Character Actor Extraordinaire: Comedian Adam Ray On The Origins Of His Viral Digital Series ‘Dr. Phil LIVE!’

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

After hustling for nearly two decades to build a career as an actor and stand-up comedian, Adam Ray has recently hit on an entirely new level of exposure. The person he has to thank for it, you might be surprised to hear, is none other than Dr. Phil.

For many a performer, Ray tells Deadline, the goal is to hone one’s craft until hitting on something “that’s yours” and yours alone. This is what he’s accomplished with Dr. Phil LIVE!, a digital series garnering huge attention online of later, in which he plays a heightened version of the popular daytime talk show host, with the help of detailed prosthetics.

More from Deadline

Adam Ray and Bill Burr on stage for 'Dr. Phil LIVE!'
Adam Ray and Bill Burr on stage for Dr. Phil LIVE!

Well known for his gifts as an impressionist, having been tapped to play everyone from Jay Leno in Pam & Tommy to Vince McMahon on Young Rock, Ray has been drawn to character work since he was a child. “I wasn’t the kid that was entertaining the family at dinners and stuff like that,” he clarifies. “My family didn’t even know I was funny until, I don’t know, a couple hours ago.” But from an early age, he idolized everyone from Jim Carrey to Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy, multi-hyphenate comedic performers who could capably ground and sell the audience on even the most absurd of characters.

Ray’s journey with Dr. Phil LIVE! began, inadvertently, in 2019, when he decided to invest money from voiceover work in a pilot showcasing his own range as a performer. “I’ve always been big on investing in myself, not wanting to feel like I didn’t give it a shot with whatever it is I’m going for,” he says, “so I was like, ‘Well, what would be the show that I would want to make?'” Titled Jeremy, the pilot saw him playing three different characters, opposite famous friends like Thomas Lennon, Joel McHale, Ron Funches and David Koechner.

“It was really a Curb-style shoot,” Ray recalls. “I kind of beated out everything, and then we improvised two, three hours for each thing and made this really fun dysfunctional family show.”

An invaluable partner to Ray in the endeavor was Jennifer Aspinall, the Emmy-winning makeup artist he met at work on The CW’s short-lived 2016 reboot of Mad TV, who has since craftily transformed him into a whole range of characters. In the case of Jeremy, one of them was a gay hairstylist brought to life with a fat suit, bald cap and mustache, which as a friend would fatefully observe, resembled a “fatter Dr. Phil.”

After production wrapped, Ray decided to stay in the prosthetics a bit longer, doing a stand-up set as Dr. Phil at the Laugh Factory, where he “crushed.” While Ray knew little about Dr. Phil McGraw to this point, the general notion he had of him was of “an advice guy,” who was “abrasive but kind of likeable” — “a likable a**hole,” in other words, as so many of his favorite characters are.

“You look at Steve Carell in The Office or Alec Baldwin from 30 Rock, guys that are a little delusional, but also just unapologetic about looking at life through their set of goggles,” Ray reflects. “I love those guys, where you almost feel bad for them, even if they are a little too cocky at times. They just don’t know any better.” Sure, his version of Dr. Phil could at times be quite crass, but he made his remarks with an earnestness that was endearing.

The next extension of Ray’s Dr. Phil experiment came amid the pandemic. In an effort to keep busy during lockdown, he and Jeremiah Watkins, another comedian known for his gifts at character work and improvisation, began shooting what was meant to feel like “a lost Dr. Phil episode” every couple of weeks. Depicting Phil’s interactions with a range of Watkins characters, including “a Starbucks barista, a troubled teen, a rich billionaire and a feminist,” these pieces afforded Ray the “reps” he needed as Dr. Phil to lock the character in.

When last year’s double strike hit, Ray again returned to the character, which helped him regain access to the “joy” with which he entered the business. By this point, he had tired of a “monotonous” routine, involving a rotation of voiceover work, podcasts, stand-up and film and TV auditions. “Frustrated with just being at the beck and call of Hollywood,” he felt in his gut that he was capable of more. “I think I’ve honed a lot of my s**t at this point. I’m 41, I feel good. I’ve built a lot of cool relationships…So then I was like, ‘All right, well what’s a fun thing?'” Ray remembers. “What can bring that joy back for why I came out here and got into this?'”

He realized after some reflection that he was never more happy than when he found himself making silly sketches for YouTube, hiring friends to shoot and edit his sketches “for dinners and coffees,” as he had in college. Eventually, he came around to the idea of summoning this spirit via a live Dr. Phil show, comprising “a late-night version of a daytime guy.”

While Ray initially felt the idea was perhaps too ambitious, he wound up bringing it to fruition at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, the historic comedy venue where he’d spent three years working phones and built his career from the ground up. In his mind, the show would involve a monologue, crowd work, fake, pre-taped commercials, and more. One of the early champions of the project was Bill Burr, the Grammy-nominated Boston comic whose involvement signaled a big turning point. When he pitched Burr on the show, recalls Ray, “He couldn’t have responded quicker and [was] like, ‘Dude, yes, let’s f***ing go. That sounds f***ing hilarious. Make fun of my anger issues. Go at me hard.'”

