Funny Guys: Garry Marshall & Bob Brunner on Comedy
Garry Marshall and Bob Brunner discuss writing comedy, the importance of pauses, and taking notes in good humor.
By Robert Arnett.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting Volume 6, #3 (1999).
As a producer, director, writer, and actor, Garry Marshall found success first in television, then in feature films. He has worked with many partners, but Bob Brunner goes back with Marshall not only to The Odd Couple TV show but to the ’50s when they both worked as copy boys at the New York Daily News—an experience that both Bronx natives contend still influences their writing today.
Marshall went on to become a gag writer for stand-up comics and made frequent appearances on television as an actor. He wrote for Jack Paar and then Joey Bishop.
In Hollywood, Marshall teamed up with Jerry Belson to write for such classic shows as The Danny Thomas Show, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I Spy. As producers, Marshall and Brunner were a part of the team that made hits out of The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and all its spin-offs (including Mork and Mindy).
In 1982, Marshall directed his first feature film, Young Doctors in Love. Since then he has directed a string of successful films, including The Flamingo Kid, Nothing in Common, Beaches, Pretty Woman, and Frankie and Johnny, The Other Sister, and Runaway Bride.
On all of these films, Marshall involved himself deeply with the screenplay, rewriting most with partner Brunner. Creative Screenwriting met with Marshall and Brunner in 2002 at Marshall’s recently renovated Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
Garry Marshall: What’s the name of your publication?
It’s Creative Screenwriting.
Marshall: Creative Screenwriting? Oh! We can’t talk about Happy Days. [beat/rim shot] We used to say on Happy Days, “Some day we’ll write a screenplay.” Right?
Bob Brunner: Sure. Let’s get out of this business and into the movies. No. I loved TV when I was in it.
Marshall: In TV, you always got paid. TV was always the best business. But every TV writer has a screenplay in his drawer. I know when I was on Murphy Brown as an actor, they had them!
Brunner: I meet young writers coming out here and they’ll talk to me for advice. I’ll say, “Get a job in sitcoms. Get into television, it’s so good.” They say, “Ahh, I don’t want to whore out.” I say, “You’ll get very rich. Then come home and at night write your screenplay; weekends, write your screenplay.”
Why not live comfortably? You don’t have to live in a garret in Paris. Garry wrote for stand-up when we were copy boys and then he got a job on The Tonight Show when Joey Bishop used to fill in. He used to ask the boss for time off when we were taking home $42 a week. He was going in to write for The Tonight Show and what was it $1,500 or something?
Brunner: $400 versus $42.
Marshall: We could add. The first things we wrote, other than these jokes for someone else, was when I came home and told him I got a job on a show with Shari Lewis. He [Brunner] didn’t like that, writing Lamb Chop and Hush Puppy jokes.
How do you write jokes for comedians?
Marshall: For Jack Paar you wrote five pages of jokes a day. You come in at three o’clock and you read the paper.
Brunner: He liked daughter jokes, too.
Marshall: Not really jokes, anecdotes that sounded true. I think jokes are the juxtaposition of words that create a surprise.
Brunner: Jay Leno does the same thing, you know.
Marshall: It’s the same. It’s more wit than wordplay. “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side!” “Del Harris was fired by the Lakers and as he walked out with his pink slip he saw Dennis Rodman coming in wearing one!” It’s the same balance of words.
Phil Foster, who I remember, changed a lot of it. He started to tell not just jokes, but incidents of his life. Now all the comics do that. They would preface every joke with “This is the truth.” It wasn’t the truth!
I was trained with nightclub comics that yelled in your face. They screamed at you. But they’re ready to go on the stage, so if you take affront at their screaming you don’t write anything.
While they’re screaming, you’ve got to come up with three more lines to give them when they stop screaming. Then they can go out there. When we wrote at the New York Daily News, there was noise, people yelling, carrying on. It never bothered me.
I was a journalism major at Northwestern. I got a Bachelor’s, which was very nice, but mostly I learned to write at the paper. It was good background for screenplays and rewriting—a lot of people can’t rewrite at all.
