'22 Jump Street'

Chris Miller, left, and Phil Lord, directors of the new film "22 Jump Street," are photographed inside a building fascade on "New York Street" on the 20th Century Fox studio lot. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Channing Tatum simply couldn't come up with enough curse words fast enough, so Jonah Hill stepped into the vulgarity breach.

The actors were improvising a scene about improvisation last October, as the "21 Jump Street" veterans were graduating from the last film's high school setting into college for the coming "22 Jump Street."

In a pub at Tulane University converted into a fictional college for the sequel, Tatum and Hill's undercover and generally incompetent police officers were, as in the first hit film, trying to track down a school drug dealer.

As part of their detective work, Officers Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) were investigating a campus comedy club. Schmidt, in his attempt to woo the friend of a drug overdose victim, already had performed one of the worst slam poems on record (one line: "Jesus cried. 'Runaway Bride.'"). Now it was Jenko's turn to try to understand why an improv comedy team didn't just write out their jokes ahead of time. "Wouldn't that be much funnier?" Tatum asked them, before offering the team a string of crude ideas — almost all involving the body parts of elderly women — for their next sketch.

"This is the dumbest scene we have ever done on this movie," Hill said while the production took a brief break. Added Tatum: "And we have done some really stupid stuff."

Only a few snippets of the sequence would make it into the finished film, but the scene was illustrative of how directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller like to work: Almost everything that happened that day on the "22 Jump Street" set was made up on the spot, and yet it stitched together, almost seamlessly (the outtakes will be on its DVD).

It's part of the Lord and Miller filmmaking mantra: Embrace failure. Go for the unexpected. Don't be afraid of sequels or making fun of the very thing you're making a movie about.

And it's helped make them rare birds in Hollywood — directors who make popular entertainment that's smarter than you would ever imagine it could be.

Off-screen comedy team

Lord and Miller met as Dartmouth College students, when Miller accidentally set Lord's girlfriend's hair on fire (both also worked on the college newspaper). Several years ago the two were having a get-to-know-you meal with Mads Nipper, then the chief marketing officer of Lego.

The filmmakers were at breakfast to talk about "The Lego Movie," but before the conversation turned to business, Lord and Miller stacked their omelets on top of their pancakes, dousing the whole "omfle," as they called it, with maple syrup.

When a skeptical Nipper tried a bite, he pronounced it delicious and the meeting was off with a bang.

"It's an example of something they did that was at first perceived to be weird but then it turned out to be genius," said Dan Lin, a producer of "The Lego Movie." "They are both highly creative guys who think and work in unconventional ways."

"Unconventional" doesn't fully describe their talent. With this year's "The Lego Movie" and 2012's "21 Jump Street," Lord and Miller have turned what looked to be Hollywood's most cynical efforts to cash in on recognizable brands into legitimately good movies.

Their films have a refreshing self-awareness that gives them a kind of "meta" quality. In the "Lego Movie," for example, the characters sing about being Lego characters. The directors know that their audience — even the youngest — understand that they are watching a fictional universe that's ultimately aimed at selling them a product.

Yes, "The Lego Movie" (worldwide gross: $462 million) and "21 Jump Street" (worldwide gross: $201 million) were highly profitable. But they also drew almost shockingly positive reviews: "The Lego Movie" attracted positive notices almost exactly commensurate with the best picture Oscar winner "12 Years a Slave," and everyone who had modest expectations for how they would adapt Johnny Depp's corny 1980s TV series "21 Jump Street" into a feature had to be more than satisfied with the resulting movie.

"I wish we were smart enough that every time we had an idea for a script that it was great right off the bat," Lord said after filming wrapped on "22 Jump Street," in which Hill and Tatum's characters try a trial separation as crime-fighting partners, only to realize their professional relationship shouldn't be annulled.

"But I don't know that we're that great. Everything we've ever done — the first draft of things have been not very good — we keep working at them and then we're open to new things like the joke about Channing and the improv comedians."

Like most successful filmmaking teams, Lord and Miller, who previously wrote on television shows including "How I Met Your Mother" and "Clone High," often finish each other's sentences, and there's no readily discernible difference in how they divide job responsibilities. Lord, 37, has more nervous energy, frequently raking his hands through his turbulent hair. Miller, 38, by default is the calmer of the two, and with his comparatively calm and laconic manner it's possible to mistake him on set for Lord's talent agent, not creative partner.

While the two had some early success after leaving college, they struggled for some periods, and their MTV show "Clone High" was canceled soon after an episode about Gandhi sparked a hunger strike in India. The two, who live in Los Angeles, almost didn't get to complete their first feature, the animated "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," after a series of creative clashes with producer Sony Pictures (the studio fired them before rehiring them to finish the movie).