Though his style has been imitated in lousy comedies from Spy Hard to Fatal Instinct, David Zucker himself has never directed a bad movie. His filmography as a director—he was alone behind the camera for The Naked Gun, The Naked Gun 2 1/2, and the new BASEketball, and he co-directed Airplane!, Top Secret!, and Ruthless People with Jim Abrahams and his brother Jerry Zucker—is unblemished. Still, Zucker is perceived as a member of the ZAZ team rather than as a comedic force unto himself, despite the fact that the three men split to work on successful solo projects years ago. Jerry Zucker has been directing (Ghost, First Knight) and producing (My Best Friend's Wedding), while Jim Abrahams has continued in the joke-a-second comedy vein as the director of Hot Shots! and the new Mafia! Like his former collaborators, David Zucker has been slow to take directing jobs in the past few years, instead developing scripts and producing so-so comedies like The Naked Gun 33 1/3 and High School High. But with BASEketball, starring South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, he returns with a broad, often-hilarious sports comedy. Zucker recently spoke to The Onion about his formula, his stars (past and present), competing comedies, future projects, and the real-life sport of BASEketball.
The Onion: Your trademark has always been the layering of jokes, having multiple jokes taking place on the screen at the same time. What goes into that process?
David Zucker: Well, it's mainly editing. We start out by saying, okay, we know how these things go from years of experience. Everything has to be a joke or a set-up to a joke. There's no other thing that goes in there. And then the other part of that equation is that we still have to tell a story. So there's always some exposition. The best kind of exposition is the kind where you make jokes plot points and plot points jokes. One of my favorite scenes in BASEketball is the locker-room scene, because it's all exposition, yet you don't know it because what's going on is so funny. One of my favorite scenes in Naked Gun 2 1/2 was when George [Kennedy] and Leslie [Nielsen] are in the Blue Note Bar, and if you go back and look at that, it's all plot, but it's got a rhythm of set-up, joke, set-up, joke. It's mainly in the writing that that's done. And then, if we've done our writing correctly, we can do that. It's only when we have exposition where we just can't get a joke with it that you start to see the background jokes. The other reason we do background jokes is that we just don't think they're funny enough to put right up there. It's subtler if you just put them back there. In my movies, I think you have to meet us halfway. You can't just sit back and watch Jim Carrey making funny faces; you have to do some thinking. It took me years, decades, to realize what reviewers mean when they say, "You know, some of it is hit-and-miss. Some jokes work better than others, some jokes don't work." And I said, "Wait a minute. We go through all these previews to make sure every single joke… There is not a joke in there that doesn't work." Because all I hear is the laughs. If it gets that laugh… But the truth is that, in an audience of 600 people, 400 people think it's funny and 200 people say, "Eh, that's not funny," and it may be the reviewer. That's interesting, because I always assumed that everybody either all loves a joke or they all don't.
O: Yeah, this movie is funny. I will say the commercials had me a little unsure…
DZ: Really? What did you not like about the commercials?
O: Well, there were a few too many guy-hits-his-head-and-falls jokes…
DZ: That stuff. Well, we were just talking with Matt and Trey about how tough it is to sell movies. It's tough to put all these subtle gags in a trailer. We kind of call them "durp" trailers. They're just, "durp, durp, durp." It's just hit, hit, hit. What gets the biggest laugh is when Matt hits the little kid in the head. So, I don't know. We've got a lot of new spots coming up. There's always gonna be some of that stuff.
O: How do you feel about the fact that BASEketball is coming out two weeks after There's Something About Mary, and a week after Mafia!, and right before Wrongfully Accused?
DZ: Well, those are the things I can't control. That's out of my hands. I know I have to compete, and if There's Something About Mary is better… Have you seen it?
O: It's really, really funny.
DZ: It's really funny, and it'll do what it'll do. I like the Farrellys [brothers Peter and Bobby, who directed There's Something About Mary]. In fact, Pete Farrelly was a BASEketball player; he was on one of the teams. And Jim [Abrahams, who directed Mafia!], of course, I go back years and years with. This is the first time I've actually had to compete with one of my brothers, so it's an odd situation, because not everyone can win. I don't think there are enough customers around to have everyone be happy.
O: But at the same time, people are hungry for comedy.
DZ: I think so, and why can't they see the Farrellys on Friday, us on Saturday, and Jim Abrahams on Sunday? If any of these movies are good, people will see them. They'll see There's Something About Mary, and they'll see BASEketball. I don't think there's any rule that says you can only see one comedy. I hope the Farrellys make a lot of money, and I hope Jim makes a lot of money, and I hope we do well, but I try not to spend any time worrying about that, because there's so much work to do to get our own movie out. You can't rest until the day it opens. We could not have made a better… I'm just so happy with how it turned out. It was supposed to be this small little offbeat art film. [Laughs.]
O: You're certainly aided by the fame of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, which came on incredibly suddenly.
