Paul Feig
Photo by Jamie Ferguson

Paul Feig: “Comedy is never going to go away”

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Short Profile

Name: Paul Samuel Feig
DOB: 17 September 1962
Place of birth: Mount Clemens, Michigan, United States
Occupation: Film director

Mr. Feig, how would you describe the state of comedy today?

You’ve given me pause with that question. I think it is not as prevalent in the way that it used to be now, meaning it's not quite as mainstream. You're seeing fewer comedies in the movies, definitely. A lot of TV networks and studios are rolling their comedy development back a lot. But then comedy is very prevalent on social media, and almost in a very democratic way.  Comedies become almost the voice and the tool of the people to make their statements and to fight the power these days. To be quite honest, I mean, if you look at everything that's going on, especially kind of anti-government, anti-Trump content, comedy is being very much used as a major way to make a statement and to try to disarm that person.

Memes have become a crucial part of how people communicate these days.

I think it's great and I love watching funny biting stuff, reading funny tweets, or seeing those funny Instagram posts that also have a purpose. I mean, that's what comedy has had the power to do forever. But then as far as mainstream comedy goes, we're in a weird place where comedy isn't tending to draw people to theaters as much as it did. If you look back in the past, there would be a lot of comedies going on in theaters, but it’s been slowing down for a while now. So, I don’t know… Comedy is never going to go away, it's just going through a bit of a shift in what people want and expect from it.

“Around the 2016 election, people were just in a very surly mood! Nobody seemed to want to laugh as much as they wanted to fight.”

What do you think brought about that shift?

Well, thinking back to around 2011 when we were trying to promote Bridesmaids, I felt there was a real hostility towards comedy from a lot of people in the audience and on the Internet. There was this feeling that we were trying to hoodwink them, that we were trying to manipulate them into thinking this movie was going to be funny when it really was going to be stupid or dumb or bad. And that started growing as the years went on, people really hostile to the fact that we're trying to make them laugh. And I think it might be that a lot of comedies don't work or aren't as good as they could be. And so, over the years, people have felt they've been duped into going to see something that was supposed to be hilarious and then it wasn’t. And I also noticed that around the campaign season that led to the 2016 election, people were just in a very surly mood! Nobody seemed to want to laugh as much as they wanted to fight.

True — we also saw a reflection of that narrative in the kinds of movies that dominated the box office.

Initially I thought, “Well, no, now people are going to want comedy because now they're going to need that escape.” But actually what happened was that people doubled down on that anger. Comedy was even less welcome. It was like, “We just want to fight!” So these superhero movies, good versus evil, big powerful characters killing each other or fighting each other… That became this catharsis for people. But then I saw a shift maybe two years in where people did start getting fatigued. Romantic comedies started having this big comeback not in the theaters, but on the streamers like Netflix. And people were escaping into that.

In 2013 there were eight comedies that grossed more than $100 million at the box office, but in 2018 there was not a single one…

People seem to be trading off the convenience of watching at home against the need to have a group experience, which is bad! But I don't think it's permanent. I honestly think one of the many things that is going to come out of pandemic is that people are going to realize they don't just want to sit at home all the time, that they need that human interaction. They need to be able to not only go and have fun in a movie, but to then hear other people laugh, to see other people laughing… I do hope that coming out of this, it's almost going to be like coming out of the Great Depression, where suddenly you had all these all these comedies and all these big fun movies in the 1930s where everybody got to escape all the crap that they were going through.

What do you think draws people to comedies these days?

What it is is people are looking for ideas and products in movies and television that seem undeniable to them. They see the trailer and they go, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go see that, that doesn't look like something I've seen before.” So, a great example of that are Jordan Peele movies. These movies cost nothing, but they are so undeniable. I mean, you see the trailer for GetOut, you're like, “I have to see that movie, I have to see it right away, I need to go experience that in a theater because that looks like it's going to be a lot of fun.” And it's the same thing in comedy. When we did our marketing for Bridesmaids, we had a ton of trouble.

“That’s my style, I love things that are so real and awkward and cringey. It's so funny to watch.”

Because it seemed similar to every other wedding rom com out there?

Exactly, we were getting killed for our marketing because people thought, “Oh that just looks like a chick flick, that looks dumb.” It was predicted that we were going to bomb all the way up until the night before we came out when they did a midnight screening and enough people kind of went, “Oh, I like those kind of movies,” or “Oh, I like those people in that movie.” And we got this great word of mouth, and that was a huge part of our success.

