There's a familiar archetype found in many of the past decade's most critically acclaimed comedies: the oddball. Dwight Schrute occupied this space on The Office, Kenneth was 30 Rock's version, and Buster Bluth very much defined the role on Arrested Development. The latter was expertly played by Tony Hale, who's back on familiar ground as Gary, the vice president's bag man and human pet, on HBO's Veep, now in its third season. The difference this time is that along with the show's writers, he elevates the oddball archetype to previously unseen heights by turning Gary into an actual human being.
The oddball is meant to be a reliable source of laughs, but little else. Dwight was always there to yammer on about beets and bears while glaring at the camera, Kenneth fluttered through scenes with the air of an Ozarks-born wood sprite, and Buster was always down for some unsettling Buster shit. These characters were great weirdos, but they were also slaves to their weirdness; they felt like abstractions rather than real, human characters. I mean, can you imagine actually working in an office with a semi-sociopathic beet farmer? Is there any way a real-life version of Buster wouldn't have killed himself and his mother in a grisly fashion? As for Kenneth, he was literally immortal. These are great comedic characters, but they aren't humans.
Gary is weird as hell, to be sure. He possesses his predecessors' unsettling tendency toward obsession, near-autistic levels of social awkwardness, and man-child aura. But there's a refreshing dexterity to the way Hale plays the role. Yes, Gary spends most of the show following Julia Louis-Dreyfuss around like an off-putting human lapdog, but Hale manages to counterbalance this weirdo persona with moments where Gary is more than just the sum of his oddities.
One of those moments came in episode five of the current season, when Gary delivered my favorite line of the series so far. He's getting shitfaced with his colleagues in a bar, and drinking his first-ever boilermaker, because of course he is. "You've never had one?" someone asks. "Nuh-uh," Gary replies."I'm a prosecco man."
I laughed so damn hard at that line, but it could've just as easily inspired cringes. Delivered by an actor lost in the overarching strangeness of his character, it could have been yet another signpost reading, "Hey! This guy right here is creepy! He probably drinks prosecco while grooming his collection of stuffed squirrels!" But Hale imbues it with an unusual warmness. He's not milking the oddball vibe here; he's just playing a normal dude getting drunk with his co-workers, his quirks an endearing thing to laugh at rather than recoil from. He further rides that friendly-regular-dude wave when he complains about the "tampon bullshit" bag he has to carry around for the VP every day.
In that same scene, Gary decides that the gang should throw jars of semen (long story) at their arch-nemesis' door, and begins chanting, "Let's throw cum! Let's throw cum! Let's throw cum!" It's hilarious, and a moment that Dwight or Buster or Kenneth could never have pulled off without making every single person watching want to curl up into a ball. But Hale navigates it wonderfully, bringing color to Gary and turning him into a guy who seems like a hell of a lot of fun to get drunk with. I'm not ashamed to admit that watching it made me want to throw cum with Gary.
If you've ever spent a significant amount of time in an office or a classroom, you've met some pretty big weirdos: your cubicle mate who always does that thing with her oatmeal, the kid in the back of the class who's always drenched in sweat, the lady whose desk is covered in Winnie-the-Pooh figurines. These are the people you later describe to your friends with a mix of bemusement and exasperation.
But the thing about those strange people is that they're still people, and if you ever do get around to grabbing a beer with them after work, you'll quickly realize that: They have interesting things to say and can even make you laugh when you're both drunk enough. This is the depth that Hale and Veep's writers bring to Gary. It's not easy—if Hale played too strongly to either the character's strangeness or his humanity, he'd be impossible to buy—but the show has succeeded in creating an oddball that actually has some roundness to him. The triumph of Gary is not just that he's a source of cringe-y laughs or a man-puppy that the audience can actually empathize with—it's that he's both.