Did the journalism training give you a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude?
Marshall: No question about it. Those were damn good years! We sat together and we saw men come in drunk, people typing lines and creating under pressure. Pressure, deadlines, and no walking-around-looking-at-the-moon. If you’re serious, you sit there and write, come three o’clock you got to hand in the jokes.
With a lot of writing teams you can have somebody who writes and somebody who hustles. I always had other guys hustling. I didn’t hustle so good. That’s why we wrote The Other Sister on spec. We couldn’t sell it to anybody, because we didn’t pitch it and ourselves very well. Once we got it on paper, then we sold it.
So my advice is always if you’re not a good talker, a pitcher, if you don’t have the pizzazz to dazzle studio heads, write it! Our strength, as a team, a lot of times, is that we put it on paper. Then we didn’t have to talk anyone into it.
Certain stories you can’t pitch. Life Is Beautiful won an Academy Award. No one’s going to say, “I’ve got this slapstick idea about the holocaust.” Because they’ll say, “What else ya got?”
But that’s what they said when I told them The Other Sister is a wonderful love story about a family dealing with this kid. “What else ya got? What else ya got?” So we had to go do it on spec. Once we wrote it, they got it.
Sometimes, with screenplay writers, you write it and the studio still doesn’t get it. But then you get it to a star and the star gets it and then they say, “Oh, well, it must be brilliant!” and they bring it in. We couldn’t even get it to a star, so we just wrote it. We did 92 rewrites! I don’t know how many. We ran out of colors! We’d start all over again.
There are three different drafts of a screenplay in the development process. The first screenplay is for the studio, when they say, “Okay, we like this.”
The second screenplay you write so the actors can read it, or so you can get an actor to do it. You change the screenplay so one part is better, so you can get a better actor.
Then the third screenplay is, “You can’t shoot this screenplay on this budget!” You’ve got to rewrite the whole screenplay again, for the budget.
So, we have the studio screenplay, we have the actor’s screenplay, then we have the budget screenplay, and then, finally, we have the shooting screenplay, which is a whole other screenplay. We just did a picture that takes place in California, but we wrote The Other Sister for Chicago and then they said, “You’re shooting in San Francisco.” So we rewrote the whole thing again.
Who decided to shoot it in San Francisco?
Marshall: The man giving you the money, you see? They said, “You can shoot it in Chicago, but you can’t shoot it for the budget we’re giving you.”
Brunner: We were dying for snow.
Marshall: We wanted snow. Our idea was, a very filmic screenplay idea, that in the middle of the snow—first of all, not only did she have a cheap, little wedding, but it snowed on her wedding.
So we had this shot where there’s snow coming down and through the snow come the red uniforms of a marching band. It’s a beautiful shot. They said, “Yeah, very good. You can’t do that. It costs too much money. Why do you got to go to Chicago? Make it San Francisco! Everything looks the same.”
We finally found a hill in San Francisco— it’s not as good as the snow, but it was a good reveal. The reveal was over the hill and it still got the audience teared up. So, the shooting script is a whole other script.
Do you ever find that you lose the story in those rewrites?
Brunner: I try not to. You try and keep the story and then give them their silly little changes. Moving it to San Francisco, that didn’t change the story. We still had the love story and the drama.
Marshall: I think if you’re clever, you can protect a lot of your work.
Brunner: Trick ’em!
Marshall: It’s subtle. Sometimes, the actor reads it and says, “I’ll do it, if you change this,” and sometimes no actors read it but you know this part is not a part an actor is going to want because the agency tells you it’s not big enough. So you make it actor-desirable as a rewrite; you make the part so interesting the actor will do it.
For getting Diane Keaton for The Other Sister, we wrote in a beautiful wardrobe, because she hadn’t had a good wardrobe in a while. That’s an actor’s rewriting.
The great sadness of the great artistic form of screenwriting is many stars base their choice of doing your movie on one scene. You want a scene that gets them. You never know what scene that is.
I think Juliette Lewis liked the scene where she broke down at the Christmas party, because she felt she could do that. She’s a great dramatic actress. The comedy, she was nervous about.
Giovanni Ribisi liked The Joy of Sex scene, the love scene, and some of the comedy scenes, that’s why he liked it. He got to play this kind of character and be funny. She was afraid of the funny. So, again, you never know.
Brunner: There weren’t a lot of acting notes on this script.
Marshall: All of Diane’s notes were, “If I send the kid away for no reason, I’m a mean mom and you’ve got to help me show that she was destructive in a subtle way. Sending a child away is one of the most difficult things a mother can do, so, at least, motivate me.” But I’ve had rewrites that were… Ohh!
Brunner: Actors try to tailor a script to their talent, because they’re afraid that what you’ve written might be too much for them. They’re not sure they can act this or that.
Marshall: You always get it into the rewrites. We did rewrites on films I directed, we didn’t always get credit, but we got paid very well. A lot of the big guys, the Bo Goldmans of the industry, they make much more money on rewrites, and they get no credit.
Brunner: When you’re rewriting you have to respect the writer who broke the page. If it wasn’t for that, you wouldn’t be doing those rewrites. A blank page, that’s the toughest thing in the world.
Marshall: Yeah. We had written a nice scene where the daughter has to stand up to the mother, but I kept worrying, wearing my director’s hat, that the scene was not interesting enough. You know, they’re just screaming at each other, just back and forth.
I thought, directorially, we had the country club, so we had the golf course, so that’s why the water went off, to give it a little something.
So, a lot of times, when you write the screenplay you write things that the director might like. A director might direct a film because of just one or two scenes. So you’ve got to make every scene as great as you can make it, because you don’t know which one they’re going to pick, which one they’re going to fall in love with.
When a script comes across your desk can you see a writer writing a scene appealing to you? A Garry Marshall scene?
Marshall: Well, I don’t know if he’s writing to appeal to me, but they can write it to do things to directors. They’ll say, “Oh, this is a scene I’ll know how to shoot.”
I remember, nobody would make the movie The Flamingo Kid. They said, “Who’d want to shoot people playing gin rummy? What is that? That’s not visual.” Me, I saw a whole scene, because I was at that job. I saw that movie, and I think all directors see something in a screenplay that makes them do it.
When you’re writing, you can’t think of it, because you’ll go crazy. I think I used the example because we trained ourselves to write. He was a producer, I was a producer. We know what it is if the writing’s not there.
In Nothing in Common, it said in the screenplay, “Tom Hanks, whatever his name—David—walks into his office and goes into all the cubicles and has a witty line for everybody and gets to his office.” There are no witty lines written! It just says witty lines and glib remarks.
Marshall: Ad-libs! And now Tom comes and says, “Where are my ad-libs?” So we went in the back and wrote twenty-five so he could use seven.
That sounds like your stand-up writing experience kicking in.
Marshall: Yeah, we can punch stuff up. Movies are so different. Movie actors will say, “I don’t want to do it with dialogue, I want do it with a look.” Well, some can’t do it with a look. The studio wants the dialogue.
You know, you say it in TV, you see it in movies, you think it in theatre. All of it is just pretentious. They say that because they don’t have much to say, but there is an element of truth to it. I don’t know, I think lining up the story is the hardest thing.
Brunner: The story’s tough. The easiest humor is character. Take All in the Family. Archie came in every night, held out his hand, and said, “Edith!” And she ran and got him a beer. If you have him come in and hold out his hand they’d laugh as long as he sat there. It’s not a joke. It’s just that character.
I remember seeing that set, Archie’s chair at the Smithsonian in DC, and, in a way, that’s funny too—just seeing that set.
Marshall: Fonzie’s jacket is right next to that chair. You didn’t mention that! You didn’t see it? It was right there! [laughs]
I think it’s that we started in 1959 and we worked out a shorthand. Because we come from the comedy world, we think we can write anything funny.
It’s how to make it special that’s rough, you know? If it’s too general, “So they go out on the date!” “On a date? What is it?” “So we do a funny date, da dah, da dah.”
And I’m the big guy that says, “What date is it?” They say, “The date?” “What is it?” “Is it Christmas?” “Is it New Years, or something? What?” “Halloween! I got it!” Boom! Then you don’t have to talk anymore. You know what to write.
Brunner: Look how charming that love scene was because we had a Halloween dance. The dog and the swan kissing, I think it was charming.
Marshall: The script said, “And so the boy in the dog suit kisses the girl in the swan costume.” That was in the directions. And the cinematographer [Dante Spinotti] saw that and said, “I love this moment. I’m going to make a thing there.” That inspired him! It didn’t just say, “The boy and the girl kiss, ha ha, funny.”
Brunner: We just sold the stage direction.
Marshall: To me it’s very tricky, because words are so important in a screenplay— the words, the pauses—there should be a pause class: Pause 101.
In TV, you’ve got to keep the pace moving. In movies, there’s nineteen different ways you can make it happen: with the camera, moving the camera, without the camera, with dialogue, without dialogue, with noises, with music, bop, bop, bop. It’s great that you have so many tools in screenplay writing, but you’ve got to know which ones to use.
In your experience, is there a clear line between TV and movie ideas?
Marshall: It’s hard. A lot of people we pitched The Other Sister to said it was a TV movie. And we were aware that it could go that way, because they do those kinds of things—disease of the week, murder of the week.
We felt we could make it a little more special because they never do it with the humor we wanted to do this with. On the other hand, we know that unless we got a movie cast they wouldn’t want to do this.
Brunner: That really helped, the cast.
Marshall: There’s something in the movie that’s different from a TV movie. It’s cloudy lines between TV and movies. It didn’t used to be, but now because Showtime and HBO put up so much money for a TV movie, you can’t tell with those things. They make TV movies for more than they make Independents.
Again, I believe you have to combine your efforts as a team. You’ve got to get the screenplay out of the way early or you don’t know what to shoot. There’s no star until you get that screenplay going.
With some screenplays we see there’s, like, nine writers credited. We know the nine writers didn’t work together, like they write in TV, where they’re all at the table. I don’t know. Somebody just better do the rewrites.
This thing I just shot [Runaway Bride], it had six writers. All women.
Brunner: That had been kicking around for a while.
Marshall: Yeah, years. They sold Runaway Bride, you got to remember, facts of life, The Other Sister cost $30 million, Runaway Bride cost $73 million. They sold a $73 million screenplay on one scene and it was pretty obvious. The opening scene of Runaway Bride is of a girl riding madly on a horse through the woods in a wedding dress. That was their opening scene. Everybody that read that first scene said, “We’ve got to make this picture.”
Then the rest of the script is a little thin, so it took about seven years to get it right. That opening scene, I could tell you they were going to make that movie. And the title, Runaway Bride. There it is, you got a movie!
That’s what you call a high premise. Mentally retarded other sister, a little lower premise. There are no rules, you can make each a great movie. I think what’s gotten us through is that a lot of screenplay writers quit. They just can’t take all the notes and all the nonsense. But we’ve been friends a long time and doing different jobs, and this and that.
Brunner: It’s that TV training.
Marshall: Yeah! And we have a sense of humor about it. We go, “Thank you for your notes,” and then we go out in the parking lot [mimes a tantrum], “What!? What did the suit say? What is this!?” We just take it and roll with it. If you get too serious as a screenplay writer, go write a play! Forget it!
We were talking earlier about ageism. How does it feel when you walk in and the writers are so young?
Brunner: You walk in with a good screenplay, they don’t look at gray hair or anything. I know a guy in his early twenties, he sold a script for a million dollars! That was his first shot. They didn’t say, “Oh, he’s only in his twenties, what the fuck does he know?”
When you come onto a film, you two become the writers?
Marshall: Well, no, we don’t become the writers, we do some rewrites. I have some writers in there, I have punch-up writers that are all Guild jobs. It’s not literally punch-up, they just call it that. Set writers!? They’ve got names, they punch up the drama. Additional dialogue writers, whatever you want to call it. You get no credits, you just write.
