Broken Lizard has made four official films together as a comedy troupe: Puddle Cruiser, Super Troopers, Club Dread, and now Beerfest (count Jay Chandrasekhar's The Dukes of Hazzard as a bonus feature). With a new deal with Warner Brothers and a Super Troopers 2 in the works, the group is going strong. On their nationwide Beerfest tour, Broken Lizard's Steve Lemme & Erik Stolhanske took time out to talk to me in San Francisco's Gordon Biersch.
G: Well, the first one's not a stumper. First, I just want to get the brief history of Charred Goosebeak and Broken Lizard because I really don't know how you guys got together.
ES: We all went to college together, and when we were in college, we started a comedy group sort of in the vein—I guess, like a Saturday Night Live, where we scripted all of our material and performed it up on stage. And we called ourselves Charred Goosebeak at the time. And then, once we graduated, we went down to New York City and we were performing sketch comedy in New York. And so we took a different name, which became Broken Lizard. Charred Goosebeak stayed at Colgate University where it was started, and to this day, it's still going.
G: I got it. Okay. Now your drinking histories, to some degree, spawned this new movie, Beerfest. I guess, first of all, the primary inspiration for the film was having this embarrassing showdown with a bunch of Aussies, right?
SL: Yeah, we were promoting Super Troopers in Australia, and they were sending us around to the most random places. We went to the opening of a tire store—where they had giant-like tractor tires stacked up and they were giving away free hot dogs. But everywhere they sent us, they wanted us to wear our police uniforms. Even on the radio, they wanted us to wear our police uniforms—"for the energy," they said. And this one day they were like "Oh, there's a beer festival, at a beer garden—we want you to go in your police uniforms and get up on stage and say, 'Hi, we're the Super Troopers from America, and come see our movie.'" Which—we finally drew the line. We dug our heels and we said, "We are not doing that. But we decided we'd go onstage and challenge any five Australian drinkers to a "boat race," which is essentially a line chug. So we got up there—it was a real visiting team—they're chanting "Oz," which is the word for how they call Australia in Australia. They were saying, you know, "Oz! Oz! Oz!" Loud. Drunk. And we were up there—they beat us by a hair. One of our guys screwed up. We won't say which one. He knows who he is. He screwed up and we lost. But it started a bit of a, you know, like a good male-bonding type thing that led into arm wrestling. And then other people started getting into it, and a lot of drinking—and the Fox people who sent us there in the first place, who thought it was going to be a good idea, were suddenly very alarmed because they had lost control of the guys. So that was the genesis for sort of the—where the international flavor came from. Originally, when we thought of the idea, though, it came from the title Beerfest, and we had conceived it more as these two brothers go to Oktoberfest and get kicked out of Oktoberfest and decide to start a competing one, back in America. And the hook is, there's gonna be no drinking age, so they're going to put it on an Indian reservation. That was a little too irresponsible for us, so now Beerfest is an underground—
G: You know you're in trouble if it's too irresponsible for Broken Lizard, right?
G: Are some of the things that we see in the film innovations that you guys came up with at Colgate, like monkey chugging: is that something that came out of the Broken Lizard zone?
SL: It was more of our fraternity. We were in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, and four of us were—amazingly, the guy who wasn't in the fraternity was the guy who messed up the line chug in Australia. But, yeah, monkey chug is something we did: you would hang upside down from a pole, and you're actually drinking into the roof of your mouth because you're upside down. But that's the hardest thing for people because—they always, like, put it to their chin and then spill beer up their nose and in their face. Strikeouts—the strikeout was something that we did in college.
ES: Well, monkey chugs were always a funny way to drink a beer. Like you're hanging upside down, and most people, when they go to do it, you say, "Go," and they just pour the beer straight down and they don't even get any of it. And so it's sort of like an entertaining way to throw back a beer. And we thought that would be a fun visual to have in the movie. And like we always had these games from high school, and everyone has played Viking or Thumper or Viking Master or Asshole or whatever, so we thought that'd be funny if you had a really serious games competition that you'd put those games in it.
