The director of ‘Billy Madison’ and ‘Half Baked’ is ready for the big screen again.
Technically, Tamra Davis hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s been directing for television consistently for more than a decade, and she’s helmed a couple documentaries, too. But Davis hasn’t directed a narrative theatrical feature for Hollywood since 2002’s Crossroads. No, the Britney Spears dud didn’t kill her career. Davis made the decision afterward to slow down to have and raise children with husband Mike D (of the Beastie Boys).
“Mike and I were together for such a long time, and he would tour and I would make movies, and I was in my mid-thirties,” she told Birth.Movies.Death in 2015. “It was getting to the point where, if I don’t have a baby now, I may not ever be able to have a baby. So that’s what I did, even though my career was going really well.” Now the kids are teens, and she’s looking to make movies again.
This week, Deadline revealed that Davis will direct the feature comedy Turned On for Fox and producer Paul Feig (whose company FeigCo is making good on its inclusion promises). The movie was written by newbie Charlie Kesslering, who was James Corden’s assistant for The Late Late Show when he sold the script. It’s about an engineer who builds a robot clone of herself to handle stuff she doesn’t want to deal with, but the android self-actualizes and hilarity ensues. Sounds like Multiplicity meets Making Mr. Right.
If you followed comedies of the 1990s, you should be happy about Davis’ return to the big screen. Along with Penelope Spheeris and Betty Thomas, she was one of the few women working on broad studio entertainment back then. And she had a great track record for not just delivering funny movies that were box office hits relative to their budgets, but with each of her three biggest titles, she helped break out major comedy stars, namely Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, and Dave Chappelle.
Davis got into filmmaking in a roundabout way, including an early apprenticeship with Francis Ford Coppola, then film school, then a stint directing music videos (as one did in the late ’80s and early ’90s). She made her feature debut with the indie crime film Guncrazy, starring Drew Barrymore in her bad girl days, and followed it quickly with the spot-on gangster rap parody CB4 (it’s basically the original, funnier Straight Outta Compton), starring then-departing Saturday Night Live cast member Chris Rock in his first lead vehicle, at Universal. It was a perfect transition from music videos to comedy film.
Next, she helped launch another SNL star with Sandler’s first major solo outing, Billy Madison. Still arguably the best Adam Sandler Comedy (as in the ones not helmed by auteurs such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach), the movie is silly but surreal and Davis executes the most childish and ridiculous jokes, gags, and musical numbers with such skill that it works in spite of how dumb it all is. Was Sandler funnier at his start? Not really, but he was in better hands than he would be for much of his subsequent output.
After a misfire with Best Men, Davis got back on track with Half Baked, which features another SNL cast member in a supporting role (not even Davis would have been able to turn Jim Breuer into a star) but is led by comedian Dave Chappelle. Like with CB4 and Billy Madison, she was directing off a script co-written by its star, and again she gave us more than just what was on the page or a showcase for the lead’s shtick. These three movies don’t have cult followings just for their quotable lines. They also resonated for how much they genuinely care about their nutty characters.
“I learned early in my career to not let myself get in the way of humor, but instead find what is great in a talented person,” she wrote in a 2015 Washington Post article reflecting on the 20th anniversary of Billy Madison. “I always had to genuinely like the actors I worked with and use my enthusiasm and vision to give them confidence to push their creativity and their humor.”
Davis departed from her usual fare again, far more successfully this time, with 2000’s Skipped Parts, an underrated coming-of-age movie featuring the always perfect Jennifer Jason Leigh as a single mother. It also reunites the filmmaker with Barrymore for their third movie together (if only the occasional Sandler co-star could have been the female lead in Billy Madison). And from there Davis took on Paramount’s attempt to make a movie star out of pop icon Britney Spears, which failed miserably.
Turned On isn’t the first potential comeback project Davis has been linked to. She made an effort a few years ago to return to making movies (read about her re-entry in the Birth.Movies.Death interview), and a few years ago she became attached to the Bridesmaids-esque R-rated comedy The Baby Shower, which still hasn’t been made. Now she’s connected with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and their collaboration could be a proper return. For Turned On, Davis should once again cast an SNL comic for their big break. Kate McKinnon, who worked with Feig on Ghostbusters, could use a great movie finally and it’d be fun to see her play two roles, but she’s already pretty established.
How great would it be for Davis to help launch another SNL lady to movie stardom? Maybe Melissa Villaseñor? Or another woman comic (while also finding a good supporting role for an SNL cast member deserving of his big break). Some diverse names we could get behind include Ali Wong (who is taking Netflix by storm but needs to step up to the big screen), Aparna Nancherla, and Hannah Gadsby, who just recently received international attention for her hit Netflix special Nanette.
I hope I’m not putting too much pressure on either Davis or my own expectations, but she was one of my favorite comedy directors when I was starting out with my study of film and I’ve been missing her talent on the big screen for a long time. I’m sure she’s still got it, and if not I’m sure Feig can guide her even if he hasn’t had a great track record as a director (ahem, Ghostbusters) or producer (see Snatched) of late. Turned On has so much potential to be a big comeback for Davis and big break for whoever stars in the lead.
And if they get stuck, let them just remember the best thing to do when struggling: pause and shout “Knibb High football rules!” Then pivot and crush it.