When Jay Chandrasekhar decided to write his memoirs, he began by putting every story on the page “regardless of how incriminating some of the details were.” Then, as many celebrities do, “I figured I would go back later and ‘clean them up’ for public consumption.”
But Jay is not just any celebrity. He forged his own path from the get-go. He grew up the child of Indian immigrants in Willowbrook (Illinois) and was a high school rebel who consistently outwitted the headmaster at Lake Forest Academy. By a random twist of fate, he attended Colgate University where he founded the group Broken Lizard and created a campus comedy boom.
He is now in the midst of a long and thriving career as a writer, actor, and director in Los Angeles. He and Broken Lizard continue to be celebrated for their comedies, including the iconic film Super Troopers. The much-anticipated Super Troopers 2, which was funded by a record-breaking Indiegogo campaign, is expected in theaters by Fall 2017.
As Jay contemplated his book and which details were too personal, mortifying, or revealing to publish, he also thought about the commitment comedians have to truth and in the end he included … everything.
Mustache Shenanigans: Making Super Troopers and Other Adventures in Comedy is a rare complete and honest tell-all. The book brims with revelation, comedy, and the reality of what it takes to make it in Hollywood as an outsider and on your own terms.
When I set out to write this introduction, I thought I would mention examples of the book’s best surprises and insights, and funniest, most extraordinary adventures. I went back to my book for reference because I marked those places with post-its. Well, guess what? I’d placed a post-it on just about every page!
Remember the opening scene in Super Troopers where the police pranksters pull over those kids and at the same time, pull in the audience and then proceed to keep up the astonishing, hilarious pace with highly original comedy holding nothing back? Mustache Shenanigans achieves the same in book form.
That’s not to say the entire book is funny. Jay is a straight shooter when it comes to describing setbacks and how tough it is to weather them. But as the best memoirs do, he has a universal message that will leave the reader feeling braver about the world: “How one handles the avalanche of rejection is the single most important determiner of who makes it and who doesn’t.”
He has also been the target of racism, especially post 9/11. A terrifying assault in Boston had me holding my breath, furious and scared, and at the end of the story, crying and even laughing because of the way Jay tells it.
More reasons all the post-its in the house were called into service? Well, how about Jay co-editing Los Enchiladas! with Mitch Hedberg, learning improv from Del Close with Chris Farley, and this secret mantra: “Oh, you don’t think an Indian kid can do that? Watch me, motherfucker.”
He also describes how the members of Broken Lizard met. The Eric Stolhanske meet involves a near deadly showdown with an unexpected weapon.
The secrets of the successes are all included, along with the bumpy roads that led there. Super Troopers grossed $23 million in theaters, $80 million in DVD sales and was the most watched comedy on Netflix for years. But it almost never got made. There are also behind-the-scenes details about classic Super Trooper bits like the maple syrup and “meow” and all the other works in the Broken Lizard canon. You’ll also find the latest info about Super Troopers 2.
Jay’s directing gigs are equally fascinating. He directed his childhood heroes Willie Nelson and Burt Reynolds in the Dukes of Hazzard movie. I’ll just say there’s toking, joking, smoking, choking and the behavioral equivalent of a nuclear meltdown. Jay has also directed the television shows Community, Arrested Development, Undeclared and more.
2017 is still young, but it’s not too early to predict that Mustache Shenanigans is going to be one of the best books of the year. I’ll stop here at a fraction of the way through my post-its because I want to get to the part where Jay was kind enough to speak with me by phone. Details about his March 28 Chicago appearance at The Music Box follow.
Teme: In Mustache Shenanigans you say that you originally intended to “clean up” some of the stories, but then resolved to leave them exactly as they happened. What were some of the stories you were thinking about cleaning up?
Jay: Well, a lot of it. Some of the sexual stuff from high school. Specifically, that girl I dated who was a bit of a thrill seeker and when I woke up covered in blood.
I thought I was going to clean up some of the drug stuff, but then I told the whole story. As I was writing it I thought, this book can’t be funny if it’s not honest. I enjoy stories when I feel that they really happened.
You take risks when you make artistic things. I’ve learned that I’m not getting kicked out of show business. I used to think I was, but I don’t think so anymore.
Teme: Your book taught me a lot about movie making, too. I didn’t realize what a roller coaster it is.
