'Harold & Kumar' writers on the art of offensive comedy
In Hollywood, the holiday season often means releasing animated movies about Santa, rom-coms about the search for that New Year’s Eve kiss and even the occasional film about the first Christmas. This year stoner pals Harold and Kumar are joining in on the seasonal cheer.
The characters, whose story started with 2004’s “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” are back on the big screen this week in “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. After helming the second film, “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” the duo handed the director’s chair over to Todd Strauss-Schulson to give themselves more time to work on “American Reunion,” the next installment in the “American Pie” franchise, which they’re writing and directing.
At the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Hurwitz and Schlossberg talked to 24 Frames' Emily Rome about revisiting high school memories to write “American Reunion,” getting paid to write fan fiction and why a holiday movie is the perfect place for Harold and Kumar to have their next adventure.
E.R.: When you were writing “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” did you have any idea this would become a franchise and gain the fandom it has?
J.H: It's funny because it was always our hope. The very first script for “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” ended with “to be continued.” We just enjoyed writing these characters so much, and we're guys who grew up as fans of franchises. There are so many franchises that we grew up watching that when we think of writing our movies, oftentimes we think about what the next movie would be.
E.R.: Todd Strauss-Schulson was a big fan of the first two “Harold & Kumar” movies before taking on directing this installment, right?
H.S.: Sort of like the way we were with “American Pie.” He watched the “Harold & Kumar” movies, really liked them, and you could see that he was enthusiastic about it. It felt good, and we think that he did a great job, and it worked out perfectly.
J.H.: It’s fun when there’s somebody who’s a fan of the work that you're doing, and they get to play around in the sandbox. Like Hayden was saying, that's what “American Reunion” was for us. We got to go in there, and all these characters that we were in love with we now got to write and direct.
E.R.: Almost like writing fan fic but getting paid for it.
J.H.: That's what we always say -– that it's like the highest-end fan fiction of all time.
E.R.: It’s not that often you see a Korean American and an Indian American leading a mainstream movie. When you wrote the script for the first movie, was there a fear that the studio would want to change the race of the characters?
J.H.: And the thing that was really great for us was that when we first sat down with the people who became the producers on the movie, Greg Shapiro and Nathan Kahane, what they said to us immediately was, "We're not going to ask you to change this. This will not be ‘David and Jason Go to McDonalds.’”
E.R.: “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” has all the imagery and music you’d expect from a holiday movie, but it also has all the inappropriateness of a “Harold & Kumar” movie. How did you approach packaging those two together?
H.S.: If you look at Christmas movies, there are certain things in them that lend themselves to a “Harold & Kumar” movie. In particular, the more out-of-this-world things like Santa Claus and flying reindeer.
J.H.: But also the themes of friendship and togetherness and family. Those are things that you'll see in the “Harold & Kumar” movies. The heart in a “Harold & Kumar” movie is always in the right place, and the heart of a Christmas movie's always in the right place. And what was so perfect for us was with “Harold & Kumar,” you like to be able to push the envelope. When you have this warm and fuzzy pure holiday like Christmas, to give it the “Harold & Kumar” flavor and treatment and go to those places -– we thought that [would] bring the biggest laughs.
E.R.: What was the allure of making this movie in 3-D?
H.S.: We're not huge 3-D fans in general. We're very skeptical of 3-D. We hear Hollywood's making all these 3-D movies, and we're like, “Why? Why are they doing it?” When we wrote our first draft of this, it was not intended to be in 3-D. But when the studio suggested 3-D, we actually took a look at the script, and we were like, “You know what? There's a lot of scenes here that can actually be enhanced with 3-D.” And also, it is a stoner movie so there's just something about things flying out at you that can add to the trippy-ness that we sometimes try to do in the movies. And it’s a chance to kind of comment on -– in our opinion -– the ridiculousness of how Hollywood is using 3-D.
E.R.: You worked on “American Reunion” while production for “Harold & Kumar Christmas” was going on. What’s the biggest difference between the two when it comes to writing for you?
J.H.: The difference between “Harold & Kumar” and “American Pie” is tone in a lot of ways. Both franchises are trying to be crowd-pleasers and get the big laughs, but in “American Pie,” you're not going to go to the surreal places, you're not going to ride the cheetah, you're not going to have a baby doing drugs.
H.S.: It's just grounded, and all the comedy in it comes from character, whereas in “Harold & Kumar,” the characters Harold and Kumar are grounded, but everything else around them gets more and more surreal as the movie goes on, and the comedy can come from anywhere. There’s no rules. So there's a certain freedom and an awesomeness to writing a “Harold & Kumar” movie, but with “American Reunion,” you get this relatability that you probably wouldn't get in the wild, crazy “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.”
E.R.: You two went to high school together. Did you draw on common experiences at reunions when writing “American Reunion”?
J.H.: Our high school reunion didn't really come together, but we did draw from the characters in “American Pie” that are like people that we know. Some of it's just sort of like going back to weddings of friends where you get a large sample of people from your high school, or being in touch with them on Facebook and sort of seeing where people are.
H.S.: We had those types of guys [like “American Pie” characters] in our high school. When you watch the first "American Pie" movie you're like... "I know that jock who's kind of sweet and has a girlfriend, and I know that weird off-beat kid." This time you're watching the movie and it's like, “That's the guy who has marriage issues, and this is the guy who peaked in high school.” It's the same characters you like but sort of a whole new world that you're relating to.
E.R.: Is there anything you feel is off-limits in your writing, or is everything fair game in a “nothing is sacred” approach?
H.S.: I think our goal is to make a big, broad audience really happy, and so something like getting a baby high -– I know that there's some people that won't like that, but we feel confident that enough people will like it. Sometimes I'll say something, or Jon will say something, and I'll be, “That crosses the line in terms of I just think people would be offended more than they’ll think it’s funny.”
J.H.: Believe it or not, we'll be like, “Oh, that's too low class.”
H.S.: There's an art to stupid comedy. There's an art to offensive comedy, and I think the key is it's just gotta make you laugh. It can be a fart joke, or it can be some sort of racial joke or a religious joke. In the right context, they can be great. In the wrong context, they can be horrible. You have to be the arbiter.
E.R.: What’s one crazy situation you’d like to put Harold and Kumar in as you continue the franchise?
J.H.: There's so many. When the studio approached us about doing a third movie, the idea we wanted to do the most was the Christmas movie, but they were like, “OK, well, what else do you have?” And we had this idea called “Harold & Kumar and the Legend of Easy E's Stash,” and it was basically like a “National Treasure” in the hip-hop world where Easy E, before he died, had the best weed ever, and he had his number one go hide it somewhere.
H.S.: All the clues are hidden in these hip-hop lyrics, and they have to try to figure it out. That didn't end up working out, but that's an idea that's crossed our minds, so you can imagine what other ideas would be.
J.H.: We've got plenty when it comes to this franchise.
"A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" stars John Cho, Kal Penn and Neil Patrick Harris and is now playing in general release.
–- Emily Rome
Photo: From left, John Cho, Neil Patrick Harris and Kal Penn in "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas." Credit: Darren Michaels / Warner Bros. Pictures