Chapter 7 of 32 from Judd Apatow

Crafting Comedic Storylines

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Judd believes that when you write, you should look at your comedies as dramas. In this lesson he shares the tools he uses to infuse heart and humor into everything he does.

Topics include: Think of Your Comedies as Dramas • Create Obstacles to Connection and Love • The Drama in Knocked Up • Establish Relatable Stakes • Flawed Characters Drive Stories • Be Original by Being Specific • Give Your Stories a Grace Note

Judd believes that when you write, you should look at your comedies as dramas. In this lesson he shares the tools he uses to infuse heart and humor into everything he does.

Topics include: Think of Your Comedies as Dramas • Create Obstacles to Connection and Love • The Drama in Knocked Up • Establish Relatable Stakes • Flawed Characters Drive Stories • Be Original by Being Specific • Give Your Stories a Grace Note

Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy

Judd Apatow teaches you how to write, direct, produce, and perform comedy for film and television.

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Get serious about comedy

No joke: At age 15, Judd Apatow took a dishwashing job at a comedy club to watch the acts. Today, he’s the comedic genius behind hits including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, and Freaks and Geeks. In his first-ever online class, the Emmy Award winner teaches you how to create hilarious storylines, write great stand-up, and direct comedies that leave audiences laughing.

Learn Judd’s creative process through case studies, scene deconstructions, and practical insight in 32 on-demand video lessons.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental material.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Judd will also answer select student questions.

Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I've taken several classes through MasterClass, and this is the best so far. Judd gives practical, applicable advice and is approachable in the way he gives it.

This was such a helpful class. More than anything, Judd Apatow made it seem possible to succeed in an industry where success is often elusive. He made it clear that if you have talent, you're willing to work hard, and you continue to hone your skills and gain experience, there is a place for you in your desired comedy career. I felt extremely encouraged to start writing by the end of this class.

A great series for those beginning a career in comedy or those experienced and trying to pick up pro pointers. Apatow's style is relaxed and straightforward. Good advice for writers, actors, directors, and standup comedians. Thanks for doing this!

Such a treasure trove of experience and wisdom. Thanks for sharing with us, Judd!

Comments

George C.

When I first saw Knocked Up, it seemed to me to be the most true depiction of adolescent boys I had seen in media. At first I expected to see ridiculous gross-out clowns throughout but was so surprised and satisfied that we saw characters who grew and had depth and loved each other in the end. Its what I love about Judd's movies, that as he said, there is a story with heart beneath all the laughs and the bad behavior. His characters are trying to be better in spite of themselves. I like the idea that a comedic story should stand up by itself even without the jokes.

Tara R.

That's one of the things I love about Judd's movies, you can have tears in your eyes from laughing so much or tears in your eyes from the 'grace notes'.

Xan

Good scene selections, good points! About trying to be moral but not really being moral but trying to be better.

Zack A.

Stakes in movies: "I don't wanna end up alone" - The 40 Year Old Virgin "I think I'm gonna die, what do I do now?" - 50/50 "I didn't die, but I'm still miserable." - Funny People

Sean B.

The emotional grace note he describes from Taxi is directly the ending of Chaplin's City Lights...So much for originality ;-)

BJ A.

I'm 76 years old and I'm on a committee where we recently sponsored a weekend gathering attended by a lot of 20- and 30-somethings. We did some physical work and talked about ideas having to do with regenerating the land and improving one's life style. During the weekend I’m sitting with four young women. I’m a bit self conscious, being the only one with silver hair and trying to keep my grunting to a low decibel as I sat down on the lawn with them. We’re just watching and chatting about the guys building a bamboo shade that gardeners can take a break under. A young woman comes running up to us. “Does anyone know what time it is? Aren’t we supposed to be somewhere?” Each woman takes a turn at saying something like “I don't have my phone. I left it up in the room.” Then she looks directly at me and asks, almost mouthing the words as if to help me read her lips . “Do YOU have a watch?

Mia S.

