Unsung Auteurs: Dennis Dugan | FilmInk

“What do we do to make this funny? How do we make this funny? Who can we put here to make this funny? That’s all we do all day long,” director Dennis Dugan told FilmInk in 2011. A seasoned and enthusiastic practitioner of one of Hollywood’s most successful but consistently maligned schools of filmmaking – the big, broad comedy – Dennis Dugan is both hugely successful and unsung at the same time. Combined, Dugan’s films – which include the Adam Sandler star vehicles, Big Daddy, Happy Gilmore, Grown Ups, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Just Go With It and I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry – have made more than a billion dollars at the box office, yet he’s rarely heralded as one of Hollywood’s hit-makers.

In an industry that lauds individuality and creative rebellion (even while yoking its biggest talents to the wheel), Dugan is seen as part of the machinery, a man who facilitates rather than creates. Those that hate the kinds of films that he makes – ones designed solely to amuse and entertain – incorrectly and smugly assume that Hollywood studio comedies just “direct themselves” and that they carry no authorial stamp. The hard working Dennis Dugan would probably scoff at the suggestion, but his films do have a through-line, and it’s not just the presence of star Adam Sandler. He is adept at giving his actors room to move (note the freedom afforded the amusingly voluble Chris Farley on Beverly Hills Ninja), and there’s a continuing fascination with the family unit, and its often weird and wonderful permutations, that is often present in his films, and particularly so in Problem Child, Big Daddy, I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry, Just Go With It, and Grown Ups.

Dennis Dugan and Adam Sandler on the set of Happy Gilmore.

The most significant continuing strand in Dugan’s work, however, is that audiences respond and connect with it. Most highbrow film commentators would probably disagree, but Dennis Dugan’s movies are funny, end of story. He knows how to put the comic spark into a scene, he knows when to rein his actors in, and he knows when to let them off the leash. Ask any fan of Adam Sandler’s raucous, golf course crashing comedy, Happy Gilmore – and there are many – and they’ll let you know in no uncertain terms that Dennis Dugan knows his way around a comedy. Sure, you might have to tell them that he actually directed the film first, but that’s beside the point.

Born and raised in Wheaton, Illinois, Dennis Dugan began his creative life as an actor, performing in high school and eventually graduating from Chicago’s Goodman Theater School in 1969. He then relocated to New York, where he appeared off-Broadway in productions of A Man’s Man and The House Of Blue Leaves. Moving to Hollywood in 1973, Dugan toiled as a jobbing actor on episodic television and small screen movies before making his feature debut in Jonathan Kaplan’s sexy 1972 comedy, Night Call Nurses, which was produced by B-movie supremo, Roger Corman.

Dennis Dugan with James Garner on The Rockford Files.

Dugan followed that with appearances in John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and Michael Ritchie’s Smile, but made his first real mark in 1976, playing Nick Nolte’s best friend in the ground-breaking and hugely popular TV mini-series, Rich Man, Poor Man. After that, he appeared in more television (The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues), but was already starting to get the itch to become a director. Dugan still makes the odd cameo appearance here and there as an actor, and while directing is certainly his prime passion now, he has no problem with getting in front of the camera. “If there was a part to play and I could just go and be an actor, I’d do that in a second,” he told FilmInk in 2011, replying in the affirmative when asked if it’s still something fun that he enjoys.

In the mid-eighties, Dugan began his journey toward directing in earnest, kicking off a five-month apprenticeship at Stephen J. Cannell Productions, culminating in his first behind-the-camera assignment, which were two 1987 episodes of the popular cop series, Hunter. He also helmed episodes the following year of Cannell’s Wise Guy and Sonny Spoon, while beginning his run in the recurring role of Cybill Shepherd’s husband in the hugely popular mystery comedy series, Moonlighting, which he also eventually directed.

A scene from Problem Child.

In 1990, Dugan made his big screen directorial debut with Problem Child, a bizarre, highly inventive comedy that would set the tone for the rest of the director’s career by being criminally underrated and largely pilloried by critics. Mixing farce, slapstick, black humour, absurdity and a plot hilariously plundered from the camp fifties classic, The Bad Seed, Problem Child is a warped gut-buster. John Ritter is superb as the harried everyman who adopts the child-from-hell (played with hilarious malevolence by young Michael Oliver), and the film has a chaotic, anarchic charm.

