Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Who's Who in Comedy, Vol. 1

When you look at comedic actors in Hollywood movies, there are some interesting trends regarding who works with whom, and certain groups of people that tend to be involved in projects together. Now, everybody knows that show business is a business of connections, and that the work you get largely depends on whom you know and who recommends you. (People have just started figuring out recently that most businesses in fact work the same way; hiring in almost all fields these days is based more on relationships and referrals than qualifications and experience. I guess that’s what you’d call a business paradigm shift…)

But comedy is such a unique collaborative effort that the relationships between the particular performers involved can have a significant impact on the result. If comedic performers (actors, writers, directors, etc.) want to produce good comedy, it’s important that they have a good rapport and work well with their fellow performers. The relationship aspect of comedy has led to the formation of groups of comedians (cliques, if you will) who consistently collaborate on projects together. I’d like to talk a little bit about the people who make up these groups, where they come from, what makes them who they are, and where they might be going.

To understand the current comedy scene in Hollywood, one has to travel back to the mid-1990s, to the high point in the career of a certain Jim Carrey. Certainly we’ve all heard of Jim Carrey: he first came into the public eye with his work with the Wayans brothers on In Living Color (1990-94) (one in a long line of comedians to use television to jump start a film career). Then from 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective until 1998’s transition to seriousness with The Truman Show, Carrey pretty much had the comedy market cornered. And right in the middle of that span, Carrey collaborated with a young upstart named Ben Stiller on a movie called The Cable Guy.

Ben Stiller had an interesting start. He comes from showbiz stock: his parents are the comedy team Stiller and Meara (Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara). Ben began his career on stage in 1986, impressing his co-workers (among them John Mahoney) with his talent for mockumentary filmmaking. He also impressed the top brass of a little show called Saturday Night Live, and Stiller appeared briefly as a writer/performer in 1989 (the same year, incidentally, that Mike Myers started on the show, although the two would take their comedy on very different paths).

Stiller was able to parlay his success and recognition into his own show (The Ben Stiller Show), which lasted one full season from 1992-93. The show was co-created and produced by a fellow by the name of Judd Apatow (SPOILER ALERT!), who will become a major player later in the story. Stiller would make his directorial debut the following year (1994) with Reality Bites, before directing Jim Carrey in 1996’s The Cable Guy (also produced by Judd Apatow). Also in 1996, Stiller developed a short for the VH1 Fashion Awards about a fictional male model called Derek Zoolander.

At this point in the timeline, a new character enters the scene. The character: Will Ferrell. The scene: Saturday Night Live. Ferrell joined the cast in 1995, and in a few short years, starred in two movies based on his characters from the show (1998’s Night at the Roxbury and 1999’s Superstar). Two years later, Ben Stiller would write, direct, and produce a full-length feature based on his Zoolander character, which would feature Ferrell in a leading role.

Zoolander would also star Owen Wilson, who got his start in the ‘biz thanks to his old college buddy, director Wes Anderson. Up to the present, Wilson would play a major part in all of Anderson’s projects - whether as actor or writer or both - from 1994’s Bottle Rocket to 2007’s Darjeeling Limited. Wilson also had a small part in The Cable Guy, the first project he did with Ben Stiller. The pair would work together several times in the next few years, culminating with 2000’s Meet the Parents, and when Stiller helmed Zoolander in 2001, he offered the second lead to Owen Wilson. Later that year, Wilson returned the favor, offering Stiller a lead role in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (co-written by Wilson).

2003's Old School marked the inclusion of a couple of new faces: Owen Wilson’s brother Luke, and the tall, sardonic Vince Vaughn. These five guys became known around show business as the Frat Pack (a name largely inspired by the tone of Old School), and continue to appear in movies alongside one another to this very day. Some notable collaborations: Owen, Stiller, Vaughn, and Ferrell in Starsky & Hutch; Stiller and Vaughn in Dodgeball; Ferrell, Vaughn, Luke, and Stiller in Anchorman; and Owen, Vaughn, and Ferrell in Wedding Crashers.

So that’s pretty much it for the old guard. Each member of the pack went in different directions: Will Ferrell broke off with his own contingent for projects such as Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory, and Semi-Pro. Ben Stiller would go on to write, direct, and produce the critically acclaimed Tropic Thunder. Vince Vaughn garnered some uncomfortable tabloid attention due to his involvement with his The Break-Up co-star Jennifer Aniston. And of course Owen Wilson attempted suicide in 2007. But since then he’s sought treatment for depression and appears to be on the mend.

As regards moving forward, closer to the present comedy scene, the real gem of the Frat Pack’s body of work was

Anchorman, produced by Judd Apatow (remember him from some of Ben Stiller’s old projects?), who would end up having his hand in most significant comedy projects from that day to this. Apatow brought with him Steve Carell (who rose up the ranks through his work on The Daily Show) and Paul Rudd (wasn't he Phoebe's boyfriend on Friends?). But for the full story of the success of Judd Apatow and his followers, you’ll have to tune in next week. Same bat-time, same bat-…blog?