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Showtime revisits ‘Reefer Madness’

Unintentional '30s cult hit now a small-screen musical
/ Source: The Associated Press

A six-foot hookah sits in the middle of the room, a remnant of an orgy a few days before.

Behind a curtain in the execution chamber, FDR, a gangster’s bloodied moll and a chorus of dancing inmates gleefully sing about the evils of “the demon weed” to a boy strapped to an electric chair.

George Washington, Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty wait in the wings. And Jesus has left the building.

Stepping onto the otherworldly set of Showtime’s “Reefer Madness” was not unlike entering the land of Oz — though it’s doubtful the munchkins would have spent their days rolling chamomile joints beneath plastic marijuana trees.

Welcome to premium cable’s adaptation of “Reefer Madness,” the popular 1999 musical based on the 1930s film that became a cult classic in the ’60s and ’70s — with college kids often lighting up to watch it at midnight theater showings.

Premiering 8 p.m. ET Saturday, the raucous, high-energy comedy spins a tale of two all-American, gee-whiz kids who fall into a downward spiral of sex and mayhem after one puff of a joint.

But this isn’t a cautionary tale about pot, says Kevin Murphy, who co-wrote the musical and teleplay.

“It’s about the lengths people will go to convince you to think the way they want you to think,” he says. “‘Reefer Madness’ is a prime example of people using scare tactics to convince people to enact laws against drugs, gays in the military or whatever.”

Directed by Andy Fickman, who also helmed the stage musical, “Reefer Madness” is a film-within-a-film.

A reefer rampageA black-and-white movie frames the story. It features Tony winner Alan Cumming (“Cabaret”) as the smooth-talking huckster who shows a film, “Tell Your Children” (the actual title of the original anti-marijuana film), to parents in a small town, warning them of the “unspeakable scourge turning all your children into hooligans and whores.”

A color film illustrates the tragic tale of young Jimmy (Christian Campbell) and his doe-eyed ingénue, Mary (Kristen Bell).

Their puppy-love fantasies are dogged by Jack, a drug pusher played by Steven Weber, who hooks Jimmy into his den of dopeheads, which include Jack’s maligned girlfriend, Mae, played by Ana Gasteyer, a tarty blonde (Amy Spanger), and a wild-eyed addict (John Kassir).

Overnight Jimmy becomes caught up in a reefer-induced rampage of promiscuity, theft and murder. Not even Jesus (Robert Torti), descending to earth for a Vegas-style number, can save him.

It’s only after Mae slays her weed demons, and whacks Jack, that she comes to Jimmy’s aid with a presidential pardon for him and this gaggle of American icons here on set.

“We bring him back to truth, justice and the American way,” says Gasteyer, sticky, red syrup glistening over her face. “That number is the ultimate parody (showing) how the government has its ordained ideas of what’s right and wrong morally and culturally.”

Murphy and Dan Studney, college pals from Drew University in Madison, N.J., came up with the idea for the stage musical in 1997 while on a road trip from Oakland to Los Angeles.

It opened in 1999 in Los Angeles, became a hit and moved to off-Broadway. But the run was brief, since it opened shortly after 9/11.

'Equal opportunity offensive'Soon after stepping in as Showtime’s president in July 2003, Robert Greenblatt greenlighted “Reefer” as the channel’s first full-length musical, and Murphy says it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“In today’s social climate, the world has caught up with the themes that we loved in ‘Reefer Madness,” he says.

“It’s so clever because it offends everyone equally,” laughs Cumming, dressed as FDR in a suit and straw hat.

“People who might be offended by a film called ‘Reefer Madness,’ that has a lot of people smoking pot all the time, will be happy that it has an anti-drug message,” Cumming continues.

“And people who are offended that Jesus comes down and does a number will be happy to know that the devil is destroyed at the end. So it’s an equal opportunity offensive film.”

Equally so for the film’s over-the-top acting, Weber says. But that’s intentional.

“The original ‘Reefer Madness’ was such an awful movie so we tried to capture the essence of some of those really bad period performances,” says Weber, dressed as Washington in white wig and tights. “I’ve played bad characters before, and arguably I’ve played them badly, but this one at least I have an excuse.”