Gross Prophets: A Comedy Directors’ Roundtable

Now, more than ever, the world is full of funny boys: Amusing themselves, as they have since time immemorial, in the backs of the classrooms across the land, disrupting office meetings with far-fetched anecdotes, cracking wise in church or temple (okay, probably temple). They’re on your TV, on your YouTube, in your podcasts—hell, there may be one in your house right now.

But even in this over-tickled universe, the top of the funny-boy pyramid, measured by either cultural or financial impact, still belongs to those giants who make funny movies. Earlier this year, in Los Angeles, GQ convened five of the biggest for a summit: The oldest, John Landis, was a 60-year-old icon with comedic Borscht Belt roots; the youngest, Edgar Wright, a 36-year-old Brit who grew up worshipping Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. The other three—Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips and Adam McKay—are only responsible for more or less defining the comic sensibility of a generation. Oh, and some two billion dollars in box office sales.

No matter. However illustrious the participants, the ancient rules of funny-boy gatherings still apply: Things will be fast, competitive, illuminating, opinionated and irreverent. And the best thing you can do is to get them talking and get the hell out of the way.

GQ: The theme of this issue is what’s never not funny. Gentlemen, go.

Adam McKay: Animals. We always have animals in our movies—bears in Anchorman, a cougar in Talladega Nights, a German shepherd in Step Brothers.

Judd Apatow: True. Narcoleptic dog videos on YouTube: Never not funny.

Edgar Wright: John, I’ve always meant to ask you what your obsession is with gorillas. You have a lot of gorillas in your films.

John Landis: I do? Well, sure, I mean I guess in King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Gorillas in the Mist….

Wright: Alright. I can only think of one—Trading Places. But I’m sure there are more.

Apatow: You had a gorilla fuck a guy in there, didn’t you?

Landis: Yeah. In the ass. I was very pleased with that. I had final cut on that film, thank God, because when Michael Eisner and Barry Diller saw it they went nuts. Especially Barry: ‘You can’t have a gorilla fuck a guy in the ass!!!’ My favorite thing was being able to say, ‘Why not, Barry?’

GQ: So, that’s the answer? Animals?

Todd Phillips: What about talking animals?

McKay: Ooh. Todd just found the hole in the argument. Animals talking are very rarely funny. But animals behaving as animals—always funny.

Phillips: I think mishandling things is always funny. Mishandling a baby, like we did in The Hangover. It always works because people can’t believe you’re going there.

Landis: And it has everything to do with context. Anything, depending on the context, can be funny. And anything can be not funny. You know what Mel Brooks said: ‘Comedy is an old lady carrying groceries, tripping, and falling into a manhole. Tragedy is me cutting myself shaving.’

[Landis’s cell phone rings.]

Landis: Excuse me, I’ve got to take this.

All Others: Hoh!

Apatow: No way.

Landis: [to phone] No, nothing’s going on, I’m totally free.

Phillips: Wow. Power move from Landis! Early in the roundtable!

Landis: [returning to table] That was my agent. There’s an old Hollywood joke: This actor comes home to his house in Malibu and finds his wife with her dress torn and bloody on the floor. He says, ‘What happened?’ She says, ‘Murray, your agent, he came to the house. He beat me. He raped me.’ The actor says, ‘Murray came to the house?!?’

McKay: At least his phone is old. Old man with an old phone. That’s never not funny.

Landis: Hey, I’ve been around so long that Milton Berle showed me his cock. It was at Don Rickles’s 70th birthday party and they were all doing jokes about Berle’s dick because he was one of Hollywood’s great studs. He had to be in his late 70s, early 80s. He just dropped his pants and did like five minutes of material.

Apatow: That was a different era. I’ve only seen Dax Shepard’s cock.

Landis: Well, Berle’s was pretty impressive.

Apatow: At that age it’s not even impressive. It’s just elongating from age.

GQ: John, I think the rest of us at this table grew up with your movies—especially Animal House. Did you have a sense then that comedy could be dangerous and subversive?

Landis: Dangerous? I don’t know. Subversive? I hoped so. I tried. The genius of Animal House was Doug Kenney, who was a very brilliant, very self-destructive guy. Kenney was one of the founders of the National Lampoon but at some point he wanted to cash out and retire, buy a place in the Hamptons. [Publisher] Matty Simmons knew he was the brightest guy there, so he said, ‘You can’t leave. We’re going to make a movie!’ So, Doug wrote the first draft of a movie called ‘Laser Orgy Girls,’ which was about high school girls fucking. Matty read it and was sort of shocked. He said, ‘Why don’t we bring in Harold Ramis?’ Their first script was about Charles Manson in high school and, actually, it was really fucking good. There was a great opening gag in which you start out outside San Quentin. The camera goes in through the window, through the walls, through the chicken wire, down into the deepest bowels of the prison. There’s Manson in a straitjacket, padded cell, swastika carved in his forehead, and he looks up and says, ‘Is it hot in here, or am I crazy?’