"What I try to do is something that hasn't been done like this before. If you're always thinking about originality, you have to be tough on it - because all your first instincts will be things that you've seen before. The best way to be original is to be specific. A lot of people think that my films are attempting to be moral in some way, and they usually say it as an insult. I do thing that's probably true to some extent, which is - I want people to be better, to try to be better. I like showing the struggle that people go through to try to make that happen, and I also like to let them get better because that's hope. If you could watch a movie about a person who's struggling and at the end they're a better person than in the beginning, it's hope for yourself, for the people your love, for the human race... I do think that's why people go to the movies. Sometimes it's to see a superhero protect the earth - but other times, it's to see everyday problems reflected, and to see how people deal with them and to meet people you like, to root for them to figure something out and to evolve in some way. [James Brooks], there was always a grace note at the end of the stories. The stories would be hysterical, but a lot of the time there would be a moment that would just touch your heart. There's a great episode of Taxi that I always think about: Louie De Palma is dating a blind woman- the idea is, she doesn't know that he's not some handsome guy. Now he finds out there's going to be an operation where she's going to get her sight back, and he is terrified that she is not going to love him when she sees him. It's very emotional, heart-breaking, and a very funny episode. And then there's the big moment where they take the bandages off, and what will she do when she sees him? And she thinks he's beautiful, and it's very moving, it makes you cry. To me, that's perfect storytelling, it got me emotionally, it touched my heart, it has the funny, awful edgy joke that stays true to the character, and that's what I'm always trying to do."

Mia S.

"Once you have a good story, then it becomes about - how rich can you make the supporting characters, in a way that's organic to this story. How unique can this be? What kind of details can we put in this that no one's ever done before? 40 Year Old Virgin: 'Where could he work?' 'He could work in a stereo store- haven't seen that before, really, as a job, so that's somewhat original.' 'Now what can we do to the store to make it funny and a place we like hanging out at?' 'What if they only play Michael McDonald music, 24 hours a day, and it really bothers Paul Rudd? ' 'Who would he work with?' 'Maybe he has a strange boss - because the idea is, he should be the boss, he's old enough to be the boss. Whoever is the boss, you should think they're not as good as Steve.' We hired Jane Lynch to play this strange woman, and her purpose is to be funny, but also to make him uncomfortable - to show all the ways that he is not comfortable around people, and how uncomfortable he is around sexual people.' She's talking about sex all the time in a way that troubles him. Then on top of that, she's just a funny person. 'Where would he be?' 'Oh, he would work in the stockroom because he doesn't want to be near all the pretty women looking at stereos.' 'We could fill the movie with characters who were trying to take advantage of meeting all these women, and they would be the opposite of him - people who disrespected women, and they were just looking for momentary fun.' We thought that we could discuss how people approach relationships in healthy and unhealthy ways, through the different friends he made. Seth Rogen's character would be a little bit edgier, and become like, his Yoda. You think it's going to Romany, but it ultimately becomes Seth who has all this advice about women. We just thought that was funny like, 'Oh, that's not the guy you would expect to try to guide you through your dating."

Mia S.

"Everything always works better if there's important stakes. The stakes might be, 'Am I going to spend the rest of my life alone?' or 'I think I'm going to die, what am I going to do now?' or 'I didn't die, but I'm still miserable, now what?' In any comedy, the thing that they're worried about or trying to attain is the stakes for the piece. When you have the right stakes, these things tend to spark. If they're low stakes, we tend not to care as much. We worry that Kristen Wiig's character in Bridesmaids is never going to figure out the way she's sabotaging her life. The stakes are - is she ever going to get a good job? Is she ever going to meet anyone? Is she going to be able to stay friends with Maya now that she's married?' And that is why people like watching these things, because they relate to good and bad behavior, and they also relate to people's dreams and their struggles to be happy and to find love and relationships. Through comedy, we see where it all goes wrong - for the most part, it's everything going wrong. Sometimes people say to me, 'Why do you always have all these characters act so badly? Why are they behaving terribly, why do they think this way?' Because they need to learn a lesson. If they're smart, self-actualized, and kind and compassionate, there's no story. Stories are about people who are messed up, and need to figure out a way through it or a way to grow. You want fucked up people - I'm not really interested in a handsome, happy, kind lead - even superheroes, people like Tony Stark as Iron Man because he's also self-obsessed and has all sorts of personal problems. That is what we like, we like that we're flawed. Batman, he's the Dark Knight. That's just another way of expressing these ideas."

