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Funny Business

Funny Business

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Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and Dave Mandel on the set of Eurotrip (2004)

Comedy is considered by many to be the most difficult genre to write (or direct). Recent cinematic attempts (Alex and Emma, Legally Blonde 2 and the truly pathetic The Sweetest Thing) indicate that good comedy may not only be difficult, but virtually impossible (unless your audience is comprised solely of 13-year-old girls). Screenwriter Ed Solomon says he has observed many people pontificate, but has never heard one person “who is actually funny” explain exactly what makes people laugh. Achieving comedy in film is especially difficult, he says, because “in film there are 100 reasons a joke won’t come off. Those reasons may have as much to do with the actor’s delivery or the shooting or the editing as with the writing. In film, it’s incredibly hard to get it right.”

Not only is comedy difficult, it can also be terrifying. In drama and fantasy, “if you build it, they will come.” (At least someone will come.) In comedy, it can happen that if you build it, nobody shows up—or worse, they show up and go home, still wearing the expressions of the men of Mount Rushmore.

Given the elusiveness of good comedy, it isn’t surprising that many books have been published analyzing the genre and offering advice to screenwriters on how to accomplish it. In Laughing out Loud, Andrew Horton, Professor of Film and Video Studies at the University of Oklahoma, tells us that comedy is broken into three major areas: comedian-driven (based on a particular personality), situation-oriented (story-based) or character-centered (based on character growth, as in classic comedy). In discussing the comic perspective, he writes that comedy is more a way of looking at
the universe than a particular genre—a perspective apparently shared by Woody Allen, who is credited with the line “comedy is tragedy plus time” from Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The dictionary definition of comedy is “a light movie or play with a happy ending,” while humor is something “funny or comical.” Not much meat there, but perhaps that’s all that can really be said about the essence of comedy: it’s something that makes us laugh. And perhaps that’s also why comedy is so difficult to define, particularly on a universal level.

Harold Ramis gets a little help being funny from Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal on the set of Analyze That.

People laugh at different things. Something humorous in one culture or demographic group may be received like a hand grenade in another. A disproportionate number of teenage boys like genitalia jokes, for instance, while the gentry tends to prefer the likes of The Importance of Being Earnest. Thus, comedies that tap that universal funny bone, the ones that make the entire theater erupt in simultaneous laughter, are rare. So how do comic writers achieve those rare, genius moments?

MM decided to seek answers from the people who have brought howls of laughter from the bellies to the lips of millions: writers Anne Rapp (Cookie’s Fortune, Dr. T and The Women) and George Wing (50 First Dates), writer-directors Harold Ramis (Animal HouseCaddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Analyze This) and Ed Solomon (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Men in Black) and the writing team of Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and Dave Mandel (The Cat in the Hat, Eurotrip, “Seinfeld”).

Sitting at the venerable Driskill Hotel in Anne Rapp’s adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, we were reminded once again that the paths to becoming a successful screenwriter are as varied as creatures of the Great Barrier Reef. Rapp says that she never intended to become a screenwriter, and never remotely considered herself a comedy writer.
Rapp grew up in a town of 300 people in the Texas Panhandle and eventually went to a college 90 miles away on a basketball scholarship. To earn money for school she spent her summers picking cotton. In the cotton fields she began her training for storytelling, calling on her imagination “to stay alive” through the excruciating heat and boredom. Her education continued at night, as she listened to the old-timers telling tales in a place without television and movies. Later, when the movie industry came to Dallas, she got work in commercials and eventually moved to Hollywood to become a script supervisor.

After 15 years she saved enough money to pursue her real desire, and enrolled in a program for short story writers in Oxford, Mississippi, the hometown of William Faulkner. En route to her dream, Robert Altman discovered her first published short story and asked her to come write for him.

“Getting a big, important laugh requires a big, important subject.”

– HAROLD RAMIS

“I never set out to write a comedy,” Rapp says. “I don’t think of myself as funny. I think I’m emotional and dramatic. Writing Dr. T and The Women was actually painful. When I read my scripts after they’re done, I see that they’re funny, but it’s like the absurdity of life sneaks up on me. Every sad situation I create ends up as a joke.”

She feels her comedy comes not from wit or clever turns of phrase, but from letting life’s incongruous details surprise her. An important element, she believes, is creating characters who are truthful, without telling the audience that their situation is actually sad. She says that her favorite comedic moments come almost as if the character is saying the line to her—but the “joke” is of course funnier when the character doesn’t know he’s being funny.

If you want to write comedy, she advises, just open your senses, pay attention and observe very specifically what is happening around you. Mississippi, for example, is a locale “rich in the human condition.” Every day there, she says, you can find something that makes a comedic story. Texas is also a place rich in material, because Texans have so much pride that they drive other people crazy.

One of the many reasons Rapp lives in Austin is her need to be “within shouting distance of the kinds of people and places” she writes about. Dr. T and The Women, a movie much under-appreciated at the box office, is a perfect example of her need for proximity. A successful Texas gynecologist (Richard Gere) is surrounded by a group of neurotic, self-centered, demanding, hypochondriacal, alcoholic, sexually deviant, perfectly ordinary women (played by a great ensemble cast). The movie is classic Rapp, presenting the daily life of a wealthy Texas doctor, while exposing the underpinnings of insanity.

