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Filmmaker Lodge: Birbiglia, Duplass and others rock, and mock, how-to advice on comic moments in film

Published January 25, 2012 8:04 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"As all of us know, there's nothing less funny than talking about being funny," said Jon Korn, moderator of Wednesday's Filmmaker Lodge forum at the Sundance Film Festival.

Those opening words for the forum titles "The Wide World of Wit" never once fazed comedian Mike Birbiglia, actor Mark Duplass, screenwriter Lauren Anne Miller and filmmaker David Zellner. True to form and the livelihood that sustains them, all four proved funny enough. Not exactly rolling-in-the-aisles, but funny enough.

With both Duplass and Miller fresh from the victory laps of securing distribution deals for their respective films—"Black Rock" and "For A Good Time, Call ..."— the crowd at 550 Main Street was plenty receptive.

Never mind that the hour-and-half conversation beat a hasty retreat from its promised theme of "Is comedy the only way to cope with reality?" and proceeded directly to how comic moments are best made into film. Plenty of wisdom was dispensed along the way, skipping back and forth between these main themes:1. Good comedy is most often fortified by an even better film narrative or story:

Or, as Birbiglia put it, "Whenever I see a movie where comedy is an end in itself I feel like saying, 'Wait! That's it?'"

This same point drew laughs when Birbiglia described 'Terms Of Endearment' as one of the funniest movies ever. An exaggeration, to be sure, but one that Duplass backed up using his own 2005 film 'The Puffy Chair' as a case in point. In short, no one's going to laugh if you don't have other things to say on the way to your an arsenal of punch-lines.

"If you see 'The Puffy Chair' alone it may seem like a hard-hitting relationship drama," Duplass said. "If you see it in a room with 20 people, it will seem like a different version of 'Dumb and Dummer.'"2. Comedy often goes to dark uncomfortable places:

Birbiglia recounted the many times he pitched ideas to This American Life's Ira Glass, only to be rebuffed at almost every turn. Until, that is, he proposed a story idea about someone beaten up so badly at high school they vowed never to return, transferring instead to another school.

"You've got to have something funny [in even the most serious films] or it's just not real!" Birbiglia emphasized. Miller backed him up. "Every life, however sad or serious, has something funny in it," she said. "You can't be too precious."3. Comedy is fragile, and vulnerable to the law of diminishing returns:

Citing experience with the powers-that-be behind his first feature film, Duplass said the magic of many an idea is often destroyed by talking about it too much.

"I had to be a bit of a dick, and not talk about my ideas too much in meetings," he said. "Unless you are yelling, they won't think you're passionate enough. If you're meek, they'll think they can steam-roll you."

Duplass said that for his brand of "dramedy," which sometimes incorporates elements of improv and stand-up, the actors must have their heads in two places. First is the interest of moving the narrative forward, with surprises for the cast. The second arena involves keeping yourself as an actor lost inside the character.

"It's not about being inside your head to find the best joke about a chocolate banana," he said. 4. Comic moments are often easily transferable, but not for those who already believe they're the life of the party:

In response to an audience question, "Will it be funny to others if you're laughing while you write it?" Birbiglia had a ready response.

"If you laugh while you're writing it, it's probably funny," he said. "If you imagine people laughing while you're writing, it will not be funny."

Birbiglia emphasized the importance of never thinking one joke, or your favorite joke, so funny that the work as a whole cannot survive without it.

"At NPR they use the word 'kill' very joyously," Birbiglia said. "As in 'We love that, and it's gone!'" 5. If you want to make a funny film, a seasoned film editor is a must:

Best of all, said Duplass, is a a film editor with experience in the documentary world, where sifting through miles of footage for the best material is a specialty of the genre. Knowing the editing process at an intimate level is bound to make your comic writing stronger at every turn.

Miller seconded the point describing editors, and even other film crew, as the source of invaluable second opinions. Sometimes, she said, writers will use the excuse of saying, "'But we really heard of lot of smiles,' when no one else was laughing."—Ben Fulton