First Impressions with Jonathan Kite

Credit: MJ Kim / Getty Images

Jonathan Kite let himself sleep in a little this morning — but it's only because he knows he's going to have a busy couple of days ahead of him. It’s a Thursday in Manhattan, and the comedian and actor behind the character Oleg on 2 Broke Girls never seems to take much of a break between filming episodes, but he's visiting from L.A. until he flies to Dallas for a charity event. And even when he does have a scheduled break, he's usually traveling or working on something else. “I started doing stand-up a couple years ago, which has been a really fun outlet for me,” says Kite. “And I tour around America.”

Kite's ability to make audiences laugh includes a knack for impersonating some of his favorite actors. But don't expect any Pacino or De Niro lines from Kite — something he says he can do but chooses not to, which has helped set him apart from other comedians who do impressions. “I watch YouTube, and I record speeches of theirs on my phone, and I play them back,” Kite says. “So I’ll listen to them in the car over and over and over again until I can get it. It’s maddening.”

When Kite made a quick stop in New York for a few stand-up shows right before the premiere of the fourth season of 2 Broke Girls, we caught up with him on breaking into the comedy world, traveling, and impersonating Tom Hanks. Oh, and if you could, he thinks it'd be great if you could imagine hearing sirens in the background while you read this, because that’s exactly what it was like when we talked to him.

You grew up in the Midwest. How’d that shape your career? 
Growing up in Illinois, I was very lucky, because Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Keegan-Michael Key — Keegan was in Detroit, but he guested on Second City — so when I was growing up, I was exposed to all these things, and my mother used to take me to all these Broadway touring companies. Growing up, I used to go and see all the plays and all the Second City reviews, and I just thought that’s just what I want to do. Theater really helped to focus me, so I think it was an important part of my life to take all the energy that I had and put it toward something that really made me happy. 

How'd you achieve your character's accent in the show? 
I’m from the Chicago-land area, so there’s a lot of Eastern Europeans. And outside of Warsaw, Chicago has the greatest number of Poles. I grew up around my friends who were first-generation Americans, and all of their family was fresh off the boat. That was probably the first group of people I ever impersonated. I was hanging out with their family and just mimicking their parents, so I guess I’ve just been carrying that with me for a long time. 

What’s your favorite part about playing Oleg?
I like that he doesn’t have a filter. The humor comes from him just being himself, which I think that’s a great decision made by the writing staff that it’s not him winking at sexual humor, it’s that he has an opinion that funnels through a filter of sex and the way he is, and it just happens to be funny to Americans. 

What are your favorite impressions to do? 
I like to do impressions that people have never heard before. So I like doing Tom Hanks, Seth Rogen, Liam Neeson, Vince Vaughn. Because I think with impressionists — certainly it’s not an absolute statement — but a lot of people who do impressions have done them for a long time with similar people, like Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, and I felt like if I was really going to make an attempt to do standup comedy, I can do all those impressions, but those aren’t people of my generation. And I admire them greatly, and I look up to them — I’ve seen everything De Niro and Nicholson have done, but I thought if I was going to try something new, what would be a new approach? Like what are things that really influence me? I talk about John Lithgow and Tom Hanks. Those were two of my idols growing up, so I talk about how they influence me in my stand-up, and it’s just lucky that I’m able to do impressions of them. 

Which Tom Hanks movie or scene made you start doing impressions of him?
 
My cousin sent me a thing where he was hosting Saturday Night Live for the eighth time with Red Hot Chili Peppers, and it was a promo. And it was so clear, like as soon as I heard it, he did this thing with his throat where he was like, “Hi, I am Tom Hanks” — you know, he did this one thing, and I remember hearing it and I was like [snaps], “Oh my god, that’s it!” 

How'd you decide to start doing stand-up?
We had the summer off from the show, and I couldn’t take another job. I think the first year was kind of exhausting because you never know what it’s going to take to put on a show until you do it. We did 24 episodes, which was awesome, and I think I was like, "Oh, I’ll take a break. I’ll do some stuff. I’ll have fun." And then I think my mind began to wander, and I’m like well I’ve got to be able to do something. And a buddy of mine who I’ve known for a while who actually ended up writing on the show for season three, and he goes, "You should try stand-up. Why not?" And it literally was that conversation where I was like, "You’re right, I totally should try stand-up." And after, I went home and started writing as much as I possibly could and thought, hopefully some of this stuff sticks, and it did. 

