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Paul Feig Explains His Cultural Influences

Freaks and Geeks creator, Bridesmaids director, and helmer of many of your favorite episodes of Mad Men, Arrested Development, and Parks and Recreation Paul Feig returns on June 28 with The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as mismatched crime fighters in pursuit of a drug lord. In no particular order, these are the movies, books, cuisines, and teachers that inspired him. 

1. Groucho Marx
My mom took me to see Animal Crackers and I started imitating Groucho. At one point I was doing Groucho-Grams, where I’d go to somebody’s work and be Groucho. I bought the long coat, glasses, and greasepaint mustache. My boss was like, “Just get one of those nose and glasses.” I was like, “How dare you, sir!”

2. George Carlin
I bought his albums on cassette, and I had this cassette player that I only found out years later ran a little faster than a normal player. So, for years, I loved Carlin’s delivery because he was really fast. But he was bred to be funny. He was comedy personified.

3. Make Me Laugh
This was the TV show from the seventies. To me, stand-up was something other people—professionals—did. But Make Me Laugh made it all accessible. Mike Binder from Detroit was on there, so I was like, Someone from my hometown can do it! It’s because of that show that
I started doing stand-up. At 15, I went to the Delta Lady and started doing stand-up. I wasn’t good, but I started doing it. 

4. Steve Martin
Steve Martin was the No. 1 comic I tried to emulate. To this day, I wear three-piece suits all the time because of him. I got the Let’s Get Small album right when it first came out and did the routines for my classmates, but not telling them that it was Steve Martin. They thought I was the funniest man in the world. And then Steve Martin broke big, and everybody knew that I had stolen all the material.

5. Raiders of  the Lost Ark
I went to the first show at Mann’s Chinese. When that boulder came rolling down, people were up on their feet, screaming! I was watching and going, Wow. This is the power of filmmaking. People were laughing and screaming; it was just like a rock concert. I walked out going, I want to make movies.

6. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
That to me is like a sacred text. I can’t read it that often because it sends me to a different world. When we were doing Freaks and Geeks, I bought the cast copies of Catcher in the Rye. I remember giving it to James Franco and Franco rolling his eyes at me, because I was in my thirties, and he was like, “This is Teenager 101.”

7. What’s Up, Doc?
What’s Up, Doc?
was my comedy Star Wars. It’s a tribute to screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, but I had never seen any of those. I ended up seeing it nine or ten times, and this was back when you had to go to the theater to see a movie multiple times. When I saw the first Hangover, that was the modern What’s Up, Doc? to me.

8. The Conversation
I hated anything serious, but this was the first time I saw a cinematic drama where I felt like I was floating while watching it. Music is the most important thing to me in whatever I’m doing, and David Shire’s piano soundtrack is my favorite soundtrack of all time. It’s so effective for this story it’s telling, this lonely guy with this lonely piano playing.

9. Monty Python
Monty Python offer this weird observation of human nature writ large, like the Upper Class Twit of the Year award, where they take issue with the aristocracy and the idle rich, to the point where they make them mentally handicapped and they can’t take a bra off a model, or shoot a rabbit that’s been tied to the ground.

10. Ms. Stephanie Konrad, My High-School Drama Teacher
She had a huge personality, and would scream at you, but was just so encouraging. We were doing this scene, and she screamed, “This is terrible! I don’t believe a minute of it! Imagine what it’s like, the smell of burning flesh”—and she laid out this heavy-duty thing, and you’re like, Oh my God! But when we did it again, it was better. The other reason she was an influence was that she was an alcoholic and she got us drinking early. She would have us come over, and just break out the booze! And I would be in class, and someone would go, “There’s an emergency phone call for Paul from his family.” And it would be her: “Okay, I left my car at the bar last night, so you got to come pick me up.”

11. Lenny Bruce
I’m not a fan of political statements in comedy, because they usually come across as preachy, but he found a way to do it. The famous routine about the N-word is totally shocking, but then you go, Oh, I get what he’s saying. He’s trying to take the power out of this stuff. You got to be smart with balls of steel to do something like that.

12. Looney Tunes
Me and my geeky friends sat in the cafeteria every day and recited dialogue from Warner Bros. cartoons. The WWII era was just so funny. They’re making these weird old references that suddenly become your references—like War Bonds jokes. We were suddenly obsessed with War Bonds. It was Mel Blanc’s timing more than anything: What’s the funniest way to say something? What’s the funniest voice? I’m always obsessed when we’re auditioning people: Does their voice make me laugh?

