Life & Culture

‘I was funnier than Mel Brooks’

Stephen Applebaum meets a Hollywood veteran taking his new show to Edinburgh


The Hollywood screenwriter JD Shapiro cried openly only twice growing up. “Once was when my first dog got hit by a car, when I was 12,” he tells me from his home in Madrid, on the UK’s hottest day. “And then the second time, I was 18, when my second dog had to be put down.” He cried recently, but this time they were happy tears, mixed with a bit of fear.
He was dining with his ex wife and her fiancé — “I have a strange life,” he laughs — and when he told them that his new show, I’m With Stupid, would not only be premiering at the prestigious Gilded Balloon theatre during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but would be in the coveted 9pm slot, he “totally choked up.
“I’m embarrassed by it: I don’t take my own advice. I always say to other people when they cry and they feel embarrassed, ‘Would you be embarrassed if you laughed? It’s an emotion. Let it out!’ Me, of course, I can’t.”
Not doing what he should is a recurring theme as Shapiro affectionately recalls some of the highs, lows, and personalities who came in and out of his life as he pursued acting, directing, screenwriting and stand-up comedy. His energy level belies the fact he will have been awake for 50 hours by the time we say goodbye.
I’m With Stupid was originally going to be traditional stand-up, but when the Gilded Balloon’s Karen Koren talked about booking him, she liked the storytelling aspect the most. “That, to me, is really scary,” he says. “But David Bowie had this line about if you’re too comfortable on stage, then you’re not doing it right. So, I’m going outside my comfort zone and it’s mostly stories from my life.”
Perhaps tellingly, his father was a brilliant storyteller. He moved out when Shapiro was five, leaving him and his three sisters in Englewood, New Jersey, with their mother, who would entertain them with tap dances and funny magic tricks.
“It wasn’t a dangerous neighbourhood, but our house was the worst on the block and always in disarray. I was constantly fixing things.”
Shapiro took being the man of the family seriously and felt a need to protect his siblings.
“I got into a lot of fights. I had anger issues. I literally had a bat with ‘Boyfriend’ on it that I would walk around with when their boyfriends first came over. They’d go, ‘What’s that?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, if you f*ck up my sister in any way, I’ll kill you’.”
When he was bad, he was sent to live with his father in Hell’s Kitchen, which was then controlled by the Westies, a vicious Irish American organised-crime gang.
“It was considered one of the worst neighbourhoods in the United States,” says Shapiro, revealing that he became friends with a Westie leader and several of its members.
“If I was Italian, they probably would have killed me on the spot. But being a Jew, they’re like, ‘Okay, that’s fine. Come on, be part of our tribe’.”
Rifling through his past for the show, Shapiro had to confront always feeling like “an outsider looking in”. “I’ve never felt worthy,” he says. “To this day, I feel the same.” He could have “very easily followed the path of the Westies and ended up in prison or dead”, but saved himself by fulfilling a childhood wish to relocate to California.
“I always wanted to live there for some reason, it just seemed like the land of dreams.”
He was drawn to acting and trained with HB Studio’s legendary teacher, Uta Hagen, whose illustrious former students included Jack Lemmon, Steve McQueen and Liza Minnelli.
“I then got more interested in writing and directing, and writing became a means to an end, and then I fell in love with writing and that became my life.”
By coincidence, his dentist knew someone who worked with Mel Brooks, and managed to get a script written by Shapiro, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, to the veteran filmmaker. “I met him on a Wednesday and by the time I got home I got a call to have lunch the next day, and that was it.”
Before meetings about the film, they would warm up on an assistant, and started getting laughs together. “This is going to sound egotistical,” says Shapiro, “but I was funnier than Mel. I never thought growing up I’d be a stand-up comedian, but this got me thinking, ‘Oh man, this is something I might want to do.’ That was 1993. I didn’t actually start doing it until 2007 because I was petrified. I’m actually very shy and didn’t want to talk in front of an audience.”
