About 2 years ago I was feeling somewhat stagnant. I remembered this feeling as it hits me every couple of years. I’d been doing some good jobs and was busy which meant that I was doing stuff to make a living but not necessarily stuff I was completely in control of and happy with.
At that point in my career I had been slowly moving from Advertising and Editorial work to Entertainment and Celebrity work. It wasn’t easy to break into shooting celebrities as you were always up against people who were already proven in the industry. The resounding comment would be, ‘You haven’t shot enough celebrities to do this job sorry,’ and with that the door of the exclusive club would shut in my face.
I slowly made some headway and had a few celebrities in my book and noticed that there was a good handful of funny people in it, like Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, John Oliver, John Hodgman, Steve Carell and a few others. And so I decided to roll with that momentum to do a book on funny people; Comic Genius: Portraits of Funny People
I had no idea how large it would be as I didn’t know who would say yes. I started off thinking I’d do 20 to 30 portraits. I ended up shooting over 90 which turned out to be one of the largest books of the biggest names in comedy that had ever been done. 130 portraits shot from Hollywood to Edinburgh Scotland in over a year and a half!
Even today when I look at the list I don’t know how I did it. How so many said yes and how my team logistically produced each shoot flawlessly. There were of course people who said no. In fact, if you can think of someone who is your favorite who isn’t in here, chances are we asked them but for whatever reason, scheduling or otherwise, they couldn’t do it. But here’s who could:
MEL BROOKS, STEVE MARTIN, TINA FEY, CARL REINER, BILLY CRYSTAL, EDDIE MURPHY, JONATHAN WINTERS, ROBIN WILLIAMS, ZACH GALIFIANAKIS, ADAM SANDLER, DICK VAN DYKE, CAROL BURNETT, STEVE CARELL, NEIL PATRICK HARRIS, BETTE MIDLER,RICKY GERVAIS, LILY TOMLIN, JASON BATEMAN, JIM CARREY, JANE LYNCH, JON STEWART, PAUL REUBENS, JOAN RIVERS, MARTIN SHORT, JAY LENO, DAVID CROSS, KATHY GRIFFIN, SARAH SILVERMAN, MARTIN LAWRENCE, ANDY SAMBERG, MIKE MYERS,NICK OFFERMAN, TOMMY SMOTHERS, DON RICKLES, MICHAEL IAN BLACK, ED HELMS, JON LOVITZ, CLORIS LEACHMAN, MICHAEL RICHARDS, JACKIE MASON, CONAN O’ BRIEN, CATHERINE O’ HARA, ERIC STONESTREET, BOB BALABAN, KRISTEN WIIG, JEFFREY TAMBOR, JANEANE GAROFALO, KRISTEN SCHAAL, BOB NEWHART,WEIRD AL YANKOVIC, CHEVY CHASE, TRACY MORGAN, GEORGE LOPEZ, DAVID STEINBERG, BILLY CONNOLLY, JAY ROACH, EUGENE LEVY, DAVID KOECHNER,TIM HEIDECKER AND ERIC WAREHEIM,JOHN OLIVER, JOHN HODGMAN, STEPHEN MERCHANT, RAINN WILSON, JERRY STILLER, EUGENE MIRMAN, MICHAEL SHOWALTER, ADAM MCKAY, DENIS LEARY, PATTON OSWALT, B.J. NOVAK, BOB ODENKIRK, BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT, FRED WILLARD, JENNIFER COOLIDGE, MARC MARON, MORT SAHL, ANDREW DICE CLAY, RHYS DARBY TOM GREEN, JOHN CLEESE, MATT LUCAS, MICHAEL PALIN, JOANNA LUMLEY, JENNIFER SAUNDERS, TIM MINCHIN, TIM ALLEN, DAME EDNA AND KERMIT THE FROG
It started by making a wish list. That list would be my team’s checklist. Every day we’d search through contacts and locate celebrities. If they were a comic touring or a comedic actor shooting a film we’d go where we needed to get a “YES” from our subjects.
