Fall 2015

How Not to Direct Comedy

The director of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday offers a step-by-step guide on how to win over actors and influence producers on the set. It’s easy, really.


Speaking Up: John Lee practices using a megaphone to rally his team on Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. (Photo: Courtesy Glen Wilson/Netflix)

Most of you reading this have no idea who I am. I like that. I tend to get the introductory question, "How the hell did you get this job?" Mothers can be so tough sometimes. Frequently the crew thinks I’m sleeping with the producer (Mr. Apatow has great taste in seedy motels). I assume there was a long list of people who were "Not Interested," and I happened to be sweeping up in the room when they ran out of options. "Really! Me? Are you sure?" I’m the Putney Swope of directors—the boy least likely to.

In case you were wondering, my career highlights so far are Wonder Showzen (near the bottom of the list of Rolling Stone’s all-time cult classic TV comedies); The Heart, She Holler (if Twin Peaks were weird); Broad City (the Laverne & Shirley of our time); and the upcoming Pee-wee Herman movie, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. If you’ve never heard of any of those, ask a college kid, and they’ll have heard of at least one of them.

People say comedy is the hardest thing—those people have obviously never tried to live on minimum wage. For everyone else, I have 10 tricks for directing comedy.

1. CRY STICK (aka menthol)—It’s an irritant that is supposed to produce tears for those who can’t. First off, you need a little tragedy to counterbalance levity. I put some cry stick on Eugene Mirman for Delocated, a faux reality show about a guy in the witness protection program, and it was so powerful we couldn’t shoot. Eugene couldn’t even open his eyes. The pain was too much and he started to really cry so we started rolling. Secondly (I learned from that blunder), if you don’t care for the actor, you get to put annoying stuff in their eyes and make them wince in pain. At least someone is laughing.

2. KEEP IT FEELING ALIVE—Give actors new lines but don’t tell the others in the scene. Tell camera that the cue for entering is 2 seconds later than planned, but don’t tell the actors. When the shot is ruined, tell everyone it was intentional—you wanted to use the element of surprise to keep the performance alive and interesting.



5. THE COMEDIAN’S PROCESS—Some directors take acting classes to understand actors. If you want to know comedy, try stand-up. It’s miserable. Doing stand-up won’t get you to totally understand a comedic performer, but it will get you closer. They are odd animals. Approach them like one would on an African safari—stay in your car and you’ll get OK pictures; but get out of the car and you’ll have a thrill that you’ll tell your grandchildren about as they ask you, "How did you lose your leg, Grandpa?" "Pee-wee Herman ate it."

6. DON’T WAIT YOUR TURN—Our culture absorbs the emotional fits of rich white males as if their well-being represents the rest of our livelihoods. This is a societal delusion. Stop propping them up. Destroy from the top down. Sure, the stratosphere of powerful white males is slowly dying off over time; let’s work to speed that up. Watch your back, Dad!

7. BE POLITICAL—Do No. 6 at the expense of your future in this business.

8. PATIENCE—Vernon Chatman and I co-created and directed Wonder Showzen—a show that auditioned over 300 kids a season. You need a superhuman amount of patience to work with the innocent. Take your time to be as annoying to children as possible. Use this power when working with "adults" who need to be handled with kid gloves.

9. ENJOY A LACK OF SUPPORT—I always think that if a producer is sitting at video village I’m doing a poor job. My goal is to make sure they are doing anything but paying attention to me. Learn about all the private schools in their area and ask how their school tours are going. Read up on modern interior design so you can talk about their new cement countertops and thermal heated flooring. Know about cars that cost the same amount as your paycheck. If you do this right, and are good at it, they’ll realize they have a couple of calls to make to maintain their lifestyle and you are now free to get back to "directing."

10. OH, SHIT—YOU NOW HAVE ONLY 45 MINUTES TO GET THREE ONE-PAGE SCENES. All those lofty shots and setups you had don’t really matter. In fact, approach every scene like you have 15 minutes to shoot it. On Broad City I did such a thing and think fondly of those scenes. Are they funny? Who cares. I got it done. And if you can’t get it done? Cry.

11. CRY STICK—Apply to your own face and bawl your way through getting approved overages and lunch penalties. Groveling never hurt comedy.

You did it! Congratulations! Now move on to the next scene.

Funny Business

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

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