G: Your script-writing process starts out with brainstorming, right? And then a point man will collate ideas and produce drafts, right, that will be edited?
G: I gather that when you say there's fist-fighting involved, that you're only half joking about that. Are there ever real conflagrations over a script point?
ES: Oh, without a doubt.
SL: Oh, yeah. I mean, a lot of it is a joke. But Stolhanske and I have been known to—and we'll bare knuckle it out. Like we'll get all—we'll get like latently homosexual about it, and take our shirts off, and beat each other up. And uh—
G: Writers Room Fight Club.
SL: Well, you know, sometimes you just have to get your point across.
ES: We fought for hours over, like, "and," "or"s, and "but"s.
SL: We made a movie called "The Tinfoil Monkey Agenda," which is like a half-hour film. And I remember there was a thing—ultimately the line is, you know, we're like "Oh, you look pretty captured to me." And he's like "I'm only half captured." Like "We've captured a dictator." But we sat there for hours going through every fraction—I think seven-eighths captured is funnier. And it's like "What about four thirty-twos?" "You know, well that's a quarter." Literally, you can fight about it. And finally, we settled on "half."
G: Simple is sometimes best. Does the Writer's Guild give you guys shit about crediting yourselves as "Written by Broken Lizard"?
ES: We've had a lot of issues. For some reason, there didn't seem to be a precedent for a five-man writing team, which I always—seemed very hard to figure out why. It seemed like that was pretty common.
SL: Since Monty Python came around a long time ago.
ES: Yeah, and Kids in the Hall, and it feels like there's a lot of comedy groups, so I don't understand why it was so hard to have a five-man comedy group. And we always—it would take months to get paid because we'd have to go through these sort of drawn-out processes with the union.
SL: Our lawyers and agents would come to us—at some point, we'd be "Like where's our money?" and they'd come back and they'd be like "Guys, apparently there's this problem with WGA to get a waiver," and nobody seemed to be learning from the mistakes with the past times.
G: What elements of this story do you guys feel individually most responsible for in the writing?
SL: Is that a way of asking us what we came up with?
G: Yeah, basically.
SL: Anything that's funny, we came up with.
ES: Our process is very democratic. I mean we're always writing sort of a roundtable thing, and our line is that we never take credit for anything because we always write together. But I wrote most of it.
G: Fair enough.
SL: He's pretty—yeah, he wrote a lot of it. The cool thing is that it's like—it's sort of like sports: you have your secondary assistant and your primary assistant and the goal. And a lot of the things—some guy will come up with a great idea, and then a couple of guys—you just start chiming in everything on top of it, so it's like the genesis of the idea was one person's. The actual joke that makes it into the script is somebody else's. So you can't really—with five guys, you can't take credit for anything. Except for the funny stuff, which I wrote.
ES: And maybe an improvised assist on the set too.
G: Right, right. This movie actually has, basically, the kind of construction of a sports movie—maybe crossed with The Blues Brothers.
ES: Very good.
G: Do you guys ever worry about getting so close to—because maybe you're affectionate for what you're spoofing—that it almost ceases to become a spoof and you're sort of making one of those films?
ES: Well, we try to like keep it as straight as possible. And we're not really into parody. Like I don't think our style of humor is a parody, per se...it's more taking a genre or convention and giving it our angle, or our point of view.
G: Yeah, it's a clothesline for the humor, but that—it's still kind of a straight plot.
ES: Yes. We're trying to play it straight and like trying to have the characters straight and stuff like that. It's not like it's really parodying anything. Steve, do you have anything to add about that?
SL: Yeah, we don't—we think it's—life is so funny on it's own. You know, like we think you don't have to make it so—. You can actually use real life. We like to have things that can actually happen. I mean, in every movie, there's usually one scene that takes a slight departure. But that's like—once you've had the audience for a little while, you can give them a little—wet their beak in that other world. But we like to come back and do things that could happen in reality.
G: Now, your nickname is "Old Ironsides," supposedly, right?
ES: That's right.
G: And yours is "Joystick"; is that true?