McKay: For me the biggest thing about Animal House was it was one of the first times a comedy had the balls to play it straight. Yes it was subversive, but the score was straight. Same with The Blues Brothers: It’s an action film where people do get hurt and cars crash. All that stuff’s played real. And at the same time there’s stuff like, ‘D’you get my Cheez Whiz, boy?’

Landis: I do think the biggest things about Animal House were the score and the photography. I wanted it gritty and dark. You asked about danger. I’ll tell you one more true story: When I showed the movie to Ned Tanen, the president of Universal, for the first time, he stopped the movie after the black bar scene, actually stopped the projector, and stormed out. A little bit later we get a memo that we have to cut the whole road trip to the bar. ‘There’ll be riots! There’ll be riots!’ So we showed the movie to Richard Pryor. And Richard sent a hand-written note, on blue stationery: ‘Ned, Animal House is fucking funny and white people are crazy.—Richard.’ And that’s the only reason we were able to finish the film.

GQ: Now, do you think that there’s any comedy that’s still that dangerous? Or is the audience too clued in now?

Phillips: We all work for corporations and they have a big say in what the culture is. If you watch the first season of Saturday Night Livethere are an enormous number of sketches that they would not allow you to do today. Or a movie like Blazing Saddles. Or All in the Family—that was stunning to watch. Every episode was like a hardcore issue.

Landis: They’d never allow any of it now. Never allow it!

Apatow: Maybe I just don’t go in that direction, but it feels like audiences’ tastes have changed, too. They want empty calories. If All in the Family worked better than American Idol, it would be on the air.

Landis: In the end, if you make money, you get to do what you want. I got to do Blues Brothers because Animal House and The Kentucky Fried Movie made so much money. I got to make An American Werewolf in London because Blues Brothers made so much money. Everything was great until I made my first failure, and then I was a war criminal.

Wright: The Kentucky Fried Movie! I knew there was another gorilla.

GQ: It sounds like you’re all saying you can’t make the movies you want to make.

Phillips: No! I have the same taste as the audience. I’m retarded too!

GQ: But, Adam, your political columns for The Huffington Post have way sharper teeth than any of your movies—even the show you did with Will Ferrell, You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, on Broadway.

McKay: Well, if you look at the show, I think the actual points were all pretty teethy. The trick was that you can’t really be mean to George Bush because he’s not a villainous character—he’s a schlub. Dick Cheney is the villain. George Bush is a 12-year-old. He’s Borat; he just doesn’t get it. As for movies, what’s great about comedy is that if your movie gets laughs and makes money, you have freedom. You know UCB co-founder Ian Roberts once said that comedy is the only art form where you have to have a bodily response—other than porn.

Landis: Excuse me, speaking as a ‘Master of Horror,’ I have to disagree.

GQ: Good point. Sitting here with the directors of both An American Werewolf in London and Shaun of the Dead, I have to ask: Is there an organic link between horror and comedy?

Wright: Absolutely. In horror you even use the word ‘gags’ for shocks. If you look at a John Carpenter film, the shocks are composed and timed exactly the same as a gag in a Zucker Brothers film. They’re pie-in-the-face moments. By the way, has anybody seen the film The Human Centipede?

Landis: I have. Weird film. Not funny.

Phillips: There is a different kind of danger that I think certain guys still embody. I think Sacha Baron Cohen embodies it. Will Ferrell is like that. Zach Galifianakis, who I’ve been working with, is a really dangerous guy. Maybe not literally dangerous, but the audience sits there and has no idea where they’re going to go next.

Landis: What I loved about The Hangover is that Zach’s character is obviously mentally ill. I loved that he roofied them and they sort of get over it. They’re not mad at him. It reminded me of John Belushi in Animal House. All he does is destroy everything—but he’s lovable! It’s like Cookie Monster or Harpo Marx. I mean what the fuck’s with Harpo Marx? He’s the weirdest character ever. What’s he going to do with those women when he catches them?

Apatow: He’s gonna gently make love to them.

McKay: That’s the Third Lead, which is the best comic position you can have. Todd used Ferrell like that in Old School. We had it with Steve Carell in Anchorman. It’s the guy who gets to break all the rules. He has no story responsibility. He just gets to fuck shit up.

Phillips: What’s interesting about all of those guys—Belushi included—is that they have this face—a kind of sweetness to them. It’s like they could say or do anything because their eyes are really innocent. Zach had this line in The Hangover where he says he’s not allowed within 200 feet of a school. Zach and I talked about that line a lot and, you know, it’s not because of what you think. It’s because he wants to hang out and skateboard with the 12-year-olds.

GQ: All of you have longtime collaborations with particular actors. What’s that relationship like?

Apatow: I’ve always thought that Seth Rogen was just a much more interesting variation of how I wanted to be when I was performing. I met him at 16, his first audition, and it was like he was built for comedy. The voice, the cadence, it was all there. Guys like him, or Paul Rudd, or Adam Sandler: They’re what I wish I was like but am not.

McKay: When I was at SNL, I had done Second City and all this other performing. But, fuck, every time I wrote a sketch that was in my voice, Ferrell would just do it better.

GQ: When your actors work with other directors, does it feel like they’re cheating on you?

Landis: I just did a movie with Simon Pegg. I asked how Edgar’s move was going and he said, ‘Oh. We don’t talk. We’re seeing other people.’

GQ: It doesn’t bug you that they get all the laughs?

McKay: I always give myself a little part in every movie. Todd had a great cameo in the The Hangover.

Phillips: I’m going down on a girl in an elevator. Nobody does that. Everybody gets blow jobs in elevators but nobody…

Landis: Wait, everybody gets blow jobs in elevators!?! I didn’t know that.

Phillips: Well, you’re older than us.

GQ: Are you always comfortable letting actors improvise?

McKay: There’s always way less improv than people think. The truth is something like 15 percent.

Landis: It used to make me nuts, when I was younger, when I’d read stuff about improvisation. I’d go, ‘I wrote that! I wrote every fucking word!’ But I realized later that, no, it’s a compliment to the actors. There was a lot in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, wasn’t there?

Apatow: Yeah, well the movie was Carell’s idea and he’s just so ridiculously strong at improvising. He could literally go all day, making up fake sex stories from a virgin. It would be ridiculous not to have taken advantage of it. But when we made Superbad, Jonah [Hill] insisted it was very heavily improvised. Finally we said, ‘Let’s look at the script and highlight every improvised line in the movie.’ It was so little that it was crazy.

Phillips: But that’s a credit to how comfortable Jonah felt on the set. I can only speak to what Adam and Judd do, because we’ve talked before, but there’s a looseness to the way we do this. It’s never like, ‘Stand here. Say this line.’ I just finished working with Robert Downey Jr.. He just rips up the script at the beginning of each day and says, ‘What are we really going to do? Wouldn’t it be fun if we were over there instead of here?’ And I go, ‘Yeah! Let’s fucking do that.’

Landis: But what if he’s wrong?

Phillips: Well, then I would tell him. I’m just saying there’s a looseness and a fluidity. It’s not math, it’s jazz. There is no formula. You prepare for total chaos.

Wright: When I started in television, it quickly became clear that I could control the actors through the transitions between scenes. Like, ‘This has to be the last line because the first line of the next scene is this.’ It’s a way to give performers some kind of rope but the start is the start, the middle is the middle, and the end is the end. In a way, it’s a kind of OCD thing I’d like to break out of. I think it’s one of the reasons my films are less successful.

Apatow: No, they’re just better. I watch Edgar’s movies and I think, ‘Shiiiit. He knows what he wants to do.’ It’s this precise visual style that I’m certainly not capable of and never will be.

McKay: Yeah, man, don’t listen to us at all. Keep doing what you’re doing.

GQ: Who has the best actor horror story?

Landis: My favorite is about Chevy Chase, on Three Amigos! He had terrible back problems then, so he was on Percodan, overweight, and you just can’t compete with Marty [Short] and Steve [Martin]. We’d been shooting for a month in the Arizona desert and I had all of them on horses, held by Teamsters, in their ridiculous outfits. I say, ‘Okay, let’s run through this,’ and Chevy suddenly says, ‘Wait, wait. This line is so fucking stupid! My character would have to be an idiot, a moron, to say this!’ I looked up at him, in that sombrero, and all I could think was, What movie has Chevy been making for the last month? I said, ‘Chevy, your character is a moron.’ And he just lost it.

GQ: ‘Lost it’ as in laughing?

Landis: Angry. Screaming. Furious. I said to Steve, ‘You wrote this. Is Chevy’s character a moron?’ He looked at me and then turned to Chevy: ‘Well. He’s not a moron. But…he’s…not…bright.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Marty will say the line.’ ‘Why is Marty going to say it?’ ‘Because it’s a laugh line, Chevy.’ He says, ‘I’ll say the fucking line!’ The crew absolutely cracked up. We couldn’t get the shot for like six minutes.

GQ: Any other terrible stories?

Phillips: We usually work with our friends, so it’s never that bad. We just go to work and try to make each other laugh. I wake up every morning and say, ‘I want to make Zach laugh today.’ And he does the same thing, and Ed Helms does the same thing. We just try to crack each other up.

