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Balancing humor and current events in ‘Zohan’ proved to be a struggle for Smigel

by Jay Firestone

June 5, 2008 | 2:30 pm

L-R: Messrs. Smigel, Apatow, Sandler

L-R: Messrs. Smigel, Apatow, Sandler

When Robert Smigel needed inspiration to co-write "You Don't Mess With The Zohan" with Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow, he recalled an Israeli counselor at a Jewish summer camp he attended in the 1970s -- Camp Moden in Maine.

"He was a veteran of the army and was this good-looking guy.... He had a Fu Manchu mustache and long hair, and he actually wore the Daisy Duke short-shorts and sandals," Smigel said. "I saw his face a lot when I was thinking of dialogue."

"Zohan," which opens nationwide on June 6, follows Zohan Dvir, a skilled and sexually provocative Israeli counter-terrorist super-agent (Sandler), who fakes his own death to pursue a hair styling career in New York. Haaretz describes the film as "'Shampoo' meets 'Munich' meets 'Happy Gilmore.'"

Although "Zohan" walks a fine line between offensive and playful humor, it isn't the first to marry the Mideast crisis and comedy. Ari Sandel's musical comedy, "West Bank Story," a "West Side Story"-style tale of feuding Israeli and Palestinian falafel stand owners, won the 2006 best live action short Oscar.

And like "West Bank Story," Smigel says his intent in making the film was to find humor in a situation fraught with daily tension.

"It's such a part of our lives that people need to laugh at it; it's just a way of coping," he said.

"Zohan" marks Smigel's first major screenwriting credit, following a well-established career in television. A writer with Saturday Night Live since 1985, he is perhaps best known for the "TV Funhouse" cartoon shorts that include "The Ambiguously Gay Duo." Younger fans might know Smigel as the puppeteer behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," where he served as head writer from the show's 1993 launch until 2000.

Sandler, Apatow and Smigel had originally started work on "Zohan" in 2000, but the script was shelved following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In early 2007, Smigel got a call from Sandler saying he was interested in resurrecting the project.

A New York native, Smigel said he never really planned to become a writer. His father, a dentist who invented a special bonding technique, encouraged him to continue the family practice. After failing as a pre-dental student, Smigel moved on to writing and performing improv in Chicago for the Players Workshop of The Second City, where he met fellow "SNL" writers Conan O'Brien and Bob Odenkirk. Three years later, he moved to New York to write for "Saturday Night Live" during its critically panned 1985-86 season.

Smigel was among the few who retained a job after Lorne Michaels fired most of the "SNL" cast and writing staff after that season. He went on to write memorable sketches, including William Shatner's "get a life" speech at a "Star Trek" convention, and he performed in front of the cameras, most notably as Carl Wollarski in the "Bill Swerski's Superfan" sketches.

He said that "Zohan" has a similar vibe to two sketches he wrote for "SNL," "Sabra Shopping Network" (Sandler's first "SNL" sketch) in 1990, and 1992's "Sabra Price Is Right," which stars Tom Hanks as a pushy Israeli game show host, Sandler and Rob Schneider as its presenters and Smigel as a cigarette-smoking announcer, all pushing third-rate electronics.

Smigel, who has had cameo roles in Sandler films (an IRS representative in "Happy Gilmore" and a mailman in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"), appears in "Zohan" as Yosi, an Israeli electronics salesman with one-time aspirations of becoming a hand model.

The film also stars Moroccan Jewish actress Emmanuelle Chriqui as Dalia, the Palestinian salon owner and Zohan's love interest; John Turturro as Phantom, a Palestinian terrorist; and Rob Schneider as Salim, a Palestinian cabdriver.

When it came to Palestinian characters, Smigel consulted a few Arab friends for thoughts and suggestions.

"We were constantly showing the script to people from both sides," Smigel said. "We make fun of both sides in a fairly gentle way. On both sides, we'll be offensive. If it was only one sided, I'd be concerned."

And he made a point to portray both sides as Americanized. Smigel holds that the message of the film is that the two groups are very similar, especially when in the United States. They are just trying to survive and make a living doing what they want to do, he said.

While the movie doesn't "pretend to have any answer to the Middle East crisis," Smigel said, it is "critical of both sides in different ways."

And even on the set, Arab and Jewish cast members got along: "Each side was able to see the humanity in the other side," he said.

Although the film has received mixed early reviews, Smigel said he's been around long enough to know that you can't please everyone.

"Any time you write a comedy about a subject that's this serious and that people have passionate feelings about, there are going to be people, particularly on the extreme sides of the issue, that are going to be very hard to satisfy," Smigel said.

But in the end, he believes that "Zohan" isn't necessarily a political movie.

"It's an Adam Sandler movie with some politics in it," he said.

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