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Arts & Entertainment

Directing: Tone

Judd Apatow

Lesson time 6:56 min

When you're making a comedy, it's all about establishing and maintaining your tone. In this lesson, Judd examines this crucial component of filmmaking and describes the steps you should take to communicate your creative vision with your collaborators.

Judd Apatow
Teaches Comedy
Judd Apatow teaches you how to write, direct, produce, and perform comedy for film and television.
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When you're making a movie, it's all about setting your comedic style and your tone. And sometimes that's happening slowly as you write, as you rehearse, even as you shoot. So there's styles of comedy that are very realistic and they play almost like a drama, but they're funny. So you might say Broadcast News is like that. It's all very real and credible. The comedy comes from character. It's very human. Then there are movies like Something About Mary, where it's also emotionally driven, but they will go farther, and he'll have his testicles stuck in a zipper and she'll have ejaculate in her hair. And they're coming up with a tone that they think works for their comedic style. So it might have edgier jokes and some broader type of jokes, but they-- in that case, with Something About Mary, found a way to keep it emotionally very involving and credible. But they had their own unique hard comedy style, and that's what we love about the Farrelly Brothers, is they will go farther than you expect. And that was a choice that they made, and every movie is making that choice. When we did Trainwreck, Amy Schumer had written a lot of flashbacks, fantasies, worries that you would go to. So there was a sequence where she imagined being married to Bill Hader. And they're driving in a minivan and they're very suburban, and they have multiple kids. And the kids are screaming at her, and it's her vision of hell. There was another sequence where Bill Hader is talking to a bunch of gentlemen at this baby shower, and he's telling them that he's a sports doctor. And they keep asking him, well, who do you-- who do you see? And he mentions all of these famous athletes. And the guys are so excited that he knows Roger Federer and he knows these famous pitchers. And it goes to this weird fantasy sequence where the guys are so excited that it becomes like a beer commercial, where they're like pouring a hose on themselves. And it becomes very homoerotic because they're so excited that this guy knows athletes. Both sequences were cut out of the movie because ultimately, the comedic style didn't want those sequences. It was realistic and in Amy's comedic voice, but when you went to fantasies and absurd nightmares, the movie said, I don't want this in it. This isn't what we're doing. Usually when you're in prep, you have to describe this movie and your vision for it to your department heads, to your production designer and your costume designer and your cinematographer. And that can be done in a number of ways-- you might show them some movies and say, it's in the world of this. You're not copying it, but-- you know, we're not doing Airplane. We're doing a movie in the world of Say Anything. And that helps people understand tone. What is our level of realism? If we're making a movie like Walk Hard, which is a parody of Walk the Line and Ray, we'll watch all those movies and we'll talk about the outfits. Debra McGuire did the costumes on that mov...

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 comedy class, the Emmy Award winner teaches you how to create hilarious storylines, write great stand-up, and direct movies that leave audiences laughing.


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

It’s amazing and quite comprehensive. We go behind the scenes and discuss some of the greatest, funniest movies 🎥 how they were made and how to!

Probably the greatest piece of wisdom was when Judd said that if you are good at comedy and you're dedicated like a serial killer you will succeed. I mean he didn't say that literally but that's what I heard in my head.

Hi Judd, your class was wonderful and super informative. Gonna watch it all again now while also writing that joke...and script! Thank you

I will listen to this multiple times. It was really helpful.


Troy F.

So far I have loved everyone of them, maybe some day they will love me back.


This is a good lesson. Judd goes into more detail in other sections, however, for those interested in directing, it is worth your time to check our other film makers like Ron Howard and Mira Nair. It takes a minute for them to get there but these are both good classes.

Meg N.

Setting the tone... I need to do this, but hesitate to be too manipulative, step too far outside "the box" of what my colleagues are doing, I'm already going off in directions that are difficult for many of them to get their heads around. I think I'm going to keep this Chapter in my "Idea file" for future projects, not for what I am getting paid to do right now. For work where someone else is setting the tone, I need to go back and analyze what it is they are doing, what direction they want us to go toward, in a more aware way. Currently I'm just guessing, similar to trying to hum along with a tune I've never heard before..

Mary S.

I feel like I'm being called on all my crap (and lazy writing). Instead of parenting like Dr. Spock is in the room, I'm going to edit like Mr. Apatow is reading over my shoulder. Creepy, perhaps, but it seems to be helping.

Kathy M.

Tone and theme are important aspects to communicate, but hard to describe simply. "Realistic" seems to be the catchword for Judd. I can see why it's best to use other similar toned movies for comparison. Having "tone meetings" early on puts everyone on the same page. Good idea. Whoever came up with the tone of La La Land ought to be punished severely. It was so dominant and stylized it was sickening. I cannot watch HBO's Westworld anymore because the style and tone has overwhelmed any scrap of story. When the actors do nothing but pose and show off their costumes you've lost me. And once anything becomes totally humorless it's dead. Shakespeare knew this. Even his darkest plays (like Hamlet) had some comic relief (like the gravedigger scene). Just one gals opinion.