July 2003

Directing Comedy 101

Whoever it was that said, "Dying is easy — comedy is hard" knew what he or she was talking about. The fact that no one is really sure who first uttered those words doesn't make it any less true, as any director involved in comedy can readily attest.

BY RAY RICHMOND   

Jim Carrey gets a lesson in using his new powers from Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty directed by Tom Shadyac

The business of trying to make people laugh is surely no joke. It makes undergoing root canal work seem positively light and breezy by comparison. Whether the medium be theatrical film, television sitcom or TV commercial, directors who are dedicated to the fickle art of eliciting laughter from the masses are perhaps doomed to the closest scrutiny — and no doubt the highest failure rate — of any genre.

You don't have to be nuts to want to direct comedy. But it helps.

Those who direct it regularly, and well, will tell you that it's more perspiration than inspiration, more intuition than erudition. More luck than pluck. And they readily admit that directing comedy is destined to drive one mad. The same style and formula can rarely be counted upon to work twice. Comedy direction counts on subtlety far more so than does drama. Yet even at that, there are no guarantees.

It speaks volumes that there are few Steven Spielbergs or Martin Scorseses of the theatrical comedy world, acknowledged masters who could be counted on to knock it out of the park a majority of the time. Billy Wilder was one. Woody Allen is perhaps another. But they are few and far between. And in any case, it remains tougher for comedy directors to glean anywhere close to the respect of their dramatic counterpart. It surely has nothing to do with the relative difficulty of the task at hand.

In television, meanwhile, there is James Burrows. With his 19 DGA Award nominations (and four wins) in a career that has spanned work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends and Will & Grace, Burrows is the acknowledged small-screen master. He sees his job as a relatively simple one.

"I'm there to get everyone to like one another," Burrows believes, "to make sure that everybody knows that we're all in this process together. It can't be five of six pistons working, or 51 of the 52 cards in the deck. I'm keeping all of us on the same page. There are no egos. If you have a problem with another person, you come to me and tell me you have a problem."

Actually, even Burrows admits that this isn't really all there is to it. Directing comedy is a delicate dance of low-key and high-key, of action and reaction, of movement and stillness. And every director who has ever presided over a comedy set has more than a few opinions on the subject of how best to approach the craft.

First rule: there are no rules for directing comedy. Second rule: see rule number one.

DGA Magazine contacted some 28 DGA members directors, ADs — who worked in theatrical comedies, television sitcoms and commercials to glean a sense of the state-of-the-comedy direction art in the early part of the 21st century. Here is their two-cents' (in some cases, as much as three-cents') worth.

Niles (David Hyde-Pierce), Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and director Pamela Fryman go over a scene

Feature Film

Tom Shadyac
(Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, Patch Adams, Bruce Almighty):

"I think the rhythms are pretty similar in a dramatic shot payoff that works and a comedic show payoff that works. One gets you startled or emoting — and one gets you a laugh.

"I've been fortunate to have worked with three brilliant comic minds in Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. They all work very differently. Jim liked to work from every angle and improvise off of it. Eddie doesn't like to rehearse and wants to be incredibly spontaneous. And Robin ... well, Robin just wants to burn a whole magazine and clean out the comedy exhaust pipe. Robin has 300 ideas hitting him at once. But all three of these guys have a genius about them.

"The bottom line is always: are we laughing at what we're doing? It's got to hit us in the gut. It has to make us laugh first. And we're a tough audience. If we don't laugh, it's gone."

John Landis
(Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places):

"It's my job as director of a comedy to set up the joke. I'm a Jew. If I hear an anti-Semitic joke from a stranger, I'm offended and outraged. If a close friend or relative tells me the same joke, I'm laughing. The joke hasn't changed, just my perception of how the joke is being presented. That's how directing comedy works. If I set it up properly, it works.

"There also doesn't happen to be any such thing as a comedy rule. The only generalization about directing it is that there isn't one. The material dictates everything. In Animal House, it was OK for Bluto to make gross gestures with his mashed potatoes because John Belushi made him so sympathetic and charming. But what makes the scene funny is Tim Matheson's anticipation of what John's going to do."

Brett Ratner
(Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2, The Family Man):

"My take on directing comedy is that the reaction of the person on the receiving end of the joke is as important visually for the audience as the person delivering it. And timing and pacing are everything. It could be funny on the page, but if it's not executed properly, or edited the right way, you lose it.

"Directing comedy and drama are completely different crafts that use different sets of muscles. The subject matter invariably dictates the way you light it, the lenses you pick, the way the story is told and the composition. My favorite type of comedy film is the one that's shot like a drama, like Being There. It's the situation and the characters that make it funny, not the setups and punch lines."

Jay Sandrich and Bill Cosby from The Cosby Show

Reginald Hudlin
(House Party, Boomerang, The Ladies Man, Serving Sara):

"I'm a big believer in rehearsal. I like to get everybody together and kind of have improv jam sessions a week or two before we start shooting. That way, my actors can feel free to be genuinely creative. That's their time to let it go.

"Not that creativity gets shut off like a spigot on the day production begins. But having the jam sessions allows us to hash out what works or doesn't work and accommodate whatever needs changing. A lot of comedians deliberate whether or not to give out their best ideas before the beginning of shooting because they don't want to get rejected. That anxiety comes from working with directors who hire really creative people and then don't allow them to change the script. But if you don't trust someone's comedic instincts, you shouldn't hire them for the job.

"I make a covenant with all of my people. I'll listen to any of their suggestions as long as they don't mind me saying no. But the trick in directing comedy is to lead but at the same time be open and flexible."

Joe Dante
(Gremlins, Innerspace, The 'burbs, the forthcoming Looney Tunes: Back in Action):

"I've found that the line between comedy and drama when you're directing is very, very thin. Sometimes, it's so thin that you can't even recognize it. W.C. Fields said that all great comedy is rooted in cruelty and pain, and that's how I try to conduct my own work.

"As far as cinematic style goes, when you're doing comedy, the most important thing is for your audience not to be confused. If you slam them with too much information, it confuses them — and they won't laugh if they're confused. So keeping the material simple is a must, as is making sure it truly is amusing. If the material isn't there to begin with, it's darn hard to get people to be funny."

David Sosna
(1st AD on Trading Places, The Blues Brothers, Three Amigos!, Dragnet, 48 Hrs.):

"From my assistant director perspective, working in comedy and drama is pretty much identical. It's identical routine and identical procedure. The logistical issues of production are really about the same.

"I've worked with both (Arnold) Schwarzenegger and (Eddie) Murphy, two very different stars with the same sorts of issues. You have to take care of the big star the way he's used to being taken care of. So my issues are all personalities above the line. The genre is less an issue than are the creature comforts, the call time, the work load, the turnaround and the environment on the set."

Then stage manager Gary Shimokawa with actress Sally Struthers on the set of All in the Family

John Hockridge
(1st AD on Ghost, The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, Wayne's World, Rat Race, Anger Management, the forthcoming 50 First Kisses):

"Generally, we ADs are logistics people. I jokingly say that I'm the chief yeller and screamer on the set. But I really don't work that way and don't like people who do. The biggest job an AD has is to try to minimize the time for the DP to have the set and actors ready and the cameras rolling. And that's really the same no matter what genre you're working in.

"From my perspective, I tell people that comedies are the hardest things in the world to do. They seem ostensibly like they should be lots of fun. But they're really a challenge. They typically have a different tenor than do action movies and dramas. As AD, I try to create an easy-going, happy environment that allows people to be creative. It's easy when you have someone like Drew Barrymore on your set. She's just a dream, nice to everybody. It makes all the difference in the world."

Frank Coraci
(The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy, the forthcoming Around the World in 80 Days):

"My theory of comedy filmmaking is that you have to start out with fleshed-out characters and real conflicts who have real things at stake. Because the more rooted the characters, the deeper you laugh.

"In my movies, just when the scene is starting to get really poignant, just before people start rolling their eyes, I hit them with a joke. If the audience trusts the filmmaker, they're willing to let go and allow him to push them emotionally farther."

TV Comedy

James Burrows
(The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Will & Grace):

"People tell me that from watching a single scene, they can tell if I've directed a show or not. I'm not sure if they're just trying to blow smoke up my DGA card or what. But I do know that on any show I'm associated with — right now, Will & Grace — I make sure that the people on my set love and care about one another as people so that when they're acting, you can feel that coming across.

"I tend to contribute maybe more than most directors of TV comedy. I put in a lot of sight gags and throw in a lot of jokes — some lukewarm, some terrific. The ability of the director to do that in a 'writer's medium' is what I try to promote amongst my fellow directors. I sometimes get the label of traffic cop, which I hate. But as directors, we have to contribute to the creative process. We all have something to say, and to add.

"Maybe I'll try to balance five jokes with one dramatic moment. Guys like Rod Holcomb and Bob Butler know how to make the dramatic moments resonate. And hopefully, I know how to make the jokes resonate. If I'm on my game, you won't notice my camera zooming very much. It zooms a lot. You just don't notice."

