August 18, 2010
7 mins read

Gary Steel comes face to face with Peter Farrelly, the man who brought sick gags and gagging to the movie mainstream.

The man responsible for bringing more sick gags and tasteless set pieces to the wide screen and mass cinema audiences than any other in the past fifteen years is stretching his long, 47-year-old frame out on a chair in a posh Auckland hotel, staring me straight in the eye, and getting all political on me.

Weird, I came here to talk about toilet humour and sick gags.

The writer and director responsible for some of the most wilfully apolitical movies of the era – notably Dumb & Dumber, Something About Mary, and Me, Myself & Irene – spends the first ten minutes of the interview ranting about his hatred of George Bush, and his love of New Zealand.

Together with his brother Bobby, Peter Farrelly is half of the Farrelly Brothers, the Rhodes Island partnership that changed the face of motion picture comedy in the 90s. No-one besides John Waters has populated their movies with more likeable losers, oddballs and deviants, or allowed us to luxuriate in laughing at the – ahem – less fortunate.

Surprisingly, Peter Farrelly comes across like a man with a firm moral centre, and if George Bush gets re-elected, he says it will inspire two events: Farrelly’s emigration to New Zealand, and his first outwardly political film.

Here today purportedly to publicise his new film, Stuck On You, Farrelly seems more interested in shooting the shit about other matters.

“I’m REALLY pissed off by Bush”, he says. “A New Zealander asked ‘How’s it feel to be from the most hated country in the world?’ and all I felt was angry at Bush, because it’s true what he said, and it’s Bush’s fault. We used to be the good guys. And all he cares about are his businessmen buddies and the short term view of what’s happening. He’s not a good man.

“If he gets re-elected, I’d move to New Zealand, because I just think he’s the worst president we’ve ever had. He’s short-sighted, small-minded, and he’s a blow-hard. He’s a lot of bluster and no substance.

“I’ve never been in any way political until Bush came along. It just forced my hand. Look, people don’t give a shit what I say, I make movies, so what. But half my country is sick about this, and it’s the smart half. And then there are ignorant people who are titillated by fear and hate and short-sighted, narrow-minded people. And they like Bush.”

In New Zealand for a month-long holiday, it turns out Farrelly has been this way before: for his honeymoon. And he’s in awe of our wee Paradise:

“I like your politics here. The no-nukes, no hand-gun part. It’s the most beautiful country, and I like the people. They speak English, they’re nice, they’re sophisticated. My prediction is that in 20 years or so this is going to be a major place, a hub, and environmentally, New Zealand is ahead of the curve. You guys have never had to worry about a nuclear war. As a kid we used to have fall-out drills. It’s been a part of my life. And now with Bush, Jesus, it’s a reality.”

After all this, it seems weird and almost wrong to bring the conversation around to the art of laughter. I tell Farrelly about a conversation I had with a friend a few days before. She had said the reason she loved the Farrelly Brothers movies so much was that they didn’t moralise with their humour. Yet Peter Farrelly is clearly a moral man. What gives?

“There’s a certain morality in having the good guy win. We LIKE our characters, and we like YOU to like them and we try to do the right thing by the characters. We don’t sit down to write a movie and think of gags. We sit down and think of characters, and think, ‘How can we make this guy so likeable that we can hang our gags on him later and get away with it?’ If you don’t love Ben Stiller (in Something About Mary) you can’t throw a load (of sperm) on his ear, and have it end up on the girl’s hair. If you don’t love Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber, you can’t sell a dead bird to a blind crippled kid in a wheelchair. We took a moment in a scene right before that where Jim is at the window, and he’s trying to convince Jeff Daniels to go to Aspen, and he says ‘Come on man, I don’t have anything, I don’t have anybody.’ He plays it straight. It’s a little moment, it takes a little time, but we’ve got to make you give a shit.”

The Farrelly Brothers have cleverly moved the margins of acceptable humour by dressing their films down in typically lowest-common-denominator clothing. Hundreds of teen-oriented comedies superficially pitch for similar territory, but their films do sneakily rewire the standard paradigms by filling their films with the kind of characters seldom seen in Hollywood. In a Farrelly Brothers movie, you can be ugly, fat, handicapped, albino, dumb, mentally retarded, or mentally defective. The audience can take a good hard laugh at your misfortune (a brand of laughter derived, ultimately from compassion and relief that one isn’t quite in the same boat, maybe) and come out feeling a great kinship.

