The Secrets of R-Rated Comedy: Part II

tootsie_089pyxurzby Angela Guess

Yesterday I shared the first half of my conversation with screenwriter Keith Giglio, author of Writing the Comedy Blockbuster.

In part two, Keith and I discuss the importance of stealing, how to break into the industry, and which scripts every aspiring comedy screenwriter should read.

LA Screenwriter (LA): You’ve said, “Professionals create, amateurs steal.”

Keith Giglio (KG): Yeah, 100%. I’m amazed how many of my students aren’t really students of film, because there’s so much to draw upon. I was reading an interview with Steven Soderbergh about how he takes so much from a James Bond movie, Her Majesty’s Secret Service made back in the 70s. And Chris Nolan says that’s where he got his ski sequence from for Inception — it’s just like a scene from Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

It’s easier to reference something. I think a lot of students spend too much time trying to create something when there’s a whole universe of film history to help inspire them. We’re not talking about plagiarism, but we’re talking about getting the tone right. You know, what do other similar movies do?

One of the reasons I love your screenwriter profiles is, you know, what kind of career do you wish you had? I remember my agent trying to sell me as the young Gary Ross of the time, and I thought, “What a great compliment!” I was thrilled by that, because that’s a style I love. I remember Cameron Crowe talking about how before he wrote Jerry Maguire, he spent weeks and weeks and weeks watching Billy Wilder movies because he wanted to make a Billy Wilder movie.

LA: So then how do you take those old references and make them fresh? What’s your approach for stealing fashionably?

KG: (Laughter) I think it’s more about being inspired by stuff and letting that move you forward. It’s about getting down that first draft, but then as you’re writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, then you get into what you have to say.

Because there’s no way you can just imp Angel and the Badman from… whatever year that John Wayne movie came out. Wallace & Wallace decided to do it in 1985 and call it Witness, and what they wanted to talk about was big city violence set against a pastoral Amish society.

Whatever the point of view of the zeitgeist is imprints the film and makes it fresh. I think comedy will always be topical. Yes, there are classic comedies that stand the test of time, but I think comedy tends to be reactionary, a reaction to what’s going on in society at that moment. I hope that’s what keeps it fresh.

LA: Do you think there’s a particular type of person who excels as a comedy writer?

KG: It’s always said that you have to be miserable to be a comedy writer, that’s always the adage. I don’t know. I think you just have to be able to look at the absurdity of the world. I think deep down a lot of comedy writers are optimists.

LA: Why do you think that?

KG: Because when they come to the fatalist end-of-the-world ending, they’re finding humor in the worst situations possible. I think those are optimists at heart.

LA: With your students, what screenplays do you make them read? What do you think are the essential reads for aspiring comedy writers?

KG: Ah, that’s interesting. We try to read a lot of current stuff, stuff that’s floating around now, because I think the bar always changes, the form always changes. Like this year we read all the Oscar-nominated scripts. I’ll have them read a Cameron Crowe script, I have them read Jerry Maguire still. I think Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one of the best comedies of the last fifteen years, so I’ll have them read that. Mean Girls. It’s amazing how many people love to read Mean Girls.

You know, comedy, it’s always white on the page. It just flows. It’s not over-written. I hate when young comedy writers over-write everything.

LA: What are the scripts you love the most?

KG: God, they always change. I used to read everything by William Goldman. I used to read everything by Preston Sturges. I used to read everything by Billy Wilder. I think one of my favorite scripts is still Larry Gelbart’s Tootsie.

LA: If you were trying to break into screenwriting today, what would your strategy be?

KG: There’s a great program called Mac Freedom for ten bucks — keeps you off the internet. That’s what I would do.

I would watch tons of movies in the genre. Read any script you can get your hand on that hasn’t been produced, but it’s out there. I would write five pages a day, and just keep putting out material.

Don’t be too precious with the first script. The next one, hopefully, will be better. And I think you just have to keep producing material and getting reactions from people — not just your mom or your dad. The adage is always, writers who argue live in little houses. Learn to take notes and learn to rewrite, but at some point if the script’s not rewriting, go on to the next one. I would say, for young writers… three scripts a year. Three original scripts a year. Force yourself to do that, find the time to do it. And stay off the internet.


Don’t forget to check out Keith’s book, Writing the Comedy Blockbuster.

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