Dennie Gordon
(Tracey Takes On, Ally McBeal, Sports Night and the feature What a Girl Wants):

"The kind of material I'm always looking for is a great blend of comedy and drama. And the best stuff, like David E. Kelley shows, tend to turn on a dime between the two.

"Everyone will tell you that directing comedy is definitely harder. And I agree. It's also true that we talk about comedy at our peril, because it's elusive and mercurial. And it unravels as soon as you really try to start analyzing it. It's a very intuitive thing. My comedy rules are that the camera should never, never be moving on a punch line. And pure comedy tends to play best without a cut, or calling too much attention to itself.

"It's also true that you can't over think a joke or look at the mechanics of it. If it's fresh and funny the first time, leave it alone. It's tough in single-camera TV comedy in particular, because you don't get to play before a live audience. You have to go with your gut. But nothing tells you like a live room what's working and what isn't."

Asaad Kelada
(WKRP in Cincinnati, Family Ties, Benson, The Facts of Life, Designing Women, Everybody Loves Raymond):

"One of the big challenges in directing comedy is that you can't really make someone funny. You can set up the situation. You can put together the necessary elements. But you cannot make the actor BE funny. So casting the comedy well is essential.

"I think that the basics of directing are the same regardless of whether you're talking about comedy or drama. It's all about telling a story. Drama tends to be analytical, comedy much more technical. It's about rhythm, timing, pace and energy. In drama, you tell the story from the inside out; in comedy, it's from the outside in. But even if you're a visiting director, you can make your unique vision felt."

Andy Ackerman
(Seinfeld [nearly 100 episodes], Frasier, Wings, Becker, The Ellen Show, Cheers):

"For me, directing comedy is about servicing the material, making it come alive, making it as funny as it can be and giving it a boost if it isn't quite happening. It's also got to be fun behind the scenes. I know some people who thrive under chaos. But if I'm not having fun and the people around me aren't having fun, it just becomes a huge negative distraction. You always want to keep things spontaneous and light.

"The more I direct and the more I discover, I realize there are no rules. If you impose any, you're limiting yourself. That's why Seinfeld was such an amazing experience. That's where I learned that all rules were made to be broken, and that comedy could be mined from the smallest sliver. But I found that those four actors also really cared. That's why it worked so amazingly well." 

Lee Shallat Chemel
(Family Ties, Newhart, Murphy Brown, Mad About You, The Nanny, Just Shoot Me, The Bernie Mac Show, Greg the Bunny, The Pitts):

"What I find in TV comedy as a director is that the script will lead you. I like to familiarize myself with the characters before I jump in there. I read through the script once to feel it and then another time to visualize it. The elements of the scene become apparent to you pretty quickly.

"I'm always cognizant of the need to keep the comedy real. If you don't keep it rooted in reality, nobody's going to laugh. I once asked an executive producer of a comedy series what makes Jimmy Burrows so great. He told me, 'He adds two laughs every day.' So I try to do that. But it's still about making it real or you don't get called back. And if I can make the show better and funnier without forcing it, that's my job."

Jay Sandrich
(Get Smart, That Girl, Julia, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, Rhoda, Laverne & Shirley, The Golden Girls, The Cosby Show):

"I've been directing TV comedy long enough to know there's more than one way to skin a cat. One of the things I've learned is that as a director, it's the reaction cut that's often more important than the line itself. It's how the other person reacts to your punch line that gives you your true payoff.

"I also found from working with both Mary Tyler Moore and Bill Cosby that there is no one effective style of sitcom acting. Bill would rehearse something once or maybe twice and that was it. It wasn't quite ad-libbed, but close. Mary would rehearse diligently for three days. She loved that process and knew exactly what she was doing, whereas Bill liked to wing it. As a director, it's all about finding out how your people work best."

Stan Lathan
(Sanford & Son, Barney Miller, It's Garry Shandling's Show!, Amen, Roc, Martin, Moesha, Cedric the Entertainer Presents):

"What we directors of TV comedy discover early on is that it's we who have to adapt to the way the executive producer or showrunner runs things. Some of them are more hands-on, more interested and involved. Some leave it totally up to the director.

"On most of the shows I've done over the last 10 years or so, I've been involved from the beginning and helped shape the pacing and feeling of the show. But every show — every script even — demands a different sensitivity. The nature of the material is everything. Some are more physical and broad, others sort of 'jokey,' others more wry or black. But I can't think of any actual difference in the way you prepare for any kind of production. The process of directing and putting it in the can is pretty much the same."

