Down on the Funny Farm
It's not every day you talk to a guy who once thought it'd be really funny to have a sweat-soaked, half-crazed naked man squirm out of an artificial rhino's rear end.
That guy would be Steve Oedekerk, the writer/director/producer of Barnyard, which opens in theaters this week. The family-friendly animated film stars a carefree cow named Otis who eventually learns some valuable life lessons about responsibility and growing up.
Barnyard features all sorts of "party animals," but no fake rhinos, a la the bizarre but hilarious scene described above from 1995's Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, written and directed by Oedekerk and starring his good friend, Jim Carrey, in the title role. (Oedekerk and Carrey had met while working together on the TV series In Living Color, and later together in Bruce Almighty, starring Carrey and co-written by Oedekerk.)
"Wacky" is perhaps the best way to describe Oedekerk's varied career, which essentially with his reputation as the class cut-up as a schoolboy. He later became a stand-up comic before moving on to TV and film as a writer, director and producer behind such movies as Bruce Almighty and next year's sequel, Evan Almighty, plus Patch Adams, both Nutty Professor flicks, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.
On the side, Oedekerk, 45, is also known for Thumb Wars, a hilarious Star Wars spoof with all of the characters played by thumbs—just one of several similar projects starring that indispensable digit—and for such humorous cult classics as Kung Pow: Enter the Fist and steve.oedekerk.com, aka The O Show.
Behind all the silliness is simply a lifelong desire to make people laugh. Oedekerk, a Christian, loves nothing more than seeing—and hearing—that end result … and he did quite a bit of laughing himself during our recent conversation.
So, Barnyard is basically about an animal who likes to party, make people laugh and refuses to grow up. Sounds like your life story!
Steve Oedekerk: It's alarmingly close! But it wasn't really intended that way. It started with just the concept long ago with an idea I had, where animals stand up on two legs when humans aren't around, and they talk and have their own secret life. And when I started writing the story and delving into the characters, I realized, Wow, this is like a story about me and my dad … and probably a fairly common story for a lot of kids.
Your idea of animals on two legs with secret lives sounds a lot like some of Gary Larson's "Far Side" cartoons.
Oedekerk: Yeah, but mine started about 20 years ago at a friend's house. I was sitting in a chair and talking, and their dog was staring at me, unrelentingly. It was so weird and so human. When I walked out of the room, the dog tracks me the whole way while I leave. And for whatever reason, I just pictured him standing up on two legs and going, "Man, I'm glad that guy's gone." And then he strolls over to the cat and they go back to playing poker.
All I can tell you is that image rode with me for years, well before I had a movie career. But I kept thinking, There's probably a film in this. And then every time a movie came out with animals, I would panic: Gosh, I hope it's not my idea.
So, how do we get from that weirdness to a story that you say is about you and your dad?
Oedekerk: When I was writing the characters, I realized about halfway through the script that it was sort of about that. Because I was like Otis: When you're young and you just want to goof off and not take on responsibility, there's this friction between you and someone who's trying to pound into your head, "No, you have to grow up and get a real job!" But I wanted to do comedy!