How a fascination with ‘Schitt’s Creek’ turned a quarantined actor into a singular streaming sensation
Spurred on by COVID-19 quarantine, actor Michael Judson Berry finds a platform for his skillful impersonation of Catherine O’Hara’s ‘Schitt’s Creek’ character, Moira Rose
Until March, when the word quarantine wasn’t yet a part of our vernacular, New Jersey-based actor Michael Judson Berry lived a pretty normal and, as he describes it, “not too exciting” 2020 existence — posting on Instagram programs of plays he’s seen, the latest scarf he’s knitted and the occasional bare-chested selfie.
Then COVID-19 happened. Overnight, Berry found himself stuck at home. What’s an actor to do?
An actor’s gotta act, and in his case, Berry — a classically trained actor who’s tackled everything from Shakespeare to “Spamalot” — resurrected an act he began doing back in December with his roommate: impersonating Moira Rose, the eccentrically fabulous but unlikely mother hen portrayed by Catherine O’Hara in the highly popular sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” created by the son-and-father duo of Dan and Eugene Levy, who also star in the show.
“I love ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ and strangely, the Moira accent came easily to me,” Berry, 33, said by phone from Syracuse, N.Y., where he was quarantining with his father, mother and sister. “I would do it for friends as a party trick. Then I finally did it at an improv jam at The PIT (Peoples Improv Theater) in New York City, and people loved it. So when the quarantine started, I thought making videos would both be a creative outlet for me and hopefully make my friends smile.”
He made his friends smile all right, along with thousands of followers on Instagram (@mjudsonberry) and TikTok (@mjudsonberry). He’s now been called a TikTok star, and deservedly so: With more than 69,000 followers and nearly half a million likes, Berry’s videos — he calls them QuaranTeaTime as a nod to Moira’s love for tea — have proved to be popular. His dead-on impersonation of Moira, replete with her baffling accent and colorful collection of outfits and wigs, came at about the same time the Canadian television series was ending its six-season run on CBC Television in Canada and Pop TV in the United States.
“I’ve always done funny voices and accents,” said Berry, whose résumé says he’s an expert in a variety of accents, from British and German to Irish and Southern. “My poor family had to endure regular performances at dinner. I grew up watching comedy greats like Carol Burnett, Peter Sellers, Robin Williams and as much ‘Monty Python’ as I could find.”
So on April 3, he posted the very first episode of QuaranTeaTime on Instagram, addressing his followers as Moira: “I figured since we are all stuck inside due to this churlish virus, I could start my own talk show much like the very charming Ellen.”
The video quickly garnered praise and social media traction and was immediately followed by another episode the next day. Soon, Berry was posting several episodes a week — each one better than the last, with outrageous wigs and outlandish words. Moira was known for both, and Berry’s years of experience doing improv began to pay off.
“I had no idea they would become so popular,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s been thrilling and humbling to hear from people all over the world that my little videos make them laugh and give them a little break from the daily worry and stresses we’re all feeling.”
In March, Berry worried about how to keep busy in quarantine. Now, his hands are full setting up a YouTube channel (“technological clodhopper” no more), writing scripts, styling outfits and researching words like floccinaucinihilipilification (“the action or habit of estimating something as worthless”).
“I don’t know how Catherine O’Hara did it — after a while my face starts to hurt. The hardest part may be the most important part — those words! Finding the right words and pronouncing them correctly. They’re the most challenging part of all this,” said Berry, referring to Moira’s extensive and unique vocabulary, which over six seasons have included everything from callipygian (“having well-shaped buttocks”) to pettifogging (“placing undue emphasis on petty details”) to bombilate (“make a buzzing sound”).
How much prep work does he do for each episode?
“Not too much,” he admitted, “because of my background in improv. The day before, I come up with a theme — like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, a shoutout to nurses or Marie Kondo-ing. When I’m ready, I set up my phone, and sometimes, I’m done in two takes, sometimes in one take,” though some take longer, like the nurses shoutout, spurred on by real-life RNs from the Bay Area who asked him to devote an episode to nurses. “The medical terminology from the nurses in San Francisco was the hardest to learn,” he admitted.
And the wigs and outfits — how difficult were they to find?
“Luckily,” he said, “we already had a lot of old Halloween costumes. And a friend from down the street had a lot of wigs, also from Halloween costumes. Once it got going, though, my mom felt sorry for me and bought me some wigs. She’s been very supportive.”
That familial support started early. The son of a laywer dad and a psychologist mom, Berry fell in love with acting at the age of 6 when he portrayed the Prince in “The King and I.”
“I was very hyperactive as a kid, so my parents got me into sports and theater,” he recalled. “ I remember hearing that first reaction from the audience — laughter — and thought it was wonderful. So theater’s the thing that stuck.”
Thankfully, he said, “my parents were both supportive. Growing up, my mom loved opera and musical theater. She would take me to the opera. And my dad was a musician and loved rock ‘n’ roll. ... So when you were in the car with mom, it was opera and classical, and with dad, it was the Eagles and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Many years later, when it was time for college, “there was no question where I would go, so we just started looking at drama schools,” said Berry, who received a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from the Boston University School of Theatre and a master’s in classical acting from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
“I grew up with musical theater, but I was glad to have pursued straight acting,” said Berry, who’s performed in regional theater as well as the national touring production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” “Up until college, I’d done mostly light plays and musicals, so trying to tackle Shakespeare and that text was intimidating. But when you get the hang of it, it’s not as scary.”
And Moira Rose?
“Growing up, Robin Williams was my hero,” said Berry, who recently introduced his version of Williams’ celebrated character Euphegenia Doubtfire, aka Mrs. Doubtfire. “I grew up trying to imitate accents and voices. Moira’s accent is so distinct, but I have to admit, the imitation itself and the voice do come fairly easily. Once I’m in the groove, I can just go and go and go.”
Three months after posting his first video, Berry said, he’s still in awe of all the support.
“This was an inside joke with my roommate and my family,” he said. “I had no idea this would go anywhere. Now that it has, it’s humbling. I do read every message, and I read every comment. They’re people from all over the world.”
He’s even made friends along the way, albeit virtually. There’s Sean and Gordon from Scotland, whom he exchanges messages with regularly: “Gordon, who is a professor, has given me some amazing Moira words!”
And there are many others from all around the globe, from Australia to Ireland: “Meeting people from all over the world ... has been one of the best parts of this experience!”
“The world’s a scary place right now, and they tell me these videos give them a moment to smile or have a giggle,” he said. “That’s what ‘Schitt’s Creek’ was for a lot of us. To me, these are nice little videos, but if it makes for a softer and more beautiful world, it makes me feel very happy that I can do this for people.”
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