Though barely praised as such, the film was a smart and highly auspicious debut for Dennis Dugan. “Making Problem Child was great,” the director told FilmInk in 2011. “It was my first one, and I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s the absolute truth! Obviously, I had been an actor for a long time, and then I started directing TV, but then I got this movie at Universal. I hadn’t even taken the famous Universal Studios tour, so I took a tour with my wife, and in one part, they showed a bunch of stuff about how they do certain effects in movies. We were walking out of there, and I said to my wife, ‘They just hired me to direct one of their movies…do you think they’d be nervous to know that I learned two things about making movies from one of the rides on the Universal Studios tour?’ So that was that! I had a great time doing that film. I cast Amy Yasbeck as John Ritter’s wife in the film, and then they got married in real life – so I’m really good at casting! It was great working with Ritter,” Dugan said with obvious affection for the late actor. Problem Child eventually inspired two sequels, as well as an animated TV series, though Dugan cut and run after the first film.

Dennis Dugan on set with Adam Sandler.

While Dugan’s 1992 follow up film, Brain Donors – a manic, wacked out comedy starring John Turturro, Mel Smith and Bob Nelson as a kind of contemporised take on The Three Stooges – was funny, it failed to make much of an impact. It was, however, where the director forged one of his most important career relationships. A big fan of a young, largely unknown comedian named Adam Sandler, Dugan had lobbied hard with the studio to get him into the film, but ultimately failed. Four years later, when the now hot Adam Sandler (who’d had a hit in 1995 with the film, Billy Madison, after ramping up his stand up career to superstar levels) was looking for a director for his new film, Happy Gilmore, he remembered Dugan’s tenacity and support on Brain Donors, and gave him the job.

Back working on TV after the relative failure of Brain Donors, Happy Gilmore was a watershed moment in Dugan’s career. The film – starring Sandler as a rejected hockey player who hilariously puts his bang-and-crash skills to use on the golf course in order to save his grandmother’s house – was a massive hit, and on top of the success of Billy Madison, it gold stamped Sandler as a bona fide movie star.

Dennis Dugan on the set of Just Go With It.

Dugan and Sandler bonded on the film, and have collaborated several times since. Though rarely mentioned in the same way as other director/actor partnerships like Scorsese and De Niro, Kurosawa and Mifune, or even Apatow and Rogen, Dugan and Sandler’s connection is far more financially successful. Their creative relationship has now been thriving for many years, with Dugan a regular director for Sandler’s highly prolific Happy Madison production house.

“Adam likes working with the same people,” Dugan says. “He likes being in a team. Nearly the whole crew have done like fifteen movies together, so it’s like a big family. It’s like leaving your home and family, driving fifteen miles, and now you’re with your other family. It’s a wonderful way to work. Happy Madison is like a mini-studio, so if you’re not working on one thing, there’s always something going on. It’s a spectacular piece of luck that I was born at the right time to be able to work with them. There’s nothing else like it in the world.”

Dennis Dugan on the set of I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry.

Since Happy Gilmore, Dugan has directed Big Daddy, The Benchwarmers, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry, Grown Ups, Just Go With It, Grown Ups 2 and Jack And Jill for the company. But while Dugan’ biggest hits have undoubtedly been made in collaboration with Adam Sandler, arguably his best films have been made without the comedy superstar. 2006’s The Benchwarmers (again, criminally underappreciated) is the warped and wonderfully weird tale of three losers (David Spade, Rob Schneider, Jon Heder) who try and make up for missed opportunities in their childhood by forming a three-player baseball team to compete against standard little league squads. Dugan exploits every comic possibility in the film’s bizarre framework, and the result is a real one-of-a-kind comedy.

The real gem on the director’s resume, along with the aforementioned Problem Child, is 2001’s Evil Woman, a cracking comedy of gender warfare starring Jack Black and Steve Zahn as two loveable losers who try and extricate their buddy (Jason Biggs) from his domineering girlfriend (Amanda Peet). The film is packed-to-busting with perfectly timed physical comedy, and also comes with a heavy dose of daring, sexually based humour. “I had a great time doing that film,” Dugan told FilmInk of the flick, which was titled Saving Silverman in the US. “They were all great actors, and Neil Diamond is a good buddy of mine now. We’ve been friends since we made the film,” he said of the famous singer, who features in an inspired extended cameo in the film.

