With titles like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” under his belt, Steve Carell certainly knows his way around a joke. We wanted to get the star of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” to suggest the best comedies of all time and ask him what makes them great. We plopped Time Out London’s list of the 100 Best Comedy Movies in front of him. Incidentally, just two of Carell’s films made the list — “Anchorman” and “Little Miss Sunshine” — but he let it slide.
OK, here’s the list.
No. 1, “This is Spinal Tap.” Well, that’s obviously a classic. It broke the mold, and it has been copied so often. Like any great movie or book or play, there’s one of these, and you can’t replicate it. And it holds up, too. “Some Like it Hot”? Yeah, these are all great. “Groundhog Day”? Man, that’s one of my favorite holiday movies. Wow, “Anchorman” is No. 6! Nice. Monty Python — any Monty Python is great. “Annie Hall,” “Life of Brian,” “Airplane!” I think “Anchorman” in a lot of ways is like “Airplane!” in that it’s just unrelenting silliness.
Is there one on the list that sticks out for you?
“Dr. Strangelove.” No. 14? I’d put that on top of my list. I think that movie is terrifying and funny in equal parts, and I think that is special. That’s an almost impossible feat to accomplish, to create something that elicits such completely diverse responses. And I love Peter Sellers’ performances in that movie.
Do you remember when you first saw it?
I think I saw it in a film class in college. I didn’t really know much about it, but it was a movie that changed my perception of comedy in a lot of ways. And [the Peter Sellers movie] “Being There,” as well. I don’t know where “Being There” is on this list.
I don’t think it’s on the list.
It’s not? [He flips through.] And on the other side, getting away from somebody like [Stanley] Kubrick, you have Mel Brooks, with “Blazing Saddles” or “Young Frankenstein.” “Young Frankenstein” is one of my all-time favorite movies as well. And again, just unrelenting silliness and commitment. I don’t know. It’s hard to deconstruct it because you don’t necessarily know why something makes you laugh, it just does. I think the more you deconstruct why it makes you laugh, the less funny it is. For me, I just love letting stuff wash over me and don’t analyze it too much.
There’s also the repeat viewing factor, films you can watch again and again. For instance, “Galaxy Quest” is on here.
“Galaxy Quest”! I love that movie, too. I just got to work with Sam Rockwell, and the first thing I said to him was, “I loved you in ‘Galaxy Quest.’” He’s a great actor, he’s done all sorts of fantastic work, but his character in “Galaxy Quest” ... He gets dematerialized and then rematerialized, and he’s so freaked out he just stands there screaming?
I’m always surprised more people don’t love that movie.
These are all great — and in different ways, you know? “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” — really wonderful performances and connection between John Candy and Steve Martin. ... There’s sort of a magic to when it works, and I think for some reason a movie like “Anchorman” worked on that level. I don’t think we knew it at the time. We knew it was funny. I mean, it was funny to us doing it. And I think when it opened nine years ago or something, people liked it, but over time I think people have liked it more and more.
More from Carell
On Burt Wonderstone vs. Ron Burgundy
Toward the beginning of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” when successful Las Vegas magician Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is at the height of his fame and power, viewers might get some glimpses of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell’s blowhard lead from “Anchorman.” Carell acknowledges some similarities, but he insists it wasn’t intentional. “I think of them as Casanovas — there definitely is a parallel there. But I think that’s where the similarities stop,” he says. “Ron isn’t mean to people. He’s not a bad person, and at the point where we find the adult Burt Wonderstone, he’s a pretty bad guy. He’s a jerk, he’s an egomaniac who really doesn’t care anymore and is completely burned out with his life and himself.”
On getting the right tone for ‘Wonderstone’
In “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” a lot of the gags and jokes stray into pretty macabre territory, like when Jim Carrey’s shock-illusionist character Steve Gray uses a power drill for a very dangerous “trick.” Was there a darker version of this movie that the filmmakers had to work hard not to not make? “In one of the scripted versions, it was not a drill bit but a gun, and I asked for that to be changed,” says Carell, who also produced the film. “I thought that would be tempting fate, frankly. I thought if someone even as a joke did something with a gun and hurt themselves or someone else, I wouldn’t want to have that on the movie as something thatinspired it. So we changed it into something that is much sillier, frankly.”
The trick, Carell says, was to rely on reactions from test audiences to find the right balance of tone — though those crowds didn’t get the final say by any means. “A lot of the stuff with Steve Gray is pretty raw, and there were even more rawversions of it, but you test it and you see how far you can go with people,” he says. “And when you start losing people because it is too far, that’s when you have to make that judgment call. It’s like tonally where do you want to fall? And you know, I don’t go all by audience testing. Sometimes you leave it in just because you think it’s funny anyway and that the majority of people are going to be able to digest it, but sometimes you have to listen and be responsible about it.”