The comedy maths behind the Men in Black

Story by Jack Foley

SOME of the most popular movies of all time are built around a successful on-screen chemistry between its leads. Think Riggs and Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon series (recently voted fans' number one partnership), Thelma and Louise, or Butch and Sundance and, no doubt, a smile of recognition will appear.

Well, Men In Black agents Jay and Kay could just as easily be added to that list, given that the wise-cracking, larger-than-life antics of Will Smith perfectly counter-balance the more deadpan put-downs of Tommy Lee Jones in both of director Barry Sonnenfeld's movies.

It is a winning formula which extends beyond the screen for the two stars as, when asked what made their chemistry so successful at a recent press conference at BAFTA, an equally deadpan Jones simply hit back with, 'because that's what it said in the script'. It was the type of reply which exemplifies time spent in the MIB cast and crew.

Smith, though, did expand a little further, talking of the 'wonderful, wonderful respect and admiration' the two stars have for each other 'and a comprehension of the comedy math' that he had spoken of earlier.

"We both understand how to fill a scene, how to play off of one another," he continued. "I don’t think either one of us comes to the set, or to rehearsals, with preconceived notions of how the scene is going to be. We’re both willing to be open and flexible and move to give what the scene needs to work."

The aforementioned 'comedy maths' does help, of course, as Sonnenfeld elaborates: "I think the reaction shot is always funnier than the action shot, which is why, in this movie, Tommy is actually funnier than Will," he explained. "For example, when Frank the Pug is singing ‘I Will Survive’, the only reason that is funny is because Will Smith is in the background of that shot trying not to get angry. If that was just a shot of that dog singing ‘I Will Survive’, believe me, that would not be funny."

Smith concurs: "You see, there is a really advanced comedy math there; it takes a really heightened perception of comedy to understand the depth of what was going on, mathematically, with the jokes in that scene."

Not that Smith minds being upstaged by events around him, for the self-confessed 'comedy whore' said that 'wherever the joke can come from, I’m very happy to be a part of it'.

"As long as the audience is happy, that is all that matters," he added.

Jones, too, found being funny a little easier second time around, especially since he knew what to expect from the sequel.

The actor explains: "When I started out, I thought the first movie was about science fiction and sort of mystery and menace and required adventure and the manipulation of those types of elements. Comedy had never occurred to me until about halfway through the film when Barry explained it to me for the 100th time and then I caught on and figured out that if I did everything Barry said and stood close enough to Will, people would eventually think I’m funny. And I started getting away with it and I hope I continue to do so."

Ironically, it was Smith who found the comedy elements of MIB2 harder to grasp this time around, especially as he came to the sequel off the back of filming Ali. Indeed, he only really felt that he became funny again once Jones walked back on the set.

"I was in a really serious state of mind, following Ali," he explained. "I’d been fighting every day, so I was really aggressive, and I went from fighting every single day to nothing. It took me about two weeks to settle down and get to the place where I could start to be funny again and the day that Tommy came on the set is when I felt that everything gel."

Now, however, Smith seems to be back on form and his next project, the long-anticipated sequel to Bad Boys, starts filming this month, alongside Martin Lawrence. When asked about the possibility of another sequel, Wild, Wild West 2, Smith merely laughs and says he would love to do it, while an opportunity to divulge what he would do with a de-neuraliser in real life provided one of the comic highlights of the press conference.

"I’d use it for sex," he laughs. "That would be really great; you wouldn’t have to work as hard and then when you were done you could deneuralise her and say, look, I was the best you’ve ever had."

Enter Jones, to add: "Or you don’t wanna call me…. Or you don’t want me to call you. That’s the highest and best use of the de-neuraliser."

It is a good point and another example of the chemistry which exists between the two. If nothing else, the Men in Black franchise remains as healthy as it is because of the rapport between its stars.

As for the possibility of a third film in the series, Smith says: "I think that as long as people laugh in the movie theatres, there’s always the possibility to do another one. I think even more than Box Office, the laughter in the theatres leaves us room to make another one and I’m in if you guys are in."

Watch this space....

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