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Ben Stiller Apparently Gave A Heads Up About One Of Robert Downey Jr.'s Most Controversial Tropic Thunder Jokes

screenshots of Sean Penn in I Am Sam and Robert Downey Jr. In Tropic Thunder
(Image credit: New Line/Dreamworks)

Tropic Thunder has been a continual topic of conversation in the years since its 2008 release. The movie has a notable cameo from Tom Cruise, a stacked cast, a lot of funny jokes… and a few more jokes that look particularly bad when taken out of context and put into meme form. Central to this is Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus, a character written to poke fun at Hollywood’s penchant for going too far to try and win Oscars. In the film, he plays an actor who has a medical procedure in order to play a Black character.

This character’s behavior and obsession with prestige leads to one of the most notable jokes in the movie, in which Kirk Lazarus explains that it's more advantageous from an awards perspective to play characters who have challenges but still succeed. He brings up Forrest Gump and Rain Man as examples, then says you "never go full r-word" like Sean Penn in I Am Sam because people won't vote for that at the Oscars. 

The joke wasn’t ad-libbed, and apparently, as it was being written into the script, Ben Stiller gave the I Am Sam creatives a heads up. In a recent interview with THR, director Jessie Nelson recalls getting the call from Ben Stiller, who produced alongside his longtime partner Stuart Cornfield, as well as directed and acted in Tropic Thunder

Ben had called Sean to warn him and tell him. I understand the cynicism of ‘Oh, if you do a movie about a disabled character, you’re gonna win an Academy Award.’ But in truth, how many movies are actually about the disabled community? There are so few. But yeah, people are allowed to razz it and make fun of it however they want. Once you do a movie, you’re kind of out in the world.

To note, times have changed, even with the Oscars, since both I am Sam and Tropic Thunder came out. In the same interview, Jessie Nelson says flat out she would not have made the movie “without a lead being from the community” if the film was being made today. Nelson also says the point of the joke Tropic Thunder made on the big screen nearly seven years after I Am Sam came out didn’t offend either herself or the movie’s lead Sean Penn.

Insofar as Robert Downey Jr.’s character Kirk Lazarus taking thing too far, this has also become a topic of conversation in the Internet era. It’s one Downey Jr. addressed previously, noting that Ben Stiller “knew exactly what the vision” for the comedy was and that he “executed it.” The point of the role was not to make Kirk Lazarus a permissible human being but to spotlight hypocrisy in the industry. Robert Downey Jr. ultimately told Joe Rogan the social commentary aspect is why he said yes to Tropic Thunder, recalling,

I get to hold up to nature the insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion, just my opinion.

Oddly, in that same interview, Robert Downey Jr. had mentioned that I Am Sam actor Sean Penn had already passed on the role of Kirk Lazarus. I have no idea if the joke was written into the script before then, but that’s an interesting connection to touch on. Meanwhile, I Am Sam turned 20 back in December, if you haven’t revisited the film in a while, you can catch the Sean Penn starrer streaming on Netflix.

Jessica Rawden

Amazing Race & Top Chef superfan with a pinch of Disney fairy dust thrown in. If you’ve created a rom-com I’ve probably watched it.