There are That Guy actors—that well-meaning, colloquial title given to character actors by those who know their voice or face from somewhere. And then there’s the That Guy of That Guy Actors: Rob Huebel, a man whose tall stature, baritone deadpan, and expert portrayals of ego-outweighing-intelligence have made him a decade-long, not-so-secret ingredient in the recipe of comedy.
Binge some of the best, brightest comedy of the 2000s, and Huebel’s face will give you a wave of déjà vu in your own living room; he is the smarmy host of 30 Rock’s “Milf Island,” the egregious fake tan in I Love You, Man, a not-so-subtly racist leader of Power Rangers knock-offs in Key & Peele, and Pawnee’s corrupt kingpin of tent sales and rentals in Parks & Recreation. Turn on Bob’s Burgers or Family Guy and you might begin to hear Huebel’s dry delivery in your head everywhere you go. He was even a guest on the first-ever episode of Comedy Bang! Bang!, the godfather of comedy podcasts (then known as Comedy Death Ray, local to LA radio). His IMDb filmography is a study in the natural history of twenty-first century comedy, in all its Apatow-adjacent hang-outs, staggering advancements in quality on TV, and Wild West mentality on that strange frontier we call the Internet.
“It evolved so quickly. I got into this just as it was starting to open up,” Huebel marvels. “When we were doing Human Giant in New York, that was just me running around with Aziz [Ansari] and Paul [Scheer]—and our friend Jason Woliner, who would direct our videos. We’d just shoot funny videos on the weekends, and then we’d screen them at UCB.” That acronym stands for Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv-comedy school and theater that helped Huebel find his comic chops after leaving a career in advertising. “Someone from MTV happened to be at a show. And that opened up all kinds of doors for all of us. It quite literally changed our lives. But now, you don’t have to do that much legwork!”
From the expanding landscape of comedy content online, Huebel’s absurd pet project was born. “When we’d do shows at UCB and then go to the bar, as people would get up to leave, I started saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait, before you go… Do you want to see a dead body?’ Just as a weird fuck-around bit, throwing that out to people. Eventually, my friend Owen Burke, who runs Funny or Die, said, ‘You should shoot that for us.’” So in 2011, Huebel began filming Do You Want to See a Dead Body? as a sketch series for Funny or Die’s online onslaught of bizarre, anything-goes attitude. “We got Ben Stiller, Deepak Chopra, Rachel Harris, Rob Riggle… It was just a fun, really stupid idea. But a fun adventure to have with someone. It just reminds me of being a kid, and that kind of crazy adventure where you don’t know where it’s gonna go.”
Now, Do You Want to See a Dead Body? makes the leap from one cutting-edge comedy platform to another, as the series is expanded into one of YouTube Red’s first original series. “Like Netflix or Amazon, when a platform is just starting, they attract creators by offering creative freedom. So they allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do. They were very supportive. That’s pretty incredible, to get to make whatever you want—as long as it’s funny.”
“This sort of came about because I really wanted to play a really dumb version of myself. I’m not married, I can’t hold a job. I want teenagers to think I’m cool.”
No problem there. Fans of Huebel and his comedy contemporaries are in for sublime nonsense. Every episode fulfills its titular promise as “Rob”—Huebel playing himself—approaches a comedian friend and coaxes them to join him to observe a different unexplained corpse in the wild. In one episode, Huebel and Rob Corddry get chased by a dog for ten minutes, stopping only for an ice cream truck. In another, John Cho gets trapped in quicksand as Rob gets increasingly sidetracked on a mission to rescue him.
“I have a really hard time writing for myself,” Huebel explains. “It’s way easier to put words into somebody else’s mouth, at least for me. But this sort of came about because I really wanted to play a really dumb version of myself. I’m not married, I can’t hold a job. I want teenagers to think I’m cool. It’s the loser version of myself that no one would ever want to hang out with. But for some reason, because I know where a dead body is, I can force people to hang out with me because of their own morbid curiosity. This show sort of presupposes that everyone is really curious to see what a dead body would look like. So even if people don’t like me or wouldn’t want to hang out with me, they kind of get roped into it. It never goes well.”
Then again, in an era where nothing seems to be going well, Huebel’s sincere commitment to self-contained silliness exists in a timeless (and apolitical) context that’s nothing short of refreshing. “It’s therapeutic for myself, because we’re all going through this incredibly shitty time right now. It’s almost overwhelming. Everyone you’re talking to is going through some kind of trauma right now, even if it’s just surviving this fucking president. You wake up every day and feel like you’re under attack. So for me, right now, this project was a real opportunity to just try to make something funny, to just distract with some comedy, and not even acknowledge the crazy situation that we’re all in.”
For more relevant conversations about modern society (and another example of online platforms taking huge creative risks with great rewards), Huebel can be found reprising his character Len Novak on season four of Jill Soloway’s Emmy-winning Amazon series, Transparent. After coming up in absurd bursts of sketch comedy, bringing a character to life for four years and counting is a different kind of surreal for Huebel. “I just feel really lucky to get the chance to do both. These worlds are as far apart as they could be, so to get the chance to switch gears and do something grounded and personal and human, it’s a huge opportunity. I’m constantly trying to make sure I don’t fuck it up. I play a version of myself on that show, too, but certainly a more emotionally vulnerable, realistic, version.”
“Quality, accessibility, and volume, that’s all changed. But the other cool thing is: anyone can do this. If you have a cell phone, you can get noticed.”
After twenty years of improv comedy on the UCB stage, Huebel still finds, “Yes, and” coming in handy. “We don’t take turns on Transparent,” Huebel elaborates. “It’s a real conversation. People who are really familiar with each other, close with their family, there’s always a lot of over-talking, chaos, over-sharing. It’s not like on a normal TV show, where I say something, and then you say something. It’s always incredible writing with a lot of meaningful dialogue, but then the writers, and Jill Soloway, they’re not attached to anything. So a lot of times, they let us improvise. It’s a pleasure to get to go to work and call upon my background in this framework.”
As busy as his schedule remains, Huebel still performs regularly enough at UCB in Los Angeles for his improv background to stay in the foreground. “We just did a show—me, Rob Riggle, Paul Scheer—and we’re definitely at the point where we feel like the old people there,” he laughs. “We’re like the seniors in high school that just won’t graduate. But I had a baby this year, so I took some time off and haven’t been able to perform that much, [and] this was the first time in a long time. It felt so good to be on stage, in front of an audience. I realize now, it’s more for me than for the audience.”
As Huebel creates comedic oases in a tumultuous time, he’s quick to declare the present moment as an inspired time for comedy. “There are so many different types of people creating comedy. Different voices you can find, so much different material that’s funny for so many different reasons. When I was growing up, there was stand up, and there were multi-cam sitcoms. Quality, accessibility, and volume, that’s all changed. But the other cool thing is: anyone can do this. If you have a cell phone, you can get noticed. If you’re just someone in your house on Twitter, and you’re funny, you can get an audience. If you’re a funny person with original ideas, your voice can be heard.”
And so, to young actors, writers, and comedians, Huebel boils it down to one simple, non-cadaver-related question: “What’s your voice?” FL