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Whether it’s improv, ‘Mad Men,’ or Cheetos ads, Joel Murray has enjoyed it all

Joel Murray’s resume includes work on “Mad Men” and Cheetos ads.
Joel Murray’s resume includes work on “Mad Men” and Cheetos ads.

One recent afternoon, Joel Murray found himself dressed “head to toe” in William Murray Golf, the clothing line from that golf-loving gaggle of Murray brothers. “You spend your whole career trying not to be like Bill Murray, and then you walk around with his name on the back of your shirt all day. Oh well,” Murray quips.

Joking aside, Bill Murray’s kid brother has done pretty well in his own right. His eclectic (and long) resume ranges from “Shameless” to “Dharma & Greg,” HBO’s “The Leftovers” to Pixar’s “Monsters University.” To TV viewers, perhaps he’s best known for his role on “Mad Men,” as Freddy Rumsen, an alcoholic who hit bottom when he wet his pants and passed out before a big meeting with Samsonite executives.

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After cutting his teeth as an improv actor in Second City, the youngest of nine Murray kids returns to improv in “Whose Live Anyway?,” the stage version of the Emmy-nominated “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?”

As the troupe heads to the Wilbur Theatre Friday, we caught up with Murray, 56, by phone from Utah for a wide-ranging interview — from carousel-riding with Bill in France, to his favorite “Mad Men” scenes, to voicing the Cheetos mascot.

Q. So I actually just saw you the other day on the Chris Farley documentary [“Biography: Chris Farley — Anything for a Laugh,” which premiered May 27 on A&E.]

A. I was good friends with Chris. We had the only two apartments above the Mexican restaurant across from The Second City. He was, as I say on the documentary, my yellow lab for about three years there. Chris was a riot. A true student of comedy. He’d say a line from a movie, then go, “Movie!” And I wouldn’t know it, and he’d go, “Come on! It’s ‘Stripes’! It’s your brother’s movie, for God sakes!” And I go, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t memorize all his films, but thank you.”

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Q. You guys were both at Second City. How did you get started there?

A. My brothers were there a dozen years before me. I’d go as a kid with my mother and see [John] Belushi and Harold Ramis with my brother Brian [Doyle-Murray], and then my brother Bill. And I never thought I’d possibly be able to do that. There was one night — I used to work at a video rental place near the theater — [Second City producer] Joyce Sloane sent someone over to invite me to their Christmas party, and I hung out till 4 a.m. and said, “Wow, this is the family I’m looking for.” But it was funny that she had it in her head that it was time for the younger Murray to show up.

Q. What do you love about improv?

A. The lack of memorization.

Q. [Laughs]

A. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. We’re going out tonight in front of 4,000 people and I’m preparing by talking to you. I’ve done the other end of the spectrum — I was on “Mad Men” where you had to learn every word letter-perfect, including punctuation. You had to treat it like it was Shakespeare, but that’s a different muscle completely.

Q. Matthew Weiner was particular about the script?

A. Oh yeah. Literally, the script supervisor would come over and say, “You’re missing this comma here.” “Oh sorry, I thought maybe I could breeze through that line, but I’ll pause. All right.” But yeah, his words were fantastic. Nobody ever felt the need to improvise on “Mad Men.” Just learn the lines because they’re really good.

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Q. What was it like being on that show?

A. That was one of the best gigs ever. People would get done with work and just hang out for like six, seven hours because everyone was so enjoyable to be around. I had all my scenes with Jon Hamm, John Slattery, or Elisabeth Moss, just three of the sweetest people, and really, really talented. I just loved being there. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Q. What are your favorite Freddy scenes?

A. When we did the “Six Month Leave” episode, when Freddy pees his pants. They took us out and did scenes in some cool locations. The writers showed up with real booze; it was 3 a.m. at that point, and we started drinking, and we’re doing these takes, and had a little buzz on. And it was a powerful scene with Jon Hamm.

Q. How did they do that peeing-your-pants thing?

A. [Laughs] I was drinking water all morning thinking I might have to do this on cue. But they wired hoses in my pants; there was a guy under the desk working valves.

Q. You’re big golfer. You have your clothing company.

A. All the brothers are involved. [Uses announcer’s voice] William Murray Golf — ask for it by name! We decided to do this a few years ago. Billy and I and the brothers are in on the design.

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Q. Are you surprised at Bill’s popularity?

A. It’s pretty amazing. But he’ll always be our brother — goofy Billy who had long hair and a Fu Manchu. It’s funny that he is this enigma, this legend. But I just got back from France with him [and family members] and he is just fun. He really does like to have a good time. And he speaks French — at the height of “Ghostbusters” he dropped out of Hollywood and went over and studied at The Sorbonne.

Q. Wait, he did?

A. Yeah, he took a couple of years off from his career; it was kind of funny. But we’d be a couple places [on vacation] and it would be closed, and Bill would kind of stick his head in like [imitates Bill Murray drawl] “Hi. Yeah. Yeah, it’s me. We wanted to ride the carousel.” In French.

Q. What was it like growing up together?

A. We were a big family, I was the youngest of nine, and we always say that it all started at our dining room table. Our father was a diabetic and a slow eater. [Most of the time] was spent trying to get my dad to laugh with food in his mouth. It was kind of a floor show, to the point where people would come to pick up my older brothers, and they’d come early, pull up a chair and watch the dining room table.

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Q. So who did you think was funny when you were a kid? Who inspired you?

A. I thought my brothers Brian and Bill were funny. I’m a huge fan of John Candy and [Dan] Aykroyd. Those four, mainly.

Q. You’ve done some voice work, too.

A. I was in “Monsters University.” Pixar gigs are amazing. I’ve had some goofy gigs. I was the voice of Chester Cheetah for Cheetos.

Q. Wait, what?

A. [Uses Chester voice] I was the righteous kitty in the heart of hip city. Cheetos. It was a good gig. Bought my first house.

Q. Looking back on everything you’ve done so far, do any highlights stand out?

A. I’ve been very fortunate. The first thing I did professionally was “One Crazy Summer” with John Cusack and Demi Moore, and became friends with Bobcat Goldthwait. We were out on the Cape. To be out in Hyannis shooting all the way up and down the Cape for 2½ months was a blast.

Q. How did you start directing?

A.When I got hired on “Dharma & Greg,” Chuck Lorre gave me a shot. And [the CBS sitcom] “Still Standing,” I got to direct that. I thought that’s what I’d be doing with my career right now. This “Whose Live” thing, I filled in for a weekend five years ago and I’m still doing it. It’s been really fun. Until the brain gives out, I’ll keep riding this horse. [Uses announcer’s voice] “Come to the Wilbur tonight and see if Joel’s brain gives out!” It’s like NASCAR. See if the car crashes.

WHOSE LIVE ANYWAY?

With Joel Murray, Greg Proops, Jeff B. Davis, and Dave Foley

At the Wilbur Theatre, June 21 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $52, www.thewilbur.com/artist/whose-live-anyway


Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. She tweets @laurendaley1.