Paul Scheer began his career in comedy onstage. Then appearances on Comedy Central’s Upright Citizens Brigade series, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and VH-1’s Best Week Ever raised his profile to the point where he and cohorts Rob Huebel and Aziz Anzari got the green light for their sketch-comedy series, Human Giant. Although the series only lasted two seasons, Scheer has since become a near-ubiquitous presence on TV comedies, making guest appearances on 30 Rock, Parks And Recreation, Happy Endings, Modern Family, and even Yo Gabba Gabba, and in addition to his continued work as a series regular on FXX’s The League, he is also the star and creator of Adult Swim’s NTSF:SD:SUV.
While Scheer’s big-screen presence isn’t as substantial (his most notable role to date is arguably that of cameraman Andrew Cunningham in Piranha and Piranha 3DD), his love of motion pictures—and the glee he experiences when given the opportunity to rip apart the really bad ones—has been well-documented via his popular podcast, How Did This Get Made? When asked which film he thinks everyone should see, Scheer’s initial instinct was to go with Ghostbusters, but after considering how many people have already seen it, he opted to stay in the 1980s while going in a slightly more obscure direction.
Directed by Peter Hyams, 1986’s Running Scared was only Billy Crystal’s second leading role in a film (the first being the 1978 flop Rabbit Test, written and directed by Joan Rivers), but his short stint on Saturday Night Live during the 1984-85 season did wonders for his profile, earning him a second shot at movie stardom… or half of one, anyway, since Gregory Hines was by far the bigger movie star at the time Running Scared was released. Neither actor, however, had the background to credibly portray streetwise cops who, after almost getting killed during a case, decide they’re going to do one last job, then retire to Key West and open a bar together. Although the film ultimately earned a substantial amount of money at the box office, it never found the same kind of following that fellow buddy-cop films like Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon did, which continues to bother Scheer to this day.
The Dissolve: How did you first discover Running Scared? Did you see it in the theater when it was originally released?
Paul Scheer: No, and you know, I don’t really remember for sure, but I think I may have come about this movie via the soundtrack. When I was a kid, I didn’t have any older brothers or sisters, so no one was telling me what good music there was, so I was basically just buying movie soundtracks. And I liked Billy Crystal, so I was like, “Oh, Billy Crystal’s in this movie, that means the soundtrack has to be good!” [Laughs.] But at that point, I was so young. In ’86, I was like 8 or 9 years old, so I couldn’t have gone to see it in the theater.
But I remember once I did see this movie, I watched it so many times. So many times that I would record it—like, on a Walkman or whatever—and play it and listen to it on the bus. That’s right, I would listen to a movie. [Laughs.] It was so crazy watching it again last night, because I remembered so much of it. I could pretty much do the whole movie. Every line, I was like, “Yep, I remember that one… I remember that one… I remember that one…” I’ve got a handful of movies like that, and they’re all bizarre ones like Running Scared.
Watching it again, though, I couldn’t believe how much of an influence it’s been on me and the stuff I like. For years, I’ve been obsessed with… [Starts to laugh.] Okay, the Columbian Necktie is still one of the most disturbing images I’ve ever heard. It’s just such a crazy idea, and then you start thinking about how that would work. I don’t think it would, and even if it did, it would be very messy.
The Dissolve: One of the most surprising things about the movie is that Billy Crystal makes a credible action-comedy star.
Scheer: Well, here’s the crazy thing. I was watching it last night—and I’m curious of what your opinion is on this—this movie’s a pretty interesting thing, because here’s the two most unlikely guys for a buddy-cop combination: Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal. Right? Like, there’s no way in today’s modern world that you’d ever go, “Hey, let’s get that tap-dancer and that guy who does characters to be in this!” And it’s a pretty hard buddy-cop movie. The comedy’s there, but not in the forefront.
The Dissolve: On paper, that combo wouldn’t seem to play any better than Jay Leno and Pat Morita.
Scheer: Exactly! But the thing about this movie is that, when you watch it, Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines both really pull it off, I think. And the humor in the movie, what I like about it, and I know it might sound dumb, is that it comes out of the camaraderie and the characters together. They’re not getting into funny situations. They’re just funny in and of themselves. Like, Billy Crystal does a handful of voices, but they’re not overused. That’s the kind of buddy-comedy movie I grew up on, like Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon—well, they weren’t necessarily funny after 2. But yeah, I was pretty amazed. I was watching it, thinking, “Wow, everyone should take a page from this book if they want to make a buddy-cop movie.” I just thought the two characters were very interesting. Also, Billy Crystal with a beard? Tougher than Billy Crystal without. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Billy Crystal with a beard is able to pull off being shirtless Billy Crystal as well.
