The importance of being Pauly

Flashbulbs and teen squeals announce Pauly Shore's arrival at Planet Hollywood in the West End.

Amid a journalistic sea of TV and still cameras and a small cluster of mostly young fans, the 27-year-old former MTV VJ and star of numerous slapstick movies--the latest of which, Jury Duty, opens April 12 at a mall near you--strides to the stage. He murmurs a few quiet words to his publicist, then sits down before a glass of designer water and plays it cool.

Pauly was once known for his distinctive heavy dreadlocks, but his last picture, In the Army Now, required that they be sacrificed in the name of verisimilitude. He's kept the short look for his latest screen outing, and the sight of his near-bald crop-top prompts one reporter to ask, "Heyyy, Pauleee...What happened to the lockage?" Pauly rubs his head and smiles wistfully, improbably evoking Takashi Shimura in The Seven Samurai.

But this comedy warrior is all business, playing the event like a press conference, not a stand-up gig. There's a reason why the media have gathered to pay him tribute: this evening, Planet Hollywood's memorabilia collection--which boasts such items as a life-size latex replica of Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man--will become the final resting place for a prop gavel used in Jury Duty by elderly character actor Abe Vigoda, who plays a crusty judge.

Dallas promotions agency Gaylersmith has presaged the event with a local PR blitz; the past couple of days have witnessed a "Party with Pauly" radio contest and multiple talk show appearances.

Unfortunately, the big guns of the North Texas media must be at home watching reruns of "Full House." Most of the journalists present work for high-school and college newspapers, and the coveted front row of press seats is occupied by two guys from the Denison Herald.

Pauly chats with the press for a while, concentrating exclusively on the film, casually steering the conference away from his personal life and back to his onscreen chemistry with costars Tia Carrerre and Stanley Tucci, then takes a stab at relevance by suggesting that Jury Duty is comedy with a subtle purpose--a film that pokes fun at "How stupid the jury system has become."

Then out come the Jury Duty girls, two short, voluptuous young blondes in midriff-knotted T-shirts, one emblazoned with Jury, the other with Duty. They stand close together, and the title of the film appears, spread over four "C" cups.

"We've been getting into trouble because we keep getting mixed up," says the woman whose shirt reads Jury. "I mean Duty Jury, you know."

When Jury and Duty produce The Gavel, Pauly is visibly taken aback.
"That's the real gavel, man!" he exclaims, genuinely delighted.
In five years, Pauly Shore has moved up the pop culture food chain from stand-up comic to VJ to comedy show host (of "Totally Pauly") to big-screen star. According to such pop culture authorities as Spy magazine and The New York Times, he is a poster child for the Dumbing of America--an icon of cluelessness cut from the same cloth as Forrest Gump, Ace Ventura, and Wayne and Garth.

His persona, which he refers to as The Weasel, alternates between lighthearted mockery of authority figures and institutions, clueless mischief, and occasional bursts of average-guy wisdom. Although Pauly says he's seen "one or two" of his movies, the plots of his feature films follow a definite Jerry Lewis pattern, placing the star in various stock comedic situations and surrounding him with straight men.

But where Lewis' idiot man-child character confirmed the stupidity of the institutions that tried to break him by digging in his heels and forcing them to accommodate his warped view of reality, Pauly's heroes usually quit resisting early on and happily join the status quo.

In his first major screen role in Encino Man, Pauly played a valley dude who taught a thawed-out caveman how to live in a world of malls and fast food and be happy. Although the film presented him as an antiestablishment prankster, he ended up acting as the Confucius of modern American suburban life, teaching the bewildered Neanderthal how to make sense of his new world and fit in.

In Son-in-Law and In the Army Now, his character wandered into two rigid American subcultures--the rural small town and the armed forces--and quickly proved he could exist inside them without much conflict. He even become a leader of sorts, inspiring other characters to act more spontaneous and less priggish. His most burning ambition is to get people to lighten up a little.

Whatever his secret is, it seems to be working: although savaged by most critics, his modestly budgeted films are consistently profitable, doing decent business in theaters and cleaning up on video. Perhaps because Pauly's characters are sweet-natured sprites with a playground sense of humor, a large percentage of the actor's following is of high-school age or younger.

As improbable as it might seem, within certain parameters, Pauly Shore is a bankable movie star. He has managed to appear in film after film without having to substantially alter his style of humor. Both Hollywood and the moviegoing public seem to love him exactly the way he is.

It's a sweet deal, all right, and Pauly knows it. He says his high-school buddies can't believe he gets paid so much money to be himself.

Pauly has adjourned to the tiger-skinned upstairs room of Planet Hollywood, along with the 30 or so teens who won the radio contest--most of whom wear Jury Duty T-shirts--and an assortment of entertainment company representatives.

A Geffen Records representative clad all in black floats around the room like Baron Harkonnen. Three impeccably groomed on-air personalities from "Good Morning, Texas" also make the rounds. A couple of high-school guys too cool to wear their souvenir T-shirts hover near Jury and Duty, slowly working up to the presentation of phone numbers.

