Interview: "21 Jump Street" Writer Michael Bacall Talks Writing With Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum's Comedic Genius

The year is still young, but this weekend's TV-to-film reboot is 2012's funniest movie so far. Allow its joke-provider to explain why.

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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.


Were you and Jonah able to sit together in the same room and write the script, or did your schedules force you to send ideas back and forth and do it less in-person?
Well, when we started developing the story, we wrote the treatment together. We started grabbing lunch together here and there, and hanging out at one of our houses and shooting the shit. That’s how we came up with who the characters were, and what the central crime would be that they were investigating. And once we got that treatment done, I went off into my cave and started working on the draft.

Two, three, or four drafts later, [Laughs.], Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] came onboard, and then it was the four of us working together to just really get it into the shape that it is today, into the shooting draft. It was really good to work wit guys who are really funny, really talented, great joke-tellers and great writers.

Being that you wrote Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World for director Edgar Wright, did you guys take any cues or influences from Wright’s hilarious, hard-R, action buddy cop comedy Hot Fuzz?
Oh, yeah. I’m a huge fan of Edgar’s, obviously, and both Jonah and I love that movie; I know Phil and Chris do, as well. We had to be very careful not to rip it off. [Laughs.] Because it is so good, and there’s such a good emotional through-line in that film. That’s one way I think Hot Fuzz was very influential, in terms of all of us wanting to have a really emotional story between our two characters.

We wanted you to really care about the guys by the end of the movie. It’s all well and good to have great action scenes and a bunch of funny dick jokes, but if at the end of the movie you don’t care about the characters, it’s a lost cause, ultimately. That’s certainly we all learned from watching Edgar’s take on the buddy comedy: Let’s try to care about these characters when all’s said and done.

When you signed on to do 21 Jump Street, you must have went back and watched the old show again to familiarize yourself, right?
Oh, yeah! [Laughs.]

I haven’t seen the show in years, probably over a decade. How does the show hold up today? Has it aged well, or is really dated?
It’s both, actually. In terms of the styles and the music and the wardrobe, it’s incredibly dated, but in terms of the issues they were trying to tackle, and the tenion of being undercover cops and the camaraderie of being police officers in a high stress situation, that stuff was all great, and that’s something we wanted to keep. We didn’t want to make an exercise in nostalgia, though; we didn’t want to be making fun of it.

I remember when I was a kid and that show was on, it was really cool and really edgy. It was cutting-edge with its style and music, and we were all wowed by it, but those are the kinds of things that tend to date themselves very quickly. Those were the things we wanted to leave behind. It was a trip going through the old episodes, because when I was looking at them as a kid, it was with awe, and looking at them now, even though the concept of the show is so strong, and Stephen Cannell [the original show’s co-creator] was just an amazing and prolific storyteller, there were elements that, as with anything that’s trying to be of the moment, quickly became comedic. [Laughs.]

Are there any specific scenes from the show that stand out in your mind as being particularly hilarious today?
Yeah, and I think we may have even referenced it in the script. If you look at the pilot, you’ll get some really wonderful moments. There’s a moment where Johnny Depp’s character is playing this really mournful saxophone solo, and it’s this really ’80s smooth jazz music cue, and you’re think you’re just listening to the score of the show, and then it reveals that Johnny Depp actually is playing the saxophone in the shot. [Laughs.] He’s just wailing on that thing—it’s a wonderful moment!

And I’m sure they thought it was a profound, poignant scene when they shot it.
Yeah, a real emotional moment. [Laughs.] It’s pretty amazing.

What makes the movie so effective, I think, is how, aside from the original series’ stars’ cameos and a few wink-wink jokes here and there, it works really well as a standalone movie. If it had a different title, it’d still work just as well as an action-comedy.
Yeah, that’s what we wanted. I think there’s gonna be a lot of current teenagers and young adults who might not have a clue about what 21 Jump Street is, because it was on years ago. It’s been a while since the show has been on television, so we wanted this story to be one that can stand on its own, even though we did want to show respect to the show with a couple winks, nods, and cameos here and there.

The high school aspect of the movie is key, particularly how well you and Jonah have captured the class systems and insecurities. Was it difficult for you to get back into the mentality of a teenager for 21 Jump Street?


It was a blast. Right away, I went back to my old school; I grew up in a suburb outside of Los Angeles. I went back to my old high school and talked to some teachers, and the dean of discipline and the school nurse, to try and find out what’s going on with kids these days. Like, what are they getting in trouble for? And then I was hanging out during lunch and listening in to see how kids are interacting, and find out who the popular kids are these days. I also got to sit in on a couple of classes, and I went to a prom for a different high school in Hollywood. [Laughs.]

I just plunged right back in there, and it was great because it did give me some flashbacks and insecurities that I had when I was in high school. That really helped out in creating these characters. I love the research aspect of any project, but this one was especially personal because, for a moment there, I got to go back to school like these guys do in the movie.

What was the biggest revelation about the high school experience today that you took from all of that in-the-field research? Well, one of the things that was kind of wild is… When I was in school, people were really underground about drugs; it was not on the surface at all. Nowadays, marijuana, at least, has gotten to a point where the smarter kids have a special awareness that there are a lot of incredibly successful people who, shockingly, smoke marijuana. [Laughs.] Some of the most brilliant minds to ever walk the planet smoked marijuana, guys like Carl Sagan; we actually named the high school in Jump Street after Carl Sagan. [Laughs.]

