J.J. Abrams, Former Comedy Writer
While J.J. Abrams has become one of his generation’s leading directors with genre fare in the action/adventure/sci-fi realm, such as this weekend’s Super 8, he got his start in the movie industry by writing comedies. Under the name Jeffrey Abrams, the man who’s been hailed as the next Steven Spielberg wrote and produced several comedy features in the 1990s, but none of them came close to touching the success of the sci-fi and action projects on which he’s made his name.
Jeffrey Abrams’s first produced script was the 1990 Jim Belushi-Charles Grodin comedy, Taking Care of Business, which starred Belushi as an ex-con who steals the appointment book of Grodin’s businessman character and starts reaping all the benefits of his corporate life. Abrams started writing the treatment that became the Taking Care of Business script during his senior year of college. This was the first collaboration between Abrams and then-writing partner Jill Mazursky, the daughter of famed director Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, An Unmarried Woman). While Taking Care of Business was met with indifference by critics and audiences alike, it was J.J. Abrams’s ticket into the industry and the start of an esteemed career.
Abrams’s next produced scripts were for the Harrison Ford drama Regarding Henry and the Mel Gibson romantic adventure movie Forever Young, but he returned to comedy in the mid-90s, serving as a writer or producer on a trio of comedies in quick succession. Around this time, he formed the company Abrams/Katim/Webster Productions with writer Jason Katims and producer Paul Webster. The production company’s first and only film was the 1996 romantic comedy The Pallbearer. The movie was co-written and directed by J.J. Abrams’s frequent collaborator Matt Reeves, who has gone on to helm Cloverfield for Abrams’s current production company, Bad Robot. The Pallbearer, starring David Schwimmer and Gwyneth Paltrow, was one of a slew of comedies rushed into production to capitalize on the overwhelming success of NBC’s Friends, a batch of movies that also included Ed, in which Matt Le Blanc taught a monkey to play baseball, the Matthew Perry/Salma Hayek romantic comedy Fools Rush In, and the most well-received of the bunch, Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, which starred Lisa Kudrow. J.J. Abrams co-wrote another of these Friends star movies, the Jennifer Aniston vehicle Picture Perfect, a romantic comedy that also starred Kevin Bacon and SNL’s Jay Mohr. Picture Perfect was J.J. Abrams’s biggest commercial success yet with a comedy, even though his contributions to the film apparently went uncredited.
Gone Fishin’, 1997’s Joe Pesci-Danny Glover fishing trip comedy is by far the most reviled comedy film in which J.J. Abrams took part. Abrams co-wrote Gone Fishin’ with Jill Mazursky, their second and final collaboration. Fishin’ tanked at the box office and was derided by critics. While J.J. Abrams was one of the writers on the project, he’s hardly to blame for the film’s critical and commercial failure. Writers are typically pretty low on the pecking order on movie sets, with most of the big decisions going to the director or studio execs. Key choices like casting the lead roles were likely made without consulting Abrams and his writing partner, and it’s not even known how large Abrams’s contributions to this bomb were. His original script could have been meddled with and rewritten endlessly, for all we know. For a good reason, the details of Gone Fishin’s production haven’t been well-documented, and the extent of J.J. Abrams’s involvement in the project is hard to pin down.
The final comedy J.J. Abrams was involved in during this phase of his career was the 1999 film The Suburbans, about a one-hit wonder band from the 1980s attempting to make a comeback. The film’s probably most notable for featuring Will Ferrell in an early movie role. Ferrell plays one of the band members, but he’s criminally underused, with stars Craig Bierko and Jennifer Love Hewitt receiving most of the screentime. Even though Ferrell’s part in this one isn’t substantial, his face and name are featured prominently on the cover of the DVD that was released after he became famous. After The Suburbans, J.J. Abrams turned his attention to the action/sci-fi fare that’s allotted him so much success in recent years, putting his focus on TV series like Alias and Lost, and breaking into movies with Mission: Impossible III.
Even though J.J. Abrams’s focus seems to be away from comedy these days, there’s still a lot of humor present in his work. Some of the most notable examples of this are Cloverfield, which featured comedian T.J. Miller cracking jokes from behind the shaky handheld camera, and the now-canceled NBC series Undercovers, a spy thriller with plenty of humor thrown into the mix and Parks and Rec regular Ben Schwartz playing a supporting role. Abrams has made a habit of casting comic actors in his more-serious fare. In addition to Miller and Schwartz, he’s also used Charlyne Yi (Cloverfield), Simon Pegg (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III), Lizzy Caplan (Cloverfield), and John Cho (Star Trek).
J.J. Abrams has been rather vocal about his appreciation for comedy and other genres outside of his sci-fi/action niche, saying: “I loved Ordinary People, and The Philadelphia Story, and a lot of dramas and comedies based on plays that could not be farther from science fiction.” When asked to list his favorite movies by Rotten Tomatoes, two of the five films he mentioned were comedies: Tootsie and the previously-mentioned Philadelphia Story. Abrams truly seems to be someone who has a fondness for comedy.
Given Abrams’s love for comedy and his experiences with the genre, it’s no surprise that he’s made a few attempts to return to it in recent years. While he hasn’t written a comedy since Gone Fishin’, Abrams recently served as a producer on the short-lived ABC dramedy What About Brian and Morning Glory, a feature film comedy about the cast and crew of a morning news show, featuring a plum cast that includes Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, and Diane Keaton. Neither What About Brian nor Morning Glory were major successes, but that hasn’t stopped J.J. Abrams from dabbling in comedies in between crafting tentpole summer films and beloved TV shows. Abrams guest directed an episode of The Office in 2007 (Season 3’s “Cocktails”) and one of Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2006, which, although slight, have probably been his two most successful comedic works thus far. Most recently, Abrams has been developing the feature film comedy Hot for Teacher, which would involve a teenage boy trying to seduce an attractive high school educator, and the press material has compared the project to Superbad.
J.J. Abrams’s comedic work may never have the impact that his science fiction and action movies and shows have, but he still has a firm respect for the genre, and it’s great to see one of this generation’s most esteemed directors of serious fare continuing to try his hand at comedy.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.