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Playboy Interview: Ben Stiller
  • March 07, 2009 : 00:03
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PLAYBOY: It's a cliché that many comedians and comic actors have a dark, despairing side. Is that true or exaggerated?

BEN STILLER: I once made a joke to a reporter about manic depression running in my family. The reporter didn't know it was a joke. I picked up the paper and read it. That was when I realized irony doesn't read well. From then on, it has been in every article written about me.

PLAYBOY: Is it a fabrication?

BEN STILLER: Totally. I'm not Mister Funny Guy all the time. I have my moods. I can also be ridiculous. Everybody's a different person with different people. But I said it as a joke.

PLAYBOY: Do people expect you to be funny all the time?

BEN STILLER: If somebody said to me, "Be funny," I couldn't. I don't know how to do that.

PLAYBOY: What about at home, growing up? Your parents were comedians. Were there a lot of laughs around the house?

BEN STILLER: Their comedy was born of necessity. They were both serious actors but weren't working. They needed money, so they started this act. My dad always wanted to be a stand-up, but my mom didn't. Stiller and Meara was their last shot. If the act didn't work, my dad was going to get out of the business and market his special chicken gai yung.

PLAYBOY: Chicken gai yung?

BEN STILLER: I recently learned this. They were living in Washington Heights, and he found a Thai chicken recipe he had big plans for. If their act hadn't taken off, it would have been Stiller and Meara Chicken Wings.

PLAYBOY: You must have been relieved they stayed in show business instead.

BEN STILLER: I can tell you it was not fun watching them on The Ed Sullivan Show.

PLAYBOY: Why? Did they bomb?

BEN STILLER: No, no! It was stressful. Ed Sullivan was like American Idol. It was the one show everybody watched. Ed had to like you so you could get invited back. My parents were on 30 times. But even when I was really young I was afraid they would screw up. Seeing them perform in nightclubs or watching them on TV at home, there was always a low-grade tension. It's probably why I've never enjoyed live performing. I've never done stand-up. I associate it with tremendous pressure.

PLAYBOY: Did you inherit your parents' sense of humor?

BEN STILLER: Actually, I've always liked to laugh at people more than make people laugh. I guess they did give me certain comedy values. Like my mother couldn't stand the Three Stooges, so that made me biased against them.

PLAYBOY: Who did you like?

BEN STILLER: My mother and I liked Abbott and Costello. Their movies came on WPIX in New York on Sunday mornings. My favorite was The Time of Their Lives; they played Revolutionary War ghosts.

PLAYBOY: Did you spend a lot of time with your father? What did you learn from him?

BEN STILLER: Sure, and he was great. After living through the Depression, my father thought being funny was very important, something he really enjoyed.

PLAYBOY: What about the downside?

BEN STILLER: He was not so good with pets. I have had a very spotty history with dog training, which I trace directly to my father. Now that I think of it, it's horrible. But I don't know if I should talk about it.

PLAYBOY: What happened?

BEN STILLER: Okay. When we were kids, my sister and I decided we wanted a dog, so my mom took us to get a rescue. We saw this dog in a window at the Bide-A-Wee home. Her name was Sugar. We took her back to our apartment on Riverside Drive. She was part collie, part shepherd, really sweet. But she was not house-trained, which my dad was not happy about. My sister and I said we'd take care of her. Naturally my father ended up being the one who had to do everything, including house-training. One day he brought in this trainer. I don't remember his name, but he had a Vandyke and American cheese.

PLAYBOY: A Vandyke and American cheese?

BEN STILLER: Yes. I went downstairs to watch the guy work. He would stand in front of the dog and hold up the American cheese to get her to sit. And he had what to me was a very inhumane method of house-training the dog. It involved suppositories.

PLAYBOY: Suppositories?

BEN STILLER: I don't want to get into it.

PLAYBOY: You think you can just march out dog suppositories with no explanation?

BEN STILLER: Look, this was 30 years ago. I don't think the practice is widely accepted. It's probably the most politically incorrect training method in history. The suppositories were supposed to stimulate the dog.

PLAYBOY: To do what?

BEN STILLER: To go to the bathroom. My dad had to administer them on the street.

