From the deaths of David Carr and Bob Simon to the suspension of Brian Williams and the announced retirement of Jon Stewart, last week was a rough one for the media business. But for fans of Parks and Recreation, the biggest loss in journalism is yet to come.
Perd Hapley, the fictitious TV anchorman of Pawnee, Indiana — played by real-life Los Angeles TV reporter Jay Jackson — will make his final appearance on the NBC sitcom in its series finale set to air on Tuesday, Feb. 24. And with that will come the end of a nearly six-year run in which the beloved host of Ya’ Heard? With Perd charmed countless Pawnee citizens and Parks and Rec watchers with his dazzling redundancies and befuddled interviews.
Jackson, 47, isn’t bummed by the news. After all, he’s got plenty of other things going on — including a busy schedule as a local jazz singer and concert promoter.
“I do a Lou Rawls tribute band,” he says. “A singular voice, you know what I mean?”
It’s a Thursday night at the House of Music & Entertainment (H.O.M.E.) supper club in Beverly Hills, and singers have just begun to trickle in for a jazz jam that Jackson runs here every week with James Janisse, a veteran radio personality best known for his 14-year run at KJazz 88.1 FM. Jackson takes a sip from a glass of bourbon and surveys the room. He’s looking sharp in a black suit jacket, silvery blue dress shirt and matching tie. If Perd is the very vision of local-yokel news, in real life Jackson is suave and sophisticated, boasting a sturdy baritone and an enduring love for greats like Barry White, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
“I’m not impressed with your technical skills, how long you can hold a note or how high you can sing a note,” he says, explaining his taste in live music. “What impresses me — and it’s important because I book a lot of people — is, are you getting the story across? Can you capture the emotion, which somebody in the crowd might be feeling, and then snatch them and hold them for the rest of the night? That’s a great performer.”
Originally from Milwaukee, Jackson moved to Southern California in 1986. After a stint in the Navy, he took a job at the San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, a small paper covering the African-American community. He then moved to TV news in the early ’90s, working at a San Diego station before graduating to L.A. stations UPN and CBS2/KCAL 9. Eventually he stumbled into acting; through a training school he runs, the Los Angeles Reporter’s Clinic, a talent manager saw his demo reel and, impressed, invited him to audition for a reporter role on Dexter.
As his IMDB page shows, Jackson has taken on over a dozen acting roles in the eight years since — and in almost all of them, he's played a reporter. But it’s Perd who has truly captured the imagination. As his alter ego, Jackson offers a pitch-perfect local news parody, conveying benign authority with bright facial expressions and heavily enunciated cadences even as he speaks utter nonsense.
“It sounds familiar, but it sounds absurd,” Jackson says. “I think people like Perd because it’s an exaggeration of what you’re used to hearing from the news. For a lot of young folks growing up, the news is the background music in the house. Parents have it on and they hear a certain sound, a certain cadence in the reporter’s voice.”
On top of that, there's a certain homespun charm to Perd that makes you love him, regardless of his incompetence. And maybe this goes back to Jackson's days as a compassionate TV reporter. Taking on what he calls the “death and destruction” beat, he says he had a special gift for getting the loved ones of deceased victims to open up for interviews — by far the hardest, most emotionally taxing part of a journalist’s job.
“You just have to be sincerely concerned and feel their pain. And I think those people knew that — that this was not just some news guy coming in, trying to get the scoop,” he says. “It would just become a conversation, and they would want to tell the story of their loved one who was gone.”
At H.O.M.E., more diners arrive as a jazz trio onstage kicks into an upbeat tune. Waiters bring out chicken wings and drinks, and Jackson fans across the room, mailing list in hand. He still runs the Reporter’s Clinic but doesn't do reporting anymore; a longtime singer, classically trained pianist and drummer, he says his main pursuit is music. He’s especially inspired by local jazz singer Barbara Morrison, who’s maintained a busy career despite major setbacks, like getting her legs amputated because of complications from diabetes. (She now walks on prostheses.)
“Nothing can stop her, except death. And I think if she stopped performing, she would die,” Jackson says, blinking back tears. “That kind of dedication to the arts is so inspiring that you wonder, what is it that she’s chasing? It has to be wonderful. So I started chasing it, and that’s what all this is — doing these jam sessions, doing these shows, producing music, booking acts.”
Still, after such an epic run on Parks and Rec, Jackson doesn’t harbor any illusions about how he’s seen in the public eye.
“For a lot of people, clearly based on what I’m seeing on Twitter, there’s no Jay Jackson,” he says. “It’s Perd Hapley.”
Jay Jackson hosts the “Pro Jazz Jamm Session” every Thursday at H.O.M.E. in Beverly Hills. For more information, visit www.home90210.com.