Henry Chan
(A Different World, Living Single, Sister Sister, The Parkers, The King of Queens):

"When I do a four-camera sitcom, I'm essentially staging a play in front of a live audience. I'm just capturing the action. If I'm shooting a single-camera drama, on the other hand, I'm making a small film.

"In general, it's much easier to direct the sitcom. It's easier for the actor too. The arc is very clear. The scenes follow naturally, like in real time. And you have three or four days of rehearsal to get it right. In single camera, you might be shooting the last scene first and are constantly reminding the actor where to go, what's happening, what mood to bring. And there's no rehearsal. You just do it. The two directorial experiences are different as night and day."

Pam Fryman
(Frasier, Friends, Cybill, Caroline in the City, Suddenly Susan, The King of Queens, Just Shoot Me [94 episodes]):

"I loved working on Just Shoot Me. Even when it wasn't great, it was great. Our cast and crew were legitimately close, unusually so. The only thing I tried to do that maybe was a little different is that on Tuesday of shooting week, I'd give the actors free reign to do what they wanted. It not only empowered them but allowed them to put their mark on stuff.

"Come Wednesday, I'd resume crushing their creativity and spirit and make sure they knew that it was again all about me. It was no longer a democracy. But seriously, I always believed that a light mood on the set made everyone feel comfortable and important and appreciated. I tried hard to acknowledge that what we did was a process, and it merited re-examination every week.

"What I found is that things that maybe didn't work so well during the week often went through the roof once we got an audience in there. It's a lesson I always try to remember."

Gerry Cohen
(Married ...With Children [158 episodes], The Drew Carey Show [nearly 100 episodes], George Lopez):

"I definitely find that comedy requires an entirely unique set of muscles to direct well. For one thing, it has to be incredibly precise — more precise than drama, I believe. I always say that you can't teach timing. But you sure as heck can discuss it. A large part of comedy directing is discussing and agreeing amongst the cast on what timing is.

"Every actor and every cast has their own mechanism for arriving at the ultimate way that a scene is going to be done. It depends entirely on the personalities, the range of experience and skill level from one cast to the next."

Gary Shimokawa
(Welcome Back, Kotter, Laverne & Shirley, Alice, Fish, Night Court, The Golden Girls, Coach, Sister Sister, Titus):

"Basically, as a sitcom director, I'm there to make sure the script is dealt with properly and help the actors understand the script. When I first started directing on my own, I didn't know that's how it was. I'd rework things with the actors until the producers went ballistic and called me on the carpet.

"My problem is that when I worked as stage manager on All in the Family, John Rich actually had an imprint on the show that made it better. I still think the process should be more collaborative than it really is. Directors should have more of an impact on the process — or an impact, period. We should be more actively involved in casting. I'd like to think we had more of an opportunity to make shows we work on better and funnier. But that's not always the case."

Lenny Garner
(Wings, The Parent 'Hood, Brothers, NewsRadio, Suddenly Susan, Just Shoot Me, The Hughleys, Becker, My Wife and Kids):

"Our ability as TV comedy directors to make a difference in the process varies from show to show. On some, I feel like I'm making a real contribution. But there are showrunners on some shows that want directors to be seen and not heard.

"Any director will tell you that when there's a well-written scene being performed by two brilliant actors, your work is really pretty sweet. But I also love solving little problems for the actor. In directing comedy, I feel like that's why I'm there, how I bring my experience to bear on things. In this game, things really happen on the fly. You have to be in the moment or it passes you by. That's how we really earn our money. But directing a four-camera comedy, there's still a rhythm to each day that's reasonably predictable. Single camera's a different story."

Todd Holland
(Max Headroom, The Larry Sanders Show, Friends and Malcolm in the Middle):

"I find while directing comedy that the comedy I respond to has all the challenges of drama, yet with so much more it has to achieve. Comedy is 10 times harder than drama to get right. It's incredibly hard to do it well.

"Garry Shandling's real brilliance on Larry Sanders is that he constructed a drama where the things people said happened to be funny. He figured out the essence of comedy, which is to take the truth and mine it for humor without selling it out for the laugh. Most scripts I'm handed sell out the truth for the laugh almost without exception. I'm also partial to working on shows like Malcolm in the Middle that use the camera as a comedic tool, as another comic voice."

John Rich
(Our Miss Brooks, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gilligan's Island, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., All in the Family, Newhart):

"Back when I was doing The Dick Van Dyke Show, the actors were devoted wholeheartedly to the rehearsal process. They rehearsed savagely for me. They polished and polished and polished. And it made all the difference.

"You don't have that anymore — in part due to the tyranny of late script delivery. You don't get the script in time to do enough rehearsal. Thanks to really gifted producers like Sheldon Leonard, Carl Reiner and Norman Lear, we were provided scripts well in advance to tinker with them. You look at actors' eyes today and you can tell that the actors are just saying the words, worrying about their lines instead of considering what their character is thinking. TV comedy is more like visual radio now to me."

Michael Patrick King
(Sex and the City):

"My most important rule in directing comedy is making sure you can see the people's eyes. Both eyes. When they deliver a joke, you want to see their face. And you have to see the eyes of the setup person too. It's a cardinal rule of Sex and the City that they have to have a shot that opens right on a face. So much of comedy is in the eyes and what's underneath what they're saying.

"You also want to give actors enough room so they can be buoyant. You don't want to overwork a moment. You don't want to do the joke 10 times just so you can get the angle right. And we don't spend the day trying to make the dialogue fancier than it is. It's already fancy, or at least it should be by the time we get it. Oh, and we've learned that a moving camera and a joke aren't necessarily good friends. It tends to get in the way of the straight line between setup and punch line."

Terri McCoy
(In Living Color, Living Single, Sister Sister, The Wayans Brothers, Moesha):

"It's totally different when you're able to have some longevity and stability on a comedy series than it is as a one-shot hired gun. When you do a lot of episodes, you become a part of the family. You learn the rhythms of the people you're working with, the dynamics of the producers and the actors. It makes all the difference.

"I also directed sketch comedy with In Living Color, and that was a real learning experience. It's completely different from sitcoms — a lot more improvisational and scattershot. It's invigorating in a way. But the secret for having success in any of it is keeping things light and building a rapport with the people around you. In that way, it's like trying to build success in any other area of life."

Katy Garretson
(Frasier, Titus, Reba, One on One, The Pitts):

"You can do everything in your power to leave your imprint on a show. But it's still your job as a comedy director to fit into the style that's been established, not vice versa. You're really limited to the sitcom's particular rhythms, and you need to honor it. It's not one-size-fits-all in this world. It's even truer, I find, of TV comedy than drama.

"It's not like single-camera is more or less difficult to direct than four-camera. Each presents its own set of challenges. Again, it should never be about asserting your individuality as a director above the needs of the show. It's up to you to fit in. That's the way I see it, anyway."

TV Commercials

Craig Gillespie
(Spots for Honda, Hyandai, Mercedes-Benz, Citibank, Sears, Holiday Inn):

"Making a comedy that's 27 seconds long is much harder than it looks. What we do is start with a simple idea and build comedy onto it. We did a Citibank spot where a guy keeps his teenage son up all night so he won't do well on the SAT test — so he won't have to pay for college. It's a simple, twisted idea.

"It's never easy. You can be in the middle of doing a spot and think it's hysterical. But at the end of the day, all of the elements weren't quite as funny as you thought. Luckily, the reverse can also be true. As director, I tend to micromanage my crew and try to work so the punch lines are more subtle and sort of come out of left field. And you don't want the camera jumping around too much, because it tends to make viewers feel like they're being manipulated and prompted."

Bryan Buckley
(Spots for Pepsi, Federal Express, H&R Block):

"What makes this job so tough is the reality that what's funny to one person isn't to the next. You might show a spot to six people who laugh their ass off. But then the seventh person hates it, and he happens to be CEO of the company that's your client. He's the only one who counts.

"What I'm always telling myself as a commercial director working with comedy is to really condense. And you can't shortchange texture. Just because it's only a 30-second commercial doesn't mean your lead character has no job or a wall with no pictures on it. Depth of character is important. It can't just be someone firing through the line to get to the punch line or people won't stick around to hear it. All of the elements have to be thought out, from the clothes to the carpet color to the pen in the shirt pocket. And always, the first four to five seconds are crucial for hooking the viewer."

Baker Smith
(Spots for BMW, Fox Sports and this year's DGA Award winner):

"I'm basically trying to tell a funny story in 25 seconds that people can watch repeatedly and still get something from on 10th or 15th viewing. As absurd as this sounds, you have to build in layers so people won't get tired of watching. I put in sight gags and things people won't find until the fifth time they see a spot.

"The beautiful thing about comedy is that a commercial might be funny the first time people see it. But if it's a good enough joke, the anticipation and repetition are funny too. The first time you hopefully laugh at it, the second time with it. And these days, your commercial catchphrases can become part of the culture. People are paying attention to spots and being entertained by them in a way that they weren't in the 1990s. Storytelling has become an integral part of this process."

Features

Directors and their teams working together to solve problems in film and television in the past and present.

More from this topic