Q&A: John Hamburg

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When it comes to nicknames, President Bush has nothing on writer-director John Hamburg (Totes Magotes, anybody?). Hamburg has showcased his sly funny bone in feature efforts ("Safe Men," "Along Came Polly") and on TV ("Undeclared," "Stella," "Welcome to the Captain"), and he's long been on call to punch up such comedies as "Meet the Parents," "Zoolander" and "Meet the Fockers." His next solo effort is "I Love You, Man," a bromantic comedy (written with Larry Levin) that stars Paul Rudd and Jason Segel and opens March 20.

The Hollywood Reporter: "I Love You, Man" again features a lot of nonsense nicknames and colloquialisms -- Paramount even is using them in the poster campaign. What's your method for coming up with that stuff?

John Hamburg: It all came from the character that Rudd is playing, just a guy who's trying to be cool and trying to fit in. Whenever in life you try too hard, you fail. Me, Paul and Jason just made a lot of stuff up. I did a lot of writing on "Night at the Museum." They would call me from the Vancouver set and be like, "Mickey Rooney's going to be in a scene, can you write 10 nicknames he might call Ben?" And I would just sit there in my office in New York and fire off a bunch of nicknames. I have a nickname agent, and he's incredibly well-paid.

THR: How often do fans bring up "sharted," the classic line from "Along Came Polly," and how do you feel about that particular legacy?

Hamburg: (Laughs.) I knew what I was getting into. I definitely have envisioned my obituary, and I really hope that that's not my main contribution to the world.

THR: " 'Sharted' Creator Passes Away at 81."

Hamburg: Exactly. Maybe it's just the kind of face I have. Fans feel like they can share particular stories of when that might have happened to them. I'm honestly just happy they've seen the movie. I just love the way Philip Seymour Hoffman did it. He's so serious about it. It's as if he's saying, "Dude, I just killed a guy, and now we have to find some lime and a shovel and get this done."

THR: You're bound to hear Judd Apatow comparisons when "Man" comes out given Rudd and Segel and the tone. Is that annoying?

Hamburg: His name has never come up in conjunction with this movie. I'm kidding. No, it's not annoying at all. Judd is a friend of mine. I loved working with him on "Undeclared." He's an awesome filmmaker, and I have serious respect for what he's done in comedy, opening up casting possibilities and helping audiences to gravitate toward a more realistic approach. I love to get his feedback on stuff and vice versa, so there's no frustration with that.

THR: What's been the most nerve-wracking experience you've had in presenting a joke to an actor?

Hamburg: During "Meet the Parents," I was 29 and I probably looked like I was 19. I wrote this scene where (Robert) De Niro confronts Ben (Stiller) in the tux shop and says, "I'll bring you down to Chinatown." I presented it to (director) Jay Roach and Jay was like, "Yeah, it's really funny." And then De Niro walked in and Jay goes, "Hey, Bob, check out this scene Hamburg just wrote." I don't think he knew who I was at that time. But he read it and my heart was thumping out of my chest. He looks me in the eye and he goes (as De Niro), "Chinatown?" Like a question. Of course I was like, "We could totally change that," and he goes, "No, no. Funny." I tried to play it cool, "Oh, cool, Bob." I called him Bob for the first time because I was feeling kind of pumped up. But he's a very good judge of people; he knew I was crapping in my pants over that one.

THR: You just got back involved with the "Fockers" franchise. What is the direction of the third one?

Hamburg: I think the idea is to try to return to the tone of the first movie. It's now been almost 10 years since the first one, but what that gives you is an audience that's connected, and you can check in with these characters every four or five years. Where are these people at in their lives? And what are the stakes when you've been married for five years? Try to tackle some real-life issues, but make it funny and relatable at the same time.

THR: What else do you have in play right now?

Hamburg: Larry Stuckey wrote the first draft of "Little Fockers," and I'm going to do a draft based off of that and some new ideas that I have. And then I have an original that I'm going to start writing to direct sometime next year. It'll be like "Benjamin Button," but my guy will live life forward this time. That's my twist.

THR: It sounds almost Kaufman-esque.

Hamburg: You mean Lloyd Kaufman, the head of Troma? "The Toxic Avenger"? Right. It's going to be Lloyd Kaufman meets Charlie Kaufman.
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