Wimpy Jewish kid grows up now a true bromantic

“I’ve definitely been riding the ‘awkward train’ my entire career,” says John Hamburg, co-writer and director of the new comedy, “I Love You, Man.”

“I had no trouble figuring out who was the wimpy Jewish kid in high school, because it was me and everyone else I knew.”

Hamburg — who is also Ben Stiller’s in-house screenwriter — remembers himself as a skinny kid with a mop of hair resembling Soupy Sales. “I had some lean years with girls, which is the best thing ever for a comedy writer, because you just tap into those feelings any time you’re working,” he says. “It’s all the stuff I’ve written about in the Ben Stiller movies — that you’re not quite comfortable in your own skin.”

Stiller’s comic anxiety, in such Hamburg projects as “Meet the Parents,” stems partly from the character’s status as a Jew in an upscale WASP world.

In “I Love You, Man,” the neurosis comes from the travails of a bridegroom, Peter (Paul Rudd), who is dismayed to discover on the eve of his nuptials he has no male buddies close enough to serve as his best man. To remedy the situation, he embarks upon a series of “man-dates,” ultimately meeting Sydney (Jason Segel).

What ensues is an awkward but tender “bromance” — meaning a platonic male friendship played out in dude-lingo — which is helping to redefine the romantic comedy.

Aman friends

“I Love You, Man” actors Jason Segel (left) and Paul Rudd (right) flank writer-director John Hamburg. photo/ap/evan agostini

“I Love You, Man,” signifies Hamburg’s continuing ties to the School of Apatow, as director Judd Apatow’s crude-but-sweet comedies rely heavily on male bonding — and Jewish male bonding at that.

Along with Segel and Rudd (whose forbears are English Jews), “I Love You, Man” stars the Jewish actors Andy Samberg (“Saturday Night Live”), Jon Favreau (“Swingers”) and Rashida Jones (“The Office”), with a cameo by David Krumholtz (“Numb3rs”).

While only Favreau’s character is described as Jewish — by mentioning his “Jewfro” — the comic chemistry, at least in the eyes of many a beholder, is enhanced by the actors’ shared heritage. Hamburg, however, traces it to similar comic influences such as Steve Martin.

“Was there Torah study on the set? No,” Hamburg quips. “But we could have had a minyan if there were a few more of us around.”

Hamburg, 38, admitted to mining his own family relationships for comic effect. “I have a large, close Jewish family, and I’ve observed the way my relatives interact — with a warmth and an aggression and all sorts of fighting and every possible human emotion, within the course of one Passover seder,” he says. “I’ve tried to exploit that dynamic in popular film comedies.”

One of his first films, while not popular, was a student film called “Ernie” in which a “wimpy Jewish kid becomes a superhero and defeats the villain, the class bully.”

Hamburg’s first feature film, “Safe Men” (1998), tells of two lounge singers mistaken for safecrackers by a Jewish mobster (Michael Lerner), who throws his son the kind of lavish bar mitzvah Hamburg attended on the Upper East Side in the 1980s.

The quirky and unabashedly Jewish comedy caught the eye of Stiller, who went on to make Hamburg his screenwriter on films such as “Zoolander,” “Along Came Polly” and the “Meet the Fockers” films.

Those movies have been wildly popular, although some reviewers have described the fictional Fockers — played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand — as insulting Jewish stereotypes. In response, Hamburg says that he was only exaggerating his own family dynamics — not just the volatility, but what he affectionately describes as “maniacal parental doting.” His own father tends to recite Hamburg’s entire filmography at cocktail parties; the Fockers, in turn, display a trophy reading, “Mazel Tov. Gaylord M. Focker. World’s Greatest Nurse!”

“The non-Jewish characters in the film are not anti-Semitic,” Hamburg says, “but there is the sense that Ben feels out of place among WASPS and also because he is a man who is not a doctor, but a nurse, which creates a kind of stigma. I like to write about these kinds of things that people think about but don’t often discuss.”

“I Love You, Man” opened March 20 and is still playing in theaters around the Bay Area.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal