Paul Feig has spent his Hollywood career honing the art of being funny. He’s appeared in films (Heavy Weights, Knocked Up); created the much-beloved Freaks And Geeks; and directed everything from episodes of The Office to 2011’s Bridesmaids. His latest project, The Heat, stars Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as two law-obsessed opposites out to bust a criminal mastermind. While Feig didn’t exactly bone up on the buddy-cop canon before he made the film, he has spent a lifetime choosing his favorite funny movies and scenes, and he’s assembled 24 hours of The Heat inspiration for The A.V. Club.
12 p.m.: Lethal Weapon (1987)
1:50 p.m.: Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Paul Feig: Obviously the Lethal Weapons:Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2. They made four of those, I think, but I remember that I love the first one. I can’t remember if Joe Pesci was in the second or third one, but I love those, too.
The A.V. Club: Why those two?
PF: Well, what I liked about the Lethal Weapon movies is that they were really dark. The whole thing with Mel Gibson kind of wanting to kill himself, I thought that was an interesting thing that you’d never seen before: a hero that’s so troubled that he wants to off himself at the beginning and that’s the introduction to him. But then it was still crazy Mel—he’s sort of the outgoing, crazier one. And just having Danny Glover, who was so ultra grounded, I thought it was an interesting dynamic. I always felt like that was cool, and they did that well.
3:44 p.m.: 48 Hrs. (1982)
PF:48 Hrs. is one that blew my mind because I was a big Eddie Murphy fan from Saturday Night Live, and I knew it was going to be a comedy; the trailers were really funny. But I wasn’t prepared for the level of violence it had, which, at first, I was kind of like, “What are they doing?” But then I realized that’s a great way to make a comedy because it makes the stakes real.
What I don’t tend to like are the ones that [are] funny in the way that the bad guy is funny so he’s not dangerous. The bad guy can be funny, but if he’s not dangerous, there’s no stakes.
AVC: He’s just kind of comical.
PF: Exactly. But I find funny people in danger to be a very fertile ground for comedy because it’s the way they get to interact with the world. It’s funny that they’re reacting to things, but they’re also trying to be tough and hold it together. I think it gives them more to play rather than going from joke to joke.
AVC: With most buddy-cop movies, though, you still know that, ultimately, they’re going to make it. The Heat does a good job of having the characters go through some legit pain and danger.
PF: Our heroes are going to get through it, but there’s still going to be real danger. We’re not going to kill Sandra Bullock in the movie, but it really adds stakes to it. “Stakes” is an annoying word Hollywood uses all the time, but it’s an important word because you need to be invested in the film.
Are the stakes high? Is somebody really in danger of losing something and getting killed? It helps carry you along and keep an audience engaged in the film.
AVC: If you look at a string of buddy-cop movie posters, the two cops are always so clearly opposites. You have the black cop and the white cop, the old cop and the young cop, the woman and the man.
PF: They have to be opposites somehow. What we did on ours was the streetwise, no-nonsense cop and the uptight one. It’s classic math, really. Not only are they fighting crime, but they’re also learning to deal with one another, which is ripe for comedy. When two people aren’t getting along, comedy is conflict. That’s why I think the buddy-cop genre is so great: You have a very strong driver of a story in the middle of it that’s pushing the plot forward, and you have another driver. It’s kind of like The Defiant Ones where you’re handcuffed together. You’re stuck together, you have to get along, you clearly have different methods, and you’re fighting back and forth, but you slowly start to learn about each other. It’s a more fun version of a romantic comedy.
5:20 p.m.: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
PF: The first one was awesome, and it also took place in my hometown of Detroit—well, at least the part in the beginning.
AVC: That’s another Eddie Murphy joint.
PF: Another Eddie Murphy one, which is funny because whoever was managing him or whatever decisions he was making was really smart. It would have been very easy coming off of Saturday Night Live to do the silly movies and the big, crazy comedies.
