MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
ONE (IDEA) IS NOT ENOUGH
One great idea does not a script make. You will need hundreds of ideas for
your screenplay - character ideas, dialogue ideas, scene ideas, action ideas, and if you are
writing a comedy - joke ideas. Now, when I say "joke" I don't mean some Borscht Belt Henny
Youngman routine (though that may work depending on the type of comedy you are writing) - I
mean things that are funny. That funny thing can come from the character, character interactions,
or situations. But it is something created with the intention to make the audience laugh. Those
funny lines or moments or situations start with an idea, and for a comedy film you need enough of
them to be constantly funny. Not every joke works for every audience member, so the key is to pack
your comedy with different kinds of comedy so that there is always something to make every audience
A couple of years ago Will Ferrell seemed to be back with THE OTHER GUYS, though Sam Jackson and The Rock stole the show... and Marky Mark did a great job as a cop with *extreme* anger management issues...
The previous few years we seemed to be having a joke shortage - both GET SMART and ZOHAN didn't have enough funny
material for their running times. There were long dry patches where either the one joke didn't
work (there will always be misfires, so pack extra ammo) or there *was* nothing funny in that
portion of the scene. Colin's brother Will has a new movie coming out where he plays John C.
Reily's new step-brother, and the trailer only has a couple of laughs in it. Not a good sign.
Lately, Ferrell has been making so many films there aren't enough laughs to go around. SEMI-PRO
(now on DVD) is a good example of why you need to spend more time honing your script and making
sure there are enough jokes-per-square-inch to provoke consistent laughter *before* you spend the
millions to make the film.
THE BIG IDEA
The most important idea in your screenplay is the concept, so you want to make sure you have
the absolute *best* concept possible before going to script. I may come up with 100 ideas before
I find the *right* one - the best one. Then I play around with that idea to find the very best
version of it before I go to script. I'm thinking about writing a Western right now, and it begins
in a town... but what makes this town special? I thought it wold be interesting if it was the town
where gunslingers go to retire - so the entire population are fast-draw killers. Look, it could
have just been a generic cowboy town where most Westerns take place - but my goal is to improve
every part of the idea before I have 110 pages. I want to make sure I have the best idea and the
best version of that idea *before* I write the script.
Okay, we're going to make a Will Ferrell sports comedy. Let's start with a sport... say, NASCAR
driving. What is funny about that sport? Well, NASCAR started with hillbilly moonshine drivers, so
we can do a bunch of "redneck" jokes - how many books full of those does Jeff Foxworthy have? And
is there an "opposite" in that world that can create conflict and humor from that conflict? Well,
Formula One drivers are often sophisticated Europeans... let's throw in one of those! I think we
might find enough material for a movie, there. Okay, what about male figure skating? I can
brainstorm up a hundred jokes about male figure skaters! Okay, now what about basketball?
Basketball... what is inherently funny about basketball? What are the built in, obvious
basketball jokes? When I watch male figure skating on TV, which is every chance I get (not), it's just
funny. When I watch basketball... it's an exciting game. Not funny. Even the Harlem Globetrotters
- which are a comedy basketball team - aren't *funny*. They are clever and talented and do amazing
tricks - when we laugh at the Globetrotters, it's a laugh of admiration - these guys are like
magicians with a basketball. But basketball - not a funny sport. So why select that as the sport
to use for your Will Ferrell comedy? Why not click through sports until you find one that is
really funny... or not confine yourself to the arena of sports (as opposed to a sports arena) and
find the best funny idea available? If you are writing a comedy script, you want to begin with a
funny idea... or a situation that can be funny. Look at ZOHAN - we have a tough action hero guy
who wants to become a hairdresser. That's a funny concept... unfortunately, they didn't come up
with much else that is funny for that movie.
HUNDREDS OF OTHER IDEAS
One of the things I often do when I'm looking at an idea, I'll make a list of ideas based on
that idea. Scenes, story ideas, sub-concepts, etc. And if I can come up with 25 "sub-ideas" - scene
or sequence ideas, I know I have enough for a screenplay. Sure, I'll probably need 50-60 scenes for
my script, but if I can come up with 25 ideas, the rest will come when I actually outline the script
and flesh out the concept. But if I can't come up with 25 ideas? Well, I sure as hell can't come up
with 50-60 good scenes for my script.
Then when I'm writing the script, I brainstorm up a bunch of ideas for things that happen
within a scene just before writing it, and then select the best to use. I want to make sure there are enough unique
and interesting ideas within the scene that it is the best possible version of that scene.
Because I write action and thrillers instead of comedy, my scene ideas are usually cool, different,
interesting bits in an action scene or suspense scene. The detail ideas that make the scene. I may
take a sheet of lined paper and jot down as many ideas for that scene as I can... and not stop
until that page is filled. I would rather have so many great scene ideas that I have to leave some
out, than have a scene that is generic or has slow spots or isn't the best it can be.
And that's the problem with SEMI-PRO... there aren't enough good funny ideas in the film to
sustain it. There are maybe a handful of funny ideas at most... a comedy shortage and an idea
shortage. The big problem is not enough jokes and gags - you hardly ever laugh in this film. And
they *contrive* gags - like the 70's hairdos - and those look contrived and just fall flat. The
best comedy films are the ones you have to see more than once, because you were laughing at one
joke and missed the next. So you have to pay another $11 and hope you don't laugh at the same gags
you laughed at last time. A great comedy you may have to see a bunch of times, then buy on DVD when
it comes out so that you can catch the lines where everyone in the audience laughed. Even after
seeing AIRPLANE a million times, I still catch some gag I missed. That film is overflowing with
jokes! Though I'm sure SEMI-PRO is renting okay on DVD, I can't imagine someone needing to add it
to their DVD collection. I don't ever need to see it again, but there may be some Ferrell fans who
will add it to their collection when it hits the $4 bin at Walmart.
