As showstopper gags go, it's hard to top catching your gonads in a zipper. Or explaining away an errant blob of spooge stuck to your ear as hair gel. Ben Stiller did both in 1998's There's Something About Mary, and the movie's huge success could easily have trapped him in a boring spiral of ever-grosser gross-outs.
But Stiller's one spunky comedic actor, and he's managed to work himself up to another hot streak. His mid-January romantic comedy, Along Came Polly, with Jennifer Aniston, took in a surprising $87 million. Now the '70s-TV retread Starsky & Hutch is cleaning up too. Suddenly, a Stiller-heavy 2004 slate is feeling like happy ubiquity instead of groan-inducing overkill.
You think you work hard? Okay, deep breath: Stiller will appear as another uptight loser in April's Envy, opposite Jack Black as his nouveau riche inventor pal. In June, he'll show up as a perma-tanned corporate-health-club villain in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (which reteams the 38-year-old actor with his wife and Zoolander costar, Christine Taylor). Then he cameos in Will Ferrell's July release, Anchorman. Finally, if all goes well with rehearsals and ongoing script work in the next month, he'll complete the Meet the Parents sequel, Meet the Fockers, in time for a late-December opening. (Dustin Hoffman is signed to play pop Bernie Focker. As for Barbra Streisand as Mrs. F -- a Stiller suggestion that led to a rash of rumors she'd actually taken the part -- at this point it's ''not impossible, but not likely,'' according to director Jay Roach, who also helmed the Austin Powers movies.)
How has Stiller managed to corner the market in ritual-humiliation comedy? ''Some comedians are larger than life, and you don't really have a connection with them,'' says Polly writer-director John Hamburg (who also cowrote Meet the Parents and is currently at work on Fockers). True enough: Jim Carrey, for instance, always seems in command of the situation, even when he's playing an ostensibly powerless guy. ''[With] Ben, you really feel his pain.... The audience can imagine going to dinner with that guy. They see themselves in him.''
So much so, Hamburg reports, that Polly test audiences frequently ''covered their eyes at some of the things he goes through'' -- like a violent bout of gastrointestinal distress after eating spicy food. What keeps ticket buyers watching from between their fingers? ''There's that little thing where you go, 'I'm so glad Ben is going through that and not me.''' (Stiller declined to comment for this article, saying through a rep that he'd find it unseemly to meditate on his own success.)
Universal Pictures chairman Stacey Snider thinks the perpetual, acute discomfort and embarrassment Stiller enacts in his movies play funny because ''you know he's really smarter than whatever just happened, that he's winking a little bit.'' But it's on TV that Stiller really seems to work that nudge-nudge angle most shrewdly. He just finished a memorable guest stint ostensibly as ''himself'' on Larry David's HBO sitcom, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which, along with the DVD release of the one-season cult hit The Ben Stiller Show, went a long way toward righting his rep after last fall's theatrical dud Duplex. (For once, Stiller may have pushed the edgy thing too far, in scenes of Drew Barrymore puking all over him.)