Make 'Em Laugh: Game Changing Comedy Direction

August 27, 2011 A DGA 75th Anniversary Event

The Guild’s Los Angeles Theater was alive with laughter as the DGA 75th Anniversary Committee presented Make ‘Em Laugh: Game-Changing Comedy Direction. Three of the most respected names in film comedy — Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless), Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Valentine’s Day) and Rob Reiner (This Is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally) — joined moderator Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night) for an enlightening and often hilarious discussion on the difficult art of creating comedy.

DGA Third Vice President Betty Thomas welcomed the celebrated panel whose collective work is now part of our culture. After a rousing round of applause for the panelists, Levy opened by encouraging them to engage in overlapping dialogue. Reiner was quick to quip, “May I talk now?” and the evening was off to an energetic and irreverent start.

Levy invited the panelists to share some of their early experiences and influences. Reiner, who grew up around standup royalty, said “I didn’t think there was anything odd about my childhood, until I went to my friend’s house and it wasn’t funny.” Garry Marshall’s mother inspired him to become an entertainer with the words “to be worthwhile you should entertain people and make them laugh.” As a child, Heckerling found relief from somber surroundings by watching comedic movies on television.

The panelists were each asked to discuss selected clips from films that had an impact on their careers. Heckerling selected two famous moments from Mel Brooks’ films Blazing Saddles (1974) and The Producers (1967). The irreverence of Brooks’ work and the idea that anything goes was a revelation to Heckerling, as was the lesson that there needs to be a solid idea behind a joke in order for it to work.

“Pain plus timing equals comedy,” said Marshall, who picked a scene from Blake Edwards’ 1963 classic The Pink Panther to stress the importance of repetition in comedy. He admired how well the scene illustrated the fact that the reaction to the action is often funnier than the action itself.

Reiner selected a 1954 segment from the pioneering variety show Your Show of Shows, featuring his father Carl. “My father was on television before we even had a television,” said Reiner who marveled over the technique and timing critical to live television.

Taking a cue from this, Levy asked the panelists to discuss the influence of television on film comedy. Marshall, like Reiner, first cut his teeth in television and said that more than anything else, “television teaches you to finish.”

Shifting the focus from influences to their own game-changing films, Levy introduced clips from Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990) and Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984).

Heckerling explained that what really interested her about Fast Times at Ridgemont High were all the small details about the kids — “the little truths.” To keep things as authentic as possible, she even had her actors roam around the school like real students.  Levy noted how well Fast Times captures teenage life and illustrates the relationship between comedy and heart. “I’d rather laugh a lot less but care about the people a lot more,” said Heckerling, “rather than have it be ‘ha ha ha, what a bunch of assholes.’”

Regarding Pretty Woman, Marshall said “good directing is defensive directing.”  He then tickled the audience with anecdotes on how he managed to keep everyone happy on the set. Marshall also showed a selection from his first film, Young Doctors in Love (1982), recalling how stressed he was over how to show the crew he was a great director until he realized, “I’m not a great director. This is my first movie. I’m here because they think I’m funny.”

Reiner discussed the importance of timing and choosing the right actors for his first feature, This is Spinal Tap. “The whole thing was total improv,’ he recalled. “All we had was an outline.” He likened improv to a jazz ensemble, adding that directing comedy is like “finding the guys you can jam with.”

Pictures & Video

Still photos by Howard Wise

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