touching the people, getting that immediate response. Sometimes there’s a few new jokes in there, get that gratification. I love it, I’ll never stop doing this.” As to who the real Craig is, Robinson says he probably hedges on the side of his This Is The End depiction. “You’ve got me on the keyboard, doing a bit of call-and-response, singing about taking yo panties off,” he laughs. “It’s a bunch of silliness; we don’t get too serious – but there’s some heart attached. You’ll be entertained, that’s for sure.”
When Robinson made his debut on the NBC series that would launch him to superstardom, he admits, he had no idea how big of a hit The Office would later become. “I’m glaaaaaaad I made that audition,” he croons. But the part of Darryl, a minor character at first, blossomed as the series unfolded and writers grew to know Robinson more intimately. “I didn’t audition for exactly ‘Darryl,’ but they just give you a [generic] talking head [audition], just to look at you. But as the writers get to know you, it honestly becomes a little freaky – because they can take a part of your personality and put in the script,” he says. “In the beginning, it was a lot of improv but by the end, there was no need – they had captured your voice perfectly. That was always really special to me, that they could hear my voice and write. It was pretty dope.”
Since The Office signed off after nine critically acclaimed seasons, Robinson has experimented with a number of other television roles, with varying degrees of success. His arc as prison warden Ray Heyworth on Season 2 of USA’s hit drama Mr. Robot was met warmly, a relief to the actor. “I really enjoyed sinking my teeth into that [because] it felt like a challenge,” he revealed, adding, “I always thought after I turned 40, I’d start getting some dramatic work.”
Yet his post-Office NBC homecoming series Mr. Robinson, which took elements of Robinson’s real-life past as a Chicago music teacher, failed to connect and was axed after only six episodes. “I didn’t know the writing team on Mr. Robinson like I knew the people on The Office,” Robinson reflects. “It was my life in terms of the fact that I was a music teacher in Chicago. But the rest of it…everything just became fictional.”
But one place Robinson is always welcome is on the set of FOX’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in which the comedian plays Doug Judy, the arch-rival of Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta. “I was just on the season finale of this year back in January, but if they want to bring me back again, I will always come running,” he says. “I love performing with them, and so far I’ve been on every season.”
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On wrestling the divide between comedy and drama, Robinson says he goes back to advice his first acting teacher gave him during his early years in L.A. “Comedy is ping-pong and drama is tennis,” he states simply. “She couldn’t have been more right. Drama is about taking your time and getting the most out of moments. Comedy is about that sharp timing and keeping on top of each other.” The actor also draws on his improv skills frequently, crediting his early years at Second City in Chicago for helping him understand the collaborative process. “The same rules apply to improv – do not deny, always agree with your partner, keep making things up. Improv is an art form, and I would love to get back up and do some more of that [onstage].”
With more films and TV coming down the pike (including hosting Spike’s Caraoke Showdown, and
supporting roles in the upcoming Table 19 with The Duplass Brothers and An Evening with Beverly Luff Lynn with Aubrey Plaza and Jermaine Clement), Robinson is happy to reminisce about some of the highlights from his already full career. One, the funniest person he’s ever met? “David Alan Grier,” he replies without hesitation. Robinson worked with the In Living Color star on the set of the Tyler Perry-produced movie Peeples. “The man is just a genius, and he keeps you in stitches.”
As the 45-year-old continues to produce a healthy output of work, he does recognize that a few gems might have fallen through the cracks. One project he says to seek out is the blink-and-you-missed-it 2013 comedy Rapture-Palooza. “If you think I’m funny, check it out,” he offers. “That was so much fun for me, a lot of silliness and more freedom than you usually get on movies.” In it, Robinson played a biblical demon known as The Beast, opposite a very-game Anna Kendrick. “Acting is always about that team – Kendrick, John Francis Daley, Rob Corddry, Rob Huebel – Huebel had dying in that movie.” Despite possibly getting overshadowed by Robinson’s other apocalypse-themed movie from 2013 (the Seth Rogen-directed This Is The End), the flick remains close to Robinson’s heart. “That one, yeah, that one’s always special when people tell me they’ve seen it, because I know not everybody has. Plus it was kinda like my first leading role, so yeah…it was pretty cool."
Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. on February 2, 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on February 3 and 7 and 9:30 p.m. on February 4 at 7620 Katy Freeway. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit improvhouston.com. $25.