From ‘The Office’ to ‘Set It Up,’ Director Claire Scanlon Is Obsessed with Cracking the Comedy Code

As the "People We Hate at the Wedding" director tells IndieWire, from Michael Scott to her rom-com hit and beyond, the important elements don't change.
BLESS THIS MESS - "Omaha" - The ladies head to Omaha for their annual gyno exams, but the trip quickly goes off the rails: Jealous of Beau's new dating profile on FarmersOnly, Kay is determined to find a guy to hook up with, with Rio as her wing woman. Back home, Mike, Rudy and Beau bond when an accident leaves them stranded in a tree on ABC's "Bless This Mess," TUESDAY, OCT. 8 (8:30-9:00 p.m. EDT), on ABC. (Richard Cartwright via Getty Images)
Claire Scanlon and Lake Bell on the set of "Bless This Mess"
ABC via Getty Images

No joke: Claire Scanlon knows what’s funny. The seasoned comedy director and editor (in 2013, she won her first Emmy for editing an episode of “The Office”) has helmed episodes of everything from “The Good Place” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Bless This Mess.” She produced “Last Comic Standing.” She edited “American Masters” episodes about Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett.

And she, in no small part, helped herald the re-emergence of the rom-com thanks to her 2018 smash Netflix film “Set It Up.” (As the self-professed “most jaded person,” even Scanlon can’t help but giggle over her success in the space.)

Ever-busy (the director generously Zoomed with IndieWire from the very first day of production on ABC’s new sitcom “Not Dead Yet”), Scanlon is back in the film groove with another streaming feature: Amazon’s ensemble comedy “The People We Hate at the Wedding.” And while she said she was offered “a lot” of rom-coms after the success of “Set It Up,” she’s still working through her feelings on the genre. Mostly, Scanlon is compelled by one thing: cracking that comedy code, no matter the project.

“I’m not a huge rom-com person, that’s not my genre,” the director told IndieWire during a recent interview. “I like hard comedy. If you look on my résumé, it’s all hard comedy, and then [‘Set It Up’] happened. For me to do it, it has to be bulletproof because I’m like, that doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t make sense. I think I’m the perfect cynic to do those kinds of things because I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, that’s too cheesy.’ Immediately, I call it out. I haven’t even seen some of the most iconic [rom-coms], which I think actually works in my favor.”

She added with a laugh, “Maybe don’t tell anybody that!” But Scanlon isn’t as much of a rom-com outsider as she might think. After all, she can quickly call up just what it is about, yes, an iconic rom-com she so relates to.

“The People We Hate at the Wedding”Courtesy of Amazon

“When [the genre] is good, it’s really good,” the director said. “I love ‘When Harry Met Sally’ as much as the next person. But, look back at that movie, it’s three very normal people and one gorgeous movie star. Comedy, to me, is all about relatability. You don’t identify with someone because they’re gorgeous, you identify with them because they’re just like you and they’re going through the same struggles as you. For me, I found that movie incredibly relatable. That’s what I look for in any film, any project, any comedy.”

She can trace that affection and desire for relatability to her work on “The Office.” (She edited more than 50 episodes of the beloved NBC sitcom and directed two episodes)

“It’s about the vulnerability of the characters. It goes all the way back to ‘The Office,’ when you see Michael Scott sitting all by himself in his office late at night, calling his mom, who screens out his calls, and then the next day, he’s back in the office and acts like the buffoon,” she said. “And I’m with him all the way, I get why he wants his workforce to be his family because his family sucks. You latch onto someone because of their vulnerability, and then you’re with them through thick and thin. Those are the projects I look for. It’s not necessarily genre-based as much as it is character-based.”

Characters drew her to “The People We Hate at the Wedding,” which functions as the kind of ensemble comedy Scanlon excels at, with a hearty dash of the rom-com stuff she’s becoming more and more known for. Based on Grant Ginder’s novel and scripted by rising stars Lizzie Molyneux-LogelinWendy Molyneux (who are currently writing “Deadpool 3”), the film follows a fractured family as they try to pull themselves together for the wedding of the blended clan’s eldest child.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t come from a dysfunctional family. I certainly do, and I think it’s OK to say that, and I’m not embarrassed to say that,” Scanlon said. “It makes me who I am, and it makes me drawn to comedy, to find the funny in a serious situation.”

She points to a key scene in “The People We Hate at the Wedding,” in which Allison Janney, Kristen Bell, and Ben Platt’s characters have all landed in jail after their continued bad behavior goes so far that they’re actually arrested for it.

“This is a moment where [Allison Janney’s Donna] should be feeling the worst — she’s been disinvited to her own daughter’s wedding,” Scanlon said. “All she wanted was to get all of her children in one place, which is the definition of a happy parent, and she still participated in fucking that up. That’s such a character insight. And instead of being like, ‘Fuck!’ she starts to crack up. That is the essence, to me, of great comedy. In shitty situations, I want to be able to laugh at myself and laugh at the circumstances and make it better.”

Claire Scanlon on the set of “The People We Hate at the Wedding”Courtesy of Amazon

Characters who feel somehow out of place, from Michael Scott to Donna, are the ones that intrigue Scanlon the most. “Especially in these divisive times right now, there’s nothing more universal than feeling left out, out of place, uncomfortable in your own skin,” she said. “I very much relate to that. Who hasn’t felt that? And as a result, those are the characters I’m drawn to, and they lend themselves so beautifully to comedy.”

Also key to Scanlon: not talking down to your audience, respecting them, and not spoon-feeding the jokes or the emotion. That never goes out of style. “You go back, and you watch Bob Newheart, and you watch Carol Burnett, and there’s that same humanity. They’re not talking down to their audience,” Scanlon said. “As long as you do that, it doesn’t matter what era, what time [you’re working in]. My kids and I were just watching the Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett at Carnegie Hall special, and they were cracking up. They really loved it. Some of these things are just so universal.”

With two streaming films now under her belt, Scanlon is happy to go where her projects are most wanted — “I’d rather the movies get made than not at all,” she noted — but she’s also enthused by the steady return of comedies to the multiplex. What’s better than laughing? Laughing with other people.

“I’m really glad ‘Ticket to Paradise’ is doing really well because [I miss] that joyful experience that you get with laughing with an audience, that focus that you don’t necessarily have when you’re at home watching on your monitor,” she said. “I miss that communal experience when you leave the theater with a bounce in your step, and you’re just like, ‘Maybe life can work out!’ I do hope that we claw our way back into the theater, these mid-size comedies. There’s some things that just work — let’s keep doing them.”

“The People We Hate at the Wedding” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. 

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