But they have to have a category so they can pay you. I welcome writers on the set, if they don’t get in my way. He [Brunner] came on the set of The Other Sister, and on Runaway Bride I had the two original writers on the set; they flew to Maryland, they hung around and gave me a couple of notes.
Brunner: On The Other Sister we never stopped writing.
Marshall: Really! In the trailer, we’d go, “What the hell, this isn’t going to work! See if you can fill in here.”
Brunner: It’s funny, because in the movies they depict writing as such a glamorous thing—and there you are, leaning on the honey wagon, writing a scene.
Do you write general description or do you prefer to write with asides and commentary?
Brunner: I don’t do that because I watch that Actor’s Studio interview show and Christopher Walken says, “The first thing I do is cross out all the stage directions.” It’s the writer trying to be a director. Directors say that too. But sometimes you’ve got to put some indications in.
Marshall: Sometimes it’s good to write, “We go here, we go there,” because you’re probably getting read by a development person, who is bored, with nine scripts, and you’ve got to wake him up. So we’ve done that to wake someone up, but we’re not so much for that “We are” school.
You don’t want to say to the actor to accent here. Many times I’ve said, “All right, we’re sending it out to actors? Give me that!” We do a whole other rewrite. When you underline a word, you accent it in a sentence—we did that very rarely.
Once Tony Randall leaped up, threw the chair across the room, threw the script up in the air and walked out. We said, [whispering] “Maybe we shouldn’t underline.” So we didn’t underline after that.
Brunner: What I do is take out the acting things and put in fourteen exclamation points. And after the dialogue, about three.
Some people don’t know what to make of screenwriters.
Marshall: The rule of thumb is the producer is the king of television, the director with film, and the writer is the king of the theatre. And that has pretty much remained the same since the caveman. There are exceptions when people move around. It’s tradition that the writer is not heralded enough in the movie business. You know, the old style of movie writing where the dialogue was premiere is a little past now.
The first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan was more of man with a camera than a man writing words. He had to have a story, but a lot of films don’t even have that. Then there’s those films where they have Uzis and they just yell, “Yo! Over here!” And that can be aggravating. I think there are some literate screenplays, but the literate screenplay, unfortunately, is not as popular as it used to be.
Brunner: It really starts with the page. No matter what it is. You can’t act a blank page. You can’t direct a blank page, I don’t care who you are. It starts with the words.
Marshall: I think a lot of times when we’ve done rewrites on stuff, they don’t tell us, “Make it darker, make it sicker, make it grosser.” It’s just the opposite: “This is a little too sick, this is a little too gross. Can you lighten it up a little bit?”
We did a film, Beaches, with a wonderful writer, Iris Rainer. She wrote on Odd Couple for us, then she wrote this book and a screenplay about an actress dying; anyway her ending was too much.
The one friend got sick and they wanted to show the reality of it all. I mean I admire that and all, but the one friend got sick and was throwing up and having diarrhea and the other friend is cleaning it up.
It works fine in a novel, but it doesn’t work so well in the screenplay, so we had to call them and say, “See if you can do something graceful for the screenplay, because it’s ten feet tall on the screen.” Vomit ten feet tall on the screen is different than on a page!
That worked out pretty well, so they said to do the same thing with Pretty Woman, which had a much darker ending. The original writer [Jonathan Lawton] came in, then Barbara Benedict. Lawton wrote a screenplay which was terrific and he got credit, and he should have. But Barbara Benedict saved some of the moments for me. Action is not character. You have to have character.
We grew up on character. We kept saying, “He’s this, he likes marching bands, she likes this kind of music.” That’s character. We sat in a room and thought that out. “He rides a bike, he has a home, he has this on the walls, he has blah, blah, blah.” A lot of times you don’t get that, or you don’t get enough.
