Ron Funches is a comedy assassin.
He lurks, like a stealth comic, in the fringes of scenes on his new sitcom, "Undateable."
But he stays quiet.
Until the perfect moment appears, and, wham, the Chicago-reared comedian strikes with an often off-color, seemingly off-the-cuff retort that leaves the live studio audience completely in stitches.
Then he retreats to the periphery, basking in the collective chuckle and waiting for his next opportunity to cut in with a razor-sharp punch line.
"He's really like the drive-by guy that comes and hits you with this moment and then gets out," said Brent Morin, who plays protagonist and bar owner Justin.
NBC's newest multicamera sitcom, "Undateable" follows Justin and his gang of lovable losers as they try to escape arrested development and enter into healthy relationships. Lady's man Danny — played by former "Whitney" star Chris D'Elia — is introduced to the group after becoming Justin's roommate and decides to take them under his wing, guiding them in the ways of love. In episodes three and four, airing back-to-back Thursday, Danny helps Justin win over a longtime crush, to hilarious effect.
Funches plays Shelly, a sports-loving, happy-go-lucky guy who lacks confidence when it comes to women. He's the most lovable of the losers, the sweetness at the center of the "Undateable" Tootsie Pop.
While Funches may not have the most lines or screen time, he's easily the show's most memorable character. His cool, calm delivery and winning one-liners balance out the largeness and plentiful physical comedy of his co-stars.
"A lot of us are really manic and animated, and so whenever we have a joke that comes out of nowhere, it's always given to Ron," D'Elia said. "He kind of slows the pace down. He just stands out so much because he is so different … in his delivery. It's way slower. It's way more deliberate."
Speaking by phone from LA, Funches, 31, is excitable and has a giggle that makes it impossible to hold a frown. He's enjoying this moment in his career, he said.
In addition to "Undateable," which garnered 3.85 million viewers for its premiere, Funches has a role in the 2015 Will Ferrell comedy "Get Hard," is working on a talk show for Funny or Die and still tours widely as a stand-up. (He's scheduled to come to Chicago in August.)
"I want to try as many things that I never tried before as I can," Funches said. "Being on a sitcom is never something that I thought I would do, and seeing my face on a billboard or a bus is crazy. I used to be in the bus and now I am outside the bus looking at my face on it."
Funches lived in the Woodlawn neighborhood with his mom until he was 13, when he moved to Portland, Ore., to stay with his dad. Chicago "is where my edge comes from, and then living in Oregon afterward softened me up," he said with a laugh.
Funches professed a love for comedy since he was 5, and he "didn't have any interest in pursuing anything else."
After high school, he went to community college for three weeks, dropped out and held odd jobs, including one as a Lady Liberty-costumed sign-twirler.
He didn't get on stage until he was 23.
"I was finally like, I either try it or I am going to end up working at a grocery store forever," he said.
Funches quickly made a mark on the Portland comedy scene with his unique perspective and wit, his fellow comics said.
"His energy isn't that anxious, complain-y energy that was the hallmark of stand-up comedy in the '80s and '90s," comic Ian Karmel said. "For Funches, his comedy comes from a different place — it comes from a joy and an acceptance and a celebration. It's not pleading, it's welcoming."
Mary Rae Kim, vice president of operations and talent development at Portland's Helium Comedy Club, said Funches' act was marked by relatable premises but creative approaches: "The way he delivers the material onstage is just awe-striking. I've watched sets of his over and over again, and every time I'm always laughing out loud, which is rare."
"Undateable" co-creator Bill Lawrence, co-creator of "Spin City" and "Scrubs," said Funches aced his audition for the Shelly role, adding that "whatever he said became the new script because it was so funny. Sometimes people even laugh at his setup lines, things that we don't inherently think are jokes on the page. It's a gift as a comedy writer that you can write something that is maybe a B or B minus and he turns it into an A."
Although Funches can hit a punch line with the best of them, his hallmark on "Undateable" is his reactions. When a scene cuts away, it inevitably cuts to Shelly, who is always fully engaged and, most of the time, making a face that says more than words can.
He has learned to express himself silently in part as a way to communicate with his autistic son, who he often discusses in his act.
"He doesn't speak that much, so I just learned to do more things without talking because of him," Funches said.
Many of the "Undateable" cast members spoke of a fraternal atmosphere on set. They were having a really good time during filming, they said, and it comes through on screen. "I never really had people that I would consider my brothers or close guy friends and now I do," Funches said. "I work with them every day, and we hang out all the time. It's so nice to really like the people that I work with and enjoy them and learn from them."
For friends who knew Funches as a stand-up in Portland, his current professional prosperity was a long time coming.
"I always knew he would be a success, even when he was sleeping on my couch or we would go do gigs for 40 bucks and we would have to drive two hours to get there," Karmel said. "I always knew that, with Funches, it's just a matter of getting him in front of people, and they're going to be won over. Now that he has this big platform, I can't wait to see what he does with it."