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Alexander Payne and Jon Favreau Reveal the Secrets of Writing a Great Comedy Screenplay

Alexander Payne and Jon Favreau Reveal the Secrets of Writing a Great Comedy Screenplay

What’s the funniest movie ever written? Last week, the Writers Guild of America, West held a celebration event to answer that very question. Looking to find the best and funniest comedy movies, the list goes as far back as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” which landed at number 94, while the most recent comedy, “Bridesmaids” (written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo), took the number 16 spot. Ironically, and suspiciously, host and moderator Rob Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap” was voted number 11 on the impressive list.

The abundance of guests at the event included — but were not limited to — David & Jerry Zucker, Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Alexander Payne, Jon Favreau, Buck Henry and Peter Bogdanovich, all of whom sought to answer that age-old question. 

READ MORE: Writers Guild of America Names ‘Annie Hall’ the Funniest Screenplay of All Time

The event’s format was a reverse chronological countdown to the number one movie, “Annie Hall,” which included memorable clips from the honored movies. You can view the full list of the “101 Funniest Screenplays” in the link provided. But in between blocks of honorees, Reiner led five panels, each covering a subgenre of comedy, ranging from high concept and satire to buddy/romantic comedy.

The list included a comprehensive repertoire of comedies, like screenplays from Woody Allen, Alexander Payne, Charles Chaplin, John Hughes and many more. But ultimately, it was Jon Favreau and Alexander Payne, in attendance that evening, who had some very interesting insight into the art of screenwriting. Here are some of the (funniest) things they talked about at the illustrious and prolific event.

Autobiographical Writing is Inherent in All Screenwriting

Jon Favreau’s “Swingers,” an independent comedy about two would-be actors navigating Los Angeles nightlife, landed the 93 spot on the list. Favreau was very humbled to be included, joking that he “just edged out Nosferatu.” Favreau spoke about the autobiographical nature of screenwriting, saying, “I always thought people just made stuff up, everything is autobiographical.” Whether intended or not, a fragment of the screenwriter manages to make it on the screen.

Although the names and locations are changed “there is a kernel of honesty in it all,” according to Favreau. In essence, screenwriting is about “telling the truth and hiding it” with characters, setting and more.

The Pleasure of Working Inside a Genre

Favreau also talked about how to succeed in a genre and the importance of studying the best movies in that genre in order to be successful, saying that, “Look at every good version of a genre that you’re dealing with, and you start to understand the form for the specific genre.” According to Favreau, this process begins by mimicking a genre’s language and then morphing it into one’s own style. 

Thus, Favreau noted that Albert Brooks’ “Modern Romance” had a heavy influence on him when he was writing and crafting “Swingers.” Reiner would go on to agree with Favreau, and related his own experience with directing the Stephen King thriller “Misery.” Reiner watched all of Hitchcock’s films “to understand the grammar” and get a sense and flavor of thrillers in order to properly direct a film in a genre he had no experience in.

Collaboration is Key

Alexander Payne, writer/director of such comedies like “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” and “Nebraska,” made it on the list twice: “Election” and “Sideways” both made it, at numbers 77 and 91, respectively. Although Payne’s writing collaborator Jim Taylor was not present at the event, Payne took the time to talk about his partner, who has worked with Payne on “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” Payne finds collaboration in comedy as a “less hideous experience” with another writer in the room and allows for the ability to “cast a wider net.”

Payne believes that collaboration in comedy should be done actively, within the confines of a shared space, with the purpose of making each other laugh — in other words, making the process more organic and immediate as a way to gauge what works and what doesn’t. Payne is partial to writing with a collaborator, but finding what he refers to as a “screenwriting soulmate” is akin to finding the right romantic mate.

The Prestige Factor

Payne quickly talked about the lack of respect for comedies, as opposed to the prestige of the dramatic, and was very appreciative of the event celebrating comedies. Payne lamented the lack of intelligent comedies, feeling forlorn with the batch of expensive blockbusters that seem to pervade the cinema on an annual basis, praising television’s golden age and describing film as being in an “age of shit of cinema.”

Payne asked, “Where is ‘Trading Places’ and where is ‘Groundhog Day’ today?'”

READ MORE: Watch: Steven Spielberg, Aaron Sorkin, Brie Larson and More Give Screenwriting Advice

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