In honor of comedian Jamie Kennedy’s birthday on May 25, we’re republishing Dan Skye’s interview from the July, 2012 issue of High Times.
We all remember that one kid in school who could deliver spot-on impersonations of various teachers, mining the absurdity of the classroom for humor and earning huge laughs. But as sharp as his instincts are when it comes to going for the comic jugular, Jamie Kennedy insists that he’s an actor first.
In truth, [Jamie Kennedy is] a self-made Hollywood maverick, a performer who blazed his own trail. He wrote and starred in the slyly subversive Malibu’s Most Wanted, made mayhem on The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and infused dozens of films with his deft, sometimes twisted character creations. And he’s never left the stand-up stage, where fans can witness his razor-sharp comic instincts firsthand. (check out Uncomfortable on Showtime for proof.)
There’s no arguing that [Jamie Kennedy’s] brand of comedy can wreak havoc. But the man himself is introspective: he even winces when looking back on some of the discomfort he caused his unwitting victims on The Jamie Kennedy Experiment. He also describes himself as “empathetic” and believes his ability to dissect life in a humorous way is due to the fact that “he’s connected to people.” As for marijuana, [Jamie Kennedy] insists that it stokes his creativity “a hundred percent.”
Dan Skye’s Interview With Jamie Kennedy
You were the youngest of six kids.
Jamie Kennedy: I’m the bambino.
Usually, it seems, older brothers and sisters encourage the youngest to perform or act silly.
Jamie Kennedy: Yeah, usually. You just go more nuts; you take more chances.
Plus you went to Catholic schools. You seem to come from a long line of comic performers who honed their skills there.
Jamie Kennedy: The nuns, yeah, the nuns… I think there’s a certain amount of repression that develops when you go through that. You can become the thing that they make you—like a Marine. Or you resist.
Around fifth grade, I started realizing I could make jokes and people liked it. The nun—her name was Sister Loyola—one time I was talking to somebody, and the next thing I know, my ear was getting yanked out. She got really close to my ear: “Mr. Kennedy, we’re going to have a very good ear, aren’t we?”— like she’s making a pun. I’m like, “Yeah!” And she’s like, “Yeahhh—or you’ll lose your ear!” And I’m like, “Okay!”
I was pretty scared after that.
Did you go through school having a good time, or were you a serious student?
In fourth grade, my mom challenged me: “All of our kids get good grades, and you don’t.” So, for one semester, I got straight As to prove that I could do it.
It was like a dare, but school just wasn’t my thing. I loved performing and yoga and dance class. I think outside the box. I think you should find out what kids want to do, let them find their path. All you really need to do is read and write, right? And add. You never use anything else, right? If you want history, go to the History Channel. We got Google, you know what I mean?
When did you discover you really had a gift for mimicry?
Around seventh grade. My mom had friends from England, and they would come over and I would do these trial runs. There was an old Jewish guy in my neighborhood, Mr. Steingold, and I’d do him. You just copy them.
My brother is a really good musician. I think that it’s similar—I just went into comedy, he went to music. It’s an ear thing. Dustin Hoffman said an actor should be a boring person. I kind of agree with him. If I’m not acting, I should be boring. Because you should be a blank white piece of paper and let everything impress you. That way, you can be real. Like Daniel Day Lewis—I don’t know how, but he is literally different in every role.
So what age were you when you came to Hollywood?
Just turned 19.
Did you try college out at all?
For a second. I was good at two things—making people laugh and cooking. Philadelphia had a big culinary institution. I was gonna do that, so I took a couple of courses at the community college. I took basic math and English, and I took cooking and acting. I got As in cooking and the acting, but in math and English, I wasn’t as good.
My teacher told me, “You’re a really good actor. You should just go to Hollywood.” She was really cool. “Just go for it,” she said. “You don’t need to have a job or anything. Just do it!”
