Take a moment and remember back to the early nineties, where the only mainstream nerd characters on TV were Steve Urkel, Screech, and Bob Newhart as a comic book writer (or Kirk Cameron as a comic book artist. Thanks, WB, ugh). The idea of an all-nerd show like Chuck or The Big Bang Theory was ludicrous. Luckily for us, the success of the films Top Gun, The Hunt for Red October, and A Few Good Men created a demand for a military show about JAG (Judge Advocate General) lawyers doing amazing acts of litigious derring-do. Why lucky for us? The show introduced a likable, responsible and competent nerd onto prime-time network television in the character of Ensign (later Lieutenant) Bud Roberts. Patrick Labyorteaux brought his geeky charms to life and, along with Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, may have made Middle America ready for the geek invasion of television that we’re now basking in. To prepare for the Collector’s Edition of JAG: The Complete Series, we caught up with Patrick to talk about the show, Star Wars vs Star Trek, and working with Carl Reiner on Summer School.
Nerdist: JAG has a lot of geek references for what is ostensibly a military show, and your character was in the thick of it. Are you a nerd yourself, or did you get to know Star Trek a little better because of how Bud was written?
Patrick Labyorteaux: I am a huge nerd. However, of the Star Wars variety. Love Star Trek, but my heart is with the Rebel Alliance. My love of science fiction and fandom was one of the reasons that Bud liked these things – the writers borrowed that from my life.
N: In the pilot you were just an ensign on the Kittyhawk (the real life USS Enterprise) and you were recurring through the first season. Did you know how often they were going to use you, and how did that translate to you becoming a series regular? And how weird was that transition when at the same time the show was cancelled, and then revived on another network?
PL: On the pilot, Don Beliasario wanted to make me a regular, however I was signed to another show that first year. When that show was cancelled, I was able to return to JAG. My first day back, Don announced to the crew that the show was being cancelled by NBC, but that he was going to get CBS to pick it up. And he did. So many things changed the second season, it was like starting a new show.
N: How did you break your jaw and who made the decision to write that into the show? And because of that incident, are people surprised when you still have two legs?
PL: In real life I needed braces, so they wrote the jaw in to the show. As for the loss of Bud’s leg, people do get confused. I never lost my leg – I still have both of mine – but a persistent rumor online still makes people believe that I did lose my leg.
N: One of the most memorable episodes from the show (for me at least) focuses on your character and an accused terrorist basically explaining US foreign policy through Star Trek terms. Do you have any memories of receiving that script and your first reactions to it? The episode is still held in high regard for how it both clearly explained some foreign politics using the Prime Directive and showed how pop culture could unite people of all backgrounds.
PL: I believe that episode was written by R. Scott Gemmill – a huge Star Trek fan and a great writer. He is running NCIS: Los Angeles now and ran ER for years. I loved that script for the same reasons. Scott is a super smart writer and I think that nerds in general are more clever on average.
N: At the time, the geekiest character on TV was Steve Urkel. Bud was one of the first nerdy character portrayed positively and without sarcasm. Did you realize at the time there really weren’t any other roles like that and have you considered that your acting may have led the way for more mainstream acceptance of nerd characters on TV in general?
PL: Wow! No, I never, ever thought that. I would be super thrilled if even the smallest bit of that is true. I liked Bud, he always seemed like a guy you could be yourself with. The thing I love about nerds/fandom is that everyone is okay with everyone else doing whatever it is they are doing.
PL: Not with me. But those are great shows and I would be there any day they asked.
N: What are you working on now?
PL: My wife, Tina Albanese, and I created and Executive Produce the Nick At Nite show See Dad Run starring Scott Baio. (Sunday nights @8:00) I freaked out when I was told that the office that my wife and I work in used to be Gene Roddenberry’s. I seriously can’t believe my life.
N: Do you have any good Carl Reiner stories from Summer School?
PL: Carl Reiner is THE BEST Simon Says leader ever. He would play with the cast while the crew would light the sets. He was insanely amazing at it. The nicest guy, and would tell stories about his friends Woody and Mel as if they were some guys and not really Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. I love him.
JAG: The Complete Series Collector’s Edition is in stores now and you can see See Dad Run on Nick At Nite on Sunday at 8:00pm.