Anything for a Laugh

By Michelle Walson ’99 / March / April 2004
June 15th, 2007
As a cowriter of Meet the Parents and Zoolander and as the writer and director of Along Came Polly, John Hamburg has made a name for himself by thinking up new ways to torture Ben Stiller. Just look at the names he’s given Stiller’s characters: Gaylord Focker, Reuben Feffer. No parent would be so cruel. Has any character ever sweat as much as Polly’s Reuben, whom Hamburg subjected to round after round of emotional and intestinal distress?

For a man gifted at conceiving outrageous scenarios for his characters, Hamburg’s own life plays like a young filmmaker’s dream. One day he’s goofing around with Brown classmates, making a mock epic about a globetrotting spy. The next, as a grad student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he’s screening his student film, Tick, at the Sundance Film Festival and getting noticed by Universal Studios executives. “It’s not your typical story,” Hamburg admitted in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, where the Manhattan native lived for a year while working on Polly. “I never had to max out my credit cards. I’ve just been fortunate to find people who believed in me and my movies.”

Some of these people have been Hamburg’s well-connected relatives—his mother, Joan Hamburg, is a New York City radio talk-show host, and film and TV director Doug Liman ’88 (Swingers, The Bourne Identity, The O.C.) is a cousin. But Hamburg’s best connection was made in 1998, when he and Stiller met at the Nantucket Film Festival. “We clicked,” said Hamburg, who credits the success of their collaboration to a shared love of raucous humor and common neuroses. “We’re both obsessive,” Hamburg said. “Ben and I fixate on every detail. We’re relentless for the sake of getting a laugh.”

Hamburg’s approach is to draw from his own experience and exaggerate for comic effect. The premise of Along Came Polly, for instance, came to Hamburg while vacationing with his girlfriend on St. Barts. “We kept seeing all these half-naked French people, and I thought, What’s the worst thing that could happen on this trip? My girlfriend could end up with one of these Frenchmen.” So in the screenplay, the honeymooning Reuben gets ditched for a brawny scuba instructor.

Along Came Polly has been criticized for relying too much on tired, running jokes like Reuben’s irritable bowel syndrome. But Hamburg doesn’t pay much attention to the critics. “Reviews are pretty unimportant when you’re making these kinds of comedies,” says Hamburg. “It’s the audiences that matter.” Do they ever. Polly earned $32.5 million in the four days following its release, setting a record for the biggest January comedy opening ever. Plus, Hamburg has fans in high places. When People magazine asked Laura Bush what makes her laugh, she said Zoolander. If it’s good enough for the First Lady …

Michelle Walson studies film and television at Boston University.
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