I’d wanted to quit high school because I had read different books about actors. There was one great book called The New Breed: Actors Coming of Age, with Robert Downey and John Cusack and James Spader talking about how they went to New York and slept on floors. That was how I wanted to be. But my mom wouldn’t let me.
It’s weird. I was a pretty popular kid—I had friends, but I felt like I was outgrowing things. I knew I was going to change my life. I saved like $1,200 and literally took a plane to LA and arrived with no place to live. I went to the Y for eight bucks a night. Then I got a place with a buddy. I had money for just a few months. I got two menial—very menial—jobs at Red Lobster and a fitness club. Then I went to work, tried to figure it out—literally trial by error.
A lot of people say, “Well, I’ll give myself about a year, and if someone doesn’t discover me, I’m gonna quit.” Well, it’s not like that. I said, “I’ll give myself about 10 years.” Then I said, “If that doesn’t work, I’ll give myself another 10.” Because I literally had nothing else.
So how does a 19-year-old get started in Hollywood?
I was going to open casting and extras calls. It’s tough. I took an acting class—a hardcore acting class—for two years. I was just starting stand-up at night. For me, it was about doing anything to learn the profession of performing.
I was always a big reader of other people’s how-tos. There’s a story about Spielberg—I don’t know if it’s true or not—that he went to a back lot, moved into an office and started making calls: “I’m calling from such-and-such.” Sinbad said he posed as an important agent and called on his own behalf.
One of the jobs I had was delivering sandwiches. I’d go into the buildings of casting agents. I saw that the barrier was getting past the people out front, the gatekeepers. Once you got in, people didn’t question you.
I was doing this character of Marty Power, an older Jewish guy, onstage at night. I decided to have Marty call an agency and pitch myself. It was like pitching pencils and erasers and office supplies— which, by the way, I used to sell. I thought, “I could be like a stapler!”
I worked it out and rehearsed it. Then I started calling: “How ya doin’? My name’s Marty.” And they were like, “Yeah, have the kid send his shit in.” So I sent a picture, and they’d tell Marty: “Send some tapes.” So I did, and they’d tell Marty: “He’s not bad!” Eventually, I started making little inroads.
Was this ploy instrumental in your success?
A hundred percent. The best representation I’ve ever had is myself. People hate that and they’re going to kill me, but really, it’s because it’s about you. You’re the commodity. And the only way you’re going to stay there is through your own choices and decisions. Woody Allen said he never would have gotten a job if he hadn’t written one for himself. These are people who make their own things.
Like Malibu’s Most Wanted, which was a terrific send-up of racial stereotypes. You played a rich white kid who thinks he’s black. Was there any backlash?
Only from white people. It’s a really subversive joke, that movie: It’s light and watchable, but the commentary on the deepest level is that white people only take the good things from black culture. This kid is super-privileged and watches BET. Black people, they get the joke. People either really get it or they really hate it.
What motivated you to write that movie?
I was inspired by a few things. I was just a normal, dorky white kid, but I grew up with black people, Asian people and Puerto Rican people. When I grew up in Philly, I would take the subway to the city. You go through the hardcore part of Philly, people say “Wassup?” and they always had these huge-ass radios.
Then I come out to LA and I see kids on Rodeo Drive, and they’re like, “Yeah! What up, son?” and “Yo, what up, bitch?”
I’m like, “Where you from?”
“Yo, man, the Flats!”
And I’m like, “What?”
“The flats of Beverly Hills, motherfucker!”
Like, what the fuck? I’m thinking, “They’re not Bloods, they’re not Crips.” I mean, I grew up in Philly—I’d go to New York, I’d go to Boston, I’d see hardcore white kids hanging with black kids, and they were still themselves. So the more I saw the phenomenon, the more I realized it would be ripe for comedy.
The Jamie Kennedy Experiment was like a diabolical version of Candid Camera—very funny, but you really scared people.
Yeah, I was always known as the guy who had fun and poked fun at foibles. I wasn’t trying to be mean, but, yeah—I definitely like the dark side of stuff.
Did you think the piece involving the kid delivering pizza to the Mob went too far?
That was bad—that one, I felt bad about. I was like, “Ah, man, this poor kid.” That was just… basically, that was evil, I will say that much.
When you pretended to be an abusive parent with NFL players around, did you ever fear that you might get physically reprimanded?
I didn’t. There was a weird, eerie sense of calm. I always felt safe because the environment was mine.
I think our show was different: I set up the jokes and I acted in them. We always tried to put real people under duress so they’d make active decisions and test their morality code, if you will. I had some nice compliments. John Ritter, before he died, said he loved the show.
What about Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d and Sacha Baron Cohen characters like Ali G, Borat and Bruno?
Punk’d was its own thing, just jokes on celebs. Sacha Baron Cohen’s stuff was very good also—a different form, though. It’s more like he’s saying, “Look how much smarter I am than you.” There’s some hilarious stuff, but I see the tricks, too. He picks marks with IQs of less than negative three. And there are editing tricks. But it’s obviously very good.
You came to LA in 1989. You’ve witnessed this whole normalization of marijuana here in California.
What I have witnessed is that doughnut is the flavor of the month.
Um, okay. Are you much of a pot smoker?
I’m not a huge smoker. I don’t buy it, but people give it to me sometimes. I’ll smoke to go to sleep. I only started when I became pretty successful as an actor. I took tokes now and then because a lot of people in Hollywood do it. Growing up Catholic, you’re told that it’s a gateway drug to heroin: Take one hit and the next thing you know, you’re straight free-ballin’! You’re injecting heroin in your butthole! But then I realized that’s not exactly true.
Over the past 10 or 12 years, there are green crosses everywhere. My take: It should be 100 percent legal. It’s stupid that it’s not. It’s got medicinal purposes. If it’s decriminalized, it will help the state with taxes. It’s being sold anywhere and everywhere. Everyone you know has tried it, and it’s not going to ruin your life.
Look, I don’t wanna be Tommy Chong, but it’s very stupid that it’s not legal. You don’t have to be a big smoker to advocate that.
Do you find that pot stokes your creativity at all?
A hundred percent. Certain strains make you more creative, loosen the synapses. You start writing, you start thinking, you start looking at things in a different light. It definitely mellows you out—the anger leaves.
You’re a big yoga practitioner. Have you used it for yoga?
It’s all about the strain. If you get the wrong one, you’re basically eating a pizza and watching reruns.
So what are you up to these days?
Over Valentine’s Day, Cupid came out—a Hallmark movie. I play Cupid. I know, when you think of me, you think “Cupid.”
I’m also working on a comedy pilot right now, waiting to see if it’s going to go to a series for TBS. I did a movie called Lost and Found in Armenia that I think could work. It’s about a guy who has a parasailing accident and gets mistaken for a Turkish guy in Armenia. If you know the history, well …
I’m really just trying to do my own shit, you know? I mean, I like working for other shit, but my true voice comes when I create my own shit—like the old show.
Let’s go back to growing up Catholic: Did that provide you with a lot of comic material?
It used to. I did this joke: “The priest never even touched me, which made me think I wasn’t cute. So I had to join the Boy Scouts.”
Catholic humor—George Carlin was genius at it. He pointed out the hypocrisy of a lot of religion, like Bill Maher does really well now. I’m more of a boyish imp with it: I like saying provocative things, but I don’t want to piss you off. But now that I’ve turned 40, I’m less worried about what people think. You don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings… that’s the Catholic in me. I do believe you should treat people like you want to be treated.
But don’t you feel that The Jamie Kennedy Experiment hurt people sometimes?
A few times, I felt like garbage. There were times… you lay your head on the pillow at night, you know what you did that day.
You are Catholic.
I know. It’s funny—it’s why, I think, the show worked. I’m very connected to the Earth; I’m connected to people. I read people well… I’m empathetic!