In person, Lennon is so polite and unassuming, it's difficult to believe he's that ubiquitous actor who has been stealing scenes through off-the-wall characters for years. His range is startling, from devastatingly droll to outrageously manic. Audiences might not even realize that the actor currently onscreen making out with Paul Rudd in I Love You, Man is the comedian who created Barry (Sagittarius), the hipster swinger from the TV sketch series The State who enjoys nothing more than sitting in $240 worth of pudding. Or that the prissy brother to Naomi Watts in the Merchant Ivory production Le Divorce also portrayed German pingpong champ Karl Wolfschtagg in the 2006 comedy Balls of Fury. Even less well known is the fact that Lennon is an accomplished writer, having penned screenplays with Garant for films such as Taxi, The Pacifier, and both Night at the Museum films.
Lennon will next be seen in perhaps his biggest project to date as an actor. In 17 Again, Lennon plays Ned, the nerdy best friend to Mike, a middle-aged man who finds himself transformed back to age 17. For the role, Lennon gets to sport elf ears and footie pajamas while sharing scenes with teen heartthrob Zac Efron as the young Mike. Director Burr Steers, who was familiar with Lennon's previous work, reveals that several big-name actors auditioned for the part. "There were definitely names bandied about and people we met with," Steers admits. "But once Tom came in, it was obvious we had no choice. As soon as everyone saw the tape, he was the one thing everybody agreed on. He's just so blatantly talented."
Steers compares the actor to such comedy legends as Peter Sellers and -- one of Lennon's personal heroes -- Steve Martin. Steers raves of Lennon, "He's a great example of how serious people can be about comedy. Having him around brings out the best in everyone. He's so generous and doesn't upstage. He doesn't think in terms of getting a laugh for himself but in terms of making the scene funnier. Which is not always the case with comedic actors." There is a downside to employing Lennon. Says Steers, "The only problem I had with him throughout the shoot is we would lose takes because people would crack up during his lines. He's like that Monty Python skit where they find a joke so funny, it kills people. He's dangerously funny."
State of Play
Lennon grew up in Oak Park, Ill., just outside of Chicago, where his high school interests included architecture and pole vaulting. Only because his girlfriend was attending an audition, he tagged along and won the role of Mr. DePinna in the school production of You Can't Take It With You. "After that, I did, like, 20 plays," Lennon recalls. "Much to the detriment of my studies." He enrolled at New York University, originally majoring in drama. "My intention was to be an absolutely serious stage actor because I was from Chicago, where theatre was the biggest thing ever."
Instead, Lennon met up with a group of friends who would eventually form the sketch comedy troupe the State, known for its off-the-wall brand of comedy. State member Joe Lo Truglio, who also appears in I Love You, Man and recently joined Reno 911!, remembers first meeting Lennon when they auditioned for a student film. "I was kind of nervous because Tom, at the time, had a very serious demeanor about him," Lo Truglio notes. "He would always be in a suit and tie, he smoked incessantly, and at the time he had an eye patch from an injury he'd sustained—but I didn't know how. And I had to go in and do a comedy scene with him. The initial impression was, 'Hmm, is he going to act with me or assassinate me?' "
Lennon recalls studying such comedy groups as Monty Python and the Young Ones, as well as Chicago-area troupes. "Because of that, no one would permit anything in the show that seemed like a sketch for another show," he says. "But to write a sketch that didn't remind people of anything else was a horrible fight." He says the 11 members of the State fought constantly, to the point where things became physical, "but it was like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner because we would fight all day, every day, then we'd clock out and go have beers together."
The State eventually landed its own series on MTV, airing 26 episodes between 1993 and 1995. And Lennon believes the group's determination to be completely unique is why the sketches still hold up today. "You had to write the weirdest stuff you could," he notes. "The $240-worth-of-pudding sketch was the perfect example because it's about nothing. It's not a parody; it's not spoofing anything." When the group members were encouraged to have repeating characters or catch phrases, they rebelled with characters like Louie, played by Ken Marino, a loudmouth who carries around two golf balls and is constantly talking about things he is going to "dip my balls" in. "It was such a blatant 'screw you' to people who told us we needed popular characters or to repeat ourselves," Lennon says. "We were like, 'That's bullshit—we're punk rock!' "
After the TV show The State ended, Lennon spent three seasons on Comedy Central's Viva Variety as Mr. Laupin, the host of a faux European variety show with fellow Staters Michael Ian Black and Kerry Kenney-Silver. Then Lennon, Kenney-Silver, and Garant were asked to create a show for Fox. "We had no time to write a script," Lennon says of the pilot for Reno 911!, which was largely improvised and featured Lt. Dangle making out with a personal trainer for almost two minutes onscreen. "There was so much man-kissing in the pilot; that's probably why we didn't get on the air at Fox. Fox told us to trim it down or cut it out entirely and maybe they'd pick up the show. But we said, 'Nah, we like it.' So it sat on a shelf for three years."
In 2003, Comedy Central came looking for "a really cheap comedy that's easy to produce," and the creators suggested Reno 911!. "It was cool because it was like turning in the same homework assignment twice," Lennon says. "They saw it and bought it immediately. No notes." Indeed, there has been little network interference in the show's six seasons, thanks to a fast work schedule and the improvisational nature of the show. "We accidentally created a show nobody can give notes on," Lennon says. "And when you can't get notes, it's always going to be better that way."
Lennon also learned a lesson he had fought learning on his previous shows: that audiences want characters they can follow from week to week. "I think on Reno we've created some very sincere stereotypes," he says. "But they're stereotypes who don't know they're stereotypes." Lennon says that in his mind he doesn't play Dangle as effeminate in any way: "I've always been sort of proud of the fact that while the character is gay, it's one of the aspects of his life. Not every single punch line is him flouncing through the door and lisping as he rearranges the flower boxes."
And though Lennon left drama school at NYU for its film school, he says he still made a very detailed history of his character's life that has worked its way into the show over the years -- such as Dangle having an ex-wife and a father who has another, black family. "All that weird acting-school crap I actually do have for Dangle, and it's very detailed and very lengthy," he admits. "I feel like I've known enough Jim Dangles in my life that it's always authentic."
Sound and Fury
During their time with The State, Lennon and Garant never wrote together, but they paired up when writing a script for a State movie. "We have the same weird taste," Garant says. "If you look at our DVD collections, it's this weird mishmash of Amadeus, Caddyshack, and Pinocchio. Often we'll be working on a script separately, and I'll write a section and he'll write a section, and we'll send each other our work, and we'll have written the exact same joke, word for word. It's partially from working together for 20 years. But the 20 years before that, we were watching all the same weird stuff."
Asked if he's pickier about his projects as an actor or a writer, Lennon notes, "Some people would say I'm not very picky about either." But, he adds, he has no shame in writing crowd-pleasers: "I'm very self-aware in the regard that I'm primarily a person who does multiplex, popcorn movies. I'm basically a Hollywood sellout." Garant adds they are each other's best audience: "We're really just trying to make each other laugh. We write like two 14-year-old boys, and we love it."
Lennon says none of his films as a writer—which include Let's Go to Prison and Herbie Fully Loaded -- have been critical successes. Indeed, Entertainment Weekly gave Balls of Fury a rare F rating. "That was weird," Lennon admits. "But I've never written anything that's been well-reviewed." He adds that one of the reasons he continues with Reno 911! is to keep his credibility: "Our scripts are rewritten by tons of other people and edited and directed by other people, and you never know how they're going to turn out. Some are great; some I can't watch myself. So I love having the TV show because it's a completely unfiltered version of our sense of humor."
Writing compulsively has also benefitted Lennon as an actor, as he has learned not to place so much importance on auditions. "They say to audition well you have to give off the impression you don't care," he says. "I can give off that impression very well because, honestly, my acting takes away from my writing time. So I truly do not care most of the time." Before he began working as a writer, Lennon says, he always cared far too much. "There are hundreds of roles I lost out on," he says. "I was up for the part of Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and I wanted it so bad. It was a heartbreaker."
Ironically, the most unique role on Lennon's résumé is one he didn't have to do anything to win. "Le Divorce is my favorite casting story of all time," he reveals. "My sister had a friend working at Merchant Ivory, and I went to a screening where I met Jim Ivory, and we spoke for a total of five minutes. Six years go by, and I get a call from his assistant." It turns out Ivory was going to direct a film version of the popular book and was interested in Lennon for a dramatic role. "That was it. I didn't read for it; he hadn't been following my work; he just knew that's who he wanted to cast. This was based off one conversation years ago."
A Standup Guy
In the past year, Lennon began performing standup comedy for the first time. It started when his friend Patton Oswalt got sick and asked him to fill in at a gig -- not knowing Lennon had secretly been working on material for several months. Describing the experience as "terrifying and exhilarating at the same time," Lennon says he does it because it makes him nervous: "Most of what I do, I'm very comfortable at. I'm comfortable writing and acting. This is something I'm very uncomfortable with, and I think it's important to do stuff like that."
He says that if there's one guiding idea behind his career, it's to always be in transition. "If you don't mix it up, you'll go crazy. I just have no interest in doing the same thing all the time." He also loves the fact that, as a supporting player, he is not recognized from role to role. "There's a certain joy to being a supporting character in film," says Lennon. "There's no pressure. You can work for a long time, and you don't have to do all the crunches the stars have to."
Lennon says there is absolutely nothing he wouldn't do in the name of comedy. "As you've probably seen from my canon of work, I really don't have any issues or hang-ups. You can't faze me. There's nothing I'd rather do than something very embarrassing while trying to look dignified. In my mind, whatever I'm doing, I'm in an incredible drama. So even if I'm in a candy G-string, as I was in the Reno movie, or footie pajamas like 17 Again, I'm taking it seriously. I'm in a Mexican soap opera in my mind."