I am easily amused. Though I’d like to think I have a highly evolved sense of humor, I am woefully susceptible to random gags and bizarre non-sequiturs*. And while I’d love to throw out some examples, explaining comedy is death; just watch "Homer Goes to College" from the fifth season of The Simpsons and know that, when it first aired, it took me over an hour to make it through the entire episode because I kept rewinding the tape to a) catch gags I’d laughed over and b) rewatch gags that really set me off (e.g. anything with Homer and the purloined Sir Oinks-a-Lot).
So I’m not going to waste time picking apart the split-second shot in Peter Segal’s Anger Management that completely destroyed me when I saw the film theatrically. I’d only ruin it. I did, however, think enough of it to obnoxiously hijack the 1:1 Devin had set up with Segal last week at Comic Con (then again, Dev had a conflict: something about Zack Snyder and a Watchmen movie).
But this isn’t all about one brief moment in Anger Management (my Hoodie Award-winning review is right here). I actually have a great deal of respect for Segal in general; he’s a very proficient director of comedy at a time when studios are willing to hire tone-deaf clods like Greg Coolidge, Adam Shankman and Brian Levant to wring laughs out of humor-deficient material. Segal knows his way around a joke. This was obvious to me when I saw Tommy Boy (the only movie to effectively harness Chris Farley’s antic, sweaty genius), and it’s remained apparent even when I’ve hated his movies (e.g. The Longest Yard).
There was some inexplicable bad buzz hounding Segal’s Get Smart throughout principal photography, most of which had to do with the casting of Anne Hathaway as a too-young Agent 99. Some of that negativity was wiped away when the teaser trailer turned up a couple of weeks ago sporting a few very Get Smart-ish gags that were, god forbid, genuinely funny. Comedy is not a point-and-shoot business; everything from camera placement to staging to editing and so on counts so much more. And simply being funny does not automatically make you a good director of comedy: look at Bob Odenkirk’s Let’s Go to Prison or Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights.
So cut Peter Segal some slack. He’s a terrific choice to update, but not alter, the Get Smart sensibility.
Q: I’ve got to bring this up. I’m a bit obsessed with this joke that you pull off in Anger Management. I think it’s brilliant, but I was the only person in the theater to laugh at this joke, and I didn’t just laugh loudly; I laughed uncontrollably for, like, ten minutes.
Peter Segal: (Laughing) Okay.
Q: You go a shot of a cat reacting to the size of a man’s dick.
Segal: (Laughs, then mock brags) That’s not easy, let me tell you! I had to be the stand-in for that cat. And to get that kind of reaction, well, let’s just say PETA would not have been happy.
Q: And it was Allen Covert’s dick, too.
Segal: The weird thing about that shot is that it was a sock or something. But I had to hold the pants so that the shadow would hit it just right. And I swear to god the camera operator looked at me like I was some total perv. I was kneading it like dough.
Q: What killed me, though, is that it’s one of those moments where you need two reactions. You’ve got Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler standing there, but Adam already knows Allen has a big dick, so the only option is to use the cat!
Segal: Exactly. And the cat had a beret, too.
Q: And a sweater.
Segal: (Laughing) Well, I’m glad you appreciate the subtlety of my disgusting work.
Q: And now we’ll smoothly segue into Get Smart. A lot of people have been concerned about whether this version of Get Smart will retain the sensibility of the television show. Though the casting of Steve Carell certainly went over well, the addition of Anne Hathaway as Agent 99 was somewhat divisive due to the age disparity. What was it about these two that seemed right to you?
Segal: First of all, I completely share the same feeling of fear when people turn iconic TV shows that we grew up with into movies, because a lot have sucked. But there have been a lot, or at least a good few, that have been great. You look at The Fugitive, you look at Mission: Impossible, and you can even look at a comedy like The Brady Bunch Movie and say, "Hey, they did a really good job with that!" The only reason we took this on is because we shared a devotion and reverence for the source material. This was not a case where we felt like it was broke and needed fixing. We wanted to bring a contemporary sensibility to it; obviously, we can’t tell Cold War-era jokes.
But the casting was key. I would not be involved in this movie if Steve was not a part of it. He was on first. I had asked a buddy of mine, Judd Apatow, if I could take a look at this movie that I had heard he was working on called The 40-Year-Old Virgin to see if I Steve could act, because I had just seen him in bit roles like Anchorman and on The Daily Show. Well, of course, I was blown away like most people were, and I said, "Where do I sign?" At that point, I knew that the bar was set so high that we needed to have equally impeccable choices for the rest of our cast. Well, 99 was the next role, and every actress in town wanted to be 99. It was really interesting. A lot of them had Oscars, and [a lot of these Oscar winners] were willing to read, which is unheard of. But they either a) loved Carell, b) saw a role for a woman that was a pretty good role, or c) heard from their moms what a great character Barbara Feldon was. That was the interesting thing. Even my mom said I had to watch a lot of [Get Smart] episodes because it’s such a great role for a woman.
