Andrew Jay Cohen has one of the cooler origin stories you could imagine in contemporary Hollywood comedy. In 2003, he was hired as an assistant to Original Nerd of Comedy Judd Apatow on the instant-classic Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. This weekend, Cohen makes his directorial debut with The House, a suburbia-set sendup of Scorsese’s Casino that teams comedic heavyweights Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler.
In between, Cohen’s résumé is loaded with various roles on other beloved laughers. Freaks and Geeks. Undeclared. The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Talladega Nights. Neighbors.
“He cut his teeth in our world,” Ferrell said fondly when remembering his House helmer’s humble beginnings. “I remember when he worked for Judd. He was always in good spirits.”
Ferrell followed that last comment with a belly laugh, and upon meeting Cohen for coffee and croissants one hot and sunny morning in Beverly Hills, it quickly becomes clear why. The 40-year-old Scarsdale, New York, native carries a contagious energy and unbridled enthusiasm for the craft of comedy — and by all accounts, life in general. And he’s amiable as hell.
The motto Cohen has subscribed to since packing up for Hollywood at 21? “Don’t be a d–k. Just be cool and pay your dues.” After graduating from Yale with a degree in film production, Cohen moved to Los Angeles with “delusions of grandeur” alongside his childhood friend Brendan O’Brien, with whom he’d go on to co-write Neighbors, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and The House.
He landed an entry-level gig assisting a lit agent at CAA, and she was “awful,” he said. “Straight out of Swimming With Sharks.” But it was an industry bootcamp for the wet-behind-the-ears transplant.” I got humility, organizational skills, comfortable at a fast pace… and I learned how to lie,” he laughed.
Cohen made a spec commercial for Nokia “that nobody asked for” and shopped it around CAA, and it ultimately helped land him his first film gig: in New York as assistant to Adrian Lyne on the auteur’s not-so-funny Diane Lane-Richard Gere thriller Unfaithful (2002). He helped Lyne construct a lookbook of cues for the movie, and did whatever the director needed, like read Olivier Martinez’s lines as Lane spoke to him on the phone. “Adrian Lyne taught me so much about visual filmmaking,” he said.
Back in Los Angeles, Cohen came across the job listing at another talent agency, UTA, that would change his life: “It said, ‘Comedy Producer Looking for Assistant,‘” he remembered. “I was like, OK, I like comedy, I like producing… Yeah it was Judd Apatow for Anchorman. But back then he was ‘failed TV producer Judd Apatow.’ He’d had two shows canceled. Then he’d had a kid [Maude], and now he’s gonna produce this movie with these guys from SNL [Ferrell and head writer Adam McKay]. But that was the mothership.”
Cohen knew immediately that the classy San Diego-set comedy was destined for greatness. “It was a dream. Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, golden ticket. I was in the front row,” he said. “I had never seen anything like it, the way [David] Koechner, [Paul] Rudd, Will, Christina Applegate, Fred Willard, Steve Carell, the way they were constantly going and riffing with the type of improv that we take for granted now. It blew my mind.”
In addition to being at Apatow’s beck and call, Cohen also shot behind-the-scenes footage for the film, and found his calling. “I was able to watch the process, watch Adam McKay direct Will, watch Will shine, watch Adam shine behind the camera, yelling [lines] out. I was like, want to do that! I want to be that guy.'”
Apatow then hired him to produce DVD extras for his two canceled shows-turned-cult classics: Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. “When he said you’re gonna produce DVDs, I had a lump in my throat cause I was so excited. I tell students, ‘You gotta take it. Whatever the job is. If you excel at it, even if it’s just making coffee — if you make amazing coffee and remember the sugar and ice or milk, whatever they ask for — it’s all weirdly a test of how badly you want it.”
Cohen wrangled the likes of James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen to record commentaries for the episodes, and made lifelong friends in the process. He shares Los Angeles Clippers tickets with Martin Starr to this day. And his relationship with Rogen would pay major dividends a few years later.
After those two stints in home video (“Because you have to test twice, never once,” Cohen laughed), he was promoted to associate producer on The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), which marked Apatow’s feature film directorial debut. Once again he captured behind-the-scenes footage, but was also now in charge of any of content shown on television screens in the film.
His claim to fame came when the producers weren’t able to clear the video game Mortal Kombat until the 11th hour. Once it was finally cleared the day of shooting, he rushed to learn the game’s signature special moves. “That move you see in the movie [with Rogen and Rudd trading gay jokes as one of them pulls off the “heart rip” fatality], I learned that that morning. That’s my cameo,” Cohen boasted. “It was nail-biting. Like, ‘Will I get fired if I can’t perfect this special move? Is this what I went to Yale University and NYU Sight & Sound for?'”
Cohen would serve as associate producer again on Talladega Nights (2006) and then a co-producer on Funny People (2009), where he continued to press directors McKay and Apatow, respectively, for intel and score fly-on-the-wall filmmaking knowledge.
All the while, he and O’Brien plugged away at writing projects, and they got their big break after approaching Rogen to help spur Neighbors (2014) into production. Cohen remembers going on the set of The Guilt Trip, the actor’s comedy alongside Barbra Streisand, where they pitched Zac Efron the concept in Rogen’s trailer. “I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, this is the funniest face-off I’ve ever seen,'” he said. “It immediately felt iconic.”
The inspiration for The House originally came from Cohen and O’Brien’s days as lonely high school freshmen in Westchester. The girls they knew had all started to hang out with older guys — a very universal, very real struggle for freshmen dudes — so they started spending their nights playing poker and craps at a friend’s house. “Originally it was the kids keeping it a secret from their parents,” Cohen said. “But my manger was like, ‘You write adults acting like idiots so well, why don’t you make it about the parents?”
So The House became the story of Scott and Kate Johansen (Ferrell and Poehler), middle-class suburban parents whose teenage daughter (Ryan Simpkins) loses her full-ride scholarship to Bucknell because of shady small-town politics. Desperate to raise the capital for tuition, Scott and Kate start a casino in the Brady Bunch-esque abode of their friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) — and things quickly go haywire from there, dismemberments and all.
Cohen said there have been real-life cases of in-home casinos that they looked at for production design, but they were no laughing matters. “It’s super sad,” he described. “The photos are bleak, man. You see the plastic ties and all the stuff marked. Like it’s so low-rent you could see it was born out of desperation. But I think there’s a darkness in the movie that reflects that.”
Cohen and O’Brien brought the concept to Ferrell (“We were like, ‘Let’s Robert De Niro’ you”), who immediately attached himself to the project — and subsequently helped lure his fellow SNL alum Poehler. Cohen desperately wanted to make it his debut behind the camera, but for writers, “No one wants you to direct, ever,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Couldn’t we get a director who’s made a movie before?'”
Still, Cohen’s long history of dues-paying in the comedy world endeared him to Ferrell and the Warner Bros. brass. Plus, there’s that youthful vibrancy. “He brought so much energy and passion,” Ferrell said. “He was as amped on the last day as he was on the first day, and so excited to be making a movie, which I think is contagious to be around, especially if you’ve done a lot of movies. It just reminds you, ‘No this is really fun. This is really cool to be around.'”
The House is now in theaters. Watch the trailer:
Read more on Yahoo Movies: