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Ed Helms brings a unique flavor to the funny served up in THE HANGOVER.
While I did find the antics of Zach Galifianakis more endearing and weirdly comedic Ed Helms proved that he can be front and center in a film and not just relegated to the background. His turn as Stu Price, the spineless and browbeaten boyfriend of a woman more likely to tear your manhood off before ever going to a place like Las Vegas just to ensure your fun doesn’t get out of hand, is masterfully executed. His time with the Upright Citizens Brigade helped to hone the ability to bring the comedy within a group and it pays dividends in this movie. He stopped by Phoenix recently to answer some questions in a roundtable fashion, he participated in a Q&A the night before to a general audience that actually asked the question “Did Mike Tyson really hit Zach Galifianakis?” (yeah, we breed geniuses up in this desert), and I’ve made sure to break out which questions I actually asked. And, yeah, to paraphrase Ed, it was fuckin’ hot out there…
THE HANGOVER opens today.
QUESTION: Welcome to Arizona.
ED HELMS: Thank you very much.
Q: How has it been treating you?
HELMS: I just got in last night and have been driving around all morning to all these different interviews so it’s been fun.
Q: Well you got here on a day when it’s not too hot and crazy, so that’s good.
HELMS: Is that right? Because it’s pretty fuckin’ hot out there.
Q: This is mild compared to what’s coming.
HELMS: Oh boy. Glad I don’t live here.
Q: I have to ask about the missing tooth thing. It looks so real.
HELMS: OK, so the tooth is totally real in the movie. I actually have an implant here that I got when I was about 15. It’s been there for about 20 years and when we were discussing how to make the tooth look like it was gone, we tried to black it out, we did some camera tests and then they made a prosthetic for me but it made me look like a donkey so there was no way we were doing that. Then I just thought “Hey, why don’t I just ask my dentist what’s the deal with this?” and he said, “Yeah, I think we can actually do that safely.” So we took the tooth out for three months and I had a removable tooth for those three months and now that the movie wrapped it went right back in and this is the new one and it’s permanent again.
Q: Did they have that written before?
HELMS: Totally. It was in the script.
Q: So what are the odds?
HELMS: Yeah, just super lucky and ironically when I was a teenager I had a removable tooth before I got the implant and I took it out for a high school play too where I played this redneck. So I guess that was good training or something.
Q: How close did you get to the tiger and was it more or less ferocious than Mike Tyson?
HELMS: I got really, really close to the tiger, closer than we are sitting right now on numerous occasions. In my head it was the most ferocious animal ever, in reality I think it really was pretty docile. Tyson was – there was no comparison. He was a delight. He was really cool and fun and disarming and eager to screw around and have a good time. The tiger though was crazy and the whole time you’re working with the tiger there’s this little voice in the back of your head just saying “this is so stupid – you should not be here.”
Q: A bunch of guys on the set with tranquilizer guns?
HELMS: No, they had a few trainers around and the trainers have them on a leash but the lease isn’t anchored to anything and the tiger weighs twice as much as the trainer so it’s like, is this sufficient? The trainers had this cavalier attitude where at one point – you know the scene where I toss the steak to him – we did a bunch of takes of that and a couple takes in Todd Phillips said try to hit them in the head with the steak. And I’m like, I don’t think that’s a very good idea. And he said, come on, just try it and let’s see what happens. So I asked the trainer, what happens if I hit him in the head? Because I was so close to the tiger and I knew I could hit him in the head. I asked the trainer if he thought he would flip out if I hit him in the head. He said, “I don’t know. Let’s try it.”
And that was their attitude about everything by the way. There was no scientific process here. It was just, “Fuck it…What the hell…Let’s give it a try.” Against all better judgment I did try to hit the tiger in the head and it turns out, you can’t do that because the tiger’s reflexes are so quick he will catch the steak anywhere near his head if it’s airborne. I keep trying to hit him in the head but he would just catch it in his mouth. I don’t think any of that is in the movie. I don’t remember which take they used.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: I think the very last one. You mentioned it last night.
