Ben Stiller may be pulling in 15 million a movie these days. But there was a time when he was struggling to make a name for himself. In fact, Stiller had been in a string of commercially unsuccessful movies and TV shows, only recently making a name for himself in 1998 with “There’s Something About Marry.” “Meet the Parents,” then, established him as a legitimate comedic force. Now what most people don’t know, is that “Meet The Parents” is actually a remake of a 70+ minute indie film from 1992 that nobody saw. It starred, of all people, Emo Phillips, that bizarre guy with the extreme bowl cut who was famous for like 56 minutes. The film played the festival circuit and actually earned a few fans from critics. Universal reluctantly optioned the remake rights and only after Jim Carrey and Steven Spielberg showed interest (isn’t it Spielberg’s job to show interest in everything at least once?) did the studio really start to push it, eventually casting, of course, Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro. Another little known factoid is that DeNiro came up with the famous lie detector test scene all on his own.

1) Set up the stakes for your main character before the journey begins – One of the reasons Meet The Parents works so well is because it establishes the stakes for Greg (Ben Stiller) right away. We see Greg trying out his proposal on one of his patients. We then see him go through an elaborate failed proposal to his girlfriend, Pam. Through these scenes, we see that getting this girl’s hand means everything to him (high stakes!). If we don’t know how much achieving the goal means to our character, we won’t care if he achieves it or not. So establish those stakes!

2) Once you establish the goal, you can introduce the main obstacle – The goal here is Greg trying to win Pam’s hand in marriage. Now obviously, if your character succeeds in achieving his goal, your movie is over. So before they can achieve it, you must hurry and introduce the main obstacle. The obstacle in this case is Pam’s father, Jack. Pam makes it clear that she can’t marry anyone her father doesn’t approve of. Now that we have the main obstacle, something that will repeatedly prevent our character from achieving his goal, we have ourselves a movie.

3) Clever over Big – In the original script, the Greg proposal scene had him taking Pam to a baseball game and proposing to her via plane pulling a “Will You Marry Me” sign. Not only has the ball game thing been done before, but it was far too expensive to shoot. So they re-wrote the scene to happen outside of Pam’s work (she’s a kindergarten teacher). While Greg distracts Pam, her students hold letters that spell “Will You Marry Me?” behind them. Of course, all the letters are in the wrong order, so Greg must guide them into their spots with his eyes without Pam noticing. Before they can finish, Pam gets a call from her father that negates the proposal. The point here is, everybody always thinks of the big giant easy scene – even the professionals. Ignore the big. Try to do something clever instead. It always ends up better.

4) In comedies, keep having your characters fail – That’s all comedies are if you think about it. You keep setting these little goals up, then continue to have your character fail at them. Greg must make a great first impression on Jack when he and Pam arrive. He fails. Greg has to win over Jack at the big dinner scene. He fails. Greg has to win the volleyball game to prove his toughness in front of Jack. He fails. Greg has to find Jack’s cat that he lost. He fails. In comedies, just keep having goal after goal come up, and have your character fail again and again, until they finally come through in the end.

5) Design your other characters with your main character in mind – When you design your supporting characters, they shouldn’t be designed randomly, but rather as a way to affect or conflict with your protagonist. For example, Greg is a nurse. When he gets to Pam’s, Pam’s sister is celebrating her recent engagement to her longtime boyfriend, Bob. Now, what would you have Bob be? A race car driver maybe? A lawyer? A scientist? Sure, I mean any one of those could work. But the writers make him a DOCTOR, because they know it will make Greg (who’s a nurse) look even worse in the eyes of Jack.

6) Always look to go against type in comedies – Most comedy specs I read go with the obvious. So for the father our main character has to win over, they’d make him a military man with a giant dog. Not here. Jack is a botanist with a Persian cat. Go against type go against type go against type!

7) Torture your main character in a comedy whenever and wherever possible – It’s a comedy. So have fun torturing your main character. At the airport, the TSA forces Jack to check his bag, and of course they lose his bag. This leaves him without clothes, forcing him to have to wear Pam’s brother’s clothes. Now since it’s our job as writers to torture our protagonists, we can’t just give him normal clothes. Nope, the writers make Pam’s brother a younger hip-hop druggie type. Therefore Greg ends up having to wear these ridiculous oversized hip-hop clothes. We see it again later in the water volleyball game where Greg is forced to wear a tiny speedo. Torture your characters people!

8) Add twists to your comedies – Writers assume that since comedies are all about the laughs, they don’t need to add any twists or turns. The assumption is that you save those for the thrillers and the sci-fi specs. The thing is, a comedy is still a story, and every story needs a few surprises along the way to keep the audience guessing. In the original draft for “Meet The Parents,” Jack’s CIA background is revealed right away. The writers realized that doing so was kind of boring, and therefore pushed the reveal back and made it a surprise, with Jack initially pretending to be a botanist.

9) Combine scenes for Christ’s sake! – Writers always act shocked or upset or confused when I tell them they need to combine two average scenes into one super scene in order to speed up their story. Combining scenes ia great option to deleting them altogether because you get to keep all the stuff you like instead of losing it altogether. So in the original “Meet The Parents” draft, we had the big dinner scene (“I have nipples Greg. Can you milk me?”) and then a game of scrabble, where Greg accidentally pops the cork that destroys the bottle holding Jack’s mother’s ashes. The scrabble scene was extremely weak and redundant, so they just combined it into the dinner scene. Which scenes can you combine in your script?

10) When limited to one location, the easiest way to change up the plot is to bring in new characters – When you’re writing a thriller or an adventure script or, really, any script where your character is out in the world doing shit, it’s easy to spice things up. You just move to a new location with a new set of goals, stakes, and urgency. But when you’re in a single location, you obviously can’t do that. Therefore, you need to find other ways to keep the script interesting. The Greg, Pam, Jack, and Dina stuff is great. But if we’re ONLY with those four inside this house the entire script, we’re going to get bored. The easiest way to spice things up then, is to bring in new characters. They become the change. Here, it’s Debbie (Pam’s sis) and Bob (her fiancé) who pop in and start adding more pressure to the situation (with Bob being Jack’s ideal son-in-law). Immediately we feel a new energy in the script, and the story is reignited.

Scriptshadow_Cover_Final3These are 10 tips from the movie “Meet The Parents.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Aliens,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!

  • http://twitter.com/jaexhkim jae kim

    am I the only one who thinks ben stiller is not funny? the only movie of his that I can stand to watch is tropic thunder and it’s only because of robert downey jr. meet the parents was watchable only for robert dinero. nobody thought ben stiller was the best part of that movie.

    all of his movies can be strung together as one moment of embarrassment to the next. I remember watching there’s something about merry and being bored to death by his balls being caught in the zipper and the fish hook being caught in his mouth. having your character fail is one thing, but doing it over and over in every movie is just too much.

    • MWire

      I agree that Ben Stiller isn’t all that funny but he doesn’t have to be. In a lot of comedies (not all) the lead male is just the straight man. He doesn’t get the good lines or the funny bits. He’s just the conduit that the comedy flows through. Guys like Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Paul Rudd have made a damn good living this way.

    • wlubake

      Ben Stiller was pretty funny. He did his thing. If you liked his thing, you enjoyed his movies. The problem with all of these guys (male comedy leads) is when they keep doing the same thing too long. They don’t evolve.
      Jim Carrey’s physical comedy. The world dumping on Ben Stiller. Vince Vaughn talking fast. Will Farrell acting like a large child.
      That is why it seems so tough for a comedian to have longevity in Hollywood. Comedic tastes evolve, but seldom do the performers evolve with them.

      • wlubake

        I should clarify. By longevity, I mean staying at the top. There are lots of guys making movies for years, but not really anyone owning the comedy genre.

        • Malibo Jackk

          Still love Bill Murray.

    • MrTibbsLive

      It could be worst. If not for Ben Stiller we’d probably have more movies with Adam Sandler screaming for no reason… Now that’s not funny at all.

    • John Bradley

      Zoolander is fricking hilarious! “I”m bulimic.”…..”You can read minds?” plus Tower Heist wasn’t too bad.

    • Greg

      An actor can only do so much with the script he is given. I think Stiller has been in a lot of films with bad scripts. I think people are unrealistically harsh with comedy actors because they expect to be entertained every time just because the actor tends to star in comedies. You can’t give a comedy actor a boring script and expect them to turn it into gold with their performance.

  • http://twitter.com/KennyNOL Will Vega

    I love Meet the Parents. It was hilarious and it had a great story, with dramatic beats pushing it further and further to the point where I felt real bad for Greg Focker. It’s a 10 out of 10 movie for me since it doesn’t have anything I don’t like in it.

    I agree with all these points too, especially #3. To this day, it’s still a memorable scene because it’s heart wrenching and it makes you love the goofy bastard from the start.

  • IgorWasTaken

    Maybe it’s because I’m writing comedies, but Carson – This is one of your best.

    Even the tips you list that I already know, they’re good because they remind me to… remember them.

    • http://twitter.com/panostsapanidis Panos Tsapanidis

      I agree. Solid, solid, solid.

    • Greg

      I think it’s good advice because people don’t analyze comedy as much and/or comedy writers don’t seek out analysis as much because they think as long as they are funny, their script will be successful. In reality, comedy is the toughest genre to find success. Your jokes have to be just as good as your structure. The funniest line your script could be ruined by an actor saying it the wrong way.

  • Citizen M

    #4. In comedies, keep having your characters fail

    I watched Chaplin’s The Kid on YouTube this weekend. Basically, that’s the whole movie. Problem; solution; fail; problem; solution; fail; rinse & repeat. With an overall story to provide direction.

    Example: He’s carrying the baby around and trying to get rid of it. He sees another baby in an oversize stroller so he puts his baby in the stroller as well and saunters off. The nursemaid screams blue murder and the policeman casts a beady eye so he has to pick the baby up and move on. He sees another tramp and asks him to hold the baby while he fixes his shoe. He hands the baby over and runs away. Now the other tramp is stuck with the baby and wanders around. He sees the same carriage and drops the baby in and runs away. Chaplin doesn’t know this and comes sauntering past whistling innocently. At this moment the nursemaid spots the extra baby again and hands it back to Chaplin, together with a thrashing from her umbrella. Back to Square One…

    You have to laugh at the poor sap and his escalating failures. At the same time you applaud him because he keeps trying. He’s got spirit. He never gives up. He’s always trying to make the best of it. That’s why we love him.

    • http://twitter.com/JohnBostonfilm John Boston

      The Kid is tied with Limelight for my favorite Chaplin film. I think his films have aged better than any other director’s over the years.

    • Calvin

      Chaplin was a hero of mine growing up. I wonder if Carson would find it an interesting challenge to do a “ten things to learn from (pick your favorite Charlie Chaplin film). Especially with comedies being so hard to do, why not try to find the secrets of a master. Did the Chaplin films have a three act structure? Were they too episodic? Good questions. My two recommendations would be “The Kid” or “City Lights”, both have high stakes and perhaps the greatest underdog protagonist ever filmed. Hyperbole? Maybe, maybe not.

      • Citizen M

        Chaplin did the filmic equivalent of endless rewriting.

        Eschewing formal scripts, Chaplin devised ideas for scenes in advance and had them typed up as notes. Often, however, inspiration would strike him on a set and there would be no time to have the notes typed… Chaplin and his cast would be in full costume and make-up while he rehearsed scenes and refined ideas over and over again on film… Chaplin was willing to film a scene over and over again, even if he had an idea only partially worked out, until he was completely satisfied with the result.


    • garrett_h

      I’ve found that this works especially well in action films also.

      One recent example is Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. It seemed like EVERYTHING Ethan Hunt & Co. tried to do, they failed. Either they screwed up somehow or the bad guys got the drop on them. It really leads to there being a sense of the hero possibly losing in the end, even though we know that won’t happen. It just makes you FEEL like it will.

      Same goes for horror movies. Each kill the boogeyman makes is basically a “Failure” by the heroes.

      When I first started writing, I just had shit happening on the page. That’s boring. Give us a hero we want to see win, have them fail time and again, and you’ll pull us into the story. We can’t wait to see them succeed.

    • Greg

      Number four is so important. I wrote this spec pilot script for screenwriting class a few semesters ago in which my characters basically had no problems starting their business and making tons of money. One of the more experienced students in the class argued the structure was weak and everything was too easy, and I did agree but somehow struggled to make things harder and thought the audience would get bored if the pilot episode wasn’t exciting.

      I guess this applies more to TV than film, but that is a huge issue for any genre. If you are not constantly putting obstacles in front of your characters that they are forced to overcome, you’re not showing something that is true to reality in any meaningful way.

  • John Bradley

    I don’t have time to read many of the scripts that get reviewed here. That’s why these are my favorite articles! Love them, they have helped me so much in my writing, thanks Carson.

  • fragglewriter

    I’m in the minority, but I hate “Meet the Parents”.

    But other than that, your tips are spot on. I’m writing a comedy now. My protag has a main goal, but can a secondary goal that is similar in task to the main goal be ok in a film? What I’m asking is if the protag can have a two main goals?

    • IgorWasTaken

      Is one internal and the other external? Are they related? For example, if he achieves X and Y he gets Z? Or does he have to achieve X in order to then move on to Y? Or did one event spark both goals? Or (for example), has he always hated two of his teachers and each of these two goals says , “So, there!” to the two teachers?

      IOW, if they are related, then you can be OK.

      • fragglewriter

        Thanks for the reply. I hope that I’m explaining this right.

