Consider nearly every comic Adam Sandler project. Writer Tim Herlihy probably had a hand in it in some way. The 48-year-old is credited with writing 11 of Sandler’s films, including his early post-Saturday Night Live works Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, as well as Pixels and the upcoming western parody The Ridiculous Six.
But their relationship goes back to before SNL: The pair were college roommates at New York University. Herlihy later joined Sandler on SNL after quitting his law job, ultimately becoming the show’s head writer. (Yes, he’s the namesake for The Herlihy Boy.) A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Herlihy grew up in a family of police offers and firefighters and was never considered “the funny one.” EW caught up with the scribe ahead of the release of Pixels, which he co-wrote with Timothy Dowling (Role Models) and opens in theaters today.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You came from a very blue-collar family and background, and then went to NYU business school and law school. Why did you strive to be the business type?
TIM HERLIHY: [Laughs] Basically money. It was the ’80s, and everybody wanted to be like Charlie Sheen in Wall Street and Donald Trump. I honestly was interested in stocks and bonds and stuff; I always followed the stock pages and stuff. But it was 90 percent about money.
You met Adam Sandler in your dorm room on your first day of college — on his birthday, actually. What were your first impressions of him?
I thought he was nuts. But that might be because of my sheltered upbringing, and I didn’t know too many crazy people or very different people at all, so NYU was obviously a very big change for me. He was extremely outgoing — his mouth going a mile a minute — and funny and all over the place. It was kind of a sight to behold.
After getting in business with Adam and helping with his stand-up, you went to Saturday Night Live. That first writers room you entered was incredible. How intimidating was stepping in there?
That room with Lorne Michaels, Al Franken, Bonnie and Terry Turner, and [Robert] Smigel: It was extremely intimidating, and it would have been more so if I wasn’t just so dumb. I was a shy kid, and I was so scared of five people reading it, let alone these legends of comedy, I just kind of shut down a little bit, you know what I mean?
Sandler has this hilarious and outrageous persona, but you’ve mentioned before that he has a killer work ethic. What are some specific moments that encapsulate that?
There’s just so many. We’re coming off two [movies] in a row. I’m exhausted doing Pixels and The Ridiculous Six and now into this movie, The Do Over, which I’m working on a little less, but he’s working on full. And he was doing all this stuff while simultaneously doing Pixels post and shooting The Ridiculous Six and getting the other thing ready while doing Hotel Transylvania 2 on Sunday nights. He works more on Hotel Transylvania 2 than I think on Pixels.
I read you and Adam argue over who wrote the “You eat pieces of s—t for breakfast?” line in Happy Gilmore.
Adam was always very, very good about sharing credit for writing, and I think that’s an SNL thing — a lot of people who came out of there are very good about it, and he’s taught me to be good about it, too. But that’s just one of those things where I’m sure I wrote it. He’s not claiming it; he just really thinks in his heart he wrote it. Hopefully, I’ll be cleaning out my office one day, and I’ll see it in my hand writing on the margins of a piece of paper, and I’ll mail it to him and triumph.
What about other jokes in the film, like the Bob Barker fight?
We wrote it for Ed McMahon, and he passed. Then we were like, “Who else could we get?” And it was one of those casting things, like, “Let’s check out Bob Barker’s availability,” and he comes and he knows judo. It was like stepping in gold. So much of that was pure him and him being a good sport and being in for everything and just ready to rock and roll.
What about Joe Flaherty’s “You JACKASS!”?
That got lost in the midst of time. We were huge fans of Count Floyd and all SCTV. We were so psyched to get him. I’m not sure how we ended up with “jackass.” I’m sure It was probably something racier, and then to get to PG-13, we had to bring it down to “jackass.” He had a great take on that for sure.
When Adam first did his stand-up, he crowd sourced them with you and classmates. You told Brian Koppelman that when your jokes for him killed, you got a high. Has that feeling been replicated with some big names in your movies?
