Though most teenage girls will hardly notice, Thomas Lennon stars as the deeply weird friend of Zac Efron and Matthew Perry in 17 Again — and critics are taking notice this morning. Manohla Dargis says he’s “nearly sprinting away with the movie.” Roger Ebert calls one of his scenes “comic genius.” So we spoke to the NYU alum about Efron and his second career as a high-paid screenwriter and creator of Reno 911.
You split your time between writing films like Night at the Museum, writing and starring in Reno 911, and acting. What’s your average week look like?
One of the things that helps is both my writing partner, Ben Garant, and I are compulsive writers. We sort of have scribomania or graphomania, that disorder that one of R. Crumb’s brothers has. We’ll work on Reno 911 during the day, and then basically every other waking second, we’re writing movies.
How many scripts have you written that haven’t been made?
We’ve done maybe eight that have been produced, but for every one we’ve written, there’s at least four others. Like, The Devil You Know is based on a children’s book by Nathan Hale, about an American family that buys this house in Galway and it’s got this horrifying little goblin that lives in it. They hire this Irish nanny, a kind of fairy godmother, and it turns out she’s much much worse than the goblin — hence the title. We also spent a lot of last year working on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
What’s your spin on that?
We just tried to update the daydreams with our own. Like, Mitty has to fill in for the Edge in U2, when the Edge gets his hand mangled in a backstage accident. That was probably one of my fantasies.
Have you gained insight into the psyches of teenage girls after working with Zac Efron?
No, but I have started wearing earplugs. I was nervous about the notion of working with a kid who’s on pillow cases — but he’s just phenomenally dreamy. And not just on the surface. He’s dreamy on the inside, too.
Since every teenage girl will just be staring at Zac, did it free you up?
That’s the nice thing about being the supporting character. Other than that you have to do less sit-ups. I just get to waddle into the scene in elf ears and make faces.
You don’t seem to tone your weirdness down at all.
Oftentimes you have to. But here I didn’t. Ben and I try to maintain our culty weirdness wherever we go.
You’re known for ill-fitting outfits, like your Reno short shorts.
Basically, my strategy is: Put on the most embarrassing, undignified, pathetic, weird-looking outfit that you can find and then try to act like you have a lot of integrity.
You’ve been in those short shorts for six seasons now. Are you okay?
You know Anthony Daniels, who played 3CP0? He had been wearing the 3CPO outfit for so long that he went crazy briefly and attacked it with a pair of scissors. That’s probably like two, three episodes away for me.
If you attack that outfit with scissors, you’re seriously going to hurt yourself.
Yeah, I’ve gotta have really good aim. Honestly, though? Either the shorts are getting smaller or I’m nosing up on 40.
From Will Ferrell to Borat, unflattering, tight outfits are really trendy now. Whose do you admire?
No one will ever be able to touch Sacha Coen’s swimsuit from Borat. That’s the finest. For the Lieutenant Dangle outfit, I must give a little bit of credit to the movie G.I. Jane with Demi Moore. Next time it’s on cable, check out Viggo Mortensen: from the blond hair to the sort of blond frosty mustache, and the super-super-tight Navy Seal shorts. Track it down. You’ll see.
What’s your favorite story line coming up on Reno?
My probably all-time favorite Reno episode is coming up next week: a two-part episode which is called “Dangle’s Murder Mystery Dinner.” Rachel Harris plays Dangle’s ex-wife, Biv, who he married when she was morbidly obese and he thought she would live for a year. She then got gastric-bypass and survived. Now she brings her new fiancé to my dinner, and it’s Scott Thompson. He gives one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen.
Scott kind of pioneered gay humor in sketch TV comedy. Now it’s everywhere, from Lieutenant Dangle to Brüno. What’s your take on the current state of the gay joke?
Yeah, there’s some of that in I Love You, Man, too. Kissing Paul Rudd is always a good time. I highly recommend it. If you see him walking down the street, just jump in. He’s cool. He won’t mind. You know, I’ve always been really proud that Reno 911 actually got nominated for a GLAAD award the first year. I really like playing a character when the fact that he’s gay is not the punchline all the time. In my mind, Dangle is an incredibly macho, tough, gay man — and I like that his sexuality isn’t the defining thing about him.
You’re an NYU alum — and you’re still working with your college buddies, right?
I’ve literally worked with Robert Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver almost every single day since 1988 with very few interruptions. We all lived in the same dorm at NYU, Rickman, and formed a comedy group in 1988 called the New Group, which eventually became the State. We did live shows in the dining halls. Every weekend we could, we were making short films and we were writing scripts and we worked incredibly hard. I actually kept my gym membership. They’ve got a great gym. But, yeah, nobody goes to the basketball games. That’s what you get when you name your team the Violets.