Why Is Funnyman Ben Stiller Not Laughing?

Joe Pugliese

Behind the actor's comic persona is an astute, driven filmmaker who cites Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro as his idols, fights for aid to Haiti and struggles to find balance in the midst of his empire-building: "It's very easy not to stop and feel things."

Spend time with Ben Stiller, and his seriousness is striking. The actor who played the moronic model of 2001's Zoolander; the neurotic nerd of Meet the Parents and its sequels; the hapless suitor who famously gets his private parts trapped in his fly in the picture that propelled him to stardom, 1998's There's Something About Mary, is in real life unnervingly different.

Highly intelligent, deeply driven, he will tell you about the vaunted tomes he is reading but hardly ever cracks a joke.

"I never thought I'd go into comedy," he admits. "I wanted to be a serious filmmaker. My heroes were Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese." He adds, "I don't think of myself as funny."

In front of the camera, though, Stiller has perfected a comic brilliance as Hollywood's awkward straight man.

On the Atlanta set of Fox's upcoming Neighborhood Watch -- about a group of suburban dads who discover that aliens have infiltrated the world -- he plays the same scene over and over one afternoon on Oct. 13, his fourth day into the shoot, allowing fellow actor Will Forte as a cartoonlike cop to get all the laughs. He never loses his intense focus.

"You know those kids who egged you?" Forte barks, poking his nose right in Stiller's face as they stand outside a modern McMansion. "One of them got killed and skinned alive! Every time someone gets killed and skinned alive, you're around! Maybe you're a homicidal maniac?"

"I -- I'm not," Stiller protests feebly.

The lines seem straightforward, but Stiller, 45, underplays them in just the right way, the perfect contrast to the cop's outrageousness, making the technicians struggle not to laugh.

Stiller does the segment again and again, only occasionally making small talk with the crew, unfazed by the horde of locals gaping at him. He waves to them just once, sending a teenage girl into a paroxysm of joy. "Did you see that?" she shrieks. "He looked at me. He looked at me!"

If Stiller did, he's barely aware of it, so intent is he on his work. While the girl goes into hysterics, he does the scene once more, without any attempt to tell others how to do their job -- not even the relatively untested director Akiva Schaffer -- though the star is himself a far more experienced helmer, who leans toward that more than acting.

So where is the famously controlling Stiller in all this, the man whose endless quest for perfection has led him to keep a tight rein on many of the projects he's involved with?

"He drives me f--ing crazy," laughs one colleague, referring to Stiller's desire for control. "But he's brilliant with artists, with why a script works and why it doesn't."

Stiller shrugs off his perfectionist reputation. "As you get older, you realize you can't control anything, and giving up control can be freeing," he says. Then he grins and admits, "It's something I'm still working at."


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