[Jack] Nicholson in Anger Management, he was saying some of the lines I said. That was through the looking-glass a little for me: That’s Jack Nicholson. It was an honor — really was. I appreciated it at the time, and I still appreciate it.
The Ridiculous Six is still in production, but there was reported controversy in April when Native American extras walked off set. Generally, how much discussion is there about material that could be perceived as offensive?
There’s not really much. Just in normal life, we’re sensitive to other people, so we don’t have to say, “Oh, we would say this joke, but we probably shouldn’t say it in this movie,” you know what I mean? It’s very natural for us to go by our own taste, and usually we’re all pretty sensitive guys with that. We’re usually safe.
Did the jokes go too far?
A lot of the things were taken out of context, and a lot of things were from earlier drafts, and there were things that were flat-out untrue. Rather than go through the whole thing — which I’ve been dying to do for months now, and say, “This is wrong, this is wrong” — just let the movie come out. I think when the movie comes out, we can have a conversation. Let’s wait for the movie to come out, and then it won’t be he-said, she-said. It’ll be the actual thing we’re putting forward to the world.
Pixels features some beloved arcade video game characters. Did you play many games growing up?
I was a huge Atari guy. I was 14 during that era, so the first place my parents would let me ride my bike to was the arcade. I have tremendous memories of those games. We look back now and laugh at the 8-bit, and now we have all these immersive, virtual-reality things, but it was cool… compared to, what, pinball machines? This felt like the future. This felt like Star Wars or something, with these electronic things that you can actually control, the Pac-Man or the cannon or whatever you’re using to shoot. I was a big fan of the culture, and I just was in a sweet spot with that, age-wise.
On Joseph Vecsey’s podcast, you said Pixels was very difficult for you and took nine months. What made it so difficult?
I guess part of it was doing an action movie for the first time. I had done a draft and spent a tremendous amount of time on it — I think six months — and everybody hated it. [Laughs] All the set pieces were okay, but there was something wrong with the way it was constructed. Adam had the eureka moment of, “What if Kevin James, his best friend [in the film], was President of the United States?” That made things easier in certain ways and also added a second thing. It was almost like in The Wedding Singer: We wanted to do something about a wedding singer who gets left at the altar of his own wedding, but it needed that other thing, and the other thing turned out to be the ‘80s. This is kind of the other thing with Pixels.
There are a lot of celebrated dramatic actors in Pixels: Peter Dinklage, Sean Bean, Michelle Monaghan, Brian Cox. Was there one particular moment from any of those people that surprised you how funny they were?
Everything Dinklage did. He just had such a funny take on the character from Moment 1. Not even that funny — and it’s a throwaway thing — Brian Cox says to Michelle, “Watch who you’re messing with, missy.” I remembered how good he is in these roles where he’s threatening, and this was a comedy that I wrote. It gave me chills, like, “Oh, I hope she’s okay!” He’s so good with that veiled menace.
Do you care what critics think about your work?
I really haven’t ever gotten good reviews. I first started with Billy Madison just getting really bad reviews. It’s become one of those things that over 20 years… You’d like your mom and your kids and your friends to read good things about you. Like when my mom would call me, “Can you believe what they said about you in the Poughkeepsie [N.Y.] Journal?” That’s tough. I’ve never known anything else.
What one line, moment, or film are you most proud of in your career?
When I thought about that, I always — I don’t know why — I like the scene in Happy Gilmore when they pan down from the kiss, and Zamboni driver is singing “Endless Love,” very heartfelt. I don’t know why I just always want to undercut everything, and you don’t want the whole movie to be a joke, but at the same time, you want to wink at the audience and let them know you don’t take this that seriously. But I’m so proud of Pixels and The Ridiculous Six, and I haven’t had a chance to process those memories yet, but I really feel very good about them. If you ask me this question in five years, I might say something from one of those two.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.