Note: This article is included in our year-end storytelling advice round-up.
Every few years or so, a prominent male will emerge from his decrepit old crawlspace to declare that women are not funny—usually when he has something to promote. If this person is feeling generous, he might backpedal and name an exception or two, while still maintaining a thesis that dismisses half of humanity. Unfortunately, the Internet's inevitable next step is to blow a gasket trying to prove otherwise, paradoxically validating the contention by even responding to it.
A much more effective and elegant defense against this ridiculous, retrograde assertion is simply for women to continue being funny in as public a platform as possible—like, say, Twitter, or better yet, TV shows and huge hit movies. To that end, director Paul Feig has made it his mission to put funny women in front of and behind the camera for blockbuster summer comedies. So far, he's been wildly successful at it.
Feig's consecutive hits, Bridesmaids and The Heat, take place in a world remarkably like our own, except for one minor difference: women being naturally funny is taken as read. It's a shame that critically and commercially adored comedies of the none-too-romantic sort seem revolutionary just by virtue of having female writers and leads, but here we are. Feig wants us to go somewhere else, though.
The creator of Freaks and Geeks and sometime actor says he's always had something of a feminine sensibility, a claim supported by the well-observed journey of Lindsey Weir in Feig's breakthrough high school dramedy. Since that show, the director has kept busy by helping launch Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy as global box office forces. His most recent comedy, The Heat, flipped buddy-cop convention on its head by casting McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as the cops, and apparently he wants to do the same thing to the spy movie genre—once again with McCarthy—on his next outing. With The Heat coming to DVD this week, Feig talked to Co.Create about twisting tropes, getting vetted by women, and why we need to retire the term "chick flick."
I think it's a slightly pandering idea that all women just want to see romance and they’ll always respond and show up. Even though Bridesmaids had that component, it was a story of female friendship. For me, that’s just a much more fun area and one that is less explored. I’ve seen my female friends with their girlfriends, and how strong and important those relationships are. I’ve also seen my wife over the years struggle to find the right female friends, and it’s, in a way, more complicated than trying to find guy friends. I think they’re deeper friendships too. If you show these kinds of stories that are important to women and that they don't normally see, it really means a lot to a lot of people.
There are a lot of great ways to showcase sides to women so they’re not just fighting over a man. The female-driven scripts that get sent to me, I’m always kind of bummed out about. Because even when they explore friendships between women, it’s still through the context of a man. They’re fighting over a man or getting revenge on a man. That kind of stuff seems to be the motivating thing that holds them together. I feel like the industry’s been a little slow to branch out here. Even some scripts written by women still fall back on these tropes we’ve seen.
The problem with comedy in general is that it’s heightened. The thing I’m always on guard for with an audience is when they go, "That's dumb, they wouldn’t do that." So when you get rid of those moments, you just concentrate on what feels authentic. It doesn’t mean we can’t push to have a big gag, but the basis of it and the emotional throughline is very true to how people act and react to each other in friendship. That push and pull. You’re laughing one minute, you’re crying the next. You’re mad at somebody and it passes. As opposed to two friends going through an epic battle. I don’t know if I buy that.
We’re just inundated by storytelling and the tendency is to think in nuggets and chunks of things you’ve seen before. Then you start putting the plot together and there’s a very unconscious tendency to go, "If this happened, then this would happen" because you’ve seen it before. You really have to get to a place where you call yourself on it. "Would I really do this, or is this just something I’ve seen?" You have to constantly police yourself so you’re not recycling other movies and TV shows.
The scripts for both movies were written by women. Katie Dippold was on set the entire time we were filming The Heat, and she would write different jokes and hand those to me, and through constantly working on these things, it felt more honest. The biggest vetting comes from the actresses who are playing the roles. They’re the ones who have to make it feel honest for them, so I really rely on them. They tell me if it doesn't feel right or if something I’m doing feels forced. Then I ask, "How would you do it?"
Part of the practice is hiring very smart, funny women who are good at improv and good at being in the moment and who are not going to do the script verbatim. People who are great at comedy, they have a strong point of view—and once I’ve settled on that person to play that role, I want their personality. I want them to make it as honest as they can make it. If two different people were playing that role, you’d get different comments on what feels real, but it needs to be real to the person that’s doing it so you’re getting the honest version of that person you’ve hired.
The fun thing is taking a genre and switching it up—taking a very male-driven genre and putting women into it. In some ways, it makes you want to go towards those clichés and see where you can twist them. One of Katie Dippold’s motivations for writing the script [for The Heat] was Running Scared—this Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines cop movie. There’s some montage in that movie of the guys with different girls in bikinis on the back of their scooters. And Katie thought, "Why can’t women have that?"
So that's partially why we have these scenes where Mullins [Melissa McCarthy’s character] keeps running into all these guys she can’t get rid of. The different dynamic allows you to play with those tired old tropes, and I think that’s the fun thing. The perfect jokes are ones where people with a funny take on the world do a twist of something but are still within character and the emotional arc.
Women in funny movies are kind of ghettoized into "Here’s your romantic comedies and your chick flicks." I really hate that term: "chick flicks." It just implies so much that is not cool. "No, ladies, you get a different type of movie about silly things that serious people don’t care about."
The other problem with that term is that guys will reject even movies that aren’t what’s meant by that term. They’ll see a woman on the poster and say, "I’m not watching a chick flick." The place I’m trying to get to is where guys stop being afraid to go to a comedy with a woman on the poster. I want them to look at a poster and say, "That’s a funny person." Melissa’s such an ambassador for that. Guys see Melissa now and they say, "Oh, we like her." I just want to get more women to that place.