Dude! Remember that movie we were watching the other night after we got totally baked? The one with the uptight Korean dude and the crazy Indian dude, where they smoke up and get hungry for White Castle? And they’re trying to get there and their car gets stolen by Doogie Howser and they go to jail and they totally see that hot girl’s rack?
Well, bro, I totally heard they made a sequel—only this time, they go to GuantÃ¡namo Bay! I know, dude. What were they smoking?
Actually, the guys who dreamed up the multi-culti odd couple of Harold Lee and Kumar Patel and sent them on their road-trip adventure to a third-rate fast-food franchise (and who, this spring, send them to the offshore home of America’s ongoing human-rights violations) aren’t hopeless stoners. (They weren’t even high when I spoke to them.) They’re Hayden Schlossberg and Jon Hurwitz, just a couple of raunchy, self-effacing Jewish guys from New Jersey who don’t want you to know how hard they’ve worked to create the most unlikely slacker franchise in contemporary cinema—and who won’t allow themselves to acknowledge how much their silly stoner comedies have been responsible for some radical changes in a worn-out genre.
When they first arrived in Hollywood, “we had this one big-concept idea,” says Hurwitz, 30, who’s been writing with Schlossberg, 29, since the two were juniors in college, “and then we had Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, which is the smallest idea in the history of the world. But we knew we’d be the only people in town writing that script.”
Despite the fact that the original Harold & Kumar movie is practically issued to every college freshman the day he places his bong atop his dorm-room television (and that cult-like popularity gave Schlossberg and Hurwitz the clout to direct the upcoming sequel), the two screenwriting pals have a near-pathological aversion to seeing themselves as anything but underdogs.
As far back as adolescence, when the nascent comedy nerds met at Randolph High School in Randolph, N.J. and bonded over a shared love of bawdy movies like Airplane!, they were already familiar with feelings of otherness. At home, they were raised by Jewish parents who plainly hoped their boys would grow up to be bankers, lawyers or doctors. But at school, they were surrounded by kindred spirits: Their classes were populated by the children of Asian and Indian immigrants, who, like themselves, were expected to achieve as much as possible as quickly as they could, and were caricatured by mainstream popular culture.
“Whenever we’d watch movies or TV shows,” says Schlossberg, “Indians always had the thick accent and Asians were always martial artists or foreign exchange students.” While the two lonely Jews comprised a minority, they realized their many assimilated classmates were perhaps even more the underdogs.
The pair went their separate ways for college—Hurwitz to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to become an investment banker and Schlossberg to the University of Chicago, to become a lawyer—but both continued to dream about writing screenplays. They even toyed with the idea of writing a short comedy book of impossibly ridiculous propositions that they’d call Would You Rather?, but they never followed through with it.
A few months later, Hurwitz was in an Urban Outfitters and came upon a book with the exact same concept and title. “I looked in the back of the book,” he recalls, “and it had a picture of the guys who wrote it… two Jews who basically looked like Hayden and me but five years older. I was like, fuck these guys.” He called Schlossberg that day and said it was time to stop fantasizing about making movies and actually do it. That summer, the two moved in together and became writing partners.
Their third roommate that fateful summer was Harold Lee, a friend that Hurwitz had known since middle school and reconnected with at college. “He was this self-loathing Asian guy,” Hurwitz says, “and it just reminded us of a lot of the Jews we knew. All he did was talk about how much it sucks to be Asian.” Though the screenplay they were writing at the time focused on two childhood friends who aspired to become screenwriters (and, in a later draft, to own a brewery), Hurwitz and Schlossberg paid tribute to their housemate by adding two supporting characters to the script named Harold and Kumar.
“They were only in one or two scenes,” says Hurwitz, “but it was clear they were Americanized. They were drinking beers, playing video games and cursing like sailors.”
That script, eventually titled Filthy, was sold to a studio, allowing the guys to move to Los Angeles after graduation. But the movie was never produced, and two years into their Hollywood apprenticeship, they were frustrated, running short on money and fearful they’d have to return to the cookie-cutter careers they never wanted to pursue.
So they thought back to their unusually diverse high-school experiences and the characters of Harold and Kumar, and quickly wrote an adventure for them—one that would extend a big middle finger to the sanitized and unrealistic youth comedies being made in the late 1990s. “We didn’t find there to be anything funny about Freddie Prinze Jr.’s plight in trying to get a girl,” says Hurwitz. “What’s funny about that? He just goes and gets laid.” Instead, they wanted to make the kinds of comedies they had adored in high school and college—American Pie, Billy Madison—where the characters behaved more or less like authentic young adults and swore as much as they fucking pleased.
The protagonists of Schlossberg and Hurwitz’s comedy (played by John Cho and Kal Penn) spoke without accents; they smoked pot, chased girls and occasionally doubted themselves. To further turn the tables, the writers gave their heroes two comic-relief sidekicks who, in any other comedy, would have been the main characters: a pair of Jewish neighbors named Rosenberg and Goldstein, who drool over Katie Holmes’s topless scene in The Gift and kid around about the Holocaust. (“When you think about that joke,” Schlossberg explains, “it’s saying that the Holocaust was the opposite of Katie Holmes’ tits, which it was. If you ever see Katie Holmes’ tits, the first thing you’ll think is, â€˜That’s so not the Holocaust.'”)
With an official endorsement from White Castle and a key supporting performance from Neil Patrick Harris (playing an oversexed, Ecstasy-dropping version of himself), almost every element of the original Harold & Kumar could be traced back to the motif of the little guy finally having his day. More significantly, they had given an old theme new life simply by casting their little-guy roles—parts that could just as easily have been gone to any nebbishy Jews du jour—with actors of Asian and Indian descent.
Just in case Hurwitz and Schlossberg felt that they’d outgrown their own underdog status, the universe put them back in their place when Harold & Kumar was finally released in the summer of 2004. Reeling in good reviews and positive buzz for their movie, the screenwriters spent the opening day in a chauffeured limousine provided by New Line Cinema, “going around from half-empty theater to theater… the smallest and crappiest theaters in town,” says Hurwitz. “Everybody was sick to their stomachs that night.”
Though the box-office results for Harold & Kumar were unremarkable (that weekend, it opened in seventh place, behind Catwoman), over the next two years, the movie continued to win over fans who watched the movie on home video and cable (possibly late at night, ensconced in beanbag chairs with copious amounts of Doritos within reach) that New Line was finally convinced it warranted a sequel.
As Harold & Kumar-heads already know, the original movie ended with the pot-puffing duo on their way to Amsterdam, in search of Harold’s love object, Maria (played by Paula GarcÃ©s). But in the intervening years, the film business had not been kind to comedies about young Americans smoking and screwing their way across Europe, forcing Hurwitz and Schlossberg to devise a new story for their heroes.
So the screenwriters imagined their protagonists embarking for Amsterdam, only to have Kumar mistaken for an Islamic terrorist. Instead of vacationing in pot-smokers’ paradise, he and Harold are shipped off to—and then break out of—the detention camp at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba. “When we started thinking more about it,” says Schlossberg, “we realized that this is two guys thinking they’re going on a European Vacation-type adventure and instead ending up in The Fugitive.”
Despite its provocative title, the creators of Harold & Kumar Escape from GuantÃ¡namo Bay say the film isn’t meant to be a satire on current events. (Even if attentive viewers recall that Kal Penn can be seen in the original movie wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I love Bush, the pussy not the President.”)
“We have no urge, really, to be political,” says Schlossberg. “We have the urge to be funny, and this story happens to be political.”
“9/11 was obviously the worst thing in any of our worlds when it happened,” Hurwitz adds, “and then it kind of devolved into this thing where, clearly, the [Iraq] war came about in a way with a lot of misinformation and then America looked really stupid as a result of it, and around the world, we were fools and bullies.”
Still, it’s hard not to read a post-9/11 message into the sequel: Throughout the film, whenever a group of underdogs is subjected to an unflattering stereotype—whether they’re Jewish, Indian, Asian or gay; a prostitute, a redneck or a Cyclops—these characters always transcend the caricature, and are shown to be unexpectedly heroic or human. Meanwhile, it’s the humorless white guys (government agents, Ku Klux Klan members, etc.) who are undermined and played for fools.
The filmmakers deny that any such intellectualizing went into their screenplay. (“Truthfully,” says Schlossberg, “we would do Harold & Kumar Go to Toysâ€˜R’Us if we felt it was funny.”)
But Hurwitz and Schlossberg acknowledge the deliberate effort they’ve made with their class-conscious comedy—a decades-old tradition of slobs versus snobs that spans from the Marx Brothers to Adam Sandler—to move away from the Jewish actors who have routinely starred in these movies. By mining laughs from the class conflict of the 21st century—that is, the battle between any identifiable minority group and jingoistic, flag-waving white dudes—they’re perpetuating a decidedly Jewish brand of comedy while showing that anyone can do it.
For die-hard fans, the new Harold & Kumar features return performances from several stars from the original movie, including Neil Patrick Harris and Christopher Meloni, as well as plenty of gratuitous nudity. So, naturally, with a provocative script, a hard R rating from the MPAA and a built-in fanbase of filmgoers awaiting it, Hurwitz and Schlossberg fully expect that Harold & Kumar Escape from GuantÃ¡namo Bay will be as much of a box-office disaster as its predecessor.
“Our only experience with a movie opening is disappointment,” says Schlossberg. “It’s kind of like growing up with a horrible childhood. I only know the beatings and the depression. I can’t expect anything good when it comes out.”
But in that constant disenchantment, they find an oddly comforting familiarity—or, at least, a way to reconnect with their roots. “Our parents are calling us: â€˜Why isn’t the poster up at the theater in New Jersey? They’re not playing the trailer anywhere. No one’s going to find out,'” says Hurwitz. “It’s like coming home with straight A’s on your report card and still getting your ass kicked for it.”