You wouldn’t necessarily expect the humble Midwestern guy sitting across the table, clad in a three-piece suit and purple tie, to be one of the most influential figures in modern-day comedy. He looks a little bit like a friendly banker, and since we’re sitting at a long conference table with pens and pads, he even jokes about approving my loan.
Paul Feig has directed some of your favorite TV shows, created a cult-classic sitcom, and helped launch a whole generation of hilarious men and women to stardom. With Freaks and Geeks, he discovered Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, Martin Starr, and Busy Philipps. He directed a whole bunch of episodes of Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Bored to Death, and Weeds. He even got behind the camera for an episode of Mad Men.
After an initial slipup with the movie Unaccompanied Minors in 2005, Feig hit it big with Bridesmaids in 2011, helping to launch Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, already stars, into the stratosphere. Now, he’s reteamed with McCarthy on The Heat, a buddy cop movie set in Boston. McCarthy stars as an off-kilter and goofy-aggressive local police offer who gets paired with Bullock, an uptight FBI agent with the social self-awareness of a blindfolded child.
Before the film even hits theaters — which it does, nationally, on Friday — a sequel has been green-lit, and Feig says he’s on board.
“Katie [Dippold, The Heat screenwriter] is writing it, who I love, and I love these characters. I had a blast,” he told BuzzFeed. “Fingers crossed.”
Since Bridesmaids, you’ve been the go-to guy to interview about how women can be funny, but the number of interviews you’ve done about women in comedy probably outnumber the number of female-focused comedy films that have been made since.
Paul Feig: I know. I love it because it’s my favorite thing in the world — funny women, but at the same time you do go, like, wow, 2013, we’re really still having this conversation? It’s really that surprising to people.
It was like, “Bridesmaids is gonna do it!” And then nothing…
PF: I know, we’re the only studio release this summer with women in leading roles. It’s kind of like, wow, really? That’s the advance we made? That I got to make another one? I was hoping there would be a better outcome than that. I really do kind of go, like, no, no that wasn’t supposed to be the end result — there are female directors, other directors. I’m just concerned because there are so many funny women who should be working, and I can only work with so many of them at the time.
Melissa McCarthy is hilarious in The Heat, and there’s a lot of physical comedy, but you resist the easy urge to make any jokes at all about her size, which would be the cheap and obvious choice to so many filmmakers.
PF: Yeah, to me, it should never be an issue. I don’t like that kind of comedy. They make fun of the albino, but that’s because we made him such an asshole — and also we’re really making fun of the idea that albinos are always portrayed as the bad guys. That’s why I have Foul Play and Matrix 2 at the beginning. I never liked name-calling when I was a kid; I got made fun of because of my nose or I was too tall or my ears were too big, so I don’t find that enjoyable… Plus, Melissa is so lovely, why would you want to say mean things to her?
This is one of the only studio movies that’s not a superhero movie this summer. And the way things are rated, those movies are PG-13. And in this movie, maybe one guy dies, and it’s R.
PF: It’s all about profanity. I saw that Fox or some network is trying to erase the FCC indecency thing, which, it might be time. I understand when you have kids and stuff, you don’t want them corrupted, but at the same time, it’s how people talk. And it’s really hard to do comedy when you have to pull back, unless you’re doing Napoleon Dynamite, where it’s hilarious that they don’t swear, but it’s so aggressively not swearing that that’s part of the character. To do this movie with bad guys and cops and nobody’s saying “fuck,” it’s kind of like, gosh, it would feel — anything that distances an audience where they say, “That feels fake…” We’re saving them from bad language that they hear every day.
Was there any conversation about, “We should try to make this PG-13”?
PF: Well, when I first signed on to it, they were like, “What’s the rating going to be?” And I said a hard R. And they were like, “Really…” And it took them like a week to decide if they wanted to do that. Honestly that wall is breaking down, and I do feel like it’s a slightly old business model to think, They don’t make money if they’re R, because look at Ted — it went through the roof. I just stuck to my guns. To have Melissa McCarthy and not have her swear, it’s like, what’s the point? She’s hilarious when she’s in that mode. So it was apparent that we had to do it that way.
You’ve become the godfather of comedy talent, from the Freaks and Geeks crew to now Melissa McCarthy.
PF: Thank you — I mean god knows I try. Judd [Apatow] is the same way. You’re only as good as the people around you, and I like to think I’m creative but I’m not creative. With comedy especially, when you start to die in comedy as you get older is when you go, “Don’t tell me! I know what I’m doing.” You cannot survive, because comedy is ever-changing. The wake-up call for me was, I directed a lot of The Office over the years, and in the fifth season I went in as a co-exec producer, so I was in the writer’s room a lot. They have all these twenty and thirtysomething writers who are hilarious, and some guys my age. So you have the kind of joke areas that you like to pitch and you get laughs, and I was pitching these out, and the twenty and thirties were looking at me like I was crazy. I realized, “Oh my god, I’m like dad. I’m telling dad jokes.”
So hearing them and hearing their joke pitches, I said, “Oh, I see, it’s the tone that’s going on now.” You say, “Oh, I get why that’s funny now,” and referentially you see what doesn’t work because it’s old or whatever. So you just need to then magnify that by a thousand and deputize everyone around you and make sure you’re working with younger people, with older people, and you just want a big consensus — and that way you’ll hit the whole audience basically.
So how have you seen things change in comedy since you did Freaks and Geeks?
