Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: Two assistants for high-profile workaholic bosses decide that the only way they’ll ever have free time again is if they get their bosses to fall in love with each other.
About: If I see one more article about Jon Freaking Snow on the internet, I may have to murder the season of winter. He’s alive. No he isn’t. Yes he is. No he isn’t. I even had to suffer through an SNL Jon Snow skit! I don’t watch Game of Thrones anymore after I realized that nothing ever happened on it. Why am I bringing this up? Because none other than Denareus Targarian (no, not spell-checking) is playing the lead in Set It Up, a script that made the Black List last year, was purchased by MGM this year, and is the break through screenplay for its scribe, Katie Silberman
Writer: Katie Silberman
Details: 111 pages
A couple of years ago, female comedies were the hottest thing in town. It was the trend that kept on trending. As long as you had a reasonably fun concept and a woman in the lead role, your script vaulted to the top of the pile. This is how Hollywood works, folks. All scripts are not given equal treatment. They are given a priority status that aligns with what the industry is looking for at the moment.
Biopic – top of the pile
Torture Porn – bottom of the pile
Pure action – top of the pile
Dramas not based on a book – bottom of the pile
We are now at a fork in the road with female-led comedies, in the female-led film in general. Even the bread-and-butter female-led films – the young adult novels – are showing weakness. With the last Hunger Games stumbling. With nobody going to see these Divergent movies anymore. And with the next 5th wave not even being a blip on the radar…
So where will this all come to a head? Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters is the crown jewel of this movement. It is the film, the franchise, that is holding the torch for the female comedy. It’s betting a story that doesn’t dramatically or creatively need four women in lead roles – they’re just there because of this trend – will entertain audiences. And if this movie isn’t received well, prepare for the studios to re-think things. Maybe not on the action front yet (I hear that Star Wars movie with a female lead did okay). But definitely on the comedy front.
27 year-old Harper Hall is a sports enthusiast who works at one of the most popular online sports blogs, run by her evil obsessed boss, 39 year-old Kirstin. To give you an idea of how evil Kirstin is, after making Harper spend two days returning an expensive dress and somehow getting them to refund the full amount, despite not having a return policy, Kirstin tells her she’s changed her mind and wants the dress back.
Working in the same building across from Harper is 26 year-old Charlie, who works for the devil incarnate, Rick, a 45 year-old psychopath who loves to hurl things at his window, even if they’re giant and cost a lot of money, like computers. Like Kirstin, Rick doesn’t allow Charlie a single second to spend on his own life.
One night, when Harper and Charlie bump into each other after desperately trying to get late-night food for their bosses, they exchange horror stories and come up with a solution. If they could somehow set their single bosses up with each other, maybe they’ll fall in love, get on normal schedueles, which would free up real-world time for Harper and Charlie!
The two coordinate the old “stuck in the elevator” trick, and are amazed when the two bastions of bitchiness somehow make a connection, all while a freaked out unhealthily claustrophobic UPS guy strips off his clothes, opens the package he’s delivering and pees in a bowl (hey, elevator claustrophobia is real, my brother has it).
Naturally, things start to go wrong. These are two terrible people, their bosses. So they’re going to get in irrational arguments, do irrational things, and this requires Harper and Charlie to manipulate the relationship in the background to keep the bosses together. And wouldn’t you know it, along the way, the two start to like each other. Maybe this is all going to work out after all……. yeah right.
There is another genre that goes to the bottom of that depressing priority pile that I didn’t mention. Romantic Comedy. There are a lot of theories on why the rom-com has died a slow painful death, but it may just be that there are no actors who currently fit the rom-com archetypes. We had Tom Hanks, then Hugh Grant, then Matthew McConaughey, and that was pretty much the end of it for the boys. When Julia and Sandra got too old, that was it for the girls.
If they can find actors that audiences love in these roles, the rom-com could have a comeback. And it looks like they’re pushing Emilia Clarke as one of those actors. She’s doing Me Before You before this. And then this one. Hey, she’s pretty damn adorable so who knows.
Okay, the trick with the rom-com is – since it’s THE MOST CLICHE OF ALL THE GENRES – to look for an angle that hasn’t been explored yet. Personally, I think you need to turn this genre upside-down to get any traction out of it. But absent of that, don’t give us what we’ve already seen.
