Justin Theroux Stole a Mel Brooks Joke for ‘Tropic Thunder’
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Justin Theroux’s most successful comedy paid a big ol’ compliment to one of his cinematic heroes, Mel Brooks. “I stole a big bit from Young Frankenstein for Tropic Thunder,” Theroux confessed to Dana Carvey and David Spade on this week’s Fly on the Wall podcast. “Well, not stole …”
“You were influenced! The Beatles were influenced!” interjected Carvey, going for the save.
“Influenced, yeah,” replied Theroux, standing corrected.
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So what scene did Theroux rip off? Er, pay homage to? Er, find inspiration in? “There's the scene where Jack Black gets tied to the tree to kick drugs,” he says. “(Black) says, “No matter what, don’t let me off that tree.”
Of course, it’s not long before Black’s character is shouting threats, offering movie roles, and suggesting any variety of sexual favors to the first man who will untie him. “That's kind of a lift from Young Frankenstein when (Dr. Frankenstein) goes into the room with the monster and says, ‘Don't let me out of this room, no matter what I say.’”
The jokes occupy the same universe, says Theroux. “Of course, (the Gene Wilder character) goes in there and he's immediately pleading. It’s so hilarious.” Carvey once again attempts to let Theroux off the hook for joke theft, assuring him that all such gags date back to vaudeville.
A lot of people tell Theroux that he couldn’t make Tropic Thunder today, “and it bums me out because I think you can make that movie today,” he says. “It wouldn't look exactly like that movie but …”
Remember that even back in 2008, there were people who thought Theroux and Tropic Thunder had gone too far. “I remember taking it hard when people were trying to boycott something that you think is actually on their side.”
But a meeting a few years later changed Theroux’s perspective. “I was having a drink with Mel Brooks and kind of moaning about it a little bit and he just stopped me,” Theroux remembers. “He just went, ‘Nope. Look, you have to just make sure the joke is aimed perfectly at the person who's the idiot. That's your job.’”
Tropic Thunder wasn’t trying to make jokes about anyone except Hollywood actors, their egos, and studio idiots, reasoned Theroux. “He gave me some comfort because his movies are so brilliant. You could equally say, ‘Well you can't make those movies anymore,’ but yes, you can.”
When you see a Mel Brooks movie today, Theroux argues, you don't think it’s really uncool that Brooks would write those scenes. Carvey agrees, pointing out that in Blazing Saddles, all the racist people are the idiots and Cleavon Little is the smartest guy in town. Then again, Carvey was still gobsmacked by Theroux’s story.
“I’m still recovering,” Carvey says, “from the fact that you got to talk to Mel Brooks.”