by Marcus Hennessy
So you don’t lie anymore, huh? Not at all?
I went cold turkey. I tried cutting down to one lie a day. I tried lying only with my meals. But I realized being mostly honest is like diving out of a plane with most of a parachute. Sooner or later, the truth has a funny way of hitting you in the face.
–from Liar, Liar, written by Steve Mazur and Paul Guay
Stephen “Steve” Mazur has been with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program for nearly a decade and has taught over 20 classes for us, a fact which might strike him as funny. He’s also won our Outstanding Instructor Award in Screenwriting (2005), and will be participating in his third Writers Studio this coming February. Naturally, asking this gifted comedy writer, improv actor, and teacher to reflect on his tenure with the Writers’ Program is also asking for a zinger or two…
MH: You’ve written or co-written a couple very funny films—Liar, Liar and Heartbreakers (among others). What’s the number one “trick” or technique you apply when writing a funny scene?
SM: First, be conscious of the main source of comedy in your scene, and feed that source. For example, in Big, the main source of comedy in all but a few scenes is Josh, a boy trapped in a man’s body. The screenwriters, Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg, did a masterful job of feeding that source, setting up characters and situations to highlight their “Boy Trapped in a Man’s Body” premise. Second, beware of undercutting the reality of your script in an effort to milk more comedy from peripheral sources. Comedy needs a base of reality to work; undercutting that reality to exploit an additional source of comedy is usually a losing proposition. Wait, that’s two tricks/techniques, and you only asked for one. Uh, please change the above to “add a lot of farts.”
MH: You’ll be teaching in our Writers Studio for the third time now. What is it about the Studio that appeals to you the most?
SM: The Studio tends to attract students from all parts of the country (and world), broadening the perspective of the workshop and leading to a vibrant atmosphere. Also, a real team spirit develops, with everyone eager to help each other to come up with the best story possible. Finally, class ends just as “Happy Hour” starts at the bar down the street. Never underestimate the draw of cheap and easily-accessible beer.
MH: As a member of the Writers Guild of America, you’re currently in the midst of what could be a potentially lengthy and expensive strike. Do you think writers are undervalued in the great Hollywood hierarchy? And would you ever consider writing a play or a novel to keep your writing skills sharp?
SM: This strike isn’t about “getting more”—it’s about preserving our stake in the industry for the future. Writers in the past sacrificed so that I could devote my time to what I love doing most while also providing for my family. It’s up to the writers of today to do the same for the writers of tomorrow. And my secret dream is to write the book for a Broadway musical. If you’d like to collaborate (and happen to have ten million dollars lying around to produce a show), please contact me ASAP.
MH: You started out as a lawyer, then turned to screenwriting after a few notable script successes. Is there any similarity between practicing law and writing a screenplay? And do you like John Grisham films?
SM: As a trial attorney, I was focused on the same goal as I am as a screenwriter—how can I present my “story” as effectively and powerfully as possible? A jury is no different than an audience—do they believe your version of events? Are they drawn into your story emotionally? In addition, practicing law helped me hone my skills in logic, and, as noted above, comedy thrives in a world of logic and reality. As for Grisham, I think he’s a fantastic writer, though not particularly funny. Perhaps if he used more farts… ?
MH: What are your three favorite comedy films, and why?
SM: Obviously, I’m a big fan of Big. In many ways, it’s the perfectly constructed comedy, never sacrificing emotion for a laugh, yet remaining amazingly funny throughout. I love Groundhog Day (story by Danny Rubin, screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis). How can a movie be so hilarious while simultaneously exploring the deepest question possible—”What is the meaning of life?” True genius. Should I mention a great recent comedy (Wedding Crashers, Borat, Sideways, Something About Mary, Rushmore) so I still seem sort’a contemporary? Or should I go with a classic (Dr. Strangelove, Catch-22, The Producers [the 1968 version, not the recent musical], The Philadelphia Story)? I think I’ll go for “historical.” Check out Laurel & Hardy in Putting Pants on Phillip (1927). It’s only nineteen minutes long, but it contains the single greatest take by the single greatest film comedian of all time (Stan Laurel, emerging from a tailor’s dressing room after being measured for a pair of pants against his will). The only thing that could make it better? Perhaps a well-placed fart or two….
Steve will be teaching the workshop “Crafting the Comedy Screenplay” in our upcoming Writers Studio, beginning Thursday, February 7 through Sunday, February 10, 2008. (There’s still space available!)
Marcus Hennessy is a member of the Writers’ Program staff.