The just-released Stuck On You, actually written way back in the early 90s around the same time as Dumb & Dumber, takes a more humanistic approach than usual to its depiction of a motley cast of oddballs and misfits who make up the community revolving around Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear, who play conjoined twins.

“This more than most of our movies really takes a turn for the heartfelt,” says Farrelly. ” I think people come in thinking they’re going to see a bunch of Siamese twin gags, and hopefully you realise it’s way more than that, and that sneaks up on you. And suddenly start giving a shit. And that was our intention.

“My favourite scene in Something About Mary isn’t a comedy scene, it’s a scene where Matt Dillon reports back to Ben that he’s found Mary, but that’s she’s gotten heavy and has got a bunch of kids out of wedlock and she’s on welfare and she might be doing drugs. And he goes home and thinks about it and then he comes back and he says ‘Give me her number’. And Matt says ‘I told you she’s a whale, what are you talking about?’ and he says ‘I still feel something, I can’t turn it off. I wanna call her.’ That’s why we can get away with murder. Because he deserves her. It’s not hard for someone to fall in love with Cameron Diaz, but when he thought she was down and out, falling apart, a mess, he still loved her. It lets us get away with murder, because if your heart’s in the right place, you can do that.”

Amazingly, the Farrelly’s haven’t been sued, threatened, or even approached by the numerous pressures groups and guardians of moral decency, despite a bunch of movies with the most explicit bad taste found on commercial cinema.

“You hear about pressure groups through the press, but I NEVER hear from the pressure groups. Critics, who have to write about something, said we were picking on fat people in Shallow Hal. They wrote that some Fat Group was upset, but I never heard from that group. The point of that movie was that it doesn’t matter how you look, it’s about what’s in here (points to heart), and that’s what this guy eventually sees.

“In Something About Mary, critics said we were mean-spirited in our portrayal of Mary’s mentally retarded brother, who was getting picked on all the time by bullies. But the point was that they were BULLIES. They’re assholes. The good guy defended her brother, and that’s why he’s the good guy. And in fact, I’ve gotten a lot of letters about that, all positive, where people said things like ‘My sister’s mentally retarded. I saw your movie and it inspired me to spend more time with her. I really love Mary’s relationship with her brother. It made me happy, and made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough’. So, though we get grief from critics, and I listen to them, I hear it and think about it, I’ve never heard one thing where I thought ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t have done that.’

“By the way, we didn’t invent this kind of humour. The humour in the 70s was WAY edgier than in the 80s. Like Animal House and Airplane and Blazing Saddles. You watch Blazing Saddles today you wouldn’t believe it. I put on Blazing Saddles a month ago, to show my 4-year-old boy, because I knew he’d love the campfire scene. And I thought Blazing Saddles seemed like a harmless enough movie. Well, they dropped the N-bomb, the N-word, ten times within two minutes. There’s one scene where the new sheriff in town, a black guy, walks by this lady and tips his hat, and she says ‘Up yours, nigger!’, and walks past him. And that was very funny to us, because nobody speaks like that and you couldn’t speak like that and you SHOULDN’T speak like that, it’s so WRONG. It IS wrong. But it’s funny because you didn’t expect it.”

The same shock factor applied to the famous diarrhoea scene in Dumb & Dumber. “We were writing the scene where Jeff Daniels is sitting on the toilet. We thought ‘How far can we take this?’ So we had him pull his pants down, and then we thought ‘Why not shoot the whole thing?’ The beauty was that nobody expected it. When someone goes to the bathroom, you’re expecting it to cut away before the action happens.”

After the endearing Stuck On You, the next Farrelly Brothers project is a 21st Century take on vintage slapstick comedy The 3 Stooges. The original episodes of this series look bizarre today, with their brutal variations on comedic sadism, but it’s an important part of the history of American humour. Somewhat honourably, Farrelly has figured out ways to minimise children mimicking any of the hilariously stupid violence contained therein:

“When I was a kid they started running the re-runs of The 3 Stooges,” says Farrelly, “and there were a lot of stories about kids hitting kids in the head with hammers. My Mother didn’t want me to watch it. Moms do not want their sons watching that show. But Dads would say ‘Let ’em watch that damned show, it’s funny!’

Farrelly’s solution to the potential for mimicry? The only potentially life-threatening violence will be gags that are way too complex for kids to ever carry out in playtime, or will involve heavy machinery that they shouldn’t have access to in the first place. “Like a steamroller rolling over a guy’s head. If a kid’s on a steamroller, that’s out of our hands! He shouldn’t be!”

* Originally published in Real Groove, 2004

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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