“I’ve definitely been riding the ‘awkward train’ my entire career,” says John Hamburg, co-writer and director of the new comedy, “I Love You, Man.”
“I had no trouble figuring out who was the wimpy Jewish kid in high school, because it was me and everyone else I knew.”
Hamburg — who is also Ben Stiller’s in-house screenwriter — remembers himself as a skinny kid with a mop of hair resembling Soupy Sales. “I had some lean years with girls, which is the best thing ever for a comedy writer, because you just tap into those feelings any time you’re working,” he says. “It’s all the stuff I’ve written about in the Ben Stiller movies — that you’re not quite comfortable in your own skin.”
Stiller’s comic anxiety, in such Hamburg projects as “Meet the Parents,” stems partly from the character’s status as a Jew in an upscale WASP world.
In “I Love You, Man,” the neurosis comes from the travails of a bridegroom, Peter (Paul Rudd), who is dismayed to discover on the eve of his nuptials he has no male buddies close enough to serve as his best man. To remedy the situation, he embarks upon a series of “man-dates,” ultimately meeting Sydney (Jason Segel), a character not dissimilar to the stoner misfits Segel has played in Judd Apatow films, including “Knocked Up.” What ensues is an awkward but tender “bromance” — meaning a platonic male friendship played out in dude-lingo, such as “chillaxing,” — which is helping to redefine the romantic comedy.
Hamburg worked on Apatow’s TV series, “Undeclared”; “I Love You, Man,” signifies his continuing ties to the School of Apatow, whose crude-but-sweet comedies rely heavily on male bonding, and Jewish male bonding at that. Along with Segel and Rudd (whose forbears are English Jews), “I Love You, Man” stars the Jewish actors Andy Samberg (“Saturday Night Live”) and Jon Favreau (“Swingers”), with a cameo by David Krumholtz (“Numb3rs”). While only Favreau’s character is described as Jewish — by mentioning his “Jewfro” — the comic chemistry, at least in the eyes of this beholder, is enhanced by the actors’ shared heritage. Hamburg, however, traces it to similar comic influences such as Steve Martin. “Was there Torah study on the set? No,” Hamburg quips. “But we could have had a minyan if there were a few more of us around.”
Rudd and Stiller share a kind of comic vulnerability, he said: “There are movie stars like George Clooney, where the audience says, ‘I just want to be like him.’ And then there are people like Ben Stiller and Paul Rudd ... where viewers go, ‘He seems like a guy I might have gone to Hebrew school with, he’s that relatable.’ So he can go through the pain or the torture for the audience.”
Hamburg, 38, admitted to mining his own family relationships for comic effect. “I have a large, close Jewish family, and I’ve observed the way my relatives interact — with a warmth and an aggression and all sorts of fighting and every possible human emotion, within the course of one Passover seder,” he said. “I’ve tried to exploit that dynamic in popular film comedies.”
His mother, Joan Hamburg, labeled “New York Radio’s Folksy Powerhouse” in The New York Times for her commentaries on food and bargains, was also profiled under the headline: “And You Should See the Lobster Salad at $42 a Pound.” The filmmaker adores his mother but prefers to buy retail — his suits come from Barney’s — though he did exploit his bargain of a Super-8 camera to create a short film, “Ernie,” while attending New York’s prestigious Dalton School.
It was about a “wimpy Jewish kid who becomes a superhero and defeats the villain, the class bully,” he recalled. Hearing the entire student body laugh at his movie during an assembly cemented his desire to pursue film comedies.
Hamburg’s first feature film, “Safe Men” (1998), tells of two lounge singers mistaken for safecrackers by a Jewish mobster (Michael Lerner), who throws his son the kind of lavish bar mitzvah Hamburg attended on the Upper East Side in the 1980s. The low-budget production couldn’t quite recreate the opulence of some of those real-life parties, although the fictional bar mitzvah boy does emerge from the floor on an oversized hockey puck for his sports-themed reception.
The quirky and unabashedly Jewish comedy caught the eye of Ben Stiller, who chanced to see the film at a Nantucket festival and went on to make Hamburg his screenwriter on films such as “Zoolander” and “Along Came Polly,” the latter of which Hamburg also directed. In “Meet the Parents” and its sequel, “Meet the Fockers,” Stiller plays a nebbishy nurse who is continually humiliated by his father-in-law (Robert De Niro), a former CIA agent.
Those movies have been wildly popular, although some reviewers have described the fictional Fockers — played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand — as insulting Jewish stereotypes. In response, Hamburg repeats that he was only exaggerating his own family dynamics — not just the volatility, but what he affectionately describes as “maniacal parental doting.” His own father tends to recite Hamburg’s entire filmography at cocktail parties; the Fockers, in turn, display a trophy reading, “Mazel Tov. Gaylord M. Focker. World’s Greatest Nurse!”
“The non-Jewish characters in the film are not anti-Semitic,” Hamburg continued, “but there is the sense that Ben feels out of place among WASPS and also because he is a man who is not a doctor, but a nurse, which creates a kind of stigma. I like to write about these kinds of things that people think about but don’t often discuss.”
How men make friends is another not-often-discussed topic, which sparked the idea for “I Love You, Man.”
“There’s no real rubric for male friendship,” Hamburg explains. “If I meet someone and think, ‘I’d love to hang out with this guy,’ I worry he’ll think it’s weird if I call him. Women have an easier time of it, because if one woman calls another, there’s no subtext of, ‘Does she want to date me?’ I think because of the way guys are raised, we’re expected to put on a stoic exterior and not admit that we’re lonely or need friends.”
So will Hamburg continue to ride the “awkward train”?
“I may stop and get off at some point,” he says with a laugh.
“I Love You, Man” opens March 20.