SEMI-PRO is about a second string basket ball team in the American League that has to start
winning games and drawing fans so they can be one of the 4 teams that gets folded into the NBA.
Now, that's not a bad idea... but there's nothing inherently funny about it.
So they graft on a bunch of things from the outside - they make Will Ferrell into a musician
who was a one hit wonder, they give everyone a funny haircut, they throw in Woody Harrelson as a
failed basketball player (and this isn't a funny idea like the prissy French Formula One driver
in TALADEGA NIGHTS), and they give Woody an ex-girlfriend to win back (also not a funny idea), and
Ferrell gets to do all kinds of wacky stunts to bring in an audience (which usually have nothing
at all to do with basketball - like wrestling a bear). It ends up being a grab bag of unrelated
plot threads and elements - nothing that has to do with the sport of basketball... and nothing
that is particularly funny. Instead of digging into the concept or the characters involved in the
sport of basketball to find their gags, they paste on a bunch of gags that have nothing to do with
basketball (the concept). You want all of your sub-ideas to come from the main idea - and that
means digging deeper into the concept. Using the story as the idea source rather than just coming
up with unrelated funny stuff and forcing it into the script.
With all of these cool little ideas or jokes, remember the focus of the script is the Big Idea,
the concept. You don't want to confuse the audience with a bunch of ideas that have nothing to do
with the story you are trying to tell.. Make sure your hundreds of fresh small ideas are somehow
related to that Big Idea. All of the Small Ideas should share your Big Idea's DNA... the central
conflict that fuels the story. They should *support* your main idea, not distract from it. Show me
the connection between wrestling a bear and basketball! Show me how Woody Harrelson's story thread
is part of winning games or attracting an audience. Show me how being a 1970s One Hit Wonder is
connected to basketball. None of these things are organic to the main story idea - they are from
other stories and forced into SEMI-PRO so that it can have a laugh every ten minutes (instead of
a laugh a minute). The result is a film that isn't funny, and doesn't even work as a story.
COMEDY FROM CHARACTER
Another big problem is Will Ferrell's character is just not someone we can like - he's a buffoon,
and self centered, and you end up almost rooting against him. He's not a nice guy, so why should we
want him to achieve his goal? They needed a scene somewhere in here that showed us a softer side of
him, and allowed us a possibility to care about him. But even when we get a scene with his dead
mother, we don't care about him. It's a crap scene that is grafted on from the outside instead of
finding an organic scene that belongs in *this* film. Part of this problem might be Ferrell
himself - his humor comes from acting like an idiot. We laugh *at* him, not with him. But even an
idiot can have an emotional moment early enough in the movie that we care about him for the rest
of the film. ZOHAN has the same problem - Sandler never allows us inside the character. No scenes
where we see the character as a human being - someone that we can care about. Ferrell and Sandler
*always* do their shtick and keep the walls up around their characters so that we can not care
about them. No matter how silly your movie, we need to find a doorway into the protagonist so that
the audience can identify with them and care about them. They can still be idiots, but they have
to be idiots with heart. If we don't care about the character, we can't care about the story...
and the story fails. It becomes only surface - like Sandler and Ferrell's characters.
The basic concept, the losing team that must start winning again and attracting a crowd or else
it's going to fold, has been used *successfully* in the MAJOR LEAGUE series, and that's what this
film could have been. If you look at the tone of MAJOR LEAGUE, it's not a farce - it's a "serious
comedy" that takes place in a reality-based world. Instead of fighting a bear, they hire colorful
players and encourage them to be their wacky selves in order to attract fans. This makes the
comedy *character based* and keeps it on the baseball field instead on in some cage with a bear.
(By the way, the bear running gag ends up getting the most laughs in the film - maybe the movie should
have been about a Jack Hanna-like zoo guy.) MAJOR LEAGUE manages to have wacky humor - from reality
based characters - and work as a sports movie (you really cheer) and has some real emotions (instead
of crappy pasted on subplots with ex-girlfriends) and was funny enough to be a huge hit and spawn a
bunch of sequels. Basically, the same idea done right.
And I wonder if SEMI-PRO began more like MAJOR LEAGUE and less like... well, whatever it is?
Because the Woody ex-girlfriend stuff seems more reality based than the rest of the film - though
they graft on some stupid gags with her current live-in boyfriend as Woody's #1 fan who cheers
them on when they make love in front of him. And there is a *great* moment in the film with Andre
3000 that seems like it belongs in another movie - something more serious like MAJOR LEAGUE.
Things like that make me wonder if this began as a more serious kind of comedy and was screwed-up
to become this awful Will Ferrell film. And if that's what happened - somebody needs to be kicked
out of Hollywood.
And Will Ferrell needs to take a break and only make a film if it has enough jokes to sustain
the running time. Maybe he's spreading himself too thin? Maybe all of these ho-hum comedies like
GET SMART and ZOHAN and SEMI-PRO seem like filmed first drafts because they *are* filmed first
drafts? Maybe they needed more fine tuning, focus, and rewrites before they put them into production?
Whether you are writing a comedy or a thriller or an action film or any other genre, you need to
make sure your main idea is the very best idea there is, and then the best version of that idea
possible... then you need to come up with hundreds of other ideas to flesh out your script. Make
sure all of those great small ideas are somehow related to the Big Idea and not pasted on from the
outside. If you are writing a comedy, you need as many great organic jokes as you can come up with.
Never underestimate the importance of jokes in a comedy!
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