Did You Hear The One -- ?
By D.B. Gilles
-- About The Screenwriter Who Decided To Write A Comedy?
There was a moment in your life when you acknowledged to yourself that you were funny. Maybe you were trying to be funny. Maybe you weren't. Maybe it just slipped out.
But somebody laughed.
It might have happened when you were in second grade, a freshman in high school, senior year in college or when you were out of school and into a career.
You liked saying funny things. Maybe you even loved it. Getting laughs did something to you. Maybe it built up your confidence. Made you feel cool. Hip. So you kept at it and you reached the point where you knew you were funny. Then one day it hit you.
You were watching a lousy sitcom or a mediocre Saturday Night Live sketch or you just laid out some hard-earned bucks at your local Cineplex for a comedy that sucked. Then, as if possessed by the ghost of Groucho Marx, you thought or uttered seven words that would change your life:
"I could write funnier stuff than that."
Once you've made that statement you'll have one important question: how do I go about doing it?
That's when you'll hit your first brick wall. Could you really write funnier stuff than that? You'd never tried to write anything funny before.
Not for real.
Maybe in high school or college you channeled your comedic ability into a satirical essay for an English class or you dashed out a humor column in the school paper. You might've written a couple of skits for a school talent show.
But you never, not ever, tried to write a sketch on the level of Saturday Night Live's best or a spec script for an episode of your favorite sitcom.
And let's get real: you definitely never wrote a joke. The only jokes you told were the ones you heard from other people, just like everyone else. But to actually write an original joke?
Duh! Maybe you could spontaneously say funny stuff, but to write funny stuff? To do that meant you were in entirely different waters.
As for screenwriting? No way you even thought about that. You? Writing a comedy that could fill 110 pages?
But then one morning you wake up and decide to give comedy writing a shot. You narrow it down to the form you feel will be the best fit. Stand up? No. That involves performing. Sketch writing? With only a handful of venues on the tube, you know there aren't that many opportunities to break in. Besides, writing sketches isn't your thing. As for sit-coms, you realize that you don't watch many of them other than re-runs of Seinfeld and The Simpsons and, of course, Curb Your Enthusiasm (but you know Larry David doesn't require your services).
So all that's left is screenwriting. Deep down, being a screenwriter is what you thought about being more than anything. You enjoy movies more than television. And you prefer comedies to everything else.
So you're ready to start. But you're nervous, maybe even a little intimidated and scared. That's natural. It'll pass.
After you overcome the fear of whether or not you can write a funny screenplay, how do you begin?
Start by renting comedies, preferably a mix of good ones and bad. We learn more from bad stuff because the problems are more obvious. Try to get a sense of what your genre might be. Are you Tootsie, Happy Gilmore, American Pie, Porky's, Fargo, Groundhog Day, Airplane, When Harry Met Sally, Splash, anything Monty Python, The Girl Next Door, Scary Movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Being John Malkovitch, Analyze This, The Graduate, Heathers, Kingpin, Barber Shop, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Animal House, Mean Girls, Shrek, Lost In Translation or Blazing Saddles? And don't forget the films of W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, or the screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties? (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, My Man Godfrey and any of the Hope and Crosby "Road" pictures).
Are you Billy Wilder at his best: Some Like It Hot, The Apartment? Are you early Woody Allen, middle Woody Allen or late Woody Allen? I love the guy, but if you study his work from Take The Money and Run to Annie Hall to Zelig to Crimes and Misdemeanors to Deconstructing Harry to Hollywood Ending you'll see the gamut of good, bad, brilliant, masterpiece and just plain awful.
You probably have your own favorites. Watch them again, but this time study and analyze them. You probably have comedies you hate or laugh at because they're so bad. Watch them too. It's easier to see the flaws.
You should also read as many comedy screenplays as you can get your hands on. And I don't mean the published versions. Find web sites that let you buy scripts or download them for free. (Type in "screenplays" in your browser. You'll be surprised at what's available) Sometimes you'll get first or second drafts. Occasionally, you'll find rejected drafts. If you don't want to print them out, read them off the screen. To me, the value of reading screenplays -- of holding them in your hands -- is that you get a stronger sense of the writer's intentions.
Reading interviews with comedy writers is also advantageous. Of even greater benefit is to read interviews with screenwriters whose work you admire. Hearing successful comedy writers talk about how they do it, where their ideas come from, tricks they've learned along the way, mistakes they've made and pitfalls to avoid will make your entrée into comedy screenwriting less painful.
Studying comedies is important, but what's even more critical is your gut feeling about the kind of comedy you want to write: romantic comedy, parody, comedy/drama, satire, goofy/silly/stupid comedy with idiotic jokes and cheap sex gags or -- intelligent, witty stories about three-dimensional, recognizable human beings that not only will make people laugh, but warm our hearts and touch our souls.
So get started. Make sure the first three pages are hilarious so an agent or producer will keep reading. And keep those laughs coming, but not at the expense of the story. The comedies we remember have memorable plots, extraordinary lines and unforgettable moments.
Go ahead. Take your shot. Be funny. May the laughs be with you.
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...