A scene from Evil Woman.

Like most of Dugan’s films, however, the reviews were less than kind. Does he care about what critics say and write about his films? “I used to,” Dugan sighed in 2011. “Then I stopped reading them, because some critics just don’t have a sense of humour. A woman I knew became the head of Variety for a little while, and she asked what I thought about it. I said, ‘Rolling Stone Magazine would not have their classical music expert review the new Eminem album. They would have somebody who understands hip hop review it. They’d have the classical guy do the new Pavarotti.’ That’s the way they do it, so the reviewer has a measuring stick for that genre. Rather than somebody who just has to go to an Adam Sandler movie and just sits there and goes, ‘More of the same. More of the same, I think this is horrible. It’s a typical Sandler movie…Dugan couldn’t direct if he had a gun placed against his mouth…it’s not funny…it’s not good.’ I don’t read them anymore. They’re completely out of touch with what’s going on. They should go to the cinema and see the people laughing. It would be refreshing for a reviewer to say, ‘I’ve given Adam Sandler fifteen terrible reviews, but at the theatre, people are screaming laughing, the theatres were packed, and it’s number one in the country so maybe my perspective on Adam Sandler comedies is wrong.’ Because if people are laughing and enjoying it, shouldn’t that be part of it? If you’re reviewing a piece of culture, then I think how it affects those in the culture, should be part of it. The money review, which means the box office take, negates the wisdom of the guys who said, “That sucks.’ Long ago, I just said, ‘I’m not reading them because I don’t want to feel bad.’ Once I broke through that, I don’t feel bad anymore about it, and I try to do my job as hard as I can. We work sixteen to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week.”

Dennis Dugan with Adam Sandler.

With a slew of hit comedies to his name, and a long and prosperous career in an industry infamous for chewing up its best and brightest, Dennis Dugan seems like the right guy to ask about the formula for making a great comedy. “It needs funny people working on it and in it, that’s for sure,” he laughed. “It’s got to be a funny premise, or some sort of situation where people go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to see that! That sounds fun’, or ‘That sounds funny’, or ‘That guy seems fun.’ Let’s take something like The Hangover – there wasn’t anything except the trailer where people said, ‘I’ve got to go and see that!’ Nobody knew who those guys were back then. I don’t know how else to explain it. You’re always in danger when you’re making a comedy. With another genre of movie, you might cry a little, and you might laugh a little, and there’s a grey area about whether it’s a good movie or not. With comedy, we’re just standing there, saying, ‘Okay, you want to laugh at this? Great.’ Then you either succeed or fail, and it’s obvious how it’s turned out one way or the other.”

Dennis Dugan with Chris Rock on Grown Ups.

Dugan (who co-wrote his first feature with the 2020 comedy Love, Weddings & Other Disasters, starring Diane Keaton and Jeremy Irons) once pointedly said that his film’s audiences “don’t want a message. They don’t want my soul exposed or [to see] my life view. They just want to laugh.” When FilmInk wrapped up our 2011 interview by asking the director if he’d changed his mind and would ever like to do something more personal, Dugan answered firmly in the negative. “All that I’ve ever wanted to do is make people laugh,” he responds. “That’s what I like to do. When I have time off, I like to make my family laugh…I just like making people laugh! Then in my film work, I like figuring out the science of making people laugh. That’s what I like. So I don’t really want to spend a year of my life making some deeply personal film that the critics would love and everyone else would hate. So I’m not going to do it…I’m sorry. I just don’t want to. Adam and I have made eight movies in the past ten years, and a friend of ours said, ‘When this is done, you’ve got to take some time off. It’s good for you, and it rejuvenates you. You’ve got to take some time off.’ I agree with that, but then Adam and I looked at each other and said, ‘But what would we do?’ They say, ‘Go and enjoy yourselves’, but we do enjoy ourselves! We love it. This is what we do.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.

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