The Secrets of R-Rated Comedy: Part I

kgby Angela Bourassa

Keith is a bit of an expert in the field. His book, Writing the Comedy Blockbuster, shares the wisdom he’s gained over the years writing for such companies as Paramount, Walt Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, and Spyglass. Keith, who was named UCLA Extension’s Instructor of the Year in 2009, currently teaches screenwriting at Syracuse University and enjoys every minute of it.

I heard Keith speak at the Great American Pitch Fest a few years back, and he didn’t disappoint. In this first half of our conversation, Keith and I discuss the basic structure of R comedies, the one rule of comedy, and setting inappropriate goals.

LA Screenwriter (LA): How’d you get your start as a screenwriter?

Keith Giglio (KG): I had gone to NYU grad, where I learned absolutely nothing about screenwriting. Then I wound up — because of a college buddy whose brother had worked at Saturday Night Live — I wound up, strangely enough, working as a writer’s assistant in Madison, NJ, for one of the hottest comedy writers of the time, Andy Breckman. I learned my trade working for him for about a year and a half, and then my wife and I left New York.

I had written a thriller, then we decided to write a comedy together. We sent it to four or five people, and someone liked it. It was kind of similar in tone to a Sleepless in Seattle… The next thing we knew we had an agent and the script was going out. After that, you know, you start to go to meetings, and then I guess our first break was writing Archie for Universal, which never got made. So I got my start like everyone else: just by writing scripts and sending them out.

LA: Was it your first script that ended up getting you the attention?

KG: It’s funny what you count as your first script. As a professor now I have students writing scripts, and I remember writing scripts in college with a friend who is now a professional writer, also. Oddly, the first script I wrote with my wife is the one that got us an agent, and then the next three things kind of got set up. But I’d say it was about my fourth or fifth script that helped get me closely resembling what could pass as professional.

LA: You’ve sold a few TV pilots as well?

KG: Yes! My god, there was Mercy Air which was a dramatic TV pilot. That kind of went nowhere. Then there was one called Space Race that went nowhere, too. My wife and I had turned down a chance to write on a sitcom because we were working on a film together, and we had everyone telling us, “You got to get into TV,” so we decided to write a few pilots.

But I’m more of a change guy. I always get aggravated with TV shows because they go on too long in my opinion — except for Breaking Bad. There’s too much stasis, nothing changes. I like movement, I like change. I think that’s why I prefer movies.

LA: Fair enough. Now, your book — I haven’t had a chance to read your book yet…

KG: Me either.

LA: (Laughter) ..But I saw you at the Great American Pitch Fest shortly before your book was released. There you talked about how R-rated comedies center around an inappropriate goal. What qualifies as an inappropriate goal?

KG: Something that goes against normal conventions. When you’re going on an exaggerated pursuit. So, for example Neighbors is out now. There you go. “Let’s go to war with the frat guy.” Most people aren’t going to do that. That’s the inappropriate response to the situation, but it’s the best comedic response. “Let’s take a talking teddy bear and make it foul mouthed.” You expect someone to have an appropriate response and follow social norms… I guess the inappropriate goal is outside the social norms.

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LA: Do you think an inappropriate goal is essential to all R-rated comedy, or is that just the normal approach?

KG: I would say, yes. I would say at its core, even from the time Cheech and Chong were rolling up… I think it’s always kind of been there since the rating system came in.

LA: To take it a step further, do you think that’s true of comedy in general?

KG: No, not at all. You can take a film like Drinking Buddies and it’s very much slice-of-life, balancing the dramatic with the comedic. It doesn’t have an inappropriate goal. It’s more observational; more, I would say, realism.

LA: At GAPF you also shared your approach for outlining films.

KG: Right! The 8 mini movies.

LA: Exactly. I love that. Would you mind going over the 8 mini movies?

[Check out Keith’s book for the full breakdown.]

KG: Sure! Well, the first sequence is about setting up the environment, setting up the world, setting up the rules. You establish the comic world so the audience is kind of prepared for whatever hijinks might be coming down the pipe. Then it’s all about characters, it’s all about who wants what in the movie. Who are we dealing with? Again, that’s in the first sequence.

Then we have the next sequence where you’re setting up the story. It’s like in NASCAR — I’m not a NASCAR fan at all, but — in the first sequence you meet the driver and you meet the track. In the second sequence, you’re building the car for the race to start. The race begins as act two begins.

So then things start to get crazy. I think the one rule of comedy is that things just keep getting worse. You’ve got to set up the inappropriate goal in the first act (in the second sequence) and in the third sequence you have these characters going in pursuit of it. And it’s usually not the smartest decision they will ever make. Or, they’re responding to something like in The Hangover that triggers action. In act two, start small, go big, and things just keep getting worse and worse and worse.

I think at the midpoint, it’s about changes. It used to be that movies tended to slow down a bit, but I think that’s changing. Movies are getting tighter and faster. We’re seeing this big midpoint reveal with a lot of exposition coming out where we used to be developing characters.

After the midpoint you start dealing with the themes. I call this sequence Love is in the Air.

In the next sequence — I call this section What Was I Thinking? — the character goes through questions of “How did this get so far?” Look at the success of a movie like The Other Woman. It flew all over the place at times, but towards the end of the second act, there are these real moments of self reflection.

Then we have the third act which hopefully produces some sort of maturity and restores some sort of equilibrium to the character’s life. They grow up, they mature in a certain way.

I think what’s interesting in comedy today is that, in the last fifteen years we had this kind of man-child thing going on… you know, the Jason Segels and the Adam Sandlers: they always gotta grow up, gotta grow up, gotta mature. That was what the heart of the movie was.

I think in the last three or four years there’s been a shift where it’s more female-based and the girls can give as good as the boys can. We’re seeing Bridesmaids and The Other Woman and we’re seeing Neighbors and we’re seeing The Heat. It’s kind of exciting. It’s almost like going back to the screwball comedy of the 20s, but raunchier.

So that’s my spiel in a nutshell.

~

Read the second half of our interview here. Keith shares his favorite scripts, his best writing advice, and his thoughts on how to break into the screenwriting world.

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