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Steve Oedekerk Hee-Heeds ‘Nature’s’ Call

<i> Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer</i>

Jim Carrey was stuffing asparagus spears in his mouth for a scene in the wacky Warner Bros. comedy “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” when director Steve Oedekerk called for another take.

When filming resumed, Carrey packed his jaws with more asparagus. The director called for more takes. Carrey shoved in more asparagus.

“It finally got to the point where he was incapable of speaking,” Oedekerk recalled. “I couldn’t even call out, ‘Cut!’ He was beet-red, dying of laughter. We both ended up on the floor.”

As Carrey might say: Chokin’!

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If anyone appreciates Carrey’s zany brand of visual humor, it’s Oedekerk, a veteran stand-up comedian who makes his directorial debut on the “Ace Ventura” sequel, which grossed a whopping $37.8 million at the box office in its opening weekend. He also wrote the screenplay with Carrey’s inspiration and input.

“My theory is: If it makes you laugh real hard, I’m onto something,” Oedekerk says.

Alrighty then, the question arises: How does one direct Jim Carrey in an “Ace Ventura” movie? Do you ask him to show more teeth? Or get him to push his eyeball a little more from side to side in its socket? Or do you just let Carrey go?

“It’s definitely go, go, go,” Oedekerk said. “You can always pull back. Jim’s job is looking at the moment and doing everything he can with it. As director, my job is to look at the level and pacing and decide what is funniest.”

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And what is funny often struck both men the same. “The type of stuff we like is scarily similar,” Oedekerk said. “We really finish each other’s thoughts.”

It wasn’t too many years ago that Oedekerk and Carrey were just two struggling stand-up comedians performing at the Comedy Store in Hollywood.

“He had a killer impressionist act,” Oedekerk recalled. “I had this weird act. Just bizarre stuff--a psychic severed head and a guy in a disco with innumerable arms.”

That was before they both found their way onto the Fox TV comedy series “In Living Color"--the rubber-faced Carrey performing in front of the cameras and Oedekerk, for one season, pounding out skits with the writing staff.

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Carrey’s meteoric rise has been well chronicled, but the 35-year-old Oedekerk, who grew up in Orange County and lives in San Juan Capistrano, has become a hot commodity in his own right.

He sold his first spec screenplay, “Nothing to Lose,” to Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for more than $200,000 (with an additional $400,000 when the film is made) and also will get $2.9 million in fees and bonuses to direct the film beginning in the spring.

“I sold a screenplay and instantly became a ‘writer guy,’ ” Oedekerk said, “even though my whole life I had performed comedy. Everybody wanted me to write everything.

He landed studio writing assignments like “Patch Adams” for Universal Pictures and a rewrite of “Furious George” for producer Arnold Kopelson and Warner Bros.

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With his work now completed on the new “Ace Ventura,” Oedekerk is currently negotiating with four major studios on an overall production deal and hopes to star in his own picture after making “Nothing to Lose.”

J ust how far he and Carrey have come hasn’t been lost on the two friends. While filming earlier this year, Oedekerk said he and Carrey would look at each other and go, “We’re in charge? How did this happen?!”

How it happened can be traced to the set of “In Living Color.”

“We’d finish ‘In Living Color’ after a 15- or 16-hour day and then, from midnight to 4 o’clock in the morning, we’d do ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,’ ” Oedekerk said. “Two giddy idiots tossing jokes around.” (The screenplay is credited to Carrey, Jack Bernstein and Tom Shadyac.)

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“Ace Ventura” became the surprise hit of 1994, bringing in more than $72 million at the domestic box office, and Carrey and Morgan Creek Productions asked Oedekerk if he would write the sequel.

“Jim said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we did it in Africa?’ ”

Ten minutes after hanging up with Carrey, Oedekerk said he had come up with the basics of the rhinoceros scene in the movie: Ace gets locked inside a mechanical rhino. It’s boiling hot, so he takes his clothes off and looks for a way out just as a group of tourists arrive. Well, you get the picture.

“I thought, ‘Holy smokes! This is great! There’s good stuff here!’ ” Oedekerk recalled.

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But Oedekerk agrees that some of the gags--like Ace and African tribes men exchanging spit--are at the edge of acceptable humor.

“I’ve been playing [near the edge] for 15 years,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the people don’t get offended [by such scenes] but you never get 100%.”

Likewise, audiences may groan when Ace slaps the stomach of a pregnant African tribes woman, causing her baby to fly out. Oedekerk said he saw the scene as a “cartoony visual.” He added that the movie is “really about a goofy white guy in Africa” and that the tribes men “were not made fun of.”

But the director said there were some gags that were left on the cutting-room floor, like the one in which Ace reaches behind himself and presents a piece of corn.

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“On the written page it was hilarious,” he said. “When actually seeing the thing I said, ‘Holy smokes! What am I doing here?’ . . . Perhaps the director’s cut laser disc someday will have the shot.”

Oedekerk had been yearning to direct a film, but he didn’t expect it to be the “Ace Ventura” sequel. He got his chance when the original director, Tom DeCerchio, departed shortly after filming began. (“Tom and I didn’t see eye to eye,” Carrey told Entertainment Weekly.)

Because he was an emergency replacement, Oedekerk didn’t have the luxury of a formal pre-production. He arrived on the set without even knowing what the locations looked like, so crew members had to show him Polaroid snapshots.

Oedekerk said he almost turned down the job because his wife, Tonie, was pregnant at the time. She eventually came east to be with him on the set and gave birth to a girl, Zoe, in Charleston, S.C.

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Summing up his experience, he said: “As long as people are laughing so hard that their tongues are shooting out of their noses and they are rolling on the floor with their Jujyfruits, I’m completely content."*


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