I was watching a reality show recently and one of these clueless reality women wanted to start her own “online magazine.” And because she had connections, she was able to pitch a huge tech investor in New York. After she pitched it, he stared at her with these impatient “I’m-losing-money-every-second-I’m-in-this-room-talking-to-you” eyes and said, “So, how is it any different from other online magazines?” She stared back blankly, clearly only expecting praise for her idea. She then stumbled out something like “Well, um, well, it’s like… well, it would be me who’s doing it. So nobody else is me…” It went downhill from there.
The point is that too many screenwriters (especially new ones) approach screenwriting the same way. They aren’t thinking, “How is this different from what other people are doing?” And therefore they give us the same old shit.
Now do I love the idea of two assistants setting their bosses up so they have more time in their life? It’s a bit of a forced concept. But I haven’t seen it before. So at the very least, I know the writer is approaching things from an angle that’s going to provide us with some new situations.
And that’s something that writers don’t realize. Coming up with a fresh concept or new angle isn’t just about possessing a shiny new object. It’s using the object to shine a light on scene-options we haven’t seen before. Because that’s one of the hardest things to do in screenwriting – come up with scenes we haven’t seen before.
If you go with a standard premise (Man’s wife gets kidnapped and he has to get her back within 24 hours), you’ve ensured that you’re going down a road that doesn’t provide any unique new scenes. Because there have been too many writers there first.
But once you come in with a new angle… Maybe the man is deaf. Maybe it’s the wife who has to find her husband. Maybe this takes place on Mars in the future. Now your script goes down different roads where other writers haven’t been before and therefore, there are all these new scenes available to you.
Getting back to this script, coming at it from a fresh angle is just the beginning. It’s an important beginning. But you still have to execute. I’ve seen writers come up with killer comedy concepts who just didn’t have the comedy DNA or the experience to pull off the idea. Silberman is not one of those writers.
The structure here is very tight. The characters always have some checkpoint to reach. That’s important, and it’s something we talked about last week with our “13 Week Script Challenge.” If you have checkpoints in the script, you’re always writing towards something, which means the characters are going to be active, they’re going to have a purpose, and the script doesn’t feel like one of those, “Writing by the seat of my pants” thingeys where you can tell the writer’s going to run out of gas (ideas) at any moment.
With the structure in place, it’s now about writing tight scenes with sharp witty dialogue. And this, unfortunately, is one of the hardest things to teach in screenwriting. I actually go back and forth on whether it can be taught. Sharp witty dialogue has an innate personal quality to it. You have to almost be that way in real life to pull it off.
Some of that is understanding how to set up and pay off a joke. Some of it is knowing how to come into a scene late and leave early. Some of it is knowing how to move the plot forward while your characters are making jokes. But in the end, it’s really about, “Are you funny on the page?” And unfortunately, most screenwriters aren’t.
So how do you solve this? I don’t have a universal answer. But what I noticed with Silberman is that she seems like she’s having fun. When comedy isn’t working, the writer tends to be focusing on the technical aspects of the script – if we’re arcing the character correctly, moving this piece of exposition along invisibly. And while that stuff does need to happen, we can’t see you making it happen. This is comedy. You have to have fun on the page and really let yourself go. This script is available on the internet so you can check it out yourself. Just notice how Silberman feels like she’s having fun and letting go.
Ironically, that’s the whole point of the outline and the checkpoints we talked about in our Week 1 Post. Because if you can get those out of the way early, you don’t have to think about them. You can think about making the scenes as funny as they can be.
I’ll say this about Set It Up. It’s not perfect. But it’s a lot better than our last comedy spec, Stuber. So you can read those two and get a sense of what good comedy looks like on the page.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: One of the joke types that gets the easiest laugh in a comedy script is the adjective-character. You just name a character “funny adjective [Name].” So “Weird Frank” or “Clepto John” or, in this script, “Creepy Tim.” Not only does it get a chuckle, but these characters, because they’re just a name, tend to be the easiest for the reader to understand and remember. They don’t need any description. You immediately get them.