I was never a big fan of the Bad Boys movies because they were a little too flip about killing guys. They’re still funny guys, but they’re wantonly killing guys. I never like when there’s too much of flipness with the killing of people even if they are bad guys. The ’80s got so polluted with “kill a guy and say a funny line,” like, “Well, he had a lot of guts!” I was always like, “Eh, you still did kill a guy, though.” But with Beverly Hills Cop, it was different, they execute this guy in the hallway. It’s a pretty brutal shot of a guy getting shot in the head. But, again, like with 48 Hrs., you’re like, “Okay, I’m being put into a real world with danger and stakes like that.”
7:05 p.m.: The Pink Panther (1963)
AVC: It’s great that Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy were both so physical in the movie.
PF: I like physical comedy when you can pull it off in a non-sweaty way. The challenge is that audiences are so resistant these days because physical comedy can’t mean “I just fell down,” because it does feel very much like it’s trying too hard. But what’s fun about this and about Sandy and Melissa is that they love finding the real-world way of how something physical happens.
I love Pink Panther movies because Peter Sellers was broad, but there was always a real reason in the world of physics of why he fell down. He’s standing next to that globe and he’s spinning the globe and he goes to lean on that globe—and it takes him down. Or my favorite physical-comedy gag, where he’s been made chief and as he leans back on his chair at that desk, you hear the spring break on the chair and he’s stuck. And, at the same time, the guy who is briefing him is wearing a tie and he’s standing over something talking to him so his tie is hanging down. So he goes to right himself by pulling himself up on this guy’s tie and he brings the guys head into the desk. It’s sort of masterful when you go, “That all makes sense.” If I was falling back, I’d be looking for something to help me and I’d yank the guy’s head.
So when you get that level of sense and logic, physical comedy is great. But when people tend to get lazy with physical comedy, like they trip when they walk forward, why do they trip? If there’s a great reason why they trip, I’m all for it. But it tends to be just falling around.
Sandra loves physical comedy, so it was fun to try and figure out the moments for her. There’s a joke that makes me laugh where she’s in the car looking for her purse and someone yells for her and she looks up but hits her face on the car window, which makes sense because she misjudged the window. That’s the kind of stunt I really like.
9:00 p.m.: Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
10:10 p.m.: Seven Chances (1925)
11:01 p.m.: Safety Last! (1923)
12:11 a.m.: City Lights (1931)
1:38 a.m.: Modern Times (1936)
3:05 a.m.: Duck Soup (1933)
4:13 a.m.: Horse Feathers (1932)
5:21 a.m.: 50 minutes of material by The Three Stooges
PF: I love old silent films; I love Buster Keaton and [Charlie] Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Really, Keaton and Harold Lloyd were my inspirations in my career for physical comedy because they found a way to ground it. Chaplin too, but there was something about the way they found a sense; they didn’t have language, but it never felt like they were pushing too hard. I guess by today’s standards it looks pretty raw, but when you think about the context of what it was, when it was done, it has a real logic to it in clever ways. The dialogue didn’t really work in a silent movie, and you were reading cards so it was all about what’s the most physical way to tell a story. I was also a giant Marx Brothers fan and I liked wordplay, but that was more of a comedy influence on me.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is one of the old Buster Keaton movies that’s fantastic. Seven Chances by Buster Keaton is awesome. The Harold Lloyd one, Safety Last!, is the famous one where he’s hanging off the clock, which is great but watch the whole movie because it’s not just about that sequence. There’s really funny stuff in there. He’s working in a store and dealing with all these crazy shoppers; there’s a sale and he’s going bananas. I love Chaplin in City Lights because it’s physical, but it’s so sweet that you choke up at the end.
I’m a huge fan of Modern Times, which is silent that forayed into sync sound with this bizarre sequence where he’s singing a song and you can hear it, but it’s a weird song with this French gibberish. And it’s really clever the way he moves around and everything. Modern Times is really a masterpiece that changed everything.
The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup is just an insane movie because it has, literally, no story and it just kind of ends. I love Horse Feathers, which is their college one.
The Three Stooges were also a huge influence on me just because I like physical things to be not held back. As much as people get upset about them slapping and hitting each other, they really go for it. They don’t pull any punches, literally, which what I like about The Three Stooges. It’s a very vaudevillian kind of style and there’s a reason it’s much more guy-oriented, but they continue to be so beloved by people and people find them funny.
This movie, when someone gets hurt, they get hurt and when someone gets hit, they get hit. It all feels very tactile. I like comedy to be very tactile.
AVC: That kind of realness helps a movie age well, too.
PF: I like old things from back then because the rules are different, but you immediately tap into what the rules are. There’s a war on but, again, I like those kinds of motivations. I’m a big fan of primal-need comedy, where you have to eat and you have to stay alive. I find that much more interesting than, “We’re looking to get laid!” For so many years of my career after Freaks And Geeks, I’d get sent all these stories about teenagers trying to lose their virginity, and I find that to be very boring to watch. I don’t like the stakes of it because it’s very sexual. You want that in your life but, at the same time, I process how I’m looking for something different than somebody else does, and it’s too crude. The Three Stooges are always looking for a free meal, and I get that. I get those stakes because when you’re hungry, you do stupid things. I don’t want to say I like more innocent comedy because I do R-rated stuff, but I like to think there’s a bit of—innocence is the wrong word—but I try to make it not mean-spirited even though there’s a lot of mean-spiritedness going on.
6:11 a.m.: Bridesmaids (2011)
PF: The Heat has so much swearing in it; I think we’re at 200 “fucks” and 100 “shits,” but what I like is that at all the test screenings we do, a lot of people think it’s a sweet movie. You’re like, “Wow, there’s a lot of people getting killed,” but I think the underlying motivations are kind of pure for all the characters.
That’s what I liked about Bridesmaids, too: You don’t want to lose your best friend. That’s a very sweet motivation.
AVC: Also, with swearing, aren’t we at a point where if there weren’t many swears audiences would say, “Well, cops swear more.”
PF: That is 100-percent why I love R-rated comedy. Because of the Internet, we’re just getting more and more tapped into honest real life. I’m 50 now, so nobody ever swore on TV when I was growing up. But when you went the movies and heard swearing, it was kind of shocking. Now everything we are consuming is much more realistic.
When I first came into this movie, there was this big debate. They were like, “Do you see this movie as PG-13?” And I said, “No, it’s R. It’s a hard R.” Fox doesn’t release a lot of R-rated movies, so they debated it and said they’d go for it.
If anything ever feels held back, that’s bad. In the audience, you’re like, “That’s weird. Those are bad guys and they aren’t swearing.” If they’re talking cleanly, I’m like, “Bad guys don’t really pull their punches that way.” I think people need that and they want that, and they’re putting it through the litmus test.
I just wanted to have the freedom for Melissa to go off and speak in the way that she feels is the funniest. In Bridesmaids, we didn’t have that much swearing scripted, to be honest, and it would just naturally come out of them as we loosened up the scenes. All I care about is that it’s honest. So it was really fun to hear people say, “Oh, that’s how me and my friends talk.” Well, good. Normally these romantic comedies are PG or PG-13, so they’re overwritten and everything is clever, but nobody is really talking about the real things that friends talk about when they’re together. That was so nice, how female audiences responded to that first diner scene with Kristin [Wiig] and Maya [Rudolph] at the beginning of Bridesmaids, with the dick jokes and all of that. That came out of four or five hours of loose back-and-forth and letting them improvise and play around.
That’s why I think people related: It wasn’t me as a guy saying ladies talk like this. It was coming naturally out of how they talk. That’s my feeling. I like swearing in a movie.
8:16 a.m.: The Jerky Boys (1995)
9:38 a.m.: Die Hard (1988)
AVC: What are some movies you think do swearing well?
PF: One movie I thought did it well—it was a terrible movie but it made me laugh because there was so much swearing and it was funny to me—was The Jerky Boys. I just remember watching it and thinking it was funny because they were just going for it. I like hearing people swearing in a movie. It just cracks me up. I know that they were using it as part of their joke structure.
