We’re thrilled to bring you the first in a three-part interview with screenwriter, producer and director Dale Launer. Dale’s credits include such classics as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels , My Cousin Vinny  and Ruthless People . He has a fabulous, ironic sense of humor and spoke candidly with me about the business, writing in general and comic writing in particular.
Here we talk about how to begin writing comedy, what you should possess to do it well, how comedy is similar to drama, common mistakes screenwriters make and more. Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with Dale Launer
Q: How did you get your start as a screenwriter? When did you first thing, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do”?
DL: I was floundering around in college – bouncing from one major to another largely to get first in line to take the more interesting classes. Someone had asked me why I went to so many movies. I felt a little guilty that I was going to all these movies. A waste of time I guess….OH! Well if I were a film major, well that would be considered studying. So I changed my major, and suddenly I was completely engrossed in the idea of filmmaking. And another thing – Woody Allen inspired me. Not so much that I loved his work, but I saw his first movie Take the Money and Run – which I thought was kinda funny, that’s all, just kinda funny. And I thought, shit, I could do THAT.
Q: The producer of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Frank Oz, said, “The only truism about performing or directing comedy is that you don’t know a thing about comedy. I don’t know a thing about comedy…I think you just sit there and let something tickle you, let something happen.” Do you think this is true?
DL: I’m tempted to disagree with Frank just to be contrary. But actually, yes, I do disagree. One DOES know things about comedy, especially if you’re a writer. There are some things I write that I think are hilarious, some things are just funny. And then I see them up on a screen and people are laughing. So yeah, that would mean I must know something about comedy. I can see where the joke is, and sometimes I can see where they hid a joke. For instance, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – there was a scene where Freddy (played by Steve Martin) is pretending to be paralyzed – and he rises out of his wheel chair, struggling, but gets to his feet. Steven played it well, hammed it up just perfectly (Freddy was hamming, Steve was playing Freddy hamming it up). But in a test it wasn’t all that funny. They were surprised (Frank and the editors). I suggested laying in some inspirational music, something hugely dramatic like Thus Spake Zarathustra, or Handle’s Messiah (the hallelujah chorus) and they tried it, played it and it got a good solid laugh.
I think Frank was being humble or something.
Odd, because I worked with another director – Jonathan Lynn – who would pontificate on humor, but I didn’t find him to be particularly funny or have some brilliant understand of comedy. And yet he wrote some genuinely funny material (with a writing partner) in an acclaimed TV series called Yes, Minister, and Yes, Prime Minister. Neither of these guys are people with reputations as being particularly funny. The Zucker brothers (two Zuckers and an Abrahams actually) ARE funny guys to hang out with. Oddly enough, I probably had bigger issues with them directing one of my films than I had with the others, but they’re still friends. That was largely from the fact that Ruthless People (which they directed) was a “real” movie, with a plot, fresh characters to work with – and all their previous directing experience was in parodying movies (with the tone of satire). They were new to it.
Q: Your movies, including Ruthless People, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and My Cousin Vinny, contain brilliant comic moments. How do you begin writing a comedy?
DL: Thanks! I start with an idea, open a file in my computer with a tentative name – and start writing in notes. I have at least a hundred of these files. When they get big enough – about 20 pages – I can loosely shape them into an outline. But I keep it VERY loose. Then I start writing and hopefully (if the outline isn’t too structured) the story seems to make its own path. You create characters, you give it a direction, and then I get ideas – wouldn’t it be fun if this or that happened. Then I toy with it – just write it out and see how it looks, and when I’m writing it, I get more ideas, and more ideas and pretty soon the scene shapes up conceptually, and gives me another scene and then another scene – it just kinda finds its way and moves toward other ideas I have in the big, master file. It’s a little like juggling ideas and you keep as many in the air as you can – and sometimes an idea will comes that will nearly bridge a few of the others – and everything falls into place.
Q: What do you absolutely have to have in place to get it going?
DL: An imagination. A playfulness. Discipline. Free time. A relatively clean plate. It’s very important to have a good attitude when sitting down at the keyboard – writing should be fun. When it isn’t? You’re probably not writing.
Q: What are some of the most common mistakes screenwriters make when writing comedy? Any way to overcome these?