Garnering over two million views on YouTube, the episode featuring Burr confirmed for Ray that Dr. Phil LIVE! represented a valuable opportunity — a chance “to play around, flex all the muscles and be entertaining for people.” Word about the show quickly circulated in comedy circles, with such friends of Ray as Adam DeVine, Bobby Lee and Andrew Santino going on to appear in future episodes.

Recently making four appearances as Dr. Phil at Netflix Is a Joke Fest — including before a sold-out crowd at the Kia Forum, as part of the hit podcast Kill Tony — Ray presently puts on Dr. Phil LIVE! once a month. He feels the show resonated from the jump because “it was something different, but it was still utilizing all these branches of the comedy scene, as far as how it’s blossomed right now, taking people that people are big fans of in putting them in a different setting.”

“A playground to really be silly,” the show’s success reflects a larger trend in comedy. While the notion of the comedian as a philosopher was widely embraced by talent up until around the pre-#MeToo peak of Louis C.K., what audiences are now responding to more so is comedy for comedy’s sake — material that doesn’t pretend to bear any great meaning.

Several months ago, Ray was surprised to learn via representatives for Dr. Phil that he not only is aware of his talk show parody, but approves of the project, having prepared himself to learn the opposite. With that possibility in play, “I was just like, I’ll enjoy this as much as I can, be present, make the most of it,” says Ray. “But I knew my intentions were always good. I wasn’t defaming him. I’m not up there saying really nasty s**t. I’m not taking what he’s doing out there in the public eye and putting it in the show; it’s a completely different version.”

Recently, Dr. Phil even went so far as to offer praise for Ray on comedian Steve-O’s podcast Steve O’s Wild Ride!. “What really stood out to me is he goes, ‘You’ve got to laugh at yourself. Life’s too short.’ And he was like ‘I also heard he’s a good guy, and so that makes it cool,'” Ray recalls. “And I was like, ‘That rules.’ That, I really appreciate.”

Going forward, Ray’s hope with the show is to continue to challenge himself to make it “bigger and more entertainment” each time out, taking his “little boost” in professional momentum and exploring and “peeling back” as much as he can. While he’s currently preparing to bring the show into theaters for the first time, with performances in Portland and Seattle, he’s at the same time cognizant of not overstaying his welcome with Phil and running the show into the ground.

“Inevitably, people just find a way to ruin something. The people will speak at some point and be like, ‘We’re done,'” Ray reflects. “But that’s the benefit of being 17 years into stand-up and 19 in the entertainment business, is that if I was two or three years in, I’d probably be leaning super hard into this and making this my identity. But I know that having something like this is fleeting.”

Thankfully, even if interest in Dr. Phil LIVE! is short-lived, Ray has plenty of other characters to fall back on. Recently introducing Elaine, “an older, kind of whimsical, loungey, old comic type lady,” he also has in his arsenal the likes of “a really nerdy kid named Jeremy,” party planner Bruce Robbins, and an old man named Tony Caruso. What’s been critical in achieving the fullest expression with each has been to fearlessly go all in, and certainly, his commitment was on display recently at Netflix Is a Joke. Last weekend, he greeted Dave Chappelle in full prosthetics at The Comedy Store following one of his own shows, going so far as to sleep in prosthetics and wear them up through his performance the next day.

Growing up near Seattle, Washington, Ray fell in love with acting in high school, after he quit football to star as Danny Zuko in a production of Grease. After moving to Los Angeles in 2001 to study acting at USC, intent on creating “something out of nothing,” he built his career brick by brick by immersing himself in everything from stand-up and improv classes to voiceover work and podcasting. The idea, he says, was to give himself “as many weapons in [his] arsenal as possible,” throwing all the “darts” he could in pursuit of a breakout opportunity. In his early years, he would do open mics at night and shoot YouTube videos on the weekend, filling weekdays with unpaid work at McCarthy/Abellera Casting and performer gigs at Universal Studios, whether wandering the park dressed as Wolverine or appearing as part of Fear Factor Live.

Certainly, Ray’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by his peers. “There’s a respect for the grind that you can’t replace,” he says. “We’re in a really interesting club of, people know that you’re hustling, and if you keep it clean and you’re not doing shady s**t and you’re not a d*ckhead, it’s really a pretty simple formula to follow, to give yourself a chance to get something cool to happen.” On the heels of both a pandemic and a double strike, building a career on screen is perhaps more of a “crapshoot” than it’s ever been, he says, which furthers the importance of being creatively self-sufficient.

In a perfect world, Ray’s hope going forward is to continue pursuing a model “of making things for your buddies and with your buddies,” à la Adam Sandler. Noting that “anyone’s a role away from taking things up a notch,” he shares that there are already a few opportunities on the horizon, as an actor, that have gotten him “really excited.”

What’s most important to Ray, though, is to continue finding ways to stay creatively challenged, whatever form they might take. “I want to take care of myself. I want to enjoy this little bump I’m getting. I’m trying to be a little bit more in the moment with stuff,” he says. “This business is so uncertain, I just want to continue to control what I can control, which is being disciplined in making sure that I am not making excuses for myself on things that I want to do. So the goals are to just keep it moving, but keep thinking outside the box and try to keep my own enthusiasm for what I’m doing alive. Because that’s what got me to here.”

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.