Winter 2009

The Exact Way to Direct Hit ComediesThat Will Make Huge Amounts of Money for the Studios and Much Smaller Amounts for Yourself...

Recently, at a standing room only event at the Master's Forum at the University of Yucks, I had the opportunity to sit down with myself for a very special Q&A.


Dennis Dugan
LAST LAUGH: Dugan says directing comedy is brutal but
if it works, you forget what it took to get there.

Q. I'd like to welcome Dennis Dugan, director of You Don't Mess with the Zohan and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, to our Master's Forum.

[Slight, confused applause]

Q. Dennis has directed eight comedies...

A: 10. I've directed 10.

Q. True. But we're not counting Brain Donors or Beverly Hills Ninja.

A: But...

Q. Get over it. Now, what is the secret of directing comedy?

A: Get a funny script. Then get funny actors.

Q. And...?

A: That's it.

Q. That's it? Uh, we have a whole evening here...

A: Funny actors can't make a bad script funny, and unfunny actors will ruin a good script. No matter how many takes you do, how many tricks you pull, or how much editing you do, comedy is a DNA trait and if it ain't there, you aren't going to be able to direct it out of them. So cast it right or die. Or recast and go straight to re-shooting hell.

Q. What is your on-set strategy?

A: Keep it light. No matter what the pressures—time, weather, whatever—I work to make it the most comfortable place I can, so that when my actors come onto the set, they feel completely safe to do what they do best: be funny. Comedy is a scary, tenuous and fragile art and the actors who do it best are daredevils. They are all unique. You have to read them individually and find out what they need. Whatever I can do to help them get there, I'll do. Hug them, carry them on my back, drop my pants, laugh, or shut up and leave them alone. Whatever works, I'll do it.

Q. Other tips?

A: Never sleep with the script supervisor, because if it doesn't go well, she'll intentionally mess up the matching.

Q. Did that happen to you?

A: No, but I hear things.

Q. Critics?

A: You had to ruin a nice evening, didn't you? But seriously, based on what I recently heard about a major critic, I'm going to cram all the best jokes into the first eight minutes of my next film so maybe I'll finally get a good review. But I'm not mad at critics for not giving comedies positive reviews, because they simply don't understand the idea of genre. They lump everything that is shown in theaters into one category—film. Then they critique them on a scale that starts at the top with Scorsese and Spielberg and slides down to Police Academy and the Ernest series.

Q. What's wrong with that?

A: Take Rolling Stone for instance. When Willie Nelson comes out with a new album, they have their country reviewer critique it, not their classical guy who just reviewed the London Philharmonic CD. Film should be the same. Let the drama guys do drama, but also get some comedy guys who will review a work based on the genre of comedy, not how it stacks up against Schindler's List.

Q. That's an excellent point, and if I weren't you, I'd go on about how smart that is.
[Huge applause from the few remaining audience members. Forums always sound way better than they actually are.]

A: Thanks. There's one reviewer who labels them "dumb comedies." I personally think we need that. We need dumb and silly and goofy in our lives, just as much as we need emotional experiences from Clint Eastwood and adrenaline jolts from Chris Nolan or Michael Bay and the dashing intellect of Ron Howard and George Clooney...

Q. There's a perception that comedians get no respect. Do you need respect?

A: Are you crazy? How did you get this job? You put your head down and work as hard as you can to do the best job you can every day and you'll end up with self-respect. That's the truest and best, and you don't have to ask for it. Trying to get it from anyone else is a complete waste of energy. Even my own beloved DGA has categories for comedy in television and yet, not for film. If I can't even get respect from the place I pay to belong to, then where can I get it?

Dennis Dugan
COMFORT ZONE: Dugan (left) and Adam Sandler share a laugh watching
playback on the set of I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.

Q. You sound like a bitter, disillusioned outsider who's given up all hope and now just observes and ridicules the human condition.

A: That's partly true.

Q. Which parts?

A: All of them.

Q. So that's why you direct comedy.

A: Yes. All I've ever wanted to do is make people laugh. Directing comedy is brutal. First there's getting the job, then prepping, then the rewrites come in and you prep again. Then they cut the budget and you prep again, then you shoot, then you edit, then you preview, then you edit, then you preview, then you edit, then you prep the re-shoots, then you re-shoot, then you edit. Then you preview again, then you post, then you do the press, then you open. Then you visit the theaters and if all that worked right, you watch the audience laugh. And suddenly you forget what it took to get there. So you pull out your cell, call your agent and tell him to get you another comedy.

DD. I'd like to thank you for being our guest at our first, and most likely last, Master's Forum.

[No applause as everyone in the audience has long ago walked out, except his wife and son who had to stay as Dugan has the car keys.]

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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