Everyone enjoys a good laugh. It’s one of life’s simplest pleasures, and yet complex and unique in its manifestation. Laughter is, unquestionably, good for the soul and, as the man once said, a cure for every sorrow. On a quest to enlighten the masses, the great and the good of comedy writing gathered for the second instalment of BSÉ/IFB’s Give Me Direction. Shane Kennedy reports from this year’s Give Me Direction comedy screenwriting conference.
Curated by Lenny Abrahamson (Adam & Paul, Garage), Sharon Horgan (Pulling, Angelo’s) and Pat McCabe (Breakfast on Pluto, The Butcher Boy), the convention attracted a stellar line up of comedy writers, featuring, amongst others, Bobby Farrelly (Dumb & Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) and Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (Peep Show, Four Lions). Little wonder, then, that hordes of comedy lovers and aspiring comedy scriptwriters descended on The Merrion and Cineworld for a two-day, comedy love-in.
So, let us get down to business. How does one write good comedy? First up was Bobby Farrelly. The Farrelly brothers’ success story has a distinctly American ring to it. With Dumb & Dumber, the brothers’ debut feature, the acquisition of the soon-to-be very, very hot property Jim Carrey proved to be pivotal in their success story. Dumb luck, indeed. When pressed on the brothers’ source of inspiration, observation and life experience are very much to the fore. ‘When my brother and I were growing up, we were always drawn to the unusual characters. We embraced those guys. We thought, “there is comedy here”. The black sheep is always funnier than one hundred white sheep.’
In terms of the comedy that Farrelly has produced, his writing partnership with Peter is very much key. Writing five pages every day, the brothers have a methodical approach to this part of the process. ‘Don’t force it’ is the message. Their writing process has a quirky idiosyncrasy – the brothers themselves do not know where the narrative is going. ‘We don’t know in advance what the story will be. It can’t be too linear, the audience can’t be able to second-guess what is going to happen.’ The ability to balance narrative against laughs is central to any comedy success, and the Farrellys have their own technique for cramming in mini laughing orgies without interrupting the flow of the storyline: the montage. ‘It allows us to take a break from the story. Take the audience on a little trip. It provides a release from the narrative, and the crowd go with it. It works,’ adds Farrelly.
A further tip in terms of technique is the element of surprise. Citing the introduction of the black father of Cameron Diaz’ WASP princess in There’s Something About Mary as an example, it underlines the fact that good comedy need not be complicated. Just find that funny bone and tickle it. Interestingly, Farrelly is the first to admit that the brothers’ gags can only go so far. Without an experienced and skilful crew, their vision won’t ever make it onto the big screen. ‘I mean, we’re not camera guys. We just make sure we can get the best DOP we can find.’ Even the best need help, it seems.
Next up is the Los Angeles-based Nicole Holofcener, best known for talky, urban comedies such as Walking and Talking and, screened during the convention, Please Give. Holofcener’s is a gentler and more nuanced comedy, something of a departure from the Farrellys’ slapstick romps. Her stories are very much character-based, with the narrative driving the comedy, never vice versa. ‘I try to derive comedy out of characters. Catherine Keener’s (the female lead in Please Give) character is comedic because she is a fool.’ Holofcener is not afraid to engage in a spot of navel-gazing in her quest for inspiration. ‘And I love writing fools – I am the first fool I am writing about. And if you can laugh at yourself, I think you should.’
The full article is printed in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 134.