Tom Lennon on ‘Bad Teacher,’ Making Cameron Diaz Laugh, & the Collapse of The State
Disclaimer: If you’re planning on seeing Bad Teacher this weekend, that movie with the non-awkward Cameron Diaz-Justin Timberlake sex scene, you will see Tom Lennon have sex with a photocopy machine. The R-rated comedy is just that kind of movie, and Tom Lennon is that kind of actor, a self-described creep-for-hire, who you’ve no doubt seen smarm his way through movies like I Love You, Man, Cedar Rapids, and Hot Tub Time Machine. But Lennon is probably best-known for his membership in one of sketch comedy’s most storied groups, the gone-too-soon The State, and as a co-creator of the Comedy Central cop series Reno 911! We caught up with the actor and screenwriter at the Bad Teacher press day to discuss what it feels like to make Cameron Diaz laugh, the secret to being a successful writer, and how YouTube changed the sketch comedy game.
How many days did you work on Bad Teacher? My total work was 5 days. As you noticed, I was the supporting character. I’m probably the highlight of the film. I feel like I’m putting words in your mouth when I say it, but I’m probably the highlight of the movie.
By the time the movie reaches the halfway point and you hadn’t made an appearance, I started to wonder. Yes, I’m not on for a long fucking time, and even then I don’t do that much. That’s the art of my role in films. Don’t be on that much, and then don’t do hardly anything. And then take my clothes off. But that’s what happens a lot of the times when you are a character actor. You come in out of nowhere, see a whole established cast and crew, and they all like each other, and then you [makes fart sound], and take your pants off, and kinda dick around.
So you see yourself as a character actor? Yes, well this is not how I see myself, but I am well aware of how the world sees me. You get really busy in life when you figure out how people perceive you, and for me, as soon as you get over the “I’m Justin Timberlake” thing, and you realize you are not, as soon as you realize that Justin Timberlake is Justin Timberlake and you are the creepy dude who gets drugged and then fucks photocopiers, things go really, really well.
Do you see yourself as an actor or a writer primarily? That is interesting. I have a kind of split personality. When I’m writing I see myself as a writer, when I’m acting I see myself as an actor. I really don’t see them as that different.
Do you have a compulsion to write? I do. I write pretty much every day. Well, you have to if you are going to do that as a job. If your going to write for the studios it cannot be like forcing yourself to write, you should feel like, Oh my God, why am I here sitting with these people when I could be somewhere writing? And as soon as you feel that it’s a good step.
So people who want to be a writer but need to force themselves to write won’t be writers? No, they will not be a writer. They just won’t. If you have to force yourself to find time to write, it’s not going to work out. If you don’t feel like writing, it’s never going to work out, I guarantee it. Hemingway did a lot of crazy shit. He was catching marlins, and punching people, and going to bull-fights. He still wrote like a motherfucker. So you should feel that compulsion. Even if you’re going to write terrible schlock like me.
Do you work on feature screenplays that you hope to one day get produced? Sure, I’ve written a ton of movies that have been made. I wrote a Night at the Museum 2. Me and my partner have a book on screenwriting coming out.
Is Cameron Diaz the most famous person you have acted alongside? The most famous? No. I have been in a scene with Will Smith in a movie, one time.
Is she the hottest? Oh yes. She’s really a walking boner town.
Did you make her laugh on set? We got along pretty well. I don’t know if it’s fake, I don’t think it is, because she seems like a pretty sincere person. But she’s one of those people you like right away.
It must be a good feeling to make her laugh. If you make her crack up it kind of makes you feel like you won.
Did you audition for this role? I did, and that was interesting because I didn’t originally audition for this role, I auditioned for the principal, against a lot of funny people. It was one of those auditions that you walk in and think, Oh this is a fucking bummer. Because you look around the room and all these funny guys are there at the same time, all for this part. I get really depressed.
