The Gross-Out Comedy: How to Do It Right

The R-rated comedy has rarely, if ever, been more popular. What began with classics like Porky’s in the 80s found a renaissance in the 90s with the creation of the “American Pie” franchise. From there, filmmakers like Todd Philips (with “Old School” and “The Hangover”) and Judd Apatow (“Superbad,” “Knocked-Up”) turned the genre into an art form — still going strong with the recent “Hot Tub Time Machine” and the upcoming “Get Him to the Greek,” just to name a couple.

Marketing is greatly aided by red-band trailers, which are ostensibly for viewers over 17 but, ironically, succeed by luring audiences not yet old enough to buy tickets for said movie without an adult present.

Writing a raunchy comedy can be a great way to establish yourself as a writer, but the new writer should take caution: they aren’t as easy to write as they seem, and can very easily go wrong. A comedy script relying on gross-out humor and ignoring all other conventions of screenwriting isn’t worth the Final Draft software it was written on. Shock value doesn’t redeem a bad script.

We’re all familiar with the “getting there” model of comedy: a group, usually made up of guys in their 20s or 30s, has to get from Point A to Point B; what happens in between is the funny part. The road trip comedy is only one variation; you’ve also got Guys Go on Vacation or To College, Guys Get Stoned and Confused, or Guys Get Lost Somewhere and Find Themselves Terribly Out of Place.

What makes these movies so tempting to write, besides their frequent onscreen success, is the fact that you know these guys. These guys are your friends. You can write a movie about your friends. It’s easy!

Only — it’s not, because just about everything funny that has happened to you or your friends is either not funny enough to belong in a movie, or has already been thought of. Therein lies the secret difficulty of writing this kind of movie: how to come up with jokes we haven’t already seen done 100 times? We’ve seen characters get drunk and puke on each other, sleep with people they’re ashamed of in the morning, get uncomfortably affectionate with each other, go to prison, get in fights where their asses wind up kicked, or some combination of the above.

One way to get around this obstacle is to take the joke further, and somewhere unexpected — not for the sake of shocking us, but for the sake of surprising us. Having the main characters in “The Hangover” be pursued by bad guys is not inspired. Having them negotiate their freedom by agreeing to submit to a taser demonstration before a classroom of children? Inspired. Writers should never be afraid of going above and beyond silly into the awesomely weird — if it’s funny, we’ll happily take that ride with you.

Where many writers go wrong is to believe that rather than introducing a standard movie setup and taking it somewhere uninspired, what audience really want to see is something bigger, badder and grosser than anything they’ve ever seen in a movie before. I’m thinking of calling this “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell” Syndrome after the eponymous movie that, thank God, grossed about nothing at the box office. You could also call it the “Freddy Got Fingered” Disorder.

I recently read a script in which two lesbians had sex bent over a sink with the use of a marital aide, a man having sex with a morbidly obese woman rolled out-of-control down a San Francisco street as horrified onlookers watched, and an elderly couple engaged in a sexual act known as “chili-dogging.” (If you don’t know what that is, I recommend you don’t look it up.) This all happened before page 30.

No. Mistake.

Gross-out comedies are still movies, and when writing them you must still obey standard screenwriting rules. This involves a workable plot, of course, and a basic grasp on everyday logic (say, when your character appears at point A in one scene and at point B in another, we must understand logically how they got there).

But more importantly, gross-out comedies still have heart. A screenplay is a narrative, and a narrative has a central conflict, a resolution to that conflict, and a redemption for the main character. You must make time to introduce the characters, to show us what makes them funny and appealing, and to get us invested in their story, before you begin slopping bodily fluids willy-nilly around the page.

I’m not saying your characters have to stop and have a heartfelt sit-down that stops the action dead in its tracks and makes us all forget to laugh. If your characters are strongly written, then the aspects of them that are funny will infuse even the more serious scenes with humor. You shouldn’t be afraid to address real, genuine problems within a raunchy comedy. Think of Seth Rogen fighting with Katherine Heigl about responsibility in “Knocked Up,” the genuine love behind the dysfunctional family members in “Wedding Crashers,” the angst and humiliation suffered by Jason Biggs’ character in “American Pie.”

Without heart, what you get is an endless string of Saturday Night Live sketches, what script readers and executives refer to as an “episodic” script, meaning comic setpieces are strung together for their own sake rather than each vitally advancing a story. Don’t make this mistake — take it in a different direction. There’s still plenty of room for innovation and originality within this genre, and at its best, R-rated comedies are hilarious to read long before they’re ever played out onscreen.

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One Comment on “The Gross-Out Comedy: How to Do It Right”

  1. Melanie Says:

    Amen to that! This post should be required reading for all studio development folks.

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