Mia S.

"[Knocked Up] he gets a woman pregnant... he's forced to mature, he has no choice but to figure out how to be mature. But underneath that is a different story ,which is a guy who wants love and he falls in love with a woman that he accidentally impregnated. We used to say that part of what the story's about is, He falls in love with her before she falls in love with him. He wants this to be real, and she is very wary of him because he's such an immature person, and he has a different arc than her because he now has to let go of what he thought his 20s were going to be, and he can't be as carefree as his friends. He has to figure out a way to be stable. The dad says, 'You don't have any control at all over this; you just need to support her.' He has to leave the house with his friends and get a real job and prove to her that he's the kind of person that can raise this baby with her. When it ends, a lot of people say, 'Will they survive?' I don't know if they will survive. I just know that they both wanted to try to see if they were a good couple. You could look at it like, in the beginning of the movie, he seems happiest when he's in a fishbowl filled with pot smoke; at the end, you see that he's way happier holding that baby in the hospital - he's found true joy and true love. I do think that sometimes, not always, people go to the movies to see themselves reflected, and to laugh at this human condition and to believe that we're all trying to get better - because I do think that's what life is all about. You live this life, things happen, there are all these lessons that you're forced to learn whether you like it or not, and hopefully throughout the course of your life, you've learned something and you've evolved in some way. That's what all these movies, ultimately, are trying to discuss."

Transcript

I always think that people should look at comedies as dramas when they're writing. It really doesn't help to think of these stories as comedy stories. They should be stories that would work just as well without any jokes. If you have a great story and great characters, it's easy to find a way to make it funny. The problem with a lot of comedies is they're serving a comedic premise primarily, and they don't really have a reason to exist. You could say that the "40-Year-Old Virgin" could have fallen prey to that. It is a high concept, the "40-Year-Old Virgin," but other than the title, it doesn't mean anything. So we don't approach it as a funny idea. We approach it as a real idea about a guy who let something get past him. And now he's so embarrassed and so scared that he can't do it. And scared that if anyone agrees have sex him, it's going to be so bad that he'll be revealed as the freak that he worries that he is. And in some way, he's decided he doesn't want that to happen anymore. And that's a dramatic story about shame and about someone who is stuck as a pubescent person. And if you take it seriously, then suddenly his predicament can become funny because he's in a corner. There was a playwright, John Guare-- did I pronounce that correctly? I don't know. The guy who wrote "The House of Blue Leaves." And he said all plays are putting someone in a corner and seeing how they get out of it. And a lot of my movies take that advice. I generally just think difficult circumstances lend themselves to comedy. In, for instance, "Knocked Up" is about an unplanned pregnancy. That doesn't reek of hilarity. But then it's about the characters. How they manage the situation, how the relationships work, and a certain tone you create around it that allows it to be funny. But usually if you care and you believe it, it allows it to be both dramatic and funny. If you don't believe it, I think both collapse. You might get a couple of jokes in, but when you think, yeah, this is happening right now. Then you're fully invested, and you have a rooting interest. Then when things go wrong, you're like, ah. But you also might laugh because you care so much. Gary would say "The Larry Sanders Show" is about people who love each other but show business gets in the way. And the truth is you can say that about most stories. Most stories are about people who love each other and what is the obstacle to that love. I think John Cassavetes talked a lot about that. That all movies are just about love. I had never heard anyone talk like this before. So when "The Larry Sanders Show" ended, Paul Feig gave me the pilot for "Freaks and Geeks." And that was very personal to Paul in the way "The Larry Sanders "Show was personal to Gary. It wasn't all true, but it was inspired by Paul's feelings, Paul's life in Michigan. He didn't have a sister, but he had many female friends. And his dad owned a store like Joe Flaherty has in the show. And he liked the idea of a fa...