        Two are external, but one of them is external value gained if X happens, then other is getting rid of Y, but realizes that he wants Y, and not X. I guess it’s really about the protag making the right choice.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Attended a seminar on comedy once.
    (just to see what it was all about.)
    John Cleese has described comedy as — watching someone watching someone behaving comically.
    If you get a chance, you might want to watch the original pilot for Seinfeld (and see why it wasn’t funny). Jerry Seinfeld is the comedian — so the thinking went that he should act funny and George would react to it. But it didn’t work.
    So they changed it around. George acted comically — and Jerry reacted to it.

    • Greg

      Yeah, the pilot episode is definitely not the best. That’s the single Seinfeld episode I will consider not watching whenever it comes on TV. But I usually do just because it feels like I’m watching some weird version of Seinfeld if it had been filmed in the 70s or something. Their hairstyles are so different that it almost feels like a surreal experience.

      Anyway, I think any TV show writer can learn a lot from Seinfeld and the obstacles Seinfeld and David encountered trying to get that show to stay on air before it became big. Many people assume it was always popular, but it didn’t become the show everyone talked about until the episode in which the 4 of them made the masturbation pact. That was so edgy that it got people talking. NBC had blocked their edgier ideas up to that point which was probably the main reason it had not caught on earlier.

      The lesson I’ve learned from Seinfeld (and Curb Your Enthusiasm) is to write humor that almost anyone can relate to whether they are an American teenager living in Malibu or a Muslim lawyer living in Afghanistan. At a certain point, social situational comedy is relatable across cultures. Everyone can relate to the awkward situations David gets himself into in Curb, and everyone can relate to the worlds of Independent George and Relationship George in Seinfeld.

      I could write books about this, so I’ll stop now.

  • maxi1981

    Hey Carson, Could we at some point in the near future get a 10 screenwriting lessons article from either an Oliver Stone movie (e.g. The Untouchabels, Platoon, Savages, Natural Born Killers, Wall Sreet) I was going to suggest also a David Fincher movie but you did Fight Club not long ago. Would be great to see a screenwriting article of some sort on Se7en or The Game.

  • gazrow

    “Torture your main character in a comedy whenever and wherever possible”

    This is great advice. One thing I like to do when writing scripts, particularly comedies, is to create scenes were my protagonist’s worst nightmares come true.

    I think I did this to good effect in my broad comedy: Male-Order Bride. The protagonist’s fatal flaw is that he is homophobic. So you can imagine his horror when he inadvertently buys a mail-order bride who turns out to be a gay Russian man!

    Later after unknowingly having his drink spiked with Viagra, he winds up at a gay nightclub with a huge bulge in his trousers and dozens of gay men swooning and drooling over him – his worst nightmare! Scenes like these are fun to write and force the main character to confront his fatal flaw!

    Torturing your main character is fun! Good stuff, Carson!

    • Poe_Serling

      Hey g-
      You’ve been ‘offline’ too long… I was thinking you might’ve ran off with Mrs. S. ;-)

      • gazrow

        Hey Poe –

        Good to be back! Moved to a new apartment and was without broadband for over a month! It drove me nuts!

        Not all bad though – managed to finish the rewrite of ‘offline’!

  • gazrow

    Have to say I love Ben Stiller! My favorite film of his is: There’s Something About Mary. A true classic! That said, my favorite Stiller performance is in: Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. He’s absolutely hilarious in it!

  • jridge32

    Carson, great point about establishing stakes for the protagonist. I’ve seen “Meet the Parents” several times, and hadn’t considered that about the opening scene with the kids: it’s cute, yes, but we also know fom the beginning that marrying Pam is everything for Greg. So we know exactly what is at stake for this guy. Then, you can just throw obstacles at him left and right. Which, as writer, is fun as hell.

  • maxi1981

    Ben stiller is funny but i would say that De Niro and Hoffman steal the show in the Focker movies, Stiller is outclassed by both of these great actors. If it wasn’t for Hoffman and De Niro the trilogy wouldn’t would be nowhere near as god as it. Stiller was good in the early days, but he’s slowly but surely in decline. Tower Heist was awful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.walker.3597 Todd Walker

    Okay, there was one thing in this that perplexed me from the get go: Why didn’t he just leave the moment Jack started putting him down big time, wouldn’t by the end of Act I he’d get fed up. Of course he’s forced to leave around Act III but would you stand for that, and is how the story went for the character plausible?

    10) When should you NOT introduce new characters, like what’s the stopping point for that?

    9) Goes back to my original question, if some boyfriend of your daughters destroyed the ashes of your dear departed mom, and you are ex-CIA Jack, wouldn’t you yell “get out!” ?

    8) Should it have been that subtle, why not have itty bitty clues, not enough that we’d notice off the bat, but just enough to make us think he has a more serious job?