Has improvisation harmed movie comedy?

Feature Mark Harrison 15 Feb 2013 - 06:29

As Judd Apatow's ad-lib-heavy This Is 40 hits UK cinemas, Mark wonders what effect improv has had on comedy cinema...

Once DVD really overtook the home entertainment market, there was an increased trend towards extended cuts of comedy movies once they reached shiny discs. Whether it's an 'Extreme Edition', or it has 'Gags You Didn't See', or it’s simply 'Uncut', it's hardly the same as releasing extended cuts of movies that suit the director's vision - in the case of Judd Apatow's school of comedy production, it only means that you film absolutely everything, and most of the footage makes it into the film anyway.

Apatow-produced films like Bridesmaids, Funny People, Get Him To The Greek and this week’s This Is 40 tend to give their actors lots of room for improvisation. You also get the impression that they're still coming up with comic setpieces for the characters once production has started, and they seem to film just about everything. All of this would be fine, if there were some editorial discipline at work, and there often isn't - this is arguably how This Is 40’s running time ballooned to 134 minutes.

Given how Judd Apatow started out in television, on wonderful shows like Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, you can see some of that production ethic in the comedy movies he has produced. As a result of the patchwork editing process, choosing some setpieces and lines for inclusion and saving others for the DVD version the narrative sometimes takes a back seat in films from the Apatow stable. The editing process seems more alchemical, drawing on lots of different takes to create a kind of comedy chimera. 

Ten years on from Freaks & Geeks, it's become quite popular in areas of television that are traditionally scripted - partially improvised sitcoms, like Outnumbered and Community, have been enduringly popular with audiences. Almost everyone in Apatow's wide troupe of comedy actors has proven themselves to be very adept at improvisation, and they’re given plenty of opportunity to show that off.

Scenes like the “You know how I know you're gay?” exchange between Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd, in The 40 Year Old Virgin, can show the benefits of letting these comedians cut loose. As it's all unscripted, the dialogue feels closer to real banter between friends, tending more towards the repetitive than the regimented. Typically, there's a load more of these quips in the DVD's extended edition, and on the gag reel.

The 40 Year Old Virgin is actually a good example of a film where things came together nicely in the cinema, if not in the obligatory 'version you didn't see.' The stacking of set-pieces and different takes is just as obvious here as in later films, but with the likeable lead performance by Steve Carell, a lot of the narrative heavy lifting comes from knowing Andy's goal, or quest, if you like, and rooting for him to succeed. 

A film like Get Him To The Greek has less of that, because more of the humour comes from Jonah Hill failing, and being abused by people he encounters, than from his motivation and victories. Plus, he's basically the straight man to Russell Brand's Aldous Snow, who's a bit of a dick. Still, I personally like Get Him To The Greek as a succession of sketches, while I was personally underwhelmed by 2011's Oscar-nominated box office smash hit, Bridesmaids.

Once again, you have a superb and likeable cast, each with a canny talent for improvisation, and I should like it as much as everyone else did. But the detractors of Bridesmaids probably share the qualms that come with Apatow's brand of patchwork comedy, and it's a repeat offender when it comes to over-long scenes.

The scene near the end of the movie, where Annie tries to get traffic cop Rhodes' attention by doing some zany driving, felt like it went on forever, but then I felt like that about the acclaimed aeroplane scene too. It goes to show that the subjectivity of comedy means that it's all valid, but watching films like Bridesmaids and Funny People, it can be argued that the television production ethic doesn't always work for comedy on the big screen.

In both arenas, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have become master storytellers by being strict with story and structure. In interviews and talks that they've given to film students, they've both railed against episodic “And then...” storytelling, saying that the connecting tissue between each and every story beat should either be “Because...” or “Therefore...” 

They do this with South Park, and it's even clear in something as deliberately cliché-ridden as Team America: World Police. It's been a while since they've made a film, but precedents would suggest that they generally don't ever come close to exceeding a two hour running time, and the jokes come from their character's personalities and motivations, rather than actors riffing on a theme.

Have you heard anyone complain that Jason Segel essentially plays the same character in every movie? While that much is debatable, a big part of that perception must arise from his long-time association with Apatow, dating back to Freaks & Geeks, and the style of acting and writing that they share.

There’s a minor problem in last year’s The Five-Year Engagement, which involves Segel's character, Tom, having a quite contrived meltdown in the second act, which is bursting with quirky and sporadically funny ideas, but serves as a bit of a strain on your suspension of disbelief. The film succeeds largely on the strength of likeable characters, and sympathy with the central relationship, rather than on the zany improvised bits.

It's not to say that the more intensively improvised, careening focus type of movie never works, because the most obvious example of a successful patchwork comedy is Anchorman - The Legend Of Ron Burgundy. It's a super-quotable mess of a movie, and it clearly owes its enduring popularity and iconic status to the documented difficulty in assembling the different parts, as compared to later works. 

There was so much material cut out of Anchorman, or lost after reshoots, that they made a whole spin-off movie out of it for the DVD special edition. Wake Up, Ron Burgundy isn't nearly as good as the main feature, but then The 40 Year Old Virgin wasn't improved for being expanded to 135 minutes either.

Anchorman might not have been remembered at all, if it hadn't gone through reshoots and re-editing, and whether or not the creative team can replicate the alchemy of the first film in the upcoming sequel, with their recent track record for editing, remains to be seen.

At their best, films from the Judd Apatow stable include likeable and sympathetic characters, which give the writers and actors some licence to be a little looser with the narrative structure, and even, occasionally, allows for some nice improvised pieces. At worst, they're over-long, with lax editing and repetitive performances, reverse-engineered from the marketability of Longer, Louder, Cruder, Smellier editions on DVD and Blu-ray.

