Do you spend as much time writing physical comedy as you do verbal?
I think that physical comedy is actually more difficult to write, since you’re trying to describe in words what’s essentially visual. All of those physically comedic scenes in films like The Hangover, Bad Santa, Ghostbusters, Animal House, American Pie and others are really more dependent on the execution of the cast, director, and editor to achieve their full impact. In contrast, you can make the reader laugh if your verbal comedy is very accomplished – and funny!
Do you write different versions of a joke?
I don’t really write jokes per se – standup comics, sketch and sit-com writers do that for a living. In features, I’m trying to write situational comedy where the humor derives from a situation that’s outrageous, absurd, or otherwise untenable and the characters react in ways consistent with who they are, or wish they were. So I may write different versions of these crucial scenes until I’m satisfied that they work as best as I can achieve them.
Which do you think is a greater impact when resolved, the Main Character’s goal or the Main Character’s flaw?
In a film like Groundhog Day, a classic comedy of frustration, the entire resolution is dependent on Bill Murray’s character recognizing and correcting his essential flaw; his only goal is to end the Groundhog Day loop that he’s stuck in, which ultimately requires him to come to terms with his character flaw. In Dolemite Is My Name, the greater impact is achieved by Eddie Murphy’s character’s hilariously attaining his goal against enormous odds.
Have you ever had to fight with a studio or collaborator to keep a joke in?
I don’t know if I’d characterize them as “fights”, but I’ve had disagreements with producers and directors over certain scenes or what I thought were funny lines of dialogue. I’ve been fortunate to have had good working relationships with many of the directors I’ve worked with, especially those who weren’t intimidated or threatened by collaborating with writers and having them on set. I’ve at least been able to make my case as to why something should stay in. Perhaps the best anecdote concerned Trading Places: the studio objected to Eddie Murphy’s character saying “Who put their Kools out on my Persian rug?” because they thought it was racist. [N.B. Kool cigarettes were marketed to mainly African Americans, who were their biggest customers]. Well, when it came time to shoot the scene, Eddie put the line right back in the script!
Any strategies for determining if something funny on the page will translate to the screen?
Once upon a time, there were rehearsals and table-reads for the cast where it became readily apparent if the comedy was actually working and, if not, talented actors and directors would tweak the script until it did. Even if it did work, talented actors often would make it even better, which makes writers look better! The old saying “If it works on the page, it plays on the stage” must have been coined by a non-cynical writer because it’s not necessarily true in all cases. Fortunately, I’ve learned my craft well enough that most things that I’ve written that have worked well on the page have also played well on the screen. It probably didn’t hurt that I went to a film school that was essentially a trade school – not an academic one – where we had to learn how to do everything. It also didn’t hurt to see hundreds of films on the screen – good, bad, and ugly – to see what worked or didn’t – a real film scholar like Scorcese has probably seen thousands so there’s no scene in a script that he doesn’t know how to stage/block/shoot. It’s also helpful to apply Mike Nichols’ advice that there are only three kinds of scenes, all of which are about inherent conflict: Seductions, Negotiations, and Fights.
What’s your favorite comedic moment in a film?
For me, Groundhog Day is a masterpiece that, if I come across it while channel surfing, I absolutely must watch it to the very end. It’s filled with unforgettable comedic set pieces and hilarious dialogue, like:
“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”
“This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”
“I’m a god – I’m not the God, I don’t think.”
“I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over?”
RIP Harold Ramis – you were a genius.
Questions submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
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