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The Funniest Choice

Jack Lemmon (SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, GRUMPY OLD MEN) was arguably one of the top 10 funniest actors in the past century.  His ability to turn a boring piece of dialogue into an unforgettable moment was unprecedented.  Billy Wilder, while directing THE APARTMENT, insisted his actors stick to the script- but allowed Jack to improvise a couple scenes because he trusted the man’s comedic instincts more than the dialogue on the page.

I recall Jack Lemmon being interviewed years ago about how he approaches a role.  One question in particular stuck out to me…

  • INTERVIEWER: “How are you consistently so funny?”

I’ll never forget his response (though I’m paraphrasing)…

  • JACK LEMMON: “It’s easy.  I think of 5 different ways to say something, and I pick the funniest.”

The genius is in it’s simplicity.

Not only is this a great acting tool… not only does it apply to comedy… but it’s also been invaluable tool for me as a writer, no matter what genre I’m working in; especially since the first thing that usually pops into a writer’s mind is derivative of something else.  This little gem can be used for dialogue, character names, locations — skies the limit!

Inherently, it helps with writer’s block as it forces the writer to switch to his right-brain, free-thinking mode before making his decision in left-brain, editing mode.  Admittedly, I still catch myself stumbling over decisions…

  • ME: “What should I name this character…?  Let’s see, what’s a good name…?  A ‘cool guy’ name… This guy’s kind of gruff, so maybe- ‘Griff’?  No, I already know a ‘Griff’; he’ll never let me live that down…  Maybe- ‘Gr…’ Oh, fuck it, I’ll call him ‘Griff’ now and change it before my friend reads my script.”

But when I use Lemmon’s tool, I’m like…

  • ME: “Okay, this guy needs a name:  ’Griff, Terry, Jacob, Philip, Phil, Jackson, Jackie’…”

Hmm… well, it’s a start!  Nuts to random examples, here’s how I actually used this tool in practice…

For my pilot I wrote this summer I was looking for an appropriate location to stage the climax scene.  There were a few story constraints which helped narrow my focus; namely, my leads needed to be surrounded by cops (and cop cars), and I also had a smoke screen gag that would allow them to escape.  Upon completing the vomit pass of my script, this particular scene was set at an intersection outside another character’s store, which wrapped up their storyline nicely… but ultimately the setting of this scene left me unsatisfied for various reasons.  Namely, it felt visually stale, and, practically speaking, it sounded like a production nightmare.  I decided to spice up the setting, even if it meant having to adjust some story elements.

Next step, list out alternate possibilities…

  • Intersection
  • Parking Garage
  • Parking Lot (school, business?)
  • Hangar
  • Warehoue
  • Baseball Stadium

Trying to come up with a 100% original choice would be an exercise in futility as any conceivable location for a climactic scene in the crime genre has certainly been done before.  In fact, as I switch to ‘Critic Mode’ I can almost immediately quote dialogue from the movies that prompted these locations to come to mind.  Since total originality isn’t an achievable goal, I’ll settle for what is most appropriate for my story circumstances.

Ultimately I chose ‘Hangar’… I like it visually: the lone structure contrasted with the sky, the inner metallic surfaces, the propeller airplane (which incidentally lent the potential for my villain to make an escape).  I like how contained it is, giving a sense of my leads feeling trapped; but I also like the open space beyond the hangar for when they sneak past the cops.  It’s likely there’s a better choice out there but at least I’m satisfied for the moment.

Sometimes a writer needs to listen to her intuitive, inner genius and trust to write the story based on what strikes her in the moment.  But I find when reading my own work, if I don’t get giddy with excitement at having found the perfect choice, then I may have to consider using this tool; be it for locations, dialogue, character names, or wardrobe.

We can certainly credit Jack Lemmon’s innate talent for his illustrious career.  Some comedians would kill to have his instincts for delivery and timing.  But as he illustrates with his response on how he consistently makes funny choices, it’s comforting to know he’s also an artist who largely depends on ‘craft’.

Thanks for the tip, Jack!

~ JW





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