DZ: Right. It came on during the shooting. When we took them on to do the movie, we had to plead with the studio to let us do it. And then they said, "Only if it's really low-budget." So, that's what we did. And now it should be very profitable—it has to be, because of the budget [about $20 million]. But we didn't have the budget that the Farrellys had, or that Jim Abrahams had, or anybody. These guys would be my first choice anyway. I always envied the guys who got to turn the cameras on Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. And now, I have 'em. It's about time.
O: You've never…
DZ: I've never had big stars.
O: Or too many people who were really perceived as comedians. Your stuff has usually had a straight man reacting.
DZ: Which is a lot harder. Everything has to come from behind the monitors. You don't get any help from in front of the camera, whereas with Matt and Trey, it was a big collaboration, and if something wasn't working, we had not only [co-writers] Bob LoCash and Lewis Friedman and Jeff Wright suggesting things, we also had Matt and Trey. We never got that from actors before.
O: And your next project, Toddlers, is with Eddie Murphy, so you'll have another movie with a comedian in it. What does that project entail?
DZ: It's pretty funny. It was written by [Lowell] Ganz and [Babaloo] Mandel [City Slickers, Fathers' Day], and it's a real out-there concept about these guys who crash-land in a Shangri-La type of valley, and it's a land of 20-foot people. They're perceived as being kids. It's great; we just have to cast somebody else.
O: I was afraid it was going to be like a Baby's Day Out kind of thing when I saw the title.
DZ: Oh, no no no. I'd never do that. If you saw me doing that, that means that I lost all my money. Hopefully, that will not happen.
O: Now, as far as BASEketball the game goes, I read that you did a game-show pilot…
DZ: Yeah, I was trying to do something with it, because I just loved the idea. People should know about BASEketball, so, wanting to preach to the unwashed, we tried this game-show pilot, which was totally stupid, but it was with Chris Rock. Chris Rock played BASEketball, and so did Scott Valentine, Eric Dickerson of the Rams… It was like doing Police Squad! Police Squad! was great, but it was in the wrong medium. I always end up doing things as a movie when I come to my senses. But then we tried doing it as an HBO thing, and the script sucked so badly, I just said, you know, "Abort. We're bailing on this." And then it was dormant for many years, until… I had been working on this Davy Crockett thing [Crockett, a bio-pic Zucker is co-writing] for a long time, and that script has just never quite come to where I was ready to do it. Then BASEketball came up again; I don't know why. I just needed to do a movie, because we had signed with Universal. So we pitched BASEketball and some other low-budget idea, thinking that Lewis Friedman and Jeff Wright would do the writing and we would farm it out to someone, and do it for under $3 million. But the script that Friedman and Wright came up with was pretty good, so LoCash and I came on and started rewriting, and then Matt and Trey came on, and it was further rewritten until it became BASEketball.
O: Now, you had stopped playing the game at this point.
DZ: Yeah, we played from '82 to '92. Part of the fun of it was that there was always something new that we were doing, and it was always getting bigger and bigger. Once it got to be as big as the Ernest Borgnine scene [where Borgnine's eccentric billionaire approaches Parker and Stone about starting a professional league], we were like, "Where are we going to go from this?"
O: That's the point at which the movie stops being autobiographical.
DZ: Yeah, that's right. [Laughs.] It stopped there. From that point, it's, "What if a billionaire had come up and said, 'How about a league?'" I still think it could… It could be a TV show, combining [MTV's] Rock 'n' Jock with Make Me Laugh, where you have guest comedians doing the psyche-outs. [A key element of the sport involves trying to psyche out opposing players as they take their shots.] This thing could work. It would be really funny, a whole new type of game show. The game-show idea might actually work, if it can be made visually… Obviously, they get away with Rock 'n' Jock. I think it could be a television series.
O: You're still sort of perceived as a part of The Zucker Brothers.
DZ: Yeah, I'll never get away from it. [Laughs.]
O: People probably think that…
DZ: People think that the three of us did the Naked Gun movies. That's not true at all. Jerry wrote 20 pages and Jim wrote 20 pages of the first Naked Gun, and then they were gone. It's because they were the producers, and we were so identified as a team…
O: And you had directed movies as a team.
DZ: Yeah, we did them as a team until Ruthless People [in 1986], and then we were separate.
O: It's funny, because that was 12 years ago, and people are still asking, "Why did they split up?"
