A comedy with political undertones — or vice versa — could spell summer movie poison, especially when tackling the sensitive subject matter of Israeli and Arab tensions. But that also could create a whole new world of opportunities, especially when carried on the box office gold shoulders of Adam Sandler.
At least that's what Robert Smigel, one of the most prominent TV comedy writers for the past two decades, is counting on with the satirical comedy "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," opening nationwide on June 6. The movie marks Smigel's first credit as an executive producer as well as prominent co-writing credit, along with Sandler and writer/director/producer Judd Apatow.
"Zohan" epitomizes Smigel's view that humor can be used to solve even the deepest of cultural conflicts. The film uses comedy as a force that can open up new channels of communication between Arabs and Israelis, he says.
The film tells the story of Zohan Dvir, played by Sandler, an Israeli Mossad agent who fakes his own death to pursue his dream of becoming a hairstylist in New York City. The title character first arrives to an ethnically diverse Brooklyn neighborhood, where he has to interact with both Muslims and Jews, and falls in love with a Palestinian women in the process.
"We hired all these actors who flew in from Israel as well as Israeli-American and Arab-American actors in these roles because we didn't want it to be some kind of minstrel show," Smigel told "Popcorn With Peter Travers" on ABC News Now. "We didn't want it to represent these people without a sense of integrity."
A Deeper-Than-Average Comedy
Not surprisingly, there was quite a lot of mingling between Arab and Israeli cast members. One popular set hangout was ironically referred to as the "peace table." Smigel recalls. "At first they didn't know exactly how to broach things, but then they became very friendly and familiar with each other and ended up discussing and debating politics. And a lot of times it wasn't necessarily an Arab and an Israeli arguing, but it would be two guys from the same side.
"It was so surprising that on the set of a goofy summer comedy that something like that would result," Smigel says. "A couple of people actually said that it was foundation-shaking on some level."
Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian-born actor, recently was quoted in the New York Times saying, "Adam Sandler, in the Arab and Muslim communities, is not having a good reputation." But, after a little cajoling from his teenage daughter, Sayed noted that "when it came to working with Adam, I was like, 'Eh, well, I don't know.' My prejudice was bigger than me."
Smigel even recalls male bonding at the end of filming. "Some of the Arab and Israeli guys took a trip to Las Vegas at the end of the production because one of the Israeli guys owned a hotel there and set these guys up with parties and girls. It's a beautiful thing, you know. I always say that if they can share a hooker, why not be able to share other things?"
The Bumpy Road for 'Zohan'
Much like the journey of the film's title character, the movie itself has been subject to a seemingly never-ending series of obstacles and challenges. Smigel, Sandler and Apatow began writing the script in 2000 and finished the first draft in 2001.
The 9/11 attacks temporarily shelved the development of "Zohan."
"We didn't even think about it for a few years because of the subject matter," Smigel says. "It's essentially written as a character comedy about this guy that has this goofy dream, but once you're doing a movie about the Middle East, you have to address it. You know when you're writing about a counterterrorist you're going make jokes about the conflict. So we had that in the movie and didn't want to go near it."
As years passed and tensions in the Middle East continued to escalate, Smigel and Sandler began to feel that the topic was something that people needed to joke about. "Comedy's always about barriers being broken, people's level of tolerance being challenged and being adjusted not just by the comedy but by events outside," Smigel says. By 2004, the film was on track again for production.
TV to Film, With Help From Comedic Friends
Smigel's television resume includes stints as head writer and consultant to TV comedy shows such as "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." He's the creative force responsible for memorable "SNL" sketches such as "The Superfans" and "TV Funhouse" and perhaps most famously as the man behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. He has received two Emmys and numerous nominations for his work.
But it has been collaborations with Sandler since his start on "SNL" that have helped him create box office smashes, including "Happy Gilmore" and "Billy Madison."
Smigel says, "His first sketch [on "SNL"] was the 'Shopera,' which was an in Israeli sketch that I wrote for him ironically."
"Zohan" marks Smigel's first full-fledged film effort. "Just to be on a movie set was a huge departure for me. I'm used to locking myself up in my home office just e-mailing scripts and just communicating with the animators of my cartoon," Smigel says.
With "Zohan," Smigel finally has a film that can be called his own — sort of. "Adam came up with the title, though he might have said something dirtier at first pitch," Smigel jokingly admits.
"I worked with Judd really literally for one day," Smigel says. "He came in, in a hotel suite and it was impressive. It was our first day talking about stuff, and he showed me this clip of Clint Eastwood. He was really prepared. He had read Mossad stuff and all I came in with was 'Israelis are horny.'"
However, Smigel won't take full credit for his contributions, or lapses. "Just because I wrote it doesn't mean that [frequent Sandler co-star] Rob Schneider will have really funny timing on that take," he said.