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Cut-Rate Comedy

'Leave It to Beaver' producer Robert Simonds loves a good, cheap laugh. Then he snickers all the way to the bank.

May 11, 1997|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to The Times

Robert Simonds is rubbing his hands together, a tip-off that the comedy gods are smiling. "This stuff is gold," he says to a pair of screenwriters sitting in his office. "It makes the rest of the world play straight man to our comedian. We build to this big joke where he gets caught with a stash and gets fired--and it turns out to be oregano."

Curled up on a chair in his office on the Universal Pictures lot, Simonds is rehearsing a pitch for a film called "Half Baked." Like almost every Simonds project, the film's essence can be captured in one catchy phrase--it's a Cheech and Chong pot comedy for the '90s. The baby-faced, 34-year-old producer nervously chews on his thumb, pondering that last punch line.

"I'm just wondering," he says with a frown. "Is there something funnier than oregano?"

Simonds didn't ponder for long. A week later Universal Pictures had bought the pitch. It's just the latest sale for the onetime Yale University philosophy major whose bottom-line philosophy about comedy movies--make 'em cheap and make 'em dumb--has turned him into Hollywood's Sultan of Schlock Comedy. Armed with a stock company of "Saturday Night Live"-bred actors and writers, he's produced a string of low-budget youth comedies, including such box-office successes as the two "Problem Child" films, "Happy Gilmore" and "Billy Madison."

In an era of high-budget blockbusters, Hollywood has often ignored low-brow comedy, but Simonds' consistent track record has made him an industry hot property. The hyperkinetic producer has had a first-look deal at Universal since 1992. Now 20th Century Fox has signed him to a second-look deal, meaning the studio will get a crack at any Simonds projects Universal doesn't buy.

Blessed with boundless energy--five minutes into a meeting he is either pacing the floor or squirming in his seat like a schoolboy--the sandy-haired producer has projects in place at nearly every studio in town. The next Simonds film due out is "Leave It to Beaver," a $14-million update of the classic '50s TV show featuring Janine Turner and Christopher McDonald that arrives Aug. 1 from Universal.

New Line Cinema has "The Wedding Singer," a just-completed comedy starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore that's due for release early next year. Touchstone Pictures has a Sandler-starring film, "The Water Boy," due to shoot in the fall. Fox has a project in development called "Intelligent Life." And TriStar recently bought "The Exterminators," a special-effects comedy that could be best described--as Simonds often does--as "Ghostbusters" with big bugs.

"Bob's found a niche for himself," explains Larry Karaszewski, screenwriter of "The People vs. Larry Flynt," who got his start, along with partner Scott Alexander, writing "Problem Child" and its sequel for Simonds. "You can see a movie and say, 'Hey, the shots don't match, but the movie's still funny--it must be a Bob Simonds movie!' Bob's movies are truly a reflection of his taste, if you can call it taste."

Alexander and Karaszewski relish teasing Simonds, saying he once got so excited during a story meeting that he snapped a leg off his chair. But their affection is real--the producer was a groomsman at both of their weddings. "He's very driven--he's all about forward motion," Alexander says. "What matters is getting to the next joke as fast as possible. Bob will fire someone if it'll get him to the next joke faster."

Low in prestige but often high in profitability, especially with their healthy video afterlife, Simonds' formula comedies are a throwback to the quickies churned out by B-movie tycoons Sam Arkoff and Roger Corman, who made cutting costs into an art, often the only art associated with the movie.

Simonds doesn't have to worry about buying an Oscar-night tux. One critic called "Problem Child" an "atrocity," another described "Billy Madison" as a film "scattered with bad jokes like fertilizer." "Airheads," another Simonds comedy, was ridiculed as a film "bursting with bad ideas."

But the critical barbs haven't slowed his comedy assembly line. Unlike most of today's Hollywood fare, the films are models of cost-conscious planning. "The Wedding Singer" was made in 34 days, roughly half the industry average. To keep up the pace, the films use a minimum of locations and first-time directors who have worked on tightly scheduled TV shows. The biggest chunk of the budget goes to the star of the film. A veteran of four Simonds movies, Adam Sandler gets $5 million a film, having established himself as a box-office draw with 12- to 25-year-old males.

"We're flying under the studio radar," Simonds says. "If you're making a $15-million movie, the studio pays a lot less attention to you than if you're making an $85-million film. And if the studio isn't so worried about its investment, you're not under as much pressure to make safe choices. The comedies that work are original and idiosyncratic enough to feel fresh."

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