The tricky thing about being a comedian is that people expect you to be funny.
If you're Ben Stiller, you can walk around telling everyone who will listen that you don't consider yourself a particularly rich source of hilarity, and a critic for the New Yorker will agree, asking you to please relax a little, and still, Parade magazine will put a picture of your face on its cover asking (if not quite answering): "What Makes Ben Stiller Funny?"
Which is probably OK, because it will at least give you the opportunity to talk some more about how you're not really a riot, can't tell a joke to save your life, don't walk into a room needing to make people laugh.
And how you have a big new comedy out just in time for the Christmas movie rush!
Must be exhausting, all this cognitive dissonance.
Exhausted, actually, is how Stiller sounds at the moment, sitting through the requisite series of 15-minute phone interviews to push "Night at the Museum," and noting, probably for the hundredth time, that the monkey cast as his tormenter in the flick was awfully sweet except "she was trained to hit me and I wasn't allowed to hit her -- which I didn't think was fair."
Maybe not, but being hit by a monkey -- or abused by an in-law or lacerated by a zipper -- is Stiller's most reliable conduit to laughs. And it's the one he turns to again in "Museum," as a hard-up divorced dad and museum guard whose gig turns calamitous once the history exhibits come to life. The lions try to eat him, the Huns want his head on a stake -- hence there is opportunity after opportunity for Stiller's blue eyes to bulge in panic for the cameras.
The man may scramble as well as any actor working today.
Which is not, by the way, an accolade Stiller would have dreamt of as a kid. The son of comedy duo Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller was brought up in a world of nightclubs and dueling shticks. His rebellion was a penchant for serious drama: At age 11 and 12, he was directing sister Amy in heavy home movies.
The conversion occurred in the late 1970s, the first time he saw "Second City TV," a Canadian sketch comedy show populated by now-legends such as Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and the late John Candy.
"I remember I was 17 or 18 when I saw 'SCTV' on TV and being really amazed, thinking it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen," Stiller says, on the phone from Mexico after a day of shooting "The Heartbreak Kid," a remake of the 1972 romantic comedy that brings him back into the potty-mouthed fold of the Farrelly brothers.
"As a kid, you're trying to find your own way. I went, 'OK, I sort of want to be like that, think like that.' "
And then it was off. After a year of film school in California, Stiller returned to his native New York and in the late '80s began to make a name for himself with small films and a writing stint on "Saturday Night Live." By 1992, he had a short-lived but acclaimed sketch comedy series of his own, "The Ben Stiller Show." His coupling with the Farrellys came in 1998 with "There's Something About Mary," and suddenly Stiller had a place among the brightest comics of a generation.
In an earlier generation, he concedes, he might not have fared so well. "Night at the Museum" is a showpiece for comedic greats past and present, including Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Mickey Rooney and Dick Van Dyke.
Stiller gushes a bit when he talks about working with Rooney and Van Dyke, both in their 80s, but insists he wouldn't have wanted to come of age during their heyday.
"If that had happened, I don't think I would have had the opportunities I've had as an actor," he says. "It's almost like a different process in the post-'This Is Spinal Tap' era. There's so much more improvisation. [Rooney and Van Dyke] are so professional, so they're delivering what's there on the page and making it work."
They also spent years playing different versions of the same character -- and recent memory suggests Stiller has done the same, reviving again and again the angst-ridden, exasperated schlub. But audiences have proved just as happy to receive the 41-year-old as a muscled-up bad guy in "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" (2004) or as a vainglorious male model in "Zoolander," the 2001 hit he wrote and directed.
So when Van Dyke refers to Stiller as a "reactor," he's half right. The laughs may come easiest when Stiller is being hit by a monkey, but they also come when he dives into the ludicrous, challenging Owen Wilson to a runway walk-off in "Zoolander" or turning Andre Agassi into a hair-dryer-wielding action hero, as he did on "The Ben Stiller Show."
But if the inflamed reactor is Stiller's most common posture, it may also be his most natural.
"I think for me, I'm more comfortable doing that than what, say, Jim Carrey does," he says. "The listening and allowing it to happen -- for me, it's like that's part of what makes it funny."
The inclination made shooting "Night" particularly challenging for Stiller, as most of the animals and exhibits that chase him around the museum were computer-generated, "so you're having to react to nothing."
"It was sort of lonely a lot of the time," he says.
He's lonely again now, but only because his wife, Christine Taylor, and their two young children have left the shoot in Mexico to return home.
Life changed when the kids came along; the notorious workaholic began seeking a little more balance.
Now the middle ground is bringing him back to TV: He's developing a sitcom for Taylor based on the idiosyncrasies of their marriage.
His wife, he insists, is fantastically funny. And him? Well, maybe it's just best not to ask.