So, how hard is comedy? “I can do Manchester by the Sea,” Chris Rock said to the producer of Kenneth Longergan’s much-heralded new indie film today. “But Kenneth can’t do Pootie Tang.”
Rock was joking – probably – but the upsmanship during the “Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard” panel discussion at the Produced By New York conference made it hard to tell. Moderator Chris Moore, whose producing career spans American Pie, Good Will Hunting and the new Manchester, tossed the comic gauntlet by recalling the difficulty of convincingly depicting Pie‘s Stiffler downing a vile concoction of beer and Kevin.
Stuart Cornfeld, producer of Tropic Thunder, raised the ante: Not only did his star Ben Stiller have to get a laugh by tossing a 12-year-old child off a burning bridge, but costar Robert Downey had to perform in blackface. Even Stiller, Cornfeld said, was worried about that one.
“Ben was wrapped up in all the conversations about, Is this pushing the line, is this in bad taste, and I was like, this is a great f*cking joke. Let’s not lose it.” Stiller, said Cornfeld, was convinced after Dreamworks hired make-up legend Rick Baker to photoshop a convincing picture of an African American Downey.
Producer M. Blair Breard (Louie, Better Things, Baskets) said that the degree of difficulty doesn’t always translate into laughs. Recalling two episodes of the Louis C.K. series, she said, “We made a hurricane in Season Four and nobody cared. The thing everyone talked about from that season was Louie’s conversation with Sarah Baker in the episode called ‘So Did the Fat Lady.'”
So we’ll take Rock’s advice to let talent do what it does (“Give Louis C.K. what he wants”) and present the panel’s words verbatim.
Chris Rock, on knowing your audience: “If you can’t make people you look like laugh, there’s something wrong. Some people aren’t making comedy for me. Like Samantha Bee – ok, this is not for me, this is for a specific group of women.”
Stuart Cornfeld, on Dodgeball and getting a joke: “Nobody wanted to do Dodgeball. Everybody kept saying, Why does it have to be dodgeball? The best script I’ve got right now is a Zoolander treatment of the mime world, and I’m in meetings where people say, But Stuart, no one likes mime. And I’m like, I know that. You can’t explain a joke.”
Chris Rock, on Dodgeball: “It’s like a Katy Perry song! One of the best pop comedies ever. If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball! [Laughs hysterically]
M. Blair Breard, on a producer’s role in comedy: “Just get out of the way.”
Chris Rock, on a producer’s role in comedy: “If my producer totally gets it, the joke’s too old. Sometimes not getting it is good.”
Chris Moore, on a producer’s role in comedy [addressing Rock]: “So there’s no role for a producer on a comedy? [Points to the Producers Guild of America logo on the panel’s backdrop.] Guess somebody forgot to point that out.”
Chris Rock, on drama vs. comedy: “Take out Sean Connery and put in Clint Eastwood and you’ve got the same movie. Now try that with Talladega Nights and Will Ferrell and see what happens. People will get fired.”
M. Blair Breard, on improv: With Louis, not one word is improv. I’ve seen him go back and say, No it’s a there not a the.” [C.K. made an exception, Breard said, for Joan Rivers.]
Chris Rock, on improv: “I always say the best improv is the one you thought of yesterday. I like to be prepared.”