Comedy Director John Hamburg on Mining Laughter From ‘Unexpected Places’

John Hamburg keeps an idea file for weirdly funny scenes, fodder for offbeat comedy set-pieces that inevitably turn into buzzy centers of his movies.

“It’s a list of scene ideas, things that have happened to me, things I’ve observed,” explains the 46-year-old writer-director, rangy and easy-going in person. “But it has to be motivated by story and character, once I figure out how to use it.

“These are things from everyday life — my job is to push them to unexpected places. The laughter comes from a place you don’t see coming.”

You may not see the laughs coming — but they lead to box-office nirvana. Collectively, Hamburg’s movies have earned more than $1.5 billion at the box office — with an impressive amount coming from overseas.

Unusually, Hamburg’s comedy travels well.

Hamburg started small with Sundance indie “Safe Men” (1998) before making the leap to co-writing “Meet the Parents” in short order. His writing and directing credits include that franchise’s two sequels; “Zoolander” and its sequel; “Along Came Polly”; and “I Love You, Man.” “Why Him,” a Fox holiday release with “Meet the Parents” overtones, is poised to add even more coin to his billion-dollar-and-growing box-office tally.

None of these earlier films, it should be pointed out, in any way involved comic books or superheroes. Nor do they involve any consistent measure of gross-out humor, deploying the occasional visual gag about projectile vomiting — or a cat using cremains for a litter box — with tactical precision to maximize the laugh. “Why Him,” for example, has a prolonged — and deliriously funny — scene involving Bryan Cranston and a high-tech toilet.

“John is grounded in character,” says director Shawn Levy, a producer on “Why Him?” who has leaned on Hamburg for polishes of his own movies. “He rigorously anchors his movies in character, more than the circus and the big comic set-pieces. That’s true of his comedy in general. He has the big set-pieces, but only after the character is developed. Yes, Ben Stiller sets the chuppah on fire in ‘Meet the Parents,’ but only after you’ve invested in his struggle and his need for that cigarette. It’s the physical payoff, after you’ve related and connected to that character. John is always character-first.”

“A lot of his movies deal with the more universal issues of just living your life,” says James Franco, who plays a rich Silicon Valley entrepreneur that ruffles Cranston’s feathers in “Why Him.” “Meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time, friendship between two guys — these things are present in all cultures. And John is drawn to universal subjects.”

“Why Him?” star Zoey Deutch consults with Hamburg on set for the Fox holiday release starring Bryan Cranston and James Franco. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

These universal themes help Hamburg’s movies resonate around the world — no easy feat with comedies.

“Meet the Parents,” for instance, did nearly identical box office domestically ($166 million) as it did foreign ($164 million), as did “Meet the Fockers” ($279 million domestic, $237 million foreign). And “Little Fockers” took in $148 million domestically and more than $162 million globally. That trend extends to “Along Came Polly” ($88 million domestic, almost $84 million foreign). All told, his credited movies have brought in more than $800 million at the domestic box office, and more than $700 million from international box office.

“John has that particular thing, to be able to write and direct relatable characters, dealing with things we all go through,” says Jay Roach, who directed the first two movies in the “Meet the Parents” trilogy and saw Hamburg work his comic magic on both. “Jim Herzfeld had written a funny script for ‘Meet the Parents.’ But when John came in, what made us want to go forward was his emphasis on character. He added the relationship stuff, the layers and texture. He came up with the term ‘circle of trust,’ an idea he had as a tagline for the father’s personal paranoia. It was funny, but it was character-oriented.”

Hamburg did uncredited rewrites on “Big Fat Liar” and the “Night at the Museum” films for Levy: “I’ve known him for 15 years and he’s always been confident of his own vision,” Levy says. “His adherence to his own gut is strong and consistent. He’s a lovely guy who absolutely knows what he wants and always finds a way to get it.”

If Hamburg has a comic sweet spot, it’s his unique blend of awkwardness, humiliation, and general personal discomfort, with a side order of miscommunication. His humor relies on meticulous writing and rewriting in collaboration with his actors; during filming, he’s open to improvisation.

“My co-writer, Ian Helfer and I, spend a long time getting the script as good as we can,” Hamburg says. “But on the day, the script is just the jumping-off point. Some scenes we do as scripted; others, I’ll shout out lines as they’re doing it, or the actors will improvise. A scene can go in a direction you had no idea it would go.”

“The three of us spent a week in a room, coming up with bits of dialogue, ideas for awkward nervousness,” recalls Paul Rudd, of his work with Hamburg and co-star Jason Segel preparing “I Love You, Man.” The process, among other things, produced Rudd’s blurted “Totes magotes,” as a lame bit of invented slang.

“John has a solid script as a launch pad,” Rudd says. “But we always came up with stuff on the set.”

Cranston and Franco got together with Hamburg months before filming, and Hamburg and Helfer rewrote the script based on their input.

“His movies deal with universal issues of living your life: Meeting your girlfriend’s parents…”
James Franco

“Before I said yes to the film, I did call Paul Rudd and ask him about John,” Cranston says. “He told me he’d work with John again in a minute and said, ‘You’ll have a great time because he won’t do anything that’s not germane to the film’.”

It’s all about the comedy — and finding the heart in funny moments — for Hamburg, who admits that he feels pressure to make viewers laugh.

“If they’re not laughing, I’m not succeeding,” he says. “When I see movies that don’t have the pressure of making an audience laugh out loud, I’m jealous.”

To that end, he is a believer in test screenings as he edits films: “By the time I lock a film, I’ve seen it with thousands of people. You can feel where the jokes are, where people are connecting.”

Comedy comes naturally to Hamburg, who grew up in New York City before attending Brown University and NYU, but he gravitates toward watching dramas and would like to tackle projects with those elements.

“Even if I wrote a straight-up drama, it would end up as a comedy because that’s the way I see the world. I would love to attempt something where it’s not about making people laugh, where you can be funny but that’s not the film’s reason for being.”

Movies like “Sideways” are funny, he notes, “but also really go there, dramatically. It’s a tone that’s hard to hit and something I’m interested in.

“I love making movies where I’m able to sneak in the heart and the human emotion, under the guise of making a studio comedy.”

Blockbuster Turf
John Hamburg’s billion-dollar box office and counting

Safe Men (1998)
$46,000 domestic box office

Meet the Parents (2000)
$166.2 million domestic
$164.2 million international

Zoolander (2001)
$45.2 million domestic
$15.6 million international

Meet the Fockers (2004)
$279.3 million domestic
$237.4 million international

Along Came Polly (2004)
$88.1 million domestic
$83.9 million international

I Love You, Man (2009)
$71.4 million domestic
$20.2 million international

Little Fockers (2010)
$148.4 million domestic
$162.2 million international

Zoolander 2 (2016)
$28.8 million domestic
$27.1 million international

Total: $1.54 billion
$827.4 million domestic
box office
$710.6 million international

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