I never thought i’d be doing comedy as a director. It’s not something I had on my vision board or was striving to do when I first got into directing, but it’s quickly become one of my favorite areas of the craft. It’s spontaneous, and very of the moment. It’s efficacy is very dependent upon the talent involved on screen and off, and is unique to each project. I’m starting to grow in this area and feeling more and more confident in my voice every time I create a new project. As a matter of fact, I’m working on a feature concept at the moment. All this being said, let’s talk about this process and how it’s different from other areas of film directing.
I fell into doing comedy. In 2014 When I moved to LA, my friend Thom Glunt asked me to help him with two separate comedy projects. The first was a comedy driven opener for the local Pittsburgh Addy Awards. The second was for WTFunny, the Wayan’s brothers sketch comedy company, a music video accompanying the release of The Hobbit. Billy Bonnell and Greg Santos wrote a song and created a music video concept for it. They were both shot on slow Saturdays, and I was new to LA so I said why not.
The first concept circled around a frustrated art director, having an identity crisis while digging up cliche or bad ideas. During this production, I met Ryan O’flanagan as he was playing the lead, digging up dildoes in the desert (long story).
Regardless, the concept doesn’t really matter. It’s more about what I learned about the process while working on these jobs. I was AD-ing and sort of producing for the first, and I edited and shot most of the second one. I watched Thom work his magic, as I rarely have the luxury to not be bombarded with all the responsibility on set, so I soaked it all in and got out of the way.
In some ways it was a serendipitous series of events. Most of the work I’ve been lucky enough to produce aligned with my personal interests and came about organically from natural relationships.
What I quickly realized was so much of comedy directing is about getting out of the way. Much like documentary, comedy is about lots of takes and playing around in the moment. Below are some nuggets of wisdom I’ve stumbled into over the past 6 years.
The best scripts don’t make the best movies: Scripts are like jokes. A guy walks into a bar. You picture the guy, wearing a certain kind of hat, walking with a certain gate, into a specific bar, and ordering a shot and a beer. Etc etc. Whatever your past bar experiences in the recesses of your mind are, you create this person in your imagination. In a film, it’s about what the director and crew dictate. The specific man, walking into a certain style of bar, ordering a specific drink with a certain kind of tone. All the details matter. How long is the line? What tone was it delivered in? What’s the lighting like? What is he wearing?
In some ways, these attributes can punch up your script, in other ways it can drag it down. You will find once on set, the most important thing is the tone of the scene, and the essence of the joke, or punchline or the takeaway of the dialogue. Once you realize that, it’s your job to let the actors take it places, and guide the ship in the right direction.
Get out of the way: All of the best comedic scenes in the world were likely improvised. I know for a fact most of the memorable scenes in Dumb and Dumber were.
Why is it that improvisation often makes the scene stronger? It’s impossible to nail down exactly why, but my instinct tells me that spontaneity is the birth of naturalism. If two actors (likely who are comics first) are given room to play, this is where you get magic, and as long as they don’t crack up or blow the take, this will play in the cut in a very dynamic way.
Much like how I approach documentary film, I like to set a stage instead of being a slave to the script. What I mean by that is, If the takeaway of the scene inside the greater script is supposed to be our character stomping off upset after a verbal exchange. What is said in the exchange and how it is said, as well as how the stomp off plays out is less important than that the action happens at all.
It’s a sequence of events you are stringing together to make something interesting. Treat it like a puzzle. You know you have the script to fall back on. As a series of alt takes, let the scene play out, and figure how this wild tale plays in the cut.
Timing is everything: Timing in comedy is for sure a tool used to make jokes more effective on stage and on screen. What i’m referring to here though, has a few layers to peel back.
Timing a scene: When you are on set, as a director your job is to visualize what you are building as it’s happening. Sometimes when the script is written down it feels a certain way in your mind, but then when you get the comics on set, and see their personalities play out as these characters, you understand that the scene needs to change. You are sort of writing on the fly here. Working with Greg has taught me a lot about this. It’s not often you get the writer of the material, also embodying it on screen as an actor.
So Greg and I will sidebar in between takes and punch up jokes often. We can do this by rewriting a line or changing the sentiment of the punchline completely. Maybe it’s as subtle as playing a line differently or changing the shot to a wide on one lines or actions. He understands that how something plays on screen is different than how he can write it. Often times we let something ring out awkwardly, or play the tone differently to get what we need and what is right for the sketch. It’s about play here at this stage, and building in safeties to the production day.
Timing a cut: Once you have a bunch of alts, and some that follow your script like a bible, some that meander, it’s all about the editing. Editing for comedy is like punching up jokes in a script. A longer pause or hanging on a line awkwardly can completely change the tone of the piece.
From a logistical standpoint, I like to rough cut the film with what I consider the best takes. Then get the writer in the editing room. In the case of working with Greg, he is both actor and writer, but comic first. Funny is funny. And those who make funny can intuitively feel it when it’s right.
Timing of material: In a time of short attention spans and social justice warriors it’s important to understand the context of your material in relation to the time. Ace Ventura is one of my favorite comedies, however I doubt a studio would greenlight that today because of the transgender movement. In the context of it’s time, it is hysterical, absurd and masterful.
Although I have strong feelings on the state of our culture and I do not believe these studios should crumble like a 20 year old cookie in a deep freezer every time some vocal minority on the internet complains about how offended they are, I do think its something we have to consider as storytellers. Outrage is the opposite mindset that allows someone to be funny. Funny comes from a free place. In a perfect world, studios would stand by their creators but we do not live in that world anymore.