I was a little bit surprised at how casually—I mean, without even asking them about it—a couple of students talked about drugs, and these were the higher-ranking, more popular kids in the school. When I was in school, it was a very underground kind of thing.

That explains the motivation behind Dave Franco’s character, then.
Exactly, yeah. He’s a reflection of that kind of popular kid I saw during my research.

Was the drug already angle in the script before you visited the school and saw how casually kids talk about drugs today?
I think we knew that we wanted it to be a drug story, because that’s always a hot-button, key issue, but it developed more specifically once we did the research. Jonah and I also sat down with a former undercover cop who, I think, ran the undercover program at the high school I went to, and he may have even been undercover there while I was there. [Laughs.] So that was a trip, sitting down with him and getting the inside story on how the function, and what the rules are to not blow your cover and not be outed as a narc. Yeah, this was a really fun research job. [Laughs.]

Speaking of the movie’s drug angle, one of the coolest things about 21 Jump Streetis its quirky, cartoonish visual style, which is on full blast during the hilarious “tripping ballsack” sequence. How did the script and approach change, from a visual standpoint, once Chris Miller and Phil Lord signed on?
Those cues were there already, but when those guys signed on, I got incredibly excited because I’m a huge fan of theirs. An interesting anecdote: They did Clone High, the animated show for MTV, which was a genius show, and it turns out that Clone High had a huge influence on Bryan Lee O’Malley when he was writing the Scott Pilgrim comics. And, of course, I ended up adapting that with Edgar [Wright], and Phil and Chris were fans of Scott Pilgrim, so there was this really weird full-circle thing going on, where everyone was feeding everyone creatively.

Beyond Clone High, though, I’m a massive fan of Phil and Chris’ Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, which is one of those rare kid movies that has massive appeal to adults, or it did to me, at least. They’ve got a lot of great sight gags, they do physical comedy really well, and they’re great writers, so when things like the drug trip sequence came up, those elements were already in the story, but as soon as we started working with those guys, it elevated it instantly. We knew that they’d just knock that stuff out of the park, and they absolutely did.

During that sequence, I might write in something like the Walt (played by Rob Riggle) turning into some kind of animal, but then they do this absolutely insane, lo-fi kind of cat head on it and it makes it even scarier and trippier. [Laughs.] That is absolutely their unique sensibility coming through in that sequence, and really making it work. You can write the best drug trip in the world, but if you don’t have a couple of geniuses bringing it to life, it’s totally worthless.

That drug trip sequence exemplifies just how different 21 Jump Streetis from other mainstream comedies, and how it goes against conventions that people might expect. And another thing that will shock people, I think, is how hilarious Channing Tatum is in the movie.
He kills, man! And Jonah is really funny, too, of course. [Laughs.]

Definitely, but with Jonah we expect him to be that funny; Channing Tatum, on the other hand, is a total comedic revelation.
That role was conceived years before he was cast in it, and that was always the big question: Who is going to play the other buddy in this buddy cop scenario? We always knew that Jonah was going to play the Schmidt character. Channing is amazingin the role; he fully inhabits the role. I consider it to be a really fearless performance, because he’s not afraid to embrace how dumb the Jenko character appears at times, and he also brings a sensitivity to it where you really feel like this guy has those leftover issues from high school.

You really feel for him, even though he’s such a jerky jock in the beginning. It’s the fact that he’s a great friend, and that he is ultimately willing to learn; comedically, he’s just a killer. The guys just had an amazing chemistry together, and that’s everything in a buddy cop movie. [Laughs.] You gotta have that, and they just both annihilated it.

Was it a long process finding the right actor to play Jenko?
I don’t think the process even truly began until we were at a much later phase in the writing; we were waiting for Jonah’s schedule to open up before we could set a production date, and once that happened the search began in earnest. It all happened pretty quickly from that point, finding Channing for that role.

Was he someone you guys had ever even considered before you had the first meeting?
Well, early on, we knew that we wanted it to be a good-looking guy, and somebody who physically was a good foil to play against Jonah’s physicality and the characteristics that we were building into the Schmidt character. So we had an idea, in terms of the type of actors: somebody who’s physically fit and who’s really a traditionally good-looking guy. But in terms of having a specific actor in mind, we were flying blind in that regard until it actually came time to make the movie. Fortunately, it worked out as well as we could’ve possibly hoped for—it’s as if we knew it was going to be him the whole time and wrote it for me. He just inhabits it so fully.

Did he stick to the script the whole time, or did he surprise you guys by improvising some of the comedic lines?
I think there’s both. A lot of the movie is scripted, and then when you’re working with great improvisational actors like Jonah, you’re gonna get these flashes of absolute brilliance with improvisation. The hope is that you won’t be able to tell when it’s scripted and when it’s improvised. You want to have a really a good structure, have some really good payoffs and tons of really good jokes all in line, but if, in the moment, something amazing happens, you have to run with that. I think a lot of something-amazings happened between Jonah and Channing. [Laughs.]

I love when Schmidt is on the phone and Channing’s character is just harassing him relentlessly, trying to mess up his phone conversation—it’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, and it’s not something that I scripted. It’s the two of them going off in the moment. For guys especially, we’ve all had a similar moment like that. That made me really happy.

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