Comedy Writer: Know Thyself!
By D.B. Gilles
I know a lot of comedy writers.
Some are funnier than others both in daily life and on the page. More often than you’d imagine, the funniest scripts are written by men and women who aren’t that much fun to be around. They can “write” funny, but not “be” very funny during normal life. Some are downright boring while others are depressed and a drag to be around.
Likewise, some of the funniest writers I know are hilarious when they’re hanging out with friends or one on one, but they aren’t funny on paper. Because they were so funny, early in their careers they tried writing comedy, but they realized after a few not-very-laugh-filled scripts that comedy wasn’t their forte.
They shut the door on writing comedy and found their niche elsewhere. But that doesn’t apply to someone who can actually write funny stuff.
Let’s say that’s you.
In my experience as a writer and teacher, I’ve learned that some comedy writers (like some people) are naturally funny while others have to work at it.
Think back to your childhood. Remember the kid who was the class clown? He (it was pretty much always a he. Funny girls were considered to be weird. And guys, how intimidated are you by a witty, funny woman?) irritated the teacher and generated giggles from classmates not so much by making witty remarks, but mainly by doing goofy stuff, making faces and slap-sticky things.
I went to middle school with the same group of kids. There were the smart kids (not me), the athletes (not me), the cool kids (definitely not me), the outcasts (fortunately not me: that was to come during high school), the gen-pop (kids who were just there, usually well-behaved and religious) and the two kids competing to be class clown (one of which was me).
Competing is a generous word. There was no competition. The other kid, Joey, was hands down, the funniest kid in class. I was a distant second. Really distant. Looking back, kids laughed at me more than because of something funny I did or said.
Joey was cute and had a killer smile. I was kind of geeky-looking and when I smiled my face wrinkled up in a way that made me look like I had Progeria (a rare abnormality marked by premature aging, grey hair, wrinkled skin and stooped posture in a child). Joey was charming. I wasn’t. All the girls had crushes on him and all the boys wanted to either hang with him or be him.
Nobody wanted to be me. I didn’t even want to be me.
What I wanted was to make my classmates laugh (attention, duh!). The problem was that Joey was a natural. I wasn’t. He would open his mouth and most of the time something clever came out. And when what he said missed the mark, he had learned to ignore it and move on to the next ad lib.
I didn’t know what an ad lib was. I didn’t know what being witty or clever meant.
At some point, I started to realize that unlike Joey, I would have to work at getting laughs. Work very hard!
Which brings us back to comedy writing. At some point you decided that you wanted to be a comedy writer. For me, it was in my early 20s. I started out writing plays, specifically, comedies.
That’s when I realized that my writing career was a re-creation of my childhood desire to be class clown. Instead of competing with one Joey who didn’t have to work that hard at getting laughs, I would be competing with lots of Joeys to whom comedy writing came, if not “easy,” certainly “easier.”
Once again, that “work very hard” mantra began ringing in my ears. I’m convinced that most of us have to work at it.
Being a comedy writer isn’t just a matter of writing funny dialogue, bits or set pieces. There’s a whole other level to confuse you.
What kind of comedy do you write?
You’re at a party, in a bar or somewhere and you’re talking with someone you just met. You let it slip that you’re a screenwriter and the person asks you what kind of stuff you write.
Someone who doesn’t write comedies might answer without a moment’s hesitation in the following way:
“I write – “Thrillers. Action. Sci-Fi. Adventure. Mysteries. Independent. Horror. Drama.”
These writers are lucky. They know their identity as a screenwriter.
But if you’re a comedy writer your answer might not come as easily. What would your answer be? That you write: Comedies? Comedy/dramas? Serio/comic? Dramedies? Dramatic comedies? Romantic comedies? Buddy comedies? Bittersweet comedies? Comedy/adventures? Sex comedies? Dark comedies? Farce? Parody?
Pinpointing the type of comedies you write is important, especially if the person who asked what kind of screenplays you write is an agent, manager, producer, development executive or somebody in the business who might help you.
The industry has changed. Knowing the kind of comedy you write is a way of creating your brand. Maybe the old school term for branding is just as good: pigeonholed.
In television you’re either a sitcom writer or you write hour-long drama. You might eventually do both, but you’ll break into the business as one or the other.
Before Alan Ball wrote Six Feet Under and True Blood, he wrote for Grace Under Fire and Cybil. He made the transition, which also included a little detour into screenwriting called American Beauty. Same with Terence Winter. Before he wrote for The Sopranos and created Boardwalk Empire he wrote for Flipper and Sister, Sister.
Judd Apatow is known for a certain kind of comedy. So are Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers. So are The Farrelly Brothers, Adam Sandler, Diablo Cody, Kevin Smith and Dana Fox. Woody Allen is in a genre-bending league all his own.
There are four stages of his career. (1) Fun, goofy comedies: Bananas, Take The Money and Run and Sleeper. (2) Comedy/dramas: Annie Hall, Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose. (3) Dramatic/Comedies: Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Radio Days. (4) This is the most difficult to pinpoint. Even diehard Woody Allen fans, of which I am one, have found his output over the last 15 years to be inconsistent. His best films are a mix of comedy/dramas and dramedies (Deconstructing Harry, Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whatever Works). His lesser successes are more difficult to pinpoint (Anything Else, Cassandra’s Dream, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger).
Now we should all be so lucky to have careers as long and productive as Woody Allen. Even if his best work is behind him, he leaves a tremendous legacy. I bring him up simply to illustrate that though he began his screenwriting career writing lowbrow comedies he aspired to greater heights and achieved it. As of this writing he’s written more than 40 screenplays.
What about you? You’re writing comedies. Are you able to narrow it down to the kind you write? It’s important to your career that you know so when someone who can help you asks what you write you can be specific.
But maybe you don’t know your genre of comedy or you’re not sure. You may still be finding your voice.
Do you want to be known as the screenwriter who writes raunchy, vulgar, stupid stuff (that might get you a huge deal and a house in Malibu) or do you want to be known as the writer of witty, clever, smart comedies? The kind that get nominated for Academy Awards.
The ability to write raunchy comedies and dick jokes is a certain kind of talent that might get you in the door. If you’re relatively young, your life experience might still be in the adolescent/frat boy vein. You can outgrow that if you choose. Maybe you won’t want to. Maybe that’s all you’re capable of. If that’s the case, you’ll be branded as a one-trick pony.
But as you get older you might want to change your professional image. Woody Allen came a long way from Bananas to Crimes and Misdemeanors. But if you start out wanting to write comedies that are grounded in reality and filled with wit and intelligence, you’ll be positioning yourself on a higher plain.
You’ll be the screenwriter others aspire to be. And that’s nothing to laugh about!
Meet the Author: D.B. Gilles
D.B. Gilles teaches screenwriting and comedy writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of The Screenwriter Within and The Portable Film School. He is co-author of the George Bush parody W. The First Hundred Days. A White House Journal. He also wrote the play, Sparkling Object.
D.B. is a script consultant and writing coach. Many of his students have gotten deals, sold scripts, had their work published and their TV scripts, sketches and screenplays produced.
He writes the popular blog, Screenwriters Rehab: For Screenwriters Who Can’t Get Their Acts Toget...