Judd Apatow made a great television show and a few brilliant moderate budget comedies. Then he painted his dick and convinced the world it was a whistle for instant success.
You know how sometimes you think of a hilarious joke, comeback or response and then stutter through it so badly you wish you could jump in the DeLorean, rewind time and give it another go? Well, that’s how Pineapple Express and Step Brothers and Superbad feel--except the exact opposite. Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, John C. Reilly, and countless others have unintentionally changed the landscape of how comedy scripts are written, and in most cases, this trend towards obscenity-driven improvisation comedy hasn’t been for the better.
At its core, the notion seems logical enough. If a director could shoot twenty different takes of one scene in which the actors slightly alter dialogue, the resulting film would be funnier and more realistic since all involved could simply choose the most humorous lines and edit them all together, while still keeping actor reactions fresh and genuine. Unfortunately, the idea is a fallacy of logic, and more often than not, the method produces a less amusing quotient.
I know I seem like a giant hypocrite and the last person in the world who should be arguing against swear driven improvisation considering my life is one long series of Archie Bunker-like fuck bomb-filled rants, but hear me out before casting judgment or vindictively smiting my anti-Apatow Gang rhetoric. Consider this next sentence: Will Ferrell has found himself atop the comedic apex, but if his steady stream of goof off, C- rate buffoonery continues, history will likely categorize him more as a Bohemian Nero, who fiddled around while everything we love about comedy burned to the ground than a modern-day Samson who shook the establishment’s foundation, while exiting beneath a wood pile of glory. That’s not something I’d ever churn out in everyday conversation, but it’s polished and clean, carrying some pizzazz behind it.
Now let me take a few swipes at improvising the exact same idea in conversational language I might actually force out in real life. Will Ferrell was once the goddamn reincarnation of John Belushi hilarity, but his fucking circle jerk of ridiculous references and improvisational free association has fucking sucked out humor’s tangy jiz and left the world with fucking Family Guy nonsense. Will Ferrell used to be my fucking hero until he went all Marion Jones on me and failed his goddamn lift test. If Will Ferrell spent less fucking time trying to fucking reference Winger and Dylan Thomas and Yoko Ono and other douches who haven’t been thought of in decades, he might achieve something beyond just goddamn comedy of the absurd.
So, which Will Ferrell sentence was the best? That depends on what‘s important to you. The Family Guy line is probably the funniest. It feels real and spontaneous, but the first sentence most adequately expresses the viewpoint I’m trying to espouse. If Steve Carell was writing this article, he’d chose Family Guy but comedies of yore would definitely roll with Samson’s wood pile of glory.
I’m not trying to say improv is a bad thing. It’s a great skill for actors to have and should be used on occasion, but Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly doing thirty seven takes of the same scene only leads to disjointed films in which recurring themes and subtle callbacks are an impossibility. Maybe that’s what America wants. I don’t. I’ll sacrifice a few laughs for coherence any day.