DZ: Yeah. No, Jerry and I still have a company together [Zucker Brothers Productions], and we're still good friends with Jim, but this Toddlers thing [which David is directing and Jerry is producing] is gonna be a blip on the radar. It's going to be a departure, because Jerry and I have totally different interests in what kind of things we think would make good movies. With almost every movie the two of us have done separately, one has tried to talk the other out of doing it. [Laughs.] I said, "You're not gonna do this Ghost thing, are you?" [Laughs.] I said to him, "Listen, no matter how you slice it, you end up with a dead guy at the end. He's killed in the first 15 minutes of the movie." And then I thought, well, maybe he can be revived and brought back to Earth or something. And he's like, "No, he's dead." "How can you do this?! This sucks!" [Laughs.] And when I saw the movie, I thought it was great. I mean, I really liked Ghost. And then he [produced] My Best Friend's Wedding. I didn't understand that script either; I thought it was very mild. But when I saw the movie, I thought it was very entertaining, and my mother was great in it. You know what else was great about that movie? That Jerry got P.J. Hogan to direct it. I mean, yikes. You talk about the director mattering? That guy took… The script was okay, I thought, but this guy… He put in all the singing in the restaurants and stuff. And had I been in on P.J. Hogan's script session, where he wrote that, I would have said, "You can't do this. Or, if you can do it, you can do it for 10 seconds, but not for the whole song." And he did it twice. He's a major guy. I really admire what he did.
O: So, how did you get people like Bob Costas and Robert Stack to say all those horrible things?
DZ: Well, with Costas, it was in the script, and he was fine with it. And Stack was, too. He's a real good sport, and he's really funny. People don't know how funny he is, and offscreen, he's not this straitlaced guy. He has a great sense of humor. Bob Stack is always joking around.
O: Is this the first movie to feature the comedy stylings of Yasmine Bleeth?
DZ: I think so. This is her first comedy. She was great, much better than I thought she'd ever be, because I had never watched Baywatch. I didn't think anybody who was on Baywatch could be good as an actress, but she really is. I would work with her again in a second.
O: You managed to fit a lot of product placements in there.
DZ: Yeah, we went with whoever would pay us. I told them that my director's vision is, "Every page is for sale." [Laughs.] It was such a tight budget, you wouldn't believe it. They were no fancy trailers, and everybody took less money. We all wanted to do it.
O: What is this Davy Crockett movie?
DZ: We haven't picked it up for a year, so LoCash and I have to re-examine it and try to find a new approach.
O: Now, that's going to be a drama?
DZ: It's gonna be a drama, yeah, but the thing is that Crockett was not like Disney portrayed, or John Wayne. He was really a zany, crazy guy, like a Will Rogers type of guy. And he was popular because he went out and told the truth, no matter who it offended. His downfall was that he wouldn't compromise, and he wasn't really a very good congressman because he got nothing done for his district. And that's why he was defeated in his election and had to go to Texas, where he became involved in this big real-estate scheme; they were gonna take over Texas from the Mexicans and make it part of the United States. It's basically the same thing Daniel Boone did in Kentucky, which was all land speculation. It's kind of been handed down to us as a whole different thing; he wanted to be president one day, but he got trapped at the Alamo and couldn't leave because of his legend. Davy Crockett couldn't be seen to have escaped from the Alamo, and that's what I see as interesting about it—just to tell the truth about Davy Crockett. I'm still a big Davy Crockett fan, because if you read what he really stood for… [President Andrew] Jackson was trying to steal all the land from the Indians, and there was Crockett in Congress saying, "Uh, dude, it's not right." And for that, he was defeated.
O: Do you think you're going to have trouble getting that movie made because it's not going to be a madcap comedy?
DZ: No, not for that reason. The problem is that what the business is nowadays is… This is the drill: You have to write a script, and once you have Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Bruce Willis, or Tom Cruise, you can shoot anything you want. But you first have to bring back the broom of the Wicked Witch Of The West. The first thing you do is write a script that will attract an actor, and that will get you… I think that doing the Davy Crockett script will involve probably a two-and-a-half-hour movie, and the budget is going to be at least $50 million. So that starts running into money. That means you need a major actor. But there are always people coming up.
O: You always have friends and relatives doing cameos in your movies. Do you ever make acquaintances who are like, "Dude, you've got to get me in your movie!"
DZ: Only Kato Kaelin. [Laughs.] He was a friend, so we put him in.
O: Screenwriters are always underappreciated. It must be frustrating to see people billed as, like, "Leslie Nielsen, Comedy Genius."
DZ: Well, yeah, and everything guys like Leslie Nielsen say and do onscreen is put in from backstage. Everything's being controlled from Houston. He doesn't even flick a switch; he's just up there in the capsule, and all he can do is act. All you have to do is watch him in anything else—Mr. Magoo, or Repossessed… You know, all these people think, you know, Leslie Nielsen, that guy's funny! Let's get him for our movie! And then they have him trying to be funny, but he needs good jokes.
O: There won't be another Naked Gun sequel, right?
DZ: No. Matt and Trey and LoCash and I would laugh about, you know… The whole idea of spoof, to me, is just so done and gone. I'm very proud of all three of the Naked Guns, but I think we've declared victory. Pull out and leave 'em laughing. To grind Leslie Nielsen through another… That would be so pathetic.