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Five Rules On How To Be Dumb (And Dumber)

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As Dumb And Dumber To hits cinemas, Andrew Lowry asks the stars behind it for their five rules of professional toilet humour

Not all fart jokes are created equal. There’s a thin line between The Inbetweeners and Mrs Brown’s Boys. Although seemingly simple, puerile humour is an art form – and nobody knows this better than Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels and director Peter Farrelly (who works with his brother Bobby) – they had the world guffawing off its sofa in 1994 with Dumb And Dumber, and this week they’re dropping its long-awaited sequel, Dumb And Dumber To.

It’s full of laughs, and also deceptively smart – Larry David has voiced his approval, according to Farrelly. But what is the secret of being artfully dumb? Banana skin and squirty flower in hand, ShortList went to talk to some of the funniest men in the world to find out.

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1. Forget dignity

There’s a moment in the new film where Carrey’s character, Lloyd, wolfs down a hot dog without much of it actually ending up in his mouth. Simple, right?

“I ate 38 hot dogs that day,” says Carrey. “I actually bit through my tongue doing it one time, I really injured myself. When I’m in a scene, I don’t care. At one point I inhaled a chunk of hot dog into my lung, and for the next month I was walking around the set going ‘HUH!’ to try to get it out. I tried going upside down, everything. I really wish there hadn’t been mustard on it.”

Not exactly just showing up to gurn for an hour or two and wrapping up at 4pm, then.

2. Be obsessive

The hard labour doesn’t begin on set, either. It doesn’t matter if you’re a footballer, jazz trumpeter or comic actor, the illusion of spontaneity is one of the trickiest things to master. And, as with everything else, the real work is done beforehand – and is about getting every detail right.

“Jim elevates the whole project,” says co-director Peter Farrelly, a man whose track record means he has no need for sycophancy. “We write the script, and he comes in and goes through it with us, and he makes it way better. People ask if he does a lot of ad-libbing – of course he always does – but he also ad-libs before we shoot. He goes through the script with us word by word. No other actors we work with do that. And then he comes in the editing room as well. That’s what people don’t see – the sheer attention to detail.”

Daniels is also quick to stress the work his co-star puts in. “I remember doing the first one,” he says. “I could hear Jim rehearsing in his trailer. The repetition – over and over and over – and the precision of where to put emphasis, then the effort to hide that technique so it looks like it’s just falling into his head. That’s the trick – you build the mechanics, then hide it. There’s such precision, even if it looks easy.” Daniels should know – the seasoned theatre actor will talk at length about how access to his character came from shaking his head and taking half a second too long to react, the same way you can imagine Daniel Day-Lewis saying how his moustache was the key to Daniel Plainview.

And it’s not just the actors sweating. “The Farrellys were getting us to take out individual words that were killing the joke,” says Daniels. “We’d get notes on half-second gaps. Their knowledge of what works is that precise.” 

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3. Innocence is your friend

Whether it’s Alan Partridge, David Brent or Harry and Lloyd, the best comedy needs characters with zero self-awareness. Half of what they do would, in real life, be the behaviour of a raging asshole. The beauty of dumb comedy, however, is that its characters are clueless about social niceties – and so they can say and do things that would get the rest of us a slap.

“You can get away with stuff when you’re dumb,” says Farrelly. “When Jim and Jeff go to Kathleen Turner in our film and say, ‘Excuse me, sir’, they’re not being mean to bust her balls. They don’t know they’re idiots, that’s why you can laugh at it. It’s not mean-spirited – anything but that.”

“They say the forbidden things you can’t say,” adds Carrey. “They have a pre-egoic innocence. They don’t know enough to be arrogant. They’re authentic, and I think that’s what people are drawn to. And they feel better by comparison to the stupidity.” 

4. Context is everything

There’s a long tradition of the best comedy punching up rather than down, and the new film unleashes the boys in an environment where their idiocy is most likely to cause a comic rumpus – the KEN conference, a (very) thinly veiled pastiche of real-life brain trust TED.

“These characters have an innocence to them, despite what they do,” says Carrey. “Anyone can fart and get a cheap laugh, but the funniness come from who you’re farting with. What’s the situation? Anything irreverent like that only works if you’re going up against some kind of arrogance. A person you want to see undone.”

Farrelly agrees: “I remember I was carrying my son into a fancy restaurant, and I must have been holding him at an uncomfortable angle, because he just yelled out ‘Dad! You’re hurting my penis!’ and everyone looked over. It’s funny as he doesn’t know what he’s saying, and he’s in a rarefied environment. That’s Harry and Lloyd.”

“You’ve been hurting my penis this whole time,” adds Carrey. There’s a philosophical lesson here. We think.

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5. Get a good partner

Carrey and Farrelly are adamant about Daniels’ contribution to the Dumb And Dumber cocktail. Prior to the first film he was a respected straight actor, and these days is still more likely to be seen spouting Aaron Sorkin-penned jeremiads than waving his bum around. However, his and Carrey’s chemistry is a huge part of what sells the laughs – and his co-star is aware of what he owes him.

“He’s amazing,” says Carrey. “On the first one, a lot of comics came in to audition with me, and they were trying to score on every line, so there was no relationship. When Jeff came in, there was the friendship. That’s what makes the movie work. Stupid jokes are one thing, but if [the characters] didn’t love each other, and it didn’t feel
like they’d known each other all their lives, it wouldn’t work.”

Unlike Carrey fretting over every syllable, Daniels is more of a spontaneous, reactive clown. “Jim does think a lot,” says Farrelly. “He plans out everything. Jeff doesn’t – he waits to see what Jim does, because we do it many different ways. He’s like a tennis player; he hits the shots back. His plan is to play off Jim, and it’s an amazing working relationship.”

Dumb And Dumber To is at cinemas nationwide from 19 December

(Images: Universal)

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