Scheer: He is shirtless a lot in that movie. [Laughs.] But he’s good! And Gregory Hines with a gun? I mean, I don’t think he played anything similar for the rest of his career! And he does, I don’t want to say it’s a bug-eyed thing, but his serious look, his deadpan takes, really made me laugh. Like when he goes to get the bulletproof vest, and the guy’s like, “What, you got a bad back?” He just stares at him. And when he has a moment with the girl in the bar, and he says, “I’ve already had a wife,” and she says, “I’ve already been a wife,” and he just stares at her really intently? It’s just great. Gregory Hines’ stare in this movie is making me laugh just thinking about it.
By the way, I was doing some research, and apparently the movie was… They went with Peter Hyams [as director], who was a real bummer of a dude, but apparently they wanted to make it about two older cops in New York who wanted to retire, and he was like, “Let’s make it about two younger cops and put it in Chicago!” I think it was originally written for, like, Paul Newman and Gene Hackman, older cops who would’ve been like, “Okay, we’re done, we’ve got to get out of this business.”
The Dissolve: Peter Hyams has a really weird back catalog. Who would believe the same guy directed 2010, Running Scared, and Stay Tuned?
Scheer: Yeah, there was a New York Times article about him where he was talking about how he hates the use of zoom in film, that it’s an overused thing young filmmakers use. He said it’s basically about bringing the emotion in, but the actors should be bringing the emotion in, not a camera movement. You get a lot of opinions when you read Peter Hyams interviews. [Laughs.] You read his stuff, and you’re, like, “This guy’s an asshole!” Not in a bad way, but he’s a difficult dude. You can tell from some of the stuff I’ve read. You’re like, “Oh, well, he’s got a lot to say!” But he’s a surprising guy, too. Like you were saying, when you look at his catalog, he’s done some lighter stuff, he’s done some weirder stuff.
The Dissolve: So what about Running Scared makes it Compulsory Viewing?
Scheer: Okay, well, this is my opinion on that. [Takes a deep breath.] Buddy-cop movies, they come, they go, they’ve been tried a million times, and there’s only a few that are kind of great. And I’m gonna put this one in the “great” category, because it shows you how a buddy-cop movie should be done. First of all, it should be a cop movie on top of everything, and Running Scared is a cop movie. The guys who are chasing the criminals are funny, but they’re not dressing up in fat suits. They’re not getting in a fight in a Chuck E. Cheese. The action is still real, but the camaraderie and the dialogue between the two guys, that’s funny.
Another thing like I like about this movie is that it just moves. From the moment you get in, it’s like, BAM! Literally, the first 40 minutes are one continuous day. You’re just moving right through it, and you’re so caught up in the characters and the plot, everything is just nicely set up. It reminds you that if you were making this movie today, there’d be so much time spent on setting up the character of Julio Gonzales [played by Jimmy Smits] and what’s going on with the drugs. I feel like this movie just grabs you by the hand and is like, “Okay, come on, we’re going! Here are the good guys, there are the bad guys, there are the drugs, that’s their thing. Got it?” It actually reminded me in many ways of The Heat. I think The Heat might’ve cribbed a little bit from this, in a really good way.
I think the benefit of this movie, too, is that there’s no straight man. That’s another interesting thing. In every buddy-cop movie, there’s a straight man and a wild card. With this, they’re both just kind of normal cops. Gregory Hines has moments of more seriousness, but then Billy Crystal shows him up. They’re equal, and I think that actually makes it more fun to watch. ‘They’re not trying to be buddies. They are buddies.
The Dissolve: They’re good buddies, but they’re not necessarily the best undercover cops: The movie starts out with Crystal unabashedly pointing at Julio Gonzales when he spots him.
Scheer: [Laughs.] Yeah, they are bad. They’re bad cops. They’re just standing around in the street, waiting for something to happen. I guess the only thing I can say about that is that Julio recognized them first. At that point, all bets are off. It’s okay to point at him.
The Dissolve: And that’s something else that’s a little unusual for a buddy-cop movie, or at least for one with such a dark undertone: They’re not great cops. They might get the job done, but clearly no one sees them as particularly good at it.
Scheer: But that’s the thing I love about it! They’re not great cops. They’re normal cops. Neither of them in this movie do anything extraordinary. Everything these two characters do, you could do under the right circumstances, with the only exception being Gregory Hines getting up on that window-washer thing at the end. And by the way, he looks scared as shit doing it! [Laughs.] And he can’t even break through the window properly!
