TONY Approved: John Roberts

He may be quiet, but this comic's characters demand to be heard.

THROAT OF MANY COLORS Roberts’s voices will get inside your head.

THROAT OF MANY COLORS Roberts’s voices will get inside your head.

This is the first in a series of profiles about comics appearing Nov 9 in the New York Comedy Festival show Time Out New York Approved.

His shy eyes, hushed voice and introspective demeanor make it difficult to believe that just one piece of Scotch tape can transform comedian John Roberts into Debra, the loudmouthed teenage drama queen who’s always fighting—both onstage and, more famously, on YouTube—with her unseen best friend, Jackie.

Debra is one of seven characters audiences will meet on Wednesday 24 at Comix, in what will be Roberts’s first high-profile showcase since Todd Oldham helped him design his wig show in 2000. That was just before the New Jersey–born American Academy of Dramatic Arts grad moved back to New York for good from a bewildering stint in L.A. “I’d go to an audition and get so caught up with the actors in the waiting room,” he explains, “that by the time I got inside, I was more interested in what was outside—and grossed out by it. I’m obsessed with things that gross me out.”

From that experience, Roberts, now 35, gained a desire to create his own projects rather than be cast in others’. He also developed Cory Scott, the hilariously self-indulgent struggling actor who sings Jack Wagner’s “All I Need” in auditions, and was inspired by…a real actor named Cory Scott. “I should probably change his name,” Roberts muses softly.

In spite of this reserved nature, the comedian takes the stage with force. Sometimes that energy is big, as in Debra’s flailing gestures and loud clothes, which were inspired by the girls Roberts met while assisting a Delia’s catalog designer. Other times, as with Linda the Lesbian, the performance energy presents itself in the form of quiet commitment. Roberts is consumed by his characters—a trait that’s especially welcome now, when ambivalent detachment reigns on most of New York’s indie stages.

Although his monologues are funny, Roberts’s attention to detail garners most of the laughs: the way Debra constantly shifts her weight, how Cory tries to burrow into the casting director with his creepy gaze, the specific height at which Margie holds her arms while power-walking through the Jersey suburbs.

Margie is an ode to Roberts’s mother, Margie. And in the short film “The Christmas Tree,” her tannenbaum obsession is not the only element from real life. “We shot at her house,” the actor says. “I told her we were coming and she laid out her clothes for me. She even dropped by from work to bring us a pizza.” Roberts’s mom has always been supportive, a trait he lovingly portrays in the short “My Son Is Gay.”

Either that or she already knows what he’s just now figuring out: “You start to become what you mock.”

An Evening with John Roberts is Wed 24 at Comix. Time Out New York Approved happens Nov 9; stay tuned for details.