In closing, ask yourself this - if brevity is the soul of wit, then is there really any need for a comedy film to be longer than two hours?

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Really good article.

I greatly enjoy these types of comedies and the actors associated with them. Comedies are a revolving door of these character types so I really don't mind the same actors playing the same roles. To be honest I could watch Will Ferrell scream, Jason Segal play the lovable doof and Paul Rudd play the straight man for two hours straight. For me they have tremendous re-watch value.

I think some of the more recent films like Funny People, Bridesmaids and 5 Year Engagement feel bloated, is more from the writers/directors not knowing how to handle the emotional/dramatic scenes as well, as opposed to the improvised nature. Actors like Kristen Wiig, Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd have the comedic skills to make skills to make those scenes work.

Great editors are brutal in cutting, constantly asking if a scene deserves to be there or does another scene do the same job. The worst editing comes when they look at a scene and think it's too good not to be there without considering its purpose, the car scene in bridesmaids mentioned in the article is case in point, all it need was two or three max of the best passes of the cops car. However it was as if they kept looking at it and saying to themselves 'we need this one as well, oh and that one and that one too' without thinking that after two passes the joke was done.

It's not something you can blame the actors for as their job is to give the director as much material to look at, it's the director and editor that needs to separate the wheat from the chaff and cut cut cut it down

Improv in movies is no new thing. Eddie Murphy? Robin Williams? Plenty of people have done it before Judd Apatow. And there almost certainly older examples. A good treatment of the subject would be more expansive.

Hi Gina- there's a more expansive look at improv in movies to be had, certainly. It was my intention to take a topical look at the current trend in Apatow productions, because they're arguably the most popular mainstream comedies going, and the ones that most frequently overrun, due to lax editing.
Murphy and Williams (in their respective heydays) would be good examples for a more historical view, and outside of comedy, I was just reading the article elsewhere on this site about films that started shooting with unfinished scripts, and was interested to read about the improv involved in making Iron Man. Thanks for the comment!

Definitely didn't intend to blame the actors, and I hope that came across in the feature- as you say, the amount of improv constitutes a thorough job, but the lack of editing (especially in Bridesmaids) is the opposite. Thanks for the comment.

The problem is not improv, it's a lack of editing. Comedies, and indeed most movies, should aim for that sweet spot between 90 minutes and 2 hours.
There's a famous saying in Hollywood - "cut what you love". If it's not adding to the story-telling, you have to take it out of the movie. But certain directors are ignoring that rule of late. How many times nowadays do you hear the audience saying, "it would have been great...if only it was shorter"?
Comedies can definitely be ad-libbed, but they can not be sprawling and lacking in focus.

That definitely did, it was more just a comment in general to firmly blame the editing (if that makes sense) thanks for replying.

Just one problem with the article, This is 40 was NOT improv heavy. 90% of the movie was scripted. I have had the script since the last shooting draft was given out, and like I said 90% of the funny stuff is written down.

Judd Apatow, like you have mentioned, started in TV were Ad lib is not allowed that much, due to time restraints etc, and his movies have only been ad lib in the funniest scenes, (EG Chest Waxing, giving birth and fantasy baseball scenes.)

Good article, I agree on most points (except your view on Bridesmaids). However surely at least a passing mention of Christopher Guest was warranted.

Bloat is the new watchword in Hollywood. If audiences are seen to like something then surely they would love more of it the guys in charge have decided. This is why we have comedies which outstay the joke, more and more blockbuster movies which push the 3hr mark, trilogies based on novels where the final one is shot and released as 2 movies. The idea of paring a movie or story to it's bare essentials has lost it's relevance as we, the consumers, ask Hollywood to waste more and more of our spare time and they are only to happy to oblige for an additional price.

I do always groan slightly when I see a comedy film that's any longer than about 100 minutes. It then has to do something very special to justify that runtime.

That said, massive thumbs up for improvisation. People are often at their funniest when they're just riffing.

Where it comes together best is where you have a clear story, and a clear goal in mind for the scene, and (good) actors improv with that in mind. This is what happens in the best improv stuff produced in the UK. Or you have a strict structure and lines, but one actor is a loose cannon and riffs off the actors around him... See most of Bill Murray's career.

What sh*ts me is that the extended cut of The 40-Year Old version was the only one on the DVD - I couldn't opt to watch the shorter (and better) theatrical release...

I HATE it when you can tell that the actors are just sitting around in a scene making stuff up (I yhink The Watch suffered from this). It just seems like they came up with a plot, figured the actors come impov the comedy, and started filming. When it's done right, it's great, when it's badly done, it just looks lazy and unfunny. And also, Apatow does need to find an editor--his movies are too long. Everyone went wild about Bridesmaids, but I came out of it thinking it would have been much better if it were a half hour shorter.

COMMUNITY is the farthest thing from improvised. It's very tightly-scripted.

Older examples - indeed! Howard Hawks and in particular Leo McCarey (whose genius for it - that is, improvising with his actors - is increasingly evident as more of his lost work is rediscovered).

This seems to be a trend which has extended over to drama too, I just watched a film called "Drinking Buddies" which was 100% improvised dialogue. It did have its moments, but I have to agree with what one reviewer said in that actors have no sense of subtext, they like to dig into the script and bring it out, whereas writers are all about burying meaning below the surface of their words. When actors do improv, they only ever seem to say the obvious. Added to the fact that it didn't sound natural at all, they were pausing awkwardly, especially when asked for specifics relating to their character's actions.

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