Pauly sips a cranberry-and-orange juice with vodka through a bendable straw. His phalanx of PR people seem nervous, as if fearing Pauly or his constellation of young fans might unexpectedly start flicking boogers at the VIPs. But Pauly is a model of restraint.

The same can't quite be said for two other lucky contest winners, David Poffenbarger and his fellow Steak & Ale worker, a young man with nose ring, stubble, and near-dreadlocked back-length hair known simply as "Chi."

David assures me that although Chi doesn't look like Steak & Ale material, "He rocks it like a bitch." The two are the only people in the room who seem forged from the same mold as the fictional characters Pauly plays. They stand away from the pack, goofing on the scene.

"It's not that cool to meet Pauly," David says. "But hey, I'm down with the free meal and all."

Chi lets out a slow, leaking laugh. "He's a rich-ass bastard!"
"He's gotta be!" David says, pointing over to Pauly, who is currently talking to a couple of boys with braces on their teeth. "He's gotta be paid to be cheesy sitting around fuckin' talking an' signing autographs an' shit. But that's cool. You know."

Jury and Duty get bored and leave the room.
Chi and David survey the food. "They said 'Free meal,' not 'Free snacks,'" David grouses, using a pair of tongs to load chicken strips breaded with Cap'n Crunch onto his small plate, then drowning them in honey mustard dressing.

Chi, a less forgiving veteran of the food service industry, won't touch the stuff. "This is just a 6 x 3 table, only one flame under each thing," he says disgustedly. "Cut-up chicken strips...look, they're not even taking care of this shit! This shit's not even hot! Hey, I'm not Mr. Man, but those buffalo wings, hell, they come in a fucking package."

"Yeah," David adds. "And a beer would be nice."
A stray voice pokes out of the din.
"Hey," it asks. "Did Pauly leave?"

The following afternoon, in the lobby of the Adolphus Hotel, Pauly Shore reclines on a couch sipping hot lemon tea. He describes his current physical state as "thrashed."

The preceding few hours, which included radio appearances, interviews, and a spot on "Good Morning, Texas" (during which he was chastised for saying the word "boner" over the public airwaves) are finally over with, and the star is exhausted. Pauly's familiar howl has been replaced by a grateful sigh, revealing the strain of being a lesser icon. Even the silent-but-deadlies he toots out with astonishing regularity display their own laid-back charm--something reminiscent of an avocado burrito with a spoonful of mango chutney.

Pauly is excited about his new direction as an actor in Jury Duty, which, although wacky, is his least Weasel-like performance yet. "I couldn't do The Weasel in this," he says. "On MTV it's cool to go "Auwuuuooo!"...but if I keep doing these movies, then I start turning into Ernest or something like that. I got pigeonholed. And now I'm slowly becoming more of an actor, I think, but still keeping that knuckleheaded quality and that innocence and the...the spontaneity and the improvising that I kinda, like, had on MTV."

Whooosh. This one has a tinge of garlic.
He deeply admires the Big Three of screen comedy: Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Tom Hanks, all of whom made the transition from goofy comic to respected ack-tor. The thought of someday ascending into the hallowed class of Tom Hanks--who won his second Oscar four days before Pauly came to Dallas--gives the self-described knucklehead a buzz.

Pauly's normally half-mast eyelids pop up at the notion of abandoning his happy-go-stupid persona for "maybe a villain. You know, anything! People don't know this, but I have a dark side, y'know. I'm like a pizza...a pizza, and [the audience] is only getting one slice, but there are all these other slices, know what I mean?"

To that end, he recently auditioned for the role of a gay poet in Francis Ford Coppola's upcoming biographical movie about Beat writer Jack Kerouac. If he gets the part, Pauly feels certain his fans will be able to handle it. "They'll go, 'Wow! I didn't know my buddy Pauly had this whole, like, wicked side to him!'"

Pauly grows passionate when talking about his craft. He's proud of what he brings to the material, especially considering the scripts he begins with.

"They're the worst," he confesses. "They give me a headache! When you have your own style, you specifically have to write for it. I respect every director I work with, but they don't know me as much as I know me."

So, since gaining a measure of clout, he is now contractually guaranteed that at least one take of each scene will be performed his way, regardless of the director's wishes.

"They edit it the way they want it," he says, "and then they test it and it doesn't work. So I have to go back and put in all my takes, and that's what happened on Jury Duty. My company helped produce this, you know, Weasel Productions, just so I could start getting credit, so people could see I'm not just the guy that shows up on the set and Ba-da-ba-da-baa! I'm creatively involved in the casting, the writing, the angles...with the uh, the editing...stuff like that.

"Comedy is such a fuckin' personal thing," Pauly says, raising his voice, on the verge of an artistic credo. "It's kind of like, y'know..if you had an insecurity, y'know, and someone named it, y'know, like, 'Oh, your eyes are fucked-up!' And, y'know. And you're like this..."

Pauly's face screws itself up into a horrified mask--the expression of a man wrestling with the extremities of existence.

A remnant of Cap'N Crunch and honey mustard fills the air.
"Like, like someone saying to me, 'You're not funny!'" he continues. "That's like , Oh!..."

He makes another face--an expression of total incredulity.
"Y'know what I mean?


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