GQ: Have any of you ever seen a Tyler Perry movie?

[beat of silence]

Landis: I’ve seen all of them.

GQ: And are they funny?

Landis: That’s not fair. Tyler Perry makes movies for a niche market. There was a time when if you made a movie about gay men for a certain budget you could always make money. There was the blaxploitation period. People forget that Flip Wilson was a black man in drag—and massively funny.

Wright: In my defense, those films aren’t released theatrically in the U.K.

Apatow: We’ll make sure to send you the DVDs.

GQ: All of you seem to make films that are about male friendship. Why is that always funny?

Phillips: There’s an awkwardness to the heterosexual male relationship that we all find funny. Girls can hug and kiss each other and be really warm, but there’s nothing funnier than two guys trying to give each other a hug.

McKay: I’ve gotten like five laughs in movies, just off guy hugs.

Wright: It’s interesting that they say Brüno turned people off because it had too much homosexual content, because you can get away with a lot of affection in a love story between two men. Somebody said that Shaun of the Dead was a romantic comedy between two guys and I was happy with that. And Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are like literally a married couple. They used to sleep in the same bed.

Apatow: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg admitted that when they lived together they would time out their masturbation. They’d say, ‘Let’s go out in a half-hour,’ and then walk like eight feet apart, with a wall between them, and whack off. That’s really as close as you can get to romantic togetherness. All movies have that sexual tension. It’s all Midnight Cowboy.

Landis: Seriously, there’s nothing in movies that wasn’t done by 1922.

GQ: Edgar, I think we all grew up influenced by Monty Python and that generation of British comedy. What’s the current state of the English/American exchange?

Wright: When I first came to the States in 1998, the only things people would mention were Python and Benny Hill. I honestly got in a cab where the guy said, ‘Do you know Benny Hill?’ But there’s lots of British comedy that wouldn’t exist without Christopher Guest. Ricky Gervais has said The Office wouldn’t exist without Spinal Tap. When Simon and I did Spaced, it was an attempt to do a live-action The Simpsons.

GQ: Looking at the past ten years or so, it seems like we’ve come through the gross-out comedy phase, we’ve been living with the bromances; do you have any sense of what’s coming next?

Wright: The thing is, comedy is so cyclical. You want to do something new and break ground, but you’re also thinking back to the thrill of the things you grew up on. Every five or ten years, a certain kind of comedy flatlines and somebody comes along to drop a big stone in the pond.

GQ: Do you resent the pressure to do a sequel once anything becomes successful?

Landis: There’s nothing wrong with sequels and remakes. It’s why they do them. It has to do with name recognition and marketing. I had breakfast with a Warner Bros. executive in London, to discuss a project, and he said, ‘Well, it all depends on who’s attached.’ Because it’s not about directors. It’s not about scripts. It’s just about actors. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You just had a huge international hit with The Hangover. Where’s the star in
that?’ And he said, totally without irony, ‘Yeah, isn’t that great? Now we have three people we can hang movies on.’

Phillips: And that came, quite honestly, from Jack Black backing out of a movie I was doing. I thought, ‘Fuck this fucker. I’m going to make a new Jack Black out of Zach Galifianakis.’ I took nothing for that movie. Zero dollars. I just wanted to create a new Jack Black.

GQ: Todd, it seemed like The Hangover had a chance to be nominated this year.

Phillips: No, no.

GQ: Well, especially since they expanded to 10 nominees, supposedly to reward big box-office successes.

Phillips: They did: District 9…

GQ: But that wasn’t a comedy…

Apatow: Um, have you seen his car? He was rewarded.

GQ: Judd, did you feel smacked around when you tried to step outside pure comedy with Funny People?

Apatow: No. I felt it was just a very intense subject, talking about how people deal with terminal illness.

Landis: I was very disappointed that he didn’t die.

Apatow: A lot of people felt that way.

Landis: I thought the movie was terrific, but then I thought, you’re cheating! A happy fucking ending!?!

Apatow: The funny part is, lots of people didn’t see it as a happy ending. A lot of people were disturbed that he didn’t change at all.

GQ: With so many ways to get seen—like Funny or Die, which you helped launch, Adam—have we reached the end of an era when live performance was a mandatory comedy rite of passage?

McKay: I’d say it’s the opposite, because TV has gotten so much more fractured and disparate. When we did that live show on Broadway, it felt like a real event. And there’s great stuff like the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Landis: As an actor you still need it, to get your chops. That’s what was so weird about Eddie Murphy, he came out fully formed. I mean, he did stand-up for maybe six months and then walked onto SNL at 18 and was dazzlingly funny.

GQ: So, what happened?

McKay: He started working with talking animals.

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