“When the characters come alive, the good stuff starts to f low.”
—GEORGE WING

An advantage of being both the writer and director is avoidance of the dreaded rewrite. Even experienced writers like Ed Solomon acknowledge that it’s “very traumatic to be rewritten, like having an ectopic pregnancy—a shock to the system.”

George Wing agrees. Wing developed 50 First Dates after reading a newspaper article about a person with no short-term memory. He wondered what life would be like if he met the woman of his dreams but she could never remember him. He wrote a spec script, which eventually lodged with Adam Sandler’s company, where Wing was replaced by Sandler’s own writers. When Wing saw the final script, it seemed to him “a mixture of two voices. I’m a little more humanist,” he says. “I never would have thought up that scene where Drew Barrymore takes a baseball bat to the guy.”

When asked how he knows whether something is funny, he answers: “I write a lot in cafés. If I embarrass myself by laughing alone, I figure it’s funny.” But he emphasizes that he’s not trying to be funny. Essentially he’s telling a story, and the comedy is rooted in compassion. “If you begin to love your character, he will come alive, and then the good stuff starts to flow. I don’t know how to try to be funny. But you don’t have to be a funny person to write great comedy. P.G. Wodehouse was a really dull man who wrote hilarious stuff.”

Ed Solomon, formerly a television writer for “Laverne and Shirley” and “The Garry Shandling Show,” advises “Be hard on your work but not on yourself—and never be caught saying ‘I don’t personally find it funny but…’” He sees tremendous value in the experience of group writing. Although Rapp and Wing work alone, comedy writers don’t always slave away in isolation. Ideas catch on and the group can take it and run with it. As an individual, he says, you have to trust your own guts, but you also have to have checks and balances. You have to find out if it’s still funny later. A group can help make that determination, both by supporting the idea and by competing with it.

Three writers who thrive in a group dynamic are Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and Dave Mandel. Several years of working on “Seinfeld” and “Saturday Night Live” gave these writers the experience of having total responsibility for a concept, from inception through final edit. In this process, they learned the importance of structure, and they carried this knowledge into writing features. In their most recent movie, Eurotrip (directed by all three but credited solely to Jeff), they acknowledge the importance of structure and story.

“When we’re writing, we pay a lot of attention to structure and set up,” says Schaffer. “Eurotrip is more episodic because it’s a road trip, but every scene propels the story forward. If the scene doesn’t move the story, we cut it. And most of the time we’re trying to have a joke happening right now in the scene, but also be setting up one for later.

“But the story has to be funny. This is especially true when you’re working with unknown actors. If you have a known actor such as Jim Carrey, the audience is already prepared to laugh. But when you have unknowns, the audience has no expectation so your work is harder.

“We pretty much have everything worked out beforehand in the writing. So when we come to shooting, we already know exactly what we want and how we want things said, what we want the scene to look like. We figure out all the really hard stuff in the writing. We hash it out in a collaborative effort because comedy really is a collaboration. And then we still have to test our theories. Sometimes it doesn’t come off when the actor performs the joke—and sometimes the actor makes the joke much better than it was written. But we always read our scripts out loud. As writers we have a vision, but we’re not actors. Hopefully a comedian will take our words and make them better and will add to the whole creation.”

Harold Ramis got his start by standing in the kitchen and making his mother laugh. He was always a comedy aficionado and religiously watched early television comedians like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Steve Allen. In college he wrote his own musical comedies and eventually joined Chicago’s famed Second City comedy group.

Ramis is associated with some of the funniest movies in recent memory. Along with films such as Animal House and Caddyshack, many believe his Groundhog Day to be the apex of comedic moviemaking. Even with his extensive background and success in comedy, though, Ramis says he only knows whether something is funny to him. So he sticks to what he finds meaningful.

Ed Solomon and Holly Hunter on the set of his directorial debut, Levity (2003)

“Every person is a unique individual,” he says, “but people are alike in so many ways—exposed to the same world events and the same existential problems of death and loneliness.

“But there are many levels of comedy—from the restrained cerebral thought that evokes a smile or the comment ‘how witty’ to the hilarious action that bypasses thought and goes straight to the unconscious. This latter is more powerful because it hits at a more basic, visceral level.”

In his view, getting the big important laugh requires a big important subject. “Laughter doesn’t seem to have the same emotional value as grief or fear—which are all about loss, something which is universally terrifying. But if you can present that loss in a way that makes people laugh, you have achieved a celebration and allowed people to see something painful in a less painful way.”

Ramis adds that creating comedy in Hollywood requires having good people skills, executive abilities and remaining “corporate-friendly.” He admits it can be a trying slate of skills. He has proposed projects calling for a young male lead and has been asked if Goldie Hawn could do it. Ramis tells the old joke: How many studio executives does it take to change a light bulb? Does it have to be a light bulb?

Ramis advises: “Say yes to everything—whether it’s an audition or a small writing job. In our industry, people spend a lot of time dreaming and wishing. The usual dream is to be discovered—but being discovered is passive. A dream is different from a goal because a dream involves magic, while a goal involves a series of practical steps taken in a certain direction. Take the practical steps that achieve a goal and a dream can happen.”

Perhaps making funny movies personifies the notion that comedy is born of both absurdity and pain. The best comedy writers provide the twist that turns those universal discomforts into universal laughter—an important skill because laughter, after all, is one of the most important ingredients in maintaining sanity in an absurd world. MM

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