Thursday, August 27, 2009

comedy: the well of sadness

Well the comedy workshop has kicked off another year. This week we went over the origins of single cam and multi cam shows, the 2 act structure, A & B story lines as well as character development. Quite a lot of territory to cover in one day. So naturally we'll delve into each of those topics in greater detail in the weeks to come. They're all general bits of information that by this point most writers have some grasp of - now it's all about strengthening that information.
To me, however, comedy comes from character. That is to say, you can understand the mechanics of a show, you can have air-tight plot, you can have jokes all over the place, but if you don't have deep meaningful characters, you have nothing.
The exercise for this past week was to read a 30 Rock script and go through scene by scene and look at the subtext for the Liz Lemon character. That is to say, what did we learn about her in every scene that was not ever explicitly said. Inferring from her actions and dialogue we could make all kinds of assumptions about her personality and even her history. In the script Liz has to negotiate Josh's annual contract. She doesn't want it to be a big confrontation and she even tips Josh off in a way that if he plays ball they can get through the negotiation with no fuss. Of course Josh being who he is betrays her. Betrayed she has to re-approach the negotiation and come after him in a way that was harder than if she had just entered into the meeting without pre-warning him. Angry she takes the negotiation to a personal place. When she has him over a barrel she makes him perform the "worm" as a part of the agreement. She humiliates him in a way that is kind of immature and unique to her character. One gets the feeling that she, at some point in her past, suffered such a humiliation at the hands of a high-school tormentor. This is the well of sadness. Those traumas and wounds in a character's story that make them who they are today. You have to give them this kind of depth so that they are real. And, knowing who they are we can make projections as to how they will behave in the future. Part of the fun of a sitcom is "what will they do next?" In fact, it's probably the main reason people watch these shows. Not for clever lines but rather that opportunity to see their "clever TV friend" react to a new and interesting situation that challenges their specific "damage." We talked about the endless well of sadness that is Michael Scott. God only knows what horrible things he suffered that made him this way. He is a wildly insecure and deeply lonely man. What makes it funny is he sees himself as a confident and popular boss, friend of everyone and hero to Dunder Mifflin. Michael Scott, so lacking in any kind of self esteem, allowed himself to remain in an abusive relationship for a year with Jan. He literally slept at the foot of the bed because she needed the space for herself. Wow. He's so sad we can't help but feel sorry for him. So this is the challenge for the term ahead; give your characters an equally rich back story in your script. Develop them, make them true, and above all love them.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

you are going to die!!!

Not because I'm writing about an Adam Sandler film I liked. This is, what, the third time it's happened? Spanglish and Punch-Drunk Love being the first two episodes of Sandler appreciation. No, you are going to die is the theme of Funny People and it is the primal of primals. It is at the core of every movie. From G-Force to Cold Souls, you are going to die motivates the characters as they move from Fade In to Fade Out. My screenwriting instructor, Allen Estrin, said in his "tricks of the trade" that the stakes of the story should be or at least feel like life and death to your main character. I think the more genuinely and deeply you can get your character to that place of introspection the more successful your script will be.
All those lessons about how precious our time is, how little we have, the urgency of taking THIS DAY and making the most of it. You know, the stuff of refrigerator magnets... he says, cynical as ever. And see, right there, that cynicism is not helping. It's not helping me on multiple levels. Let's just put it this way - I'm not the kind of person who dances at weddings and that, as it turns out, is a serious problem. Okay, so to get in touch with the "you are going to die" of your main character, take them for a walk in the park. Ask them about what they'll lose if they don't get what they want. Do you care? I mean really care? If they were someone you knew would you be worried? No? You don't care? Then I don't either. That thing they want, they've got to want it so bad. It's got to mean everything to them and have real stakes attached. Let's take the standard boy-meets girl. Who cares if boy loses girl forever? Well we do if you lay the right groundwork. "If he loses this girl he'll never grow up. Ten years from now he'll be in the shower in the fetal position screaming 'who the f**k am I?' And then he'll probably become an alcoholic. The end." All that and it's still a comedy - or not. But do you follow my point? This girl (in the boy meets girl scenario) is his LAST chance to get it right before IT'S TOO LATE. Now you have stakes.
In Funny People, it's not the girl. It's the goose-bumps-against-your-will Carpe Diem-ness of it all. He has to learn how to live. His disease is a manifestation of his not living. You've heard of Illness as Metaphor? This is it. It happens in real life, I've seen it; all those "stress related" illnesses. Adam Sandler has a rare and mysterious disease and it's his punishment for putting his time and energy into the wrong priorities. And like in real life, he has this near death experience, recovers and starts to slip into old habits. It's so true. I've almost died like three times now and I still don't dance at weddings. I don't even like children!