The next problem I view in comedy is not getting down on the page. With the rise of improv in movies we have seen comedies with some good ideas never get off the launching pad. They mostly stumble around looking for the laugh. One of the major problems that I see especially in the smaller world of web comedies; is that people think they can just show up on set and improv a really great scene let alone a whole movie. Yes, some people have been able to do it.
The first thing you have to ask yourself are you as good as Larry David, Christopher Guest, or Sacha Baron Cohen.
These are trained improvisers that have been doing it for years. Of course it looks simple, the same way Michael Jordan used to make game winning shots look like the flick of a wrist. You can’t show up on set with no plan and just expect greatness to happen. That’s just plain stupid.
The second thing you have to realize is all of those great movies that seemed completely natural and improvised had hours and hours of rehearsal.
These people knew there character s and their past history together. It makes it much easier to create a great scene out of thin air. The same can be said of a lot of recent films; oh we got Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifinakis there funny so no matter we’ll have a great comedy. If you saw Due Date you know this is not the truth. Both of these men are great performers and if given a great script that they can dig into they can take a film to amazing heights with their performances. But to just have them show up and expect them to do all the heavy lifting is ridiculous.
I read and interview with Owen Wilson about five years ago where he talks about showing up on set and just being asked to make something funny up on the spot. And to do that day after day would become completely draining. And then the movies start to suffer. Anyone rushing out to pick up the Blu-Ray version of I Spy; I don’t think so. By not giving an actor a proper script they are handicapping both there actors and the film. A great script gives plenty of good ideas to bounce off but better yet gives the actors and directors something to fall back on. If things are working well on set that day the script is the safety net. The third thing I want to look at with improv is when it fails despite good actors. Even with the best of improv actors the scenes can still go wrong. One example of this I can pinpoint is two movies with Vince Vaughn and Jon Faverau Four Christmas and The Break Up. Neither is considered classic comedies by any means but when the two of them have a scene together it really works. They are bouncing back and forth and the interplay between the two of them is great; except it just goes around and around and never builds any momentum. If great comedies are all about pacing then why these films just let two actors do bounce back and forth searching for laughs without ever really advancing the plot or anything with the story.
Seth Rogen and James Franco in Pineapple Express a decent movie with some funny moments but a whole lot of it is Franco and Rogen just riffing to the right funny joke. And yes they do sometimes find it but it’s buried under a sea of mediocre jokes. The whole film has now slowed down its comedic momentum just to fumble in the dark for the light switch. Again I want to reiterate I don’t think improv is bad. Not at all. I just think these movies would be better served if they spent the time they do on set filming take after take riffing back and forth; and just took some time in the rehearsal process to do this with the writers. Bounce ideas off with them; work with the director to improve the scene. Go down all the blind alley when the camera isn’t rolling and find those gems that weren’t in the script. This way the editor isn’t staring at hundreds of hours of footage trying to craft a funny movie out of it. Demand more of yourself at the front end and your movies will be so much better in the long run.