Now to be very clear, I am not talking about neutering your content or pandering to an audience. I’m also not talking about making preachy topical scripts about current events. I’m talking about making timeless material that uses the context of our lives as scaffolding.
The Twilight Zone, and Rod Serling embraced the topics of their time which in many ways mirror our current time. The Cold War with Russia (meddling of elections) Mccarthyism (Cancel Culture) The Space Race (AI and Technology) Segregation (Racism in our culture). All of these things are vehicles for his sci fi stories. It’s a visual vocabulary that is written for you by the world. Pillars or Archetypes that can be used as devices in any form of storytelling.
Comedy is supposed to put a mirror to the face of our culture. If done correctly it actually makes us look at ourselves in an introspective way, and can illicit cultural change. If done poorly it has the adverse effect. Be mindful of your cultural timing by always keeping your finger on the pulse.
Character Ownership: I heard a story about Stanley Kubrick on set of the Shining. I heard he shot that film linearly, and would use psychological manipulation to shape the two characters of Jack and Wendy Torrence.
Jack (Nicholson) was a very confident and sometimes arrogant figure, so Stan the man would play into his ego over time by complimenting him subtly at first, and as the script moved forward he would really compliment Jack, feeding his ego to build into the dynamic “here’s johnny” scene at the end.
Conversely, for Wendy (Shelly Duval) she was very introspective by nature, quiet and shy. So as time went on he would give her negative reinforcement for her takes. Escalating over time to yelling and berating. Albeit a cruel, manipulative somewhat unethical approach, it’s very effective. The two characters seem to shift in a dramatic way over time in that film, and so it must be respected.
It’s an understatement to say comics have strong personalities. They often are polar opposites of each other on the surface. Some are big flamboyant “steal the room” type personalities and some are quiet and introspective and rather dry. When they go on stage to perform they all turn it on, and likewise on set. It’s important to recognize when someone's personality can shape the character in a dynamic way. And when they need to tone that side of themselves down a bit.
When I say ownership, I mean help coach the comic to embody a side of their personality that is appropriate for the character. This helps create fully realized humans on screen, and creates a very deep suspension of disbelief. It feels natural and likely will make their performances better. Ryan O’Flanagan is a silly f*cker, and every-time we work together that comes through in a real way. Case in point, his prayers in Thoughts And Prayers. This was completely improvised from the script. Greg asked him to write prayers for his character. The script just said: “Ryan reads Prayer”.
Let it breath: Don’t be afraid of dead air. This is the opposite of what culture is teaching us lately, with the constant barrage of cell phones and stimulus every which direction, this even permeates itself into our films. Quicker cuts, formulaic tools for grabbing attention.
A cut is like proximity in design. If you have bright yellow next to dark blue that yellow will seem like highlighter yellow. If you have that same yellow next to gold, it will seem duller.
A cut is never just a cut. It’s a narrative device to time your scene and drive attention. Sometimes you can let it breath. Let the moment hang. Let it be awkward. The long take helps build tension, so be mindful of this from your first read through to your final cut.
Play it straight: Steve Martin in the Jerk. Joe Pesci in my cousin vinny. John Malkovich in Burn After Reading. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be funny to be funny. Catch my drift?
This approach is my favorite approach, because it melds drama and comedy together in a beautiful fusion. It’s a strong decision however, so this technique should only be used when appropriate. This ain't Franks Red Hot, it’s a thai chilli.
Playing it straight is nothing more than delivering the lines in a serious tone with no spin on the ball. Naturalism of Brando meets the writing of the Coen Brothers. It has a lot to do with writing and the tone of the script as well. If it reads as a drama with comedic moments instead of comedic lines, likely this approach will work. Sometimes situations are funnier than any line you can deliver or any joke you can write.
Editing is rewriting: Lastly, editing. This is again, analogous to documentary film. Much like doc, when you get all your footage in the can, and start sifting through the plethora of jokes, you need to smash cut this stuff together to become something that makes someone feel something.
Sometimes it’s about taking a single joke from one take, and juxtaposing it with the second half of it from another. Sometimes it’s about re-arranging the order of the script. Sometimes it’s about a funny reaction. It’s all about feeling it. It’s improv, it’s jazz.
You should feel confident at this point that you have everything you need to tell the story. All your alts, all your assets neatly organized in the project. It’s blank page syndrome. But don’t let it overwhelm you. Just start cutting.
At this stage I don’t even look at the script. Since I edit my own projects, and I was also on set directing, I know exactly what we have. So I just watch the dailies and make selects. From those selects we start writing. This stage of the process is a rewrite of the script. You are creating what it will end up being, not what it once was. Have confidence in your decisions on set and start making.
Once you have a cut that feels good to you, bring in your writer or comedic consultant. You are not a comic, you will not see something they will see. Like any project even outside of comedy it’s helpful to get a fresh set of eyes from another walk of life to give you input. They will help make the project stronger, and oftentimes they see alternate jokes in the source footage you missed. It’s like proofreading the essay and fixing your grammar.
Hopefully all of this is helpful for those out here working on comedic projects. Like I mentioned in the beginning, this is not something I saw myself doing on my vision board. But life is funny like that. If I didn’t buy that Mitch All Together CD in the early 2000’s I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog right now. If I didn't meet Billy and Greg in 2014 I definitely wouldn't be writing this. Much like life, these projects are unpredictable and often serendipitous. Go with it, and lean hard into the joke.
(Cue Billy and Greg sh*tting all over this post)