Whats So Funny

What’s So Funny? The Inspiration Behind Directing Comedy

September 2, 2020 A Special Projects Committee Virtual Event

Comedy is a collaborative medium and many pieces have to align for something to be funny. Comedy directors often work behind the scenes to make that collaboration sharper and funnier. On September 2, that work was illuminated during the DGA Special Projects Committee’s virtual event, What’s So Funny? The Inspiration Behind Directing Comedy.

In a conversation moderated by DGA Award-winning Director Paul Feig (The Office), Directors Anya Adams (GLOW), Miguel Arteta (Like a Boss), Pamela Fryman (One Day at a Time), Nisha Ganatra (The High Note) and Linda Mendoza (Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready) discussed the Director’s role in creating comedy on features, episodic television, multi-cam and single cam productions, as well as the individual inspirations behind their work.

In his welcome to the online audience, Feig opened with the central questions, “What makes something funny? What inspires us as directors? What tools do we bring to the table and how can we hone our humor skills? We’ll discuss all of this and more today.”

Speaking about rehearsals, Arteta admitted, “I’m scared of it because I think there’s nothing more terrifying to an actor than when you do a rehearsal and they see in your face, ‘That’s it! That’s perfect! That’s what I’m looking for!’ because then they’re just gonna be the whole time trying to see if they can get back to that. So, I like doing rehearsals to break the ice and not let them get anywhere, and I make it very clear to people, ‘We’re not trying to find anything. We’re just getting words out.’”

Mendoza also delved into the subject of working with actors. “Here’s what I realized. All actors really want to know is that you know why you’re asking them to do something. And it better not be for a camera move because they don’t wanna hear that. They wanna know why they’re doing it, what part of their character would do that.”

Fryman spoke about issues she thought were essential to the comedy directing process, especially given the current environment. “Kindness. Being respectful. Understanding that everybody’s there because they’re talented in their own way and you don’t have to teach anybody what to do. You just have to guide them in a way. And in a perfect scenario, they think it’s their idea. At least for me. It’s funny because I’m imagining going back to work in a couple of weeks and not hugging people. I don’t know about anybody else, but I don’t know how I’m going to do that.”

Ganatra gave a concrete example of how she navigates difficult scenes. “In Late Night, there were a couple of scenes where an actor is crying and it’s also funny. And I think those are always interesting and challenging to get the tone of the crying right because they’re crying for a reason that is moving and real. But you also want the audience to be laughing, but also feeling something at the crying.”

Asked her opinion on the future of comedy, Adams said, “There are so many more influences that are affecting comedy now with TikTok and Instagram and all these things. It’s no longer this one medium that’s kind of morphing into something. It’s like the entire human race that is involved in all these other platforms that are feeding into what it’s gonna morph into eventually. I don’t know what it’s gonna be, but it’s exciting.”

During the conversation, Feig also included questions submitted by the online audience.

See video from this event in the gallery below.

Paul FeigPaul Feig (moderator)

Feig’s directorial credits include the feature films Last Christmas, A Simple Favor, Ghostbusters, Spy, Bridesmaids, The Heat, Unaccompanied Minors, I Am David and Life Sold Separately; the movies for television People in New Jersey, Ronna & Beverly, Early Bird; and episodes of Nurse Jackie, Bored to Death, Weeds, Arrested Development and Freaks and Geeks. He won the 2008 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy Series for his "Dinner Party" episode of The Office. Feig has been a DGA member since 2000 and has served as a member of the Western Directors Council.            

 Anya AdamsAnya Adams
A DGA member since 2003, Adams’ directing credits include the pilot and second episode of the Netflix drama, Ginny & Georgia; episodes of Black-ish, Single Parents, Fresh Off the Boat, The Good Place, Charmed, Bless This Mess, GLOW, American Princess, Speechless and the short, Lemonade Mafia.

Miguel Arteta Miguel Arteta
In addition to Like A Boss, Arteta’s credits include the feature films Star Maps, Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids, Beatriz at Dinner, Duck Butter and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day; the movie for television Rita; the pilots for Famous in Love, The Carrie Diaries; and episodes of Freaks and Geeks, Six Feet Under, Enlightened, American Horror Story, Room 104, Forever, Succession, Getting On, Grace and Frankie, The New Normal and The Big C. He has been a DGA member since 1998 and currently serves as an alternate on the Western Directors Council.

 Pam FrymanPamela Fryman

A veteran multi-camera director, Fryman has directed over 600 episodes of television, including all but twelve episodes of the acclaimed series, How I Met Your Mother, as well as episodes of seminal comedies such as Frasier, Just Shoot Me, The King of Queens, Friends, Two and a Half Men and Norman Lear’s reimagined One Day at a Time. She has been nominated for four DGA Awards for her work on Frasier and Just Shoot Me, and recently earned a Primetime Emmy nomination for directing Live in Front of a Studio Audience: All in the Family and Good Times. Fryman has been a DGA member since 1984.

 Nisha GanatraNisha Ganatra

In addition to The High Note, Ganatra’s credits include the feature films Late Night, Fast Food High, Cake and Chutney Popcorn; the movie for television Pete’s Christmas; and episodes of Transparent, Code Academy, Better Things, You Me Her, Futurestates, Girls, Dear White People, Future Man, Mr. Robot, Shameless, Married, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Last Man on Earth, Love and Black Monday. Ganatra has been a DGA member since 2007.

Linda MendozaLinda Mendoza

A DGA Member since 1987, Mendoza started her directing career on The Chris Rock Show and The Bernie Mac Show. Her work has included episodes of 30 Rock, Men at Work, Scrubs, Gilmore Girls, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. She earned DGA Award nominations for her specials, Wanda Sykes: Not Normal (2019), Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize Celebrating David Letterman (2017),  Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House (2015) and Paul McCartney: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in Performance at The White House (2010)

About The Special Projects Committee

Special Projects is the educational and cultural arm of the Directors Guild of America, providing its members opportunities for creative exchange to advance their craft and celebrate the achievements of directors and their teams.

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