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TJFF Interview: Writer/Director Sam Hoffman on Finding the Funny in ‘Humor Me’

May 8, 2018Ben MK

In Humor Me, struggling New York playwright Nate Kroll (Jemaine Clement) doesn't have a lot to laugh about. He lives in the shadow of his younger, more successful brother, Randy (Erich Bergen), his wife, Nirit (Maria Dizzia), has taken their young son (Cade Lappin) and run off with a French billionaire, and he's forced to move in with his father, Bob (Elliott Gould), in the New Jersey retirement community of Cranberry Bog.

No, it seems Nate couldn't sink much lower. But somehow, somewhere between meeting a kindred spirit named Allison (Ingrid Michaelson) and being asked to direct a group of seniors in a community theater version of The Mikado, Nate finally realizes — "Life's gonna happen whether you smile or not. So you might as well try to smile."

I caught up with the writer and director of Humor Me, Sam Hoffman, ahead of the film's Canadian premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, to chat about the movie and the cast, and to find out just what makes Jewish humor so widely appealing.

You've been the producer, the first assistant director, or the second assistant director on numerous movies going back over two decades, including several of Wes Anderson's films. Why did you feel that now was the right time to direct your own feature? And why Humor Me?

Hoffman: I've had a lot of good fortune working with other filmmakers as both an Asst Director and a Producer, including: Wes Anderson, Rick Linklater, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, to name a few. But I've always wanted to tell my own stories, and so when I wrote Humor Me it seemed like a good opportunity to try. The movie was designed to be small, and so it could work as an indie and not need studio financing. When Jemaine and Elliott expressed a desire to be a part of the film, it seemed like the time to take the leap.

In writing this film, did you base any of it — or any of the characters — on real-life experiences?

Hoffman: My wife is an art dealer. And she does have billionaire clients. So some of that is pretty real (except the "leaving me" part — so far). Also, my dad is a joke-teller. He's not emotionally repressed like Bob, but he loves to work in a joke whenever he can (and even sometimes when he shouldn't).

Let's talk about the cast. First off, Elliott Gould, whom many viewers from my generation will probably know from his recurring role on Friends, but who is, of course, a Hollywood legend with impeccable comedic timing. Did you write the role of Bob Kroll specifically with Elliott in mind?

Hoffman: Elliott was always on my short list to play Bob. I've always loved his work, especially some of the movies he did with Altman, like MASH and The Long Goodbye. So when he read the script and expressed interest, it was certainly a dream come true.

Speaking of comedic timing, you also have Jemaine Clement playing Elliott's son, Nate. But moviegoers are used to seeing Jemaine in more offbeat roles, whereas here he excels at playing more of the straight man — and more of a low-key character — while still being very humorous. What was it about Jemaine that made him perfect for this role?

Hoffman: As you said, he's very good here as the "funny" straight man. Jemaine has so many talents — he writes, he sings, he plays guitar, he acts — that it's easy to forget that he's a really good actor. He's a funny guy who takes his work quite seriously. He had a lot of great ideas that made the movie better and he was always excited to try something. And he was very brave taking on the American accent — which he hadn't done before. I loved working with him. He's also just a gem of a person.

Thirdly, we have Ingrid Michaelson, who's best known for her music (some of which is even featured in the film). But she also does a great job holding her own with the other members of the cast. How did she become a part of this fantastic cast you've assembled?

Hoffman: Ingrid was actually the first person that I found for the film. I was writing the script and one of her songs, "Be OK," came up on the music stream, and I thought to myself — this is really the right tone for the film. It's really poppy and fun, but it's kind of about someone who's depressed and just trying to "be ok." So I thought, maybe she could be Allison, because the character is a musician and it would be great to have a real musician play the part. So I sent her the script and she loved it. Then, three years later when we actually made the film, I called her back and said, "Remember me?"

Of course, you're also the creator of Old Jews Telling Jokes. And some of that clearly seems to have made its way into the character of Bob, and the jokes he tells throughout the film about a character named Zimmerman. What is it about Jewish humor that you think gives it such a wide appeal to audiences in general?

Hoffman: Old Jews Telling Jokes was definitely one of the inspirations for Bob and his jokes came from my experience making that project. I think the jokes are appealing, and I tried to play this in the film, because they have a self-effacing "everyman" quality to them. When Bob tells his jokes about Zimmerman, they are actually little parables about life, that mirror the experience that Jemaine's character, Nate, is living. I also think these jokes are kind of like your favorite sweatshirt. They're not new, and they're not stylish, but there's always something comforting about putting them on.

Humor Me screens Tuesday, May 8th and Thursday, May 10th at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 33 min.

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