by Angela Bourassa
Greg DePaul (@GregDePaul) isn’t what I’d call a traditional screenwriting teacher. In his new comedy screenwriting book, Bring the Funny, you won’t find detailed descriptions of how to format your script or an in-depth breakdown of proper three act structure. (For those, you can and should turn to Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay – Greg recommends both.)
What you will find is practical advice from a comedy writer who has sold dozens of scripts and had two produced (Bride Wars, Saving Silverman), someone who has flourished within the industry and been burned by it. When it comes to the job itself, Greg knows what he’s talking about, and he doesn’t hold back in his honest, cutting, and practical advice.
Greg’s insights are also timely. He doesn’t waste your time with long chapters about what made Annie Hall a great comedy, because Annie Hall might not sell in today’s marketplace. Instead, he only references comedies made in the year 2000 or later, and he shares his views on current market trends, such as the rise of the comedy two-hander.
Here are three takeaways that stood out to me from Bring the Funny. I highly recommend reading the whole book for many, many more.
1. Ass In Chair
This is Greg’s big, grand rule of screenwriting. You have to put your butt in the chair and actually do the work. Aspiring screenwriters are always looking for ways around this rule. Always. They want to know how they can land a manager after finishing the first draft of their first script. I regularly get emails from people saying they have a great story, they just need someone to write it and we’ll both get rich. It doesn’t work that way.
Greg puts it like this:
Hollywood is full of funny, gifted writers who aren’t working… The competition is beyond fierce. So the deciding factor–the element that pushes you over the top–is hard work. Relentless, hard work. That’s why your motto has to be A.I.C.: Ass In Chair. If you don’t keep your A firmly planted in the C, your writing won’t improve and you won’t become a successful comedy screenwriter.
2. The Second Act is Everything
In a hundred-page comedy script (which is about how long a comedy screenplay should be these days, if not a bit shorter), the second act should take up about fifty pages. Those pages, according to Greg, are by far the most important in the whole script. The second act of a comedy script is where all of the trailer moments are. It’s where your brilliant idea comes to fruition and you really get to play. It’s also where all the hard work of character and plot development happen. Greg puts it this way:
If you hand me a screenplay with a wretched first act, a great second act, and a horrifyingly painful third act, you’ve handed me gold. I can rewrite the first and third acts to conform to the second act. Seriously, I can fix that baby with one arm tied behind my back. I can make all of it sing. Guaranteed. I’ll send it to you when I’m done, and you’ll buy it.
And that’s not because I’m a genius. That’s because somebody else has already done most of the hard work.
Greg points out that once you’ve figured out the second act, going back and figuring out the first act is much simpler, because there are always a dozen ways that you can get characters into the situation you want them in. It’s just up to you to find the best path. And if everything is properly set up in act two, all you need to do in act three is pay it off.
3. The Power of Diagramming
Greg is a firm believer that the best way to teach yourself the ins and outs of comedy screenwriting is to watch comedy films, read comedy scripts, and take notes. Get your hands on as many comedy scripts as you can (preferably from the last fifteen years) and read them. And as you read, diagram the script. There are a million different ways to do this, and the method you choose doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you write down the action and structure of the script in a way that’s useful to you. Identify the act breaks, the catalyst, where the B story comes in, what specific action is taken in each scene… whatever you find most useful in order to teach yourself how comedy screenplays work.
According to Greg,
[S]uccessful screenwriters read each other’s work. Compulsively. If you’re a TV writer, you read TV scripts. If you’re a comedy screenwriter, you read every comedy screenplay for every comedy film that’s ever been made: the ones you love, the ones you hate–all of them… And when you read those scripts, you make notes. You chart the structure of the story so that you can easily review it later. All successful screenwriters do this differently, but they do it.
If you’re serious not just about writing great comedy scripts, but also having a successful career as a comedy screenwriter, I highly recommend Bring the Funny. The book is full of practical advice for both successful writing habits and a realistic approach to breaking into this ultra-competitive industry. You can buy it on Amazon, or at stores like The Writers Store and Samuel French Bookshop.
You can also read Greg’s wonderful articles here and on his website, bringthefunny.com. That’s also the place to go if you’d like to get notes from Greg, which we also recommend. His insights are priceless.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.