Is Kyle Mooney cool? Even he doesn’t seem to know — or care.
During an interview to promote the film “Brigsby Bear,” which he co-wrote and stars in, the 32-year-old “Saturday Night Live” actor shows up in a T-shirt emblazoned with the “Peanuts” character Snoopy as Joe Vice, borrowing the laid-back, mid-1980s look of Don Johnson in “Miami Vice.”
“Is Joe Vice cool or not cool?” Mooney asks, rhetorically (and sounding more perplexed than worried). “I thought it wasn’t cool at first, which is why I liked it. But now I think it might be, so . . . ” His voice trails off with the inflection of a question, as though he’s beginning to doubt the very foundation of the universe he inhabits.
That state of mind would be familiar to the character Mooney plays in “Brigsby”: James, a man in his 20s who was abducted as an infant and raised in a remote bunker by his captors (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). Not only did they lie to James, telling him that they were his parents — and that the outside world was a post-apocalyptic wasteland — but they also raised him on a steady VHS diet of the cheesy children’s TV show that lends the film its title. The show was entirely fake, by the way, produced by James’s “father,” in secret, for 25 years.
Near the beginning of the film, James is freed after a police raid, casting him into a world that knows nothing of his lifelong obsession: a talking ursine character that is two parts Teddy Ruxpin and one part Barney the dinosaur, with a dash of Teletubbies thrown in for surrealism.
The idea for the story came, partly, from Mooney’s fascination with obscure videotapes of old kids’ TV shows, which he collects from thrift stores and garage sales by the hundreds. That aesthetic, which he says is fueled by both unironic love and the wry, detached appreciation of a connoisseur of kitsch, feeds much of his unusual sense of humor. It’s one he has honed, for two decades, with his childhood friend Dave McCary, who directed “Brigsby Bear” and works on SNL video segments.
McCary, also 32, sat in on the interview, sometimes completing Mooney’s sentences, as when Mooney tried to explain why his SNL appearances tend not to include the topical segments the show is known for, but more often skew to the odd, if not head-scratching variety. (Several of these off-kilter sketches can be found on the show’s YouTube channel devoted to skits that have been cut for time.)
“Personally,” Mooney begins, haltingly, as though searching for the right word, “I’m not very good at . . . ”
“ . . . relevance?” McCary suggests.
Mooney is known for a brand of comedy he calls “alternative” or “anti-comedy” — a non-joke-based brand cultivated in the Los Angeles sketch-comedy troupe Good Neighbor, which, in addition to McCary, featured Mooney’s University of Southern California classmates Beck Bennett, an SNL castmate, and Nick Rutherford, who wrote for SNL during its 2014-2015 season.
Many of the characters Mooney gravitates toward exist, like James, in the gap between the world inside one’s head and the real one outside of it. These include: a man who has never tried marijuana but who tries to bluff and bluster his way through a monologue about smoking weed — a monologue that introduced the world to the viral nonsense term “purp scurp” — and an incompetent man-on-the-street interviewer who is clearly in over his head. “Please keep me on the show, Lorne,” Mooney’s character pleads, addressing SNL producer Lorne Michaels after completing a botched segment about SNL’s 40th anniversary. “I could do better next time.”
He’s joking, sort of, but Mooney is well aware that his public persona — or, rather, his various public personae — can be polarizing, thanks to one viewer in particular who doesn’t let him forget it. “My dad will often refer to reviews of the show or to online comments about my skits: ‘Man, some people really love you. And some people do not like you.’ ”
None of this Internet chatter consumes him, any more than does the fear of losing his SNL gig, even though he admits to feelings of insecurity. “It’s hard to ever feel totally comfortable in that place,” he says of the show, which only last year suddenly, and without explanation, axed cast members Jay Pharoah and Taran Killam, along with featured player Jon Rudnitsky.
Could that be by design, to keep performers on their toes?
“Possibly,” Mooney says. “But whatever it is that’s happening over there, it has worked for 40-plus years. So why mess with it? Everybody over there is encouraging of what we do, even if they realize that we have a . . . specific voice.”
His hesitation sounds like someone searching for the right, or perhaps the most euphemistic, word for “weird.” And the voice of “Brigsby Bear” — the movie, not the bear itself — is unapologetically, if not defiantly, weird. Mooney’s character, although he’s the victim of decades of psychological abuse, still harbors affection, not only for the instrument of his abuse — a talking bear — but also the abuser who created him.
This comedy of awkwardness comes from a performer and writer who says he mines his own emotions — feelings of being a misfit and the recognition of those feelings in others — for material.
“I’d like to think that I appreciate — and love — a lot of the qualities of these types of persons that I attempt to embody,” Mooney says. “ I also think there was a time in my life when people would have referred to me as ‘awkward’ in social interactions. I guess I still am. There was a period of time when I would constantly overhear friends or peers say something like, ‘I just don’t get Kyle.’ ”
McCary can vouch for that: “Friends are always coming up to me and asking, ‘Does Kyle hate me?’ ”
With the new film coming out, the feeling of being out of place has returned, with a vengeance. “I’ve never been through this before,” Mooney says of the press tour, which entails talking to reporters lined up outside his hotel room to ask silly questions. “It’s awkward, and it’s exhausting.”
But, he continues, “I get frustrated with the labeling of someone or something as awkward. To me, a situation that is comfortable, or a person who is confident, is awkward.”
Brigsby Bear (PG-13, 97 minutes.) Opens Aug. 4 at area theaters.