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11 Tips for new comedy film writers from Dan Mazer (Borat, Bruno, Ali G)

Dan Mazer has known Sascha Baron Cohen since he was 11, and worked with him to write Ali G, Borat and Bruno. Mazer opened the London Comedy Writers Festival 2011 with a Q&A packed with advice for up and coming writers. He's now working with Cohen on a film about a dictator, and in the past he's worked with Zig & Zag and written for Fantasy Football. He considers Richard Curtis, who got a murmur of approval from the audience, to be "the antichrist". Here are the key takeaways from his session:

  1. Character is the most important thing in comedy. Establish who the character is, what their back story is and what makes them funny, so that they can respond from a place that's consistent with that back story. "Forget jokes and lines at first," Mazer said. "Work on what makes the character funny." He said that they write three times as much for the Cohen movies as you would for a conventional film, because they don't know how people will respond, and which lines they'll be able to use. But the improvisation works because the characters are strong enough (Borat and Ali G, at least, he conceded) to respond in any situation. (If you were wondering, the only actors in Borat were Cohen, the prostitute character, and the manager character. Sascha Baron Cohen never went off character on set, and wore the same smelly suit for the whole shoot.)

  2. Don't count on specs. Writing a spec script might improve your chances by 1%, and writing one is better than not writing one. But you need something else to back it up. So…

  3. Be distinctive. First time writers need to have something on their CV that makes them stand out, but not necessarily a TV credit. Mazer said he knows people who have been commissioned on the basis of a three minute clip on Funny or Die. "Make yourself distinctive somewhere for a nanosecond," he said.

  4. Hear your work performed. Mazer has worked in stand-up, which he described as an education in what is and isn't funny. Hearing your jokes performed is the most valuable thing, so work with actors to hear your work aloud as often as possible. (That said, a cast can make or break a script, he added later, and some readthroughs fall flat while others really sing.)

  5. Get an advocate. "It's depressing for writers, but it's a talent industry," he said. "You could have the best script, but if you don't have talent to front it, it will flounder." Get your script to someone you're a fan of, even if it's someone who's up and coming. If you can get talent attached to your script, your chances increase significantly. (Find out what actors look for in a script.)

  6. Agents are important. Mazer signed with United Artists, who set him up with Jack Black. Together, they pitched an idea for a film about Jack Black in an old people's home to seven studios within two days. Five studios wanted the idea, and by 5pm on Friday, they had a two picture deal from Buena Vista for "more money than I dreamed of in my life".

  7. Assume failure. That's how he put it and it sounds a bit bleak out of context, but it clearly pays to be tough. The Jack Black project was cancelled when a new studio head came in and this often happens, Mazer said. "Assume failure and everything else that comes in is a bonus."

  8. Sparkle at the pitch meetings. "Without a script, you're peddling an idea, so they have to like you," said Mazer. "I'd go into a meeting with five jokes prepared. I hesitate to manufacture anecdotes to appear interesting, but you've got to play the game."

  9. Make sure you're funny. "Lots of people in this room won't be funny. You can delude yourself for a long time. There comes a point where the world is probably right and you are wrong. Go out and test it. Without that litmus test, you could be wasting your time more than anyone else's. I was fortunate to have three years at university [in Footlights] where I could be shit. You've got to find your voice."

  10. Stick to your vision. It's better to follow your voice, write what you believe in and let the world catch up. If you follow the market, there will be 100 others writing the same thing. Mazer said the worst things he'd written are when he'd tried to please others and created things that are derivative, resulting in end results that feel flimsy and superficial. (This was also one of the pieces of advice on writing children's books from the London Book Fair 2010, incidentally, and is probably true of all writing).

  11. Do it. "The brilliant thing is that you just need you and a keyboard. There's no excuse not to do it. Persevere and get out there. Putting a script on a desk is a 0.01% chance. You've got to really get it out there."

Find more advice on writing comedy here.

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