Two comedy legends passed away within the same week in May — Jerry Stiller and Fred Willard. Both of their contributions to comedy in all forms, from stage to television and film, are immeasurable and made them household names.
Filmmaker and Wisconsin-native Steve Burrows had the pleasure of working with both Stiller and Willard on his film Chump Change — a Miramax showbusiness satire, most of which takes place in Wisconsin.
Burrows pays tribute to the two comedy legends in this essay:
In show business, the only thing harder than being funny is being consistently funny. It’s hard in a 20-minute stand-up routine. It’s nearly impossible in a 90-minute film. Now try being funny for six decades.
I had the incredible luck to work with not one, but two comedy legends – both at the top of their game, at the same time, on the same film.
Jerry Stiller and Fred Willard were already known as comedy gods. Together they made audiences laugh for 100+ years. Both recently died the very same week. Their scene-stealing credits speak for themselves: Jerry Stiller on The Ed Sullivan Show, Broadway, Hairspray, Seinfeld. Fred Willard on Fernwood 2 Night, Roseanne, Modern Family, Best In Show. These guys were seemingly in everything. Most notably, they were laugh out loud funny before LOL was LOL.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to write and direct my first film, the Miraxmax showbiz satire Chump Change. Much of the film takes place in Wisconsin. My producer Mary Anne Page gave me one critical piece of advice: “Write funny parts, and the funny people will come.” I wrote Chump Change in five weeks and hoped to hell someone would like it. My producer knew Jerry and his equally gifted wife and comedy partner Anne Meara from New York, and she gave them my script. Shockingly, within days, Anne and Jerry both said yes! Anne would play the part of the casting director and Jerry the head of the movie studio. I couldn’t believe it! Stiller and Meara!
With this early momentum, I decided to go for broke. I'd written the part of the mealy-mouthed manager specifically for Fred Willard, but never actually thought I'd get Fred Willard. We sent Fred the script and Fred really liked it, BUT first, he wanted to know who else was in the film. I told him Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller. Fred said yes on the spot. And that's exactly how I scored the rest of my stellar cast — Tim Matheson, Traci Lords, Clancy Brown, A.J. Benza. Who wouldn't want to be in a movie with Jerry Stiller and Fred Willard?
I cast every type of actor in Chump Change — Shakespearean, method, improvisational, non-actor actors. As I was a first time director, it was like juggling chainsaws in quicksand. I would need to rely on the Masters.
Surprisingly, neither Jerry or Fred were anything like their on-camera personas. Jerry was humble and extremely soft-spoken — the antithesis of the loudmouth Frank Costanza on Seinfeld. Fred Willard was far from the clueless dimwits he always seemed to play.
Both were gentle men in the true sense. And very serious about the comedy.
However, when it came time to shoot, Fred and Jerry's approach to comedy could not have been more different. Fred Willard didn't want to rehearse — at all. He wanted to go right for it out of the gate. After his first hilarious take, Fred asked me if he could do a take of his own, embellishing on the lines I had written for him. "Umm, yes, please!" The lines Fred improvised were so deeply funny and so superior to mine that I ended up using every single bit Fred gave me in the film. And Fred gave me all those jokes for free. And I got credit for them.
On the other hand, Jerry Stiller wanted to rehearse the script as written. A lot. As we were rehearsing his first scene, things weren't going well. Jerry had to say the line "Hello Milwaukee, this is the Colonel!" We kept rehearsing this over and over. And you could barely hear Jerry:
(mumbling) "Hello, Milwaukee, this is the Colonel. Hello Milwaukee, this is the Colonel ... "
The scene was really falling flat and even worse, it wasn't funny. The crew was getting nervous. As this was my first film, I really had no idea what to do. Then, my cameraman, Al Baker told me some of these old pros like to save it for when the cameras are rolling.
So, I said to Jerry, "Hey Jerry, you wanna try one for real?"
Jerry said, "What — we're gonna shoot one?"
Suddenly, like a switch, Jerry came to life: "Hello Milwaukee, this is the Colonel!"
You can actually hear the crew laughing in that scene. After all these years, Fred and Jerry's outtakes from Chump Change are still making the rounds. As an added bonus, when Anne and Jerry found out just how low our budget was on Chump, they donated their salaries to the film and insisted my producer and I stay at their apartment when we were shooting in NYC. I am not sure he knows this, but I slept in Ben Stiller's bed for a week!
In a Dinner For The Ages, I was privileged to spend one raucous evening listening to Anne and Jerry tell their unbelievable stories. Like the time when Jerry was going to quit show business and go back to selling live chickens door to door. And then Ed Sullivan called.
As we approached the end of our shoot, we still needed one famous person to play the 'Star' of the 'movie in the movie.' Anne and Jerry literally handed me their Rolodex and said to start looking for names. As I scrolled though their personal Rolodex, I saw names like Carroll O'Connor who played Archie Bunker, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Robin Williams. It was a "Who's Who of Show Biz Royalty." Anne told me to pick a name "within reason" and that she and Jerry would make the call. The next thing you know I have Abe Vigoda from The Godfather in my movie!
So how did the singular Jerry Stiller and the inimitable Fred Willard each succeed for over 60-plus years in a business full of venom and backstabbing, scurrilous reprobates?
Well, being drop-dead funny is certainly a mandatory requirement.
But in my precious tenure with them both, I believe it was their generosity that made them great. They gave their time, their humanity, the gift of their blood, sweat and comedy tears — all dedicated to their innate sense of ensemble in their work, making everyone around them personally and professionally better.
There is no way that our little independent movie shot on a shoestring would ever become a Miramax Film without them both.
These were men of rare talent and character, and I thank Fred Willard and Jerry Stiller deeply for their unbridled generosity of spirit, and for making us all laugh so very, very hard.
Steve Burrows is a filmmaker and Wisconsin native currently living in Los Angeles.