August 20, 2019

Paul Rudd on “Dinner for Schmucks”

Journal Arts & Entertainment Editor Naomi Pfefferman caught up with actor Paul Rudd, director Jay Roach and others from “Dinner for Schmucks,” which opened Friday around $8 million at the box office, giving the previous number one film, “Inception,” a run for its money.  The topic was:  Why title a major studio comedy “Dinner for Schmucks”— “schmucks” traditionally meaning a not-so-nice word in Yiddish? 

The movie revolves around a financial analyst, Tim (Rudd), whose promotion hinges on inviting the eccentric taxidermist Barry (Steve Carell) to his boss’s “dinner for idiots,” where each guest is required to bring the biggest dunce he can find for an evening of ridicule.  Rudd’s parents are Jews from England; Roach (who directed the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises) converted to Judaism before marrying rock musician Susanna Hoffs of “The Bangles” at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood in 1993.  Here’s the conversation:

Naomi Pfefferman:  So Paul, do you have any elderly Jewish relatives who raised eyebrows about the use of the word, “schmuck?” in the film’s title?

Paul Rudd:  Well, go right to the Jew (laughs).  You know I was in shul…(joking) Actually, no, my grandfather used to call me a “schmuck” and a “putz.”

NP:  Can you tell us what “schmuck” means in Yiddish?

PR:  (wryly) It means “penis” right—is that what you’re looking for?…How about “putz?”  I remember growing up saying “Ah, gosh, ‘putz’ is such a funny word.  I would use it like, ‘Oh, don’t be a putz’— but then I thought ‘putz’ meant an ‘idiot.’ And I remember my dad saying, ‘Well, you know, actually, a ‘putz’ is a ‘penis.’  What’s up with all the [Yiddish] words, by the way, for penis?

David Guion (the film’s co-screenwriter with Michael Handelman):  It’s like Eskimos have 200 words for snow.

PR:  But it always took on I think not so much specificity as it does kind of a general, “Oh, you’re being an idiot, you’re being stupid – quit acting like a schmuck.”  So it was strange, being Jewish—and I know there are some people who have taken offense that we called this “Dinner for Schmucks,” because I’ve read [some blog items exploring this].  But it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind that somebody might find it offensive, because I just never associated it, being Jewish, with being offensive.

Ron Livingston (actor):  Also, “Dinner for Weiners” didn’t sound quite right.

NP:  Will the title, as they say, play in Peoria?

Jay Roach:  I think so…. For me it’s kind of an ideal word for what the story is about, because it does in modern usage have two meanings of “Don’t be a schmuck,” as in, “Don’t be a jerk,” which is what Paul Rudd’s character is going through, and “Don’t be an idiot,” which you can assume is what Steve Carell’s going through.  And then in the end it sort of switches, because you find out that Paul’s character is the one who’s living a deluded kind of reality and Steve’s character is actually much wiser than he is.  So it’s a funny word to say but it also resonates across what the two characters are about.

You can read about the film’s director, Jay Roach, in Naomi Pfefferman’s story here, and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman here.