The Dissolve: He’s out of his element, and he’s not afraid to look like it.
Scheer: Exactly. They’re not bad like, “Oh, they don’t do their job well.” They were physically harassing and beating up people, and then getting charged for it! [Laughs.] Gregory Hines gets a subpoena for roughing up a witness, which you never get back to, but it’s a fun thing that underlines that these characters aren’t head of the force, and they’re not even really the conquering heroes in any respect. They’re just kind of these guys, y’know? Which I love.
By the way, before we go any further, the scene we’ve got to talk about is the Key West montage. [Laughs.] I mean, this is unreal. Again, I love it. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, I don’t know what it is, but I just love the scene. They go to Key West, and they just party. You would never see that scene today in a movie. It’s such a funny idea. Like, they’re roller skating and—I mean, there is just a ton of fucking stuff. How long is that break they’re supposed to be on? Because the amount of women they go through is just giant. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Wow, these guys are ladies’ men! Every night, it’s a different woman with these guys!”
The Dissolve: And yet for all its broadness, the whole segment kicks off with this small but interesting moment when they walk up to a crowd of people standing at a dock and say, “What’s wrong? Somebody get killed? Somebody drown?”
Scheer: Yeah! And it turns out that everybody’s just watching the sunset. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: And they respond with a blank stare, because it’s just something that never would’ve occurred to them and their cop mentality.
Scheer: Yeah, and that kind of kicks off their whole renewal. What I love about this movie is that it’s really well-plotted. You’ve got that first 45 minutes, which sets up all the characters, all the relationships, all the stakes, everything’s ready to go. And then they go away, and they’re like, “Okay, we’re done. We don’t want back in.” And it’s funny, but to talk again about how there’s not a straight guy and there’s not a crazy guy, they’re both okay cops, they do their job, they get a little scared, and they’re like, “All right, we’ll go on vacation.” But they’re both scared. It’s very rare that you get to see both cops feeling and doing the same thing. I’ve never seen a movie like that, where cops basically just go on vacation. You know, where people in the middle of a movie just suddenly go, “We need to change our whole situation.” I thought it was a great idea for a movie.
The Dissolve: The car chase is one of the signature moments of the film, and yet I’d somehow almost completely forgotten about it until it started.
Scheer: Yeah, I’d forgotten about it too! But, you know, with this movie… I mean, obviously it’s a cop movie, and sure, there are some unbelievable things in it, but the one thing that I just found funny beyond belief was the relationship these two men have with their female counterparts. With Gregory Hines, it’s this girl he met in a bar and then had a one-night stand with, and then he destroys her boyfriend’s life by just—well, one time he basically kidnaps her from her house, and the next time, he gets her boyfriend arrested. And each time he does these things, she just laughs it off. Like, “Oh, you’re funny.” [Laughs.] There’s something so crazy about that, just so bizarre. Because first of all, this woman’s out at a bar, she’s tired of her relationship, she says she’s not married, but she’s dating this guy, but she won’t break up with this guy, so she’s excited when he takes her away.
Even better, though, is Billy Crystal’s ex-wife. Now, they’ve got a believably good divorce. She doesn’t hate him, she’s not aggressive to him. Yeah, they have little fights, but it’s not over the top. And it’s set up that she’s getting married to this dentist, Billy Crystal doesn’t like that, and there’s a little rivalry between them. Why she hangs out with them so much, I don’t know. But at the end of the movie, she gets kidnapped, he saves her, and then they’re just making out. And Gregory Hines is like, “Well, what about that dentist?” And she kind of laughs and says, “What dentist?” She was engaged to be married only hours before, and now she’s like, “Forget it.” Engaged! Not like, “I’m dating this dentist,” but engaged! Both the women in this life are just, like, “Ha ha, whatever!” [Laughs.] It made me laugh.
By the way, when I used to watch movies when I was a kid, I couldn’t watch the nudity. My dad would actually cut out scenes. He’d edit ’em right out. Running Scared was one of the few movies that was mostly okay. It was an R-rated cop movie, but it had just the slightest ounce of nudity. Like, a side-boob during Gregory Hines’ sex scene. But it comes at a climactic part, and my dad always edited out that entire scene, so I never saw that until years later. I just went from Billy Crystal’s wife getting kidnapped to him taking off on a motorcycle a second later. I never knew what happened until I was older, and I was so psyched to see what I had missed. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: So why do you think Running Scared has fallen so far off the radar? Do you think it’s because people got in the habit of thinking of Billy Crystal as being Mr. Romantic Comedy after When Harry Met Sally, and never got out of it?
