Q & A with Thomas Lennon
Actor, comedian and screenwriter tries his hand at the novel world of fantasy fiction
As with other famed comedians, Thomas Lennon started out by creating comedy sketches with college friends at New York University. These comic beginnings transitioned into a career-boosting role on MTV’s “The State.” Lennon is an actor, comedian, screenwriter, producer and director. He is known for his role as Lieutenant Jim Dangle on Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” and as Felix Unger on the CBS series “The Odd Couple,” as well as for movie roles in “17 Again,” “The Dark Knight Rises“ and several other comedy hits. Lennon’s screenwriting credits include the “Night at the Museum” series. His latest creative endeavor is a novel for teens and young adults, Ronan Boyle and The Bridge of Riddles (see here). Lennon grew up in Oak Park and now lives with his wife, actress Jenny Robertson, and their son in Los Angeles.
Oak Park is a pretty artsy town, did that or anything in particular influence your pursuing a career in comedy, acting, etc.?
Oak Park River Forest High School has an amazing theater department. There were lots of opportunities to do plays and musicals, even to direct plays. I tried out for “You Can’t Take It With You” in 1988 and got a single line, but that was enough to get me into acting for the rest of my life. My dad worked at the Art Institute for 45 years and my mom was a drama major in college. They took us to theater in Chicago almost on a weekly basis. And every chance I could get to go to The Second City, I did.
What kind of student were you at Oak Park-River Forest High School? Were you involved in theatre or any other clubs and activities?
Oddly, I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in 1988. This was a major surprise to me, as it certainly didn’t seem like the case from my point of view. I was in every play at OPRF that I could be in, and I lettered on the Speech Team. I was an average student, but I found out that you could take dance instead of swimming, and it was the smartest move I made in high school.
When did you first become interested in performing — when you attended the Northwestern Theatre Camp?
My first week at OPRF I almost got recruited to the pole vaulting team (apparently I have the right body type for this). I ended up skipping the pole vaulting tryouts to go with my girlfriend to theater tryouts, really just to hang out with her. When we got there, the theater teacher, Joyce Pauley, broke us into groups and had us improvise some scenes. I was in a group with Anne Hartmann, who was the major OPRF theater star of the time. I was genuinely star-struck. It was a real thrill, and that’s what got me started. By the time I got to Northwestern a few years later, I was already taking myself way too seriously as an actor. Later I would learn to be silly.
Being young in New York City with a bunch of friends, creating your own comedy and performing at clubs, was that as wild and crazy of a time as it sounds? Any particularly memorable experiences you can share?
There certainly was a lot of wild and crazy, yes. The State thought of itself as sort of a punk band of comedy. We would sometimes go out at night and stencil the group’s name around town, with spray paint on the sidewalks. I’m glad we weren’t arrested for this, but we probably should have been. We stayed out very late, but somehow we all got right up in the morning and started writing sketches.
Reno 911 supposedly came about a bit through desperation. How so?
Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney and I had been hired to write a sketch comedy show for the Fox network in 2000. Ben and I wrote a ton of sketches, and we cast Niecy Nash, Cedric Yarbrough and Carlos Alazraqui in the show. At the table read, the network told us they didn’t really need a sketch show and that we were cancelled. Since we already had a crew and cast, we thought, why not do an improvised comedy show that’s a spoof of COPS. (Originally, the post-COPS spot on Fox was what we were aiming for.) They agreed that we could shoot something, which we did in just a few days. The show almost made the air at Fox, but then sat around for three years until it was picked up by Comedy Central.
Was that series your first big break and if so, what did it lead to and how did it come about? If not, what were the one or two big breaks that led to your long and diverse career?
The first big break we ever had was in 1992 doing some short bits for an MTV show called “You Wrote It, You Watch It.” We had originally been turned down for the job, but we shot some shorts on spec, and turned them in to the MTV executives in charge of the show. This is a recurring theme in my career, after being told “no,” just do it anyway. The show was cancelled after one season, but out of it, we got our first show, The State, and the host of the show, Jon Stewart got his first big show, too.
How did you make the transition into movies? Early on, you played opposite Zac Efron in “17 Again” and more recently with Matthew Perry in the remake of the classic “The Odd Couple.” Tell us a little about those roles and what other roles are among your favorites?
