Question: When does comedy become serious business?
Answer: When you're making the sequel to the $277-million hit "The Hangover."
Back in June 2009, few could have predicted the runaway success of that movie, in which a group of guys wake up after a Las Vegas bachelor party with no memory of the night's debaucheries. Despite hitting theaters after years of gross-out comedies and bromances, "The Hangover" somehow managed to seem fresh, partly because of its edgy, sometimes dark sense of humor, in which drug use, violence and even an abandoned infant were played for laughs. "The Hangover," directed by Dix Hills-raised Todd Phillips, eventually became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy.
The movie also introduced America to a new group of stars. Bradley Cooper, who played the married -- but not dead -- Phil W, went on to major roles in "The A-Team" and "Limitless." Ed Helms, already familiar to fans of NBC's "The Office," gained a new level of fame as hapless dentist Stu. And Zach Galifianakis, as the socially inept man-child Alan, went from cult comedian to household name (albeit one difficult to pronounce), appearing opposite Robert Downey Jr. in last year's buddy movie "Due Date," also directed by Phillips.
A sure thing at box office
"The Hangover Part II," scheduled for release Thursday, ahead of the long Memorial Day weekend, seems destined for profitability. Aside from its built-in fan base, the film undoubtedly will benefit from months of entertainment-section headlines about its production. Late last year came a string of stories about a Mel Gibson cameo that was nixed after objections from cast and crew members. (Gibson, then mired in the scandal around his inflammatory voice messages to a girlfriend, apparently was too radioactive for a movie that includes dismemberment, cocaine-snorting and full-frontal male nudity.)
More recently, there's been a controversy over the use of a cigarette-smoking monkey -- PETA and the American Humane Association are not amused -- which may only boost the film's reputation for raunch.
Still, everyone knows that sequels have a tendency to disappoint, and that includes the filmmakers. (As Helms puts it: "It's so easy for a sequel to just be lame.") Can Phillips and his cast truly re-create the organic, out-of-nowhere magic of the original?
"There's a little trepidation," Phillips admits. "But it was a lot harder making a movie and turning to Bradley Cooper at 5 in the morning and saying, 'This is funny, but is anyone going to see it?' I'd rather have this pressure than the other kind of pressure. We can pretty much rest assured that people are going to turn up for it. Now the job is to make something that's as funny and as great, and swing for the fences."
Phillips helped write the sequel's script (he was an uncredited writer on the original) with Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong, newcomers to the project with whom Phillips had collaborated on 2006's "School for Scoundrels." According to Mazin, "The first thing we had to nail down -- and it was a permanent, constant discussion -- was, how similar should we be to the first film, and how different?"
The party's in Thailand
Like its predecessor, "The Hangover Part II" begins days before a wedding, though now Stu is the groom and Thailand the locale. Once again, Stu and company wake up in a strange room without their memories -- and minus one friend, Teddy (Mason Lee, in his film debut), the sheltered younger brother of Stu's bride. As they search for Teddy through the greasy streets of Bangkok, they encounter gun-toting criminals, violent Buddhists and the kind of surprise-in-every-package prostitutes for which the Thai capital is famous.
The writers also felt that Bangkok provided the perfect setting for the return of Mr. Chow, the globe-trotting, sexually ambiguous gangster so memorably portrayed by Ken Jeong in the first film. "That voice that he has, it's unbelievable," Armstrong says of Jeong. "The commitment he has on set -- he brings more energy on set than any other guy."
Jeong, a doctor-turned-actor who has since joined the NBC series "Community" and landed a role in the upcoming "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," says he prepared for his expanded role by watching Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" while in Thailand, paying close attention to Joe Pesci's mischievous Mafioso character. "I kept thinking, 'Chow loves chaos,' " Jeong says. "I made sure my reactions were the exact opposite of what everybody else is thinking. And Todd loved that."
"We are all three very different archetypes, so there's no competition. Everyone gets their own style of comedy, and their own type of punch lines," says Helms, whose mild-mannered Stu again serves as the film's central (or most-abused) protagonist. "I think Todd did a magical thing by putting the three of us together."
Given that Phillips was told by Warner Bros. to start thinking of a sequel to "The Hangover" before the film was even released, are there already plans for a third? Yes, says Phillips, if only in his mind.
"I think that, if we did a third one, it would be the last one, because I have an idea," Phillips says, noting that he has even chosen a location. "But you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to take the approach that the Olympics does with cities. I want to be courted, and I'm open to bribes."
Zach is back, and he's ready to talk
BY RAFER GUZMAN, email@example.com
'The Hangover" transformed Zach Galifianakis from a cult comedian to a major star. Still, the North Carolina native regards his new fame warily, and so values his privacy that he shut down his official website. Last week, speaking by phone from a room in the Beverly Hilton to promote "The Hangover Part II," Galifianakis proved a reluctant, but still funny, interviewee.
You've been fairly candid about your feelings about sequels. What made you decide to do this one?
The fact of the matter is, I wanted to leave well enough alone. Then we got the script. And I gotta tell you, I liked it. And then there was that temptation: "Oh, my God! I can repave my parents' driveway!"
How much of the film was scripted and how much was improvised?
To keep it fresh on set, you try to say new things. Selfishly, as someone who just loves the energy of people laughing, I would try to make people laugh when they weren't supposed to. It's very unprofessional, but it really helped me.
Off the set, your co-star Ken Jeong said he would literally cry laughing while you and director Todd Phillips cracked jokes during dinner.
Ken is such a laugher. I remember exactly where we were eating, and Ken had a couple of wines in him. He laughed so loud it almost overtook the noise of the city of Bangkok. You probably can't hear this in the background, but I'm in the next room from him, and I can actually hear him laughing so hard right now. Not at me.
I found a page from your old website that says, "The entertainment business is both poison and honey." Can you elaborate?
Well, the honey is the warmness that I feel from people appreciating the humor I'm trying to do. That's the beautiful thing. That, and getting a good table at Fuddruckers. The poison is that you get locked into this silly business, and you believe the hype.
Yet, here we are, hyping you right now.
Yep! We're trying to get the word out about a movie. I don't know how you'd do it without being interviewed. I wish I could hire a skywriting campaign and have them do their smoke signals -- "Hey, watch 'The Hangover!' " -- so I don't have to divulge anything about myself.