When they did, we’d arrange to have either a phone conversation with them or chat via email. I remember the first time it hit me that it was happening, when Steve Martin called me. “Hi Matt, Steve Martin here”…. I had to just take that in for a moment. I proceeded to tell him my concepts which included the cover shot of him in white suit with his flower/boutonniere growing from a flower pot in his hand.
I had read that he was an art collector and liked surrealist work, so I thought that would be a surreal enough idea for him. It turns out he liked it so that was great!
I found myself like a kid in a candy shop working with my comedy heroes and so I went for broke and half jokingly asked my producer to get me Kermit the Frog so we could shoot a video of him & Steve Martin playing Dueling Banjos. She did. And so I nervously asked Steve if he’d do it.
He said, “If Kermit is into it then I guess I could do it.” And so one of my most memorable days of shooting happened. I walked into Siren Studio in Hollywood and the swamp set was already being built. Real logs, reeds, greenery and a painted backdrop that completed the picture. Kermit had arrived and was getting set up on the log just right; he’s very particular. Steve then arrived with his banjo and offered to play Kermit’s part for him for playback. So a sound recordist and Steve were playing Dueling Banjos in the green room and Kermit was talking to me and my crew in the main soundstage and I was in heaven.
Other memorable shoots include Robin Williams, who came to the studio very quiet and soft-spoken. I was a little concerned that he’d not be into the shoot, but that all ended when he walked out of wardrobe as a marionette pulling his own strings (which is the way I sort of see him being in control of his character so well). It was awesome and we got a mini show of him riffing on being a puppet and the sort of suggestive moves you could make if you were so inclined. He was.
One day I was sitting in my office. The phone rang and it went something like this: “Matt? Hi this is Mel Brooks. So we’re doing a photo shoot. Ok. So I got all your ideas.”
At this stage I was excited that at the end of the conversation, one of the true kings of comedy Mel Brooks would have chosen one of my comedy concepts to shoot and I’d forever have that up my sleeve for bragging rights. ‘Yeah I wrote a comedy bit for Mel Brooks.’
Mel continued. “Yeah here they are, looking at them, they all stink. So here’s what I’m going to do. Get me a comb from a drug store. Can you do that? And I’ll put it to my nose and be Hitler. It’ll be great.”
And it was. Mel also did the intro for my book so I’m eternally grateful to have had my ideas rejected by the great man.
In London I photographed John Cleese. He called me in my hotel room the night before the shoot. He had not approved any of the concepts I presented to him yet and I was beginning to get worried. He said no to a shot of him doing his funny walk (he was over the whole funny walk thing since a day doesn’t go by that I’m sure someone doesn’t ask him to do it), but yes to my concept of him playing a large fish with a bow like a musician. He said he quite liked that. Which made me happy since we could then rush out and find a large fish in time for the shoot. But my favorite shot of him is one where I was shooting some close up portraits of his expressions and he stopped and said “Wait, I have something!” and put his hat on sideways and gave me that John Cleese stare. Love it!
I was looking forward to shooting Ricky Gervais as I am a fan of his biting humor. I had this concept of him doing his big teethy laugh that is so infectious and then accompanying it with a bowl of alphabet soup with the words ha ha in it. He asked what was the cover of the book and I said Steve Martin. He said, ‘Who’s he?’ Which was the perfect comment from him.
Michael Richards was someone who had made me laugh so much during Seinfeld’s reign and even his reruns, so I was happy when he said yes. Even with his recent public incident, he was happy to bring his character to life and I wanted to capture that silliness shyly coming out from the curtain.
Shooting the book was draining, costly and put a lot of my commercial work on hold, yet it was an amazing journey that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It ended up making ‘Best Photography Book of the Year’ lists including American Photography and becoming a best seller on Amazon which is a nice bonus. But one of the most satisfying results is that all net proceeds are going to Save the Children. I just had a child myself who I dedicated the book to so it’s a fitting way to honor him and do something worthwhile.