026I – Serious Advice on Writing Funny: An Interview with Robert G Lee
Comedian Robert G Lee is well-known as Hollywood's top warm-up comic on such shows as The New Adventures of Old Christine, Just Shoot Me, Becker, and The Drew Carey Show. He just released his latest comedy project, Wisenheimer, and recently finished Can I Get a Witness Protection?, a faith-based screwball comedy feature film he wrote and directed.
Bob shares his journey from stand-up comic to award-winning feature film writer. He reminds writers that no matter what media you're writing for, everything has an opening, a middle, and a closing. Stand-up comedy just truncates it into a short joke. Comedy is about misdirection, about leading the audience one way and then flipping it over. It can also use a lot of simile – this is like that.
You have to find something that's universal, that everyone can relate to, but special enough that they haven't heard it a thousand times. Use your life experiences. Then use exaggeration. Use setup and payoff. It's like being a magician in that you're always misdirecting the audience.
That's the foundation. Once you learn how to do that, you have to move into story. A series of gags will only go so far.
A few years ago, Bob met a guy named Sean Gaffney who is writing a book called The Theology of Story – and it opened his eyes. Bob thought Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces was great except that it dismissed the spiritual aspect of life. Sean teaches that really every good story mimics the Bible – the character starts in a perfect world, then a problem occurs, etc. all the way through to the crisis/death scene and the new world.
Now Bob tries to focus on creating a story as he entertains. The gags are tools he uses for effect, but the story is what keeps the audience listening. You also have to know your audience – remember, it's all about them, not you.
As we chat, Bob also mentions Frederick Beuchner's Telling the Truth, Bruce Almighty, Liar, Liar, Steve Martin's MasterClass on comedy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (see article about it).