G: Do you care to reveal how you got these nicknames?
ES: Well, I have a very sturdy constitution.
G: And did that hold up on this film?
ES: Yeah. Actually, it never referred to eating or drinking. I always liked the idea—I liked to say that I had a sturdy constitution. And I never even realized that it was in reference to eating or drinking.
G: You were just thinking of the law of the land?
ES: Yeah. More like old-timing. Like, he's got a sturdy constitution. It's just a great word, I thought.
SL: Well, he's like a Viking. His last name, Stolhanske, means "steel hand." That's tough, in real life.
G: And Joystick? How'd you get that one? Is it suitable for public consumption, how you got that?
SL: You mean, is it because I have a black penis with a red button by it?
SL: No, that's not why. It's because when I was growing up, I was the best video-gamer ever. There's a game out there called the Robotron. And I'll issue this challenge now. I am the best Robotron player in the world—on the planet. I dare anybody to come and beat me at Robotron. That's a game from like 1952, so—
G: You throw down the steel hand on that one.
SL: I do throw down the steel hand.
G: Now, in this movie, you guys consume a lot of beer, obviously. Do you consume any real beer on camera, or is it all the fake stuff, the Hollywood stuff?
ES: That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Well, there were days when you'd show up for work at six in the morning, and to throw down a gallon of beer would be like a long seventeen-hour day. So we'd start off slow. But you know, when the day's winding down, you knew your job was kind of coming to an end, you'd break out the real stuff. And especially on the weekends and stuff like that. There's a couple scenes where we definitely had real beer in it. There's a scene where we're eating pizza and hanging out in the bar, and we were getting pretty close to finishing our day, so we decided—we had sponsors by Red Stripe and Guinness...so we'd crack it out and have a good time, and it made for a—for fun scenes.
SL: And that was a nice one because it really was the last shot of the night. And the pizza wasn't even supposed to be in the scene. Like they put out prop popcorn and prop beer and we were like—and the pizzas had just arrived on set—we were like "Bring one of them in here," so it's like we're just sitting there eating pizza. Because you can't—you wake up like on a Monday morning, and all of a sudden they're like "Alright, you're doing the monkey chug scene first." And so you have to climb up there and, for an hour, drink beer upside down and, you know, that does not agree—that does not agree with you.
G: And are there—did you guys ever use any practical or special effects or is everything we see straight draining?
ES: We tried both things, but a lot of rigging and special effects. If that didn't work, then we'd rely on visual effects. But Will Forte: one time he's like—he decided he's—he asked if Jay would be upset if he actually chugged a real beer. And we're like "Are you kidding? He'd be thrilled." So Will had this large—I don't know how many liters—a liter jug and put it down in like four seconds. It was some of the fastest drinking we had ever seen. And everyone on the set was just amazed. And he did that three times. And I think he got a standing ovation. It was pretty—very impressive. I'm not going to say pretty impressive. It was very impressive.
G: But then he had to retire, right?
ES: Yes. Steve, I'll let you take this one.
SL: Okay, good. How vulgar can we get...?
G: Go for it.
SL: He uh—he went outside and puked. But we have him on videotape while he's puking; he's just blasted loud farts at the same time, so it's coming out both ends.
SL: That's so gross.
ES: The SNL guys. They're very fart-joke oriented.
G: Right. Now, it's a point of pride to drain a beer, so did you guys get competitive about who was—or I guess maybe you already knew before you filmed the movie.
SL: Between us, I don't know—I'm definitely the fastest drinker. And then I don't know how these guys stack up after me. But on the Germans' last night on the set, they uh—somebody had the big idea to have us face off against them in one of these famous line chugs.
ES: We were in Albuquerque and they kinda—it was their last night—we'd been filming with them for a while, and so we became friends. And they rented out a restaurant; they kind of took over this—like a nice restaurant.
ES: And then decided somehow—I don't know how they did it, but like pulled a bunch of tables together and made like long tables and then we started getting rowdy—and then, to get—then we decided to do these chugs. That was the setup. It was a nice restaurant, and all of a sudden we're asking the bartender—or whatever—who is normally used to serving a glass of cabernet, to like line up ten beers at this long table. And it took like twenty minutes just to get the beers.
