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Loose Nuts

So, These Five College Friends Form A Comedy Group...No, Really, You Havenít Heard This One Before

CHUG, CHUG, CHUG: Steve Lemme (with glasses), Erik Stolhanske (to his right), and their Broken Lizard cohorts build team spirit.

By Wendy Ward | Posted 8/23/2006

Sometimes the funny isnít the focus of a scene. Watch the rest of the band while Coconut Pete , the faux-Jimmy Buffett, sings in Club Dread. Dig the Super Troopers-to-be at their desks in front of the sergeant in Super Troopers. Or spy what the two criminal students do every time the student lawyer isnít looking in Puddle Cruiser. Background jokes are an essential element to the sometimes dry, sometimes slapstick humor of Broken Lizard, the five-member comedy troupe of writers/producers/goofballs/actors who have been bringing their peculiar kind of funny to stage and screen since forming as college classmates in the early 1990s.

"I love background humor," says BLíer Steve Lemme. "I mean, we all do. Iím not taking credit for the background jokes. Sometimes background jokes are better than the foreground jokes."

Sitting in the mahogany-dark Brickskeller saloon in Washingtonís Dupont Circle, Lemme looks nothing like the Jewish scientist Steve "Fink" Finklestein he plays in Broken Lizardís latest, Beerfest; his Fink curls are shorn, and he wears a red Puma T-shirt instead of a white medical jacket. Heís joined by his comedic partner and co-star Erik Stolhanske, who in person has a slight tan and finer features than his Todd Wolfhouse of Beerfestís brew-swilling Wolfhouse brothers.

Beerfest is practically nothing without its background jokes. In it, the brothers Wolfhouse (Stolhanske and BLíer Paul Soter) assemble a team of beer drinkers/gamers (Lemme and the remaining two Lizards, Kevin Hefferman and Jay Chandrasekhar) to kick some rude, German cousin ass in a beer Olympics that makes Oktoberfest look like a kegger for pussies. Thatís it.

"We tried to have a more complicated plot in the movie," Stolhanske says. "We always sort of wanted to emulate good John Landis movies, but I think what we realized is what people really like in our films is the set pieces and the jokes. And, ultimately, what it came down to in editing was trying to connect the dots and keep all the great laughs in it."

Stolhanske brings up Airplane!, a movie with the perfect setup: The camera faces a row of seats or the cockpit in almost every scene while the planeís passengers pull off crazy shit. Plus, you donít always have to hear these jokes to get them. It "works every time," Lemme smiles.

As does the tit shot--but, at least, Beerfestís peek-a-boob scene is clever. Seriously, girls, when your tube top gets pulled down, isnít your first reaction to grab hold of another girlís top as you fall--and so on and so on, into eternity?

Five guys are doing these movies, right, so does humor have a gender? Stolhanske recalls a test screening where the highest positive responses came from young males. "Can you believe that?" Lemme deadpans. "Amazing."

"But this is whatís interesting," Stolhanske adds. "After we did the test screen we re-cut it and shot a couple of new scenes, tested again, and the highest scores were in young females." And this was after they added the Oktoberbreasts scene. Lemme blames the studioís influence. "And we would like to get to a place where we can maybe tone back on [nudity], because it does cheapen it," he says.

Speaking of cheap, weíre sitting in Brickskeller, home of the "worldís greatest beer list," and both Lizards are drinking water and energy drinks. Fine, thereís a beer-related engagement later in the day but they must have thrown professionalism to the wind at some point during the filming of Beerfest. After all, watching it makes you want a beer, and so must have making it. Since they couldnít get bombed, they drank OíDoulís and fake beer concoctions of iced tea and pop. But Stolhanske fondly remembers a scene where "Jay is throwing darts, when he first comes in, and weíre sitting in that bar and we have pizza. And itís such a fun environment hanging out with your friends that weíre like, ĎLetís get some beers in here.í And we brought in some Red Stripes and we had a great time shooting that scene all day."

Just like college--um, career. Broken Lizard formed when all five members were undergrads at upstate New Yorkís Colgate University, where it took them three days to come up with the moniker "Chocolate Speedo." "And then Jay went to the printing press and unilaterally changed the name to ĎBroken Lizardí at the last second because he decided Chocolate Speedoís Beerfest didnít sound that good," Lemme says.

"And I thought we were going to be Hot Cocoa and the Mini Marshmallows," Stolhanske adds dejectedly.

Jay Chandrasekhar is the director. He helmed Beerfest, as he has all other BL productions: 1996ís Puddle Cruiser, the spot-on treatment of college relationships they did in, well, college; the well-received Super Troopers, in which Chandrasekhar looks exactly like Richard Pryor; and Club Dread, the flick Scary Movie wanted to be. Chandrasekhar also drove The Dukes of Hazzard to the finish line, even if he didnít quite win the cup.

Since Chandrasekhar started the group and directs the films, he has "that extra right to make little changes like names," Lemme says. "And every time he does it, itís like another thin coat of paint over our hearts."

But all five co-write the script. "We try to do as many drafts as we can to get to the end, for everybody, and develop every character," Stolhanske says. "And then the last thing we do is cast it, so people donít specifically write for themselves." Nobody wants to look like an asshole for hording the good lines, before or during production.

Tricky maybe, but Broken Lizard has worked out a system that creates funnier movies with each successive one. And theyíre not the only people who think so. Last September, all five signed a three-year deal with Warner Bros. to produce, write, and make Broken Lizard movies. Right now theyíre writing a movie for somebody they only refer to as "a big actor" called The Nutcracker. Their script for Greek Road, which they plan to shoot next, is already finished.

And they hope to work on non-BL material. "We actually have a movie called The Babymaker about a guy who has to break into a sperm bank to get his sperm back," Stolhanske says. "Itís a bank heist movie, but a sperm bank heist movie. And Jayís going to direct it and Kevinís going to star in it, and weíre going to produce it."

It comes from Gerry Swallow, the writer behind Ice Age: The Meltdown. Ice Age 2 is "all about the acorn," Stolhanske says. "Heís just digging for a nut, isnít he?"

"That little animal with the acorn was one of the funniest things Iíve ever seen," Lemme adds. "Isnít that all we really want--just an acorn?"

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