PLAYBOY: Seriously? You saw that as a child? Did it scar you?

BEN STILLER: I did see that. Jesus, now that I think of it, it's crazy. I can't imagine having to do it. God, that's a horrible image.

PLAYBOY: What happened to Sugar?

BEN STILLER: Years of therapy. No, in truth she didn't last. We had to give her back.

PLAYBOY: Is it safe to assume you've given up on house pets?
BEN STILLER: My wife, Christine, and I have two dogs. We're getting a puppy in a couple of days for my daughter's birthday.

PLAYBOY: Will you be in charge of housetraining it?

BEN STILLER: Like I said, my record is a little spotty.

PLAYBOY: Dog rearing aside, was growing up in your parents' world of show business a good thing for you?

BEN STILLER: Oh yeah. My parents knew everybody. I met a lot of comedians and actors. Rodney Dangerfield was a good friend of my parents'. They went way back to when he was still known as Jack Roy. He would always come over for the holidays.

PLAYBOY: What was it like celebrating holidays with Rodney Dangerfield?

BEN STILLER: Rodney was Rodney. He had so much energy. He was always the focus of the room. He was a sweet guy, but he had a tortured quality to him, which was the basis of who he was—and the basis of his act. Years later I went to see him about appearing in one of my movies. I met him at the Beverly Hilton. He came out in his bathrobe. You're sort of there to see the king. When you saw the king, you saw all of the king.

PLAYBOY: Meaning?

BEN STILLER: Rodney's robe was always a little bit open. I tried to maintain eye contact at all times. I didn't want to look down.

PLAYBOY: Who else did you meet through your parents?

BEN STILLER: My parents were always connected in the comedy world. It wasn't a Hollywood sort of thing, but it was very New York. They used to have these crazy New Year's Eve parties. My dad did Hurlyburly on Broadway for three years, so all the people from the show would be there—William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Keitel, Rodney, of course. Andy Kaufman came once. I think he was dating Elayne Boosler. In the early 1980s Jerry Stiller and Anne Mara's New Year's Eve party was a place people would show up. I was, like, 17, 18, 19. It was exciting. I was in awe of Hurt at the time. He'd sit down and talk to me about acting. I never tried to network or anything, but show business was all around us. I wanted to be part of that world. I loved the feeling of camaraderie among the actors.

PLAYBOY: Were your parents so cool you never felt a need to rebel against them?

BEN STILLER: I went out to the West Coast to UCLA for a couple of quarters but then dropped out and came back home, so I kind of missed out on the whole youthful rebellion, learning-to-be-on-your-own thing. I was the guy who dropped out and moved back in with his parents.

PLAYBOY: When did you finally move out for good?

BEN STILLER: I was about 20. I made the big leap from my parents' place on Riverside to 83rd Street and Broadway, about four blocks away. As soon as I moved I got this girlfriend who was 15 years older than I was. She was an older woman, though I didn't think of her as an older woman. I met her in acting class. I remember the look on my dad's face when he met her. She was not only older, she was also about six feet tall and a complete knockout.

PLAYBOY: How did your father respond?

BEN STILLER: My dad's eyes popped out of his head. It was like, What is this woman doing with my boy? I probably should have warned them I had a girlfriend.

PLAYBOY: Did he take you aside for a father-son talk?

BEN STILLER: I'm still waiting for that.

PLAYBOY: How did your mother respond?

BEN STILLER: My mom's very matter-of-fact about stuff. Nothing shocks her. She was like, "As long as you have your health."

PLAYBOY: So far Tropic Thunder has gotten good buzz. How do you capitalize on that?

BEN STILLER: I've been trying to arrange a Tropic Thunder tour for the troops, but I don't know if we'll be able to. I had this idea of bringing actors from the movie and showing it at military bases. Basically, the idea is to bring a little bit of entertainment to guys out there dealing with real danger—with sort of Apocalypse Now go-go dancers. I may actually be dancing myself, which would be reverse motivation for the troops to want to get away from the base: "Please don't make me watch. I want to go back to war!"

PLAYBOY: The role you cast Tom Cruise in for this movie—he's a bald, take-no-prisoners studio head—is unlike any version of him people have seen. Was it difficult to get him to take the role?
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