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Today we pick up part six of the interview with Greg DePaul, screenwriter, teacher, and author of Bring the Funny:
Scott W. Smith: Richard Pryor once said all comedy is rooted in pain. In your book you talk about mean comedy, can you unpack that?
Screenwriter Greg DePaul (Saving Silverman): Certainly comedy has cruelty. You’re always going to have people doing mean things to each other because that makes us laugh. If you’ve ever watched Larry, Moe, and Curly [The Three Stooges] you know how much mean stuff can make people laugh. I mean Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and Daffy Duck shooting their faces off with shotguns is pretty visceral isn’t it? That’s just an element of comedy there’s no doubt about it. What I try to do in Bring the Funny is give you the tools you’re going to use to speed up the journey, to learn things quicker, and just write better. As a teacher I also focus a lot on the whole world of the dramatic writer, because I think the best writers—especially those in TV—have a dramatic approach. Most films schools don’t teach dramatic writing, they only teach screenwriting. I think that’s a mistake.
Scott: By dramatic writing you mean Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov?
Greg: Dramatic writing is playwriting, feature screenwriting, TV writing, and sketch comedy writing. Those are all dramatic writing. Where you use characters in a dramatic presentation. That’s a separate world from prose. Certainly a screenwriter and a playwright have more in common with each other than either has with a prose writer. For my students I talk about how screenwriters are a little bit like novelists, and the TV writers are a little bit more like playwrights. And if you look at the writing staffs of TV shows, especially sitcoms, you’re going to find a lot of playwrights.
If you look at NYU – how the Tisch School works — which I think is the absolute best school for dramatic writers. So you learn about the Greeks, and Ibsen, and all those people, and then branch out and take a screenwriting class, you take more playwriting classes, you take a TV class, but the foundation is dramatic writing; characters, drama, conflicts.
Scott: Certainly part of Aaron Sorkin’s success is being rooted in dramatic writing, and he’s someone who has worked in theater, television, and features. In fact, when he wrote Social Network he said that it was basically a Greek play. And it does appear that TV has become the place for the kinds of drama that feature films were doing back in the ‘70s.
Now you’re based in New York, my blog is called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, and I know you’re a fan of “get to L.A. if you can,” But in your opinion, when is the best time to go to L.A.?
Greg: Look I didn’t come back to the East Coast by choice. My career went up and down twice, I came back east because I have two children, that’s it. And it’s a lot easier to raise kids in suburban New Jersey than it is in Los Angeles. If you want good public schools for instance. It’s a night and day difference. So I came out here because what I wanted was the family environment and all of that. So for screenwriting the answer is L.A., L.A., L.A. and there’s really no exception to the rule. But if you can’t be there, you can’t be there, that’s life.
What I tell people is if you’re going to spend years writing and you live in Massachusetts, which is not off the edge of the world—it’s a sophisticated place, it’s just not L.A., then you shouldn’t just be writing screenplays. Come on, write novels, you can be a novelist anywhere. The book industry is used to people writing from Alabama, or Arkansas, or having the local flavor of Nebraska. There’s no prejudice against you there. And it’s not built around contacts.
If you’re in New York, because you’re a playwright, or because you’re a journalist, and you also want to write screenplays, fine. Now that I’m in NYC, I’m also a playwright. Most of the creative writing I’m doing this minute is playwriting and working on my next book. And more recently I’ve begun working on a screenplay.
But if you just want to write screenplays or do TV writing you have to go to L.A. and you should go there before you’re ready. And the reason is you’re not going to show up in L.A. and have everybody go, “Great, give me your screenplay.” It’s going to take years of making contacts while you’re there to get open minds. So you might as well go there and do your maturation there, because while you’re maturing and writing badly, and hopefully improving, your going to be meeting people. It’s going to take a few years to meet people who will read you. If you wait until you’re 35 and now say, “Now, I’m a great writer,” you’re going to have to prove yourself there. You have to develop fans. That’s why writers groups are so important. Other writers have to notice you and take note of you.
In Bring the Funny I talk about that a lot. If you’re an agent on Venice Boardwalk or you’re in Times Square New York, or Santa Monica Promenade, and you’re walking around and looking for an act. One guys juggling, one guy’s carving something in sand, and one guy’s telling jokes, and another singing, the guy who has no one around him—you’re not going to walk up to that guy. So you have to develop a circle of friends around you as a writer that gets you attention, that builds your contacts, and that’s when you start bumping into agents. Maybe you have a friend you likes your work, he or she already has an agent and because they know and like your work they say, “You know, I can introduce you to my agent.” Well, think how long that took to develop. That doesn’t happen the day you arrive in L.A.