PF: It’s gotten much more behavioral. We were a very behavioral comedy at a time where that wasn’t going on. If you look at, what always killed us was Malcom in the Middle. That got all the ratings and we didn’t, and we were in a similar area. That was a very funny show, but very big and over-the-top comedy. And what’s happened now is the behavioral, naturalistic comedy has more come into vogue. I remember when the American Office first started, people were like, whoa, they couldn’t even deal with the shaky cam. Then suddenly it just became the norm, and people get that subtlety, and there’s crazy things happening but out of a very subtle behavioral base. People are much more allergic to jokes these days. Like, punch line! Snappy dialogue! That doesn’t feel normal and natural, versus just weird interaction. On Freaks and Geeks, people would say, “There’s not enough jokes,” but no — Bill saying “huh” is funnier than any crazy line we could have come up with.
You do a lot of test screenings, right? Comedy professionals are quite protective, so how does it work for you? Do you ever worry about giving too much credence to the test screening audience?
PF: No, I don’t [worry], because as comedy professionals, we have a lot of opinions. But then also we’ll sit around and go, “That show’s the worst!” but it’s the top-rated show on television. So it’s like, you know what? There’s a point where you’re too hip for the room, and all that needs to go into when we’re putting it together, so we’re getting the joke we want and getting the tone we want and all that. But then once you start to put it together, you’re making a movie for a mass audience. It’s not like I’m making an indie film. And I just don’t trust myself, and I just don’t trust the people around me at a certain point.
And the personification of that — well, that’s not the right word — was when we were doing Bridesmaids. We did our friends and family screening, we invited all our comedy professional friends, and we showed it. And the opening scene where Jon Hamm is trying to get Kristen Wiig out of bed, it was a really mean scene. He said all these really mean things and it was hilarious. I mean, it just brought the house down with all our comedy folks, so we were like, cool, we’ve got the greatest opening ever. Then we did our first test screening with a real audience and it just dies, it does nothing. Because people like her and you could tell they were thinking, Oh, why is she being such a punching bag and why is he being so mean to her? And you see, OK, we’re hipsters, and we think that’s funny when people are mean. So I really deputize the audience. It’s like when you can call the results of the election when they have .05% of polls in. It is true: An audience of 500 people is very representative of how an entire country is going to watch something.
So when you get those results and you have the final cut, do you always feel the audience was right and happy with the end result?
PF: Oh, yeah, very much. Because what we do is, at the end of the screening they’ll ask people, what’d you think of this or that? And that means nothing to me, because you’re forcing people to think critically and they go “hmmm” and get college professor-y. But what means a lot is we record the laughs, and we say, “Did that get a laugh? Oh, it’s a chuckle, take it out, we have better things.” And by the time we look after 10 test screenings over the course of several months, we know it’s going to work for most audiences.
So I realized that you have been involved in nearly every show that anyone really cares about over the past bunch of years.
PF: It’s been nice. I will credit my TV agent for that — Renee Kurtz, I’ve been with her forever. She has, a couple of times, forced me to do great shows. Like, The Office, I said, “I don’t know, I like the original one,” and she said, “It’s going to be good.” And Mad Men she sent to me. Arrested was the one she really pushed on me. I saw the pilot and was like, “Yeahhh, I kinda like it…” and she said, “You’ve got to do it.”
When you’re directing TV, you’ve got to serve a showrunner’s vision, so who is more exacting: Mitch Hurwitz [of Arrested Development] or Matthew Weiner [of Mad Men]?
PF: Ha! Jesus. Aye carumba. I mean, they are — there’s a reason why their shows are great, because they have such a strong vision of what they want, and as a director all you can do is say, “Hey, here’s what I think I can do to make this even better,” and a lot of times they’ll go, “Cool, let’s do that.” But if they go, “No, I want to do this,” you’ve got to say, “Cool, that’s fine.” Because when I did Freaks, I was very much the same way, on people and driving directors crazy. You have this thing you want, and as a writer, you know how it fits in to everything else. But they’re both great and they’re both mad geniuses.
Well now that you have had success in film, do you want to go back to running your own TV series?
PF: Oh, yeah. I love TV. I mean, TV could not be in a better place. It’s honestly in the best place it’s been, ever. To be away from it now — I do love movies, because I like the challenge of having to tell a complete story in two hours, but what’s great about TV is now they’ve embraced serialization. It used to be a no-no, so everything was a one-off. So now it’s just like making an enormous movie.
I imagine it’s harder to syndicate because there are so many new options for viewing.
PF: Yeah, it’s that, and there was always the fear that if the audience doesn’t watch the first one then they won’t come because they can’t catch up. But what has changed everything is DVDs and then Netflix — binge-watching. If this was going on during the Freaks and Geeks days, I feel like we might have gotten through the first season and into the second with the network saying, “Well, let everyone catch up on the first season,” and we would have been really going.
I feel like Freaks and Geeks, had it been a bunch of years later, would have been like Community in that it was critically beloved and the internet saved it.
PF: Totally. And the internet tried to save it back in the day, but there was just no kind of — god bless them, they tried.
People would use Twitter and Tumblr to rally around it. Of course, you’re not Dan Harmon, but…
PF: (Laughs) I know Dan, he’s a good guy, but he’s out there.
It could have been like Arrested Development and brought back.
PF: Or look at Family Guy. That was dead in the water. It’s awesome, when the people speak; the biggest thing about this business is people seeing stuff. And that’s the hardest thing, especially now when you’re competing against a gazillion different options, and then video games on top of it.
There were rumors about a Bridesmaids sequel and it’s not happening, and I’m curious how much Universal leaned on you and Kristen to try to do one.
PF: They definitely wanted one. I’m open to it. That’s Kristen’s baby, so I wouldn’t want to do it without her.
I can imagine them desperately wanting it.
PF: Of course — they can smell dollars.
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