13. Leave It to Beaver
It gets a lot of crap for being fake—but the kids are hilarious. It’s one of the only TV shows I’ve seen where kids are portrayed accurately in a funny way onscreen. That’s what I was trying to emulate on Freaks and Geeks, because kids are usually written by adults to be performed by the most precocious adult-sounding kids they can find. They tell adult jokes and talk so precisely. But you watch Beaver, and they’re kind of mumbling, and their turns of phrase are weird, and they have weird takes on the world that feel very kidlike.

14. Mike Sampson, My Best Friend, Next-Door Neighbor, and Babysitter
He was my babysitter when I was little, because he was four years older, and then we just became best friends. He and I would watch everything together—he’s the one who started making Super 8 movies and got me into filmmaking. I would star in the movies he made, and we’d get really into special effects.

15. Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown was bullied and put down by his peers, so I felt close to him in that regard. He always screws things up, but in such an earnest way. I felt like, that’s been my problem. My whole life has been like, This will be great!, and then you’re disappointed, and then you wake up the next morning and it’s like hitting the reset button—“Okay, today will be great.” 

16. A “Don’t Wait for Your Ship to Come In—Swim Out to It” paperweight
It seems so trite, but I was at a very low point in my career with acting and couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I went to an English store called Portrait of a Bookstore, and I saw this paperweight, like a fake scrimshaw thing, and I remember just staring at it thinking, That’s good advice! It was the weird kick in the pants that I needed. Start writing again. Start developing stuff. Just be self-sufficient. Do it yourself.

17. Judd Apatow
When I wrote Freaks and Geeks and I gave it to my wife, she said, “You got to send this to Judd.” Within twelve hours, he called me back and said,
“I love it.” We sold it to NBC, who said, “We love it, don’t change a word, we want to make this,” which completely validated how brilliant I am. But then the first thing Judd said was, “Let’s tear the script apart.” I spent a week in misery feeling attacked: Why are they doing this to me? But we ended up making it way better than it was.

18. Mexican Food
I grew up around bland food, and I spent most of my childhood hating food. My mother would boil vegetables, and everything tasted like shit. When I was in my teens, at the mall, they opened a Mexican restaurant. There were flavors, and food tasted like something, and it was an epiphany: “I actually like to eat!” I was skipping around. Chips and salsa were my gateway drug. And now I’m a total foodie, I’ll eat anything—the grossest thing.

19. Woody Allen
I was like, That’s me! That’s a weird, goofy-looking guy! So I started following him after that, and suddenly he was on the cover of Time magazine as “a comedy genius.” He was doing it all—writing it, acting, and directing—and that was my goal. I did it once, and then I decided, Hmmm, better that I stay behind the camera.

20. Elaine Elizabeth and Sanford William Feig, My Parents
The minute I’d express an interest, my mom would sign me up for classes. “I want to play piano.” Boom! Piano lessons. She pushed me, but not in a stage-mother way. And my dad was a huge comedy fan. When I was a sophomore in high school, I decided to enter the talent show. And he said, “Well, your magic’s really good, but you need better patter. You should tell jokes.” He just got all these old nightclub jokes and gave them to me, and I won the talent show.

21. Dan Aykroyd
He was the one who did all the Saturday Night Live characters I thought were the most amazing: Jimmy Carter, E. Buzz Miller, Julia Child. I loved doing voices, I loved not being myself­—I think it came from bullies and having a lisp, so I was really into becoming characters. I was trying get an agent at one point, and all I would do were imitations of Dan Aykroyd’s imitations of people. It was ridiculous.

22. David Letterman
He’d tell an odd joke. You’d think it was hilarious. The audience in the studio would have a weird reaction. Then he’d look into the camera, like he was saying, “You and I know this is funny, and the people here don’t get it.” That was the revelation—to create a personal interaction with the home audience that leaves the studio audience in the dust.

23. Richard Lewis
When I started doing stand-up, I was definitely doing my version of Richard Lewis. What I really responded to was that he was complaining. I had posters that said: THE PAUL FEIG SHOW: COMEDY, MUSIC, COMPLAINING. It was like a “My life’s a mess! All these terrible things happened to me!” kind of comedy.

*This article originally appeared in the June 24, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.