Ben Stiller: 'Doing comedy is scary'

Ben Stiller may be the king of the gross-out movie but he couldn't tell a joke if you paid him, he confides to Lesley O'Toole

In an industry where nothing much is certain and much more is nebulous, the success of Ben Stiller's films - they have collectively grossed $1.38bn (£700m) worldwide to date - is as close as Hollywood gets to a sure thing. Yet the actor who has made the gross-out humour phenomenon his own - his signature role, in 1998's There's Something About Mary, involved an excruciating contretemps between his penis and trouser-zip - is taking a risk in his new movie by for once not pushing the bad-taste envelope. Instead, Stiller is making a belated entry into the family-movie arena with Night at the Museum, a move prompted in large part by fatherhood (Ella, four, and Quinlin, 18 months, with his wife, the actress Christine Taylor).

"This is definitely kind of new for me, the family-movie thing," announces Stiller, who is friendly, unassuming, and not at all representative of the brash, larger than life, characters he has memorably inhabited in the likes of Zoolander, Dodgeball, Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers.

"I got into doing this one and even [the animated hit] Madagascar before that because you start to become very aware of what your children can watch. And you appreciate family movies much more because you want to be able to enjoy films with them. There just aren't that many live-action movies that families can go to all together."

Stiller signed on as one of Madagascar's coterie of "voice talent" before his elder child was conceived: "Yeah, those films are like four-year projects, so I had to get in there early." He knew a family was part of his future game plan, in the same way he knew a career in comedy was probably preordained given his classic comic lineage. His parents - Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara - are revered actors whose comic double act Stiller and Meara (focusing largely on the couple's ethnic differences) was a long-running staple of US television's famed Ed Sullivan Show. Stiller is Jewish, Meara was born an Irish Catholic but converted before her marriage. "So I have the Irish Catholic guilt and the Jewish guilt," deadpans Stiller, whose older sister Amy is also an actress.

Night at the Museum features Stiller as an inept security guard who accidentally unleashes an ancient curse that turns New York's famed Museum of Natural History into a chaotic, warring sum of its suddenly living exhibits. Tyrannosaurus rex, Attila the Hun, Christopher Columbus, Mayans and Roman gladiators pillage the halls of the museum which, even before production, held a special place in Stiller's heart.

"I grew up three or four blocks from it and used to go there all the time as a kid. When you have young kids it's definitely the museum you want to go to because it's just special. When I used to cut school, that was where I went." So he was always something of a rebel? "Yeah, I know, right? That tells you what kind of kid I was. Super-cool."

Stiller is cool enough to have sent himself up in a toe-curling turn as megalomaniac director on Extras last year. "I just said 'yes' to Ricky [Gervais] and Extras because he's so talented, and then the script arrived and I actually freaked out when I read it. I just thought, 'Oh, this is really out there'. And then when I saw it, well, it was just 'Oh. My. God.', but my wife said it was funny and then a couple of other people said it was funny. That to me was a really good lesson. And at the end of the day if Ricky Gervais thought it was funny then I was fine with it."

He sent himself up in deliciously similar vein on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. "They're not that true," he says. "I hope to God not. But they are about aspects of your personality and that's what's fun. We all have different aspects of our personality within us and the cool thing about shows like those is to be able to say, 'Well, I'm going to play the part of Ben Stiller as this guy'. I'd never do what I did on Extras but there must be some aspect of my personality that's like that, in the same way that I have an aspect of my personality that might volunteer to help lepers in India but I've never actually done it. It's a yin and yang thing. There is the shadow side."

Cuddly family-friendly comic Stiller is not, however, sticking around for long. "Yeah, that's over. The next film I'm doing is another R-rated one [The Heartbreak Kid, directed by those behind There's Something About Mary, the Farrelly Brothers]. It's not that I didn't think, 'Oh shit, wait a minute, I'll have to deal with this later'. I did. And even more about other kids coming up to my kids saying, 'Well, your dad did this...' And they'll be like, 'Ugh, that's Dad'. When that happens we'll have to sit down and talk about it."

Interestingly, his motivation is that long-quoted by Hollywood women: paucity of shelf-life. "At a certain point as an actor you get older and you're just not right for those kinds of parts any more. I think this is that period of time for me but I'm 41 now. Time goes on. I'm not going to be doing those movies forever. I mean, I hope I won't be doing them when I'm 50."