The first film I was ever cast in was a film with Jon Bon Jovi called “Row Your Boat.” The casting director on that film was Georgiane Walken (Christopher Walken’s wife). The next one was a few sentences in Christopher Nolan’s amazing movie “Memento.” I have specialized mostly in playing small roles — doctors or all-around weirdos. “17 Again” was a lot of fun because Zac is a workhorse and an absolute delight. His appendix practically burst during filming and he took only one day off, then was right back. “The Odd Couple” was a tough decision, as I would be the fifth actor to play Felix Unger. Ultimately I thought: If Tony Randall can be the third Felix, I can give a shot at being the fifth. It was a fun job while it lasted.
When did you first become interested in script writing? What types of projects attract you?
The first feature film Ben Garant and I wrote was called “You Are Going to Prison,” based on the book of the same name. It later came out as “Let’s Go to Prison” with Will Arnett and Dax Shepard. At this point, Ben and I have written about a dozen studio comedies that have made it into theaters, so we’ve written probably 40 or 50 movie scripts. We’re always trying to do something a little different, mostly to keep our sanity. So, we’ll write a big family movie like “The Pacifier,” but then we’ll also try a horror comedy like “Hell Baby.” Generally we’re just looking to make each other laugh.
How did the idea for the “Night at the Museum” films come about?
We had written a movie for Fox called “Taxi,” which came out starring Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon. It was a remake of a French film also called “Taxi.” It was a huge flop, and widely panned. We had a deal in place to write “Taxi 2,” but of course, that would never be made. Fox brought us in for a meeting and told us we would need to fulfill our contract on one of the books that they owned the rights to. The one that jumped out was a 10-page picture book called Night at the Museum by Milan Trenc. Ben and I had spent a lot of time at the Natural History Museum in NYC and we were excited to flesh out the short book into a big story.
What made you decide to write a children’s book? How did you come up with the premise/plot and any particular reason you set the book in Ireland? It appears to be the first in a series — do you have future installments already plotted out?
I had wanted to write a funny novel ever since I read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it just took me about 30 years to come up with the right idea! I had the idea for Ronan Boyle and the Bridge of Riddles while on vacation in an old tower castle in County Mayo Ireland called Turin Castle. I spent some time looking at a giant old shillelagh on the wall and thought about a police force that keeps an eye on leprechauns and their mischief. My grandparents came to Chicago from Ireland, and I’ve always had a fascination with my ancestral homeland. Ronan Boyle will be a three book series. Book two exists in a first draft form. I’m rewriting and editing it now. It is set almost entirely in Tir Na Nog, the land of the faerie folk.
What is next for you? Do you have TV or movie projects or screenplays in the pipeline?
Ben and I are writing a film called “The London Dungeon” for Working Title films, based on the popular tourist attraction on the Thames in London. I’m guest starring in an upcoming episode of “At Home with Amy Sedaris” on Tru TV and I’ll also be on an episode of “Modern Family. “And, well, I’ll always pop up where you least expect it.
You write, perform, do character voices, stand-up and even play a little guitar in a tribute band. Which do you enjoy doing most and why?
I like to try different things all the time, and there’s aspects of all of these jobs that I love. The hardest job, however, is guitar player in “The Sweet and Tender Hooligans.” It’s an all Morrissey and The Smiths tribute band and the Johnny Marr songs are really tricky to learn.
Do you get back to Oak Park very often and if so, where do you like to go and what do you like to do in and around the area?
I’m back in Oak Park quite a bit. My parents still live there and lots of my extended family. I’m still pretty upset about Tasty Dog closing. Most nights when I’m in town you can find me at Poor Phil’s. In high school I was a busboy in the back of the Carleton Hotel at Philander’s (now called Barclay’s American Grille). I have a lot of favorite places in Oak Park, but my number one pick is always Hemmingway’s Bistro on Oak Park Avenue. My cousins, Ferdia and Nora, own Farmhouse in Chicago, and I get there whenever I can. La Bella in Oak Park is one of my favorite Italian places. I always love to go to the Lake movie theater (Sorry I had to reschedule my benefit for the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society — I tore the meniscus in my knee and it’s currently healing! I will be back to Oak Park and the Lake Theatre soon!)
If you could put yourself back in high school, could you ever have imagined where you would be now? And any advice for young people starting out in the entertainment industry based on how your career evolved?
If you had asked me when I was at OPRF, I would have said that I was hoping for a career in live theater. Possibly playing Hamlet, things like that. I certainly never expected a life in comedy. My advice to a young me, and to anybody who wants to write, act, direct is quite simple — do not wait for anyone to offer you anything. Offers are probably not coming. You must create your own work. The vast majority of things I’ve done have been shows that I’ve made up myself, working with
my best friends