Monday, June 8, 2009

Comedically Speaking: An Interview With David H. Steinberg

“Talking about comedy is not funny”
- Johnny Carson

I play cards once a week with a regular group of guys. At times it’s like a scene straight out of a Neil Simon play with lots of witty repartee, snappy comebacks and of course, the cliché verbal barbs and sarcastic ragging on one another. What else are we going to do during five and a half hours of poker? One of the guys at the table is David H. Steinberg, writer of a lot of funny films, including American Pie 2 and Slackers. In response to my sense of humor, David coined the phrase “that’s a Berman.” It’s a reference he uses whenever I rephrase the punchline to a joke or a bit that someone in the room has just told. It never fails to get a rise out of him. I once tried to explain to David why I think the act of repetition is funny, but he wasn’t buying it. He’s laughing at my expense. Its okay, I’m laughing back.

All this proves is that comedy is subjective.

There’s an old rule of thumb that tells us that to analyze a joke is to kill it. So how do you know when something you’ve written is funny? I asked David what he thinks.

After graduating Yale, David sold his first spec script called Slackers. Following on the heels of Slackers, David was hired by Universal to write American Pie 2. Since then he's written Puss In Boots (a spin-off from Shrek), Howard Stern’s Porkys and Love at Second Bite, to name just a few of his upcoming projects. David also wrote and directed a short film called The Babysitter, which can be viewed exclusively at Atom Films at Watch it, it’s funny. Something David and I agree on.

Jeffrey Berman: Are there any essential steps or rules when writing a comedy script?

David Steinberg:
I think the only essential step is to pick something—a character, a premise, even just a thematic idea—that makes the project a MOVIE. Because there will be times when it’s not funny or makes no sense and you need to be able to come back to that core thing you love that makes you say, “But I know this is a movie.” That’s what gets you through the rewrites and keeps you focused on the goal. If you doubt the core idea/character/theme so will everyone else.

JB: How do you know when something you’ve written is funny?

DS: Sometimes I actually make myself laugh out loud. It’s rare but when I get one of those lines or moments, I know I’m on the right track. The rest—that’s up to the reader or audience. I’m just as unsure as anyone else so you need to run it by people you trust. Plus, it’s often a numbers game. Maybe you can’t score laughs with 100% of your jokes, but a script is 120 pages and 95% funny is still pretty funny. The one thing you can’t do is let yourself get paralyzed with insecurity questioning whether it’s funny. I just move on and come back to the problem spots later. If I can’t punch it up after a dozen tries, maybe I’ll just delete the line altogether.

JB: When writing a sequel to a successful film like American Pie, is it incumbent upon you to recreate the original characters and conflicts exactly as they were written previously or can you bring your own brand of humor and sensibility to the script?

DS: American Pie 2 was largely about writing in the style of the first one. It’s not that hard to imitate—TV writers do it all day long. On American Pie 7 (“Book of Love,” coming out this October), it was more of a reboot, so the characters and style were far more original while keeping with the tone of the original. Obviously, it’s a balancing act. On Puss in Boots, I had to learn to write in Antonio Banderas’s voice, but I was also expanding on that character and bringing new information to the table so at the end of the day, I felt like I knew that cat better than the guys who created him. It just becomes your own.

JB: How did you approach the job of writing an updated version of Porky’s?

DS: Porky’s was an interesting rewrite because there had been so many drafts before me that completely missed the spirit and tone of the original movie. A lot of comedy writers just go for maximum laughs per page without any consideration of story, character, or logic. And what happens is the jokes aren’t funny because they’re so over-the-top, so removed from reality, that you don’t care. Maybe that kind of slipshod jokey writing works on “Disaster Movie,” but on teen comedies, it’s all about the emotion, fear, and insecurity of sex and out-of-control hormones. What I did was really weave together five or six character-based storylines and infuse it with emotion. You have to remember that in the original, there was anti-Semitism and an abusive alcoholic dad. We obviously updated those elements, but it had to be dramatic in moments. After my draft really tackled the character issues, brought the tone in keeping with the original, and fixed the logic problems, some jokes that didn’t work in previous drafts all the sudden were funny now.

JB: Where do you start from when writing comedy, characters or premise? And which plays a bigger role in comedy?

DS: It’s a little of both. I think comedy is all about character and if you create a hero we love, we’ll want to follow him anywhere. I’ve written comedies that have virtually no concept and they are some of my best scripts. But I think it’s a mistake to ignore concept altogether in choosing an idea to write. Not everyone can pull off “Clerks.” So sometimes a really clever idea is going to motivate you, but then you have to figure out how to populate it with a great character. I mean, if you want it to be good. If you’re writing “The Transformers”…

JB: What advice do you have for writers working on that first spec comedy?

Make shit happen. Too many comedy specs are all about dialogue. Character is revealed through action not sitting around talking about why hot girls don’t appreciate you and your bong-smoking friends. The irony of “Slackers” was that the heroes were out there pulling incredible scams that took a lot more effort than just doing the original work they were trying to avoid. The producers kept trying to change the title because the characters weren’t slackers at all, but I couldn’t write a script about guys literally just sitting around doing nothing. It would bore me to death.

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