Paul Feig has written and/or directed some of the most successful comedies of recent film and television history, so when he talks comedy theory, you should probably listen. And there was plenty of that at his “Tribeca Talk” at the Tribeca Film Festival last night, in which the impeccably dressed director of Bridesmaids, Spy, and (yes) Ghostbusters sat down with Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che to discuss his cornerstones of good comic writing.
“You have to have a strong story,” Feig explained. “You have to have real stakes. That’s why I like playing with genres; I had so much fun doing Spy, and also on The Heat, because I love Beverly Hills Cop and 48 HRS., where you watch those movies, and they’re really, really dark! There’s like, an execution in the beginning of Beverly Hills Cop, so you’re like, Oh shit.”
“His friend just got murdered in front of him,” Che mused, “and that’s most successful comedy of all time!”
“But you need those stakes! You want to be worried. That fear makes the comedy funnier. If you try and do a movie that’s just jokes, jokes to jokes, it doesn’t go. You better have the funniest jokes in the world, and even then it’s hard.”
Unsurprisingly, his other cornerstone of successful comedy is character. “This is how I explain it,” he said. “Two scenarios: one, you’re at a restaurant with all your friends, you’ve known them forever, and you guys are just cracking each other up, you’re having the greatest time, everybody’s laughing, telling personal stories, and you’re just going bananas. Scenario number two, you’re seated at the table next to those people, by yourself. And you’re just like, What the fuck. Who are you people, that’s so not funny, that story’s not funny – because you’re not invested in those people. So what you have to, out of the gate, is you’ve got to make an audience be best friends with the characters in your movie. Once they care… it’s so much funnier.”
Often, in Feig’s films, those characters are women – so much so that he’s become something of a go-to guy for female-driven films, much as someone like George Cukor was back in the golden age. Che asked what, in particular, moved him in this direction.
“When I got in the business, I just got so frustrated watching comedy,” he replied. “Women had such terrible roles – especially because growing up, I was watching with my mom, these movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, with Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn, and they were really equals to men. And then I watched it just devolve to where women were just eye candy, or they were perfect, or they were mean. So it was a reaction to that, and also because I knew so many funny women, and I’d see them in movies. I remember seeing Sarah Silverman pop up in School of Rock – great movie, but then Sarah’s so funny, and she’s not funny at all in that movie. They just make her be this really mean girlfriend, and it’s like, well, that’s not fair. Why does she not get to be funny?”
“She’s as capable as any comedian in that movie,” Che agreed.
“So it’s like there’s all these funny women, and there’s just not enough roles for ‘em,” Feig said. “And then selfishly, I just have more fun working with funny women, because I’m not like a guy’s guy – I like hanging out with guys, and I like the humor of guys, but it’s not how my brain goes. There’s just a different kind of dynamic to it. I find it to be fun. It doesn’t mean it’s all good-natured, I mean obviously, y’know, Sarah and Amy Schumer and all these people can get down and dirty – ”
“‘Good-natured’ is not how I’d describe Leslie Jones,” Che laughed.
Jones was, of course, one of the stars of Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters reboot – and, eventually, the biggest target of the online hate campaign against it, which Feig was able to address with some distance and insight. “You might not wanna talk about this,” Che began, and we all knew where he was going. “But seriously, I remember finding out that Melissa and Leslie and them were gonna be in Ghostbusters, and I was like Holy shit. But there was a backlash before it, an Internet backlash, but it was as if you were just taking four women off the street! It’s like, these are still the funniest people, like who’s gonna be funnier, name four other actors that would be funnier? So it must have been frustrating.”
“It is frustrating,” Feig agreed, “because it was like, why is there any kind of a litmus test on this?”
“It’s not like you’re taping it over the old Ghostbusters,” Che noted.
“What I didn’t realize was… I was just coming out of film school, in my early ’20s, when the original Ghostbusters came out,” Feig recalled. “We went to see it opening weekend, I thought it was hilarious, I thought it was an amazing idea for a movie. But that was kind of it for me – I didn’t realize it was like religion for a generation of boys after me. And it turned out it was the ultimate boys movie, for some weird reason. For a lot of guys, it was their thing, and so I didn’t realize, to them, what a sacrilegious thing I did. Which is kinda like, oh, come on, let’s grow up.”
Not that he was able to shrug off all that hostility. “I’m such a people-pleaser, that was the hardest thing to deal with.”
“It’s tough, right?” asked Che.
“Really tough! Because before Ghostbusters, I had this really lovely relationship with the Internet. So when that first volley of just terribleness came in, honestly it threw me off for a couple of years. I just wasn’t used to it. If I could go back in a time machine now, I’d say don’t even use it, just put it away.”
Wisdom for the ages, that.
Photos credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire