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A Jewish Slice of ‘American Pie’

by Naomi Pfefferman

August 9, 2001 | 8:00 pm

The cast of "American Pie 2"

The cast of "American Pie 2"

On the set of "American Pie," actor Jason Biggs at one point took screenwriter Adam Herz aside. "Dude, did you do it?" he whispered.

It's the question everyone has asked Herz since Biggs' infamous pie-nookie scene made pop culture history and "Pie" became a sleeper hit in 1999, grossing about $240 million worldwide.

So Herz, 28, sets the record straight just before the Aug. 3 release of "American Pie 2." He never got fresh with baked goods. He didn't make a pact with his high school buddies to lose his virginity before graduation (though lose his virginity he did). He never got caught watching a scrambled porn channel. His dad didn't try to educate him about sex with a copy of Jugs magazine.

"It's just that I always wanted to bring back the kind of teen movie where partying and sex were of the utmost importance," the cocky, darkly comic writer told The Journal. "But I wanted the characters to be like real, actual kids who acted like I did when I was a teenager. So I just wrote the way we talked and the types of people that I knew."

It's yet another example of how Hollywood takes one Jew's experience and transforms it into a pop culture phenomenon.

The new film "Wet Hot American Summer" by David Wain and Michael Showalter also turns the creators' Jewish summer camp memories into a "Meatballs"-esque romp. Before these movies, there was Jerry on "Seinfeld," whose Jewish neuroses provided the biggest laughs on TV in the '90s. Billy Crystal and his cronies lived out their Jewish childhood fantasies on the range in "City Slickers" (1991) and "City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold" (1994). The NBC hit "Will & Grace," created by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, is based on the gay Mutchnick's friendship with a straight Jewish woman. "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David plays an acerbic curmudgeon in HBO's wickedly funny "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Now comes another slice of "Pie," which will again turn a geeky Jewish kid and his friends into the summer's uncontested teenage heroes.

The character of Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is reminiscent of the brainy kids who squeamishly avoided the bathroom at Herz's school. Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) is like the doofus who repeated her band camp stories ad nauseam in Herz's physics class. Jim (Biggs) is the likable shlemazl who couldn't get to first base with girls. "His whole thing is all about his insecurity," Herz confides. "At his age, I also used to get very nervous, and tense up and withdraw around girls."

Even today, he quips, "I don't do 'good date.' And the only other dates I can find are the women who don't do 'good date.' So we butt heads, and it's just futile."

In the sequel -- which takes place the summer after the characters go off to college -- we officially learn that Jim, like Herz, is Jewish. His last name, Levenstein, is revealed just after a humiliating sequence involving Super Glue and a sensitive body part. "In my mind, Jim, like me, is a guy who had a bar mitzvah but protested going to Sunday school," says Herz, who identifies more with the cultural aspects of Judaism.

He was one of only a few Jewish kids at his high school in East Grand Rapids, Mich., but that didn't stop him from being elected president of his class. He says his classmates were too ignorant to be anti-Semitic. "It was like, 'So, you're Jewish. Have you gotten your Christmas tree yet?'" Herz recalls.

One of his primary goals in high school was drinking and partying. His term paper of choice at the University of Michigan: dissecting teen flicks such as "Porky's."

A few months after graduation in 1996, he was working as a production assistant in Los Angeles when a friend suggested he try writing. Within a year, he had a manager and a project labeled "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy Which Can Be Made for Under Ten Million Dollars Which Studio Readers Will Hate But We Think You Will Love."

Herz was 25 the day his "Pie" script went out to five studios on Jan. 23, 1998. Hours later, he'd made $650,000. His response to the sale: "I yelled 'Holy s--t' many times," he says.

Though a "Pie" sequel was a no-brainer, Herz was initially reluctant to write it. "The last thing I wanted was to get pegged as 'that teen comedy guy,'" he says.

He caved in when his schedule cleared and another scribe fell through; for inspiration, he put all his old fake ID's on his writing desk. He also recalled the summer after his freshman year of college, when he painted houses with his old high school buddies and daydreamed about sexy hausfraus inviting him inside for lemonade. His characters come to the same realization as Herz did that summer: "In high school, friendships are automatic, because you see your friends every day," says the writer. "After you go away to college, the relationships take work."

Herz, who is also "Pie 2's" executive producer, will explore his current dating pet peeves in an untitled project he's slated to write and direct for Universal. "In high school and college, you can date with impunity," he explains. "But in your [late 20s], there's the pathos and the desperation. It's like, 'Can I pleeeease buy you a sandwich?' I just hate that."

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