So, with that, why Anne Hathaway? She just had an amazing chemistry. She was the first actress that sat down with Steve, and it was the first day that Steve had uttered the words of Max, so he was a little nervous. We screen tested dozens of actresses after that, but I kept coming back and saying, "I know there’s a bit of an age difference, but there’s the same age difference between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley. There’s more of an age difference between Bogey and Bacall, and Tracy and Hepburn, but people don’t remember that. We hang their posters on our buildings, but we don’t remember that. Look, we didn’t want this to be creepy; we only went with that pairing because we thought that when you see them together, you’ll go "Wow, she’s great, there’s heat between them and she’s funny."
Q: And while there’s a little heat between Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 on the show, it’s nothing like what existed between the other pairs you mentioned.
Segal: And that’s the same respect we had for their relationship. We didn’t feel that we had to go there. As a matter of fact, when I talked to Mel [Brooks] and Buck [Henry]… and Leonard Stern, they were sort of forced by the network to have Max and 99 marry and have kids. If it were up to them, they wouldn’t have done it; they would’ve kept the sexual tension without seeing them consummate the relationship. And that’s the direction in which we chose to go. We chose to have sexual tension without going too far. And I think we’re very respectful of their relationship.
Q: What I liked about the trailer is that the gags are very much of the TV show. It all looked like something I might’ve seen on a random episode of Get Smart. Is the rest of the movie like that, or do you work in some raunchier material?
Segal: You have to have some edge, but we wanted this to appeal to all age groups. We know we’ve got the over-25 male/female interest; they may be skeptical, but their curiosity seems to be piqued because they love the show. Now, the under-25 male/female… well, a lot of people know Anne and a lot of people know Steve or The Rock or Masi [Oka]. And, ironically, a lot of people like me know General Zod; they know Terence Stamp. So that’s what the next year is about, and that’s why coming to Comic Con is important. And what’s interesting is that our teaser has been attached to Harry Potter [and the Order of the Phoenix], which has mostly under-25 audiences. And multiple screening reports, when they have, like, five trailers before the movie, the vast majority of the time our teaser, not even a full trailer, was voted the best – and I won’t even tell you what it was up against. Those audiences voting were young: eighty percent were under twenty-five, and the majority of them were girls because girls are the biggest audience for Harry Potter. So we were a little surprised by that. They don’t know the series, but they seem to be responding to the material, which is nice.
Q: You’re also working with Terry Crews again.
Segal: I love Terry.
Q: I just remember him throwing cheeseburgers around in The Longest Yard. And he was great in Idiocracy as President Camacho. He’s one of those guys who seems like he could do more than just little supporting roles. I’m waiting for him to break.
Segal: And I hopefully will be there when he does, because I adore him. He is one of the sweetest guys, and hilarious. And The Longest Yard introduced him to Chris Rock, which begat his role on Everybody Hates Chris. I said to Terry, "Look, I don’t have a big role for you, but we just want you to come and play. I just want to have you around. And have confidence that, just like with The Longest Yard, your role will grow." And it did. He and [David] Koechner together were hilarious.
Q: That’s great. That’s a smart pairing of two very underutilized comedic talents.
Segal: Koechner’s great. I can’t say enough about him. He’s just hilarious.
Q: I was so glad he got Naked Trucker on television.
Segal: Oh, yeah. And Koechner is the one iconic Get Smart character who really doesn’t look like the original actor [Robert Karvelas as Larrabee]. But it just works. You can’t ignore that kind of talent.
Q: You mentioned that you’re friends with Judd Apatow. Could you see yourself working your way into his director rotation?
Segal: I would love to. You know, we worked together in the past. I hired Judd when he was nineteen and I was twenty-five on an HBO special with Chris Farley, Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller and Tom & Roseanne Arnold [Tom Arnold: The Naked Truth]. I would love to hook up with Judd on something. He’s been great. He’s come to a lot of screenings of my movies, and I’ve tried to return the favor. I went to his three-hour cut of Knocked Up.
Q: I saw that cut, too.
Segal: Yeah, and you knew there was a great movie in there. You just needed to toss out a few minutes to get there.
Q: A lot of good jokes had to go.
Segal: Hey, sometimes just to get the balloon to float, you’ve got to throw out some ballast.
Ready to see Get Smart? Sit tight. It’s currently slated for release June 20, 2008.
*Yet I’m not a huge fan of The Family Guy.