SL: And, ironically enough, it was—the guy who lost the one for us in Australia, was the one who was talking so much trash, and the rest of us were sweating it out. Because we're like "We know we're going to lose. We know we're going to lose, and it's because we got this one fellow who cannot do it. And so now, the cast and crew—everyone was around us—it was essentially—it was like a cock fight. Everyone was around us, screaming, cheering—it's Beerfest happening for real. We've got our—all got our pints. Go. Boom. We started off—we're doing great—our guy loses it right there, and we lost the first one. It was humiliating. So we swapped him out. They actually—one of the Germans had gone home, so they had a sub. So we swapped our guy out with the brother of another one of our guys. We won the second one handily, and so it came down to the rubber match.
SL: We took the rubber match. So we took them down two out of three. And the whole thing is filmed, so that as well is going to be on the DVD as an extra. And if we had lost, it would not be.
G: Right. (Laughs.) The first cut of Club Dread was, I guess, around two hours and forty minutes long. Do you guys find test screenings useful to time out the jokes or decide what's working?
ES: Yeah, I mean we get sometimes too close to it. And you see it so much that it's hard to see it, and then there'll also be times when you will argue for an edit and then you have to put it up in front of an audience to prove to somebody who's arguing for it that it does or does not work.
ES: And so that's really helpful for that. Our first cut of Beerfest was three hours. But that's not what we projected. I don't think that's what we projected. Two: twenty or something?
SL: I'm not—well, for the friends and family. Yeah, three hours is obviously way too long. But it's like you couldn't look at a scene—and you'll hear from the audience—"Okay, they laugh at that joke and that joke and that joke." And in between there's like two dead ones that are bringing down the entire scene. You're like "Oh, the scene's not good." And then, all of a sudden, you take those dead ones out, and then the actors look better because they're not saying anything stupid. The scene all of a sudden becomes good, because there's nothing flawed about it. So it's pretty useful. The hard part though, is that you get given a test score. And it's the audience afterwards—it's like "Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair and Poor. And the studios look at—the number they're looking for is how many people said "Very good" or "Excellent." And what you find, in our genre—people will say—like they'll be asked in a focus group, "Why didn't you give this movie a Very Good or an Excellent?" And they're like "Well, because that's not like an Oscar movie or something like that. Like that's an Excellent movie. I would never say—this is a stupid comedy." And then you're like "Okay, but we're the ones who are getting screwed," because on Club Dread, we tested in the fifties. And that's—the studio decided to really pull back the amount of money they were going to put into it.
G: Yeah. That one seemed to sort of get dumped by the studio.
SL: It got dumped, and we opened up against The Passion of the Christ. And the Lord was in no mood for our shenanigans that opening weekend.
G: But that movie got a real new lease on life on video, right?
SL: Club Dread is doing well. I don't think it's done Super Troopers numbers because Super Troopers has done something that we're completely shocked about.
SL: Club Dread has done alright. It's done pretty well. And our first one, Puddle Cruiser, just came out and it is doing well. And that's the one we're also pushing because nobody's seen that, and it's ten years old and it's us, like, raw.
G: Now, are you guys—I know you've announced that Super Troopers 2 is on the way, in which you would play the fathers of your characters in the first film, right? Is that likely to be next on the slate or Nutcracker or what? What's going on?
ES: I think we got a little turned off when we were doing our promotional tour for Super Troopers—how Fox kept trying to make us wear the cop uniforms. And then when we went down to Australia, they had been sitting in a box for months. No one washed them. They sent them down to Australia and they tried to get us to wear them.
ES: And they were so awful, so we got a little tired of wearing those. And we also kind of wanted to show our chops at—where actually we could make a couple of more films in between and play different characters and stuff like that. So we want to do Super Troopers '77—or some of the guys argue '76. But there'll probably be one or two between then.
G: 76 and ½ maybe?
ES: Maybe 76 and ½.
SL: July of '76.
