Two middle-aged cops blare their police-cruiser siren, weaving recklessly in and out of traffic. In the backseat is Fogell, or “McLovin,” whose quest to purchase booze with a fake ID has clearly inspired them to relive their own teenage glory years. So they pull into an empty parking lot, peel off some wild donuts and shout victoriously into the night.
Then, in a hilarious improv from the coming-of-age 2007 blockbuster Superbad, Bill Hader (as Officer Slater) fires off the chorus of Van Halen‘s “Panama.” To celebrate McLovin’s birthday (according to his fraudulent driver’s license, his birthday is June 3, 1981), let’s look a bit closer at this moment of classic-rock comedy.
The scene — featuring an almost virtuosic comic performance from Hader, alongside Seth Rogen (Officer Michaels) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin) — is full of magic moments: Michaels dryly observing his cop partner’s own drunkenness, McLovin squealing with excitement multiple times. But Hader’s unscripted “Panama” riff is the icing on the cake, leading to an actual snippet of the hard-rock hit during Slater’s ill-fated attempt at the ultimate donut, “the upward-spiraling pigtail.”
Watch Bill Hader’s Character Crank Van Halen’s ‘Panama’ in ‘Superbad’
It’s the perfect marriage of song and character — it’s easy to imagine Slater pulling the same car trick in the same parking lot back in 1984, with his Van Halen cassette cranked to full volume.
Rogen acknowledged that moment’s spontaneous origins on Twitter, reportedly telling a fan, “Bill Hader sang it as an improv, and we put it in.” And while that looseness is part of the movie’s charm, in this case it came with a big dollar sign: “I improvised singing ‘Panama,’” Hader told The Ringer in 2017, “and then [producer Judd Apatow] got mad at me: ‘Do you know how much ‘Panama’ costs?!'”
We don’t know that exact figure, but director Greg Mottola also alluded to the massive price tag in a 2009 New York Times interview, noting that the “Panama” rights “cost nearly as much as all of the songs” in his follow-up film, Adventureland.
While the “Panama” improv may have fit the story, it’s possible Hader was drawing on his own youthful music tastes. “In 1988, there was no bigger band than Def Leppard, and I would listen to my Hysteria tape top to bottom,” he told Pitchfork in 2020. “That album reminds me of the fair in Tulsa, where they would always be playing hair metal — you would get on a ride, and it would be ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me.’ I always think of those guys with the Iron Maiden T-shirts — they were the cool older kids.”
Hader’s Superbad character sorta feels like one of those “cool older kids” — except maybe 20 or so years down the road. Ride on, our over-the-hill, donut-spinning, “Panama”-blasting friend. May your pigtails always be upward-spiraling.
See Rock’s Epic Fails: Van Halen Edition