Did you get to meet Justin Timberlake? I did, but not on set. I met him on the press tour. He’s a lovely dude.
I know you’re a music fan. Are you a fan of his music? I’m a crazy music fan. I’m obsessive. I like his music a lot. I also like his comedy a lot. He’s one of those multi-threats. My favorite work of his is probably “Motherlover.”
As someone who got their start at sketch comedy, do you wish that you had Youtube back when you were doing it? No, in fact, here’s the thing. With Funny or Die, or Youtube, or College Humor, and all these sites, I strongly suspect that my comedy group would never have existed on television. That’s what got us our start, was getting the show on MTV. But if there had been those sites at the time, why would we pursue a TV show? More people will see your video on the main page of Funny or Die in a day, than would ever see your TV show. So the landscape has changed completely.
Do you think it’s a good thing? I don’t know, it’s interesting. I just wonder what’s the motivation to try and get a TV show now, if you can just do funny stuff on the net. The only catch is that you don’t have your own TV show, which we did.
But do you need your own show these days? As a sketch group? I don’t know. For us it was really cool. It established us as a real thing. It’s like an album for a band. But I worry, I don’t know if we would have pursued it at all. I see kids that are just like what The State was, but all their stuff is internet-based.
Have you ever auditioned for SNL? I never did.
Did you come close? I never went. It probably was the dream as a kid. I moved to NY when I was 18, and the next year, I was on what was to become The State. So from the age of 19 until today, I was in The State, so it never really came up. It was certainly something that as a child I was into. I think I probably would have liked it, and it probably would have been better for my movie career, because you roll out of that show and they make 8 movies with you.
Were you disappointed when The State ended? The State never got canceled. We imploded because we just fucked up and took that CBS deal. That was an enormous disappointment. I didn’t even know until years later that MTV had offered us 65 more episodes on the air, guaranteed. I would have loved to do those 65 more episodes, because we kind of imploded right when we had hit our stride.
What advice would you give someone who came to New York, looking to break into sketch comedy? One, I would take some classes at the UCB. Two, the secret to the success of The State was we never waited for anyone to ask us to do anything, or for anyone’s approval to do anything. We just fucking did stuff. We were shooting all the time, writing all the time. We would put up a live show every couple of months. We were aggressive. If you wait around for an opportunity to come up, it’s not coming. It isn’t, ever. Opportunities are not coming. The only opportunities that are coming are the ones you create. Otherwise you are just waiting around.
You seem like you have a pretty dirty sense of humor. I don’t know. I suppose.
When you write something like Night at the Museum 2, do you need to tone things down to appeal to a broader audience? To me there is not much of a difference. My sense of humor is my sense of humor. I feel like there’s stuff in Night at the Museum and stuff in Reno 911 that if you look at them side by side, it’s just like, my sense of humor is pretty much my sense of humor. I don’t change it, other then swearing.
So you don’t write with younger audience in mind? Well, there’s certain subject matter stuff you wouldn’t do. Basically the year after Night at the Museum came out, the Reno 911 movie came out, which was almost NC-17, for sex and creepiness, we did some weird stuff in that movie. But again, my sense of humor is relatively consistent. I don’t change my mindset, really. I just don’t swear.
What about your upcoming projects? I’m doing Harold and Kumar 3D, which comes out in November.
Did you write a movie for Vin Diesel called The Machine? I did. He’s producing it and acting in it. That is our second Vin Diesel movie because we wrote The Pacifier too. The premise is similar to Being There, the old Peter Sellers movie, with an ‘80s terminator robot.
Did you have to pitch the project to Vin Diesel? We didn’t have to pitch it to him, he read the script, thought it was great, and that was that.
Have you ever thought about directing your own work? I’ve directed a few episodes of Reno 911, and honestly it doesn’t appeal to me that much. A lot of it is super unglamorous. A lot of directing is just riding around in a van, looking at shit.
Main site photo by Seth Olenick.