Monday, 25 November 2019

A Masterclass In Comedy: Judd Apatow's Writing Rules



This past summer I was fortunate enough to win the Ink2screen Short Screenplay competition (shameless self promotion).  While that is rewarding in its own right, the coolest thing about this was the prize I won. Lifetime access to Judd Apatow’s Comedy Masterclass.

If you aren’t familiar with his work, I recommend you stop reading this article and immediately go watch The 40-Year-Old Virgin...or Knocked Up...or Bridesmaids...or Superbad...basically just get your life together, and come back to this article later.  



As someone who is a big fan of watching comedies, but was a bit intimidated by attempting to actually write in the genre, I found this Masterclass to be absolutely invaluable.  And I thought I would share some of what I have learned with you fine folks, and highlight some of the tips I think are especially useful. 




Comedies are basically dramas, with jokes.

“Comedies should be stories that would work just as well without any jokes.” -Judd Apatow


This line really stuck with me.  I had never thought of it that way, but once Judd started to break down some of his own movies this way, I started thinking of all of my favorite comedies, and it really holds true.  Sure, there are exceptions to every rule...here’s looking at you Napoleon Dynamite. (That film really isn’t about much of anything, but I find it hilarious….perhaps I’m just easily amused).

If you’re writing a comedy, the first thing you should do is focus on coming up with a solid story and relatable characters.  You can sprinkle in the jokes as you go. Or as Mr. Apatow put it:

“If you have a great story with great characters, it’s easy to find a way to make it funny.”




Establish relatable stakes.

“Everything always works better if there’s important stakes.  In any comedy, the thing your main character is worried about, or the thing they’re trying to attain IS the stakes. And when you have the right stakes, these things tend to spark.  If the stakes are low, the audience tends not to care.” - Judd Apatow


Everyone wants to be able to relate to characters and what those character’s goals are and the struggles they go through to reach those goals.  It’s easier to laugh at something you can relate to.  

Take Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids for example.  She is someone who doesn’t have her life together, in fact she’s a mess.  Her best friend is more successful, has found love, and is getting married, and has all these things that she wishes she had.  Who can’t relate to that? Then her best friend basically replaces her with someone else who also seems to have everything going right for her. 

Which makes the classic scene at the wedding reception relatable. Sure, most of us wouldn’t react to that extreme in real life, but we can certainly understand where her character is coming from, which makes it so easy to laugh at.




Flawed characters drive stories.

“I’m not really interested in a handsome, happy, kind lead.” -Judd Apatow


This can be said for most genres, but especially in comedies. 

Your main character(s) need room to grow. If your character is already perfect, there’s no story.  Messed up characters give you room to show the audience a story. A story of hope, a story that people can change, a reason to root for them.  Apatow has mastered this technique to say the least.

Take Seth Rogan’s character in Knocked Up for example. 

He’s a 20-something stoner without a job, and “aspirations” with his buddies to start a website about where to see naked women in movies.  He somehow manages to have a one night stand with Katherine Heigl’s character, who is a successful TV personality with everything going for her...and of course she gets pregnant.  So now we have our story. Rogan’s character wants to do the right thing and be a better person and show her that he can be responsible and help her raise their child.

So now we have our flawed, but likeable character, and he has a challenging road ahead of him to convince Heigl’s character that he can change, and try and get her to fall in love with him.  And the audience can root for him.

If Heigl’s character had a one night stand and gotten pregnant by a successful, handsome, wealthy businessman...what a boring and unfunny movie that would be!




Give every character a strong introduction.

“You don’t want to meet a new character in a comedy just fumbling around. Usually you want a strong joke from the get go.” - Judd Apatow


This doesn’t just apply to our main characters either. 

In fact, often in comedies, secondary characters make for some of the most memorable moments of the film.  Introducing a character in a comedy without some form of humor makes that character very forgettable, and is frankly considered lazy writing. 

So don’t be afraid to go for it, a comedy can never have too many funny moments!

A perfect example of introducing a secondary character with a joke is Jane Lynch’s character in the The 40-Year-Old Virgin. 

From the moment we see her as the manager of the stereo store our main characters work, she brings the laughs. She is quite eccentric and talks very openly about sexual situations, which makes Steve Carell’s character terribly uncomfortable...which is in turn, hilarious.




Pitch with marketability in mind.

Everybody has to pitch their scripts, even Judd Apatow.  And he gives some brilliant insight on what to do and what not to do.

“I think the key to pitching is finding a way to describe the project in the way it will be marketed to the audience.” - Judd Apatow


When studio executives are listening to your pitch they are asking themselves, will people be attracted to this idea? 

Think about a movie you love. Lets say you just saw The Hangover, you could probably easily explain the film to someone in three minutes.  So, in a way, you want to reverse engineer that concept for your pitch.

When you are pitching your script, you are also pitching yourself.  You want to present yourself in a way that shows them you are someone that they will want to work with.  If you are pitching a comedy, do not go in and try to break down the intellectual underpinnings of the movie.  Be funny! Let them be able to visualize your movie through you and how you present it.


Kevin  Wilde is a Feature Writer at Into The Script and a Screenwriter who has a passion for everything horror. 

Though he does currently have projects in the works in a wide range of genres. His horror short, Out of Body, was the winner of the Ink2screen screenwriting competition. 

It is safe to say you can expect big things in the near future from Kevin, many of which will have you sleeping with the lights on.

You can find Kevin on Instagram and Facebook.

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