HELMS: Oh you were at the Q&A?
CS: You said you were out of steaks.
HELMS: And I was using the plastic steak. But there’s a few edits in that but maybe not. I don’t remember now. The very end of the shot is a composite of the tiger leaping at a trainer and me running away scared. But I think it cuts to a reverse like over the tiger of me coming in at one point. I can’t remember now. I have to look at again.
CS: Speaking of that, tied into the way you explain Zach Galifianakis’ impersonation of the pepper on the steak, Ben Stiller this week on Howard Stern was talking about what a miserable experience Mystery Man was and he kind of talked about it on a larger sense and said, “You know what, for comedy to really work on film you have to be one of those guys who does one take, two take, you can’t over think it.” You can’t over think it. You can’t overdo it. You just have to go in there, know what’s funny, do it and be confident in that. How was it working with Todd and his philosophy on when he thinks he’s got the funny on film?
HELMS: I’m curious – I’m not sure what Ben meant. Did he say just do as many takes as you want?
CS: No, that’s what was so aggravating to him, that they lost that spontaneity and ended up with a laborious…”Alright, let’s do take 37.”
HELMS: Who directed that movie?
CS: I don’t know but he said he hasn’t done anything after that.
HELMS: I’m trying to remember. I think it was a commercial director. Anyway, it wasn’t a terrible movie.
CS: No, it was good but he just stressed how you just can’t over think it.
HELMS: Yeah, I totally agree with that. Todd is a master. He’s such a good director. He knows what he wants but is so collaborative, he listens but also incredibly manipulative in a good way. You’ll find yourself doing things that maybe you were hesitant about and then find out that he cajoles you into it and you’re glad he did at the end of the day, because it looked great or it was a really strong comedic choice.
I know Zach. He’s so funny because the baby thing and wearing a jock strap – there were a number of jokes that Zach actually pitched ironically as a joke, like wouldn’t it be funny if I did this…and then Todd said, “Yeah, you are actually going to do that now.” And Zach was like “Dammit, I got talked into it” and of course, they are the funniest bits of the movie. So there’s a lot of trust we all put in Todd and I think he earned it and used it wisely.
As far as over-thinking…I like to do lots of takes because I love to play around. I’ve actually worked with Ben and we’ve done lots of takes too. As long as, and I’m going to try and read into Ben’s words but I didn’t hear it firsthand , but there is something, even when you are doing lots of takes you want to keep it fresh. You don’t want to talk about it too much because it just doesn’t help. Just throw it out there and in the time it takes to discus if something’s funny, you could have done four takes and tried it four different ways and I totally agree with that. You also get momentum when you do a lot of takes when you don’t stop and talk because talking puts the brakes on your process as you are trying to stay in the moment. It’s fun to whittle something down over a series of takes. You get a little kernel of an idea you riff on it and start going but it’s too long, you didn’t quite get it right. So you do it again and it’s a little shorter and there’s lots of moments like that in the movie.
Like when we come back to the hotel after Mr. Chow beats us up with the crowbar and we get to the door of the hotel room and Zach goes what about the tiger? And Brad is like, “Oh yeah, the tiger.” And I say “I wonder why” or something like that and then Zach goes, “That’s one of the side effects of herpes, you forget things.” Brad says “I keep forgetting about the tiger, how did the tiger get in there” and I look at Zach and go, “I don’t know, I don’t remember. ” Doesn’t pick up on it, just “Yeah, one of the side effects of herpes” and I go “You are literally too stupid to insult” and he goes, “Thank you”…just completely straight. We must have done that about 15 times and always different with different riffs and tangents but over a series of takes, Todd would say “Take that out” or “Do this” and our own discretion would filter in and we wound up with a really quick little exchange that has a couple of great beats in it. So, that’s a little bit about the process.
Q: Who makes you laugh?
HELMS: Oh my gosh, so many people make me laugh. If I go way back, some of the initial reasons I decided I wanted to get into comedy was really those SNL shows in the 80’s, like when I was a very little kid I started watching Saturday Night Live and I just was so enamored with the energy of the show. I didn’t get it I don’t think at the time but I just wanted to be a part of that energy. Eddie Murphy was hands down one of the reasons I ever wanted to do comedy but his era around that time was also Joe Piscopo, Martin Short, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Michael Keaton. Phil Hartman is one of my all time favorites and I still get misty sometimes because I always wanted to meet him and it breaks my heart I will never get that chance. He just meant so much to me and I was really devastated when we lost him.
The next chapter of SNL is Mike Myers, David Spade, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and they all just made me laugh and made me want to be a part of it – Will Farrell and Terry O’Terry and that wave Chris Kattan… So really SNL was a big thing and everyone in it – Ellen Cleghorne – just so many moments and such a fun world. Outside of SNL I was a huge Bill Cosby fan as a little kid. I had a bunch of his records and I got super into Jerry Seinfeld and still just adore. A lot of comedians make me laugh.
Q: I’m thinking about the banjo. Are you a fan of Steve Martin?
HELMS: Yea, Steve Martin. He’s the man. He’s an idol of mine on many fronts. He is just a guy that leads his life in a very upstanding way and has maintained an incredible career as a comedic actor and then of course he’s an insanely good banjo player. I love a lot of the songs he’s written. I learned a bunch of them. So, yea, he’s definitely on that list. I could go on forever. In the standup area, there’s this guy, Brian Regan. Do you know who he is?
HELMS: He’s just one of my favorite comedians ever. Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt, Mitch Hedberg, really make me laugh. And Zach is a great stand up. He’s just this wickedly, witty guy. I don’t know what it is. He’s just got something really special. That’s a long list.
HELMS: And it’s really longer too. I just love comedy and comedians. Such a fun world.
Q: In 100 words or less describe Heather Graham’s kiss.
HELMS: Hmm….100 words or less. How about this? Just silky smooth.
HELMS: Is that less than 100 words?
Q: Did you screw up that scene enough so you could retake it over and over again?
HELMS: Yeah. I asked Heather to rehearse that a bunch but she didn’t want to do that. No, it’s a funny thing. Everyone asks me that but the reality is in that scene I’m surprised by the kiss so I don’t actually kiss her back. So, it’s not a mutual kiss. It’s her kissing me. So to be totally candid, it wasn’t that great for me because I didn’t get to engage the kiss in anyway. But that said, just to have Heather Graham kiss you, even on the cheek, is just so uplifting. She’s so peculiar because she’s this sunshiny, bright effervescent woman but also has this Buddha like serenity and comfort with herself and just drops these little pearls of wisdom about her life experience. And it’s like, wow, I think she could be a guru. People would really follow her.
Q: Wasn’t she in that movie?
HELMS: Oh, she was? Yes, she’s really something.
Q: Are you anything like Stu in real life? And if not, if you were actually in the events of The Hangover, which character would you be more like?
HELMS: I am like Stu. I regret and it pains me to admit I am a bit more like Stu than I would like to acknowledge. Am I exactly like Stu? Of course not. I think I have a little more awareness and not in as much denial about issues in my life, particularly regarding relationships and so forth as Stu is. That said when I was doing the movie and thinking about how to respond to moments in the narrative, I really tapped into my own gut reaction to things and I think we all did actually. It is sort of why the movie stays somehow, in the face of the most craziest and most ridiculous things happening, it stays plausible to me. At least to me it does. That was a lot of Todd wanting us to be ourselves and respect us and respond honestly to each situation.
CS: Coming through UCB which has produced just an enormous amount of talent, you can talk about the west coast Groundlings, how did that – you went from a lover of comedy when you were younger and then said to yourself I have to learn to do comedy and went to New York or doing UCB, getting your way on the Daily Show, then The Office, how does that transform when you were learning what’s important on live theater when working in front of a live group, The Office is perfect as is the Daily Show because you have to work with an ensemble. It obviously came across on the film because you, Bradley and Zach seemed like a very cohesive – the chemistry is perfect – how did that at least when you were learning how to deal with the group dynamic in comedy – did you ever go from thinking comedy was one way and then going into UCB and actually learning what the secrets are as to what makes good comedy?