It depends how the swearing comes out. There’s a harshness to swearing, sometimes. Like the first Die Hard. I love it, but it’s R-rated and there are moments when people are swearing and it just feels very unnatural to me in that movie. There’s an ugly tone to it, and it almost feels like you’re getting hit every time you hear it. I don’t know if it’s because of the onus that they put on it, or the people who are doing it are hitting it too hard, or it’s coming in the context of something that’s mean already, so that it’s got an extra harsh word in it.
Bridesmaids is another good example of that, like when Maya shows Kristen the big crazy dress and they’re laughing about it and Maya goes, “I cannot wear this fucking dress.” For some reason, at that moment in their relationship, it just felt like it was too harsh and we clipped it out.
Weirdly, you have to be in tune with that. It’s like music; a film is like a symphony or something, and I don’t say that in a highfalutin’ way, but you can always hear wrong notes. So in comedy, it’s almost like a song [when] a note or beat is off. It’s just going to help the flow of stuff.
Swearing flows out of Melissa so effortlessly, which is amazing; it’s really her skill.
AVC: The other thing about something like The Jerky Boys is that they threw a lot of jokes at the wall in that movie. If one gag didn’t get you, another one would.
PF: Which is, again, why I do so much test screening of a movie during the editing process; it’s that constant adjustment for the audience. I’m guided completely by the audience at a certain point, because stuff I think is funny and stuff people in the editing room think is funny, if the audience doesn’t think it’s funny, that’s points off your test.
My editor on Bridesmaids was different than my editor on The Heat and calls it the “angry villagers theory.” That’s basically when an audience goes to see a comedy, they’re not going to see it because they think it’ll be shit, they’re going because they want to laugh and they’re excited to see something funny. So the first joke comes and if it doesn’t quite land, they’ll go, “That’s weird. Maybe I’ll wait for the next one.” And if the next one isn’t right, it very quickly adds up to turning all the villagers angry and they want to burn down the village. Then you go, “I’m in bad hands here.” You know when you hear a joke whether it’s funny or not; you know it’s supposed to be funny. That’s why, for us, I’d rather keep weeding jokes out.
I’d rather not have a joke than have a failed joke. You never want to swing and miss or swing and hit a single. So that’s why you need an audience to guide you along because it’s all about trust. Any director needs the trust of an audience. If you’re seeing a horror film and they’re pulling punches on you and somebody jumps out at you, you’re like, “Well, I don’t trust you now because I don’t know what you’re going to throw out at me next.” It gets you unsettled, and it’s the same thing in comedy.
Honestly, one of the biggest roles I have as a director is to make sure everything works. You’d think that would be obvious, but some directors get so in love with their stuff and that’s the slipperiest slope in the world. I always like going to a test screening with friends and family because you’ll hear the director or the editor giggling or laughing and stuff and you’re saying, “I know that’s funny to you because you’ve seen it 10 or 1100 times, and you know what happened on set as a result.” So it’s very hard to lose those moments because, generally, directors will sit in a test screening and when people don’t laugh, they’ll just say “Well, they didn’t get it,” or they’re like, “They’re smiling,” which is the slipperiest slope you can possibly get on. “They’re enjoying it, they’re just not laughing.” That doesn’t count; you have to take it out and find the better one for it. But it’s hard. You just have to be brutally honest with yourself and “kill a lot of babies” as they say. But that’s the great thing about DVDs: Your favorite jokes and moments can just go on the DVD extras. Before that, it was terrible. You’re like, “I love this, but nobody will see it.” DVDs have made movies better.
There’s a scene in The Heat where they have their noses taped up. That was like a 20-minute thing where they went off on this tangent and we put most of it on the extras. It’s just another way to show people how talented and funny these people are, especially with our supporting cast. It’s fun just to string all their jokes together and their improv and just [have] an appreciation of how they were. In service of the story we had to lose all these things, but we still appreciate how funny it was.