Jay: Oh my god, it is so hard to get something up on screen. I tend to be reluctant to critique filmmakers because I know the journey they had to take to get there. Occasionally, you’ll see a sloppy effort and usually it’s because it’s gotten to a point where it didn’t matter what [the filmmaker does], the studio will fund it. But most of the crowd is out there hustling. Frankly, almost everybody is out there hustling. That’s just how it is.
Teme: It was an eye-opener. What was most fun to write about?
Jay: When you write a book, the themes of your life become apparent because they show up in multiple stories. Then you read it back and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what my life is about.” I’ve been telling people that even if you don’t get a book published [the insight] makes it worth writing a book of your life, even if you just start with, “Well, I’ll talk about the time I lost my virginity and the first time I got drunk.”
Those things were fun to revisit. I have a very long memory for stories and dialogue. As I was going back, I found I had storages of memory that were socked away that I was able to re-access. In some cases, I called up the people who were there and said, “Here’s my recollection of that story. What’s yours?” It was interesting to listen to the people who were at the same event and had slightly different details or a different sort of spin, although they were consistent. It was fun to go back in time with them and find out what they thought.
My favorite thing to write? I really enjoyed writing about my time on the Dukes of Hazzard. I loved writing about the road to getting Super Troopers made. When I go back and read it I’m like, my god, my whole career is pinned on that movie in a way. It all flows from there and it almost didn’t happen.
Teme: You mention the themes of one’s life becoming apparent through writing. After writing Mustache Shenanigans, what would you say are your themes?
Jay: I think the big theme is that I did not let my race limit me, either with girls or professionally. And while I believed in America’s promise that “All men are created equal,” I was also aware of the reality that there were no Indians in show business. I dove in anyway, deciding my only hope of success would be to create my own path. So I learned how to write and direct movies, and rolled life’s dice.
Teme: In your book and movies you maintain a pace of consistent laughs and enthralling storytelling. What is the key to writing like that and to what you call “the Broken Lizard rhythm”?
Jay: Well, for us, it is all about the rhythm. There’s a thing called “radio cuts” where you play a scene and close your eyes and just listen to it. A lot of times that’ll tell you whether a joke is coming in even a third-of-a-second too late. Or it will tell us, “we need another two-thirds of a second on the back end of this joke,” or it’s moving too fast into the next idea. You have that inside you. We all have our own rhythm and we’re very much of a rhythm writing group. We know that if a joke is delivered with the right speed it’s going to work.
We write a lot of drafts for many reasons. Part of the reason is that movies take a long time to make, so we may just say, “Let’s do another draft!” With each new draft we also fix the parts that weren’t working. And sometimes, someone will come up with that incredible idea that will really make the movie what it is. It’s all really just an attention to detail.
Included in that is making sure that every single joke fits the tone of the movie. You’ve got to fit the rhythm, but you also have to fit the tone. The joke can’t be too big or too broad and reactions have to be in the realm of how real people would react. When it’s too big, it bumps you out of the movie. Makes you go, “Oh that’s dorky” or “that’s not right.”
All the jokes need to fit in the same bandwidth. Then nothing gets too loud or too big. Or if it is the biggest thing in the movie, we’re going to shoot it in a way that it doesn’t feel like a different movie. Sometimes you’ll see a performance in a film and it will be funny, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the action in the film. Eventually, the job of the director is to make sure nobody pops out.
Teme: That’s so interesting. As an audience member, I’m taken out of the story when something doesn’t fit.
Jay: Exactly. Once the audience is into the story, we don’t want them out of the story until the credits roll. And that means sometimes cutting our individually-on-their-own great jokes because it doesn’t work. If we try a really broad joke, even if it gets laughs in the test screening, I may cut it anyway because it’s just not fitting in the movie the way I need it to.
There are filmmakers who say if it’s funny, it’s in. We just don’t happen to be those filmmakers. We say if it’s funny, if it’s got the right rhythm and the right tone, it’s in. Even if nobody laughs at it and we think it’s funny, it’s often in. The reality is the first time [the audience] sees it, maybe they don’t get it, but the second time they’re going to start to get it and the third time it’s going to be their favorite joke.
We know it’s funny because it made it through thirty-five drafts. We’re not “just” putting it in. There’s a joke like that in Super Troopers 2. I’m putting it in the movie because it’s a great joke and people will laugh at it eventually.
Teme: I can’t wait to see it! When you wrote the first Super Troopers, did you anticipate that you would give new permanent comic meanings to words like shenanigans and meow and maple syrup? Did you think they would become so classic?
Jay: No. We just wanted to sell it. We were hoping to get into show business through it and we were just happy that someone bought it, let alone 20th Century Fox. So it was quite a surprise when it was bought, and an even bigger surprise when they put up the trailer and audiences said, “Yeah, we’ll go.” That was a miracle, I thought. The fact that people then would watch it multiple times was just beyond any possible realm of imagination for us.
Teme: In Super Troopers 2, where are Thorny, Farva, Rabbit, Mac and Foster in their lives? When does it take place in relation to the first Super Troopers?
Jay: It’s a couple of years later and we’re working different jobs. We finished the first film as local cops and something happened in the intervening years where we were fired from our jobs and we’re not cops anymore. But we are called back into duty.
Teme: How much can you reveal about the plot?
Jay: Well, I’ll say this. It revolves around a border dispute near Canada and a chunk of land that everyone thought was Canada. The movie takes place during the turnover of that land.
Teme: Will we see a return of classic bits from the first movie like “Meow”?
Jay: We set out to make a whole new movie, however we have layered in roughly eight to ten of the jokes that we did in the first movie. It’s interesting. I’ve talked to people who haven’t see the first movie, but have seen the second one. And they were laughing at these jokes and I asked, “How did you get those jokes?” They say, “They’re just funny” and then they ask, “Are they a reference to another joke?” I said, “Yeah, it was in the first movie!” They’re like, “I haven’t seen that one yet, but I have to see it now!”
Hopefully, if we have done it right and I think we have, there will be brand new jokes that people will latch onto. And there is definitely some reference to the original.
Teme: In the Indiegogo campaign, some people bought the rights to name a character. Is it okay to tell us any names that made it in?
Jay: Yes. Shotti Fitznugly got his name into the movie. It’s a nickname. A lot of people also bought the right to be extras that are in the movie. Not everybody. We had people who bought things that we couldn’t get to fit, so we had to send their money back. But we tried. We tried to make the best movie we can and if people still fit, then we keep their money. If they don’t, we send their money back.
Teme: What is your favorite story so far about making Super Troopers 2?
Jay: It was fun to get to work with Rob Lowe. You’re like, holy cow, we’re acting scenes with Rob Lowe! It’s so surreal. There are a number of actors like that in the movie where we felt, wow, we can’t believe it. And it’s fun to see these actors’ enthusiasm for the original Super Troopers and that they’re thrilled to be in the second one.
Another fun thing for us is that police love the first movie. They may pull us over, but they don’t really give us tickets anymore. It’s kind of a fun thing. They walk up and they’re like, “Oh, my god! Can we take a picture?”
Teme: Is it still possible for folks to contribute to the Indiegogo campaign?
Jay: Yes, we’re still working on sound and music and we’re right at the edge of our budget, so if we get a little more, it will be used for the movie for sure.
Perks include tickets to the film on its first day or you can get t-shirts. There’s fun stuff. You’re not just sending us money. We’ll use it for the movie if you do, but you can get cool stuff out of it.
Teme: So what is on your must-do list when you come home to Chicago?
Jay: I’ll go see the Blackhawks play. I saw a Bears game this year. I saw a couple of World Series games, though in Cleveland, and I saw three of the championship games in LA. I try to go to sporting events and I’ll stop by Second City sometimes or Improv Olympics, and eat some steak somewhere.
Teme: I loved your stories about getting started in comedy in Chicago with Chris Farley and Del Close.
Jay: Those were fun, wild days.
Teme: Anything else you would like fans to know about Mustache Shenanigans?
Jay: I just want them to know that it’s a dead-honest memoir and that I didn’t pull punches.
Jay Chandrasekhar appears at The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, on March 28 at 7:00 p.m. Mustache Shenanigans: Making Super Troopers and Other Adventures in Comedy will be released that day! Jay’s appearance includes a discussion of his life and work with Alex McCown-Levy of The A.V. Club and and a book signing. Hosted by Volumes Bookcafe. Ticket and book purchase information here.
Super Troopers 2 Indiegogo campaign here.
You can visit Jay’s web site here.