Archive for June 2012

Humor Me

June 6, 2012

For a news junkie like me, big election years used to be like binge drinking. Every few minutes I’d be checking political analysis websites, blogs, CNN, and yes, even Faux News just to see the latest misinformation the bubble-headed blondes and overpaid windbags were spewing into the airwaves. But lately, watching or reading the news — especially political “reporting” — has become so depressing that I just tune it all out. In America, people don’t change their views based on facts. They pretty much just react to stuff that hits them on a gut level, whether those things are true or not.

The state of TV and movie comedy has become just as depressing, and largely for the same reasons. Instead of appealing to viewers’ intellects, sitcom writers and movie scribes mostly go for the easy laughs that rely on one-liners and riffs on sex, bodily functions, and embarrassing mishaps that are all too common thanks to YouTube and Facebook. I can’t really think of a new comedy series or movie I’ve seen in the past year that I thought was truly inspired humor. Okay, I did laugh a lot at BRIDESMAIDS. Yet the TV shows that make me laugh out loud the most aren’t even comedies. They tend to be dramas like Mad Men or dark fare such as Breaking Bad. The lines aren’t funny in themselves, but when placed in the mouths of certain characters, the words take on absurd irony in such unexpected ways that the only logical reaction is to laugh.

That’s what I  love about the classic sitcoms I grew up on: Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Taxi, M*A*S*H. I remember reading an interview with James Brooks, who started out writing in TV (MTM, Taxi, etc.) and he said that’s what real comedy is all about: it’s not clever zingers anyone could deliver — the humor came out of the characters themselves… their essence.

This is where I segue into how real life and my aspirations as a screenwriter intersected, thanks to the Austin Film Festival contest. Way back in 1999, I was a finalist in their feature script competition, beating out about 3,000 entrants. So I figured it was worth flying to the festival from Hawaii since they offered finalists a nice discount and opportunities to meet produced writers — like James Brooks, who was a guest of honor that year. In fact, at the awards luncheon, he sat at the table right next to mine and applauded when my name was announced as a finalist. His hit movie, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, came out two years before that, so having him at the AFF was very cool.

I was seated at the head table with one of the AFF co-founders, sponsors, and the co-writer of BIG NIGHT, Joseph Tropiano. Coincidentally, I had just read an interview with Joe and his writing partner (Stanley Tucci) in a glossy magazine called Scenario, which used to publish scripts for produced and unproduced movies. We chatted a little, but I never got the feeling that Joe was a Hollywood type guy. BIG NIGHT was his first script, and I can only find one other IMDB writing credit since then. He was in the PR biz before that and had written short stories. Very different pedigree than James Brooks, who hasn’t had any major hits since AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Which goes to show how tough it is to stay at the top as a screenwriter, no matter who you are.

But those weren’t the only star writers/directors at Austin that year. Robert Altman was on hand to speak and accept an award. So was Buck Henry. And in  a special session for contest semi-finalists and finalists, I got to meet two young upcoming writers named Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. I had read their script for CITIZEN RUTH in Scenario Magazine and thought it was much funnier on the page than the movie screen. There’s something about satire that doesn’t translate well to film or TV… maybe it’s too cerebral or it could be that making a movie comedy about abortion is just not going to work very well on the big screen.

When I told Alex that I was a fan of CITIZEN RUTH, he shook my hand and said I should go see their new movie that was coming out: ELECTION with Matthew Broderick and fresh-faced Reese Witherspoon as the student government presidential candidate you just love to hate. I recently saw it again on Netflix and thought it was funnier, smarter and sharper than any comedy movie or sitcom I’ve seen in the past year or two. In part, that’s because it was adapted from a book by Tom Perrotta — back then, I wasn’t familiar with his work. Then a couple of years ago I read Little Children by Tom Perrotta and found out he was the author of Election as well.

To bring the whole story full circle, Alex Payne wound up directing and co-writing THE DESCENDANTS, which is set in Hawaii… and based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Whose brother used to live next door to me, and whose stepfather was a longtime Republican state senator that I had some political dealings with here on issues related to public beach access. I’ll write more about my reactions to the movie (and book) in a future blog post.

I guess if there’s one thing I can take away from all this, it’s you never know where writing will take you. I didn’t win at Austin that year, and still haven’t sold any of my screenplays. For some writers, like Joe Tropiano, maybe there won’t be another movie credit that earns them the same acclaim they got for their first script. Others, like James Brooks and Alex Payne, are able to have long careers I think, because they recognize that the key to every good story is finding interesting characters who are distinctly human — flawed, yet sympathetic beings who make us laugh despite the doom and gloom that overshadows our daily lives.  If you ask me, that’s what is missing in today’s movie marketplace: we need more “real” people humor and fewer comic book superheroes. Oh, and please, no more Adam Sandler movies!