7/9/10 - comedy movies

In today's excerpt - comedy movies. The comedies of the writer-directors of the past, like Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, and John Hughes, have given way to the more improvisational comedies of today's writer-actor:

"Nowadays in the comedy industry, a 'Bucket Brigade' of actors, writers, and directors pitches in to punch up one another's films; the nearly all-male group includes Jay Roach, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Nicholas Stoller, Jason Segel, John Hamburg, Garry Shandling, Sacha Baron Cohen, Robert Smigel, Adam McKay, and Will Ferrell. Many of the group's members trained at Second City, or with such newer improv groups as the Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade. They read one another's drafts, attend one another's table reads and rough cuts, and give notes. Lots and lots of notes....

"Bucket Brigade movies are usually ensemble affairs in which every character is funny, as opposed to an Eddie Murphy movie, in which Eddie Murphy is sometimes funny. As in a sitcom, the banter tends to be filmed with three cameras at once, which eliminates the technical problem of 'matching' the action if an actor does a great improv that you've filmed only in closeup—that is, of having to reshoot the improv from the other actors' perspectives to maintain the continuity of the scene. (Shooting with three cameras can compromise the lighting; comedies, like documentaries and porn, aren't expected to have great production values.)

"Most directors of unimprovised comedies shoot around five hundred thousand feet of film and edit it down to the eight thousand feet that constitutes a ninety-minute film. Roach shot more than nine hundred thousand feet for [the upcoming Steve Carell movie] Dinner for Schmucks, Adam McKay shot more than a million for Step-brothers, and Judd Apatow always shoots at least a million. Apatow often runs off an entire eleven-minute magazine of film—a thousand feet—on a take, hollering alts or letting the actors riff. [Dinner director Jay] Roach said, 'It's a sloppy approach. One out of ten moments is great, and you watch the nine others go by and hope.'

"It's all a painstaking set of procedures aimed at maximum creativity, a huge planning effort to encourage accidents. ... But, even as members of the Bucket Brigade troll for every last chuckle, they remain mindful that it's not the comedy in comedies that keeps people interested; it's the structure. Revenge of the Nerds and My Big Fat Greek Wedding were nearly devoid of laughs, but they were big hits simply because of their clock-work plots. The screenwriter Dennis Klein observed, 'In standup, improv is the ability to be funny at will, but in movies even Jim Carrey bending over and talking out of his ass will get cut if the improv doesn't connect to the ongoing story.' [In Austin Powers], Dr. Evil's 'Sh!' comedy run works so well because his refusal to listen to [his son] Scott is what will allow Austin Powers to escape—and because he and Scott hate each other.

"The rise of improv expands screenwriting into the realm of acting. The best contemporary improvisers—including Ferrell, Myers, and Carell—can riff in keeping with the underlying story because they often wrote the underlying story. Comedies, once the province of writer-directors like Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, and John Hughes, now belong to the writer-actor."


Tad Friend


"First Banana: Steve Carell and the meticulous art of spontaneity"


The New Yorker


July 5, 2010


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