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The joke is on you

'Tropic Thunder' co-writer Etan Cohen's humor has social satire under the crudeness.

August 15, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

When Etan Cohen was working on the character of Kirk Lazarus, an actor played by Robert Downey Jr. in the upcoming comedy “Tropic Thunder,” he asked himself: What is the most offensive thing an actor can do to get a part?

The answer was to have Lazarus, an Australian Method actor, try to become an African American character by undergoing a pigment procedure and then speaking street slang around the clock. "It seemed about the vilest thing you could do," Cohen said, laughing.

Cohen, a polite young man in a sport coat and yarmulke, didn't look much like one of the creative forces behind the summer's bloodiest, raunchiest and most politically incorrect comedy. As waiters served brunch in the posh Beverly Hills Four Seasons restaurant, the clear-eyed, Harvard-educated screenwriter tossed out Latin phrases like "reductio ad absurdum" (proving a proposition by showing its opposite to be false) alongside the dirtier words that fill the low-concept, high-profile film he co-wrote with Ben Stiller (who also directs and stars) and Justin Theroux.

He's aware that it's not always clear in parodies what the audience is laughing at. Early blogging about the film indicated some people won't find the Lazarus character funny at all. "It's important to say that what's being parodied is certainly not any actual black human being but the ideas in the actor's mind of what an African American would be," Cohen said. Then he added, "Which might be a fine line for people."

That's the sort of line, however, Cohen aspires to walk. A fan of such films as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and mentored by Mike Judge (on "Beavis and Butt-head," "King of the Hill" and "Idiocracy"), Cohen can be viewed as following filmmaker Judd Apatow into the R-rated comedy genre along with actor-writer Seth Rogen. Cohen and Rogen have each appeared on Variety's "screenwriters to watch" list.

Cohen was brought in to help write "Tropic Thunder" six years ago after Stiller and Theroux had already been kicking around the concept for several years. The film follows a group of actors stranded in Vietnam while making a war movie and who inadvertently stumble into actual paramilitary violence when they run into drug traffickers. The film is "hard funny," according to Jack Black, who stars in the ensemble film with Stiller, Downey, Nick Nolte and Tom Cruise, among others.

"It's a movie that was not afraid to go for it in every possible way," Cohen said with pride.

He said he felt a particular sense of victory when reading Internet chats in which people who hadn't seen the film were already complaining about it. In the movie, Brandon T. Jackson, as rapper turned actor Alpa Chino, complains to Lazarus that there was only one good role for a black actor and they gave it to the Aussie. On the Web, "people were saying there was one good role for an African American actor and they gave it to Robert Downey Jr. They were saying with a straight face exactly what we were saying in the movie. That felt great."

His other signature moment in the film, he said, was Stiller's character, an actor recognized and worshiped by the villagers for his role as Simple Jack, a mentally disabled character. "For many years, it's been interesting to me how Hollywood tends to romanticize" the mentally challenged, Cohen said. "Instead of looking at it in a realistic way, they've sort of fetishized it. Like, 'Oh, wouldn't it be great if we were all retarded? Wouldn't that be like the perfect world?' To me, one of the great moments is to be able to call it out. You have to, to understand why it's absurd."

He said his own grandfather, an academic, was raised by an adoptive father who was also mentally challenged. "You never saw someone as angry as he was after seeing 'Forrest Gump,' " Cohen said of his grandfather. "He said, 'You think it's funny, being raised by a person like that?' He learned to read by reading the comics to his father."

Cohen was born in Israel, where his parents had wanted to settle but instead moved back and forth between there and the East Coast. He said he's been used to criticism since his first job, writing for "Beavis and Butt-head," drew complaints from the Modern Orthodox congregation he belonged to in Boston. "They'd say it's not kosher. 'What are you doing? C'mon!' I always strongly disagreed. The point of the show was to hold up a mirror to the way people act and the attitudes they have. If you think it's glorifying people sitting around on a couch the way they do, you're probably missing the point," he said.

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