Screenwriter John Hamburg has a thing for nebbishes.
Anyone who has ever seen any of Hamburg’s movies — “Meet the Parents,” “Meet the Fockers” or “Along Came Polly” — will suspect a deep and abiding love for the little guy; the helpless, Woody Allen-ish character who is flung into a world of gorgeous, athletic WASPs.
But Hamburg’s love of the nebbish goes back much further than one would suspect; he started making movies about nebbishes in high school.
“My first movie was called ‘Ernie,’” Hamburg said. “It was about this wimpy guy who becomes a superhero — he beats up the class bully, things like that.”
The film was screened during assembly at Manhattan’s Dalton School, where Hamburg was a student, in front of an audience of, well, nebbishes.
“It got a really good reaction from the crowd,” Hamburg said. “And I got hooked on the feeling of getting an audience laughing.”
One could say that Hamburg has been doing the same thing ever since, and he has been remarkably successful at it. “Meet the Fockers,” the 32-year-old’s latest film, opened Christmas Day and is currently the highest-grossing movie in America. It is also one of the most unapologetically Jewish blockbusters of all time.
The poster for “Meet the Fockers” features a picture of Ben Stiller — head in hands — with the words, “And you thought your parents were embarrassing” sprawled above him. Stiller is playing (for the second time) the unfortunately named Gaylord Focker, a good-natured male nurse who is caught in an endless struggle to impress his pitiless future father-in-law, Jack Byrnes, played by Robert DeNiro.
It doesn’t help that Stiller was sired by the Jewish parents from hell. Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman play Roz and Bernie Focker, who seem oblivious to the meaning of the words “embarrassment” and “overbearing.” For the Fockers, no subject is taboo, no intimacy unworthy of discussion replete with gross examples. (Over dinner with the Focker and Byrnes families, Bernie decides that it would be interesting to hear the story of how everybody lost their virginity.) Moreover, the Fockers are giddy with a great secret to which they alone seem privy: They gave birth to the greatest child in human history. (Bernie still proudly displays a huge trophy that reads, “Mazel Tov! Gaylord M. Focker. World’s Greatest Nurse.)
All of which leads one to wonder: Are the Fockers thinly disguised Hamburgs?
“No,” Hamburg declares with a chuckle, his mother is not Barbra Streisand.
In fact, Hamburg insists that he and his older sister enjoyed a typical New York childhood.
Hamburg’s mother, Joan, is a celebrity in her own right: She hosts the popular radio food program “The Joan Hamburg Show,” broadcast on WOR. “We grew up on the Upper East Side — and they were very supportive parents,” Hamburg said. “I always met a lot of interesting people and heard a lot of interesting stories from the people around my mother. My father was a lawyer who was interested in photography.”
It should be noted that while Joan Hamburg might not embarrass her son as much as Roz Focker embarrasses Gaylord, she gushes with nearly as much pride. The posters for her son’s movies are displayed prominently in her New York office.
Tall and thin, with brown eyes, Hamburg speaks in an unrushed voice. He was always a funny kid. “I always knew I would do comedies — I just didn’t know how,” Hamburg told the Forward. When he was at Dalton, Hamburg started his own humor magazine, The Dalton Lampoon, in which he wrote fake poetry that he attributed to some of the less artsy jocks in school. “Our audience was pretty small,” Hamburg said. “We knew who we were playing to — it was witty and then just silly.”
Partway through high school, Hamburg became interested in movies. “It was really the typical story: My parents bought me a video camera, [and after that] I always did… short videos… I got the bug.”
Hamburg went on to Brown University, where he honed his skills as a writer. “We had this really nice creative community, and I got really into writing. I started writing one-act plays, short plays, monologues — all different venues. It all had a comic bent.… There were things that were serious in them, but even when I try to write something serious,” something funny comes out.
After college, Hamburg spent a year performing various jobs connected with the film industry; he worked at MTV on Jon Stewart’s old show and got a job as an assistant on a film that was shooting in North Carolina.
Finally, Hamburg decided to go back to New York University to attend film school, where he made a 10-minute movie called “Tick,” which appeared at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996. “It was about slacker freelance bomb diffusers,” Hamburg said dryly.
The film received an excellent response, and set him up to make a full-length feature — a movie he made independently, starring Sam Rockwell and Paul Giamatti before they became huge stars, called “Safe Men” (1998).
Ben Stiller “really liked ‘Safe Men,’” Hamburg said. Stiller hired Hamburg to work on “Zoolander,” and it was the beginning of their collaboration together, one in which Stiller plays Hamburg’s alter ego — sort of.
Even though Hamburg insists there is little similarity between the Hamburgs and the Fockers, one can see his life breaking through in his art. In both “Meet the Parents” and “Along Came Polly” (which Hamburg also directed), the neurotic Jewish protagonist falls in love with a non-Jewish woman. (Hamburg’s fiancée, actress Christina Kirk, is not Jewish; the two met in college.)
In many ways, “Along Came Polly” fit into the archetype of popular movies about romances between Jews and non-Jews; “Along Came Polly” is the story of a germaphobic insurance assessor with bathroom problems (Stiller, of course) who falls in love with a daffy free spirit (played by Jennifer Aniston) who loves spicy foods and weird hats. When the film came out last year, some critics were calling it an updated, if more scatological, version of “Annie Hall.”
“I’ve written Jewish and non-Jewish characters,” Hamburg said. “I think there’s things I put in unconsciously that come from my own life; it doesn’t necessarily have to do with a Jewish guy — it’s a guy who’s slightly neurotic. I can relate to both sides — of being afraid of certain things.”
After a moment, Hamburg adds, “I might also flush a toilet with my shoe.”