G: Is there any joke you've been trying and failing for years to get into a Broken Lizard movie?
ES: That's a good question.
SL: That's the stumper.
ES: Well, we do want to do a rated "X" movie. What was the name of it? Oh, we wanted to do—
SL: We've always wanted to do a joke where a couple is having sex, and there's a guy outside the window watching this guy have sex with the girl that he loves, and whacking off and crying at the same time. That's one we can't seem to find a home for.
ES: Not yet.
SL: Although they did that in Mulholland Drive. Did you ever see Mulholland Drive? David Lynch? Great movie.
G: Yeah. Yeah.
SL: But one of those two girls has a crying-masturbating scene.
G: Yeah, that's right.
ES: But I don't think she's outside of a winder peeping inside, was she?
G: Naw, I don't think so.
SL: Naw, she was fantasizing. And then we had—we twisted it around. We had one version where it was like—if you found out your place was haunted—and then we had the thing where like the ghost, the apparition, you'd see was a ghost who was crying and masturbating outside the window. And you would be "Did I see it? Did I imagine it?" But then you would find a ghostly, a glowing ghostly—
SL: Load on the—kinetic energy in the shape of a splooge.
ES: That you could only see with a black light or some C.S.I. type of invention.
SL: Yeah, exactly—when you shine the light on it.
G: (Chuckles.) I don't know what to say to that.
SL: See? That's—those tough questions get tough answers.
G: They do indeed. What's the most absurd note you've gotten from a studio?
SL: Oh, that's easy. Actually there's another really, really absurd one. Beerfest was—originally we set it up with Happy Madison, which is Sandler's company. Those guys are like top, stand-up, solid guys. And saved our ass—came to the rescue after Club Dread and were like "Pitch us. Let's do something. We're going to hook you guys back up." We pitched them Beerfest. Brought it to a studio which purchased it. And in our first script meeting—we had written the script, we were psyched about it—the Sandler people were like "We love it. We don't even have a note for you guys." Went into the meeting with the executive and the first thing he said was like "I think that you guys have—the characters that you've created are really unsympathetic. I mean, these are guys who, like, drink Budweiser." And we were like "Yeah, what's that supposed to mean?" He's like "Budweiser sucks. Make it like Stella Artois." And we're like—I mean Stella Artois's a delicious beer, but we're going for American beer and Budweiser is delicious.
ES: Middle America. It's like salt of the earth. It's supposed to be an All-American team.
SL: Then he said, "And what is up with this? You guys have written it like it's a sports movie. This isn't a sport movie, is it?" And we're like "Yeah, asshole, it's a sports movie." And then, uh, I don't want to give a—there's a death in the film. And then a little twist on the death. He accused us of being cynical to the movie business. And was like "Are you guys serious with this?" We're like "Yeah, we're serious."
G: Yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing a studio wouldn't get.
ES: They don't get our humor a lot of times. And we get a lot of notes to change it—try to make it more conventional. We're trying to always go away from being conventional. There's a continuous argument in that aspect.
SL: Yeah, there's a couple more—to give you a long answer. And then there's—on Club Dread—you remember this one? The lead character played by Brittany Daniel is Jenny. And it comes out at the end that she had slept with Coconut Pete. She had slept with me. She had slept with a lot, a lot of people who had been killed and everything. They came—the studio came to us, and they said, "This part—"—we were having a creative session—they were like "This next note comes from the girls in Marketing. But we think Jenny should have a 'no sleeping with the staff' policy because they think the fact that she's had sex with a lot of these guys will make her unsympathetic, and they can't market her towards women.' Meanwhile, these are like women who go out on Monday night and have like two Cosmopolitans and then, you know—
G: Right. And on that note, that lovely note, I'm going to have to wrap it up with you because I'm getting the hook. But thanks for talking to me.
ES: Thank you very much for having us. We really appreciate it.
G: And enjoy the rest of the Beerfest tour.
ES: It's going to be a long one. It's getting very dire.
SL: You can join us at any time.
G: Right on.
[For Groucho's review of Beerfest, click here.]