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If you haven’t listened to the latest Scriptnotes podcast (ep. 84) hosted at johnaugust.com, there’s a piece of conversation that takes place between the 25 and 35 minute marks that sheds some good insight into the “funny on page vs funny on screen” dilemma. Even if you don’t enjoy their particular brands of humor, co-hosts John August and Craig Mazin know quite a bit about what goes into creating marketable comedy.

In the episode, they express their agreement on how rare it is to laugh while reading a script. Seldom do words on paper elicit the type of response they will ultimately go on to elicit when manifested on screen. In a sense, script jokes aren’t even meant to be funny on paper; they’re merely ingredients for the director and actors to make something funny happen. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately while studying all the latest successful comedies as preparation to write my screenplay. 90% of the what has made me laugh on screen these past few weeks would never have seemed nearly as funny to me on paper.

Why is this important to know? If you’re a fledgling writer and you show your comedy script to inexperienced readers, you are going to receive a lot of negative feedback along the lines of “Where are the jokes?”, “This isn’t funny.”, etc. It could very well be that you have failed to create a funny script, but you must also consider the possibility that your readers simply lack the imagination and experience to envision how your dialogue will sound coming out the mouth of Paul Rudd, the power of a single facial expression worn by Zach Galifinakis, or how a gag will play out between two masters of physical comedy.

I submit the following rule of thumb: never show your comedy script to someone who doesn’t understand the above. Their feedback will only hurt your confidence, serve as a negative reflection of your work, and ultimately lead you astray.

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Being the bad teacher that I am, I recently had the great idea of showing Office Space to my small group classes. I have seven small group classes. I have now viewed Office Space more times than I have any other movie, including Lost in Translation, The Big Lebowski, and Amelie. Somewhere between 10 and 14 times. Needless to say, I should be kind of an expert now on why the film is brilliant.

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1. Office Space is much more than a vehicle for laughs; there are layers of satire condemning everything from corporatism to modern American culture to the human condition (laziness).

2. Peter Gibbons is an anti-hero disguised as a hero. Peter is portrayed as a good guy and so we think he is the good guy, but we forget that this is a satire. Peter, himself, is a satire. In reality, Peter borders on being the villain of the film. He is lazy, manipulative, and selfish. Yeah his job and his life sucks and he loves to blame others…but in reality he’s the only one to blame for the mediocrity of his life. 

3. Everything that culminates later on is set up early on. Everything. There is not one thing that culminates in the 2nd or 3rd act that is not foreshadowed or set up in the 1st act. Go ahead, watch the movie again with a pen and paper. Keep track of every single conversation that is had in the film prior to the inciting incident, and then check off each item when it culminates later on. Not one single word or moment occurs in the first 30 minutes of the film that does not serve a very specific and important purpose. 

4. The sub-story is brilliant in that it is the ultimate set up for the climax and aftermath of the film. The office catching on fire, in any other writer’s hands, could have easily been done in such a way that we’d laugh it off as another implausible deus ex machina. But in Office Space, it is absolutely not the deus ex machina it appears to be. Milton literally tells us that he’s going to set the building on fire half a dozen times from the very beginning of the film — though he does it under his breath, so that it’s not completely obvious to the first-time viewer. Too often we have lame sub stories (usually concerning the romantic interest) which do not tie in so crucially to the plot. In Office Space, we think that Milton is merely a vehicle for humor until the climax occurs and we realize Mike Judge had been setting us up along.

5. Office Space was produced at the perfect time considering its subject matter (right before the pending Y2K fiasco) and yet it is timeless. Office politics will always be lame, people will always be stupid, and laziness will always hold us back. Although viewers will be able to enjoy this movie for generations to come, there could not have been any better moment for it to have been born than 1999.

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  • A woman hiding her smoking habit from her family (smoking out the bathroom or bedroom window wearing latex gloves and spraying herself afterwards with perfume).
  • Character 1 says, “You must get that all the time.” Awkward beat. Character 2 says, “Uh…no, actually.”
  • Several characters are talking at a diner. If you look closely you’ll notice one of them putting an inordinate amount of sugar into their coffee.
  • Character A is saying something very important to another character. Only when the camera pans out we realize the other person isn’t there. Character A was only preparing their speech.
  • Man over-apologizes to girl after fucking up. Before he can ramble any longer, the girl tells him to shut up and/or kisses him quiet.
  • Some criminals are staking out protagonist from their car. They don’t know that the protag knows they’re there. Protag casually walks over and asks them if they’d like anything to eat/drink.
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When you watch as many movies as I do, occasional cinematic coincidences are inevitable. The last two movies I watched (both random choices) starred the actor Campbell Scott (unknown to me prior) in roles wherein he discusses at one or several points the meta-game of picking up chicks. 

Singles (1992)

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Roger Dodger (2002)

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If this means anything at all it means I need to include a “pick up” scene in the screenplay I’m currently writing. Clearly.

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George C. Scott was famous for his disinterest in the annual Academy Awards event, calling it a meat parade. And that’s really the perfect description for it. The red carpet, the acceptance speeches, the celebrity circlejerking, etc. I tried to watch a few clips of this year’s show, but couldn’t stomach it. 

Here are some other people who couldn’t stomach the ceremony either. Each one has my total respect for not feeling the need to participate in the narcissism of celebrity culture.

Woody Allen (23 lifetime nominations, but has only attended once)

Katharine Hepburn (won 4 leading actress Oscars, didn’t accept a single one of them)

Dudley Nichols (refused to accept his 1935 best screenplay Oscar as a direct snub to the academy)

Marlon Brando (didn’t show up to collect his 1972 best actor award in protest of the way Native Americans were depicted in Hollywood)

Unfortunately this list is way too short.

I finally got around to watching most of the Oscar nominees, so here are my picks (not predictions) for some of the categories.

Picture: Amour

Actor: Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)

Actress: Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)

Directing: Michael Haneke (Amour)

Screenplay (Original): Django Unchained

Cinematography: Anna Karenina

Costume Design: Lincoln

Best Song: Before My Time (Chasing Ice)

Best Animated Short: Adam and Dog

Visual Effects: Prometheus