Q&A: Kevin Hart, Ed Helms and Thomas Middleditch offer the real poop on ‘Captain Underpants’

Kevin Hart, left, Ed Helms and Thomas Middleditch are the key voices in the animated movie "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie."
Kevin Hart, left, Ed Helms and Thomas Middleditch are the key voices in the animated movie “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.”
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

On Friday, Hollywood rolls out two major new superhero movies. Both are built around valiant do-gooders with legions of passionate fans. Both are packed with action, high stakes and dastardly villains.

Only one of them, however, features a bald man in tighty-whities who, before heading into battle against talking toilets, zombie nerds and other foes, cheerfully calls out, “Tra la laaaa!”

DreamWorks Animation’s comedy “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” brings the anarchic adventure and unbridled potty humor of author Dav Pilkey’s beloved children’s book series — which for 20 years has sent countless elementary-school-age kids into fits of giggles and a few easily offended adults into fits of pique — to movie screens for the first time.

In a testament to the popularity of the “Captain Underpants” books, which have sold more than 70 million copies worldwide, the film unites a roster of comedic heavy hitters. Kevin Hart and “Silicon Valley” star Thomas Middleditch voice the mischievous fourth-grade best friends George Beard and Harold Hutchins, while Ed Helms takes on the dual role of the cranky, tyrannical Principal Krupp and his valiant superhero alter ego, Captain Underpants. Together, George, Harold and Captain Underpants take on the evil Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), who is out to rid the world of laughter.

On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, Hart, Middleditch and Helms gathered for a chat about potty humor, the Trump-ian aspects of Captain Underpants, the funniest type of underwear and other weighty matters.

You’re all too old to have actually grown up reading the books. But once you started immersing yourself in all things “Captain Underpants,” what was the appeal for you?

Hart: Farts. Farts and poop. I don’t think I’ve ever said “poop” so much in my life. “Poop” was high in the vocab in my house after doing this movie. “Get out of here, poopyface!”

Helms: “Poop” is a great word. It’s a palindrome.

Middleditch: And upside-down it’s “boob.” You’ve got to love that. The movie definitely gets in with farts and poop and kids giggling. But in the end, it’s actually more about friendship and empathy.

Helms: Creativity. Responsibility. There are some really meaningful themes undergirding this very, very juvenile, silly escapade.

Given how many attempts there have been to ban the “Captain Underpants” books from libraries over the years, though, a lot of parents obviously have a hard time getting past the farts and poop.

Helms: I can honestly say that if these books had come out when I was a child, my mom would not be having it. Which would only make them more exciting.

Middleditch: Yeah, they’re kind of like Scholastic’s version of Mad magazine.

Helms: There’s a lot of pretty heady meta humor in this movie that I think is more like “Deadpool” than the normal animated movie.

Hart: [deadpan] It’s a lot like “Deadpool.”

Middleditch: Basically, if you like “Deadpool,” you’ll love “Captain Underpants.” [laughs]

Middleditch: 'I still think farts are some of the funniest things.' Hart: 'Farts are forever genius.' Helms: 'It's never not funny.'

The books have sold more than 70 million copies, so there are clearly a whole lot of kids out there who love them. Did you feel pressure to get it right for them?

Hart: Of course, you know what the books have done. You know the history of “Captain Underpants” and the success that it’s had. To have a feature and be able to tie yourself into the first one was a big deal. None of us took that lightly.

Middleditch: Obviously with this movie we want it to be funny and we want people to like it for its own movie-ness. But I think a huge gold seal for us would be if the fans of “Captain Underpants,” who grew up with it and it’s a precious IP [intellectual property] for them — and they would say “IP” because they’re in the business and they’re douchebags like myself….

Helms: “Mom, will you take me to ‘Captain Underpants’? It’s one of my favorite IPs!”

Middleditch: But if they walk away being like, “That was a great movie version of the books that I love,” I think that would be pretty rad.

Plus, you can all now say you’ve starred in your first big summer superhero movie.

Middleditch: Yeah, technically this is my first superhero movie. I’m very honored, though I’m still a little mad at Marvel for not calling me. But whatever, it doesn’t matter.

Helms: I would say “Vacation” is a superhero movie. But otherwise, yeah, this is my first.

Hart: Is this my first? No, I was in “Spider-Man.”

Middleditch: Wait, you were Spider-Man?

Hart: You guys didn’t know that? Are you kidding me? Nobody knew I was Spider-Man? [shrugs] I guess we don’t have IMDB here. It is what it is.

Middleditch: [in movie-trailer voice] “Kevin Hart is Tobey Maguire in ‘Spider-Man.’”

So what were you all like when you were in fourth grade?

Hart: I was bad. But I’m also a rebel.

Helms: Yeah, you had a motorcycle in fourth grade, didn’t you?

Hart: I did. If you look at my fourth-grade class picture, I’ve actually got a helmet on. I had a leather jacket. I smoked cigarettes. I was bad news. Luckily for me, I straightened out and got myself into stand-up comedy just to keep myself off the streets.

I was definitely bad, though. Not like violent but I was for sure the class clown.

Middleditch: As a kid, I drew comics. I had curly hair. I liked to joke but I was kind of nervous about it at first until it was coaxed out of me. There are a lot of Harold-y bits in there.

Helms: I was pretty shy and nerdy. I got glasses in the second grade and I paid a heavy price. A heavy price. Let’s be honest: we’re all sort of trading on our childhood torture in some ways.

Ed, you had to create two very different characters for this, Captain Underpants and Mr. Krupp. How did you go about figuring out how they should sound?

Helms: I dug deep. I had to tap into some reservoirs of talent, commitment, passion. But no, really it’s just basically Big, Dumb Silly Guy and Angry, Gravelly Guy. That’s really the calculus behind the two voices.

The wonderful thing about Captain Underpants as a character is he’s just irrepressibly confident and optimistic. He sees no flaws in himself. He’s like a positive Donald Trump. And Principal Krupp is someone who just sees threat and darkness around every corner.

So basically, Donald Trump.

Helms: [in Trump-esque voice] “American carnage.” [laughs] But no, Krupp is just a really overtly angry person who was clearly hurt when he was a child.

Kevin and Thomas, how about you guys? Was it easy to reach back and find your inner fourth-grader pranksters?

Middleditch: Finding that inner kid, at least for me and I’m pretty sure for Kevin, isn’t that difficult. I still like farts. I still think farts are some of the funniest things.

Hart: Farts are forever genius.

Helms: Isn’t there a “Far Side” cartoon where it’s like two aliens in a flying saucer and one of them is farting and the other one says, “It’s always funny”? And yes, it’s never not funny.

Underpants are also inherently pretty funny. And I think we’d probably all agree tighty-whities are the funniest of the underpants.

Helms: Definitely.

Hart: Absolutely.

Middleditch: Well, I think it’s pretty silly that people wear boxers. You’re wearing shorts under your pants. They’re shorts.

But yeah, that kind of finding humor in everything is one of the core messages of the film and kind of pertinent to this seemingly dark time, depending on which side of the fence you’re on right now.

Not to be so bold as to say “laughter heals all.” But laughter is some pretty good medicine.

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Twitter: @joshrottenberg


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