What was that first show like? 
The only thing I remember: I do this bit about Mark Wahlberg always being out of breath, and I was like, "Why is Mark Wahlberg out of breath?" And that was one of the first jokes I ever wrote, and I remember doing that. And I did like Alan Rickman from Die Hard because this guy before me had a Die Hard joke, and I like to riff. So I said, "Wasn’t that crazy? Die Hard with Alan Rickman. You know that movie's about a bunch of Germans who are taking over this building and Alan Rickman — there’s nothing German about Alan Rickman. So I did his audition for the movie and how he refused to do a German accent, and because he’s such an intimidating actor, they’re like, "Yeah, fine. He’ll be fine." And that was my set. And then I got an agent specifically for stand-up, and they’re like, "Do you want to go on the road?" And that put a fire under me. I was doing weekend dates in North Carolina, and they had no idea that I had just started doing stand-up — no clue. They just knew I was on a TV show, because a lot of people assume that he must have been doing stand-up — they assume that all the comedians on TV are stand-ups or whatever, but I had never done it. And so it was one of those things where I was writing up until the sets, in the back going, "OK, try to do this. Try to do this." And it was bananas. Then I got on stage, and it was the first time I had ever done 45 minutes in my life. It was crazy. 

RELATED: Dane Cook is Growing Up

What’s your favorite place to visit?
Tokyo. It’s amazing — Japan. Because they literally are an island, they have preserved so much of their tradition and culture.

Were you doing any stand-up or going to comedy shows while you were there?
I didn’t find one comedy thing that was in English. Everything was in Japanese. I think they’re starting to do a lot of stand-ups. And they did a Japanese version of Saturday Night Live, which I was able to see the opening of. And it was really interesting just to watch because you could tell in their rhythms and volumes what they were going for, but I couldn’t understand any of it because none of it was dubbed. But it was cool. There was a guy there who was like the Japanese-version of Alec Baldwin. And there’s a clip online that shows the opening — like Don Pardo — and it was just interesting to see their stuff. But a lot of their stuff is very specific to their culture. I think we get a lot of it, but a lot of certain things are very strictly Japanese, like we would recognize pieces of it but culturally we’re very far from it.

When you’re back in America, you travel a lot, too.
Because of the way the world works right now, that’s a huge part of it. These opportunities and these experiences are sort of in a way offered to you, and I take them even if the travel gets very tiring at times. But I feel like it’s a privilege to be offered these things. I’ve only been doing stand-up for two years, and I’ve been offered club dates all over America. For the most part, I want to do it — I always want to do it — but sometimes you push through the tiredness because you never know when you’ll be offered that opportunity again. My life is about striking while the iron’s hot, and if the iron’s hot for hopefully the rest of my life, that’s the joy. Like what makes you tired? We’ll all get tired, but if you’re tired from meeting and doing, I feel like that’s the best way to go about it.

What’s the secret to making someone laugh?
I think through truth. I think whatever anybody does as a comic or a writer, you’re guessing at a common struggle. Or I think that’s most of it. There are obtuse things that are out there that’ll jar your brain and you’ll laugh at that, but a lot of humor comes from the common thread. Like maybe we’ve all been hit on at work, or like on our show that people have felt poor, and even though they were rich in friends and situations and energy around them, they were late on their bills, and I think that’s stuff that common theme gives people — laughter in a live studio audience is a shared experience. You’re laughing with people in the audience who are kind of feeling like, oh yeah, I’ve been that poor, or I struggled that way.

When was the first time you felt like, “Yeah, this is what I want to do?”
When I was a kid, I watched In Living Color, and I remember thinking like The Simpsons and In Living Color — very different but very similarly — they got me. For whatever reason, I remember thinking these people are 2,000 miles away in California, but honestly this feels right. For whatever reason, I just knew that. And I remember watching it more and seeing Jim Carrey, and was like, “Oh my god, that’s me. I’m like that.” They did a new In Living Color with Jamie Foxx, and I did it before 2 Broke Girls, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I couldn’t believe it, because I remember telling my father if I could go back and tell little me that it’s going to happen one day and you will be that guy, and it would just blow my mind. And I think that’s such a rare thing to see something that — and I always liked movies and I always liked TV — but to be hooked so specifically by a group of people and then eventually getting to do a reboot of that I thought was amazing, and I felt very lucky to be a part of it.