Michael Jackson's Concert Writer Speaks!

Talking with the smart Jeff Daniels and plotting our Tonys revenge.

The go-to guy for rumpled everymen with dark textures, Jeff Daniels has built up a meaty résumé, with movies by Woody and Clint, co-stars like spiders, Dalmatians, and Jim Carrey, and some smashingly received theater events, too. Daniels was recently Tony-nominated for God of Carnage, the play about a quartet of grown-ups devolving into brats and bullies. (After breaking on July 27, the cast will come back to sling even harder mud starting September 8.) And Daniels has got an engaging new film, The Answer Man, in which he is the bestselling author of a bit of devout piffle called Me and God.

I turned into the question man for a Q&A with Jeff at an Upper West Side café, and he graciously obliged with responses.

Me: Hi, Jeff! I remember back in the '70s, when you, William Hurt, and Christopher Reeve were the hot new hunks on the theater scene.

Daniels: [Laughs.] It was very strange to be down there at Circle Rep on Christopher Street with Chris and Bill—these three straight guys down there in the Village. Sold a lot of tickets!

Me: So did Terms of Endearment—your big film breakthrough.

Daniels: Yeah. You're on a set with Jack Nicholson, Debra Winger, and Shirley MacLaine, thinking, "What's wrong with this picture? Why am I here? Well, why don't you shut up and listen and learn everything possible?" Then, I watched Jack work. As a young actor, you assume they know everything, but they don't. He was bad in take three, four, or five. He just wasn't doing it. Then on six, he got it, on seven, he was better, and so on. It was like going to school for me.

Me: They're making every '80s movie into a musical. Will that one be next?

Daniels: I can just see a big number with Shirley running around singing, "Give my daughter her shot!"

Me: Well, Next to Normal has showtunes about pills and electroshock. [Pause.] Did Dumb & Dumber enhance your career?

Daniels: Yes. No one had asked me to do comedy, and I knew I had to shake it up. Dustin Hoffman said, "You were believable as a guy with an IQ of eight." That's what I was trying to do! Before we shot the toilet scene, I said to Peter Farrelly, "This is either the beginning of my career or the end of it." He said, "It's gonna be great, man."

Me: He's not dumberer. More recently, why were you drawn to The Answer Man?

Daniels: I liked the writing. And Lauren Graham is good with comedy. I didn't know how I was going to pull it off, and, at this point in my career, that's what I look for—roles in which I might fail miserably.

Me: Does your character have any real connection to God?

Daniels: I think he's a complete sham. He has a lot of things that make a lot of sense at his beck and call. He spouted them off and got lucky and sold 92 million copies.

Me: Sounds like that Oprah Club book.

Daniels: Yeah, a little bit.

Me: Moving from Me and God to you and God of Carnage: Was Matthew Warchus's direction, "Don't push"?

Daniels: The direction was, "We're going to take everything presentational out of it. We're gonna keep it onstage and drag them onstage with us." And it worked. When you have actors up there that have been through film, there's a kind of aversion to a proscenium acting style, so it was an easy fit for us. Matthew said, "Don't get caught doing the play they're watching. Keep it painful."

Me: It was! One last question, answer man. Is comedy really harder than drama?

Daniels: Yes. With drama, you can get away with looking off into the sunset, cue the violins. With comedy, you've got to look off into the sunset, cue the violins, and be funny—and not get caught!

Tony Dis and Data

A real high comedy is the fact that the Tony Awards Committee famously decided last week that first-night press like me aren't allowed to vote anymore. That's batshit crazy! Of all the folk who vote for the Tonys (producers, publicists, and others who exaggerate for a living), journalists were the only ones without a conflict of interest in making our choices! And the first-nighters I know are the only ones who actually see all the nominated shows—sometimes twice! Great idea, guys. (Rolls eyes dramatically, hoping for a nomination.)

The committee must have decided it was a travesty that Rock of Ages didn't sweep every category. Or maybe they're aping the Oscars, which just expanded Best Picture to 10 nominees, clearly praying that popular caca like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will get a nod, along with Holocaust fare and weighty biopics. Well, I'll still see everything anyway—even Off-Broadway—because I actually live for the legit stage, and, as always, I can use this column as my ballot, ta-da.

And so: Last week, I caught The Tin Pan Alley Rag, which imagines a meeting between Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin, with the result getting almost as much of a rise out of the matinee ladies as when Jane Fonda met Beethoven.

Then came Vanities, which—like 9 to 5—has three women bonded in sisterly oppression, though this time, they don't all get to tie up a man and spit on his crotch. A musicalized version of an old hit comedy, Vanities builds to a squishy new ending and, along the way, serves some clichés ("Time flies!") and bland self-help lyrics ("I had to learn priorities"). But it's mainly quite entertaining and well performed as the femme trio goes from cheerleaders to sorority gals to confused adults with power ballads.

The Tony Committee can't get me off the guest list for nightclubs, which is good news now that the Cuckoo Club (Sundays at the Hiro Ballroom) has started to charge. With the bash's freeness gone, so is door-person Connie Girl, since the promoter thought the place was "too ghetto." But Connie's official response? "I need time for me! I wasn't waking up Mondays!"

Well, I woke up Sunday for the Fire Island Dance Festival benefiting Dancers Responding to AIDS, where, in between acts of stylized movement, MC Bruce Vilanch sprinkled in anecdotes about having written the last Oscars telecast (the one with only five Best Picture nominees).

Vilanch said Best Documentary invariably goes to something in which Jews get killed ("Jews can't live and get an Oscar"). He said Best Song is usually "one turd after another." But the job was worth it, he said, "just to get to say, 'Sophia Loren . . . Jack Black.' Sophia had no idea who he was, but she was gracious to a fault. She stood there with one hand on her hip—she has to or she'd pitch forward—and talked to him in an Italian accent, which was not as good as Meryl Streep's."

After yelling, "Bravo!" I cornered Vilanch to wonder why he'd avoided Jacko material onstage. That's off-limits, he said. "Besides, they're all tired of hearing jokes like, 'Michael died of food poisoning. He was eating 10-year-old nuts.' "

Nutty Vilanch had been hired to write comedic voiceover material for Jackson's British concerts—I'm not making this up—and he even got "some of the money." (He said he might get more now that the rehearsal footage is being sold.) But did he get the memo about how kooky Hitchcock actress Tippi Hedren had to tell Michael's old tigers that daddy had died? "Her son-in-law is Antonio Banderas," said the comic, lighting up. "She's fine! All she has to say is, 'Come over, Antonio. A big pussy needs taking care of.' " Cue the violins.

musto@villagevoice.com

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