Scheer: You know, I think it’s odd. It came out in ’86, Beverly Hills Cop came out in ’84, and I’m sure there were a glut of movies where there are elements that make you feel like, “Okay, this is just kind of a riff on Beverly Hills Cop.” But it’s not. It got mixed reviews, but I think at the time it was surprisingly successful, so much so that they wanted to do a sequel. I remember reading about that when I was a kid. They wanted to do it, but they never found the right script for it. Which I’m very, very happy about, actually. I feel like that was the characters’ journey. It was remarkable restraint, though, that they didn’t do the sequel anyway.
The Dissolve: I like the idea that they’re forever locked in that final freeze-frame, still laughing.
Scheer: [Laughs.] But to your point, yeah, it does get washed away. It’s one of those movies that I don’t ever hear people reference. When people talk about the big buddy-cop movies from the ’80s, it’s Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon. Those are the ones you always hear referenced a lot. It’s just this weird thing where, back in the ’80s, you could do a movie that was primarily an action movie but had humor in it, and now the action movies are action movies, and the comedy movies are comedy movies. There’s not that thin line between them anymore, and I think that line makes them more enjoyable. With Running Scared, if you take away the comedy, if you take away the casting of those two guys, and you just make it straight, I don’t think it’s a good movie. I think it’s fine, but it’s just a poor man’s French Connection or something like that.
I think probably people see Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines on the cover as cops, and they just go, “Oh, this is not good.” It’s like what you said about Collision Course: You see Jay Leno and Pat Morita, and you’re, like, “Nope. No thank you. I’m out.” And I think when you’re trolling through Netflix—like, I saw the Movies You Might Like after Running Scared was over, and one was, like, Dead Heat with Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo, which I loved when I was a kid, but, uh, no, that’s not a good movie. Armed And Dangerous, with John Candy and Eugene Levy, that’s another example. I think if you saw this movie and that one on the shelf, you’d say, “Oh, both of these movies are bad.” And Armed And Dangerous was also not a good movie. I guarantee that it does not hold up. This one does, though. But you never hear anyone talk about it. I mean, is that just me? Do you ever hear anybody reference it?
The Dissolve: Not really. I remembered it fondly from when it originally came out, but before revisiting it in advance of this chat, it had been years since I’d seen it.
Scheer: Maybe one of the reasons it’s underrated is because it never did have a sequel. I feel like all the other movies like this had sequels, and they built on the buddy stuff, but Running Scared, it had the success, but it also had the patience to wait until they had the right script before doing a sequel. That’s pretty rare.
The Dissolve: To bring this conversation full circle, you said it was the soundtrack that first brought you to Running Scared. What are your thoughts about that collection now?
Scheer: Oh, my God, I love the soundtrack. First of all, this movie made me buy a Klymaxx album. I love my Klymaxx album. “Man Size Love”! [Laughs.] I love it. Actually, last night I thought, “I’m gonna download the album on iTunes!” I hope they have it. But it’s great. They have this fake “Axel F” theme that opens the movie, which is not really “Axel F,” but it has elements of it. And of course, no discussion of this movie would be complete without talking about Michael McDonald. I mean, the whole montage in the center is basically a giant music video for “Sweet Freedom,” and it is glorious. It is absolutely glorious, down to them wearing the T-shirts with the fake boobs on them. Everything about it is great. And then I remember they did an actual music video for the song with him, singing with him. So yeah, the songs in this movie, major thumbs-up for this movie’s soundtrack. It’s like how Beverly Hills Cop captured a moment in the ‘80s, and Singles captured the grunge scene in the ’90s. This captured a specific era of music, all facets of it.
The Dissolve: Any final recommendations on why someone who hasn’t seen this film yet should finally give it a chance?
Scheer: If you are a fan of action movies and comedy movies, if you like this kind of thing, you should definitely see it. I don’t know if this holds up for someone who’s not a fan of those genres, but I will say that I showed it to my wife and she loved it, and I wouldn’t say that those would be her first choices of films. I think it’s a surprisingly good film, and I think you get a lot of bang for your buck: You get great actors, funny performances, good action, good relationships, and some nice romance. Y’see? You got everything. That’s a full picture there. It’s the rightful successor to 2010. [Laughs.]
Running Scared is available on DVD and various streaming services, including Amazon and Netflix.