HELMS: I don’t think UCB has a monopoly on any sort of secrets as to what’s funny, or how to be funny but that said, it has very quickly established itself on par with the Second City in Chicago and the Groundlings in LA, both of which were avenues which I considered going down. When I was in college I wondered how I was going to do this. I had to get into comedy. So, I analyzed the careers of those people I mentioned before and really thought methodically about how they went about it and I boiled it down to three tracks basically. One was the Groundlings in LA and that was Will Ferrell and Phil Hartman and Molly Shannon, Sherry O’Terry, Chris Purnell, Chris Kattan, they all came out of the Groundlings.
Then there was Second City which had the real old tradition of Saturday Night Live going all the way back to Belushi and Aykroyd and also the Toronto Second City with Martin Short and John Candy. Then the other avenue was doing standup in New York City which was Adam Sandler and Chris Rock and a handful of others, Eddie Murphy. And, Eddie Murphy was again my guy. He’s the one I wanted to be like the most. And Jimmy Fallon I think also came into the New York City comedy bracket. So, that just seemed like the best fit for me and I wanted to be in New York City. And it wasn’t for a few years, around 2000, I had been doing standup in New York for a while and started to establish some credibility and started to ratchet it up a bit and then that’s when USB started to pick up steam and offer classes and some comedian friends of mine were starting to look into it and I just loved that energy. I went to go check it out and started hanging out there doing shows.
It was really cool because in Chicago the impov and standup worlds are very competitive and separate. It’s a different world. In New York they just reinforced each other in a really cool way in a symbiotic kind of relationship between the improve world and the standup world. The UCB was hosting standup shows at their theatre and I just worked my way up and took all the classes and I joined a team there so I could perform regularly. The improve training, as great as UCB is I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on these ideas but I did happen to learn at UCB about being incredibly present in the scene or as an actor listening to the other actors in the scene because that’s what improve is all about. They hammer it into you. It’s almost like a weird – something bigger than the individual – an energy – a good energy – a good improve scene is bigger than anyone in it. Something happening that everyone is contributing to. It’s like jazz. People make that analogy a lot. Good jazz is everyone doing their own thing and putting a little spice and flavor in places and creating something that no one could have created by themselves.
It’s a real sort of celebration of communal effort and that’s something, that’s certainly as a standup you don’t ever learn but it’s what forms great comedy. When you see it on film, guys like Ben Stiller and Seth Rogan who are so generous with what’s going on around them and with what’s going on with the other actors, it’s not about owning a moment, it’s about sharing it and I try to the extent that I can, try to bring it to my work too.
Q: Bigger diva? Colbert or Stewart.
HELMS: I would say that Colbert is a huge diva but a lot of it’s ironic and adorable. Stephen Colbert is – I am just so lucky to have been around him at that time because he and Carell are like huge – all I did was copy them. I showed up on the Daily Show and I was like these two guys have cracked it. They are doing it right. They are very different but Colbert and Carell have very different MO’s on that show and they are doing it right so I’m just going to try and do what they do and maybe over the course of five years maybe I found my own voice a little bit, but it started out like I just gotta do it the way they do it because they are so good.
Colbert was so supportive. He had a lot of seniority when I joined the show but I always would go to him for advice and he was really generous with it. It’s really cool. Stephen is so smart and so quick and also a step ahead of you. But there are moments after a while that I think he began to get to know me and trust me as a friend that you get these fleeting moments of genuine interaction with him and it’s incredibly gratifying. He’s a really smart and generous guy. Really. How fuckin’ funny is his show? I email him from time to time and just say that was genius. And, it’s just pure him. Obviously he’s got a great staff, I don’t want to take anything away from them, but his brain is something that’s extremely rare.
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