A fresh pass from the Farrelly brothers

The kingpins of dirty comedy's comeback film aims at a mature audience, but they haven't given up on gross-out gags. Gill Pringle hears how the toilet humour titans keep the laughs coming

The trouble with being the prettiest or the funniest is that, sooner or later, someone prettier or funnier will come along, That's pretty much what happened to the comedy writing and directing duo Peter and Bobby Farrelly in the aftermath of the success enjoyed by Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips.

But the brothers, who were responsible for There's Something about Mary, Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal and Me, Myself and Irene, aren't about to give up on comedy just because there's someone funnier in the house. "We don't really hang out with those guys [Apatow and Todd Phillips] but we respect them and bump into them occasionally," says Peter Farrelly, at 54 the older by two years of the brotherhood that once reigned as the kings of gross-out comedy. "The last four years in comedy is as good as it has been in a long, long time – because of those guys specifically."

During that same time frame, the Farrellys have been noticeably absent, licking their wounds after dismal reviews for the Ben Stiller vehicle The Heartbreak Kid four years ago. That film itself came after the disappointments of Fever Pitch [adapted from Nick Hornby's novel] and Stuck on You; the combined gross on those three movies did not even approach the $176m that There's Something about Mary took at the US box office 13 years ago.

Down but not out, the brothers are returning to the comedy game with Hall Pass, which stars Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis as married men whose wives give them permission to cheat for a week.

"I guess this is our first attempt at making movies that reflect where we are in our own lives," says Bobby, married 20 years with two kids (brother Peter has been wed for 14 years, and has one child). "People need to laugh so I think there'll always be a need for comedy. If it's funny, it should play well," he argues.

The brothers previously targeted young adults with juvenile and politically incorrect humour, piloted to great success 17 years ago in their debut film, Dumb and Dumber. Hall Pass aims at an older audience, but that doesn't mean it skimps on themes of masturbation, or on scatological gags.

The brothers don't expect everyone to appreciate their particular brand of wit: "Humour is subjective. People have different senses of humour so we just try to please the people that we would hang out with," says Peter. "Comedy has to be fresh and original; you won't laugh at the same joke over and over, it has to feel like it's really new. You're always happy to find a good gag but that's not what we set out to do. We don't think at the beginning, 'OK. How are we going to come up with lots of gags?' What we think of is, 'How can we create a character that you will like enough that we can hang all these gags on?' Because our stuff doesn't work if you don't love them.

"But I think Hall Pass has a universal theme," he continues. "If God came to me and said, 'Pete, you're with the hottest woman on the planet, she's the best and there's no one better,' I'd probably still want to take a look at the second-best. Even if you're happily married and committed, it doesn't mean you stop looking. The question is, how far do you take it?"

As with all Farrelly comedies, Hall Pass contains several gross-out, "did they really just do that?" scenes, one such moment being when Wilson's character passes out in a hot-tub only to be woken by two naked men whose private parts dangle just inches away from his face as they come to his assistance. "Owen usually has a great sense of humour but he briefly lost it for that scene," recalls Bobby. "He insisted on it being a closed set. I think he was worried what people might say if the pictures ended up on the internet. We tried to get the scene done as quickly as possible because I think it was really uncomfortable for him."

Raised in Rhode Island by a nurse mother, Mariann, and a doctor father, Robert, the brothers were pranksters who partied hard during their college years. Both dreamed of writing careers while doing unfulfilling day-jobs as salesmen or waiters. They moved to Los Angeles in 1985, where they began refining their childhood pranks into a comedy style, utilising toilet humour and a mutual love of sports. "When we first started out screenwriting, we were lucky enough to be tutored a bit by the Zucker brothers – who were the funniest guys going – who taught us it's not really what happens to someone that's funny, it's how someone else reacts to it," explains Peter, referring to the revered slapstick-comedy brothers famed for Airplane! and the Naked Gun trilogy. In 1992, the Farrellys scored their first major writing credit, penning two episodes of TV's Seinfeld.

Inspired by Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles and John Landis's Animal House, the brothers were bored with know-it-all comic heroes. Instead, they created their own antidote in the shape of Dumb and Dumber's two moronic buddies. Benefiting from Jim Carrey's hot streak, the film went on to make $300m worldwide from an initial $16m investment, sealing the Farrellys' fortunes in the process.

Having today firmly established themselves in California, the brothers still set most of their films in their native Rhode Island and environs, and when weather doesn't permit them to actually film there, they substitute with similar-looking locations, like using Georgia as a double for Cape Cod in Hall Pass. "Maybe it's because we're sentimental, but I think it's also because we understand how people from that part of the world think and act. It's our comfort zone. For this film, we actually filmed on the same lake in Georgia where they shot Deliverance," says Bobby.

Having worked with numerous A-listers, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jack Black and Drew Barrymore, their favourite new discovery is Britain's Stephen Merchant, who also features in Hall Pass.

"We love him. He's one of those guys who's eye candy for comedians like us. He's such an interesting-looking guy and you just want to laugh. He's a good actor, too. The first time I saw him in Extras, we were dying to have him. We think Stephen is one of the top five funny guys on the planet. He's right at the top of our list. I just look at him and giggle every time I see him. He's so quick-witted and fun and so easy to like, that we hope to work with him more. We want him in our next movie," says Peter, who is currently casting a remake of The Three Stooges.

If it's easy to see why they would adore Merchant, the rest of the Farrellys' "wish-list" is quite unexpected.

"We'd love to work with Sean Penn," continues Peter. "We never say, 'We'd like to work with this comedian or that comedian.' We always think, 'We'd like to work with this actor because we feel like they can do it.' We're not asking them to make it up on the day, and hopefully we can write a role funny enough that any actor can pull it off if they're a really great actor. Sean's first film was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, so we know he can do comedy. Getting political, like Sean has, hurts your comedy level a little bit – but I still think he's a great actor.

"We love Samantha Morton, too," he says, referring to the British Oscar-nominated dramatic actress. "We've never worked with her but we really like her. She's a type for us. The more you see her on screen, the more you love her. You don't see her and immediately go, 'Wow', but if she's on screen for a while, you fall in love with her because she's got something inside."

'Hall Pass' opens on 11 March

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