Pretty Woman, to me, the break came when Barbara Benedict said, “You know, they keep saying he’s a businessman, he’s a mogul, he’s involved with hostile takeovers—no one knows what that means exactly. But they know he has no vulnerability.”
We are pitching this around, you know, and she finally says, “Make him something human, like a person.” And she said, “Make him afraid of heights.” I’m afraid of heights, too, and as soon as she said that I had five scenes all set. I knew how to play all the scenes, how to write all the scenes, and I had the end. But that was it, one characteristic, one part of him, that made it so easy.
I mean, we do the sports, we do the that, we do the this, that’s why we analyze what they wear, their favorite color, what makes them nervous, what doesn’t make them nervous—this is what we go through with a screenplay, down to literally taking the alphabet and putting each character’s name next to a letter and saying, “Look at this! We’ve got four Cs! Four people with a C-name!” They’ll get mixed up.
Brunner: They do.
Marshall: Then you say, “Let’s have one L, one C.” We always learned to do it that way. A lot of people just write. That’s great. We don’t do that. We’ve got to find a way to do it, to make sure certain things are in the character. So, they’re usually asking me and Bob to lighten something up.
Did you do that with Frankie and Johnny too?
Marshall: First, Terrence McNally wrote the screenplay after they said he couldn’t write it. I said he could. I said, “Why don’t you think he can write it? It’s his play, why wouldn’t he want to write the screenplay?” I said, “It’s his own play, he’ll figure it out.”
So, there are only two people in the play; in the movie there were fifty. I thought he fleshed it out very well. We were accused of hiring too pretty a girl to play the part, but I don’t think so, I thought she was right. And I think the point was a pretty girl who gave up on everything was as sad as an average person.
People thought Michelle Pfeiffer was too pretty for the job, others didn’t, that’s their opinion. People categorize too much. We like Joe DiMaggio, so we write those kinds of noble characters! I think, to be a screenplay writer, or any kind of writer, unless you can master late-night, kitchen table writing, you should get out of the business.
Once in a while, a rich lawyer can take off a few months and go write something, that’s okay. But the average guy coming along, you’ve got to get a daytime job and you’ve got to write there, late at night. Yeah, we did a lot of that writing.
I wrote with Fred Freeman, two screenplays. God knows where they are. I wrote a screenplay with Jerry Belson that he lost. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, I think, are two of the funniest screenwriters. They just like doing that. They don’t direct. They produced, directed…they did everything for me in TV. But you know what? They said, “We’re just going to be screenplay writers.” So they go and do that. They’re wonderful page-one writers and about the best on-set writers you can find, because they know how to do it from working for us in television.
Can this type of writing be learned?
Brunner: As far as comedy, you can learn plot and character, but you should have some flair for it. Like Neil Simon said, “I can’t teach a sense of humor.”
Marshall: I use Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. If you can find that book you can make some sense of screenplay writing, but then you have to add talent. But that book makes sense of how to break down characters and everything.
Brunner: Neither of us studied screenwriting.
Marshall: Yeah, we didn’t get to study. I was a journalism major and he was a cartoonist.
Brunner: I read in a Newsweek article, I don’t know who said it, but they’re teaching this act one, act two, act three—bullshit! It’ll ruin them, because these guys will start thinking that way. Just write, get a flow.
Marshall: Some people need some structure, some people don’t, so, those who need some structure, find one of those books. There’s teachers—but funny is funny. It’s so easy to say it’s good enough, it really is. Ten screenplays and it never gets different.
We start here and it’s 2:30 in the morning and we’re sitting here. Well, we’re not kids any more! We’re sitting here at 2:30 in the morning and saying, “Why does it always end up that we’re sitting here at 2:30 in the morning?” And they’re out there waiting for the script. You’re in there because you try one more time, then one more time. The first thing we worked on when we lived in New York—2:30, 3:00 in the morning.
Brunner: Then, we could go to 4:00. We were a little peppier then.
Marshall: 2:30, 3:00 is about as far as we can go now, but we still do it all the time! To this day! We still put in those hours to finish it in a way that we think is the proper way you hand in a script.
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