DL: I only have other movies to judge by – I don’t read the rejected scripts. Also – a sense of humor can vary from person to person. There are comedies I just dread – and they become big hits. I don’t get it. I’m comfortable with that. But “my” kind of comedy is more traditional in that it takes place in a world that’s rooted in reality (or should be). For me, the more honest, more truthful a movies plays – the funnier it is. So if you have a funny moment in a movie – and you populate it with broad, wacky, Komedy actors – it won’t be as real. You know where the joke is supposed to be, but it might not be as funny. I’ll give you an example. My Cousin Vinny was written and a casting meeting was called for me, a vp, studio prez and the CEO. My first choice for Vinny? Robert DeNiro. The prez looked uncomfortable, embarrassed that I would suggest such an actor. “DeNiro,uh…well…he’s not funny. And…his movies don’t make money.” To which I reply “Midnight Run – he was very funny in it – he plays it straight, but he knows where the jokes are and plays them as well – he started out as a comic actor, AND, Midnight Run made money.” “Well, it…wasnt’ really a hit. ” “It wasn’t?” “It didn’t make as much as money as they’d hoped.” (or something like – he actually said it was a “real” hit.)
Now, fifteen years later. The ONLY movies DeNiro acts in that make money? Comedies! So, I feel vindicated. But I wish I could’ve been given a big fat check when I end being proved right.
Q: There are plenty of great lines in My Cousin Vinny, but one monologue in particular stood out for me. Said Vinny—a lawyer who had to take the bar exam six times before passing, who’s up against seemingly impossible odds with a tough case—after his fiancé started bugging him about wanting kids:
“I don’t need this right now. I have a judge that’s just aching to throw me in jail. An idiot who wants to fight me for $200. Slaughtered pigs. Giant loud whistles. I ain’t slept in five days. I got no money, a dress-code problem, and a little murder case which in the balance holds the life of two innocent kids, not to mention your biological clock, my career, your life, our marriage, and…let me see, what else can we pile on? Is there any more shit we can pile on to the top of the outcome of this case? Is it possible?”
Of course there is. Is this—the formula of worse and ridiculously worse—one of the rules for writing great comic screenplays? Should the likelihood of success for the protagonist always be slim-to-none?
DL: Well, it’s a dramatic rule – a very simple one. “You get the audience involved in the character (which is far, far more complicated than it sounds, but that’s an easy rule to judge the finished work with), and then get the character involved in a mounting crises.”
A mounting crises! That’s where you put obstacles in the way. But when you’re writing, you don’t necessarily think “now what kind of obstacle can I put in his way?” – you think more along the lines of “Wow, what if this horrible thing happened? VERY FUNNY!” Also, again, a rule of drama is that you have to make things difficult for the protagonist.
That scene you described, by the way, came in the second draft. It was the result of a creative meeting where the studio prez actually made a suggestion I HATED. He wanted Vinny’s girlfriend to complain that he’s not giving her enough attention. You often see movies where some guy is hell bent on accomplishing something, and you’re on the ride with him – and his wife/girlfriend/mother is feeling neglected. And she complains. And I HATE this! I have never seen this work in a way where I really felt the wife was anything but an annoying, complaining, taking-up-valuable-narrative-space kind of character. You just hate those characters. Watching those scenes is simply boring. You want to fast forward it. Awful. And they were suggesting that I introduce that tired old cliché and I was arguing against them. They actually wanted her character cut out of the movie (believe it or not), so I figured out a way where they’d HAVE to keep her and embellished her character. But in the end they got what they wanted and I got what I wanted – she does complain, but at least apologizes for bringing it up, and you don’t hate her for bringing it up largely because it’s funny. She mentions that he’s screwing up and she’s frustrated because she can’t help him AND she goes off on a little tangent about he whole biological clock getting married thing. Now, I thought if she brought this up at this point where he is simply going through hell – he should be pissed off. And he is. So he kinda tears into her. It was one of my favorite scenes in the script.
All the other stuff – like keeping him from sleeping for five days – was there as a setup – so when he finally gets his day in court – he falls asleep. He sleeps through most of the prosecution’s case. I think it’s funny because it’s really pretty awful – and you need to cut to the reactions of the people who are most disturbed by it – the defendents. Drama, heightened drama especially – can all be turned into humor with just a little push. Vinny is like that.
Come back next week for part 2 of WU’s interview with screenwriter Dale Launer!