I remember it trending on Twitter.

Twitter is the thing that really made us a hit. After the screenings, there was just hundreds and hundreds of tweets. And people were like, “Oh, my God, this is really good, this was really funny!” And then the word spread very quickly that we were actually not a bad movie! So that's just a testament to the fact that you have to have the quality these days, because the Internet will destroy you if you don't. It has to be something that people just go like, “I have to go see that.” And that urgency is hard to come by, it’s harder to get that initial blast. The irony is that Bridesmaids has become one of my most popular movies, and it’s gotten a whole second life on cable and on streaming.

That’s a big contrast to something like your early 00s show Freaks & Geeks, which seemed like it was going to usher in a new genre of comedy television, but it only ended up lasting one season.

Freaks & Geeks was made during a moment when it was kind of ripe for a change. Everything up to that point, with a few exceptions, all comedy on television was very amped up. It was either sitcoms in front of a live audience or just straight up cop shows and dramas where everything is very serious. The comedians and comedy films at the time as well, you had Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, this big pile of crazy characters going, “Look at how nuts I am!” And so when we came up with Freaks & Geeks, a lot of people were very put off by the fact that it was very uncomfortable! That’s my style, I love things that are so real and awkward and cringey. It's so funny to watch. It's like a horror movie! From the safety of your chair, you watch somebody go through something terrible where you’re like, “I don't want to relive that.”

Andrew Kevin Walker calls it the cinema of discomfort.

Right, you know, what’s more fun than that? And so, I don't like to say we were ahead of our time, because that always sounds like we were so smart… It’s just we were at the wrong time. We were out of our tone.

There was some aspect of being ahead of your time: many of the actors from Freaks & Geeks who were relatively unknown at the time — Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco — have become some of Hollywood’s most famous creatives.

Well, for one thing, we didn't have any kind of filter that a lot of Hollywood had up to that point, which was that everyone's got to be gorgeous, everybody's got to be aspirational. That was my big thing, that when we were going to sell the show to NBC, I felt like they had to let us cast it the way we wanted. I didn't want to put a bunch of supermodels in the show and make them nerds. So, in being able to throw the doors open wide, and just say we're going to get the most talented people we can find who are unique and have a voice and have this charisma, we were able to find this very interesting, and ironically, very attractive, but very talented group. And then the other thing was the style of comedy that we were doing was much more realistic.

“We're like tightrope walkers, trying to figure out how do we get what the studio needs, and save what we know will work. It takes a lot of energy.”

I guess that ruled out the Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler types.

Yes, so anybody who came into the auditions playing broad and playing for the laughs just didn't work. Unbeknownst to us, we were kind of finding the people that agreed with the way that we saw comedy going, who were then young enough to be the next generation of that because they already had it programmed into them through their individuality. They are just their personalities; this is what is funny to them. They didn’t want to be some big crazy over the top character, no, they wanted to be the very realistic behavioral comedians. And it just happened to be at the moment when the country was getting ready, whether they knew it or not, to like that kind of comedy more, and to reject the older style of comedy.

But that old style of slapstick, joke-driven comedy definitely hasn’t disappeared.

That’s true and I actually attribute it to YouTube, because that was where we started seeing videos of real people in real situations, a lot of times tripping or falling or getting hit, something physical happens to them — but it's real. And so that became very funny to us. I think that then affected movie comedy because most studios, if they make a comedy, they don't want it to be a behavioral comedy. They go like, “What are the set pieces? What are the big gags? They tend to try to push you back to being the nineties style of comedy.

Is that frustrating for you?

It's a double-edged sword because you do want to have those things that people are going to talk about in your movie. Because that's going to help you, but at the same time, if you get a story to go like this, it works. And it doesn't need those gags, but they still want them in there. We've got a couple of projects right now that have been in development for a long time, where it's like, every time we think we get a right, they're like, “Oh, but we need this big thing…” My only job as a filmmaker is to guard the tone and to make the tone consistent in a film. And even though studios will lecture me constantly about tone, they're the ones that tend to not understand how one thing can completely subvert the tone of the movie and make it fall apart. So we're left a lot of times like tightrope walkers, trying to figure out how do we get what they need, and save what we know will work. It takes a lot of energy.