[Editor's Note: Today we introduce a new contributor to LFM, The Joker.]
By The Joker. I’m a comedy writer who works mostly for studios on mainstream movies. Trust me when I tell you that you’ve seen some of my films.
Today I want to dispel a major myth about the environment of movie studios, at least when it comes to comedies: that the powers that be are trying to enforce a political agenda. If you’ve spent any time at all at a studio, you know how ridiculous that sounds. That’s because studio executives are governed by one – and only one – emotion: fear… of losing their jobs. If Hollywood has one reigning ideology, one overriding “agenda” that governs everything that happens, it’s this fear of being fired.
Fear is the unified field theory of Hollywood.
I have great respect for most executives at the studios, because they do generally have a skill set. They are fairly good with story structure, and give surprisingly well-thought-out notes. But on certain issues, the political ones, the notes tend to gravitate towards the absurd because their Number One Rule of Comedy is: Offend No One. Why? Because executives are basically afraid.
So given the mandate of “offending no one,” comedy writers are generally asked to excise all politics from the plot, characters, and themes. When in doubt, go to a cliché – a tried and true device – so the executive can point to the market research if the movie bombs. Since the underlying plot of many comedies is usually irrelevant (e.g., who remembers that Happy Gilmore is trying to save his grandmother’s house?), no executive wants to go out on a limb by depicting something out of the ordinary. Go for the safe bad guy (corporations), the pat ending (the divorced couple gets back together), the inoffensive villain (Russians and Nazis okay, Arabs and African-Americans not so much).
This leads to a haphazard situation in terms of the values that are promoted in a mainstream Hollywood comedy. Sometimes those values will be liberal, but sometimes conservative. Instead of realistic behavior befitting the year 2010, for example, we’ll substitute family values straight out of the 1950’s – such as the total ban on characters having abortions in studio movies. But sometimes the dice roll the other way, and the cliché is a modern liberal one. So real estate developers are the bad guys, and homeless people are always white (unless they’re down-on-their-luck geniuses or violin virtuosos). But no matter what, it’s got to be a cliché – because clichés don’t offend anyone (except for people looking for something original).
This reminds me of a romantic comedy I worked on for a major studio, in which the couple has sex with other people during a break in their relationship, only to get back together in the end. The studio’s one note was: The girl can’t have sex with another guy. She can almost have sex (whatever that means), but she can’t go through with it. I asked, “Okay, so they both ‘almost’ have sex with other people?” But the studio said, “Oh, no, the guy can have sex with someone else, just the girl can’t.” And the executive giving the note was a woman. So was her boss and the head of the studio. How’s that for progressive Hollywood feminism?
So don’t think that studios are always nefarious cabals with an evil liberal agenda. It’s more like Office Space, with fearful corporate bureaucrats just trying to keep their jobs – even if it means making comedies dumber and less original. Because at the end of the day, it’s not that important for an executive’s career advancement to make hit movies. It’s much more important not to make a bomb. That’s really something to be afraid of.
Posted on August 3rd, 2010 at 10:38am.