This Canada Day weekend, The Globe and Mail declared David Steinberg’s film The Wrong Guy the best Canadian comedy ever made.
Wry, subversive and supremely silly in the best kind of smart-dumb way, the Dave Foley vehicle is emblematic of “Canadian” comedy: knowingly humble, but not-so-secretly genius. But when the movie was first released in 1997, it was trashed at home (The Globe’s Liam Lacey called it “utterly flat”) and sent direct-to-video in the United States. Today, it’s all-but-impossible to (legally) watch.
“Dave is off-the-charts gifted. He was pure joy for me to direct,” recalls the Winnipeg-born Steinberg, a comedy-world icon who appeared more than 130 times on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. “The audiences we were with had almost as many laughs as we had making the film. I was certain it was going to be one of the best comedies ever. I still believe that.”
To figure out how something so right went so, well, wrong, The Globe caught up with Jay Kogen, the film’s co-writer and executive producer, to discuss the complicated legacy of what should be considered a Canadian comedy classic.
What was the collaboration like with Dave Foley, given that he was also one of the screenwriters?
Dave Foley had the idea of an innocent man on the run from no one. I forced Foley to work on it with me. Co-star and co-writer David Anthony Higgins was around and excited by it. Jimmy Miller, who was Higgins’s manager, showed it to Jim Carrey, who wanted it for him. We turned down what would have been a huge deal so Foley could star. Then we sold it to Paragon Films in Canada, Hollywood Pictures in the U.S., and Handmade Films in the U.K. within a few weeks. This was going to be made in Canada for under $10-million. There were a few directors pitched to us but we were most excited by David Steinberg, who was a former comic actor, distinguished director, but also a Canadian legend. I had also worked with David on Newhart and loved him.
Were there many challenges while shooting?
The crew was great, although coming from the U.S. we may have pushed them harder than they were used to. We ended many days with amazing dinners with David Steinberg, where he regaled us with stories from his life. We all edited the movie in Los Angeles and did post in Toronto. The amazing score by Lawrence Shragge was recorded in Seattle with their full orchestra. We had a few test screenings that went well. We adjusted the movie many times to make it right. We came in on time, on budget, and with a great movie and then Hollywood Pictures folded.
The film was released direct-to-video in the U.S., and greeted with unfavourable reviews in Canada, including in The Globe. How did you deal with the film’s initial reception?
The bad reviews were shocking. I think maybe Canadians like to dump on Canadians so they don’t get too big for their britches. But it made no sense to us. The best comics and comedy movie people in the business loved it. Mike Myers went nuts when he saw it. We won best screenplay at the HBO Comedy Festival. We were poised for people to love it and we are very harsh critics of our own work. I guess in retrospect it had a unique tone. It wasn’t a parody like Airplane and it wasn’t a typical narrative comedy like When Harry Met Sally. It was kind of its own thing. We played the comedy very straight like it was a real drama. No winks at the audience. And that tone took people by surprise. But audiences have somehow found it. We are, after all these years, an underground hit.
The film is currently unavailable to stream in Canada. DVD copies are hard to come by. Have there been any discussions about issuing a Blu-ray, or about where its catalogue rights sit?
This is complicated. There was a Blu-ray release with commentary by the filmmakers that was made a few years ago. But who owns the rights is a mystery. The movie was made by three companies: Paragon, Handmade and Hollywood Pictures. They had divided the rights between them. Well, at the time of release Hollywood Pictures folded and Joe Roth, the head of its parent company Disney, didn’t “get it.” They didn’t want to put $20-million more into prints and advertising. So they buried it. They never released it anywhere. Paragon, Handmade and Hollywood Pictures don’t exist any more and no one seems to own this movie. I once found the bank that had the Paragon assets and asked if I could try to resell the movie. They wanted half a million dollars upfront to just have the rights to investigate a re-release. Now we can’t even find that bank. So we don’t know who, if anyone, owns it. We have been trying because we’d love to re-release it or get it shown on streaming or cable.
This interview has been condensed and edited.