The Craft & Trade: April 2006 Archives
A little like this…Comedy writers everywhere breathed a sigh of relief a week or so ago, when the California State Supreme Court ruled in the case of Amaani Lyle vs. Warner Brothers Television.
Ms. Lyle, who had been working as a writers’ assistant for the show Friends, alleged that she experienced sexual harrassment on the job because the writers spoke graphically and disturbingly about sex.
She’s right about that second part. You can read her description of the sort of things they said (and her account seems accurate enough to me) here.
Put aside the fact that Ms. Lyle was warned before taking the job that she would be required to be in a room where writers often spoke graphically and offensively. Put aside the fact that Ms. Lyle’s response to that warning was “No problem.”
Comedy writing rooms are, and must be, completely free. The entire point of comedy is to subvert. That’s what makes things funny. Anything that any one person finds funny is sure to be found obnoxious or offensive by someone else.
I will go on record with the following.
I work in comedy rooms. I have committed the following sins in comedy rooms, all in the service of trying to be funny.
Racism, sexism, ageism, elitism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, mockery of the disabled, mockery of the mentally ill, mockery of the mentally retarded, mockery of Jesus Christ, mockery of children, mockery of child abuse, mockery of rape, mockery of domestic violence…and last but not least…the occasional celebration of pedophilia, necrophilia, beastiality and any other paraphilia you can think of.
On occasion, those sins lead to some very funny jokes that mass audiences have paid to see and enjoyed.
A lot of times, those sins either lead to jokes that never saw the light of day, or led to other, cleaner jokes, that did.
People often enjoy comedy that tiptoes up to the line. To write that sort of comedy, though, you need to be free to cross the line entirely…and then pull yourself back. It’s essential, really. It doesn’t make me a racist, Jesus-hating homphobe who kills children and porks dogs. It just makes me someone who likes making people laugh with touchy issues.
How else to characterize comedy writers…like the guys who wrote the following monologue for The 40 Year Old Virgin?
Mooj: Life is about people. It’s about connections.
Andy Stitzer: It’s all about connections.
Mooj: It’s not about cocks, and ass, and tits.
Andy Stitzer: Yeah.
Mooj: And butthole pleasures.
Andy Stitzer: It’s not about butthole pleasures at all.
Mooj: It’s not about these rusty trombones, and these dirty sanchez.
Andy Stitzer: Please stop.
Mooj: And these cincinatti bowties, and these pussy juice cocktail, and these shit stained balls.
Andy Stitzer: Mooj, just please stop.
Amaani Lyle is a woman who apparently wanted to be in the steak business, but when she was asked to mop up the blood in the backroom killing floor, she decided not only that it was gross…but that it was harming her to be there.
And so, she sued Warner Brothers Television for subjecting her to the hazardous environment of the Friends writing room.
The judges happily disagreed, although they didn’t really go far enough. The majority opinion ruled that being offensive is obviously a necessary freedom for creative people, and that since the writers clearly weren’t singling this woman out or even referring to her in any way, it was obviously not a case of harrassment.
The other judge, Justice Chin, agreed with the decision, but wanted to make the ruling on 1st Amendment grounds.
Creativity is, by its nature, creative. It is unpredictable. Much that is not obvious can be necessary to the creative process. Accordingly, courts may not constitutionally ask whether challenged speech was necessary for its intended purpose.
Well put, brother Chin.
The way I think of it is this: it is impossible to conceive of an America in which filmgoers could sue the filmmakers for offending them with violent, sexual or otherwise objectionable film content.
Why should the people paid to take our notes be able to sue us for creating that content in their presence and speaking it aloud?
Even grouches have
good days…At this point, it’s fairly safe to say that Scary Movie 4 will be the number one film this weekend, and it will have opened to a rather large sum of money.
That’s a good thing.
I’ve been through this opening weekend ritual a few times now. Sometimes, it’s been good. Sometimes, it’s been tragic. It’s always fascinating, and as a writer, I inevitably face a weird moment where I try and decide if I actually succeeded or not.
Seems like it would be an easy thing to determine, right?
On the one extreme, occupied by some critics and graduate students, film is a qualitative absolute. There is good, there is bad, and they will use their amazing minds and sharpened perspective to tell you what films are which.
I reject that, merely on the evidence that these absolute arbiters of quality routinely disagree with each other.
On the other extreme, there’s total relativism. All criticism is rejected as meaningless (“They hated Citizen Kane!,” say those folks), and popularity is viewed as a better determinant of success.
The problem is that total relativism isn’t very useful either, because it’s impossible to write something specifically to be popular. In order to be popular, you have to be something…and what is that something? If we reject the notion of some kind of inherent quality, then what the hell is guiding us when we do this stuff?
And so, we descend into the metaphysics of quality. Given that this very question is part of what drove Robert Pirsig insane for a while, I’m not going to gaze into that abyss too deeply.
I will, however, address a few of my critics.
Scary Movie 4 got the same range of reviews that SM3 got, and according to David Zucker, it’s the same range of reviews that Airplane! got and Naked Gun got as well.
They run from “This is lowbrow stupidity and it’s incredibly unfunny” to “It’s occasionally funny but not funny enough” to “It’s often funnier than not” to “This was really funny and smartly stupid.”
I’ll paraphrase a few things that critics say over and over and over (don’t they read each other?).
“If you don’t like one joke, wait ten seconds. Another is on its way!”
“It’s not up to Zucker’s classics like Airplane!, but it’s still funny.” (for Airplane!, it was the same review, but replace “Airplane!” with “The Marx Brothers” or “Bily Wilder” or some other comedy totem)
“Scary Move 4 fails to scare up laughs.” (good lord…there’s like 1,000 versions of that crappy pun)
“Another stupid movie full of mindless, pointless slapstick aimed at the bottom of the barrel.”
“Scary Movie 4 isn’t a parody at all.”
Those last two annoy me. I honestly don’t mind if a critic doesn’t think the movie is funny, and our comedy is definitely mindless and pointless, but I really hate it when they insult the audience. One critic complained that this movie couldn’t possibly appeal to anyone like her with a three-digit IQ.
At the risk of being proud, odds are I’m smarter than her. And I love the movie.
The parody comment is also odd, because when critics complain about Scary Movie 4 not being a proper movie parody or spoof, what they really seem to be complaining about is that it’s not a satire. They bemoan the lack of insightful barbs or witty critique.
They don’t get it.
We don’t do satire. We like it when other people like Moliere and South Park do satire, but it’s not what we do.
I fear that I’ve turned this essay into a bitter complaint about our critics, when the truth is that I was really happy with the reviews. The vast majority, both good and bad, were honestly fair.
My favorite is probably this one, not just because it’s very favorable, but because the reviewer truly understands how we approach these films. I don’t mind if people don’t like the results, but I really hate it when they misunderstand our intentions.
Anyway, after all that, it’s as clear as day to me that the film was a success. It achieved our intentions.
We really wanted to entertain our audience. We know who they are. We know what they like. We did our best to make the majority of them laugh for the majority of the time. We could have done better. I’d like to do better next time (and yeah, you know there’s gonna be a next time). Still, we did pretty damned well, and I think we did it all with love.
See, unlike some of the nastier critics who scorn the audience itself for laughing, we love them, because we are them. We may be older than many of them, but David and I have a very healthy love for the juvenile and silly. We always will. When we make these movies, the two of us are really trying to make each other laugh…and if we’re both laughing, we just assume the people we love will also laugh.
Usually they do. Sometimes…not so much.
But if we can ignore the distractions and the smirkers and satirists and irony-peddlers and the jaded and fight our way through the schedule problems and the production problems and the budget problems and still get something “cleverly stupid” on screen (as the New York Times said), and the people we love enjoy it…
…then I feel like a success.
So if you’re one of those people, and you know whom you are and whom you ain’t, I’m honestly sorry if you didn’t like the film, and I’m honestly thrilled if you did.
The rest of ya? Give it a chance. You might turn out to be a merry idiot like me.
The takeaway for those of us who write films for a living is simply this. Who do you love? Write for them. If you love the critics, write for them. If you love women, write for them. If you love young people, write for them. But always write with love.
You just might get loved back!