MTV's The Hard Times of RJ Berger—which premieres this Sunday after the MTV Video Music Awards—is a scripted comedy about a socially outcast highschooler who gains a sudden popularity when his true, uh, "talent" (read: he's got a large penis) is awkwardly revealed in front of the entire student body. It's a new direction for MTV, which for the past two decades has been mostly cranking out reality shows of the Jersey Shore variety. I spoke with Paul Iacono, who plays title character RJ Berger, about MTV's latest venture and what we can expect from the show.
The Hard Times of RJ Berger is yet another high school dramedy, about an underdog and his friends. How is it different from other shows of the genre?
I think that what's going to separate it from other high school shows is that, not only are these characters extremely easy to relate to, but we also really push the envelope in terms of sexual misadventures and awkward shortcomings. And RJ is not an underdog like the types we've seen before, because as much as he is considered a loser, or a nerd, he still has a strong moral compass. He always gravitates toward the right decision, even if that results in sacrificing the chance to hook up with a girl. And I think that having RJ as that heart of the show sets a completely different tone.
The other thing that differentiates Hard Times from other teen genre comedies is that we have animation sequences in every episode, through which we learn a little bit of exposition about the characters. Each animated flashback sequence has a different style. So for example, in the first episode, RJ confides in his best friend about his first and only sexual experience with a beautiful Asian girl, and because she's a Japanese girl, this sequence is done in an anime style. There's a lot of innovation in that department.
The Hard Times of RJ Berger is the latest addition to the ever-growing field of TV shows that are set in high school. Do you have a favorite show within that category?
I always have to go back to Freaks and Geeks. It was just so perfect in its own right. It completely had that tone of sort of over-the-top humor, but managed to keep the characters grounded in a sense of reality.
I've heard that you're quite good at singing and doing impersonations, and that you got your big break on The Rosie O'Donnell Show.
I've had a lot of big breaks over the years, and that was definitely one of the first. My father had bought the tickets [to her show] with the motivation to get me to meet her, because he knew that if anyone would appreciate a 7-year-old who did impersonations of Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman, it would be Rosie O'Donnell. And sure enough, through a bizarre set of circumstances, I got to do my shtick for the warm-up guy, who in turn introduced me to Rosie. And we wound up having a really beautiful relationship. She brought me on the show more than any other kid performer.
Will we be hearing you sing at all on Hard Times?
I won't give anything away, but you might hear a couple of bars in our Twilight-and-West Side Story musical episode.
You attended the High School of Performing Arts, the school that inspired Fame. How was it different than the public high school that RJ Berger attends?
Going to the High School of Performing Arts was a lot like going to a normal high school. You have cliques and drama. There are more similarities than not. I say that high school is high school.
As a scripted show, how do you think The Hard Times of RJ Berger will appeal to an MTV audience that’s used to reality shows like The Hills?
Hard Times starts off as just light, airy, whimsical, and funny enough for an audience to digest it easily and not have to think too much at first. But as the series progresses it begins to challenge the audience more and more. So we're sort of baiting them in with this sort of raunchy, over-the-top high school sex dramedy, and then as it goes on the tone gets a little bit more serious. I think it's the perfect transition for MTV to pivot as a network. If we can sort of start them on the path of getting back into scripted, structured television, then I’ll be doing society a great justice.
The Hard Times of RJ Berger premieres this Sunday, June 6, after the MTV Video Music Awards.