Why the 'There's Something About Mary' Soundtrack Still Sticks 20 Years Later

© 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Everett
Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins in There's Something About Mary.

Peter Farrelly and Jonathan Richman look back at the making of its unconventional soundtrack

Over the course of the unabashedly funny two hours of There’s Something About Mary, which turned 20 this month, a fish hook gets lodged through Ben Stiller’s cheek, his undeveloped teenage nether-regions get jammed into a malevolent zipper, and, ahem, hair gel gets stuck in Cameron Diaz’s hair. But two decades after its release, the film’s soundtrack retains an equally potent sticking power.

Before the camera pans to Stiller’s lovestruck Ted Stroehmann ror Diaz’s idyllic Mary Jensen, the film lingers lovingly on cult hero Jonathan Richman, perched up a tree with his guitar. Throughout, Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins act as a Greek chorus, tying together the film's increasingly outrageous levels of icky, sticky, spiky blend of humor. The heartwarming comedy tells the story of one man’s fight to keep his heart (and genitalia) from breaking -- but the only bone Richman and Larkins are breaking is our funny bone.

The genesis of one of film history’s most unlikely troubadours stretches decades back to when directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly were just a couple of kids in Rhode Island, listening to the "Road Runner" by the Modern Lovers -- Richman's former band -- on local radio. “I always loved their work,” Peter Farrelly says. The brothers later became comedy icons on the back of Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, returning continuously to their New England roots in their work. When it came time for their third film, the duo rewrote from a script by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss to make a film that upped their raunchy revelry to an excruciating, exhilarating new degree -- bending the preconceived laws of propriety and busting the boundaries of mainstream comedy filmmaking.

The first draft of the script, however, didn’t feature the wrap-around musical narration. That came only after the Farrellys attended one of Richman’s Los Angeles gigs. “We had just written the script," Peter explains. "When we heard ‘Let Her Go Into the Darkness,’ I turned to Bobby and told him it’d be great for the movie. And then they played another one, and I said, ‘Hey, you know what, this would be a good one too.’" Rather than merely stacking the soundtrack with Richman’s tunes, Bobby recommended using the cult hero in the film itself.

The next step was to get Richman himself on board. “They sent me the screenplay," he recalls. "An hour after I read it, I called Pete Farrelly. I said: ‘You know what your movie needs? A theme song!’ After reading the screenplay, it took me about twenty minutes to make it up.”

That theme, which shares the movie's title, sets the perfect tone for the film, offering a sweet, romantic counterpoint to the “frank and beans” mutilation, rabid dog, and rashy foot fetishist -- a reminder to the audience that there’s an inherently romantic core underneath the layers of crassness. But even the Farrellys weren’t sure their idea would be successful. “We assumed it wouldn’t work,” Peter laughs. “We told Jonathan and Tommy we'd pay them to hang out down in Miami for 10 weeks, have some fun. They could do whatever they wanted and still get paid."

Coming into the filming process, the Farrellys had already picked out a few of Richman’s songs that fit their vision: “Let Her Go Into the Darkness” and “True Love is Not Nice,” which would be released later that year on Richman’s I’m So Confused. While Bobby Farrelly cited comedic Western Cat Ballou as the inspiration for the troubadour concept -- particularly that film’s use of Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole -- Richman looked to another comedic icon for inspiration. “The music from Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? by the Lovin’ Spoonful had some effect on parts of our soundtrack,” he says.

The process of the filming was as full of as many twists, turns, and laughs as the movie itself. In the original draft of the script, Ben Stiller’s Ted gets killed right as he finally unites with his long-labored-over love. But during the filming process, the Farrellys decided to have him dodge the bullet, instead offing Richman. “Pete had a sudden inspiration, and I happened to be on the set,” Richman recalls. “I was happy about this because the original ending was worse than I’m telling you, and I thought this was much less foul.” In the process of getting shot, the character tumbles over the edge of a pier, guitar and all -- but Richman was insistent that they not use a genuine Rickenbacker guitar for the scene. “Not a prayer!” he says. “And when they went to the music store to get a Rickenbacker like mine after I’d said ‘No!’, they told the guy what they planned to do with it, and he wouldn’t sell ‘em one.” (Instead, the crew found found a cheap guitar at a pawn shop as a stunt double.)

Even while editing, the Farrellys were still prepared to cut their troubadour out of the film. They’d shot the entire movie with that in mind, ensuring that the narrative would work with or without the interstitial music. Today, though, Peter says putting the songs into the movie was one of his favorite parts of the process. “Every director I’ve met says that they want to throw up when they first see an assembly of their movies," he explains. "But when you get to lay the music in, it’s heaven because all of a sudden it all pops. It’s so much fun and so joyful.”

That joy comes through loud and clear in the non-Richman selections for the soundtrack. The end-credits-sing-along to “Build Me Up Buttercup” is an iconic highlight, bringing the star-studded cast together in giddy song. “About every three or four scenes I would get everybody together to do it, and everybody would say, ‘Oh no, not again,” Peter recalls with a laugh. From The Lemonheads’ “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You” to Ben Lee’s “How to Survive a Broken Heart,” there’s also plenty of jangle and burn mixed up into the longing and pining. Peter would often drive around with a stash of tapes courtesy of Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval, music supervisors that the Farrellys collaborate with frequently. “They have really good taste in music, both new and old, and they forward me tapes throughout the year,” he says. “I was always driving around, listening to songs, and marking down which would work.”

During the first test screening, the Farrellys were nervous about the audience response to their unconventional choices. “When the film opened and Jonathan’s in the tree singing, this woman in front of me looked at her friend and said, ‘What is this bullshit?’” Peter recalls. “But then the second time he came in, she giggled. And then the third time he came in, she was howling.”

And in the end, the lone guitarist swinging his legs off a tree branch to introduce a film struck the heartstrings of viewers worldwide -- both Modern Lovers diehards and neophytes. “He's a real cult hero, but the people who did know of him were fucking thrilled to see him,” Peter says. While Richman has further cemented his legacy as one of indie rock’s great songwriters over the twenty years since the film’s release, he’s happy to be spotted on the street as “the Something About Mary guy” from time to time.

“We thought we were very amusing,” Richman says. “We’re proud to have had our part in it, and we’ve never minded if people come up and say hello when that’s the way they’ve heard of us. People have been real nice.”