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Counterpunch

Film: Too Many Cooks Spoil the Comedy Stew

March 14, 1994|MARK TROY | Mark Troy is a playwright and screenwriter who has had plays produced Off Broadway and at the Attic and Rose theaters in Los Angeles. His one-act play, "In Need of a Second Opinion," will be seen at the Tiffany Theater in March. and

So producers have finally figured out an easier way to blame writers for bad films ("Roundtable Writing: A Headache for Guild," Calendar, Feb. 9). Put them all in one room around one table. Look, you can scream at all of us at once, why waste time calling up each and every writer individually?

It is interesting to note that under Elaine Dutka's article was the list of 10 films the Writers Guild of America nominated as best scripts this year: six written by single writers, three written by two writers and one written by three writers--one being the director.

This is not exactly a rallying call for roundtable writing.

Tom Pollock, motion picture group chairman of MCA/Universal, says we're not talking about dramas as roundtable possibilities, we're talking comedies. I say, why should the rules be different?

Fill a room with dramatic writers and they can each come up with a great dramatic moment. I would tell Jane ("The Piano") Campion: "Cut the piano for goodness sakes, it's big, it's bulky--use a harmonica! People will relate." As for Steven ("Schindler's List") Zaillian and director Steven Spielberg: "Spielberg, we need a dramatic Nazi Jeep race right here in the second act!"

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I'm afraid in drama or comedy, too many cooks spoil the beats, the timing and structure of a scene. And writing is all about beats!

I have written for theater and for film and I won't go into that utterly useless argument that in theater "the writer is king" and in movies "the writer is . . . a jerk." The problem in the arts today is "artistic" decisions are being made by businessmen. This is also an utterly useless argument--but the truth. Businessmen think "more is better." Crowd a room with funny people, you get funnier scripts. If that were true, all sit-coms would be brilliant! Or even remotely watchable.

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A lot of people don't know comedy and its history. Lucky for you, I'm about to tell you: Comedy writing is timing. Feeling. Emotions. Set-ups. Exaggeration. Why are some movies funnier than others? Because dumb people in dumb situations saying funny things are still dumb people in dumb situations. Smart people in smart situations saying funny things are funny. It's not the amount of jokes per script. It's where they appear in the script and within the context of the story.

Today, comedy movies are not written by people who have studied comedy writing. Businessmen hire writers they like and have worked with, regardless of the genre. In actuality, it probably doesn't matter because it's the businessmen who decide where funny things should be in a movie. I've been told by producers, "Put a joke on page seven." Well, what if a joke doesn't belong on page seven? "Put it on page seven." These are the same people who think that any sentences that have the word "butt" or "monkey-breath" in them are punchlines.

It all comes down to this: Comedies today are so watered down from too many writers and too many businessmen putting in their two cents that nothing is ever said in them. It becomes a collection of guffaws, witticisms, quips and gags without any central message. I was once in rehearsals for a play of mine and the director said I should change the ending--that the critics would kill me for being politically incorrect. I said, "So what?" She said, "They'll kill you, you can't say that!" I said, "But I write to say things . . . I wrote the play so that I could say that! Get it?"

I'm sure the WGA in its infinite wisdom will come up with better guidelines for roundtable projects. I would hope however that the writers themselves have some veto power if they feel the project doesn't warrant writing in roundtable form. Veto power for a writer? You'll have to excuse me, I'm on antibiotics. Personally, in certain cases I would write this

way. I would write with a group. In fact, for a project I believed in, I would hold hands with the other writers and write in a group. It's work.

But I still say that whether you're in this business in hopes of writing the next "Short Cuts" or the next "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," don't you think we all have a better shot at turning out superior movies, improved scripts, scripts that get nominated, if we convince producers and businessmen that we're here to say something, that we're not walking machines, we're not clowns to be thrown into a cage to perform, that there are things we have inside of us we have to get out as writers--isn't that why we became writers in the first place?

Well, you'll have to excuse me now, I have to go beg for my next job.

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