When he took the plunge, encouraged by Robin Williams and others, he quickly became a regular performer at Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in LA.
Shapiro “got along great” with Brooks. “We had fantastic fights over creative things. Those are good fights, because that pushes you to be better.” However, “Mel has an ego and can be difficult,” he says, and took credit where it wasn’t due. “So that was a break in mine and Mel’s relationship, because he wanted me to do the next movie with him. And I was stupid, because people used to joke-not-joke around saying I was the heir-apparent to Brooks’s films.”
Later, when he got fired from Battlefield Earth, the John Travolta stinker based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s eponymous sci-fi novel, for refusing to make script changes (another writer agreed), and then was unable to take his name off the project, he found himself going from hot to freezing. “And then what do I do? I remind everyone that I did Battlefield Earth by accepting the Razzie Award for Worst Movie of the Decade. In Hollywood, a lot of times you get hired at parties, because people want to brag who they have. Nobody’s bragging, like, ‘Hey, guess who I got to write my movie: the guy who wrote Battlefield Earth.’ I was in movie prison.”
Shapiro was often his own worst enemy. “I was constantly self-sabotaging,” he says. “Like here I am becoming the hot go-to writer — I loved writing spec scripts because they were mine and I could do whatever I wanted — and then I’d argue with the studios, a lot, and get fired.” Now all that was on offer were films from companies that tried to get filmmakers at “a bargain rate”. “Which would have been fine,” he insists, “but the projects were terrible. So I didn’t do any of them.”
His fortunes changed when he struck a deal with Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee for a project called The NFL Defenders. They ended up working together for 15 years, “and it was a horrific, amazing experience. Amazing, because I became like a son to him. And Stan loved to laugh and he loved to bust your balls. The more he liked you, the more he’d bust your balls.”
It was late in Lee’s life and as they grew closer he opened up to Shapiro about things like the arguments he’d had with the original Spider-Man artists, who felt their contribution had not received the recognition it deserved.
“I’ve always said if I direct or produce a movie that’s bad, it’s my fault. If it’s good, it’s because of everyone around me. Stan wasn’t quite as generous at the time with the other guys and he spoke about that to me. It was something he definitely felt guilty about.
“But, he said, he was the face. He was like, ‘Jakey, it was like being the bandleader. My first talent was marketing. My second talent was creating.’ So what he was saying was, because he became the face of Marvel Comics, he did get a lot more credit than he deserved, he felt.”
Lee was Jewish, but he was not a “Jewy Jew” like Brooks. In fact Jewishness “wasn’t a big thing on his mind for a large part of his life”, says Shapiro. Noting that the creators of Spider-Man, and DC Comics’ Batman and Superman were all Jews, and yet there were no Jewish superheroes, Shapiro pitched Lee the idea of taking mythology from the Old Testament, and real Jewish heroes, such as Esther (today he could also include Zelensky), and creating comic and TV series.
“He loved the idea. He was 90-something years old and I think he definitely had evolved in many ways to understand that he could have done better for his people.”
Sadly, Lee’s wife, Joan, became sick, and he went “off the grid”. Shapiro parked the idea, but has recently begun thinking about it again.
“First of all it needs to be entertaining. But I want to sneak in a message about antisemitism, especially because of the rise of it in the United States, France and many other countries.”
Right now, though, his focus is on I’m With Stupid, which already appears to have been a healing experience.
“I suffer from bipolar depression and I’ve had a lot of shit going on that hasn’t been great during the process of writing this. But because of it, I haven’t dived deep into those dark voids of hellish depression. So, I’ve evolved.
“I never shoot for the moon, I shoot for the farthest galaxy, and then I often crash and burn. But I have high hopes for Edinburgh. Very high. And if it doesn’t turn out that way, the journey has been absolutely wonderful.”

I’m With Stupid runs August 3-28 at the Gilded Balloon Teviot

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