Has improvisation harmed movie comedy?

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.

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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…” 

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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.

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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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