Summers spent completely alone in the middle of corn doing the kind of manual labor where your body goes on auto-pilot leaves a bunch of time for thinking.
I thought about how I was fat. Unless you're a fat kid, you don't really know what it's like. I do, cause I was one. School was particularly challenging, especially when you're in seventh grade and puberty and all those cringeworthy body changes are kicking in. It's hard for any boy, but add to that the extra weight issue and you've got sure-fire kid bait. You go to take a shower with all the other guys-you've got tits bigger than most of the girls' and one pubic hair which you're hoping won't wash away, and man, it's the walk of shame.
There was this one shirt that made me feel OK. It had a good fit in a concealing kind of way, and was made of that kind of jersey/football shirt mesh, which, as you may or may not know, can be particularly hard on the nipples. BandAids helped me. But then there were the times when-damn it-you'd simply forget. The pre-shower nerves that came just with the thought of disrobing combined with the fact that the kid next to me hadn't been potty trained so every time he took off his pants shit fell out, was enough trauma that BandAids and their removal were the last thing on my mind. A hairless, nipple-covered, fat kid and a guy with poop in his pants-you know we were fresh blood for wild boars-fallen upon, chewed up and spat out.
If you don't laugh about it, you're doomed.
Out in those fields, I'd also wonder what Mom was up to. PTA president, deputy coroner and with her own bail bonds business there was any number of options. I'd accompanied her to jail to bail out the bad guys, been down the morgue and to various scenes of death plenty of times, and since I was about nine years old I'd become an expert on cadavers. There was a game we'd play, one of her inventions, where she'd sit me at the kitchen table and show me pictures of dead bodies. It was her version of "flashcards", the aim to guess age, sex and cause of death. I recall that most were OD's with a few car accidents thrown in, tongues hanging out, eyeballs bulging. I can't say what it was, but there was something about those poses, those tongues, that even in death these people were sticking them out, something that made me giggle.
(By the way, I'm not a murderer, but that's not to say I don't think about it a whole lot.)
Primarily, the cornfields afforded me time to run movies through my head, funny ones, over and over again. Shakey's Pizza had Charlie Chaplin playing on a loop, and I'd watch it for hours, gleaning what I could from the man's genius for timing. Of all the greats, he and Buster Keaton know exactly when to hold on and when to let it go. Since I was about 10 I wanted to be a part of it.
And now for some of the more serious matters at hand, like, what's funny. (Besides what I see in the mirror when I get out of the shower.) Nonetheless, inspiration is everywhere you look. You take a couple of minutes just to watch people, gathering the minutiae of life and you get the ticks, the character windows, the stuff that makes what you do ring true. These are the things that trigger something in the audience, conscious or not, that they recognize. We like to see something of ourselves, something familiar, and out of that everydayness comes so much of what's funny. Slapstick or straight, the foundation is always recognizable.
The other day I was on Los Feliz Boulevard, cruisin' as I sometimes do, and spotted a hugely obese black lady running down the sidewalk. Naked. A couple of beats later and a motorcycle cop-helmet, gloves, boots, etc.-was in pursuit, and all this against a backdrop of a couple of Mexican gardeners at work. Just another Tuesday. You look out your window and it's all right there. With the risk of sounding corny, that good old dictum that truth is stranger than fiction holds strong.
There's not a set of rules that tells us what works and what doesn't. Weaned on the slapstick of silent movies I then moved on to the straight stuff that the Brits do so well-the Goons, Peter Sellers, etc. "Cringe comedy" works because laughing when someone gets hurt is instinctual-someone falls, you laugh. We all do it. It makes us feel OK-maybe because we distance and so protect ourselves, maybe there's a dark thread in us all, a psychiatrist would have a plethora of reasons as to why we do it, the simple fact is we do. The straight stuff can give that edge that makes everything ever-so-slightly surreal; you get it or you don't.
With the world getting smaller, those comedic styles particular to certain countries are less distinguishable. There's more of a universal humor than ever, the difference lying in the fact that there's still more creative freedom across the pond. While American clients and therefore agencies are broadening their horizons, the envelope is still tight when compared to those wacky Europeans. That's not to say times aren't changing, they are.
Directing comedy has definitely fed the non-comedic work. They're related, distant cousins-the sense of timing and dialogue, of telling a story and using each beat to it's fullest potential are equally important for both. It's a question of where you place the emphasis that makes them different. You've got 30 seconds to make 'em laugh, cry, get the message and know who's giving it to them-it's in the concept, the footage, and finally, it all comes down to the edit. This is where, ultimately, the story gets told. You can collect a bunch of images but it's all about how you put them together.
We all have that inner barometer that tells us what's funny, and the fact that comedy is so subjective is what makes it so hard to do well. I don't know that it's possible to take a bad script and make it funny-maybe you could bring a smile, but the truth is it's all about the concept. It's where the buck starts. There are those awkward times you try to blank out when you find something hilarious and everyone around you is non-plussed or, plain and simple offended. My career is littered with such moments-the times when I've slipped on the banana peel and ended up on my ass.
The spots I've done that are the funniest?The IFC campaign and "God is a Celtics Fan" for Fox. They make me laugh.
Other funny stuff. Dick Van Dyke, Harold and Maude, Being There.
Cliff Freeman once told me, "Funny, good. Not funny, bad." That's what I try to live by.