Aside from the fact that a then-unknown Johnny Depp starred on the show, and prior to the last month or so, the Fox police procedural 21 Jump Street (which ran from 1987 through 1991) hasn’t generated much nostalgic interest in recent years. At the time, the action series, about a group of young-looking cops sent back to high school on an undercover mission, was hip, attractive, and edgy; when revisited today, however, the original 21 Jump Street is, at its worst, unintentionally silly, dated, and melodramatic. It’s also a vintage TV program that few people have exactly demanded to see revived.

Thus, at first, the idea of a big Hollywood, modern-day adaptation of 21 Jump Street seemed like an unnecessary grab at whatever folks could be duped into spending money on a familiar title. But it’s wit great, and admittedly unexpected, pleasure to report that 21 Jump Street the movie (in theaters today) is one of the best mainstream comedies to debut in quite some time. The film stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as two insufficient, fresh-faced officers tasked by a no-bullshit superior (a hilarious Ice Cube) to bust a high school drug ring overseen by, as the quickly discover, a popular student (Dave Franco).

Directed by Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 21 Jump Streetpulsates with a goofy, often cartoonish energy, both winking at the old show and establishing its own wild identity. Much of the credit goes to Tatum, oddly enough, whose comic timing and all-in performance stand out amongst a pack of seasoned funnymen (including Rob Riggle and Parks And Recreation’s Nick Offerman).

The biggest amount of props, though, should be awarded to actor-turned-screenwriter Michael Bacall, who whipped up the script based on an idea he envisioned alongside Hill. No stranger to youth-driven laughs, Bacall’s latest work comes on the heels of the financially successful found-footage comedy Project X, which he also wrote, giving him a box office champ after the undeserved flopping of 2010’s Bacall-penned Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.

Considering that it’s his funniest script to date, let’s hope that 21 Jump Street follows Project X’s profitable lead—Bacall’s a comedic talent to watch. Complex recently chatted with Bacall about the conception of 21 Jump Street, the challenges of acknowledging the old show without clowning it, how teenage drug culture has changed since his classroom days, and why Channing Tatum’s a fearless laugh machine.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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The critical response to 21 Jump Street so far has been excitedly positive. Are you surprised at all by that?
[Laughs.] It’s crazy, but it’s also really gratifying. I think there was a built-in negative reaction when it was announced that Jonah and I were developing this, and we were expecting that. Like anyone else, we tend to get the same burnout with all the remakes and reboots, but that was also part of the fun in approaching something like this—taking on something where people would not expect this result, and trying to exceed those expectations. Hopefully, that’s what we’ve done.

Well, the critics have spoken, so far. Going back to the project’s beginnings, my research shows me that 21 Jump Street owes its existence to an unmade project called Psycho Funky Chimp, which an amazing name, by the way. How did that lead to this?
[Laughs.] I wrote a script that Todd Phillips had optioned; it was my first attempt comedy. It was about a kid in his 20s who still lives with his parents and dedicates all of his time and resources to collecting PEZ dispensers—he’s completely obsessed. He only needs one more to finish his collection, and that’s the mythical Psycho Funky Chimp; he finally gets a hold of it, and there’s an antagonist who is a tech billionaire and he also collects PEZ dispensers. The script rotated around this increasing, high-pitch war between the two of them, and trying to keep this one-of-a-kind PEZ dispenser to complete their own collection. [Laughs.]

It was pretty crazy, and it was a little bit ahead of geek culture kind of breaking through to the mainstream. Jonah was attached to play the young lead for a while, but we didn’t end up making the movie. It was a great way to meet him and get to know him, though.

Was this right after Superbad came out?
I had written a few years before Superbad, actually, and it was right around Superbad when it had looked like we were going to make that movie. I had actually met Jonah a couple of years before Superbad, as well, and it seemed like that was going to be the first thing we’d get to work on together.

When that didn’t happen, a mutual friend of ours, David Gordon Green, was shooting Pineapple Express and we were both looking at that and seeing how fun that process was. So we started talking about how we’d like to write an action-comedy that’s also a buddy cop movie, because we’re both fans of that genre. For me in particular, 48 Hours, the movies by Walter Hill, and anything Shane Black has ever written are favorites of mine. But we didn’t really have the right vehicle for it yet.

About a year after we started talking about it, Jonah called me up and said, “How about doing what we’ve been talking about with a 21 Jump Street remake? And we make it a hard-R comedy, and it’s our buddy cop movie.” I loved the idea, so we started working on it.

How did the 21 Jump Street property settle into Jonah Hill’s control?
I think Sony had the rights, and I’m not sure who brought it up with who, but I initially heard about it from Jonah. Sony was incredibly supportive from the very beginning, and very smart to approach like that with Jonah and take it in a comedic direction.

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