Db Gilles Are You Funny Enough to Be a Screenwriter?

Guest Post by D.B. Gilles, author of 50 Screenwriting Tips For $5

In my experience as a screenwriter and teacher, I’ve learned that some comedy writers are naturally funny while others have to work at it.

Think back to your childhood. Remember the boy who was the class clown? (It was pretty much always a boy. Funny girls were considered to be weird. And guys, how intimidated are you by a witty, funny woman?) He irritated the teacher and generated giggles from classmates not so much by making witty remarks, but mainly by doing goofy stuff, making faces, and pulling off slap-sticky things.

I went through each year of grade school with the same group of kids. There were the smart kids (not me), the athletes (not me), the cool kids (definitely not me), the outcasts (fortunately not me: that was to come during high school), the gen-pop (kids who were just there, usually well behaved and religious) and the two kids competing to be class clown (one of which was me).

Competing is a generous word. There was no competition. The other kid, Joey, was hands down the funniest kid in class. I was a distant second. Really distant. Looking back, kids laughed at me more than because of something funny I did or said.

Joey was cute and had a killer smile. I was kind of geeky-looking and when I smiled my face wrinkled up in a way that made me look as if I had progeria (a rare abnormality marked by premature aging, grey hair, wrinkled skin, and stooped posture in a child). Joey was charming. I wasn’t. All the girls had crushes on him and all the boys wanted to either hang with him or be him.

Nobody Wanted to Be Me

50 Screenwriting Tips for $5I didn’t even want to be me.

What I wanted was to make my classmates laugh (attention, duh!). The problem was that Joey was a natural. I wasn’t. He would open his mouth and most of the time something clever came out. And when what he said missed the mark, he had learned to ignore it and move on to the next ad lib.

I didn’t know what an ad-lib was. I didn’t know what being witty or clever meant.

At some point, I started to realize that, unlike Joey, I would have to work at getting laughs.

Work very hard!

Which brings us back to comedy writing.

At some point you decided that you wanted to write screenplays that were comedies. For me, it was in my late- 20s. I’d started out writing plays, comedies, then, as I hit 30 I was bitten by the screenwriting bug. So I could call myself a playwright and a screenwriter.

That’s when I realized that my writing career was a re-creation of my childhood desire to be class clown. Instead of competing with one Joey who didn’t have to work that hard at getting laughs, I would be competing with lots of Joeys to whom comedy writing came, if not “easy,” certainly “easier.”

Being a comedy writer isn’t just a matter of writing funny dialogue, bits, or set pieces. There’s a whole other level to confuse you.

What Kind of Comedy Do You Write?

You’re at a party, in a bar, or somewhere and you’re talking with someone you just met. You let it slip that you’re a screenwriter and the person asks you what kind of stuff you write.

Someone who doesn’t write comedies might answer without a moment’s hesitation in the following way:

“I write “Thrillers. Action. Sci-Fi. Adventure. Mysteries. Indies. Horror. Drama.”

These writers are lucky. They know their identity as a screenwriter.

But if you’re a comedy writer your answer might not come as easily.

What would your answer be? That you write: Comedies? Comedy/dramas? Serio/comedies? Dramadies? Dramatic comedies? Romantic comedies? Buddy comedies? Bittersweet comedies? Comedy/adventures? Sex comedies? Dark comedies? Farce? Parody?

Pinpointing the type of comedies you write is important, especially if the person who asked what kind of screenplays you write is an agent, manager, producer, development executive, or somebody in the business who might help you.

The industry is constantly changing. Knowing the kind of comedy you write is a way of creating your brand. Maybe the old school term for branding is just as good: pigeonholed.

In television you’re either a sitcom writer or you write hour-long drama. You might eventually do both, but you’ll break into the business as one or the other.

Before Alan Ball wrote Six Feet Under and True Blood, he wrote for Grace Under Fire and Cybil. He made the transition, which also included a little detour into screenwriting called American Beauty. Same with Terence Winter. Before he wrote for The Sopranos and created Boardwalk Empire he wrote for Flipper and Sister, Sister.

Judd Apatow is known for a certain kind of comedy. So are Nancy Meyers and the late Nora Ephron. So are the Farrelly brothers and Diablo Cody.

Woody Allen is in a genre-bending league all his own. There are four stages of his career. (1) Fun, goofy comedies: Bananas, Take the Money and Run, and Sleeper. (2) Comedy/dramas: Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Broadway Danny Rose. (3) Dramatic/Comedies: Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Radio Days. (4) This is the most difficult to pinpoint. Even diehard Woody Allen fans, of which I am one, have found his output over the last 15 years to be inconsistent. His films are a mix of comedy/dramas and dramadies (Midnight in Paris, Deconstructing Harry, Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Whatever Works). His lesser successes are more difficult to pinpoint (Anything Else, Cassandra’s Dream, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, To Rome with Love).

Now we should all be so lucky to have careers as long and productive as Woody Allen’s. Even if his best work is behind him, he leaves a tremendous legacy. I bring him up simply to illustrate that though he began his screenwriting career writing lowbrow comedies he aspired to greater heights and achieved them. As of this writing he’s authored 47 screenplays.

What Kind of Comedy Do You Want to Write?

What about you? You’re writing comedies. Are you able to narrow them down to the kind you write? It’s important to your career that you know, so when someone who can help you asks what you write you can be specific.

But maybe you don’t know your genre of comedy or you’re not sure. You may still be finding your voice.

Do you want to be known as the screenwriter who writes raunchy, vulgar, stupid stuff (that might get you a huge deal and a house in Malibu) or do you want to be known as the writer of witty, clever, smart comedies? The kind that get nominated for Academy Awards.

The ability to write raunchy comedies and dick jokes is a certain kind of talent that might get you in the door. If you’re relatively young, your life experience might still be in the adolescent/frat-boy vein. You can outgrow that if you choose. Maybe you won’t want to. Maybe that’s all you’re capable of. If that’s the case, you’ll be branded as a one-trick pony.

But as you get older you might want to change your professional image. Woody Allen came a long way from Bananas to Crimes and Misdemeanors to Midnight In Paris. But if you start out wanting to write comedies that are grounded in reality and filled with wit and intelligence, you’ll be positioning yourself on a higher plain.

You’ll be the comedy screenwriter others aspire to be.

And that’s nothing to laugh about!

* * *

D.B. Gilles’ latest book is 50 Screenwriting Tips For $5. He is a Script Consultant and Writing Coach who has helped hundreds of writers bring their scripts closer to the goal line. To contact him about his unique approach to Script Consulting, email him at dbgillescript@gmail.com

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