Money may well be a factor, given that Stiller's salaries have soared since his reported $3m (£1.6m) payday for There's Something About Mary. Does he feel he and fellow A-listers are overpaid? "I don't think so. Studios don't pay out of the kindness of their heart. It's all an equation to them. That's all. At the end of the day there is only one Tom Cruise and it might be that whoever is paying the stars goes, 'Well, we don't necessarily feel we need to pay that much.' But I think it was wrong for Sumner Redstone to go after Tom like that [the head of Paramount Pictures recently castigated Cruise in the press]. It was out of leftfield. For the most part, Hollywood will stop paying the stars when it stops making sense to them to pay the stars. And they don't pay anybody a cent over what it's worth to them. It's not like you see these studios losing money."

Stiller admits he is far less self-obsessed and consumed by business transactions these days thanks to the combined effect of marriage, parenthood and, more recently, turning 40. "I didn't buy a Porsche or run a marathon or do any crazy, mid-life thing. I just think 40 is an overall assessment of where you're at and makes you really cognisant of your own mortality and the things you want to do in life, which affects your choices and everything really. I think it's good to feel that. The big thing I felt was, 'Wow, what happened? How did I get here so quickly?' And, of course, life seems to go by quicker and quicker the older you get."

In person, Stiller is not fall-about funny, and not only because his reflective pondering does not particularly lend itself to quick wit. "I really admire funny people but that's just not me. I'm pretty low-key. And I've never felt that need to go into a room and make people laugh. I couldn't even tell a joke if you paid me. Really. I can't ever remember a joke and I can't even take the pressure of someone having to tell me one. I worry that I'll laugh at the wrong thing or miss the punch line. And if it's one of those jokes with a set-up, I really worry that I won't get it at all."

If Stiller is changing personally, then so too, he surmises, is the face of film comedy. "We're certainly going back to seeing more R-rated comedies. Ron Howard was saying recently that back in the early Seventies and Eighties, any comedy you made had to be R-rated. You had to be able to take those chances. After There's Something About Mary there was a whole spate of that again, and again after The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Hollywood has always been very reactive: 'Well, this is a big hit, now we're all going to try and find a way to emulate that'." So a series of Borat rip-offs must be next? "That movie is already changing everything in terms of what people see in a comedy because it's so cutting-edge, and it's taking his reality stuff that he does so well but adding a story. Sacha Baron Cohen takes so many chances and he's so committed. It's really enlightening, too, in terms of what it shows about character."

Stiller got his start when a short film spoof of the Tom Cruise-Paul Newman film The Color of Money found its way to the office of Lorne Michaels, the producer of America's legendary TV sketch-comedy programme Saturday Night Live. Michaels not only bought the film to air on the programme but signed up Stiller as a cast member. He stayed for a year before leaving to star in and produce his own show, the progressive-for-its-time Ben Stiller Show, which had short-lived runs on two American networks. Next year he will return to the TV arena to direct a pilot for his wife (best-known as Marcia in the Brady Bunch films).

"It's very much her show, but I'll make an appearance in the pilot and I'll direct it. It's based loosely on our life. She won't have kids in it but she is married to me and her mother lives in the house right next door to us, which is true."

If most grown men would be skittish at least at even the prospect of their mother-in-law living next door, Stiller appears ingenuous as he extols the arrangement's virtues.

"No, it's really good, honestly. It's a built-in support system for our kids. The houses are literally next to each other so we have some privacy but yet she's there. She's been a great grandmother and she and I get along really well. But yes, of course there is humour to be got out of that. It will have a slightly broader reality to it in the show."

Stiller has otherwise put his directing career on hold. His last outing the other side of the camera was 2001's Zoolander, in which he played a self-absorbed male model of his own creation. Since he also writes, is Stiller something of a modern-day Woody Allen? He reddens with embarrassment at the suggestion.

"Not at all. I think he's a unique, genius, talent. I love writing and directing and really do want to do more but I don't feel like I'm trying to model myself after him. But I love him and film-makers like him - Albert Brooks, Mel Brooks, Christopher Guest."

He would love to direct again and reprise the little-seen-of-late serious actor in him. "Drama doesn't scare me. Not at all. I've done a few dramas and had very good experiences doing them. I think comedy is much scarier. When you're trying to be funny, people are either going to laugh or they're not."

Which is exactly the conundrum occupying most of his waking life. "I'd say being funny at home has actually become my main job. If you want to get points with your daughter, you've got to entertain her, play with her and get her to laugh. That's harder than anything really because there's no script for it, only shamelessness."

'Night at the Museum' opens on 26 December

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser